It has become an almost undisputed datum in contemporary theology that evil is to be understood in the Augustinian manner as a privation of goodness. Evil has no reality or being as such. Rather it is simply a lack, a minus within the plenitude of goodness (See for example Confessions VII 13).
This sounds absolutely lovely and certainly gives theologians a great way to posses answers.
However lately I’ve been thinking through some problems with Augustine’s account. Three things:
- Its unclear why a lack of goodness necessarily makes something evil. My biceps are probably not as strong as the could be. They lack strength, which is good for biceps to have. Doesn’t seem evil. Or to use a specifically moral example, it would be good if I gave $100 to every needy beggar I ever came across. But instead I’m more likely to give a couple bucks if I have it on me. Is there any evil going on here? I doubt it. At the very least there is no necessary evil going on here, but there is a certainly “lack” of goodness.
- There’s absolutely nothing in the Bible I can find that remotely describes evil this way. If it is in there, show it to me. I can’t find anything that gives even a hint that we should understand evil as a lack of goodness in Scripture.
- Not only does the Bible not describe evil in this way, it actually describes it in ways that seem to outrightly contradict it. All throughout the NT Paul and the other apostolic authors speak of evil as involving cosmic forces, powers, demonic agents, Satan, etc. Evil is not talked about as a lack of goodness, but an utterly real group of forces of darkness. Obviously we need to work hard at interpreting this language, but I don’t see a way to make it square up with the Augustinian notion without very intentionally bringing a pre-determined axe to bear on the Bible.
Now, of course this will bring about the oft-thrown down gauntlet that “you’re ontologizing evil!” (here’s looking at you, Horstkoetter). In response to that I find myself inclined to say “So?” Saying that evil exists or has some sort of being is not, prima facie problematic as far as I can see. Now, to be sure it would be problematic to claim that evil and God are both equally ontologically ultimate; that would be to end up Manichean. But that is decidedly something different than recognizing that evil has (contingent) being in some sense. Obviously that one needs to be unpacked more, but at the very least I’m hoping to forestall the facile accusations of Manicheanism that are so readily made these days.