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Basic Christian Doctrines XI: Saint Irenaeus & Saint Augustine: On the Subject Of Evil.

Updated: Jan 11


This paper is about how two Church Fathers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Augustine, explored the Subject of Evil. We will study four areas of interest for Saint Irenaeus: Evil In The World, Free Will, God's Justice and Hope Through Jesus Christ and explore Saint Augustine's approach to Evil. We will look at his: Privative Theory, Free Will, Principle Of Plentitude and Cosmic Harmony. In addition, we will also explore his ideas about Sin and Punishment. This paper will conclude with an overall comparative study of their insights on the subject of evil.

Saint Irenaeus (130-202)

Evil Present in The World

Saint Irenaeus regarded evil as an ever-present condition in the world. However, he argues that it is precisely this type of world that God knowingly Created. To not have done so, would have permitted a human existence void of any hazards while carrying out what is good and just on earth. To create good without evil would have been irrational.

Humanity has had a difficult time in overcoming the boundaries of evil. Its excessiveness intimidates and prevents us from presenting a perfected state of affairs to the world. Humanities inability to defeat evil has allowed evil to thrive throughout the ages.

For Irenaeus, this world is better served by an environment which allows humanity the ability to strive toward perfection. While we can not, at this time, visualize a perfect state of affairs that will justify the presence of evil, we can see that to expect an end to evil in terms of matured souls is quite logical. Optimistically put; evil is in the process of defeat.

The ultimate purpose of Creation is the production of fully matured persons interacting in compassion and so reflecting the essence of God. If people collectively choose to reject evil, then it reasonable to assume the possibility, if not the probably, of humanity achieving fulfillment in a perfected state of affairs.

Free Will

"Man has received the knowledge of good and evil.

It is good to obey God, and to believe in Him,

and to keep His commandment, and this is the life of man;

as not to obey God is evil, and this is his death." 1.

Saint Irenaeus regarded the Natural Evil present in this world, such as natural disasters, not so much as a divine punishment for the abuse of free will, but rather a divinely designated place, where good and evil commingle. He saw Moral Evil as a matter of personal weakness and immaturity. Even though people, at times, are irrational; like God, they posses free will and are capable of being masters of there own actions. Humanity is endowed with the capacity of distinguishing between good and evil, as well as the power to choose God's commandments, and thus avoid the pains of the sin. Irenaeus clearly asserts that to freely disobey God is to choose eternal death over eternal life.

God created a world that was not meant to be a Paradise, an exclusive utopian garden, but a place where each persons potentialities are developed by the challenges of a sometimes harsh world. Irenaeus asserts, that any other view of the human condition, would turn us from human beings into pampered animals or spoiled brats.

God's Justice

" One and the same God the Father inflicts punishment

on the reprobate, and bestows reward on the elect. " 2.

When it is all said and done, the virtue of humanity will be greater and better because of its conflict with evil than they would be otherwise. The claim that God can not be all-powerful and all-good, because the Creation also possesses unhappiness, is wrong because it implicitly defines happiness as having a grand old time.

From the beginning, God has ingrained in the human consciousness the foundations of a natural law. For the Jewish people, this law expressed itself in the Decalogue. The Ten Commandments contains a privileged expression of a moral relationship between the Creator and his Faithful. The "Law ", as Irenaeus understood it, can be known through reason as well as through revelation.

To Irenaeus, Justice means the infliction of punishment for those who choose evil over good and conversely, reward to those who pick good over evil. However, Justice is always available to those who accept the Good News of Jesus Christ; making it never to late to move from evil to good. When the proper choice is made, then true happiness is had by the Faithful.

Hope Through Jesus Christ

" What we lost in Adam, that is, being in the

likeness of God, we recovered in Christ. " 3.

Saint Irenaeus considered non-believers as disobedient servants of the devil who by imitation served the cause of evil. So, by turning away from evil, the world could restore itself to its original duty of virtue and justice for the benefit of all Creation. He also states that sharing in this restoration of virtue and justice is the presence of the Risen Jesus Christ. In Jesus, the human condition is renewed and the people who choose a just and virtuous world, through Christ, have made the right choice.

Irenaeus believes that God, as the Creator, can draw good out of evil. This is a tremendous vision of Hope. Of course the prime example of Hope is Jesus Christ. The Saint additionally utilizes the Old Testament, when he expresses the Victory over evil by the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Adam was the first man and the original image of God. He represented the perfect model for all humanity. However, when he was tempted by the snake (evil), he chose to turn away from God and because of this sin, Adam lost hope for the world. To Irenaeus, Jesus Christ recovered the original favour by God for His new people.

