Category Archives: Saint Augustine

Short Article (5) – The Fall, Free Will & Heaven: a Thought Experiment

The so-called “problem of heaven” emerges in the context of solutions to the problem of evil which call upon the free will defense. Moral evil – and sometimes even natural evil – is often explained by the creaturely abuse of free will. However, there are problems lurking here. I once heard a philosopher make the following argument: Adam and Eve were created in a perfect paradise, had free will, and sinned. Since heaven is once again a perfect paradise, in which we have free will, won’t there be the high possibility of someone sinning?

This philosopher obviously had in mind the traditional Augustinian understanding of creation and the fall. The idea of an finite but perfect human pair created to live in a perfect paradise is not one that I adhere to. Not only does it face strong empirical difficulties, but it makes the origin of sin an utter mystery. How is it that a perfect being in a perfect environment freely chooses to sin? That suggests the beings in question weren’t perfect to begin with. Anyhow, since I accept that there is a large proportion of Christendom that embraces this notion, or at least something very similar to it, I’m going to grant it for the sake of argument and ask if there is any incoherence in the notion that we are free to sin in heaven but that no-one ever will despite the fact that the first humans did so in a similar perfect environment.

Imagine an island that to passing ships looks like a beautiful utopia. The island has an uncanny charm that seems to draw people to it. However, when smaller ships try to sail close the waves and the currents tear them to pieces and leave the sailors stranded on the island. What looks like a beautiful utopia from the sea is soon discovered to be anything but. The sailors must live on a diet of sour sea slugs and bitter berries, and at night time they must sleep in trees to avoid being eaten by the terrifying wild dogs which inhabit the island and hunt in packs at night. Sadly these trees are invested with mites which cause severe itching and boils, a plight which is only a little better than being torn apart by the dogs. One day a huge naval vessel spots smoke from a fire lit by the sailors and sends in a helicopter to rescue them. Suppose 5 years later one of these sailors is captaining a ship sailing in this same area. One of his shipmates points to the island and suggests a visit to it. It seems so incredibly alluring despite warnings the sailor has heard concerning it. Now, the captain is certainly free to visit the island, but there’s no way he will do so. He has lived experience which tells him to keep away at all costs. He has lived for the past 5 years in relative luxury and has no desire to return to that accursed island.

Might not something similar hold in heaven? Firstly, the inhabitants of heaven will experience what theologians have called the “beatific vision” – an intense and direct awareness of the loving presence of the almighty God to whom they owe everything. Secondly, it’s not implausible to think that the saints will retain a memory of this fallen world with all its sorrow, suffering, worry, death, and struggles. This contrast – or so it seems to me – would easily be enough to ensure that no-one in heaven ever sins, despite remaining free to do so. Just as the captain will never relinquish his comfortable life to visit the deadly island a second time, so the saints in heaven will never abandon their glorious life for the miseries they experienced during their fallen existence. They know too well from bitter experience the full consequences of rejecting God.

Interestingly, this means that only a fallen and redeemed person would be in the position of being free whilst not actually sinning. Adam and Eve – on the traditional understanding – had no knowledge of the fall, no experience of the misery it would cause; the fallen existence was not one they knew from bitter experience prior to their temptation and sin. In some ways they are like the captain of the ship when he sees the island for the first time, whereas redeemed sinners would be like the captain of the ship who had been rescued and sees the island sometime later.

So, even though I don’t ascribe to the traditional Augustinian understanding of the fall, I think that view can survive the criticism that is made of it in this case. Whether it can stand up to other problems is a question for another time.

Stephen J. Graham


Filed under Creation, Free Will, Heaven, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

The Horrors of Creation

I remember sitting in a church men’s meeting I had been invited to watching images of the universe on a screen while a song played asking “how can you say there is no God!” The images were all of stunning beauty and natural wonder, and only a cold emotionless being could fail to be moved by them.

All these dazzling images before me were taken by the Hubble space telescope, which opened up the heavens to us in a way that wasn’t available to previous generations. Anyone with an internet connection can marvel at the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, or the rather splendid Sombrero galaxy.

When people think of creation, often it’s the beautiful things they have in mind. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of experiencing God through a majestic sun-set, or in the grandeur of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the oceans. There is certainly no shortage of natural wonders; beauty is not in short supply. We see it in the night sky when we gaze at the stars; we see it through phenomena like rainbows or the northern lights. On one occasion I remember seeing a toucan at a bird park on a family holiday in Spain and welling up, so moved was I at how beautiful it was. Seriously. A toucan. It’s easy to see the hand of God in such things.

