{NB: This is an old unedited paper from seminary. There is much I would probably change in it now that I have read more primary and secondary literature since then. However, I don’t have time to go back through and make adjustments so I am keeping it the way it was. I hope it is still of some use to someone somewhere.}


Augustine develops a reasonable understanding of evil in opposition to the Manichaeans that offers a consistent understanding of the goodness of the world despite the existence of evil. In order to grasp the strength of Augustine’s arguments, one must first understand the Manichaeans, specifically their creation story and how that effects there understanding of the world and their interpretation of Scripture. Once that is done, one can then examine the main points of Augustine’s position. Namely, the goodness of all things that exist, God’s providential ordering of good and evil, and the source of evil being in the inappropriate use of the free will because of misdirected desires. Despite some weaknesses (the nature of the will, providence and defining the good), Augustine offers the best solution that will benefit not only the Christian but also all those who struggle with existence of evil.

The Manichaean Understanding of Evil

From where does evil come? Since this question is seeking the source of evil, one must travel back to the very beginning from where all things came. Like the Gnostics of the second century, the Manichaeans developed an elaborate creation story in order to answer this question. This account involves two realms known as the Land of Light and the Land of Darkness.[1] There is no explanation concerning the origin of the Land of Darkness—it just exists. Therefore, the Manichaean’s understood evil (which is from the Land of Darkness) to exist independently from and eternally along side of good (which comes from the Land of Light).

Now that the source of evil has been discovered, one must probe deeper to understand how evil comes to interact with human beings. To answer this, the Manicaeans creation story describes the Land of Darkness as being composed of matter.[2] All matter is then evil for it finds its source in the fountain of evil: the Land of Darkness. Since matter is evil, one can deduce that the Land of Light is immaterial as it is the source of all good things. The solution to the question of how human’s come to interact with evil is then obvious: because they are made of matter. Humans, and all created things, are by nature, evil.

A pushback to this solution is to conclude that because humans are completely evil being made of matter, then they would have no knowledge or understanding of good. Mani’s preaching would therefore be only a deception in order to bring harm; it would be evil. Once again, the solution to this predicament lay in their creation story. Long ago, a battle took place between the Land of Light and the Land of Darkness in which the Primal man (the warrior for the Land of Light) fell and lost four of the five elements that composed his armor.[3] The story continues that the Land of Light rescued the Primal man from the Land of Darkness and created the universe.[4] This creation would then act as a medium for the trapped elements of Light allowing them to be liberated over time from the Land of Darkness.[5] At this point, the story becomes even more complex, but it is enough to note that creation is an mixture of good and evil.

One begins to see that the Manichaean solution to the problem of evil is more complicated than originally thought. It is not that all of creation is evil, but there is in it a mixture of good and evil. Granted, evil still has a nature and its source is still the Land of Darkness, but trapped within this created world are the elements of Light that need to be returned to the Land of Light. Interestingly, for the Manicaeans, the Land of Darkness is what created Adam and Eve as a means to keep the elements of Light trapped with the Land of Darkness through lust.[6] So, the message of Mani was the liberation of the trapped elements of Light, and ones soul (trapped by ignorance in fleshly bodies) is judged by how much he/she did to release the elements of Light.[7] These elements of Light are released from the Land of Darkness through the ascetical practices such as abstaining from sexual relations, eating certain foods, prayer and obeying the commandments.[8]

From where does evil come? It comes from the Land of Darkness that exists eternally, is composed of matter and has trapped elements of Light in the created world. The implications of this understanding of evil for Christianity are revolutionary. Since Adam and Eve were created to keep the elements of Light in the Land of Darkness, then that which created Adam and Eve is evil. Thus, the god of the Old Testament is evil, and that which emanates from the god of the Old Testament is evil, such as circumcision, Sabbaths, dietary laws and sacrifices.[9] Moses curses Jesus (Deut. 21:23) and the prophets live morally reproachable lives.[10] Thus, one is justified in completely disregarding the parts of the Old Testament that are worthless (being most of it) and accepting the few parts that are good.[11]

