Augustine’s Answer to the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil, known as theodicy, has led many to doubt God’s goodness and existence. Theodicy has come up again and again throughout history, and most major theologians will deal with it at one time or another. While there are many ways thinkers have gone about answering the question, few do it as well as Augustine. Augustine lived a life afflicted by this question. He spent years not fully embracing Christ because of his doubts. While Aquinas provides a useful, and in my opinion correct, analysis of the problem, Augustine lived it.

Augustine speaks of how his conscience chides him for holding onto this question of how evil can exist. He writes that he used theodicy as an excuse not to “cast off the baggage of vanity” (Confessions VIII, Chapter 7). I want to use this as a note of encouragement to those of you who are currently struggling with your faith because of theodicy. Trust in God even when you can’t see the way. Now, trusting in God and his goodness, I will proceed to break down theodicy. Some authors may simply point out the suffering in the world and ask how a good God can exist. Augustine, in his challenge to God, goes deeper:

Who made me? Was it not my God, who is not only good, but goodness itself? Whence came I then to will to do evil, and to be unwilling to do good, that there might be cause for my just punishment? Who was it that put this in me, and implanted in me the root of bitterness, seeing I was altogether made by my most sweet God? If the devil were the author, whence is that devil? And if he also, by his own perverse will, of a good angel became a devil, whence also was the evil will in him whereby he became a devil, seeing that the angel was made altogether good by that most Good Creator? (Confessions, VII, Chapter 3)

Unlike most, who simply reference surface evil we observe in this world, Augustine passionately asks how “my most sweet God” could implant the root of evil that grew to corrupt the world in the Fall. When reading Augustine’s dilemma, you can’t help but taste the betrayal and bitterness that laces his presentation. How can God, our God, who is all loving and has come down to suffer and die that we might live, plant the seed that made this grand moment necessary in the first place? Is salvation history simply the story of a great God amusing himself with the pains and throes of being the Savior to those whom he condemned? What righteousness is there in this?

Augustine’s years spent pondering this question and suffering it led him to find a solution in a closer look at evil itself. Oftentimes in a discussion of evil we struggle with understanding the object of evil itself. Is every sensation of pain an evil? Is evil necessarily opposed to good?  Does evil have a source at all? What is it? In order to have a fruitful reflection on theodicy it is imperative we first clearly articulate the subject of our query: Evil. Augustine goes on to write:

That evil, then, which I sought whence it was, is not any substance; for were it a substance, it would be good. For either it would be an incorruptible substance, and so a chief good, or a corruptible substance, which unless it were good it could not be corrupted. I perceived, therefore, and it was made clear to me, that Thou made all things good, nor is there any substance at all that was not made by You; and because all that You have made are not equal, therefore all things are; because individually they are good, and altogether very good, because our God made all things very good. (Confessions Book VII, Chap 12)

Augustine makes a very helpful breakthrough in the discussion of evil, namely that it does not exist as a “thing.” All things are created by God; every physical desire and object are a part of his wondrous creation. Evil exists in the distortion of those good things. The inequality of good is what makes the distortion of it possible. As we will go on to see from Augustine, the door evil is able to enter through is human will. Our will, when we make it the arbiter of our actions and not God, can disorder the hierarchy of creation, introducing evil into the world.

A couple examples could help illustrate the significance of Augustine’s breakthrough. Pleasure is not evil; in fact it is good. Physical, sexual, and spiritual pleasures are all things created by God and created as good. There is no sin in enjoying filet mignon; God created our ability to taste that we might appreciate what we eat. However there are things greater than pleasure, for instance the dignity of another person. When looking at a man who deceives another man in order to attain his money, the evil does not come from appreciation of money, but the placing of appreciation of wealth above another human being’s value.

The treachery of evil comes from the fact that it takes something that is good and raises it above a higher good. In this way, evil is eminently understandable as everyone can see the good in evil, sometimes blinding one to its distortion. The best villains in films all exemplify this disordering. In Marvel’s Spiderman: Homecoming, the villain Adrian Toomes is simply a father whose company comes under stress due to government interference. In order to keep his company afloat he turns to using what alien material is salvageable and begins selling his products in the black market. Toomes’s desire to support and protect his family is honorable, but his evil comes from the fact that he places the lives of those who die through his blackmarket trading below his financial wellbeing. While eminently understandable, it is through these moral calculations without reference to God that evil takes hold.

Beginning in small ways, but then escalating in larger ones, evil exists because Man wills that he becomes his own arbiter of morality, not God. On this point Augustine writes:

And I discerned and found it no marvel, that bread which is distasteful to an unhealthy palate is pleasant to a healthy one; and that the light, which is painful to sore eyes, is delightful to sound ones. And Your righteousness displeases the wicked; much more the viper and little worm, which You have created good, fitting in with inferior parts of Your creation; with which the wicked themselves also fit in, the more in proportion as they are unlike You, but with the superior creatures, in proportion as they become like to You. (Confessions Book VII, Chapter 16)

I hope my presentation of Augustine’s Confessions was helpful. For those of you with more questions, I encourage you to take heart in Augustine’s journey. Augustine has walked this path so that we don’t have to. Take wisdom from the failures of Augustine and place your trust in God, even when intellect stammers. Augustine ends this intellectual journey, his questions answered, in a deafening silence before God:

With what scourges of rebuke lashed I not my soul to make it follow me, struggling to go after You! Yet [my soul] drew back; it refused, and exercised not itself. All its arguments were exhausted and confuted. There remained a silent trembling; and it feared, as it would death, to be restrained from the flow of that custom whereby it was wasting away even to death. (Confessions Book VIII, Chapter 7)


One response to “Augustine’s Answer to the Problem of Evil”

  1. Marylee Stewarts Avatar
    Marylee Stewarts

    Thank you, Daniel, I enjoyed your discussion and in depth evaluation of evil. The evaluation of what is evil? Evil being “the distortion of good and it can exist in the distortion of good things”.
    Analyzing evil or asking why did this evil occur? I’ve never come up with a valid explanation for evil, except that it comes from the devil and is not good. It can affect your whole life, right? But one thing I’ve discovered is once the evil is gone or you get away from it, a person can move forward in a positive way. Once you pull yourself away from the evil entity and get out of the environment, one can heal, develop a new perspective on life, and recover. It allows a person to focus on the good in life and realize God does give us so many more good experiences, good people and good things in our lives. It can take some time to recover but ultimately moving forward and letting evil go is the best thing to do for yourself.

    Once evil is gone, a person can grow, thrive in a healthy way, change oneself and then we open our eyes to all the good that our Lord creates and gives to us. We can enjoy life, enjoy being with good people, we can laugh and have fun, we can be a little crazy at times, we can appreciate and see all the good in life.

    Being around healthy, supportive, loving individuals, those who treat us with respect and dignity, ultimately help us to grow, live and be happy. And our Lord has done this, for us.
    It amazes me how God puts into our lives so many wonderful people, wonderful experiences, and love when we can open our eyes and see it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *