Who Brought Evil into the World? Augustine Identifies the Culprit.


Written by Maureen McKew

Villanova Magazine


Antonio_Rodríguez_-_Saint_Augustine_-_Google_Art_Project.jpgWhy do bad things happen? It's a question that sooner or later, almost every person asks. Or, in times of intense sorrow or anger, someone invariably says: “How could God let anything so terrible happen?” These and similar cries of anguish are different expressions of one essential question: If God is good, how did evil get into the world?

St. Augustine spent much of his life wrestling with the question of how God, who is all goodness and perfection and who is all powerful, could have created the world and then allowed evil into it. Doesn't the presence of evil and the sins it spawns demonstrate that God didn't make a perfect world and therefore is not a perfect being? No, Augustine finally decided, and his explanation forms the basis for most of Western thought on the subject of evil.

Getting an intellectual handle on the subject of good and evil is difficult. Since the first human fell from grace and looked around for something or someone to blame, humankind has developed a number of theories. In his long and sometimes frustrating search for God, Augustine tried several of these theories on for size. However, he discarded all but one.

As a young man, he was the quintessential intellectual snob. He turned first to sacred Scripture but quickly tossed that aside as barbaric, backward and violent—a tool for the ignorant masses, perhaps including his mother, Monica.

Some thinkers influential on Augustine's youth offered the idea that earthly life is a struggle between two titans, good and evil, making human beings nothing more than pawns. This view was supported by the Manichees, a sect to which Augustine belonged when he was a young man in Carthage, North Africa. As Augustine recalled later in his Confessions, this idea attracted him because it did away with human responsibility and guilt.

Manicheism also tended to identify the good with the spiritual, and evil with matter. Therefore the body was regarded as evil, and the soul as good. That certainly appealed to Augustine because it got him off the hook for the feckless life he was leading at the time. After all, if his body was inherently evil, then there wasn't anything he needed to do to prevent that.

Eventually Manicheism lost its appeal for the young seeker. But where to look next for the roots of evil?


Milan Brings More Questions and Finally Answers

As noted in earlier installments of this series of articles on "All Things Augustine," he also grew weary of Carthage. He moved to Italy and shortly thereafter settled down to a prestigious position of professor of rhetoric in Milan, then the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire.

There, he first encountered the genius Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a great preacher and Augustine went to hear him. What appealed to him was how Ambrose spoke rather than what he said. Interestingly, however, he did not have an opportunity to meet with Ambrose personally, let alone discuss the problem of evil.

While Augustine was coming under the influence of Ambrose and being forced to confront the futility of his life so far, he also was faced with an emotional crisis. His mother was pressuring him to discard his longtime mistress and find a respectable wife. It was also at this time that he heard that mysterious voice in the garden telling him to "take up and read" Scripture. To borrow a phrase from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the eyes of his understanding were enlightened. Shortly after, he was baptized.

The born-again Augustine was wholly convinced that God was all good and all powerful. However, that realization left him confronting the question: How could God create evil? The answer was that God didn't create evil. In fact, evil was totally incompatible with an all good God. Evil, Augustine eventually came to see, was not an entity in itself but rather an "other than good."

This realization put him in a philosophical bind. Something that was known as "not good" was causing an awful lot of mischief in the world. Augustine's solution was that evil did its damage by limiting freedom of will. A will infected by evil does not choose good.

That still left the question: If God is not responsible for evil, where did it come from?


Evil Enters the World

Augustine had come to understand that evil was not a separate entity, as the Manichees believed, clashing with the good like one half of a pair of equals. It was instead a turning from the good, a rejection of God's love, a corruption of God's order.

The expression of such rejection is sin, and the results (or wages, as the old expression goes) of sin are death, disease, war, injustice and every other catastrophe that afflicts humankind.

Therefore, when humans afflicted with anguish and pain cry out, "God, why are you doing this to me?" God's answer must be "I am not bringing pain on you. I cannot inflict pain. I am all goodness."