I also remember a song that used to be sung when I was in primary school:

“All things bright and beautiful;
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful;
The Lord God made them all.”

Indeed. The verses of the song go on to cite example after example of the wonderful beauty of the natural world. How loving is God to give us such a wonderful and beautiful world to live in!

Alas, the world isn’t all rainbows and toucans. Needless to say my old primary school song doesn’t tell the whole story: about parasitic worms that infect and feed on human eyeballs, causing blindness; swarms of hornets that attack beehives and tear the heads off all the bees; hyenas that begin to eat their prey before it’s even dead; various animal species that reject the young if their parents die. The Lord God made all these too, presumably. Creation might indeed be stunningly beautiful, but it’s often an incredibly fearful place too: bloody, cold, cruel, dangerous, and merciless. Most of the earth isn’t safe. The earth is wild. Beautiful, yes – but so very wild.

And what are we to make of the wildness, the danger and the sheer bloody cruelty of it all?

The traditional answer in Christian circles, even in countries which typically boast a high degree of scientific sophistication, is that creation used to be perfect but has been adversely affected by the sin and fall of humankind. So, God made all things perfect, but when the first humans rebelled against God certain consequences followed – not only for humankind but also for the created order. The sin of the first humans corrupted the earth, leaving pain, suffering, death and misery in its wake.

Regrettably this rather tidy explanation is utterly untenable given what we now know of natural history. If we go back in time prior to the appearance of homo sapiens we won’t find lions lying down with lambs. Polar bears did not eat snow-cones prior to the appearance of the first humans and the first sin. Nature was just as red in tooth and claw as it is today. Animals ate other animals. Even some plants ate animals! The suggestion that the natural world got ugly as a result of the sin of the first humans was OK for Saint Augustine but it’s unbelievable these days.

In any event it isn’t at all demanded by the biblical narrative itself. In the primitive simplicity of the Genesis account there is no indication that the natural world was perfect and then completely corrupted with the first sin. According to the Genesis story Adam was not created in some paradisal state, but rather he was created in an earthly garden which he has to tend. When we compare the relative simplicity of the actual biblical account with the later theological developments – mainly via Saint Augustine – we see really how massively overstated these theological developments were, both in terms of exaggerating the heights from which creation fell as well as the depths to which it fell.

Of course it’s not just the empirical problems with the traditional – Augustinian – account of sin and suffering in the world that make it implausible, there are weighty theological considerations against it too. One crucial problem is that the traditional account doesn’t shed any light on suffering and evil by pointing back to the fall of man or a prior fall in the angelic realm. This theology presents us with a paradox: man (or angels) created as finitely perfect in a perfect environment and then somehow engaging in evil. As John Hick points out this doctrine of the “self-creation of evil ex nihilo” is difficult to make sense of, if indeed it isn’t downright incoherent. Hick puts it: “To say that an unqualifiedly good (though finite) being gratuitously sins is to say that he was not unqualifiedly good in the first place.” Moreover, it raises massive problems for the doctrine of heaven: if perfect humans in a perfect environment fell once why could it not happen again? And of course this entire theology was made all the more bewilderingly incoherent once Calvin came along with his doctrine of strong divine determinism.

And thus I think it’s time for Christian thought to explore other avenues with regards to the nature of the world and the suffering it contains. To this end I want to briefly sketch another Christian approach, one which is actually older than the Augustinian approach but which never achieved the same systematic organisation and development and thus was largely ignored by the Western church in its obsession with Augustine.

We see hints of this different theodicy very early in Christian thought. Tatian argued that God did not make human beings perfectly good but in such a way and in such an environment (not an idyllic paradise) as they could become perfectly good through obedience to God. In a similar vein Theophilus speculated that Adam and Eve were created as children – immature – and were placed in the garden of Eden to grow in maturity and obedience.

These tentative themes were developed further by the church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus made the (exegetically dubious, but ideologically useful) distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity. The former concerns our nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with.

This distinction then allows Irenaeus to argue that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” we are not perfected in God’s “likeness.” We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Under this scheme, therefore, Adam was only potentially perfect, not actually perfect. All human beings are in the same spiritual boat: presently only potentially the perfected beings God seeks to make. In fact Ireneaus also argues that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the creation of a perfect finite being. The argument is that it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace, since, in the teaching of Christ, “[for] he to whom more is forgiven loveth more.” As part of this scheme Irenaeus also stresses the epistemic distance between God and man, which makes a degree of cognitive freedom possible and allows us to move towards or totally ignore God as we see fit.