This understanding of the Old Testament and of the material world changes the shape of the gospel. It is no longer about Christ becoming incarnate to die a sacrificial death, but about obeying his ethical teachings.[12] Thus, here is a type of “deed over creed”: the one who really believes the gospel is the one who lives his/her life according Jesus’ teaching which are all aimed at liberating the elements of Light. Indeed, Christ was not born, but Jesus became the Son of God (that is, Christ came upon him) at his baptism.[13] Since there is no incarnation, the difficulties of the Trinity are removed and replaced by what appears to be a type of economic Trinity—one God appearing in three different ways.[14] While this type of modalism has appeared before (e.g.- Sabellianism), an interesting twist to the Manichaean conception of God is that of finitude. Because evil exists eternally and independently of good, God cannot be infinite for the point where evil begins is the point where good ceases to be.[15]

The Manichaean understanding of evil is founded upon the principle that evil comes from an independent and eternally existing source; that there is a nature of evil. As shown above, this one principle has tremendous consequences that fundamentally change ones perception of the world. Augustine, though he was himself once a Manichaean, finds their solution untenable. He sets out in opposition to the Manichaeans to defend the goodness of creation, the goodness of God and ultimately the true Christian religion.

Augustine’s Understanding of Evil

Augustine frames his understanding of evil around one main point: all that exists is good. This is remarkably different from the Manichaean position where evil has an independent existence from good. Thus, in order to prove his conclusion, he must be able to explain how it is that evil exists at all within creation if all of creation is good. He does this by first clearly defining what evil is and then examines the created world in light of this definition noting specifically the order present within creation. More so, Augustine must explain why God, the chief good, would allow humans to misuse creation, concluding that the existence of evil is part of God’s providential ordering of creation. Once the inherent goodness of creation is established, he shows that evil exists because of an inappropriate use of creation by humans.

What is Evil?

Augustine is keenly aware that the Manichaean question concerning the source of evil is fundamentally flawed. Instead of asking from where does evil come, it is more appropriate to ask, “What is evil?”[16] He defines evil as that which is contrary to nature, hurtful and corrupts.[17] The Manichaean’s would also agree with these definitions as their cosmology above shows. The Land of Darkness is contrary and hurtful to the Land of Light in its attempts to make war with it and by the creation of Adam and Eve it attempts to corrupt the restoration of the elements of Light. What these definitions have in common is that they are all a privation of good. That which is contrary to nature takes away from existence, that which is hurtful takes away from health and that which corrupts takes away from order. Existence, health and order are all good, but their existence must precede the existence of the evils that take away from those goods. For example, a cut is evil, but if the cut is taken away then the evil is gone. However, the cut cannot exist if the health of the body, which is good, did not first exist.[18] By accepting these definitions, the Manichaeans unwittingly prove their position to be wrong. If evil is the privation of good, then as shown, something must first be good in order for it to have any aspect of evil. The Land of Darkness cannot then be the source of evil for it must itself first be good.[19] Evil, therefore, cannot have an independent existence apart from good.


Practically, Augustine’s conclusions concerning the nature of evil can be empirically seen within creation. Augustine observes the order that already exists within creation as a way of showing how all things that exist must be good. Order is good, for order preserves existence and that which preserves existence must be good because existence is good.[20] It then follows that for evil to exist at all, there must be the continued existence of good. Therefore, instead of being an argument against good or for the separate existence of evil, disorder (or corruption) actually proves the continued existence of good for it cannot exist without the preexisting order, which is good.[21]

That order exists is an example of God’s providential ordering of creation. God, as the chief good, is actively ordering creation for the good of the whole system. [22] This providence includes the preservation of creation and the punishment of evil.[23] For the preservation of good is the maintenance of an existing order and such an action is necessarily good. On the other hand, the punishment of evil (e.g.- disorder or corruption) is actually the cessation of evil for it prohibits that evil from continuing to disorder or corrupt, which is necessarily good. Therefore, if God is good and evil exists, God must both persevere that which is good and punish that which is evil.

Since it is necessarily for God to persevere and punish, one could then conclude that God is actually not good for the empirical evidence of such operations is not consistently observed. It is common to human experience that those who do evil are not always punished and those who do good are not always persevered. Augustine asserts that the preservation of those who do evil is actually consistent with God’s providential ordering of the whole system. Sometimes, it is the reality of good in the life of someone who does evil which causes them to turn to good and likewise the presence of evil in the life of someone who does good will encourage him/her to persevere in doing good.[24] Thus, God’s goodness is preserved for God providentially orders all of creation, both good and evil, for the good of the whole system. That humans do not always perceive this providential ordering is no argument against its existence as it by nature can only be fully understood by that which is perfectly good.[25]

While the Manichaeans agree that there is an order within the universe, they believe that the Land of Darkness is ordered as well.[26] However, if the Land of Darkness is the source of evil, it cannot be ordered for order implies goodness. Thus, as in the first point above, the Manichaean position is shown to be internally inconsistent. It is logically impossible for the Land of Darkness to be the source of evil for it can only exist if it were first good, and if it were good by nature, it could not be the source of evil.


