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Augustine on evil

Here is a draft chapter I am working on. All feedback gratefully received.


QUOTE: … were it not good that evil things should also exist, the omnipotent God would almost certainly not allow evil to be…

Although Augustine was born and died in Hippo, North Africa, he spent much of his life travelling around the Mediterranean world. Augustine wrote, in effect, the first autobiography – his Confessions – detailing the development of his thinking. Augustine’s confessions are entertaining and frank, and include details of his sexual adventures. Augustine apparently used to pray “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

Augustine’s main philosophical achievement was to take the philosophy of Plato (chpt XX) and Plotinus (chpt XX) on the one hand, and the Christian belief system on the other, and marry the two together. The marriage is not quite one of equals – while Augustine thinks philosophy important, its role is secondary to religious revelation. Where philosophy fails to fit with Christian dogma, it is philosophy that must change.

So successful was Augustine in getting Plato’s philosophy incorporated into Christian thinking that many Christians are unaware that significant parts of their belief system derive not from the Bible, but from Ancient Greece.


Christians Jews and Muslims have traditionally conceived of God as being all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. One of the most difficult puzzles facing anyone who believes in such a being is to explain why there is so much evil in the world. In particular, why is there so much suffering? Why would God allow wars and holocausts? Why would he inflict immense pain and suffering upon human beings through disease and natural disasters?

If God is good, surely he wouldn’t wish for this suffering to exist. If he is all-knowing then he knows it exists. And if he is all-powerful, he can prevent it. So doesn’t the existence of this suffering provide us with very good grounds for supposing that there is no such God?

Theists have struggled with this problem for centuries, and have devised a number of ingenious solutions (though the extent to which any of these solutions are successful is debatable).

Here I sketch out Augustine’s attempt to explain evil.

Two problems of evil

In fact there are at least two problems of evil. The first is the logical problem of evil. It begins with the thought that the claim

(1) There exists an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God

is logically inconsistent with the claim

(2) Evil exists

Clearly, (2) is true. Therefore (1) is false.

Note that the amount of evil in the world is irrelevant. This argument rests on the thought that God’s existence is logically incompatible with the existence of any evil at all.

Perhaps this version of the problem of evil is not such a very great problem. In order to deal with it, it would do to show that an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God might allow some evil, perhaps for the sake of a greater good.

A different problem, called the evidential problem of evil, says, not that (2) is logically incompatible with (1), but that (2) provides good evidence against (1). The amount of evil does now become relevant. Even if we acknowledge that an all-powerful, all-knowing God might have created a world with at least some evil in it (perhaps for the sake of some greater good), surely he would not have created a world with this much suffering in it?

We can sharpen the problem by noting that God will presumably not allow any unnecessary suffering to exist. There must be a good reason for every last ounce of it. But when we start to consider the enormous quantities of suffering the world contains - including the millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans even made an appearance (including the literally unimaginable suffering produced by the several mass extinctions that have wiped the majority of species from the face of the Earth) - doesn’t it become overwhelming improbable that every last of ounce of suffering can be accounted for in this way?

A simple-free will explanation

One of the standard explanations of suffering is to appeal to free will. We are not helpless automata, but free agents capable of make our own free choices and acting upon them. As a result of God having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do bad things. We start wars, for example. And so a great deal of suffering may result from our having free will. However, it is better that we have free will. Free will is a very great good that far outweighs the evil it sometimes causes.

One problem with this explanation of evil is that it explains only moral evil – the evil that free agents create, such as wars, murder, and so on. It fails to explain natural evil, naturally occurring disasters and diseases such as earthquakes the Black Death, and cancer.

Augustine’s free-will explanation

Augustine presents a version of the free will explanation that does attempt to account for the suffering brought about by natural disasters and diseases.

Augustine’s explanation begins with Biblical story of the Fall. God created a perfect world within which Adam and Eve had free will. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve chose to turn against God and sinned. Their sin had two key consequences.

First, it brought about the corruption of human nature, so that every subsequent generation inherits their sin. This is the doctrine of “original sin”.

Secondly, it brought about the corruption of God’s creation. It is here that we find the root cause of today’s natural diseases and disasters. Such evils did not exist before the Fall. They too are the consequences of an act of free will.

