St Augustine is often blamed for bringing the problems of evil and suffering to the forefront in Christianity. Certainly, responding to the problems was a major theme in his writings – as well they might be given his own experiences of persecution. Yet in fact the tension between the Christian concept of God and the existence of evil and suffering in the world He created was apparent well before St Augustine was born. The Nicene Creed (325AD) affirmed the omnipotence of “the Father Almighty” and the full divinity of Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the Trinity, developed in response to Christological controversies such as Arianism, made the logical problems of Evil & suffering inescapable for Christians. St Augustine is best understood as the first very substantial, systematic attempt to resolve these problems on behalf of the orthodox Church. Of course, the logical problem of evil was well-known to Greek Philosophy. Epicurus wrote “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” Later, David Hume claimed that Christian belief rests upon an “inconsistent triad” of beliefs and JL Mackie went further, claiming that the co-beliefs God exists and is omnipotent and omniscient, God exists and is omnibenevolent and Evil exists are “positively irrational.” St Augustine attempted to defend God in several different ways. In the 1990s American Philosopher Robert Adams listed four separate ways to approach theodicy and it is fair to say that Augustine tried all of them. Given the constraints of time, this critical evaluation will focus on the three best-known of Augustine’s approaches, namely his definition of evil as “privatio boni”, his free-will defence and his doctrine of original sin. In relation to these, it seems that St Augustine’s theodicy was rationally successful (at least when taken as a whole) it ultimately yielded a pastorally unsatisfying God.
St Augustine sought an answer to the problems of evil and suffering for a long time. Unconvinced by the efforts of Christian leaders he engaged with Manichaeism and then the writings of the Platonists before eventually returning to Christianity. It is fitting, therefore, that St Augustine’s most important theodicy is rooted in Greek Philosophy, which defined goodness in terms of actuality and fulfilment of purpose and evil in terms of potentiality and falling short of purpose. For St Augustine, evil is privatio boni and has no existence in itself. Evil is parasitical and can only affect things that in themselves are good. The extent to which something fulfils its nature and God’s purpose is good and the extent to which it falls short and retains potential it is evil. All created things move, change and are contingent on other things therefore all are affected by evil to some extent. God is the only wholly good being, unaffected by evil because, being outside time and space, fully actual and necessary, God cannot fall short and has no potential. In this world-view, the problem of evil shifts from being about why God created evil things to why God created anything when its existence would necessarily entail being affected by evil to some extent. This, Augustine answers by arguing that God cannot be held responsible for creating something which has no existence in itself and by arguing that the goodness in creation greatly outweighs the evil within it. Of course, the first point is semantics and the second is a subjective judgement. For Christians affected by horrendous evils – whether natural or moral – neither explanation is likely to be pastorally satisfying. People do not pray to a wholly simple, necessary being… and it is difficult to square the Bible with such a being either. Put bluntly, the parent of a terminally ill child is not going to be comforted by St Augustine’s “privatio boni” theodicy, however philosophically brilliant it might be. This shows that St Augustine’s theodicy, although rationally successful, yielded a pastorally unsatisfying God.
St Augustine’s Free Will Defence is probably the best known of his theodicies. The work of Alvin Plantinga has re-awakened scholarly interest in it in recent decades. Free-will is intuitively appealing and fits beautifully with the Biblical narrative, which seeks to blame human beings for the horrors visited on them by the creation God supposedly controls and to use this as a reason to worship Him. Nevertheless, this theodicy remains philosophically unconvincing. As JL Mackie pointed out in his famous essay “Evil and Omnipotence”, the God of the Free Will defence is limited and far from being the omnipotent being that the Creeds claim He must be. It seems that God either CANNOT or WILL NOT create a world in which significantly free beings always choose to do right and is subservient to the laws of logic. St. Augustine (and later Plantinga) assumes incompatibilism without arguing for it. If as St Luke and St Matthew affirm “anything is possible with God”, why can’t he create free beings AND determine (or at least limit) the outcomes? Christian Philosophers of Religion have tried to extricate St Augustine from this mess. St Thomas Aquinas and later Descartes both tried to argue that God is limited by logic only within this-world and that (for all we know) our omnipotent God could have created a different world in which free beings are compatible with determined outcomes. We can only infer from the existence of this world that it must at least be part of what Richard Swinburne called the best-possible-world type – because an omnipotent God would only create such – and be satisfied on this basis that the best possible world must contain evil & suffering, that it must be better than it would be without it… This line of argument is philosophically inadequate because it is circular. This world suggests that God cannot be omnipotent but because God is omnipotent we must accept that this world is the best possible. Not very convincing, at least when the Free-Will Defence is taken in isolation.
In addition, St Augustine extended His free-will defence argument to a broader critique of Human Nature which sought to show that human beings deserve whatever natural – or moral – punishment they receive in this world. For Augustine, the story of the Fall in Genesis 2-3 suggests that human beings fell from grace not individually but collectively and that we all inherit sin from Adam because we were all “seminally present” in him when He betrayed God in Eden. St Augustine did not invent the idea of original sin, but he used it as a major part of his theodicy and as his main way of explaining apparently innocent suffering such as infant mortality. For St Augustine there is no such thing as innocent suffering. God is just and justly punishes the guilty – including infants who bear the stain of original sin. Christ’s atoning sacrifice and the sacrament of baptism offers evidence that God is good and offers those who believe a chance to be redeemed and saved to eternal life. For St. Augustine, God’s justice and God’s mercy is amply defended through his Doctrine of Original Sin. Nevertheless, St Augustine’s approach is pastorally unsatisfying. Why would a good God punish an unbaptised baby with all the horrors of cancer or starvation to satisfy His vengeance for the sin of Adam… in eating an apple? Can St Augustine – who generally approached Biblical interpretation with such humility – really have taken the ancient and troubling story of the fall so very literally? It is not surprising that atheists find this argument distasteful and even ridiculous. Muslims and Jews reject Augustine’s approach and uphold the innocence of infants, despite Augustine’s claims to have seen evidence of their corruption in twins fighting over their mother’s milk. Again St Augustine’s theodicy, although arguably rationally successful as a whole, yields a pastorally unsatisfying God.
Clearly, St Augustine’s theodicies are more convincing when taken together than when examined in isolation. The philosophical strength of seeing evil as privatio boni does something to offset the shortcomings of the free-will defence and the pastoral strength of free-will tempers the doctrine of original sin, yet the fact that St Augustine had to have so many attempts at defending God against charges of creating or allowing evil suggests that he himself remained unconvinced. In the Enchiridion, written towards the end of St Augustine’s life c.420AD, Augustine confronted the reality of the situation, writing “Nothing, therefore, happens unless the Omnipotent wills it to happen. He either allows it to happen or he actually causes it to happen.” It seems that St Augustine was not unaware of the shortcomings of his own theodicies and he had to fall back on faith and prayer in the end.
In conclusion, although St Augustine’s theodicy was rationally successful (at least when taken as a whole) it ultimately yielded a pastorally unsatisfying God. Christians have struggled with this ever since. There is no way to acquit God of all charges when it comes to having created or at least allowed evil and suffering, and the only possible response is to pray for understanding and continued faith. This is the message at the heart of the book of Job. As Holocaust-survivor Elie Weisel remarked,
“I was there when they put God on trial… at the end they used the word “chayev” rather than guilty. It means “he owes us something”. Then we went to pray.”