The problem of evil? Part 3…

In this installment, I’ll look at another solution to “the problem of evil” discussed in part 1 and part 2.  The reason I pulled this “solution” out from the rest is that it is a popular one to discuss, and in fact it resembles a story that often goes around the ‘net in forwarded emails.

St. Augustine was quite fond of this solution, and wrote quite a bit about it.  The solution is that evil is the absence, or privation of goodness.  What makes this a solution revolves around what God is directly responsible for in His creation.

What God directly creates, so the idea goes, He is responsible for.  So, did He directly create evil?  Well, that’s the catch.  If one views evil as the privation of goodness, it was never “created” as such.  Here are the popular analogies used to try to help explain;

First the matter of “cold.”  Cold actually doesn’t “exist” as an independent thing.  Rather, we define cold by heat; cold is the absence of heat.  When you take the temperature of something you are actually measuring it’s heat, not it’s “coldness.”  As we approach absolute zero, there is less and less heat measured.  Cold is a term that we came up with to be able to communicate certain concepts.  So, if I say, “it’s cold,” it is absolutely meaningful, though I’m really saying, “there is an absence of heat.”

Second, the matter of dark, or darkness.  Darkness, as with cold, is completely dependent on something else; light.  “Dark” isn’t made up of particles, or waves…darkness is merely the absence of light.  Light waves exist certainly, but there isn’t “dark waves.”  When we say the room is dark, we are actually commenting on the absence of light.

So, the same idea is applied to evil in this solution.  God, so the argument goes, did indeed make all things good, but also “changeable.”  Meaning He did not create a robot-like universe, instead, while not creating evil, He did create goodness and the ability for the corruption of goodness.

In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine says this (emphasis added), “Every good is from God.  There is nothing of any kind that is not from God.  Therefore, since the movement of turning away from good, which we admit to be sin, is a defective movement and since, moreover, every defect comes from nothing, see where this movement belongs: you may be sure that it does not belong to God.  Yes, since this defect is voluntary, it lies within our power.

God wouldn’t be responsible for the non-being, or “non-thing” of evil.  He didn’t create it, as it, by definition completely dependent on goodness, which God did create.  When we see someone doing something “evil” we are commenting on the absence of goodness in that person’s actions.

This solution is interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, we do know that God declared His creation “good,” in the beginning, so that would kind of flow with Augustine’s position.  And secondly, it quite rightly shifts the responsibility to us when it comes to our actions.  Oftentimes even believers look around and bemoan the state of things without wondering what we can do to make it better.

This sets up the discussion for part 4 of mankind and free will.


Filed under Apologetics, Atheism, Christianity, Philosophy

7 responses to “The problem of evil? Part 3…

  1. illogicology

    My big problem with this explanation is based on two little gripes, firstly it is open to immediate dismissal on the grounds that it proposes something about the nature of good and evil for which we have no ground. While discussing good and evil in tangible terms is practical, we only interact with such concepts as a description of behaviour. Assuming a nature to evil as merely an absence of good proposes a content to good that we cannot verify.

    Secondly, even if the assumed case (that of evil merely being a lack of good) were proven true, it does not solve the problem of evil, merely re-word it.
    Is the problem any less significant when phrased as “Why does God allow the absence of Good, thus permitting evil?”

  2. dwilli58

    What is your opinion on the following quote, scriptures and link?

    “There are many passages in God’s Word which bear out the great truth that all things—the evil as well as the good—find their source in the one and only God, Who alone can originate. Whence are the sufferings of creation, the evil that has perplexed philosophers and confounded the wise? Paul writes that the creation was not subjected to vanity voluntarily. It had no will or choice in the matter. God is subjecting it against its will (Rom.8:21). And the reason is not far to seek. It is only temporary. It is in expectation. Our sufferings will lead to an overwhelming glory, for which these sufferings are essential. Creation is enslaved by corruption with a view to a liberty which can only be enjoyed by that which has tested its opposite.”

    (Romans 8: 20-21) “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God…”

    (Isaiah 45: 5-7) “I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create EVIL: I the LORD do all these things.” (emphasis mine)

  3. Kliska

    However, many would argue against your first point of “it proposes something about the nature of good and evil for which we have no ground.” Some of us believe that we do have definite “starting points” if you will, to discuss the nature of evil from this POV. Of course, that is a different discussion entirely.

    As for the second, I agree…and I think Augustine would too. For me, this idea flows into the free will argument, which is why I’m blogging in the order that I am.

  4. Kliska

    D, have to keep this short for now;

    For the first quote I think the author completely misses the context of Romans, and picks and chooses their verses, as so often happens, to try to make the point. They totally miss the lesson that it was in fact man that caused creation’s fall, not God. In my blog about free will, I take that position as well…Adam exercised his free will, and creation was hinged on mankind, hence when man fell, so did it.

    As for the Isaiah passage, If one looks at the context of the translated word “evil,” it is presented as the opposite of peace, and not goodness. The Hebrew word is also used that way elsewhere in scripture. I know the article at the link you provided disputes the idea, but I’ve read commentaries and other articles that show how it works. To me, the context by itself is clear enough in the comparisons used; light/dark, peace/evil, instead of goodness/evil.

    Here’s one link on it:

    JP over at Tektonics links the same article from his site as well:

  5. dwilli58

    Thanks, Kliska!

    A bro and I were reading this site several years back and have rejected much of their doctrine. Peace as opposed to goodness! I’ll look into that!

    If God had created evil, it, in my mind, anyway, would not mean that God is not good, since God is sovereign and can do and create as He wills. Thanks again!

  6. Peace on Earth

    Although the ‘problem of evil’ has been described as “the most powerful objection to traditional theism”, curiously it is difficult for atheists to contribute much to this discussion. In bold contradiction to this I’m going to jolly well try anyway! The atheists’ position requires them to wield Ockham’s razor and reach arguably the most parsimonious solution to this problem; to deny the existence of God. Any further contributions will be on the theist’s ground. It’s not just that I must imagine evil to be somehow merely an absence rather than something present (by playing with words, it seems to me) and therefore nothing to do with God, but that I must also imagine such a God to exist in the first place. However, exercising my imagination to get to this point this still only seems to be a partial answer. I can see how this might account for the existence of ‘moral evil’ given a certain set of premises, but it doesn’t seem to explain the ‘natural evil’ of a tsunami, or of an unfortunate individual who is struck by a bolt lightning. Neither does the notion of absence seem to be applicable here. A fire that sweeps through a settlement killing dozens of people cannot be said to be caused by the absence of rain. Colloquially we do tend to speak of things like flash-floods and lightning strikes as ‘acts of God’ not ‘inactions…’.

    Perhaps (again, for me, thinking imaginatively) another solution to the problem of evil might be to break one of the unwritten rules of theodicy and sacrifice the notion of God’s omni-benevolence. The problem of evil is only a problem if one believes in a good God. Actually, it occurs to me that those who take their scriptures literally shouldn’t be troubled by the problem of evil at all. The God of the Old Testament does repeatedly bend the forces of nature to His will with as much devastation and loss of life as the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. If He does exist and His word is accurately contained in those pages, then Biblical literalists oughtn’t to be in the least bit surprised by the terrible and tragic loss of life in the wake of natural disasters. God does things like this from time to time.

    But of course that is not what I believe. As I don’t believe in God and do accept evolutionary theory the philosophical problem of evil (i.e. its incompatibility with a loving God) is not a problem for me at all. But I find the presence of evil to be as much of a terrible and intolerable problem that I want to do something about as the next person, believer or unbeliever.

  7. Pingback: The problem of evil? Part 4… « The Christian Scribbler

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