Philosophy of Religion

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The Theodicy of Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) based his theodicy on his reading of key Biblical passages: Genesis 3 and Romans 5:12-20 Genesis 3 is the story of Adam and Eve and their ‘Fall’ in the Garden of Eden. In it the snake convinces the woman to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The woman picks the fruit, and passes some to Adam. Because of their disobedience God has them evicted from the garden. In Romans 5 Paul describes the Christian belief that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross cancels out the disobedience of Adam and Eve. In his self-sacrifice Jesus has made available the gift of righteousness.

Augustine’s theodicy can be summarised:

  • God is perfect. The world he created reflects that perfection.
  • Humans were created with free will.
  • Sin and death entered the world through Adam and Eve, and their disobedience.
  • Adam and Eve’s disobedience brought about ‘disharmony’ in both humanity and Creation.
  • The whole of humanity experiences this disharmony because we were all ‘seminally’ present in the loins of Adam.
  • Natural evil is consequence of this disharmony of nature brought about by the Fall.
  • God is justified in not intervening because the suffering is a consequence of human action.
Central to Augustine’s theory is that of ‘privation’ – evil is not a substance it is a deprivation i.e. an absence of something. Augustine uses the analogy of blindness – blindness is not an entity but the absence of sight. For Augustine, evil came about as a direct result of the misuse of free will.

All suffering is therefore a consequence of this abuse of free will. This includes natural evil as well as moral evil. Natural evil has come about through an imbalance in nature brought about by the Fall.

God’s love for the world is demonstrated through the reconciliation made possible through Jesus Christ.

    For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 3:16-17

A modern advocate of Augustine's view can be found in Alvin Plantinga (God, Freedom and Evil, 1974) who claimed that for God to have created a being who could only have performed good actions would have been logically impossible. This view was later criticised by Anthony Flew and J.L.Mackie, who both argue that God could have chosen to create "good robots" who still possessed free-will.

Criticism of Augustine’s Theodicy

Augustine held that there was a state of ignorant bliss in the Garden of Eden which was unbalanced by the Fall. This is at odds with Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. If God can be held responsible for the system by which the natural world works, he should be held responsible for the suffering that his system causes. Augustine’s theodicy puts all the blame on the first humans yet all suffer. Why should people suffer for the misdemeanours of past generations. Augustine makes much of the idea of hell – as part of Creation. Therefore God must be directly responsible for its creation, and therefore must have foreseen the need for punishment.

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