So, it is not wrong that mankind now suffers. We have brought this suffering upon ourselves through our own sin. True, God could have prevented our suffering, but only by denying us freewill, which is a greater good. So the world is, on balance, better than it would have been without free will, despite the consequences.

And of course God does also hold out to us the offer redemption and release from the suffering we have caused ourselves.

An objection

Augustine’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil remains popular. Many Christians continue to accept it. But it does face some obvious objections.

Perhaps the most obvious is that Augustine’s explanation rests on a belief that science has since revealed is false – that we are the descendants of the Biblical Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve never existed and the Fall never took place, then they cannot be used to explain the suffering caused by natural diseases and disasters. Nor, of course, can they be used to explain the millions of years of animal suffering that are now known to have occurred.


I've been reading you for a while now, and rooting through your archives. I may well be out of my depth in this company. However, on the grounds that it took a naive young boy to point out that the emperor was wearing no clothes, here goes:

"Why would God allow wars and holocausts? "

Perhaps God thinks these are good? Maybe we should all go Spartan?

Does evil exist outside the minds of men (oh, ok, and women)?

Does God?
jeremy said…
I presume that the chapter continues onward? Yes, there are lots of objections one could raise. To take them in the order given... First, the doctrine of Original Sin is repugnant by today's standards - where else do we think it just to punish the people for things their ancestors did? Second, how exactly did a sin corrupt the natural world? No mechanism is ever postulated. Claiming that sinning now causes everything from floods to flat tyres, and plagues to pimples seems in dire need of justification. Thirdly, the idea that free will is a 'good' is often stated as if it were self-evident. At very least, it is debatable. If God is so keen on his creations doing right, why not make them mindless automatons? To say that he needs us to "choose" good implies some limitation on his omnipotence. Finally, and potentially most devastingly, free will itself may well be an illusion.
Larry Hamelin said…
There are a lot of problems with Augustine's arguments.

The "free will" argument justifying moral evil does considerable damage to our moral beliefs: If it is actually truly good that freedom is a greater good than the avoidance of suffering, isn't our notion of imprisoning (or killing, or even discouraging) people who have (and presumably would again) imposed suffering on others trading a greater good (freedom) for a lesser (avoidance of suffering)?

Because "freedom" is viciously circular (do I have the freedom to restrict your freedom?) it not even clear that the free will defense is even coherent.

Third, it is trivially obvious that it's logically possible for some sort of choice or free will to be compatible with the inability to employ that choice to impose suffering on others. One might, for instance, retain the choice to believe in God, or love God, or refrain or engage in homosexual activity, or eat or not eat nasty Brussels sprouts for the sake of one's health. All these would still retain "free will" but not entail the ability to cause any but the most indirect suffering to others.

When one throws into the mix that "free will" itself is at present undefined, and perhaps undefinable, the whole argument collapses into meaninglessness.

The idea that natural evil is the result of mankind's exercise of free will is also problematic, and not just on the actual, physical existence of Adam and Eve.

According to the story, Adam & Eve explicitly had no moral beliefs at all—not even, one must conclude, the belief that it was good to obey the commands of God or evil to disobey them. Second, there is no better example of an attractive nuisance than the tree of knowledge. One has to not just question but actively denounce the ethics of a God who would not only put such a momentous decision in the hands of the epitome of the morally naive, but do everything but actually put the apple in Eve's hand and dare her to eat it.
Larry Hamelin said…
[God did] everything but actually put the apple in Eve's hand and dare her to eat it.

It occurs to me that thios is in fact precisely what God does. Assuming that only humans have any sort of free will, the "serpent" can have been only an agent of God's will.
jeremy said…
Hehe - lovely comments. I especially appreciate the reference to "attractive nuisance". Working WITHIN Genesis (which we are by no means obliged to do - to put it mildly), we have a God who, at best, allows an evil serpent into his 'perfect' garden, and places a tree there from which he forbids humanity to eat. Just to cover himself, he then lies and says that eating from it will cause the person to die within a day.

He then has the unusual gall to criticise his own creation for the inevitable disaster, despite both creating it in its entirety AND knowing how setting things up in this manner would turn out.