Though Augustine has defended the supremacy of good over evil and God’s good care of creation, one may still wonder why evil exists at all. Following Augustine’s thinking so far, one would be forced to abandon a hard determinism in regards to morality. If determinism were true, then all actions would be morally good because all of creation is good. Yet, it is not that case that all actions are good. Yet, evil exist within a supposedly good creation. Augustine answers this apparent contradiction by asserting that evil lies not in a thing but in the inappropriate use of a thing.[27] This is closely related to his understanding of order. If a thing were used outside of its order, then that use would tend towards disorder; therefore, it is evil.

The reason why a person would use something inappropriately is due to an inappropriate desire.[28] In this case, a person wants something that is not to be wanted or wants a thing to a degree that it should not be wanted (e.g.- any point where the order is disturbed). This, unfortunately, is the inevitable consequence of desiring things.[29] Things are by nature finite (e.g.- restricted by space and time) and thus cannot completely fulfill all desires at all times.[30] Thus, the object of desires must not suffer corruption of any kind; therefore, God is the greatest object of all human desires.[31] This is the cause of evil, for when desires are not satisfied, other things become the object of desires that are not properly so.

Evil occurs when one desires a thing as an end in itself. This conclusion is starkly different from the Manichaean position. Whereas they posit a thing being evil because it is evil by nature, Augustine finds the source of evil to be in human desires. It is not in the fact that humans have desires, but in the inappropriate use of those desires. The source of evil is in human beings who, though they are good by nature, choose to love too much that which can never satisfy all of their desires. Therefore, the freedom of the will is essential to Augustine’s understanding of evil as opposed to the Manichaean determinism, which will never allow a bad thing to be good, nor a good thing to be bad.

Evaluation of Augustine’s Understanding of Evil

Augustine’s understanding of evil differs greatly from the Manichaeans to whom he once belonged. They believe in an eternal and independent nature of evil, whereas Augustine sees evil as being finite and dependent upon the existence of the good. The Manichaeans act inconsistently by describing order to the Land of Darkness (for order is good), thus proving Augustine’s point that all things are by nature good. Finally, The Manichaeans preach a hard determinism that cares nothing for the volition of the human subjects, whereas Augustine see the battle for good and evil taking place at the point where human beings can choose to do good or evil.

Strengths in Augustine’s Argument

When dealing with the problem of evil, there are three solution: 1) evil and good are in a eternal cosmic battle, 2) evil is the privation of good or 3) there is no evil, it is only an illusion. The third option goes against all that is common to human understanding and will not be dealt with here.[32] The first option is the Manichaean position, which is internally inconsistent as shown above. The final option, Augustine’s solution, seems to be the best option for three reasons. First, it insists on the goodness of nature. If nature were evil, then there would be no reason to study and learn from it, thus the natural sciences would be dead (and all the benefits therein). The goodness of nature also gives a reason for defending the inherent worth of human life. Humans (and all that exists) would thus have value based on who/what they are, not what they do. It also gives a reason for working together for the improvement of the world. Things that are evil by nature should be at worst ignored and at best destroyed, where as that which is by nature good has the potential for being restored to its original condition if it were to fall.[33] Thus, the Christian is morally obligated to protect not only the life of unborn babies, but also the life of the world as a whole. The strongest voices for the preservation of the natural world should not be atheists or pantheists, but Christians who not only see the goodness in creation but the potential that creation has in relation to the chief good.

The second reason Augustine’s position is the best is that is allows for progress. This was hinted at above, but should be developed further. If one believes that everything is by nature good and has within itself the possibility of becoming less good, then there is a gradation of goodness in existence.[34] Now, on the highest end of this scale is the chief good, which Augustine has already determined to be infinite and unchanging (e.g.- God).[35] Since all humans are creatures, they by nature pale in comparison to the chief good. However, because they are good by nature they have the capacity to partake in the chief good. Like an acorn that will by nature turn into a tree, so the human, who is good by nature, has the potential to become better than he/she is. However, the acorn has no choice in the matter—humans do. Thus, the Christian is the one who should never leave things the way that they are or on a path towards destruction. The Christian is not only active in the preservation of life, but in the pursuit of making life better for all people and creatures.

