I was in one of those brain-bending conversations the other day with a few friends about how evil entered the world. Being as we are the created and not the Creator, that our faculties are depraved from sin, and he is Goodness, we cannot fully comprehend such a question. But I did remember reading something years back from Augustine’s City of God that stuck with me. So, I dug it back up and worked through some of his thoughts on it.
How did some of the angelic beings fall? Did they have evil wills to begin with? That would mean that God created something that wasn’t good. How were they corrupted, then?
Augustine defines blessedness as “cleaving to Him who supremely is.” And he defines misery as having “forsaken Him who supremely is, and have turned to themselves who have no such essence.”
So then, “What made the first evil will bad?” Was it first corrupted by another evil will? No, then it wouldn’t be first. Was a good will existing in some evil nature? If not by nature, it couldn’t exist at all. But the answer to this can’t be yes either because an evil will could not survive in an evil nature, evil would vitiate and corrupt the nature. “And therefore the evil will could not exist in an evil nature, but in a nature at once good and mutable, which this vice could injure. For if it did no injury, it was no vice; and consequently the will in which it was, could not be called evil. But if it did injury, it did it by taking away or diminishing good.” Therefore, he concludes that an evil will cannot be from eternity. I know, this is a bit mind-bending, hang on.
So who made it? Following this logic, an evil will has to be made by something that has no will. Is this something greater, lesser, or equal to it? It cannot be greater or equal. If it is greater, it would be better than and how can something be better than if it has no will or no good will? And two equally good wills cannot produce an evil will. It must be an inferior thing without a will. But since it is a nature with its own rank and kind and order, this inferior thing must also be good. God is Good and all that he created is good.
Now we are scratching our heads to how a good thing can be the cause of evil.
But we know how this works, as we still see it all the time. “For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil—not because that is evil to which it turns but because the turning itself is wicked. Therefore it is not an inferior thing which has made the will evil, it is itself which has become so by wickedly and inordinately desiring an inferior thing.”
There is no efficient cause of the evil will. An evil will is deficient.
“For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”
The beginning of an evil will is “defection from that which supremely is, to that which is less of being.” Augustine gives the examples of darkness and silence to explain deficiency. They are known by the absence of light and sound, not by their own actuality. We don’t see darkness, we know it because we be begin to not see. Silence can only be perceived by not hearing.
Beauty is not evil. Money is not evil. But we see the corruption and exploitation of these good things when our desires are disoriented. “Defections are not to evil things, but are themselves evil.” It’s disordered desire that is evil. “Consequently he who inordinately loves the good which any nature possesses, even though he obtain it, himself becomes evil in the good, and wretched because deprived of greater good…the will is made evil by nothing else than defection from God—a defection of which the cause, too, is certainly deficient.”
This truly is misery! How often do we turn away from cleaving to the One who supremely is? We lose all sight of reality and beauty and goodness! We don’t use the word evil much these days. It’s reserved for the terrorists and serial killers. We’ve even seen sexual abuse and power lust in the church continuously downplayed with explanations about the good work the accused is doing for God and by blaming of the victims. How can we have such a great Savior and think so cavalierly about sin and evil? We’ve let go and turned our gaze away from God!
This also reminds me of Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, The Evil of Evils. His premise is that “it is a very evil choice for any soul under heaven to choose the least sin rather than the greatest affliction,” saying, “There is more evil in sin than in outward trouble in the world; more evil in sin than in all the miseries and torments of hell itself.” Paul, when speaking of his afflictions calls them “light and momentary” (2 Cor. 4:17). And yet we read 2 Cor. 11:24-29 and see serious affliction including receiving the 40 lashes and being beaten with rods multiple times, stoning, shipwreck, and hunger to name a few. And how does Paul speak of his sin? “What a wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:24). And of course, Jesus Christ came to “undergo all kinds of affliction and sorrow so as to be made a man of sorrows.” Even as he came to propitiate our sin, “sin is so great an evil that Christ is not capable of it.” Not the smallest one! He was capable of bearing “the wrath of the Almighty upon his soul, and yet not capable of sin.”
Does this not evoke us to want to cling to God?
And we see that even some of the angels defected from good. Augustine concludes:
These angels, therefore, either received less of the grace of the divine love than those who persevered in the same; or if both were created equally good, then, while the one fell by their evil will, the others were more abundantly assisted, and attained to that pitch of blessedness at which they become certain they should never fall from it…We must therefore acknowledge, with the praise due to the Creator, that not only of holy men, but also of holy angels, it can be said that “the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to them” [Rom. 5:5]. And that not only of men, but primarily and principally of angels it is true, as it is written, “It is good to draw near to God” [Ps.73:28]. And those who have this good in common, have, both with Him to whom they draw near, and with one another, a holy fellowship, and form one city of God, His living sacrifice, and His living temple.
He is already turned towards his people. As we are headed to Zion, we can join with the bride in the Song of Songs, beckoning him to keep his face towards us, “Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn around, my love, and be like a gazelle or a young stag on the divided mountains” (Song 2:17). And like her, like Mary Magdalene, we hold on to him in anticipation of ascending to the mountain of the Lord with him (Song, 3:4; 20:17).
“For our good, about which philosophers have so keenly contended, is nothing else than to be united to God.”Augustine