Evil - Is God the Cause?


The question that bothered St. Augustine as a young man is a question that bothers many people today. The question is this: God seems to be the cause of evil because he is the creator of everything. Now since evil is some kind of a reality, it would seem that God is the cause of evil. As logical as this course of reasoning seemed to Augustine, he resisted the idea that the Good God could be the cause of evil. In this resistance he showed a good deal of piety even before he was not fully converted. He simply would not entertain the impious idea that God was the cause of evil. Even though he could not solve the problem, he remained loyal to the idea that God is good.

Here is a good point we should keep in mind when we ask questions about God. We should never ask the question as if we are putting God in the box of the accused and then demanding that He explain Himself to us. Many people do this. When they see how many evil things happen to good people, they conclude either that there is no God or that God does not care. This is ungrateful impiety. One should not indulge in it under the guise of being intellectually honest. Even when he was at his worst, Augustine never was impious in this fashion.

To return to the problem. Augustine did not want to say that God was the cause of evil. Neither did he wish to say that evil was not some kind of a reality. He knew very well from his own experience that evil was a real factor in his life and in the lives of others. He finally solved the problem by discovering that evil, though it is a reality in a way, is not really a full reality or full being. It is only a privation like blindness. Let us go over that.

It makes a great difference to a person whether he is blind or has his sight. Yet blindness is not a full reality or being in the strict sense. Rather blindness is the lack of a quality that should present in the organ of the eye but is not. In other words, blindness is a defect, a lack, an imperfection. The technical name for this lack is the term "privation". Now evil is a privation. It is the lack of goodness that our human acts should have. If we do not do the will of God and disobey, we are performing an act which lacks the goodness it should have. Creatures should be obedient to their Creator. An evil act, then, is a disordered thing, a defective thing. Here man is the cause, not God.

By this solution St. Augustine preserved the glory of God as the creator of good while at the same time affirming that evil is a kind of reality. It is not a full reality or being; rather it is a privation whose cause is the will of man. So ultimately it is the will of man that is the cause of moral evil in the world. It was through the disobedience of Adam and Eve that brought evil to the human race. It was through man's sin that death came to man. It is true that the angels had already introduced evil into the universe by revolting against God. But their evil did not touch the human race until Adam and Eve listened to the serpent in the Garden. So if men wish to rail against the fact that men die in earthquakes and other natural disasters, let them blame men. It was the moral evil of sin that brought the great physical evil of death into the world.


Answered by Dr. Richard Geraghty, PhD

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