By Joe Keenan

" 'Lord, if you won't take care of us,
Won't you please, please, let us be?'
And the Lord said, and the Lord said:
'I burn down your cities, how blind you must be.
I take from you your children, and you say blessed are we.
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me.
That's why I love mankind. You really need me.
That's why I love mankind.' "

(Randy Newman, God's Song.)

The Judaism of Jesus (who was no more a Christian than Marx was a Marxist) was a curious mixture of Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Daniel.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus supported the imperial power against zealotry. He modelled his ministry on the suffering servant prophesied in the second, deuteronomic, section of the Book of Isaiah. His disciples, if not necessarily Jesus himself, saw him as the messianic Son of Man prophesied in the Apocalyptic books.

Jesus was, in short, a very eccentric, and consequently very interesting, Jew. Very, very interesting. But, of himself, no more than interesting.

The real founder of Christianity, the failed Pharisee, Paul, was an altogether more substantial figure.

Like Flavius Josephus, like Philo Juddaeus, Paul (originally Saul) of Tarsus was a Jew of the Graeco-Roman middle earth—as near as his world could come to producing it, a cosmopolitan, a bohemian.

It would, however, be absurd to say that Paul was rootless. If anything he suffered from an embarrassing richness of Greek, Roman and sundry Semitic roots. His religious dilemma indeed appears to have grown out of the lush variety of cultural forms on offer in the souks and bazaars of the mediterranean Babel. This Jew grew up immersed in all the flora and fauna of that gloriously gentile, irredeemably idolatrous, unclean, uncircumcised, unfathomable world.

Poor man, he couldn't take it. The strain on the social and dietary injunctions, prohibitions and taboos of the Mosaic Torah was unbearable. Something had to give.

Christianity was the result of a cultural collision within an individual psychology. It was the result of the encounter within Paul between the implacably concrete imperatives of Jewish monotheism and the congenial abstractions of Greek philosophy.

In the course of his mission to the gentiles Paul called in at Athens where he preached to "...certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and the Stoicks", charging them with being too superstitious.

"For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription. TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things. And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us; For in him we live, and move, and have our own being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring." (Acts: 17; 23-28)

Thus Paul named the unknown god of philosophical monotheism and, naming him, claimed him as the god of the Jews. Paul filled out the thought of Greek philosophy with the bones and bowels of the lord of tabernacles and covered it with the word made flesh.

Thus Paul deracinated Jewish Jehovah; with one might bound founding Christianity and necessitating theology. World without end. Amen.


Greek polytheism had no theology, no science of the knowledge of god. The nature of divinity was a concern alien to it. Its proper concerns were exemplified in myths and fables detailing the relation of man to man in the family, the clan, the tribe and the city-state, and the relation of Man to nature in the events of the agricultural round.

Less mundane concerns infiltrated Greek culture with the speculations of the pre-Socratics into the elemental nature of reality. But, for them, while there was a question of ultimate principles sustaining the universe, there was as yet no question of a transcendental creator.

Socrates took philosophy much closer to theology when, in the course of his delphic examination of himself, he discovered the meaning of reality within himself as the logos (meaning essentially the word, or reason). For Socrates the real meaning of the world is the working out within it of reason.

At his trial (reported in Plato's Apology) he distinguished himself from his fellow Athenians, saying:

"My good friend, you are a citizen of Athens, a great city famous for wisdom and strength; are you not ashamed to spend so much trouble upon heaping up riches and honour and reputation, while you care nothing for wisdom and the perfection of your soul."

It is difficult to know quite what his audience can have made of that statement. Before Socrates redefined the terms of reference Greeks had understood the soul, psyche, as a shadow thrown by the real substantial self that was his breathing, feeling, living and loving body. His greatest claim to significance thus must be Socrates' discovery, his virtual invention, of the soul as a moral entity: the true self which acts on the basis of a cost benefit analysis, the constituent elements of which are good and evil.

Plato went beyond the logoi of Socrates in his theory of ideal forms beyond which lies the ultimate form of the good. Theology was now very close but one problem remained in the nature of Greek thought which prevented it from bringing it fully into existence.

Greek thought was too reasonable. Having invented logic the Greeks had an unfortunate tendency to follow each thought to a logical conclusion. Thus, after Plato, the Stoics identified logos with the nature within which it operated.

Greek monotheism tended naturally to pantheism and pantheism is a theological dead end. For the Stoics the one god was the reason which operated within all things as the mind of all things. God is the mind of the universe. Having said that, what remains to be said. With the important exception of Epicurus the Greek philosophers could say nothing more.


Epicurus, an Atomist, lived 341-271 BCE and taught at Athens—the demoralised Athens of the period after its defeat by Sparta in the Peloponessian War, after its defeat in the Social War, after the Macedonian victory at Chaeronea.