Reminds me of that lovely Yiddish phrase: "If God lived on earth, people would break his windows."
jeremy said…
Another point - is free will even capable of saving the problem of evil after all?

"Why did Eve eat the apple?"
"She was too curious, or too taken in by temptation."

But this only postpones the problem. Why was she too taken in by temptation? If there is a fault in the way she responds, it must have a cause. Perhaps the flaw is psychological (bad parenting?) or perhaps neurological - but it must be due to something. But whence comes this flaw? The question can be repeated as many times as it takes, but if God is the ultimate cause for Adam and Eve, then the chain stops with him.

This is really just the 'causality' rebuttal to free will again, but it still makes for an arresting thought.
Stephen Law said…
Yes I will add a bit more to this chapter, Jeremy, but not much, as there's a world limit. I am sympathetic to pretty much all the points raised here.

Henry's suggestion that God thinks holocausts are good is a rather unorthodox solution - I can't imagine Christians accepting it.

The word "evil" is of course misleading as the real problem is suffering. Even if evil doesn't exist outside the minds of men, as Henry puts it, suffering certainly does (e.g. animal suffering).
jeremy said…
No worries - I'm sure any other required arguments are more than adequately dealt with elsewhere. I'm looking forward to it!
Anonymous said…
Personally, although having rejected Christianity as making no logical or philosophical sense in many ways, I've not for a long time considered the problem of evil as being a very tricky one for that religion.

Remember that, for someone who truly believes that Jesus is their saviour, the whole of their (and anyone's) earthly existence is a mere instant compared to their eternal reward in heaven. All suffering can therefore be regarded as either an irrelevance, given its (relatively) brief duration, or as a test of faith.

To a true believer, the most important things are their belief, and trying to ensure that their conduct is based on that belief as consistently as possible. Of course, in the midst of (subjectively) prolonged, extreme suffering, it would be rather hard to retain focus on one's faith, but that just makes it a better test...
Anonymous said…
Let us examine the statements:

1. If God is good, surely he wouldn’t wish for this suffering to exist.

2. If he is all-knowing then he knows it exists.

3. And if he is all-powerful, he can prevent it.

So doesn’t the existence of this suffering provide us with very good grounds for supposing that there is no such God?

Yes, it means that. Examine : if he is all-powerful, he can prevent it.

He has NOT prevented it. Either he did it willfully then (1) is negated, or allows it (not a merciful god) or he CANNOT (not all powerful). Alternatively he does not KNOW that evil is BAD to have (not an all knowing and wise god). Or he himself created evil ( An EVIL god).

These are enough to make a christian squirm. One of the earliest squirmers was Augustine.

A perfect rigorously system is either unstable or static. I am yet to see a macine which runs smoothly after some time. Perfection is a state which is lost with the infintesimal perturbations. This also means that god is incapable of achieving perfection, and hence is imperfect.

Augustine was not able to give a rigorous explanation of evil, and finally produced the apologia:

Evil is necessary to enhance the greater good. It means " Evil is not good but it is good to have evil".

This doctrine implies that what appears evil in reality is GOOD!! Try to extend this doctrine to practical life.

Murderers are not good, but it is good to have murderers to show how good laws the state has!!

Omeltstion of children by the priests is not REALLY molestation. It has two fold purpose (a) How fortunate are those children who were saved by god from molestation (b) How good those priests are who do not molest children.

The simplest explanation of evil is : Matter has evil and good properties both. Therefore moral evil is inevitable. It is not good to have evil, so it must be reduced. That is possible only by good and moral conduct.

R C Sharma
Anonymous said…
Are the concepts of free will and an all knowing God not mutually exclusive?

If God is all knowing then he knows exactly what was going to happen from the instant of the universe's creation to its eventual end. Every action by every agent within the universe is therefore pre-ordained. If this is so then free will cannot exist. If this is not so then GOD is not all-knowing.

Apologies if this is gibberish or perhaps fundamental or obvious, I'm new to the whole philosopical debate thing.
Steven Carr said…
'However, it is better that we have free will. Free will is a very great good that far outweighs the evil it sometimes causes.'

If we take Augustine's viewpoint that there really was an Adam and Eve, God could have prevented all this evil by simply putting angels with flaming swords to block the path to the tree, so that Adam and Eve could not eat of it.

