Augustine and Evil

My dad closed the door and flicked off the lights, pitching the room into a clean black. Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold“Goodnight,” he said as he walked way. He footsteps receded as he walked downstairs to rejoin my mom. My brother sat up beside the bed.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded.

We piled my stuffed animals and realigned my pillows, burying the human-like decoy in a thick comforter. From the doorway, it looked like a body curled up in deep sleep. Perfect.

My brother and I snuck downstairs, our soft footfalls swallowed by explosions and gunshots from an action movie. We opened the basement door and slipped downstairs to my brother’s room, where we watched kung-fu and R-rated movies, eating chips and dip, until dawn.

I could have asked my parents to sleep downstairs. They would have probably said yes—it was a Friday and I was almost nine. But the thrill of subterfuge tinged my flight. Breaking rules was liberating, saying “no” was exciting. Doing the “wrong” thing was a thrill.

In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells a similar story. One night, he and his friends sneak into a garden and steal pears. They don’t eat the fruit but still enjoy the theft for its sinful pleasure. As he writes, “The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say, I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me” (Augustine and F.J. Sheed, trans., 44).

One of the many picture's of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)
One of the many pictures of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)

In my forbidden flight and Augustine’s theft, we broke rules. Using Augustine’s theological language, we “sinned,” turning away from God toward ourselves. In Augustine’s case, he picked a forbidden fruit. In my case, I disobeyed my parents. This “turning away” forms an essential crux in Augustine’s argument defending God against the charge of evil. But to understand his argument one must first understand his notion of being and non-being–gleaned from the Greek tradition.

Being v. Non-Being: a Greek Primer

The verb “to be” carries considerable weight in Greek philosophy. In essence, something that “is” has being and therefore exists. For non-being, the opposite is the case. Something that “is not” does not have being and therefore does not exist. For something to exist means that it has some sort of presence, even as a mere thought. Many types of being exist, just as many “beings” exist–things with being–but the basics are quite simple: either something is or is not.

Despite its seeming simplicity, being has prompted many arguments, even among the Greeks.

Parmenides in the School of Athens by Raphael (from Wikipedia)
Parmenides in The School of Athens by Raphael (from Wikipedia)

Pre-Socratic philosophers, some of the earliest in the Western tradition, were probably the first. Parmenides sometime in the 500s BCE said that everything “is.” Change is an illusion because everything “must be” and can never “not be.” Everything is locked into existence like a popsicle, frozen into being. An important term describes this: necessary being, when an object has to exist according to its very definition.

Contrary to this, Heraclitus, a near-contemporary of Parmenides, argued that everything is in a constant state of becoming and all being is “contingent.” This means it’s not necessary, and therefore, it can come and go. In contingency, nothing is steady. Nothing always “is.” Something can exist one minute, then stop existing the next.

A hundred years later, Plato fused the ideas, creating a duality that has echoed through the ages. To reconcile the validity he saw in both Parmenides and Heraclitus, Plato split the world in half. On one side, he set the realm of Forms, eternal ideas that have necessary being, à la Parmenides. They are unchanging, undying qualities with absolute existence, and one can only reach them with pure reason.

We generally experience them on the other side as mere shadows in the world of appearances. This is our everyday sensory life. Here, Plato put Heraclitus’ view of contingent being to good use. The eternal Forms “participate” with matter, but lose their necessary being in this participation, becoming contingent. Thus, Plato postulates one world of pure “being” and another world of “being” and “non-being,” whirling and shifting together contingently.

Plato’s echo eventually caught Augustine’s ear on the distant shores of North Africa about 600 years later. Augustine, struggling to justify Christianity to himself, absorbed Plato’s philosophy and translated it to Christian terms. Most essentially, he used Plato’s view of being to define God.

Augustine’s addition

As God famously said to Moses after Moses asked the deity his name, “I am who am” (Exod. 3:14). This phrase has immense implications for being and non-being, which Augustine seized right away: “God said, ‘I am HE WHO IS.’ [Exod. 3:14] For God is existence in a supreme degree—he supremely is and he is therefore immutable” (Larimore, 57).

In other words, like Plato’s Forms, God has necessary being. He must be. He always is. Just as a triangle must have three sides to be a triangle and a bachelor must be single to maintain his title, God must have being—pure and absolute—to be God.

In Christian tradition, moreover, God created ex nihilo, literally “from nothing,” creating being from a void of non-being. God put the “is” in all the empty sentences of existence. Suddenly, in what was once void and chaos, light “is” and dark “is.” Earth, plants, animals, humanity—everything “is.” And, being all-good, God infuses everything with his goodness. As the first story of Genesis says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good” (Genesis I:3). As God builds the universe, the narrator repeats the goodness of Creation. Both are essential qualities of God and his creation. Therefore, Augustine equates being with goodness.

But evil still finds a place into Gods’ wholly good creation through non-being. As Augustine writes, “to this highest existence, from which all things that are derive their existence, the only contrary nature is the non-existent” (Larrimore 57). For Augustine, the only logical source for evil is non-being. In his words, “There is no such thing as ‘evil;’ ‘evil’ is merely the privation of good” (Larrimore, 56). Thus just as cold is the absence of heat, evil is the absence of being—and therefore goodness.

So in Augustine’s view, God did not directly create evil. It’s a necessary result from God’s creation ex nihilo—a non-intended consequence that arises from a vacuum of nonbeing that persists despite creation.

Evil also has essential roots in the human capacity for free will. To show this, Augustine examines errors of human conduct in its most basic form: original sin.

