A mass shooting in California shocked the country last week, a little girl received a cancer diagnoses today, and over 100 people will die from suicide in the United States tomorrow. This is the cycle of a never ending thing called evil. Countless theologians and scholars have battled with this issue from the very beginning. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is the question that individuals face every day. To the atheist, evil is possibly their best evidence against God. Why would a good God let all of this happen to His creation? Charles Baudelaire said, “If there is a God, he must be the Devil.” With a bit of critical thinking and the help of St. Augustine, Christians can better explain this problem of evil to both the unbeliever and the believer alike. This paper will argue that St. Augustine’s solution on the existence, power and goodness of God, despite the evil in the world, outweighs the solutions of other philosophers.
The existence of evil is a non-believer’s best weapon against the idea of God. Atheists usually try to find flaws in the theist’s position instead of having any tangible evidence against God themselves, but this has one big exception. According to Ed Miller and Jon Jensen, evil is “the most notorious evidence against God.” For years Augustine struggled with the topic himself and even postponed his conversion to Christianity for quite some time. If Augustine had to seriously consider converting to Christianity, then it is imperative that one knows how to argue against the atheists so they too may one day see the truth in God. It is also important that believers themselves realize the truth behind the evil.
Structurally, this paper will first discuss the problem of evil and the claims that coincide with it will be stated. After that, some of the philosophers that argue against a loving, powerful God because of evil will be brought up with their solutions. Next, St. Augustine will come in and his views on evil will be explained. Finally, the paper will evaluate why Augustine’s view is a sufficient view for the existence and goodness of God with the wickedness in the world and give a conclusion of the topic.
Before this term of evil is discussed, it is important to recognize what exactly evil is. There are two main types. Miller defines natural evil as “the evil that results from natural causes,” and it includes disease, starvation, physical deformities, and numerous other “sources of underserved anguish.” The other type is moral evil, which is “the evil that results from personal depravity.” This includes the terrible acts such as murder, theft, war, and other man-created evils. Both of these terms are included in the problem of evil.
So what then is this problem of evil? The problem is called “theodicy,” or the justification of God; it is God on trial. David Hume, a philosopher especially known for his skepticism and naturalism views, states the problem in a simple way: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” This well-known statement can be narrowed down to three controversial claims: 1. God is omnipotent. 2. God is omnibenevolent. 3. There is evil in the world. With these claims, philosophers everywhere have tried to find solutions to this problem.
One of the most popular solutions today is to recognize that we do not know God’s plan. It is far beyond our knowledge. Stephen Davis, in his book Encountering Evil, says the following: “Given what is said about God’s transcendence and our cognitive limits, we would expect that there will be evils that we cannot explain…” Even in the Bible it is said that we cannot fully understand God’s ways. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” Alas, while this solution would be satisfying from a religious standpoint, this is more of a philosophical issue for the sake of this paper.
Leaning away from the faith side and heading towards reason, Gottfried Leibniz comes to another solution. Often identified with his work in his book Theodicy, Leibniz proposed that it is impossible for a perfect world to exist: “I do not believe that a world without evil, preferable in order to ours, is possible; otherwise it would have been preferred.” He suggests that all of the evil is ultimately for a greater good. Miller explains, “Anything created by God would have to be less than God just by virtue of being dependent on him, and this means immediately that it must be less than perfect.” If we were too perfect to need a God, there would have been no point to create us.
One notable philosopher with a rather radical solution to the issue is the very influential John Stuart Mill. In his Three Essays on Religion, Mill lays out why there is evil in the world. He explains that God is not all-powerful, but does have a threshold to His power. If God were all-powerful, wouldn’t he have the ability to get rid of evil? Mill goes on to say, “[Christianity] represents [the Creator] as for some inscrutable reason tolerating the perpetual counteraction of his purposes by the will of another Being of opposite character… the Devil.” This statement not only downplays the Christian God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence but also suggests that the Devil is to blame for evil. These are only a few of the claims made about the solution to evil. There is a whole other set of solutions that do not include a God at all, but for the sake of time, this paper will move on to the great Augustine’s theories of evil.
