Augustine and the Problem of Evil

by Matthew Bracey

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…

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Augustine and the Problem of Evil | Helwys Society Forum