Saint Irenaeus aptly portrays Jesus' life as a revelation of God and the mystery of Gods redemption. Jesus Christ is the new perfected model. His birth, hidden early life, baptism, temptations, teachings about the Kingdom, miraculous signs, journey to Jerusalem, death and resurrection provide us with a model of truth, service and holiness.

In Jesus Christ, the ultimate responsibility for conquering of the world's evil rests squarely on the shoulders of God. When Christ became human, He confirmed in Himself the long history of humanity and secured for us a bypass to Salvation. He experienced all the stages of life, and because of His Gift of Salvation, humanity entered into a New Covenant with God. Our responsibility is to, both individually and collectively, choose to accept this New Covenant. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, but the option of Jesus Christ brings Hope to the world by letting us know that there is at least a choice.


Saint Augustine (354-430)

Saint Augustine's Approach To The Problem Of Evil

Where does evil come from? " I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution," said Saint Augustine. Indeed, his rather painful quest would only be resolved by his personal conversion to Christianity. As a Christian, Augustine arrived at the notion of God as an immutable, spiritual substance; though the existence of evil still troubled him because he had no clear and explicit grasp of its causes.

First, he rejected Manichean dualism with its contention that evil is an ultimate power over and against God on the grounds that God alone is the ultimate and whatever is, is God. Evil, he concluded results from sinful misuse of freedom. As a former Manichean, Augustine believed that both God and the principle of evil were some sort of material substances, neither deriving its existence from the other. Evil, although somehow smaller than God, was, nevertheless, infinite and presented a real problem for God to overcome in the course of His cosmic existence.

When the Romano-British theologian Pelagius (354-418) took this position to the extreme by saying that human beings are at all times free to sin or not sin; Saint Augustine had no doubt that the movement of evil within the will, that turning away from the God, is sin. Yet, he would not say that God is the author of sin. Augustine saw evil as universal reality and it is only through Grace is one able to choose rightly. It is the Gift of love from God that drives all other affections which moves the conscience toward the good. To Augustine, Only the good can truly be loved and evil is the absence of the good in reality.

Privative Theory

"Thus has moral evil, in Commensurably more harmful than physical evil, entered the world. God is in no way, directly or indirectly the cause of moral evil." 4.

Saint Augustine argues that evil is a kind of a negative reality, a privation or deprivation of something that should have been there but is not. One can use the analogy of an apple pie as a sort of positive and negative reality. Positive reality, created by God is a major portion of the pie. The empty space, in which a sizable slice of reality has been taken out, is the place where evil exists. Evil lies inside that missing portion of the positive reality of God.

The Saint viewed the negative reality of evil as something that could be avoided if the will to choose God was present. For him, if one does not will evil, it just does not exist. Evil is not something that God has made because evil is not something. Evil is a metaphysical nothingness and not an empirical or observational affair.

Unfortunately, the presence of evil proves humanities free choice of accepting it as a reality, not of God, but as a creation entirely of and in the world. Thus indicating that the cause of evil can be found inside of each persons free will. To Saint Augustine, God is in no way responsible for the moral evils of the world. On the other hand, because of humanities misuse of the Divine Gift of Free Will, every person is responsible for the moral evils of the world. Thus, humanity is the cause of the privation of absolute good in the world.

Free Will

" Creation is more perfect by virtue of these seeming imperfections -- i.e.. the ability to sin, together with the possibility of experiencing the misery that accompanies it." 5.

As we have discussed, Saint Augustine asserts that moral evil is conceived and executed by finite minds and its source is located in Free Will. God permits Free Will because He respects the freedom of His creatures and, mysteriously, knows how to derive good from it. As an intelligent and free creature, each person must journey toward their ultimate destiny by their own free choice. As a finite and imperfect being, they are prone to sin.

According to Augustine, it is difficult to understand why spirits that were perfectly happy and good at the first moment of their existence should fall victim to temptation. It would to seem to pre-suppose that they must have already fallen; thus if it were pride which made them fall, then they had already fallen into the sin of pride. The Saint comes very close to positing that humanity has perhaps a pre-disposition to temptation of evil.

Saint Augustine believes that we should give thanks to God and that we have no right to criticize God for creating us with the ability to turn away from Him . He also asserts that God should be praised for the existence of even the worst souls, by virtue of their reason and free will, and whatever defects they may exhibit. To Saint Augustine, all people must be regarded as good and we may attribute our origin to the Will of God. Since God creates everything, then He also permits the negative reality of evil, as a way to give humanity freedom. Without freedom, humanity falls into an empty state of affairs; self-fulfillment is thwarted and evil has won out.