Sin and the Fall

In Augustine’s view, humans are finite creatures, unlike God. We have a physical component that limits us, so we are not pure goodness or pure being. If we were, we would never die. But alas, we are, and we do indeed die.

Still, we also have divine elements–the pure Being–in us. Being the good neo-Platonist that he was, Augustine usually equated this divine element with reason and mind, while body was part of the material realm that limits us.

But as the Matrix Reloaded pointed out, “The problem is choice.”

Humans have free will, the ability to choose to turn toward God or away from Him. According to Augustine, we don’t make a deliberate choice for one or the other, but our normal, everyday actions define which way we face. If we steal that BigRed from the store, lust after our best friend’s significant other, and lie to our mother, Augustine would judge our direction harshly.

This is the ultimate danger: because we are limited, we do not always choose to turn toward God. We can have a perverse will, shown in actions like Augustine’s theft of the pears or my forbidden flight. In this way, evil arises in the world. As he writes, “When we ask the cause of the evil angel’s misery, we find that it is the just result of their turning away from him who supremely is and turning towards themselves” (Larrimore, 57).

Thus, to put it in more theological language, sin is the turning away from God, and therefore, being and goodness. In this way, it is an utter denial of being–a “privation”–and voilà, evil as non-being enters the picture.

Moreover, Augustine stresses not to look for any efficient cause for this perverse will. It’s inherent to the will itself and humanity’s limited condition. In his words, “nothing causes an evil will, since it is the evil will itself which causes the evil act” (Larrimore, 58).

Instead, one ought to try to curb this will, avoiding the extravagance of the physical. As he writes, “when the will leaves the highest and turns to the lower, it becomes bad not because the thing to which it turns is bad, but because the turning itself is perverse” (Larrimore 58). The world is not evil, but our attachment to it, drawing us away from God, is. For example, he says lust does not arise from a beautiful body alone, but the soul’s greedy longing for excessive sensual pleasures regarding that body.

The Fall of Adam and Eve was an important example of this for Augustine. God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and gave them one commandment: don’t eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But they disobeyed Him. And in Augustine’s view, they punctured a hole in being when they sinned, allowing the vacuum of evil to enter. Thus, as the old Puritan adage notes, “In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.”

The Fall also illustrates the concept of divine punishment as Augustine saw it. By breaking God’s commandment, Adam and Eve faced retribution. Adam must toil for his food, while Eve must endure painful childbirth Likewise, says Augustine, natural evil, such as earthquakes and floods, can be explained as retribution: God’s just punishment for our sin.

Thus, evil is never fully God’s fault. If God didn’t punish sinners, he wouldn’t be just. As Augustine writes, “Evil deeds are punished by the justice of God. They would not be punished justly if they had not been performed voluntarily.” (Augustine and Thomas Williams, trans.). The punishment arises from our decisions. Free will and the Fall both provide powerful vehicles to organize Augustine’s theology, linking humanity’s own perversion to suffering, excusing God from the deed.


The problem of evil and has challenged Western thinkers for centuries. How can an all-Good, all-powerful, all-knowing God allow evil in the word? Did he create it hand-in-hand with goodness? Is His power limited? His goodness? Is he punishing us?

In the face of these questions, Augustine’s answer illuminates. Drawing from Greek philosophy, the alignment of goodness with being and evil with nonbeing excuses God the creator. Moreover, the connection to sin shows another insight: we choose nonbeing over being, limited by our own condition, thus creating evil in the world and incurring divine justice.

Yet many questions remain unanswered, and it is hard to reference being and nonbeing or divine justice on the shores of a massacre or in the wake of an earthquake. Here, Voltaire’s observation on Lisbon is poignant and resonant:

Approach in crowds and meditate awhile,

Yon shattered walls and view each ruined pile

Women and children heaped up mountains high,

Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie [. . .]

Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,

Which God to cruelties like these constrain? (Larrimore, 205)

For many, Augustine’s argument does not convince. Despite it’s logic, it somehow sounds empty or cruel, especially with the inclusion of divine retribution. But it’s an important foundation for the ongoing debate for the”problem of evil: like other arguments it tries to explain evil in the wake of God’s goodness. Perhaps evil pushes some to atheism, while others cling to faith. I suppose I’m still thinking about it.


Works Cited

Augustine and F. J. Sheed, trans. The Confessions. New York, NY: Sheed & Ward,

1943. Print.

Augustine and Thomas Williams, trans. On the Free Choice of the Will.

Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993. Print.

Larrimore, Mark. The Problem of Evil: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell

Publishing, 2001. Print.

4 thoughts on “Augustine and Evil

  1. Fantastic opening story, there is something about the thrill of an adventure…especially at a young age. Truly enjoy learning something new every time I read one of your posts, from the “Augustine of Hippo, Confessions” reference and then bringing it back to the Greek philosophers. Beautifully written.

    We humans are not perfect, the wars and conflicts around the world are a testament to this fact, but we are evolving (however slowly…very, very slowly) and perhaps one day far in the future we can come closer to this perfection. That is, unless the sun burns out before we can evolve to such a state 🙂

    1. Thanks, Dalo, I hope you’re right. I think we’re slowly becoming a little less cruel as time goes on–although it may take a long, long time, haha.

      And I’m glad you always learn something reading my posts. I love learning and I love sharing what I learn.

      Thanks for the comment–I always appreciate them–and I hope you have a nice day!

    1. That is is true. Just because something exists does not men that its opposite has to, except as a mere logical category. And I agree: such a waste of pears!

      Thanks for the comment, Mikels.

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