After the authors of the New Testament, St. Augustine of the third century has probably been the most influential writer in the world. Before he became a great Christian philosopher and theologian, Augustine succumbed to the life of parties and sin. After he began to devote himself to Christ, he also devoted his life to thinking critically about his Creator’s world. Therefore, St. Augustine’s theories of the problem of evil came about.
Although it has a long tradition, the privation theory of evil is mostly associated with Augustine. This theory states that evil is nothing more than the absence or privation of goodness, and God only creates things that are good. Augustine writes, “For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among his works…. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?” To put evil as a picture, it is like a rust. “Rottenness and rust do not exist in themselves but only something else as the corruption of it.” God cannot create something that is nothing; He, the absolute good, is responsible for the goodness of the world, not the nonbeing and evil. This theory allows St. Augustine to argue that God is still all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving in the face of evil. A point to be made is that God made human beings to be good, not perfect. “God saw all that he had made, and it was good…” Humans are inherently good, yet they are not perfect and are therefore open to corruption–open to rusting and dissolving God’s creation. It is also important to state that although Augustine denies evil as a substance, he more than most recognizes that it is very real.
So then, where did this evil come from? This is where Augustine’s Free-Will Defense comes in. In this defense, Augustine writes in his book On Free Choice of Will about how our sin is voluntary: “Yet since this defect is voluntary, it lies within our power.” With this free will, one can take the three statements from the skeptics’ problem of evil and add one more statement to it: 1. God is omnipotent. 2. God is omnibenevolent. 3. God desires free rational agents. 4. Suffering exists. The third statement allows for a lot more flexibility with this issue. In order for God to be all-loving while being all-powerful, he wanted to make beings that could make real decisions instead of Him being a master puppeteer.
With this free will, humans have the ability to do what they want with the world–good or bad. Augustine describes the cause of our evil as having disordered loves. We are creatures with desires, and God intended these desires to be in a certain order– God first, others second, ourselves third, and things last. Augustine confessed to disordering these loves himself in his Confessions by saying, “Because my will was perverse it changed to lust, and lust yielded to become habit, and habit not resisted became necessity.” When we put anything before God, we are subject to sin. God is the only unmovable thing in the universe! Therefore, one cannot blame the Devil for the evil in this world; it is humans who are to blame. How do we get rid of evil? We have to get rid of ourselves, but obviously God is not quite ready for that.
The other philosophers bring up some interesting suggestions, but all of them ultimately fail because they do not have the adequate explanations for the problem of evil. St. Augustine explains that evil and suffering can take place in the world, even with a loving and powerful God. God is not the cause of suffering, and it was never His intention for evil to take place in the world. However, evil is present because of the fact that God made the world to be good, not perfect and because God gave us the right to free will. Evil is not a thing or being, but is actually the “Privation of Good” as St. Augustine tells us. When we think of evil as an absence of good, it makes sense that there will be instances of the corruption of good in this imperfect world. The presence of evil in the world is one of the biggest problems Christianity faces. Christians and non-Christians both ask, “How can all this evil and suffering take place if God is who He says He is? He knows what is happening, and He loves us, and He is powerful enough to make it stop.” As non-Christians, it may be easy to ignore that God is all of those things, but as Christians, we must accept that God is powerful, knowing, and loving. Therefore, when people come to us with these questions, we must be able to defend God in the face of evil with a well-formulated response. St. Augustine lays out this response and gives us a solution that we can validly argue. This solution still allows God to be omnipotent and omnibenevolent and explains how evil can come about in light of all this. The works of St. Augustine are trustworthy because the presences of evil was a topic that bothered him for much of his life. He spent many years trying to work out a solution that would allow him to believe in God even with the existence of evil; many would say he did exceptionally well in bringing the situation to light in the 4th century, 2015, and every year in between.
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