While evangelizing, my students were asked the question, “if there were not evil in the world, would we really appreciate the goodness?” The person argued that evil is necessary and beneficial to recognize the worth of goodness. To their credit, if you imagine a world without evil, it would seem difficult to see the goodness – because you would be swimming in it. Goodness is quite visible in this world due to the contrast it provides to evil. But is evil a prerequisite for good? Does evil need to exist for us to appreciate goodness? On the contrary, goodness can and does exist without evil.
The easiest example of this asymmetry, of goodness’s priority over evil, is from history. Before God created the universe, only He existed. There was no evil, only goodness. And after the resurrection of the dead, the same with be true. In the New Jerusalem there will be only goodness and no evil. We imagine, because of our experience in a mixed world, that goodness needs something to provide contrast, a yin to its yang, to appreciate goodness. This Yin-yang idea fundamentally misunderstands the nature of goodness. Goodness, like many things in nature, does not need its opposite to be appreciated.
Nature is full of similar asymmetries. All the common opposites that we speak of are not true opposites. For example: think about light and darkness. Light and darkness appear to be opposites, however, they are not. Light is the word we use to say that “photons are present.” Darkness means that “photons are not present.” Light is the positive existence of a thing, darkness is the absence of that thing. The same is true for heat and cold. Heat is the vibration of molecules. Cold is the absence of that vibration. While cold and darkness help us to appreciate heat and light, they stand on their own as good things. Seeing a beautiful landscape or tasting warm hot chocolate do not require some opposite darkness or cold to see their worth. This is also true of much more fundamental principles.
Augustine argued that existence itself is a positive good, not a neutral thing. Existence is, in itself, is better than nonexistence. Athanasius wrote something similar when he said that God did not begrudge anything its existence, but he freely gave existence to all. This picture is akin to a talk show – imagine the host has a bag full of existence and is freely tossing out existence to his audience. “Existence for you, existence for you, look under your chairs, there’s existence for everybody!” This pictures God as a generous existence giver, that the first gift, the gift that allows other gifts to exist, is the gift of existence. Existence is the area where it is most clear that you do not need to experience the opposite to appreciate it – it is impossible to experience non-existence. Existence must be appreciated by itself.
We live in an asymmetrical universe, where good always has priority over evil. Goodness does not need evil to exist, and we do not need evil to appreciate goodness. Existence provides the best example of a good thing that we do not need the contrast with its opposite to appreciate. Existence is good, it gives us access to all other goods and we do not need to experience non-existence to realize the goodness of existence. It is often tempting to think of life as a balance between good and evil, and sometimes it feels that way, but that is not true of reality. In answer to the question asked of my students, goodness can be appreciated without evil – evil may provide a helpful contrast in this life, but without that contrast, goodness still stands strong.