(CC) James K A Smith–How Augustine responded to the problem of evil without solving it

As Augustine put it in a sermon in 404, “he took flesh from the lump of our mortality, yes, and he too took to himself the death which was the penalty for sin, but didn’t take the sin; instead with the merciful intention of delivering us from sin, he handed over that flesh of his to death.” God doesn’t abstractly solve a problem; God condescends to inhabit and absorb the mess we’ve made of the world. God “has not abandoned humanity in its mortal condition.”

This, Augustine encourages his listeners, should serve as a source of hope in the face of fears and sorrows: “So he handed over this flesh to be slain, so that you wouldn’t be afraid of anything that could happen to your flesh. He showed you, in his resurrection after three days, what you ought to be hoping for at the end of this age. So he is leading you along, because he has become your hope.”

The appeal here is not to the greater good, the free choice of the will, or the constitutive nothingness of creation that corrodes the good. Augustine the pastor and preacher avoids such abstractions. Instead, he appeals to the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: a humble God who endured evil in order to overcome it. The point isn’t that God has a plan; the point is that God wins. We shall overcome because of what the Son has undergone in our stead.

This isn’t an answer to evil; it is a response. Hope is found not in intellectual mastery but in divine solidarity.

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Posted in Books, Church History, Theodicy, Theology

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