For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist — Saint Augustine (Enchiridion On Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter VIII).
God, as all-powerful as he is with no moral obligation to allow any evil, decided it was better to bring good out of evil rather than permit any evil to exist. In his work Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love, the old Bishop of Hippo writes a catechism with the intent of educating Christians on the Faith. Augustine covers the topic of goodness, evil and its nature, and God's providence over it.
St. Augustine explains the good in chapter III, paragraph IX-X. He says,
For the Christian, it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things, whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the Creator, who is the one and the true God. Further, the Christian believes that nothing exists save God himself and what comes from him; and he believes that God is triune, i.e., the Father, and the Son begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the same Father, but one and the same Spirit of the Father and the Son.
By this Trinity, supremely and equally and immutably good, were all things created. But they were not created supremely, equally, nor immutably good. Still, each single created thing is good, and taken as a whole they are very good, because together they constitute a universe of admirable beauty.
The root of all creation is rooted in nothing else than the goodness of God himself. And that nothing exists that did not come from God. God’s goodness is immutable, meaning his goodness does not change, unlike his creation which is always changing in its degrees of goodness. But if all things come from God’s goodness, then how do we explain how evil can come from there?
The Nature of Evil
Before we can get to where evil comes from, we first have to figure out what evil is. St. Augustine’s explanation of evil is in the next paragraph. He says,
In this universe, even what is called evil, when it is rightly ordered and kept in its place, commends the good more eminently, since good things yield greater pleasure and praise when compared to the bad things. For the Omnipotent God, whom even the heathen acknowledge as the Supreme Power over all, would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil. What, after all, is anything we call evil except the privation of good? In animal bodies, for instance, sickness and wounds are nothing but the privation of health. When a cure is effected, the evils which were present (i.e., the sickness and the wounds) do not retreat and go elsewhere.
Rather, they simply do not exist any more. For such evil is not a substance; the wound or the disease is a defect of the bodily substance which, as a substance, is good. Evil, then, is an accident, i.e., a privation of that good which is called health. Thus, whatever defects there are in a soul are privations of a natural good. When a cure takes place, they are not transferred elsewhere but, since they are no longer present in the state of health, they no longer exist at all.
St. Augustine calls evil a privation of the good. A privation is something that does not exist in and of itself but exists through something else, which lacks what it is supposed to have. St. Augustine gives the example of wounds and diseases as an illustration. All human beings have a degree of health, that is, the proper function of their body. The heart has the function of pumping blood. The skin has the function of sheltering the inside of the body. If I have a wound on my skin, then that wound exists not on to itself, but because the skin is lacking something it is supposed to have, the ability to protect the body from things outside the body.
But what about diseases, surely, a virus that attacks the heart is evil and it could exist without the host. While true, a virus is evil to us, it is not evil in itself. It’s evil for us because its effects on the body — like stopping the heart — are evil. When a heart is disabled from pumping blood, it’s lacking something it ought to have. Namely, the necessary and strength and regular movement required. It is missing something it is supposed to have.
A heart virus is bad for us because it causes the heart to lack the things to function to its proper end. But it is good in itself because God created it, and whatever has existence is some degree good. A lion is good in itself, even if it is bad for the antelope.
When we are cured, as St. Augustine says, it’s not like the heart disfunction goes to live somewhere else with the virus (assuming the virus is still around), but ceases to be. Evil is parasitic on the good. If Adam and Evil did not sin, there would be no evil. But evil could not exist on its own, since it would at least require God (who is essentially good) and some other being to exist through.
St. Augustine also calls evil an accident. An accident, unlike an essence, is not a necessary part of a thing. Water by essence is H20 in its liquid form, it can be dirty or clean, fresh or salty, hot or cold, but it cannot be made of any other chemical compound and still be water. However, if the water is clean, then its status as clean is accidental, for that same body of water could be dirty. Likewise, evil is an accidental part of any created thing. Since all of God’s actions are essentially good, nothing he creates could be pure evil. But he can permit evil in his creation since evil is an accident of someone else’s decision.
A Fortunate Mistake
St. Augustine gives the following exposition on why The Triumph of God’s Sovereign Good Will over evil in Chapter XXVI. Paragraph C.
These are “the great works of the Lord, well-considered in all his acts of will”[psalm 111:2]— and so wisely well-considered that when his angelic and human creation sinned (that is, did not do what he willed, but what it willed) he could still accomplish what he himself had willed and this through the same creaturely will by which the first act contrary to the Creator’s will had been done. As the Supreme Good, he made good use of evil deeds, for the damnation of those whom he had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of those whom he had mercifully predestined to grace.
Here, justice is to be understood as getting what you deserve. Mercy is getting more than you deserve. If I am owed 100 dollars, and my debtor pays me back 100 dollars, I get what I deserve. If I get 100 dollars and am gifted an additional 100 dollars, I get more than I deserve.
St. Augustine’s point is simple, in this world, we get to enjoy both the mercy of God’s will when he rewards the righteous (those he predestines), while we get to see him inflict justice on those who freely choose to oppose him by giving them what they deserve.
In a world where the Fall did not happen, the righteous would not enjoy God’s mercy, since mercy is being given more than what you deserve. If Adam and Eve did not fall, their reward would not be given out of mercy, but justice.
One might object that this is unfair, but, it is ultimately up to the offended party whether they wish to forgive or not.
Another objection is that we could still know God is both merciful and just. However, because we are experiential creatures, and that it is better to experience God’s mercy than consider it in the abstract, this is a much better option.
This is just a small commentary on the work. If you are interested in reading more, or have questions, comment below and have a read of the Enchiridion yourself.