Medieval and Modern Evils

by Peter Donovan
Peter is formerly Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies at Massey University and is now retired and very happily gardening and reviving an 1876 farmhouse near Nelson. These are the notes of a talk that he gave to the Nelson SoF Group in May 2002.


Evils today tend to be talked about as problems, serious or trivial, which confront humans and make life difficult or dangerous. The Christian tradition, however, has a more cosmic view of Evil, something which can only be dealt with by God's supernatural intervention, sending his son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of the world. In doing so, Christianity posed for itself a large theological problem — why did God, the all-powerful Creator who made all things good, allow there to be evil at all?
These are four Medieval thinkers who tried to answer that question. The effects of their thought on Western intellectual history have been massive, and still influence us a lot (positively or negatively) today. In a nutshell, their views can be set out as follows:
Evil is only relative
the pseudo-Areopagite
Evil is Unreal
Evil is Adam's fault
the Devil is no excuse


Boethius (c. 470-524), a Roman statesman, scholar, and Christian philosopher, eventually served as Minister of Justice under the Ostrogothic King Theodoric but fell out of favour with political rivals and was unjustly accused of treason. In his prison cell, facing torture and execution, he reflected on the question why God allowed good people to suffer and evil people to prosper. His short treatise titled The Consolation of Philosophy became a classic work in medieval and early Renaissance Christianity.
In the Consolation, the Lady Philosophy, a sublime Wisdom figure, offers a philosophical therapy expressed in terms of Stoic and Platonic ideas yet implicitly Christian. Its main message is that there are two perspectives on the world: the human and the divine. The former perspective gives us the idea of "Fortune," the latter the idea of "Providence." From a human viewpoint, fortune may seem unfair and unjust in its consquences for individual human lives. But from the perspective of divine Providence, God blends into a sublime harmony all life's goods and bads, blessings and disasters. Thus the task for humans is to find peace of mind by rising above the evils and limitations of our earthly existence, through prayer and goodness, and learn to share God's timeless and perfect viewpoint.

Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite

Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite is the name given to the writer of an essay On The Divine Names which appeared around 500 AD from an unknown author, mistakenly identified with the Dionysius of Acts 17. Though writing as a Christian, the author follows the Neoplatonist view that evil has no positive existence, but it is merely a lack or an absence of good, just as darkness is an absence of light. Evil thus being a "nothing", with no reality in its own right, God cannot be held responsible for creating it. This author encourages the seeker to escape the effects of life's evils by following a path to direct experience of God. The work has been widely influential in mystical traditions, but the view of evil as unreal has generally been felt to do less than justice to the obvious facts of suffering and misery in the everyday lives of ordinary people.


Augustine (354-430) lived at a time when the classical world began to disintegrate as the Roman empire fragmented into separate states. He began his career as a promising student of rhetoric, but soon was attracted to Manicheeism, a mystical religion teaching a system of ultimate dualism in which Good and Evil, God and Satan, were in eternal conflict. Tiring of contradictions within that faith he began to explore Platonic philosophy before eventually being converted to Christianity (through his mother's influence, and his own personal experience of guilt, forgiveness, and conversion.) He soon became Bishop of Hippo in Roman Africa, a position he occupied for the rest of his life. In his scholarly writings, notable his Confessions and City of God, he reshaped the Western intellectual tradition, using his interpretation of Christianity as a base (with some lingering Manichean and Platonist elements). It is from Augustine that medieval and later Christianity inherited much of its ideology of sexuality and original sin, ecclesiastical and political theory, and its sense of the meaning and trajectory of individual lives, later reflected in novels and in sciences such as psychology.
In offering an explanation of the problem of Evil, Augustine turns not to philosophy but to religious history. Evil is in the world, in all its forms, simply as a result of sin. The essence of sin is a wilful turning away from the highest good, God himself, for the sake of some lesser good — one's own desires. This is what took place on the part of the first humans, Adam and Eve. Following Paul's argument in Romans chapter 5, Augustine holds that all people are involved in Adam's guilt and in its punishment. This involvement is transmitted as "original sin", through the process of human procreation itself. Thus God cannot be held responsible for the existence of evil; it is the fault of Adam and Eve and their successors, the penalty we must all pay for our inherited sinfulness. From that premise, the view follows logically that all humans are in need of salvation through faith in the sacrificial death of a virgin born and sinless Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Augustine fails to explain how Adam and Eve, themselves created good and in God's image, should choose rebellion and punishment rather than obedience. His explanation for their fall is "pride, which is the beginning of sin". But how could perfectly good creatures, before the Fall, be motivated by sinful pride? Augustine himself can only deal with this inconsistency by turning to a notion of predestination, according to which God creates people whom he foresees will freely sin, and foreordains a universe which contains evil as the necessary penalty for that sin. The problem of God's responsibility seems to remain unsolved in Augustine's theology, despite the lasting impact of his rhetorical skills and impressive personal piety.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) was born into a wealthy Italian family and entered the Dominican order and studied in Naples, Cologne and Paris. He ranks with Augustine as one of the two great fathers of the church. His Summa Theologica is one of the most important writings of the Middle Ages. It provided a comprehensive summary of early Christian tradition and incorporates Platonic teachings, Aristotelian philosophy, Roman law, the Bible, and the writings of the great theologians of the church. Many popes declared his teachings to be the authoritative guide to Christian doctrine and faith.
Like Augustine, Aquinas makes humans entirely responsibile for their own sin. "The Devil made us do it", is no excuse. The Devil can only lead into evil those who are already set on sin. And in fact, Aquinas gives a surprisingly limited role to the Devil, allowing him only a few modest paragraphs in the Summa. The Devil is a created spirit who, like Adam, was expelled from God's presence because of his pride, and remains unable to exercise any power that is not divinely conceded to him, and ultimately used by God for higher purposes.
Aquinas was no doubt well aware of Satan-worship, sorcery and witchcraft beginning to spread throughout Europe in the middle ages, and his teachings were no obstacle to the heavy-handed measures the Church would take against anyone (particular women and Jews) accused of such heresies. But for Aquinas, intellectually at least, evil and the Devil were to pose no major challenge to theological affirmations of the supremacy and perfection of God.
Peter Donovan



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