What is required, given God’s purposes for his creatures, is an appropriate environment in which these purposes can be realised. The world, then, was never an idyllic paradise but is intended – (at least partially since God may well have other purposes in creation besides humanity) – as an appropriate environment to develop those made in God’s image into the likeness of God. The world, according to this view, then naturally contains good and evil, suffering and pleasure, which God uses to teach his creatures lessons and values, and ultimately build them into the type of creatures he desires. The world was never a paradise with no suffering or physical death, but rather has always been a place with suffering, but this suffering has a divine purpose.

The contrast with Augustine is clear. Whereas Augustine looks back to a time when man was supposedly created finitely perfect and then somehow (inexplicably) fell from this state and plunged the entire human race into catastrophe and the natural order into death, suffering and cruelty; Irenaeus sees man as created immature and placed into an appropriate environment and thus looks forward to a time when humanity and the created order will be perfected.

Insofar as we can claim the world is “perfect” we can only mean a functional perfection – the suitability of the created order to accomplish the divine purposes, which includes what Irenaeus called the “likeness” of God, and what Schleiermacher later referred to as the “God consciousness” of human beings which can be awakened and challenged by pain and pleasure alike. This type of perfection is one which exists now – always was and always will – but it doesn’t – contra Augustine – refer to some primordial and long lost condition of perfect human virtue and its accompanying natural paradise.

It seems to me quite clear that the dominant Augustinian notions of an “original righteousness” of humankind and “original perfection” of the environment are empirically false and theologically dubious. The way forward for theodicy and an understanding of sin, evil and suffering lies elsewhere: in the notions of our human propensity to respond to God and share in his work and purposes – or not – and the conception of the goodness of the created order as lying in its being an appropriate environment for the outworking of God’s plan for his creatures.

Stephen J Graham

These ideas will be fleshed out in forthcoming articles.

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Filed under Creation, Irenaeus, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine’s God’s Eye View on Evil

St Augustine is considered by many to be the fountainhead of so much of Western Christianity and his thinking on the problem of evil is no exception. Insofar as the problem of evil involves a wider sphere of Christian doctrines – creation, the fall, redemption, and providence – the shadow cast by Augustine is long indeed.

When it comes to the problem of evil there are numerous strands of Augustinian thought, all intricately woven together into a complex fabric that remains influential 1500 years later. Augustine is probably most famously remembered for his privative account of evil, but in this article I want to focus on a different strand of Augustine’s thought: what some scholars call the “aesthetic theme,” but what I prefer to call the “God’s eye view theme.” The idea here is that God sees the universe in its totality and from that perspective it is wholly good. As finite creatures we lack the necessary perspective on the universe and consider much that is evil which actually contributes to the good of the universe as a whole. Augustine here conceives of God as the cosmic Artisan, and the universe is His work of art, containing both gradations and contrasts to make it all the more beautiful in God’s sight.

The influence of Neo-Platonist writers on Augustine is well documented, and we find this same influence here. Consider the following passage from Plotinus:

We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot. . . Again, we are censuring a drama because the persons are not all heroes but include a servant and a rustic and some scurrilous clown; yet take away the low characters and the power of the drama is gone; these are part and parcel of it.”

Compare this with Augustine:

All have their offices and limits laid down so as to ensure the beauty of the universe. That which we abhor in any part of it gives us the greatest pleasure when we consider the universe as a whole. The very reason why some things are inferior is that though the parts may be imperfect the whole is perfect. . . The black colour in a picture may very well be beautiful if you take the picture as a whole.”

In fact, Augustine goes as far as to say, “To thee [God] there is no such thing as evil.” God, reckoned Augustine, has appointed the order of the universe in all its various elements, and when understood properly we see that the entire thing is just as it ought to be, and nothing can spoil it. Even those things we regard as evil have their divinely appointed place in the grand scheme of things. Human beings, as part of the picture, don’t see the whole thing and thus incorrectly judge everything not in accordance with their value in God’s sight but rather on the basis of their usefulness or harmfulness to themselves. The evils we might abolish from the world would be abolished in ignorance of the place they have and the role they play in making the big picture perfect.

