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.
AUGUSTINE ON THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
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.
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.