A philosophical question faces Christians, and in fact all theists, that challenges the belief in God. To theists, God is an omnipotent, perfect God. He is good. Theists accept this, and embrace it, for how else can they worship God and give their lives to Him unless He is good?
However, in this world evil is constantly seen all around us. Because God is the author of all things in this world, and he is good, theists must then ask themselves what evil is and where it came from. Augustine sets up an argument for his Confessions that attempt to define evil, and in doing so he explains its existence.
To follow this argument, it is important to realize that Augustine accepts some basic precepts regarding God and His creation. To begin with, God is the author of everything. Augustine says, “nothing that exists could exist without you [God]” (1.2).
God is the creator and source of all things. Again ” . . . when He made the world He did not go away and leave it. By Him it was created and in Him exists” (4.12). Nothing in this world exists apart from God. Also, God is in control of everything in this world. “Everything takes its place according to your law” (1.7).
Augustine clearly sets forth that God is the creator and source of everything. Not only is He the source, but he is the reason for its continued existence. The next step Augustine takes regards the nature of God’s creation.
For Augustine, God is good, because everything He made is good. “You are our God, supreme Good, the Creator and Ruler of the universe” (1.20), and again, “Therefore, the God who made me must be good and all the good in me is His”(1.20).
Everything about God is good. There is no aspect of Him that is lacking, false, or not good. These characteristics are in turn transferred to His creation. “You, my God, are the source of all good”(1.6). However, Augustine makes an important distinction regarding the creation of good and evil when he says, “O Lord my God, creator and arbiter of all-natural things, but arbiter only, not creator, of sin”(1.10). The question of what evil is, and where it came from, still remains.
Augustine establishes that everything God made is good, and since God made everything, everything must be good. He then asks where evil could have come from. After all, evil did not come from God, it must have come from a source other than God. If this true, then is it not so that God could have been prevented evil from entering into the world as He is God? Because we clearly see evil in the world.
Did God allow it to enter? This would seem to mean either that God is not entirely good, or that he is not omniscient and all-powerful. These questions Augustine does his best to answer.
First, Augustine establishes a definition of evil. Originally, he believed that evil had substance. “I believed that evil, too was some similar kind of substance . . . And because such little piety as I had compelled me to believe that God, who is good, could not have created evil nature, I imagined that there were two antagonistic masses, both of which were infinite, yet the evil in a lesser and the good in a greater degree”(5.10). However, his view changes later, where he says that “Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains”(3.7).
Under this definition, evil does exist as a substance. Instead, it is the result of a removal; of good until there is nothing left, at which time the object/person would cease to exist in a physical realm. “And evil, the origin of which I was trying to find, is not because if it were a substance, it would be good”(7.12).
Augustine approaches this issue from an entirely different angle. First, he says: Do we have any good evidence that God even exists? If He does, is He good? So he develops his argument from natural theology. He looks for independent evidence available to us that God is real and He is good.
That is why Augustine properly starts with proofs for the existence of God and once establishing that there is good reason to believe He exists and HE is good, then that produces a different kind of series of statements. All that God created is good, evil is not good. Therefore, evil is not something that God created.
This was Augustine’s solution and his main contribution because when he asked the questions: What is evil? Does it have any being or not? Where did it come from? HE observed that evil is something that always injures, and an injury is the deprivation of good. If there were no deprivation of good in the thing being injured, then there would not be any injury. And, since all things were made with goodness by God originally, then when things are evil, they are deprived of the goodness that God gave them.
In other words, everything that God made is good, and when you take away some goodness from something that God made, we call that condition evil. Another way of putting it is that evil is a privation of good. In this analysis, good is the substantial thing, the thing with substance. Evil does not have any substance. It is merely good that is missing. If it does not have any substance, then it does not require a creator. In other words, evil is like a moral hole, a nothingness that obtains when something is removed.
That’s what a hole is, when something is removed, a hole will remain. But the hole isn’t something. It’s nothing. Just as a shadow is no more than a hole in light, evil is a kind of hole in goodness. To say that something is evil then is just a shorthand way of saying it lacks goodness. Augustine goes on to explain how such a thing can be and gets into a discussion about free will.
Finally, Augustine state forth a reason for the existence of what we call evil, or the removal of good: namely, free will exercised wrongfully. God created humans with free will, which is inherently good. However, we can misuse free will and choose to do other than good. “in you [God] our good abides forever, and when we turn away from it we turn to evil”(4.16), Augustine writes. When this happens the good is bent or injured in its goodness, which results in evil. Augustine describes how the soul can err when he says, “my own [soul] was changeable and erred of its own free will”(4.15).
Also, “When I chose to so something or not to do it, I was quite certain that it was my own self, and not some other person who made this act of will, so that I was on the point of understanding that herein lay the cause of my sin”(7.3). Augustine also describes Satan, who is for Christians, the greatest evil known, as “a good angel who became a devil because of his own wicked will”(7.3) The misuse of free will results in the reduction of good, which is evil. “We do evil because we choose to do so of our own free will”(7.3). Free will can be corrupted and misused, which is the definition of evil.
To summarize, God is good. Everything God has created is good. Evil does not come from God Rather evil is a reduction of good. This explains the existence of evil in God’s creation without threatening either omnipotence or His goodness. The opportunity we have to make the choice between being the good He made or ruining our goodness is a gift that should not be taken lightly.
Augustine believes that with His creation, God has given humankind free rein to learn more about Him and grow closer to Him. The modern Christian Leslie Newbigin writes fully Augustinian way when he states “I believe that all created beings have a sacramental character in that they exist by the creative goodness and for the redeeming purpose of God, that nothing is rightly understood otherwise, and that, nevertheless, God in creating a world . . . has provided for us a space within which we are given the freedom to search, to experiment, and to find out for ourselves how things really are”(Foolishness to the Greeks, 89).
Yes, this does mean that some will stray from the path of good and pursue evil, but the Augustinian Christian believes that if there were no choice to be made, their praises to God would not be so meaningful. For Augustine, it is free will that makes human lives worth living and makes a relationship with a good God unique. Evil results from persons turning from this relationship, and the consequential removal of good from their lives.
Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin Books, 1961.
Newbigin, Leslie. Foolishness to the Greeks. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerrdmans Publishing Company, 1986.