Aside from its self-refuting character, one of the reasons that I find the position of Sola Scriptura untenable is because there are so many places in the Bible where we find seeming contradictions. Without an authoritative interpreter of Scripture we are left, at best, scratching our heads. The best interpretive method in this case then is to simply ignore either passage or both. Most heresies are a direct result of not finding a way to hold two apparently contradictory things in tension. But it was not the will of God that we should not understand His Revelation even if we might have to wrestle with it. With the idea of knowing the will of God in mind, I would like to address one of these apparent contradictions today; namely, how it can be that God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1Tim2:5) and yet “there are many who enter the gate to destruction” (Mt 7:13).
To begin it is necessary to frame the question properly because people often try to solve it by merely referring to man’s free will. That is certainly as aspect of it, but we need to make sure we keep man’s free will properly situated within the mystery of God’s Providence. The mistake comes about in equating our own free will with God’s free will. But they are different—our free will is contingent upon the good that is present, God’s is not. In other words, if God is omnipotent then He depends on nothing outside of Himself. What He wills, happens. He might will that they be brought about by free will decisions (that He already knew) or He might use other causes, but God is not in any way be dependent on our free will decisions. A God who is dependent is not really God.
While this keeps us from taking a short cut around the problem, it does not address it. To address the problem we need to make a further distinction with respect to God’s will. We can really on St. Thomas to help us with this because as he routinely shows in the Summa Theologiae, he was a master of making distinctions that explained away what many viewed as contradictions. When he addressed the question at hand he made the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will.
Antecedent will is an expression of one’s will prior to considering all the circumstances and facts surrounding a particular situation. Once those facts are taken into account, a judgment is expressed through the consequent will. Aquinas offers an analogy to help us better understand by presenting a just judge who wills that men should live freely. However once an individual man is found to be a murderer, the judge wills the good that the person should be justly punished. It is the judge’s consequent will that all men live freely while it is his antecedent will that a particular man should suffer punishment. This analogy helps us examine St. Paul’s words in that we understand that he is expressing God’s antecedent will rather than His consequent will, which allows some men to be eternally punished.
This distinction allows us to go a little deeper and examine the problem of evil. God’s antecedent will is what He wills for a thing in isolation. He considers only individual parts of His plan (individual men) and not the entire plan. While it is true that God creates out of love is true, it is more accurate to say God creates to share His goodness. It is His goodness that He finds in us that makes us lovable. Therefore His consequent will for creation is to produce the most goodness as a whole and not as sum of individual parts.
What does this have to do with evil? God will permit evil only in order to manifest His goodness to the greatest extent. Without the presence of evil, much goodness would be lacking in the universe. This is so foundational to our faith that we can often overlook it. Without the evil of Adam’s fall, the greatest good of the Incarnation would never have happened. “O happy fault, that gained us such a Redeemer!”(*see note below)
This has practical implications for us all. In the presence of suffering and evil we will find good. We all know this, but I think we don’t realize that it is not just generic “good” but very concrete and specific goods. These very specific goods for us would not come about any other way. That is the only reason why any evil is allowed to be there—because there is a particular (more accurately many) good attached to it. If we truly believe this then we do not need to shy away from it but instead look straight at the Cross so that we might pluck the fruit from it. This is not optimism but the very truth of reality. Optimism says “it could always be worse. I could have XYZ instead.” The realist says “this could be worse. I could miss this fruit.” In truth the only truly evil thing is to miss the good that a particular evil has attached itself to. Embrace the Cross and taste the sweetness of the fruit that Our Savior has left attached to the true Tree of Life for you.
**NOTE: I realize there has been debate between Franciscans and Dominicans as to whether the Incarnation would have still happened without the Fall, I would lean towards the Dominican view that the Incarnation would not have happened because everywhere in Sacred Scripture (e.g. Lk 19:10, 1Tim 2:15) suggest that the Incarnation happened solely because man sinned. It may be a speculative question but by speculating on it we see the great love of God Who seeks out the lost sheep while explaining the very reason He allowed us to be lost to begin with.