The freedom of the will is the final reason why Augustine’s position should be adopted. Now, the philosophical problem of the freedom of the will is not easily solved, but it is a valuable link in Augustine’s understanding of evil.[36] It is because evil cannot come from the chief good and because all that exists is by nature good that Augustine must find the source of evil in the realm of possibility. Humans are not determined to do what they do, but they have a choice. This choice, however, is not between good or evil, but between options that cohere with the order of the universe. It is the choice made that is good or evil, not the options. More so, it is the desires that precede the choice that determine its moral value. The will is good and desires are good, but it is the misuse of these good things that creates evil. Thus in the fight against evil in the world, the Christian is the one who understands that goodness cannot be legislated (though that does play a part in the creation of the just society). Making the world a better place begins with the individual and the cultivation of virtuous desires.

Weaknesses in Augustine’s Argument

While Augustine’s position has much to offer, it is not perfect. The first weakness that must be addressed is freedom of the will. As shown above, Augustine builds his argument upon the goodness of existence and then shows how that goodness is evident in order. In order to exclude God as the source of apparent evil, he speaks of God’s providential ordering. Augustine is therefore left with an uncomfortable gap in his theory of evil. If God is always good and all things that come from God are by nature good, then evil cannot come from God. He deduces that it must come from humans, so he concludes that humans have free will. However, if choices are determined by desires, as Augustine seems to claim, then one must discover what determines desires. Humans do not grow in a vacuum, but are swimming in culture and traditions. It would then follow that human desires are necessarily contingent upon the culture within which they grow. Therefore, the will is not actually free and the question of where evil comes from still remains.

Another weakness of Augustine’s argument is concerning God’s providence. As explained above, Augustine attempts to show that God is not the source of evil by arguing that what appears to be evil is only evil for those who cannot see God’s providential hand. That is, when “evil” events befall someone, it is only evil in the sense that they are desiring some thing other than God, while it is good for those who are actually desiring God above all things.[37] Yet, this appears to be self-defeating. At one place he would insist that evil is real (even if it be the privation of good), and in another he would turn evil into a subjective apprehension of God’s providence. In this way, there is no objective evil in the world; a massacre of infants only appears to be evil for those who do not understand God’s providence.

The final weakness in Augustine’s argument is concerning the nature of goodness. While he spends much effort in defining what evil is, little is said concerning what good is. Order is good because it tends toward existence. Yet, there is no answer as to why existence is good; it is merely assumed that existence is better than non-existence. This is probably the greatest weakness in Augustine’s theory for without the fundamental definition of what good is, the whole building collapses. For example, one could very well say that good is not the privation of evil. The example above concerning the cut might be a rebuttal, but that still presupposes that health is good. While one may grant the goodness of health, existence as a whole could be evil, which would then make health merely a privation of evil.

Despite these weaknesses, Augustine’s understanding of the problem of evil is probably the best solution for those who believe in a good and infinite God. It not only affirms the goodness of creation in choir with Scripture (cf. Gen. 1-2), but also coheres with the ministry of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-20). It is the Christian who will see the good in all things, and it is for this reason that the Christian strives not only to make him/herself better, the world as well. Those who do not believe in a good and infinite God could adopt Augustine’s position, but they fall into the same trouble concerning a definition of good. At least Augustine can claim that God is the chief good to which all things strive. The person who does not believe in such a God could only conclude that good is socially constructed for the benefit of the group. However, if good is merely a social construction, then evil is one also. If evil is merely a social construction, then a massacre of infants is a matter of opinion. As noted above, such assertions tend to go against the common understanding of good and evil. While many may have different views on what is good or evil, there tends to be agreement that there is good and evil. In this way, it appears that God is a necessary solution to the problem of evil.


In opposition to the Manichaeans who understand this world to be evil and to have an independent existence from good, Augustine argues for the inherent goodness of all things. This goodness is seen in the ordering of creation. Though evil happens, God is not its source for he is constantly working to order all things for the good of the whole. For this reason, the source of evil is found in the freedom of the will, specifically, in inappropriate desires for things. Augustine’s understanding gives reasons for the preservation and betterment of life, as well as understanding that the just society begins with the individual. While there are a few weaknesses to his argument (the nature of the will, providence and the good), it offers the best “solution” which gives the Christian a framework for continuing the ministry of Jesus in the world today.


