Augustine and the Problem of Evil

Through the centuries and millennia, many have discussed some version of the so-called problem of evil. Usually it goes something like this: “If God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why does evil exist? Is He malevolent or just impotent?” This is the question of theodicy. Theologians, philosophers, and ethicists have offered all kinds of responses.

Augustine stands as an important figure in this discussion. Living from 354 until 430, he authored Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love[1] at some point in the last 10 years of his life. In some ways, this volume functions similar to a Theological Systematics or Bible Doctrines textbook, for example progressing from the doctrine of God to man’s Fall to the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to the doctrines of salvation, the church, and last things. Thus, although Enchiridion is not primarily a theodicy text per se, Augustine does consider “The Problem of Evil” in chapter 4, and “The Plight of Man After the Fall” in chapter 8. While Augustine’s contributions are not as systematic or as full as modern philosophers and theologians might prefer, he does establish at least three principles by which to evaluate the question.[2]

In summary, Augustine teaches us that evil exists because pre-Fall, free human beings chose it. God knew this would occur, since He is all-knowing; but He is not to blame, because He is good. God’s goodness and indeed His power are then illustrated in His response to mankind’s Fall: He doesn’t give sinful humans what they justly deserve (condemnation), but instead brings good from evil. With this framework in place, later theologians will refer to this as a felix culpa, or “happy fault.” The fault, or Fall itself is not happy—by no means!—but the manner in which a sovereign God is able to bring good from it is. Felix culpa thus reminds us that God is sovereign over all. While this is the basic thesis of Augustine’s proposal for the problem of evil, we will unpack it further in this article.

Augustine’s Proposal

(1) Evil exists because human beings chose it.

Augustine explains that evil has its roots in mankind’s Fall. He writes, “This, then, was the situation: the whole mass of the human race stood condemned.” The reason for this condemnation was their “impious desertion.” “Certainly the anger of God rests, in full justice, on the deeds that the wicked do freely in blind and unbridled lust.” Augustine further describes men as having “deserted God and, through the evil use of his powers, trampled and transgressed the precepts of his Creator,” and those “who stubbornly turned away from His Light and violated the image of the Creator in himself, who had in the evil use of his free will broken away from the wholesome discipline of God’s law.”

Here Augustine presents the Fall. Mankind has deserted God in his sin, and stands condemned before a just God. Augustine states explicitly that human beings did these things “freely” and “in the evil use of his free will.” He ascribes words like deserted, trampled, transgressed, turned away, violated, and broken away to man. Thus evil exists because mankind chose it.

(2) Despite their evil, God does not withdraw His goodness and mercy.

Although sinful man deserves the full brunt of God’s justice, God gives goodness instead. Augustine writes, “Yet the Creator’s goodness does not cease to sustain life and vitality.” He demonstrates this through several illustrations. Albeit “born of a corrupted and condemned stock,”[3] God grants that we still make babies, live life, eat food, and drink drink. Though God gives, this is undoubtedly not what mankind merits. “[I]f [God] had willed that there should be no reformation in the case of men . . . would it not have been just if such a being [mankind] had been abandoned by God wholly and forever and laid under the everlasting punishment which he deserved?” Augustine asks. Of course it would!

But that’s just the point: God is not simply just, but also good and merciful. Far from posing a problem for God’s goodness, the problem of evil illustrates God’s goodness all the more. “Clearly God would have done this [abandoned mankind] if he were only just and not also merciful and if he had not willed to show far more striking evidence of his mercy by pardoning some who were unworthy of it,” Augustine writes. Against whatever evidence the critic would mount to illustrate that God is not good, Augustine would counter that God’s goodness is shown in that He does not dole out to sinful man his just deserts. For Augustine, this trumps all other evidence.

God’s goodness is also illustrated in His power to actually bring good from evil.

(3) God judged it better to give men freedom, knowing they would sin, and to bring good from it; than not to give men freedom in the first place.

From within this broad framework, Augustine makes a statement that has elicited some confusion. He writes, “For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.” What does Augustine mean by this statement?

By the statement, “God judged it better,” Augustine may indicate that God foreknew that men would sin. “But if God knew that mankind would choose evil,” the critic may interject, “why didn’t He stop it? Is He not good? Is He not powerful enough?” To such questions, Augustine reminds us that God is good and that fallen mankind is responsible for evil. Thus the statement, “God judged it better,” cannot stand contrary to these premises. So then how do we explain it?

