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Evil, Christianity and Saint Augustine

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Evil, Christianity, and Saint Augustine

Sammy Hoag

Philosophy 202 Dr. Ryan Murphy
December 2015 What is evil? This ‘problem of evil’ and the existence of evil have plagued the minds of people throughout the centuries. It has been one on the most sought after inquiries and one of the most vexing challenges to Christianity, in explaining the existence of God. Many philosophers and thinkers, both secular and Christian, have endeavored to solve this problem. One of the most notable of whom is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). He is perhaps one of the most influential philosophers in the history of the Christian Church. Augustine spent much of his life trying to solve this ‘problem of evil’ and it proved to be quite an undertaking. This paper will explore the problem of evil and argue how Saint Augustine solidified the ways in which philosophy and religion, specifically Christianity, coincide through his work on the concepts of the problem of and the origin of evil. Understanding the problem of evil is essential to everyone because it affects the manner in which life is lived. Whether defending a belief in God or trying to share those beliefs with others everyone will encounter the problem of evil at some point. According to Ed Miller and Jon Jensen, authors of Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy, “The presence in the world of evil, both natural and moral, is surely the biggest stumbling block to belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God.” By obtaining the knowledge with how to respond one can be better prepared in defending the manner by which philosophy can coincide with their beliefs.
Structurally, this paper will discuss the problem of evil looking at the relation between the views of Augustine and those held by concurrent philosophers as well as more modern perspectives. It will be followed by an analysis of Augustine’s approach to solving this great issue. And finally, an appreciation of his contribution to the current understanding and ways in which philosophy and Christianity can agree with and compliment each other.
Really, the problem of evil is one that has been of great debate for millennia. The root issue involved in it is regarding, “how to reconcile the evil in the world with a God who is at once omnipotent and omnibenevolent.” This presents the case as one of theodicy, which is translated from the Greek words θεός (theós) meaning god and δίκη (dike) meaning justice. Therefore, literally the attempt to resolve the problem of evil is endeavoring to present “the justice of God.”
The problem of evil can probably be most easily and simply summarized by David Hume in his work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, when he was referencing the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] 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?” Both Hume and Epicurus very simply laid out the major premises entailed in the problem of evil leading to a very definitive conclusion: God cannot exist because evil does exist and God cannot be who God is supposed to be with the existence of evil.
The solution that God cannot exist is but one of the many answers to the problem of evil. Another solution which somewhat allows religion to work with philosophy to resolve the problem though can be found in the beliefs held by the Manichaean religious sect of people whose influence was prominent from the 3rd to 7th centuries A.D. One of the most notable Manichaeans philosophers was the presbyter Fortunatus, and for two days Saint Augustine had a public debate with him regarding the beliefs he held. This debate was recorded and became known as the Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus. In this debate we can clearly see the dualistic nature of Manichaean thought in that they believed there to be two gods. The first, God, is the one who controls the good and the second, the Devil, is the one who controls the evil. This was their justification of the existence of evil. They believed that the existence of the devil allowed for the existence of evil. By the end of the debates “Fortunatus acknowledged that he could not defend his views on evil’s origin given Augustine’s insistence on divine omnipotence … [and] He conceded the debate.”
Others endeavored to provide solutions to the problem of evil. John Stuart Mill, a well-known English philosopher used this problem in order to defend his rejection of Christianity. He claimed that God must be limited or finite in order for evil to exist. If God is in fact omnibenevolent then he cannot be omnipotent and evil still have existence. Similarly to the previously outlined resolutions to the problem of evil this argument only shows that God cannot exist as who He is supposed to be in the Christian beliefs and thus there is really no need for the existence of a God. The mere statement of this fact is quite complicating because it is fairly grounded evidence that the Christian beliefs are not founded in truth, thereby showing that philosophy and Christianity cannot coincide in any way.
In stark contrast to all of the solutions already mentioned and probably the most compelling with regards to answering the problem of evil is that of Saint Augustine. Augustine chose to approach the problem similarly to the manner in which Hume did in the future but drastically different from those of his own time. Simply put Augustine’s argument is two-fold: “First: 1) All things that God created are good; 2) evil is not good; 3) therefore, evil was not created by God. Second: 1) God created every thing; 2) God did not create evil; 3) therefore, evil is not a thing.” As a result of looking into this Augustine came up with his own questions about evil and made note of them in his autobiography, Confessions of St. Augustine: “Where, then, is evil, and whence does it come and how has it crept in? What is its root and what its seed? Has it no being at all?”
It is important to note that Augustine came to the same initial conclusion as Epicurus before him and Hume to follow him. The answer to the problem of evil should rest upon the origin or nature of evil rather than on the reality of evil. So then what is evil. For a moment let us explore the concepts of light and dark was well as hot and cold. Light is known to exist because it can be seen and heat exists because it can be felt. Therefore does dark exist? Does cold exist? Dark can be defined simply as the absence of light. Likewise, cold can be defined as the absence of heat. Good and evil are quite similar. Good can be seen and thus evil is just the privation of goodness. The acknowledgement of this is one of the key principles of Augustine’s argument but it makes perfect logical sense. “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’” Many philosophers have argued that by making the claim that evil only exists as the absence of good, Augustine was denying the reality of evil this is certainly not the case. As previously discusses Augustine’s focus rested solely on the nature of evil not the reality of evil, because denying the reality of evil would be absolutely absurd and his entire argument would collapse.
Having answered what evil is: then where does it come from is still something to be answered. Augustine makes the argument that evil is still a part of realty but is only the lack of good. The simplest way to then explain where evil comes from is looking to humanity. Saint Augustine is a strong advocate for the free-will defense which is the idea that, “Human beings are endowed with free will by God as a condition for genuine morality, trust, love, and the like, though it also makes possible the introduction of moral evil into the world.” In short, because God provides us with the ability to make choices he has to allow us to choose something that is not good thereby allowing evil to enter the scene. Using Augustine’s own words in his work The City of God he states: “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil—not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked.” Correspondingly in his work On Free Choice of the Will Augustine explains: “Therefore, since the movement of turning away from good, which we admit to be sin, is a defective movement . . . you may be sure that it does not belong to God. Yet since this defect is voluntary, it lies within our power.” Basically, the point that Saint Augustine is trying to reference in multiple works is that evil is a result of humanities decisions towards or in the manner of something lacking in goodness.
Going back to the problem of evil we can notice that Augustine clearly made an case for the existence of God while allowing for the reality of evil. Many philosophers even to this day have struggled with understanding this complex concept while it seems reasonably evident that the best answer, at least to any Christian, has already been discovered by Saint Augustine. He identified that the problem of evil can truly only be resolved by understanding the problem in the first place and then understanding the origin of evil itself.
Saint Augustine was “responsible for forging some of Christianity’s most controversial and unique theology; and setting it both within, and over-and-against the thought of the classical world.” The problem of evil is the single biggest problem to Christian beliefs. Many great philosophers, like Epicurus and David Hume, have been of the opinion that in order to accept the reality of evil you must deny the existence of a God. There were also others like Fortunatus, the Manichaean presbyter, who adopted ideas that evil is equal to good and it is controlled by a second god, the devil, which is still in contrast with the true Christian doctrines. Contrarily to all these opinions, Saint Augustine showed that it is possible to be a Christian and still provide an answer to the problem of evil without having to deny beliefs or having to disagree with some of the greatest intellectual minds in history. Philosophy and Christianity can coincide and while the existence of evil seems like a potentially insurmountable issue the problem of evil proves only to be a small hurdle to overcome in the quest of Christian philosophical inquiry.