Augustine. Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion. Translated by Albert C. Outler. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965.

—. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Translated by H. Bettenson. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

—. “Of True Religion.” In Augustine: Earlier Writings. Translated by J. H. S. Burleigh.     Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963.

—. “On the Morals of the Catholic Church.” In Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy. Translated by Richard Stothert. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.

—. “On the Morals of the Manichaeans.” In Augustine: Writings in Connection with the    Manichaean Controversy. Translated by Richard Stothert. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.

—. “Reply to Faustus.” In Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy. Translated by Richard Stothert. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.

—. “Reply to Manichaeus’ Fundamental Epistle.” In Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy. Translated by Richard Stothert. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.

Bennett, Byard. “The Origin of Evil: Didymus the Blind’s Contra Manichaeos and Its Debt to Origen’s Theology and Exegesis.” Ph.D. thesis, University of Toronto, 1997.

Kane, Robert. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.



[1] Byard Bennett, “The Origin of Evil: Didymus the Blind’s Contra Manichaeos and Its Debt to Origen’s Theology and Exegesis,” Ph.D. thesis (University of Toronto, 1997), 64.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Ibid., 66.

[6] Ibid., 67.

[7] Ibid., 66, 70.

[8] Ibid., 70.

[9] Augustine, “Reply to Faustus,” in Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy, tr. by Richard Stothert (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872), 169-70.

[10] Ibid., 256, 203-4.

[11] Ibid., 157.

[12] Ibid., 160

[13] Ibid., 285, 491.

[14] Ibid., 357.

[15] Ibid., 505

[16] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Manichaeans,” in Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy, tr. by Richard Stothert (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872), 52.

[17] Ibid., 52-55.

[18] Augustine, “Reply to Manichaeus’ Fundamental Epistle,” in Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy, tr. Richard Stothert (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872), 133.

[19] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Manichaeans,” 55.

[20] Order is necessary for incorruption which is the opposite of corruption, something that Augustine already proved to be evil, cf. Augustine, “Reply to Manichaeus’ Fundamental Epistle,” 136.

[21] Augustine, “Reply to Manichaeus’ Fundamental Epistle,” 137.

[22] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Manichaeans,” 57.

[23] Augustine, Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion, tr. by Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), 355.

[24] Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, tr. H. Bettenson (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 13.

[25] One only knows of such providence by the premises that 1) God is good, 2) all things that are created by God are good and 3) the preservation of creation is good. If all three premises are true, it therefore follows that whether evil exists or not, God must providentially order creation. Cf. Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, 453-4.

[26] Indeed, Faustus claims that the Law of the Hebrews is the law of “sin and death” (cf. Augustine, “Reply to Faustus,” 327), but any type of law implies some form of order. Also, note that the Land of Darkness creates order when they create Adam and Eve (cf. Bennett, The Origin of Evil, 67).

[27] Ibid.

[28] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Catholic Church,” in Augustine: Writings in Connection with the Manichaean Controversy, tr. by Richard Stothert (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872), 47.

[29] Augustine, City of God, 16.

[30] For example, one may desire food at one moment, then drink at another, but the desire to satisfy hunger and thirst are not fulfilled at the same time by the same thing. Cf. Augustine, “On the Morals of the Catholic Church,” 47.

[31] Augustine, City of God, 19.

[32] This position, taken by consistent atheists, views morality as a relative social construct; therefore, the common understanding of good is only that which benefits the society as a whole. Thus evil is that which harms the prosperity of the society. However, this would mean that a massacre of infants is meaningless, something no human should conclude merely on a relativistic understanding of morality. Much more could and should be said about this issue, but unfortunately, it is outside the scope of this paper.

[33] Those who claim that good and evil are social constructs ignore the fact that their reason for the preservation of society (the prosperity of the group and ultimately of the individual) is a good. It matters not what happens to the group or the individual if there is no such thing as good or evil.

[34] “But from things earthly to things heavenly, from the visible to the invisible, there are some things better than others; and for this purpose are they unequal, in order that they might all exist.” Augustine, City of God, 453-4.

[35] Augustine, “On the Morals of the Manichaeans,” 51.

[36] Robert Kane says that “The problem of free will and necessity (or determinism) is ‘perhaps the most voluminously debated of all philosophical problems,” according to a recent history of philosophy.” Cf. Robert Kane, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 3.

[37] Augustine, City of God, 15-18.


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