Then who is responsible? Augustine's answer is that all evils in the world are the result of the original sin, the sin of the first human who turned away from the goodness of God. As he wrote in De natura boni (On the Nature of the Good), “every nature, insofar as it is a nature, is good.”


Original Sin and Its Inheritance

Original sin is one of the most difficult and painful concepts that the human mind has ever been asked to comprehend. As Pascal would write centuries later, “It is easier to explain the world with a concept of original sin than without it” (Pensées). Augustine found his answer in the Book of Genesis.

Of course, Augustine lived about 1,400 years before the development of the theory of evolution. Hence, he and all of his contemporaries in the faith took the Creation story literally. He also took the fall of Adam literally, as well as the presence of the evil one who led Adam and his mate to turn from God and ignore the good. The consequence of that choice included a certain ignorance and weakness, or the inability to make good choices. In some way, every single descendent of the miserable couple inherits it: Original sin.

For Augustine, there was no doubt about just what the Original Sin was. In an article written for Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Wm. P. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999) Professor John Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame wrote: “Pride for Augustine, is the archetypal sin, the original sin from which all other sin proceeds as from a root.

In essence, pride is the desire to replace God with oneself.” Is there an antidote for this? Yes, says Augustine. In fact, it's the only antidote: Baptism.


Original Sin and Evolution: Are They Compatible Concepts?

The idea that human beings evolved from a lower species would not have occurred to Augustine. He and his contemporaries believed Adam and Eve had been real persons.

Evolution is a modern theory, developed by Charles Darwin and made famous in his book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 1859.

Does acceptance of the theory of evolution mean that Original Sin has no place in modern thought? No, according to the Rev. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., '64, general editor of Augustine through the Ages. “There was a time when there was no sin in the world,” Father Fitzgerald said. “Then sin came from human choice and changed the relationship between humanity and God.” The identity of the human who committed the first sin and at what point along the evolutionary path it happened are not the most important issues. What really matters is that it happened. A human broke the covenant with the Creator, unleashing terrible consequences for that human and all of that human's descendants.


Augustine and the Devil

There is no doubt that Augustine believed in the existence of the prince of darkness and his confederates. Professor Frederick Van Fleteren of La Salle University in Philadelphia, writing in Augustine through the Ages, noted that Augustine used the term “devil” no fewer than 2,300 times, and that does not include cognates or synonyms.

Using Scripture passages as his references, Augustine described Satan as the ruler of darkness, the sower of bad seed, the prince of Babylon and more. As a result of Adam's sin, humans were betrayed into the devil’s power.

Augustine also blamed the entrance of death into the world on the devil, who was once a good angel before falling (along with many of his associates) from God by sins of pride, disobedience and envy. Before that first sin, physical death, illness and aging did not exist.


The Culprit is Revealed

Augustine showed us the very unpleasant fact that the human race, inspired by that prince of darkness, must take responsibility for all the ills in the world. The human who rejected God's will in favor of his own made us all co-conspirators, and sold us all into a slavery, from which Christ redeemed us.

However, we are left with the consequences: limited knowledge and strength that must seek God's help. Baptism is the first sign of a desire to depend on God. For this reason Augustine was a fervent proponent of infant baptism. In his view, unbaptized infants could not be saved, but he believed that unbaptized infants received only the lightest of punishments because it was not their fault they had not been baptized (De peccatorum meritis et remissione et de baptismo parvulorum, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism, 1.21).

However, as Augustine knew, Baptism is only the beginning of our journey to the vision of God. Each human must travel his or her own road to the Beatific Vision. The road is filled with peril but the grace for a safe passage, i.e., the grace to avoid evil or to be forgiven for it, is ours for the asking.

The next installment examines Augustine as the author and preacher of sermons so remarkable that they are still a source for homilists from the pope to the parish priest.


Note: The Rev. Allan D. Fitzgerald. O.S.A., '64, general editor of Augustine through the Ages, An Encyclopedia (Wm. P. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999) has provided the Augustine citations and contributed generously from his own encyclopedic knowledge of the Bishop of Hippo Regius to the preparation of this article.