They miss the big picture, though: God would not have accomplished a second purpose. He not only wanted free creatures; He also wanted plenitude, that is, the greatest good possible. Plenitude - the highest good, the best of all possible worlds - requires more than just general freedom; it requires moral freedom, and that necessarily entails the possibility of evil.
Since all that God made is good, even those things which appear evil only appear that way because of a limited context or perspective. When viewed as a whole, that which appears to be evil ultimately contributes to the greater good.
For example, certain virtues couldn't exist without evil: courage, mercy, forgiveness, patience, the giving of comfort, heroism, perseverance, faithfulness, self-control, long-suffering, submission and obedience, to name a few. These are not virtues in the abstract, but elements of character that can only be had by moral souls. Just as evil is a result of acts of will, so is virtue. Acts of moral choice accomplish both. A world that had never been touched by evil would be a good place, but it wouldn't be the best place possible.
The best of all worlds would be a place where evil facilitated the development of virtues that are only able to exist where evil flourishes for a time. This would produce a world populated by souls that were refined by overcoming evil with good. The evil is momentary. The good that results is eternal. What good comes out of a drive-by killing, someone might ask, or the death of a teenager through overdose, or a daughter's rape, or child abuse? Rather, the greater good results from having a world in which there is moral freedom, and moral freedom makes moral tragedies like these possible.
This observation reveals an interesting twist in this problem. There is a type of soulish growth only available to inhabitants of a fallen world. Two Scriptural observations lend credibility to this view. Both of these verses indicate that conditions in this life affect conditions in the next. Bearing up under evil in this life improves our resurrection in the next. Godliness in this life brings profit in the next. These benefits are not available after this life or there would be little urgency to grow now; all eternity would be left in which to catch up. It appears that a deeper, more profound good results when virtue is won by free, moral souls struggling with evil, rather than simply granted to them as an element of their constitution.
Augustine knew that evil was real. Independent evidence natural theology was enough to convince him that God existed and that everything He created would be good. Evil, then, must be something real, but not a "thing" in the conventional sense. Evil is not a created thing, but spoiled goodness made possible by the free moral agency of rational creatures.
Evil is not something present, but something missing, a privation. The challenge that God could have created a world of free-will creatures immutable in their goodness is answered by the notion of plenitude, the greatest good. The possibility of evil also makes a greater good possible. God made a world in which true moral decision-making and development of virtues is possible in humans, manifest by persons whose character is formed through growth and struggle. There's a sound reason why God has allowed evil. It doesn't conflict with His goodness. Augustine describes in Confessions how, with the help of the Platonists, he discovered that evil does not have independent existence; instead, whenever we encounter evil, we are encountering what is good being deprived of some feature of its goodness.
Ricoeur admires aspects of this understanding of evil; but he also concludes that Augustine cannot fully explain how evil can have such force in the world. To desire happiness is ultimately to desire God; to desire God is to remain, in an important sense, good; desire for happiness is thus an abiding indication of our goodness. What are we to make of this tension?
In searching for happiness within the bounds of our histories, we are in fact working against our desire for happiness. We become, in a very real sense, our own worst enemies.
St. Augustine Confessions - Introduction
Divine activity alone can liberate us from this bind, and, in recognizing the need for this divine activity, we also see how evil as privation can take on force in the world. The self-hatred that undermines our search for happiness shows the destructive consequences of the privative gap between what I desire and what I know.
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