The Principle Of Plenitude

Saint Augustine furthermore affirms that God should have made such a world as ours. To show why this is so, he appeals to the "Principle of Plenitude ". It can be argued that the Creator has not, in fact, placed in this world the total imaginable number of different species. No matter how many varieties of life there is, we can always say that God could have made twice as many. If this means the doubling in size of the planet, then so be it.

The Principle of Plentitude brings a balance to worldly existence. Remember that all things created by God are good, or at the very least, good can be derived from any creation. The Principle of Plenitude states that the richest and the most desirable universe contains every possible kind of existence: lower or higher, imperfect and (relatively) perfect, ugly and beautiful, the despair of death and the wonders of life. Therefore, God doesn't have to create more things into existence in order to achieve Divine Fulfillment. Plentitude is not a matter of quantity, but is a matter of Quality.

Cosmic Harmony

" For almighty God..., because he is supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good

as to cause good to emerge from evil itself." 6.

Finally, and closely connected with to the Principle of Plenitude is Cosmic Harmony. Saint Augustine views Cosmic Harmony as "Aesthetic" in character. What he means by this is that every part of existence interplay's within the same reality and as a result commingle into a universal Harmony. Even sin and its punishment belongs to this Harmony. For example, a discordant note in music, when resolved, makes the sound more pleasing. Only God has the ability to manage such harmony on a cosmic level.

Though regrettable and sad, this teleology also reveals to us that both death and decay have a Divine purpose. The dissolution of plants and animals are simply a condition in the formulation of new plants and animals. Thus showing Gods plan of a world that is ever growing in spite of its imperfections.

The real difficulty with Saint Augustine's Cosmic Harmony, in relation to moral evil, is its rash account of the aesthetic picture of evil. One could falsely interpret sin as a necessary element for the perfection of the universe, because it is superbly counterposed by Divine Justice. This is hardly a point of view that a People of Faith could eagerly put forward as a theological defense of Christianity. However, Augustine never saw evil as a necessary part of a perfect universe. He saw evil as outside of perfection and therefore outside of God. God is not responsible for it, rather His creatures are.

From Saint Augustine's perspective, God is to be praised because He is willing and able to Harmonize the effects of sin, introduced by the evil will of humanity with goodness, which is inherent to the totality of the Cosmos. God permits evil because it is part of the human condition. Cosmic Harmony is accessible in spite of the distractions of a sinful world.

Evil And Sin

" Sin is thus ' love of oneself even to contempt of God ' " 7.

Saint Augustine perceived sin, in large measure, as anything that he judged to be contrary to the basic principles of the Church. He regarded sin is an offense against God and it is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our Salvation. Whether it is by a persons actions, words or even desires; the sin they freely commit counters God's love for us and like the First Sin, it is a disobedient human revolt against God. It is a vain attempt to become " like gods". Hence, sin is a love of oneself and contempt for God.

Humanity, by choosing to go against God, disturbs the balance between the finite and infinite universe. By sinning, a person's relationship with God and with others is effected by a never-ending cycle of sin. To remedy sin, punishment is required to set right that which has been wronged and he describes it as " penal" in nature, and he notes that unhappiness is the just reward of ungratefulness. Saint Augustine believes that God did not create a perfect world, but rather an ever-growing environment where both physical good and evil is present. God simply permits this environment in the light of Human Freedom, and can derive good from the consequences of evil.

God's Punishment

Saint Augustine argues that the Origin of Moral Evil, together with the Suffering which is understood as Punishment for Sin, is to be discovered in the Free Choice of the Will of each individual. He attempts to give reason for Trust in Divine Omnipotence and to acknowledge the limits of human wisdom. However, it falls short, if it is intended to convince people of the goodness of God in the face of human suffering understood as retributive justice.

The notion of Eternal Torment causes particular difficulties to people who, if true to their Faith, admit to their own sinfulness. Nobody wants to appear before a vengeful God who by virtue of His Omnipotence dispels a harsh brand of judgment on mortal beings with the possibility of eternal life hanging in the balance. For some people, it seems imperceptible that God could punish human beings for something that God seems ultimately responsible for.

However, the Saint is unrelenting when addressing those who attempt to lay blame on God for the Sin of human beings and the punishment consequent to that Sin. He argues that the Origin of Moral Evil and the Punishment it entails is a consequence of the free choice of individual people.


