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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Evil and the Good Creation

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

The City of God’s twelfth book continues Augustine’s discussion of angels and demons and asks simply, “How did the demons become evil?” As we answer that question, we will begin to get an idea of how human beings also became evil and, in turn, how the earthly city became evil. Augustine emphatically agrees with God’s description of His creation in Genesis 1: it is good. Evil is what happens when beings turn from the source of all that is good and turn inward towards themselves. The demons are those angels who “were in love with their own power…and they turned from the superior, beatific good common to all things to their own private good” [1]. Creation comes from nothing and, as such, creation cannot serve as a source of meaning, happiness, and being. The only source of our existence is God and our being can only be satisfied in Him [2]. “The rational nature is not satisfied unless it is perfectly happy and it cannot be happy except in God. Consequently, the failure of a rational nature to cling to God is clearly a defect” [3].

Augustine also asks how the first demon became evil. Because God only creates what is good, it did not begin evil. Through an act of the will, “it did harm…by removing or diminishing the good” [4]. It decided to turn from God, the source of existence, to a lesser being in creation and focus on it rather than God, despite that object’s inability to provide meaning. It sought after “an inferior thing,” something which also came from nothing and which cannot offer satisfaction [5]. In so doing, the first demon lost some of its goodness. That lack of goodness, that defect, is what we name as evil.

I find Augustine’s language of evil as a “defect” incredibly helpful, especially following up our last discussion on the presence of evil and the demonic in our political system. When we talk about evil, we should not think of it primarily as a violent force, a power that threatens us. An evil creature, an evil angel, is an angel that is defected, that lacks wholeness, who has a moral disability. It has turned from the source of goodness and is headed back towards the nothingness from which it came. I find it difficult to be afraid of such a creature. So when we say we as Christians should not fear evil and should not engage in politics out of that fear, we are saying that the evil we are resisting is a defect, which is tending towards nothingness, and which has already been judged and defeated by God [6]. Our concern with evil is that it will lead us down to nothingness with it, but more on that in the weeks to come.

If evil is a defect in creation, then what does it mean for us to be created? What were we intended to be without the defect? For human beings, Augustine answers with the words of Genesis 1:27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” [7]. Augustine defines the image of God as “a soul gifted with reason and intellect” [8]. Then he placed that soul in a body He fashioned [9]. Because God created human beings as body and soul, Augustine rejected a common philosophy of his day that said the body was evil and the goal of human salvation is to be free of the body [10]. In our day, we need to resist any attempts to reduce the Christian hope to going off to a disembodied existence in an ethereal heaven [11]. Instead, we must affirm the hope of the resurrection of the body [12], but more on that later. For now, this gives us several qualifications we need to keep in mind to understand Augustine. When we talk about the earthly city and the city of God, we are not thinking of a material place and then a disembodied spiritual space. We are thinking of a city that belongs to this age, this time in which evil remains present, a city that remains tainted by the defect of evil. The other is the city of God, in all its goodness, beauty, and fullness. It is present now in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit and it will be present here in the new creation when God restores His good creation [13]. As we engage in politics now, we delight in God’s good creation and we are to care for it [14], including the human beings who live within it. We resist the evil that would destroy it, but we remember that the evil is itself only a defect, a defect whose spread we resist, but whose power we do not fear.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 83.

[2] Ibid. p. 84.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 86.

[5] Ibid. p. 87.

[6] See [blog post 11].

[7] Genesis 1:27 NRSV

[8] Augustine, p. 88.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid. p. 89.

[11] See Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York, Y: HarperOne, 2018.

[12] 1 Corinthians 15.

[13] Revelation 21; Romans 8.

[14] Genesis 1:26

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