Saint Augustine offers a very influential but obscure story about the inevitability of evil. In his view, punishment in this life is universal but obscurely distributed, and ultimately God’s justice will be revealed in salvation. But until then, the relationship between the experience of the suffering human beings in this life, and the reason they have deserved it, is completely vague.
Manichaeism: Augustine’s Favorite Gnostic Religion
Saint Augustine came from Tertullian and North African Christianity. The other context, out of which Augustine himself emerged, is his own youthful attachment to a certain kind of Gnostic popular religion called Manichaeism. It was like many of the other Ancient Near Eastern stories: a combat myth picture of the universe.
According to this Gnostic religion, matter is evil, spirit is good, and the universe was created out of this battle. In fact, the inhabited world and all matter that is felt is composed—in the myths of the Manichean creation myth—out of the skins of the corpses of the archons of darkness.
Good and evil were not metaphysical rivals for Augustine. It’s just that things exist on a continuum of levels of being. Rocks do not have the same quality of existence as plants do, and, therefore, in some metaphysical way, they aren’t as good as plants. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means they’re a lower level of being.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Augustine’s First Claim about the Inevitability of Evil and Sin
To articulate his own view, Augustine made two fundamental claims about sin and evil. The first claim is that evil is essentially privational. It means it is an irrational swerving from a wholly good creation that deprives that creation of some quality of being.
Evil is ultimately a ‘nothing’, a nihilation, wholly lacking being; essentially nothing more than the privation of some fundamentally good reality. The evilness of an act is simply how the act lessens existence in some way. In all of this, Augustine wanted to insist that there is no ‘metaphysical substantiality’ to evil; there’s no rival metaphysical center of power and gravity named ‘evil’ against God.
Augustine clearly believed in demons. He clearly believed that Satan is a power and a force, but he understood those demons and Satan as rival spirits rebelling against God but still, nonetheless, under God’s sovereign control, in this moment as well as ultimately.
Learn more about Christian scripture-apocalypse and original sin.
The Creation out of Nothing Idea
Augustine was one of the first major Christian thinkers to develop the Genesis account into the Christian account of what’s called the ‘Creation ex nihilo’, a ‘Creation out of nothing’. He did this to oppose the more pessimistic Manichean view that says Creation is made ‘out of the corpses of the defeated enemies of light’.
But, of course, the irony is that he also created a situation where there begins to be a differing Christian and Jewish conception of what Genesis looks like, how that first creation myth goes. For Augustine, Satan was not fundamentally a rival deity to God; Satan was God’s rebellious servant, who still in some mysterious way served God’s sovereign providence.
Just as God created all and called it good, as God is the source of all, there can be nothing that is not in some sense good in God’s eyes. That’s the first, most basic affirmation, and because the reality of existence itself is fundamentally good, evil has to be nothing. It has to be an attempt to annihilate that goodness.
Augustine’s Second Claim about Evil and Sin
The second claim he made, along with the privation theme, was sometimes called the perversion theme. For Augustine, if evil is nothing, sinful people are still perverted toward wanting nothing; they are turned away from what they should want and aim their lives at wanting things that are empty, meaningless, and finally, ultimately, nothing.
Sin, then, is the perversion of an originally wholly good human nature. The possibility of human temptation and failure is built in human nature from Creation forward—Adam & Eve don’t originate evil, they are just the first examples of a pattern that human history will repeatedly demonstrate.
Learn more about Greek philosophy and human evil and malice.
The Crucial Psychological Point
For a human to do something, an act must have a reason. If it’s not just a hiccup or a reflex (like kicking a knee up when a doctor taps it with a hammer), the doer of the deed must have some justification.
No one thinks of himself/herself as bad and acting with evil motives. People don’t need a perfect justification for what they do, a complete one, one that anyone would endorse. This is why one of the most common, and, in some ways, one of the most psychologically illuminating statements humans can make is the statement, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Everything that is done seems like a good idea at the time. Augustine thought this was very deep because it’s impossible, he thought, for someone to want to do evil just because it is evil; radical nihilism of this sort was ruled out.
Common Questions about Saint Augustine’s Views and the Inevitability of Evil
Saint Augustine thought it was impossible for someone to want to do evil just because it was evil; radical nihilism of this sort was ruled out.
Manichaeism was a Gnostic religion followed by Augustine. According to this religion, matter is evil, spirit is good, and the universe was created out of this battle. In the myths of the Manichean creation myth, the inhabited world and all matter that is felt is composed out of the skins of the corpses of the archons of darkness.
Augustine’s first claim was that evil is essentially privational. Evil is ultimately a ‘nothing’, a nihilation, essentially nothing more than the privation of some fundamentally good reality. His second claim was that if evil is nothing, sinful people are still perverted toward wanting nothing.