Unequivocally Augustine is not suggesting that God preferred or ordained a fallen state from which to work redemption over a non-fallen state.[4] Instead, Augustine is saying that God judged human freedom, even a freedom that He knew would result in mankind’s Fall and hence evil, but from which God would effect good, better than human non-freedom in the first place. Whatever critics’ response to this point, Augustine reminds us that we can trust God’s judgment here because God is good, even if we don’t and can’t fully understand it.

Thus Augustine has offered an answer to and theological rationale for the existence of evil, while maintaining God’s infinite goodness, knowledge, and power. As with God’s goodness and knowledge, the problem of evil, far from disproving God’s power, demonstrates the opposite. Despite evil’s existence due to mankind’s Fall, God brings good from it. In this way, Augustine offers a framework from which to understand passages like Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28; 9:10-13 (see also Gen. 3:15; 9:1-17).

Felix Culpa: Thomas and Jacobus

Fast-forward over half a millennium to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). If Augustine stands as the figure who towers over the early church period, Thomas functions similarly in the Medieval. It is he who, building upon Augustine’s proposal, popularizes the phrase felix culpa, or “happy fault.” In his Summa Theologica,[5] Thomas writes, “For God allows evils to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom; hence it is written (Romans 5:20): ‘Where sin abounded, grace did more abound.’ Hence, too, in the blessing of the Paschal candle, we say: “O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!”

Here Thomas does not interpret Augustine to say that God decrees or ordains evil to occur, or any such language; but simply that He allows or permits evil to occur. Such language lays its fault at mankind’s feet. Additionally, we should be careful not to misinterpret the phrase “happy fault.” Thomas is not suggesting that we should find happiness in mankind’s fault (or Fall), but in God’s response to it. In this we can rejoice!

Several centuries later, Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) also found room for this theological construct. To be sure, he explicitly warns against interpreting it literally, as if man’s Fall was something that God ordained, or itself a happy thing—by no means! Neither Augustine nor Thomas understood this construct that way. Instead, Arminius gives room for it if we, like these forebearers, interpret it in an hyperbolic and/or rhetorical manner. “[T]he fall can not be called a happy transgression,” he writes, “except by a catachrestic hyperbole, which, while it may be adapted to declamations, panegyric orations, and rhetorical embellishments, should be far removed from the solid investigation of truth.”[6] In other words, we mustn’t interpret the phrase literally or substantively, but hyperbolically or rhetorically. Mankind’s Fall is not itself a happy happenstance; however, we can rejoice in a sovereign God Who can bring a happy result from it.

Conclusion

“If God is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why does such evil exist in the world?” Augustine sets up a framework by which we can answer this question, and yet preserve God’s characteristics. Evil exists because mankind chose it. Though God knew that mankind would choose evil, He also knew that human freedom was better than anything contrary. Felix culpa thus reminds us that God, come what may and despite our evil, is good and powerful and sovereign—today, tomorrow, and forevermore. “O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!”

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[1] All quotations from Augustine come from this hyperlink. Italics added throughout.

[2] Although Augustine’s statements may anticipate modern philosophical and theological discussions of topics such as the evidential argument from evil and greater good theodicy, Augustine himself is not strictly working within these categories. While modern discussions of theodicy, as well as Augustine’s influence upon them, are important and deserving of our attention, they are beyond my present scope. In this article, I aim to consider Augustine in particular.

[3] Here we seem to have some notion of original sin.

[4] We must remember the historical and theological context within which Augustine is writing. Although his statements may anticipate later discussions of God’s decrees and the ordo salutis, as well as distinctions between God’s perfect, permissive, and ultimate will, his own context had not defined and articulated these categories. Attempts therefore to read subsequent categories into his language are anachronistic, especially in some strict fashion. Besides all of this, to zero in on that discussion would be to miss the forest for the trees. Primarily Augustine is setting up a framework by which we can understand the problem of evil.

[5] All quotations from Thomas Aquinas come from this hyperlink.

[6] Jacobus Arminius, Collected Works: Volume 3, accessible at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/arminius/works3.viii.ii.html; italics added.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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