The Inadequacy of Augustine’s Ontological Theodicy

Augustine in his City of God attempts the solve the problem of evil. His method of argumentation is essentially ontological: evil only exists as a deprivation of the good. Thus, strictly speaking, “nothing evil exists in itself, but only as an evil aspect of some actual entity.”¹

Even if I suppose that Augustine’s theodicy checks out logically speaking, this theodicy (and many others like it) do not seem to address the phenomenological aspect of evil. In other words, its unlikely that upon hearing Augustine’s theodicy, I will no longer have qualms about the death of my innocent son who was killed by a drunk driver. The same sort of gap that exists between an logical understanding of what ought to be done (ethically speaking) and the psychological will to perform that act seems to exist between a logical understanding of why evil exists and a way of accepting the phenomenological aspects of our experience of evil.

So, perhaps we can conclude that many of the attempts to make Christianity less epistemically offensive still leave the hearers of the message with phenomenological offense: they can not accept the experience that they are having. Perhaps this is further evidence that I ought not to make to try and make the gospel less offensive. Or perhaps it is evidence that Lee Strobel is on to something when he writes that the only adequate theodicy is a personal one, i.e., a theodicy that relies on some anthropomorphization of God.

Perhaps, however, I selling Augustine a bit too short here. Maybe his theodicy can get us part of the way there. For the rest of the journey, perhaps we must “committ ourselves [to God] so that we will understand.”²


1. Chapter IV of Augustine’s City of God

2. Karen Armstrong’s translation of that famous quotation uttered by Anselm.

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