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The Privation of Good and The Neverending Story

Yesterday in my theology class, my professor expressed his disagreement with Augustine's conception of the nature of evil. Augustine essentially argued three things:
  1. God created all things, so that nothing exists that God did not create.
  2. God created all things to be Good.
  3. Therefore, from (1) and (2), evil cannot be a creation of God, and therefore evil cannot exist in the way that Good exists. Therefore, evil is not the presence of something in its own right, but the lack of the Good that God originally instilled in his creation.
When we examined this argument in a class I took in my undergraduate years, I found it very persuasive. My professor, however, argued that it would be silly to say that evil doesn't exist since the Bible affirms evil as a terrible reality. He likened Augustine's thought with the Christian Scientist understanding of sickness, where they say that, in reality, there is no such thing as sickness, so that we are all healthy--we simply have to believe in the reality of our health through faith. With respect, I don't think that's what Augustine was getting at.

It seems unfair to say that Augustine was denying that evil exists (rightly understood) in the world, since he spends an entire book, his Confessions, talking about how he and the rest of humanity are sinful wretches. So, he wasn't saying that there is no such thing as evil in the world, but he is merely saying that what we call evil is actually a condition where some Good that should be there is not.

This is vastly different from the Christian Scientist understanding of sickness, because, to extend the metaphor, Augustine wouldn't deny that people are "sick" spiritually. This is important, because many liberals today argue that everyone in the world is, in reality, saved (so that no damnation "exists"), and that we merely need to accept the reality of the salvation that we already have. Augustine, in stark contrast, would say that we have a very real problem, but the problem is not the existence of "sickness"--our problem is the lack of "health." That doesn't mean that we don't need to be "cured," but it does mean that we are trying not so much to get rid of our "sickness" as we are trying to re-establish our "health," even if getting rid of the "sickness" is a necessary first step in restoring the "health."

Augustine was trying to avoid the dualism that asserts that both Good and evil have existed from all eternity, a dualism where believers are encouraged to support the "good" god against the "evil" god. C. S. Lewis rightly points out in Mere Christianity (and other places) that, if such a theology were correct, there would be no real reason for us to see good as having primacy or superiority over evil, since both sides have equal claims on our lives. Evil cannot exist in the same way that Good exists, since that puts evil on equal footing with Good. Thus, Lewis talked about evil as "twisted" (i.e., corrupted) Good, and I think that he is closely following Augustine on this subject.

So, as I pondered this issue, I thought of a great illustration from the movie The Neverending Story. In the movie, the conflict is that a world called Fantasia is slowly being consumed by something called the "Nothing." I recall the book saying something to the effect of "If you looked at the Nothing, you felt as if you had gone blind." This wasn't blackness or space, since both of those are something--the Nothing was nothing at all, and that was the problem in the story.

In one sense, the Nothing was a very real problem (i.e., it "existed") because it was destroying all of Fantasia; however, in another sense, the problem with the Nothing was that it didn't exist, and that it was causing more things not to exist. Accordingly, in Augustine's thought, evil is a very real problem (i.e., it "exists") that has destroyed everything, to some extent, that God created to be Good; however, in another sense, the problem with evil is that it doesn't exist (since God only made Good things to exist), and it is causing more of the Good in the world not to exist.

In The Neverending Story, the solution could never have been simply to get rid of the Nothing--or, at least, this would never have been a satisfactory solution since too much had already been destroyed. Instead, the solution could only come about through a restoration of the Good. In our world, God could never have saved us simply by getting rid of evil as though removing our evil would leave us with Good--our incompleteness demanded that salvation could only come through New Creation, where God would recreate humanity and all the rest of creation to be perfectly Good. Put another way, it was never enough for Jesus simply to die on the cross as a punishment for our evil--the resurrection to new life was necessary in order to restore to us the Good we had lost at the Fall.

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I think that even though Augustine did a good bit in trying to avoid dualism, he still fell into a trap of elevating the spiritual (form) above the earthly (matter), in saying God created the heavens first and then the earth. This came through in a lot of his thinking, e.g. avoiding any sexual relations after he turned from machineism/neoplatonism to christianity.

-your RUF buddy, jonathan

Hmmm...I've never liked Augustine's argument because it seems like (similar to what your prof was saying) he's suggesting that evil is somehow less real than good.

I think of evil as just as real and tangible (if you can use that for such abstract categories) as good. I agree that evil is always good that's been twisted or changed into evil, but now it really does exist as evil, not simply a privation of good. Like a chemical change in science: When you burn toast in the toaster, you've created something different (the bad) out of what you originally had (the good). I see God's restoration as a reversal of that process, turning the existing evil back in to something good.

Cannot it exist by not existing, in the way that the Nothing does and does not exist?

Actually, maybe the issue here is that we aren't Platonists. I was trying to make sure that I was correct in my understanding of Augustine's argument, and, in the introduction to one of my copies of Confessions, the author pointed out that nothing exists in Platonic thought unless it is a substance. So, in that way of thinking, a substance couldn't pop into being unless God actually created it.

Regardless, I still think Augustine gives primacy to good in a way that skillfully avoids dualism. I guess I'll just be stubborn. :)

But can't we simply say that God created the world good and then evil was simply introduced later according to God's sovereign purposes? It just doesn't seem like Augustine's is a needed solution, because very few Christians go the dualist route of saying that evil has always existed alongside God.

The question, in my mind, isn't so much "When did evil come into being?" but "What is evil?" I think that it is important to deny that evil exists to the same level of reality as good exists.

All of God's creation is good, because God created it that way. For something to be evil, then, is not because God created it that way, and it is also not because someone other than God created evil--it is "evil" because the good has been robbed from God's good creation.

Let me give an example from C. S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters: adultery is not evil because Satan created something evil out of nothing; rather, adultery is evil because it takes something good (sex) out of its good setting (marriage).

In Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape explained that the hosts of hell, if they could, would even prefer to get rid of the pleasure involved in adulterous sex, since the pleasure itself was something that God created good. But, they had to keep that pleasure, because the only way they were able to bring about evil was through taking good things out of their proper contexts.

Thus, I just don't think that it's possible for evil to exist in the same way that good exists. Satan will never be able to produce anything evil in and of itself, but he will only ever be able to corrupt things by removing the fullness of good that God created them to have.

Thanks for the response, Jacob. I think I understand Augustine and Lewis's point better now. Something to chew on.

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