Augustine saw beauty in the organic processes of nature: the decay of vegetation and even the devouring of animals by other animals. This is where we find one of the weaknesses in Augustine’s theodicy: his downplaying of the cruelty of nature. Sure enough we can naturally see beauty in the change and decay in, say, leaves during autumn which give rise to wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples. But leaves feel no pain. The idea isn’t so readily transferable to a deer torn to pieces by a pack of hyenas. Unfortunately Augustine isn’t terribly helpful here because his writing displays a crude insensitivity towards non-human animals. The most useful thing he has to say is that nature is like a great organism which ebbs and flows and continually changes, as individual units die and are replaced by others: “Of this order the beauty does not strike us, because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonized with the most accurate fitness and beauty.” That said, Augustine’s doctrine here makes better sense of the non-animal world, but leaves much of the pain of nature unillumined and shrouded in mystery.

We might also wonder what Augustine makes of moral evil. How does that fit into his system? If the “universe is perfect” and “to thee there is no such thing as evil,” what are we to make of human sins? Augustine simply squeezes the moral failings of humans into his grand scheme with the shoehorn of “moral balance.” Sin is not permitted by God to ruin the perfection of the universe, and thus each sin is balanced out, so to speak, by appropriate punishment. In Augustine’s mind a universe with no sin, and thus no punishment, is not superior to one containing sin and appropriate punishment: “the penalty of sin corrects the dishonour of sin,” and that, “. . . as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.” Ultimately humans are morally culpable for their sin, but God uses sinners to further his own good purposes, and thus the overall beauty of the universe remains intact. “God,” writes Augustine, “judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.”

That last insight holds great promise for attempts at theodicy, and has been incorporated into many various theodicies over the centuries which have sought to improve upon the Augustinian picture where weaknesses have been perceived. One such weakness that subsequent thinkers have detected in Augustine’s idea is that it seems to slip over into monism; in other words evil seems to disappear entirely, as if it doesn’t – contrary to all creaturely experience – really exist at all. However, Augustine’s idea can be modified using a better analogy than that of a picture, and thus blunt the force of this criticism. Perhaps we should think of a piece of music or a drama – some art-form containing elements of duration and change. On this view evil could be likened to disagreeable clashes within a piece of music – these noises are indeed grating, but they add to the beauty of the piece in the end when we reach triumphant resolution which wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier discordant notes. On this different way of viewing the matter the perfection of the universe is not related to its state at any given point of time. At certain points the evil is stark, very much real and terrible. But given the entire panorama of existence – including the element of time – the universe will be brought to a justifying good in the end.

This, however, leads us to one of the most basic criticisms of Augustine’s theodicy: God’s relation to His creation appears to be cast primarily in impersonal or subpersonal terms. Augustine views the universe as a complex picture whose value lies in the totality of things rather than in individuals. But again it seems to me that Augustine’s theodicy can be modified to nullify this objection. God has freely desired to create personal beings, and one of the insights of modern theologians of all stripes is to stress the desire of God for personal relations with those beings. So, perhaps rather than stress the beauty of the universe in aesthetic terms we could instead stress its perfection in the sense of how well suited it is to fulfilling God’s desires and plans for such creatures, (though we should never forget that God may well have other purposes in creation besides this. The divine purposes may very well be multi-dimensionally complex). Thus, as John Hick puts it: “Instead, then, of thinking of the origin and fate of human personality as a function of an aesthetically valued whole, we should see the great frame of nature, with all its sources of evil, as the deliberately mysterious environment of finite personal life.”

It seems then that with certain modifications this aspect of Augustine’s theodicy still has potential as part of a Christian approach to the problem of evil. In fact, a similar notion appears also in the other major tradition of theodicy inspired by the thought of the Church Father Irenaeus. Irenaeus viewed the world as set up by God and in the process of perfection, a process in which we must participate as free agents. The world is not currently “perfect,” but it will achieve eschatological perfection in time. In this, Irenaeus regarded the work of creation as ongoing. Irenaeus also makes use of the notion cited above in which the universe is better viewed as a drama or piece of music than a picture. For Irenaeus the Kingdom of God was the completion of world history, and will be so great a good as to justify what has happened on the way to it. So, when the world is looked at from beginning to end – with a God’s Eye View – we will see that the entire cosmic drama is good. It fulfils its purpose. Evils, whilst real, are justified by the goods that God will work through them.

Whether we agree with the various twists these thinkers and those who followed them give to these ideas, the notion of a God’s Eye View at the very least reminds us that often things look very different with a different perspective. How often have we looked back in our own lives and viewed an event differently than we saw it at the time? When dealing with the complex interactions of free creatures, the magnitude of the created order, and the purposes of an omnipotent and omniscient God, it should be no surprise to find that there may well be a lot we don’t see.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under God, Problem of Evil, Saint Augustine