A Brief Comparative Study

of Saints Irenaeus And Augustine

Even though Saints Irenaeus ( 130-202 AD) and Augustine ( 354-430 AD ) lived in different times, there concepts of Evil have quite a few similarities. The only really detectable differences between the two theologians is that Irenaeus places Evil on a more cosmic level in confrontation with God. Whereas, Augustine is less influenced by Eschatology and places the temptations of Evil and Sin in the world along side humanity.

Saint Irenaeus saw Evil more as God's responsibility and so God sent his Son to conquer evil. Augustine saw Evil more as a human responsibility and people could save themselves by choosing to reject evil. However, they both recognized that Evil is an ever-present existence in the world and Moral Evil is the result of a Sinful misuse of Freedom. Both theologians considered Evil to be a challenge to the goodness of God and humanity, yet it is defeatable by turning away from Sin (Augustine) and striving for Perfection (Irenaeus) by reflecting the Essence of God, which is Love.

God permits Free Will and respects the freedom of his creatures. It is the choice to Sin which is the cause of Moral Evil in the world (Augustine). To choose Evil and freely disobey God is to choose an Eternal Death. One form of guidance, away from such a fate, lies within the foundations of Natural Law. The " Ten Commandments " are a prime example of Divinely inspired instructions for the avoidance of Evil and Sin. When one chooses to ignore Divine guidance, God's justice becomes the infliction of punishment on the Sinner (Irenaeus).

Evil is a kind of negative reality, a missing piece in the Divinely created positive reality of God. Mysteriously, God is able to derive Good out of the Sinfulness that people acquire in their lives. God should be praised because He is both willing and able to harmonize the effects of Sin introduced by the Evil Will of humanity with Goodness. The quality of life is enhanced by the Goodness of Gods Creation (Augustine).

Nevertheless, God permits the negative reality of Evil so Freedom can exist and allow self-fulfillment in each persons life. With Free Will, each person has, at least, the key to achieving full potential as human beings. When a person chooses to Love and thereby reject Evil, the process of Fulfillment has begun. The individual becomes stronger, mature and is Master of their own destiny.

A Universal Harmony is set in an environment where Sin and Evil co-exist with Forgiveness and Redemption. It is preferable to turn to a world restored to Virtue and Justice in light of the Risen Christ, who defeated Evil by his Death and Resurrection, restoring the world that Adam lost through Original Sin (Irenaeus). By accepting the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, we ally ourselves with God to defeat Evil and thereby bring Hope to an empty world. For Saint Irenaeus and Saint Augustine, Evil is a reality and a stumbling block, which can be completely vanquished by our choice to turn away from Sin and Evil and toward our loving Devine Creator.



1. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses (180-199 AD) Book IV, Chapter 39.

Taken from the New Advent Catholic Supersite.

2. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses Book IV , Chapter 40 . New Advent Supersite.

3. Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus haereses Book III , Chapter 18 . Catechism of the Catholic Church. Page 114 # 518.

4. Saint Augustine, De Libero Arbitrio 1, 1, 2. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Page 75 # 311 footnote # 3.

5. Saint Augustine, De Ordine 3, 9, 26. Article: Beyond The Problem Of Evil by Wayne Ferguson.

6. Saint Augustine, Enchidron 11, 3, 40. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Page 75 # 311 footnote # 4.

7. Saint Augustine, De Civitate Dei 14, 28. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Page 389 # 1850 footnote # 6.



Ferguson, Wayne (1996) . Beyond The Problem Of Evil Website: http://

New Advent Catholic Supersite (1996) . Adversus haereses Website:


Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops; 1994. Catechism Of The Catholic Church Ottawa, Canada

Liberia Editrice Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano; 1992.

Hill, Brennan & Madges, William; 1994. The Catechism-Highlights & Commentary Twenty-Third Publications, Mystic, CT.

Hodgson, Peter C., & King, Robert H., Editors; 1982. Christian Theology-An Introduction To Its Traditions And Tasks Fortress Press, Mineapolis, MN. (1994).

Hodgson, Peter C., & King, Robert H., Editors; 1985. Readings In Christian Theology Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Nichols, Adrian, O.P. ;1991. The Shape Of Catholic Theology The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN.

Paper originally entitled St. Irenaeus And St. Augustine

On the Subject Of Evil was submitted to Dr. William Close as a Master of Theological Studies course requirement 511v-Basic Christian Doctrines St. Stephen's Theological College University of Alberta

Published on December 2oth, 1996

{Revised October 10th, 2023}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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