In his Enchiridon Augustine sets forth these paradoxical observations about the relationship between good and evil:
From all this we arrive at the curious result: that since every being, so far that is is a being, is good, when we say that a faulty being is an evil being, we just seem to say that what is good can be evil, seeing that every being is good, and that no evil can exist except in such a being. Nothing, then, can be evil except something that is good.
Underlying these claims is a complex and controversial set of Neo-Platonist metaphysical assumptions, but there’s only one that I need to highlight here. Augustine believed that evil is literally nothing, a no-thing, in that for him evil is actually the absence of a good thing. This might be hard to understand initially; after all, we think of the evil of cancer, say, as the presence of mutating cells destroying healthy cells in the body. But Augustine would ask us to consider those rampaging cancerous cells as being an emptiness of “goodness” that “remains” after the good of healthy mutation is eliminated. And, he would emphasize, you can only have cancerous cells if there are healthy cells in the first place. For him, a cancerous cell is a healthy cell degraded, lessened, in being, made less “real” in a sense.
Again, it’s difficult for many people today to agree with Augustine, or maybe even understand, on this point. I would invite you, though, to set aside the metaphysical puzzle and reflect on another assumption behind his observations in the Enchiridion:
Good always comes before evil *and* good always outlasts evil.
This is what Augustine means when he writes that “every being is good, and . . . no evil can exist except in such a being.” What God made, is making, and will make in creation is good, precisely because God made it. If there are distortions, fractures in creation, in our communities, in our lives, it is because the goodness of all things has been degraded and lessened somehow. If a person speaks a harsh word to you, it comes from pain and fear, which is, for Augustine, evidence of an erosion of the good of trust, both between that person and God and that person and you. But there can only be an absence of trust when, paradoxically, there is trust in the first place! If we are horrified by the tearing apart of immigrant families, with the demonic array of damage to the hearts and minds and souls of children and parents, that horror is possible, and that damage is possible, only in light of the goods of love, security, and stability as part of family life.
And Augustine would remind us that good always, always, will have the last word. It will always survive evil. On a philosophical plane it’s because evil is nothing but a parasitic “non-being” in the midst of being. If a body has no healthy cells, then cancer cannot exist in it either. You only have cancer when there is the good of health to attack and lessen. No matter how long children might be caged and abused, no matter how long parents are tortured by the terror of not knowing the fate of their sons and daughters, the good of the love between them all survives. And will always survive.
None of this denies the “reality” of pain, loss, fear, and so on. Augustine, for all his philosophical and theological brilliance, had a deeply sensitive and loving pastoral heart. And even if we accept that good precedes evil and good continues eternally, we still must acknowledge and respond to the sufferings that evil, in its “presence of absence,” manifests in the world. And we can do so with faith in the ultimate culmination, in the age of ages, of all in all. I believe Augustine’s position helps ground our hope as Christians in the eschaton, in the drawing of all things into the fiery light of God’s love, in which there will be healing, restoration, wholeness. The plenitude of being, if you like.
And it’s also an invitation, perhaps even a demand, that along the way we look for how goodness--in the forms of compassion, wisdom, tenderness, forgiveness, skill, and on and on, and above all, in the form of love, which is itself God--is a light that no darkness can overcome. To move in that goodness and to create that goodness and to give and receive that goodness. Again, this does not mean we aren’t confused or angry or afraid or in soul-tearing pain. It means that around and in and through our uncertainty or terror or agony is the good, which is the fabric of the universe and the core of our souls, that will sustain and restore us.