A philosophical question faces Christians, and in fact all theists,
that challenges the belief in God. To theists, God is an omnipotent,
perfect God. He is good. Theists accept this, and embrace it, for how
else can they worship God and give their lives to Him unless He is good?
However, n this world evil is constantly seen all around us. Because God
is the author of all things in this world, and he is good, theists must
then ask themselves what evil is and where it came from. Augustine sets
up an argument I his Confessions that attempts to define evil, and in
doing so he explains its existence.
To follow this argument, it is important to realize that Augustine
accepts some basic precepts regarding God and His creation. To begin
with, God is the author of everything. Augustine says, "nothing that
exists could exist without you [God]" (1.2). G-d is the creator and
source of all things. Again " . . . when He made the world He did not go
away and leave it. By Him it was created and in Him exists" (4.12).
Nothing in this world exists apart from God. Also, God is in control of
everything in this world. "Everything takes its place according to your
law" (1.7). Augustine clearly sets forth that God is the creator and
source of everything. Not only is He the source, but he is the reason
for its continued existence. The next step Augustine takes regards the
nature of God's creation.
For Augustine, God is good, because everything He made is good.
"You are our God, supreme Good, the Creator and Ruler of the universe"
(1.20), and again, "Therefore, the God who made me must be good and all
the good in me is His"(1.20). Everything about God is good. There is no
aspect of Him that is lacking, false, or not good. These characteristics
are in turn transferred to His creation. "You, my God, are the source
of all good"(1.6). However, Augustine makes an important distinction
regarding the creation of good and evil when he says, "O Lord my God,
creator and arbiter of all natural things, but arbiter only, not creator,
of sin"(1.10). The question of what evil is, and where it came from,
Augustine establishes that everything God made is good, and since
God made everything, everything must be good. He then asks where evil
could have come from. After all, evil did not come from God, it must
have come from a source other than God. If this true, then is it not so
that God could have been prevented evil from entering into the world as
He is God? Because we clearly see evil in the world. Did God allow it
to enter? This would seem to mean either that God is not entirely good,
or that he is not omniscient and all powerful. These questions Augustine
does his best to answer.
First, Augustine establishes a definition of evil. Originally, he
believed that evil had substance. "I believed that evil, too was some
similar kind of substance . . . And because such little piety as I had
compelled me to believe that God, who is good, could not have created
evil nature, I imagined that there were two antagonistic masses, both of
which were infinite, yet the evil in a lesser and the good in a greater
degree"(5.10). However, his view changes later, where he says that,
"Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good
remains"(3.7). Under this definition, evil does exist as a substance.
Instead, it is the result of a removal; of good until there is nothing
left, at which time the object/person would cease to exist in a physical
realm. "And evil, the origin of which I was trying to find, is not
because if it were a substance, it would be good"(7.12).
Augustine approaches this issue from an entirely different angle.
First he says: Do we have any good evidence that God even exists? If He
does, is He good? So he develops his argument from natural theology. He
looks for independent evidence available to us that God is real and He is
That is why Augustine properly starts with proofs for the existence
of God and once establishing that there is good reason to believe He
exists and HE is good, then that produces a different kind of series of
statements. All that God created is good, evil is not good. Therefore,
evil is not something that God created.
This was Augustine's solution and his main contribution because,
when he asked the questions: What is evil? Does it have any being or
not? Where did it come from? HE observed that evil is something that
always injures, and an injury is deprivation of good. If there were no
deprivation of good in the thing being injured, then there would not be
any injury. And, since all things were made with goodness by God
originally, then when things are evil, they are deprived of the goodness
that God gave them.
In other words, everything that God made is good, and when you take
away some goodness from something that God made, we call that condition
evil. Another way of putting it is that evil is a privation of good. In
this analysis, good is the substantial thing, the thing with substance.
Evil does not have any substance. It is merely good that is missing. If
it does not have any substance, then it does not require a creator. In
other words, evil is like a moral hole, a nothingness that obtains when
something is removed. That's what a hole is, when something is removed,
a hole will remain. But the hole isn't something. It's nothing. Just
as a shadow is no more than a hole in light, evil is a kind of hole in
goodness. To say that something is evil then is just a shorthand way of
saying it lacks goodness. Augustine goes on to explain how such a thing
can be, and gets into a discussion about free will.
Finally, Augustine state forth a reason for the existence of what
we call evil, or the removal of good: namely, free will exercised
wrongfully. God created humans with free will, which is inherently good.
However, we can misuse free will and choose to do other than good. "in
you [God] our good abides forever, and when we turn away from it we turn
to evil"(4.16), Augustine writes. When this happens the good is bent or
injured in its goodness, which results in evil. Augustine describes how
the soul can err when he says, "my own [soul] was changeable and erred of
its own free will"(4.15). Also, "When I chose to so something or not to
do it, I was quite certain that it was my own self, and not some other
person who made this act of will, so that I was on the point of
understanding that herein lay the cause of my sin"(7.3). Augustine also
describes Satan, who is for Christians, the greatest evil known, as "a
good angel who became a devil because of his own wicked will"(7.3) The
misuse of free will results in the reduction of good, which is evil. "We
do evil because we choose to do so of our own free will"(7.3). Free will
can be corrupted and misused, which is the definition of evil.
To summarize, God is good. Everything God has created is good.
Evil does not come from God Rather evil is a reduction of good. This
explains the existence of evil in God's creation without threatening
either omnipotence, or His goodness. The opportunity we have to make the
choice between being the good He made, or ruining our goodness, is a gift
that should not be taken lightly. Augustine believes that with His
creation, God has given humankind free rein to learn more about Him and
grow closer to Him. The modern Christian Leslie Newbigin writes fully
Augustinian way when he states "I believe that all created beings have a
sacramental character in that they exist by the creative goodness and for
the redeeming purpose of God, that nothing is rightly understood
otherwise, and that, nevertheless, God in creating a world . . . has
provided for us a space within which we are given freedom to search, to
experiment, and to find out for ourselves how things really
are"(Foolishness to the Greeks, 89). Yes, this does mean that some will
stray from the path of good and pursue evil, but the Augustinian
Christian believes that if there were no choice to be made, their praises
to God would not be so meaningful. For Augustine, it is free will that
makes human lives worth living, and makes a relationship with a good God
unique. Evil results from persons turning from this relationship, and the
consequential removal of good from their lives.
Newbigin, Leslie. Foolishness to the Greeks. Grand Rapids, Michigan:
Wm. B. Eerrdmans Publishing Company, 1986.
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