Friday, July 30, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 3

This is the third post in a series introducing the problem of evil to those who are not familiar with it or the Christian responses to it. Please see the previous posts for more background.

Another common element in the Christian response to the problem of evil is a consideration of the nature of evil itself. Among those considerations, the most influential again comes from Augustine of Hippo. His argument is generally combined with other arguments, such as the free will defense, to logically show how God can be the ultimate creator and still not be responsible for the creation of evil.

The nature of Evil

As we saw in part 2, Augustine recognized the reality of evil and attributed the cause to the free choices of created beings. Augustine, however, made an important distinction between moral evil, caused by the choices of created beings, and what he called metaphysical evil. His explanation of metaphysical evil is very interesting and is often used in an ultimate sense to explain both natural evil and moral evil in a way that removes God from being even the ultimate source of its existence. Essentially he argued that evil has no existence in the proper sense of the term.

Augustine argued that God was the creator of all things but that evil was not a thing. He explained that it is a mistake to think of evil as something that is equal to and opposite of good. Proponents of this view explain evil as having no true existence. This does not mean that evil isn’t real, but rather that it is the lack of a thing rather than a thing in itself. Evil according to this view is depravation; it is simply the lack of goodness.

This may sound a bit difficult to understand at first but there are many examples of this distinction that we are all familiar with. Darkness, for example, is not a thing. It has no independent existence. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Coldness also does not have a true independent physical existence. Coldness is simply the absence of heat. While we may speak as though cold and darkness exist the fact is that in actuality they do not. To say that something is dark or cold is not to assert the presence of any actual thing; it is simply to assert the lack of a thing, namely light or heat.

In the same way, evil is often considered by Christian philosophers to be simply a lack of goodness or completeness. One way this is commonly explained is that God created everything and it was all good. Its goodness depended upon it being in a correct relation to God from whom all goodness derives. Whenever anything departs from its correct relationship to God it is then lacking in something. For example, human beings after the fall of Adam lack life. They are finite and exposed to death. The evil of death is not something God created in a positive sense, but rather, the result of being cut off from the goodness of God that was intended. Death is not something… it is the lack of something, namely life.

There are many complicated arguments to show how this depravation of good is responsible for the all evil in the world in such a way that God can be said to not have created anything that was not good. In this view evil is like a parasite that is itself dependant upon the goodness of God for its existence. Like all things it has no independent existence but unlike the creation of God it was not brought forth from His creative agency.

This kind of explanation is often combined with the free will defense to show how God can allow evil as a result of the choices of His creatures without creating it as a “thing”. Essentially, God is good and anything that is apart from God will have some lack of good. Evil and calamity is then the result of that lack of goodness.

We will look at another type of response in the next posting on the topic.

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