Saint Augustine. “Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff, Vol. IV. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1887). 109-124.

Saint Augustine. Confessions of St. Augustine. (Auckland, NZL: The Floating Press, 2009), 83. ProQuest ebrary.

Saint Augustine. “The City of God.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff, Vol. II. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1886). 210-211.

Saint Augustine and Thomas Williams, On Free Choice of the Will. (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1993), 84.

Fredriksen, Paula. Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2010), 148. ProQuest ebrary.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. (South Bend, IN, USA: Infomotions, Inc., 2001). 62-63. ProQuest ebrary.

Koukl, Greg. “Augustine on Evil.” Stand to Reason.

Miller, Ed and Jon Jensen, Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 333.

Murphy, Ryan. “Lesson 11: Theodicy: The Problem of Evil” Lecture presented in the Philosophical Inquiry Course of Colorado Christian University, Lakewood, CO, November 2015.

[ 2 ]. Ed Miller and Jon Jensen, Questions that Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 333.
[ 3 ]. Miller and Jensen, Questions that Matter 308.
[ 4 ]. New World Encyclopedia. s.v. “Theodicy”.
[ 5 ]. Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. (South Bend, IN, USA: Infomotions, Inc., 2001). 62-63. ProQuest ebrary.
[ 6 ]. “Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff, by Saint Augustine, Vol. IV. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1887). 109-124.
[ 7 ]. Fredriksen, Paula. Augustine and the Jews : A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism. (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2010), 148. ProQuest ebrary.
[ 8 ]. Miller and Jensen, Questions that Matter 312.
[ 9 ]. Koukl, Greg. “Augustine on Evil.” Stand to Reason.
[ 10 ]. Saint Augustine. Confessions of St. Augustine. (Auckland, NZL: The Floating Press, 2009), 83. ProQuest ebrary.
[ 11 ]. Miller and Jensen, Questions that Matter 319.
[ 12 ]. Merriam-Webster. s.v. “Dark”.
[ 13 ]. Merriam-Webster. s.v. “Cold”.
[ 14 ]. “The City of God.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff, by Saint Augustine, Vol. II. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1886). 210-211.
[ 15 ]. Miller and Jensen, Questions that Matter 319.
[ 16 ]. Miller and Jensen, Questions that Matter D-10.
[ 17 ]. Augustine. The City of God. 230.
[ 18 ]. Augustine and Thomas Williams, On Free Choice of the Will. (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 1993), 84.
[ 19 ]. Murphy, Ryan. “Lesson 11: Theodicy: The Problem of Evil” Lecture presented in the Philosophical Inquiry Course of Colorado Christian University, Lakewood, CO, November 2015.

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