According to Genesis, that is exactly the sort of thing God would do if he wishes people not to eat from a particular tree.

So where is the free will defense now?
Aaron said…
Augustine calls evil the “privation of a good” (Confessions Book 3 Chapter 7).

Good and evil are similar to light and darkness. Darkness isn’t a “thing” but the absence of light.

You appeal to science as revealing false the belief that we descended from Adam and Eve. You are entitled to this bare assertion but it is ironic that you turn around and talk about the evil of millions of years of animal suffering. What’s evil about animal suffering from the scientific standpoint? Isn’t it ultimately indifferent?

As you have indicated, Christians have a framework (whether or not you agree with it) for understanding what is good and what is evil.

What is your framework for believing in good and evil?

Ravi Zacharias helpfully explains,

“Some time ago I was speaking at a university in England, when a rather exasperated person in the audience made his attack upon God.

"There cannot possibly be a God," he said, "with all the evil and suffering that exists in the world!"

I asked, "When you say there is such a thing as evil, are you not assuming that there is such a thing as good?"

"Of course," he retorted.

"But when you assume there is such a thing as good, are you not also assuming that there is such a thing as a moral law on the basis of which to distinguish between good and evil?"

"I suppose so," came the hesitant and much softer reply.

"If, then, there is a moral law," I said, "you must also posit a moral law giver. But that is who you are trying to disprove and not prove. If there is no transcendent moral law giver, there is no absolute moral law. If there is no moral law, there really is no good. If there is no good there is no evil. I am not sure what your question is!"

There was silence and then he said, "What, then, am I asking you?"

He was visibly jolted that at the heart of his question lay an assumption that contradicted his own conclusion.

You see friends, the skeptic not only has to give an answer to his or her own question, but also has to justify the question itself. And even as the laughter subsided I reminded him that his question was indeed reasonable, but that his question justified my assumption that this was a moral universe. For if God is not the author of life, neither good nor bad are meaningful terms.”

The Christian “answer” to the problem of evil is not ultimately found in syllogism or equation but the Person and work of Jesus Christ. As the philosopher Peter John Kreeft put it, “Many Christians try to get God off the hook for suffering; God put himself on the hook, so to speak – on the cross.”

See also
John Uebersax said…
> doesn't the existence of this suffering provide us with very good grounds for
> supposing that there is no such God?

Only to the extent that we reject, exclude, or discount models by which an all-good God would permit the things to happen that we call evil.

(1) There is a universal human tendency to call whatever is displeasing or contrary to ones wishes evil. The single person unable to find a spouse calls this evil; yet the person trapped in a loveless marriage complains likewise. Evil can only be defined relative to goals, expectations, and pleasures. We call pain evil because we want and expect pleasure. Yet the athlete may consider pain good, if it means he is improving. We consider death, and things which cause it evil; yet Socrates, seeing the body as a hindrance, considered neither death, the hemlock, nor his jailers evil.

(2) We need accept only a single premise to completely re-adjust our attitude towards evil: that the human psyche is more than the ego. To take, for the sake of argument, a Jungian rather than a traditional Christian view: besides our ego, we have a higher Self; this Self guides the development of our ego (in a way not unlike a parent); and (just as with a parent), this inevitably means allowing things to happen that the ego doesn't want: what the ego calls 'evil'. Thus, when we lose a job, friends, or some favorable situation, the ego bewails the fact -- ignoring the obvious truth that sometimes, if not generally, positive changes require temporarily negative conditions.

(3) Recall the story of the Chinese farmer:

Neighbor: How are you doing these days?

Farmer: Well, just last week I found an expensive axe in the field. Brand new!

Neighbor: That's good.

Farmer: No, that's bad. I gave the axe to my son. When he was chopping wood, the blade flew off and cut his foot.

Neighbor: That's bad!

Farmer: No, that's good. The next day the emperor's soldiers came around taking conscripts; they saw his bandage and didn't pick him.

N.: That's good!

F.: No, that's bad! The next day he ... (you get the point).

These three arguments don't deny all evil; they only address some things we call evil. The point, following what you called the evidential argument, is to reduce the amount of supposed evil, and so proportionately to diminish the evidence against an all-good God.

>(2) Evil exists
> Clearly, (2) is true.

I believe must first define what 'evil' means.

> God will presumably not allow any unnecessary suffering to exist.

That isn't obviously true. What if, to make a world for human beings in which free will exists, He must partially suspend His intervention against evil. May He, in effect, give human beings the choice:

a. Be born into a world with evil, in which case you may grow spiritually, and win a crown of victory; or
b. Be born into a world with no evil, in which case you will remain spiritually at a simple level

Now consider the following, which is an extremely important argument -- a foundation, I would think, of the Christian response, whether St. Augustine mentions it or not. We could call this the "argument from humility" or the "argument from ignorance":

(i) The argument I just posed above is reasonable.

(ii) In most areas of endeavor, I discover that there are ideas, models, and theories that have not occurred to me; that is, I am relatively ignorant.

(iii) I must therefore conclude that, having discovered one such argument, there are others at least as persuasive, but that have not yet occurred to me, or are even beyond my understanding entirely.

The argument composed of (i), (ii), and (iii) has evidential power, and mitigates against the automatic conclusion
that "evil" events preclude an all-good God.

> [free will] fails to explain natural ... disasters

Disasters require us to exercise prudence and foresight in avoiding them (e.g. not building in floodplains); and compassion in responding to them.

>Perhaps the most obvious is that Augustine’s explanation rests on a belief that science has since revealed is false
>that we are the descendants of the Biblical Adam and Eve.

One may interpret of the story of the Fall allegorically. Human beings continually make the decision to turn towards God or away. When they turn away, the entire drama of the Fall and redemption is re-enacted. Part of the redemptive process involves suffering.
Stephen Law said…

This is just a little intro to Augustine. If you want to something more robust to deal with, try reading my God of Eth first - see the side bar to the left.
Stephen Law said…
God of Eth is here:
Anonymous said…
In my view, and for the sake of argument, even if I accept the biblical account of Adam and Eve to be true, it would seem very unjust and cruel for the unimaginable suffering and misery that has occurred throughout the history of human civilization to be brought on by two individuals.
Jack Hartland said…
Maimonides on the problem of evil says much the same as Augustine but goes on to make some interesting points.

God did not create evil, rather God created good, and evil exists where good is absent (Guide 3;10). Therefore all good is divine invention, and evil both is not and comes secondarily.

He attributes causes of evil to nature, to other people and evil we cause ourselves.

Most interesting is Maimonides' assertion that,
"God does not become angry with people, as God has no human passions; but it is important for them to believe God does, so that they desist from sinning".

'God's anger' he views as an anthropomorphism, a projection of our own passions upon God, the purpose of which was to bring about social order through the Law.

Now according to scripture the law was given to make us aware of crime and punishment [sin]. "The Tutor"...Gal 3:24 Romans 7:7
In other words we codified laws to bring about the standardisation of moral laws and principles needed for social stability. Unfortunately laws were not entirely successful in curbing crime and suffering, also not very effective in preventing wars. Punishing alleged sinners resulted in more suffering to the sinner and his/her family which is contrary to the principle of love and fairness.
So all kudos to Jesus, "let him that is without sin cast the first stone".
Yes, Mercy trumps Justice every time.

Laws also brought with it a moral sense of guilt and failure, for which of course we require some form of absolution or therapy.
Nietsche's solution was anarchy, get rid of al laws that inhibit us and Freud advocated wild indulgence. To some degree both makes sense, if we disregard the suffering that is caused to the victims of such anarchy.

Thus for the religious the need for a sacrificial lamb and what better allegory than the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus offered himself as the solution to end suffering and violence, caused by wicket men, an eternal symbol, "as Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up". "And we beheld His Glory full of grace and truth".

Violence begets more violence... STOP IT!!
Something Ghandi understood and used effectively to cast off British rule.
Calvin Gleeson said…
It's possible to become attached to the theological concepts currently in use, but in light of scientific knowledge it makes no logical sense to say that humanity is responsible for natural evil: the creation of the world and the way it works must be the responsibility of the creator, if such a creator exists. Humanity is responsible for the effects of decisions made by humanity, and these effects are limited, usually to our own species or immediate environment i.e. our planet.

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