Through the fourth into the third centuries before the incarnation Athens retreated from vital activity in the vigorous world of Periclean humanism into a long dark night of tortured soul searching. Platonists, neo-Platonists, Cynics and Stoics mapped out the by-ways and back-alleys of an increasingly refined subjectivity discovering new sins and guilts and an intimation of the one true, but as yet unknown and unnamed god.

Epicurus, though advocating social quietism, was uniquely concerned to free humanity from irrational religious fears. As his Roman disciple, Lucretius, wrote:

"When human life lay grovelling in all men's sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of superstition whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and the growling menace of the sky. Rather they quickened his manhood, so that he, first of all men, longed to smash the restraining locks of nature's doors. The vital vigour of his mind prevailed. He ventured far out beyond the flaming ramparts of the world and voyaged in mind throughout infinity. Returning victorious, he proclaimed to us what can be and what cannot: how a limit is fixed to the power of everything and an immovable frontier post. Therefore superstition in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies." (De Rerum Natura: trans. R.E. Latham, Penguin.)

As it was not possible in this period of decay of the city-states to risk any denial of the existence of the gods of the city, Epicurus did not advocate atheism. Instead he contented himself with denying any divine activity in the world, stating:

"The blessed and immortal nature knows no trouble itself nor causes trouble to any other, so that it is never constrained by anger or favour. For all such things exist only in the weak." (Principal Doctrines, 1; trans. C. Bailey, O.U.P.) More importantly for the future development of theology, Epicurus was the first thinker to set out the terms of the crucial problem of evil. According to the fourth century Church Father, Lactantius:

"When God made man as His image, the creation which was the summation of the divine workmanship, he breathed wisdom into him alone, so that he might subjugate all things to his power and sway and make use of all the advantages of the world. He put before him, however, both good things and evil, because He gave him wisdom, the whole reason of which rests in discerning good and evil. For no one can choose the better and know what is good unless he knows, at the same time, how to reject and avoid what things are evil. Both are mutually connected with each other, so that if one is removed, the other has to be taken away...You see, then, that we need wisdom much more on account of evils. Unless these had been set before us, we would not be rational animals. And if this reasoning is true, which the Stoics could see in no way, that argument of Epicurus is dissolved also where he says: "God either wishes to take away evils and he cannot, or he can and does not wish to, or he neither wishes to nor is able, or he both wishes to and is able. If he wishes to and is not able, he is feeble, which does not fall in with the notion of god. If he is able to and does not wish to, he is envious, which is equally foreign to god. If he neither wishes to nor is able, he is both envious and feeble and therefore not god. If he both wishes to and is able to, which alone is fitting to god, whence, therefore, are there evils, and why does he not remove them?" I know that quite a number of philosophers who defend the notion of providence are accustomed to be disturbed by this argument and, unwilling, they are almost forced to declare that God cares for nothing, which Epicurus is especially aiming at...This is the reason that He does not take them away, since He granted wisdom at the same time, as I have explained, and there is more good and pleasure in wisdom than there is annoyance in evils. For wisdom brings it about that we know even God, and, through that knowledge, we seek immortality, which is the greatest good. And so, unless we first recognize the evil, we shall not be able to recognize the good" (De Ira Dei, trans. Sr. M. F. McDonald O. P., The Catholic University of America Press, 1965, pp 91-93).

Before I go on to consider Lactantius' attempt to solve the problem I should perhaps point out that Epicurus' statement of it is by no means theological. Epicurus is concerned with the hypothetical qualities of a postulated first cause who takes a continuing interest in what he has created. Lactantius is disturbed by a slur on a particular creator god called Jehovah, whose only begotten son had taken a very particular personal interest in a consequence, by name Lactantius. Epicurus' interest is general, abstract and philosophical. Lactantius' interest is particular, concrete and theological.

My choice of words in that last paragraph was very deliberate: Epicurus was interested, Lactantius was disturbed. Philosophy is interested; it wants to enquire, to discover, to know. Theology is disturbed; it wants to seek into authority, to cover up, to declare. This article is a philosophical investigation into theology.


The god of any considered monotheism is necessarily THE ONE GOD and so must be characterised, described and defined as Augustine characterised, described and defined his god:

"...we may understand God, if we are able, and as much as we are able, as good without quality, great without quantity, a creator though he lack nothing, ruling but from no position, sustaining all things without 'having' them, in His wholeness everywhere, yet without place, eternal without time, making things that are changeable, without change of Himself and without passion" (On The Trinity, V, 1.2;).

So, then, THE ONE GOD must necessarily, unambiguously, quintessentially, be omnipotent and omnibenevolent; all-good and all-powerful. But, if the creator god be so, where has all the evil which so undeniably permeates creation, where can it all have come from?

Lactantius' response to that painful dilemma is painfully confused. The proposition that good and evil are "...mutually connected with each other, so that if one is removed, the other has to be taken away" is a particularly idle debating point which merely entangles the unwary theologian who employs it ever deeper in the serpent's coils. For if it is the case that god cannot create good without simultaneously creating evil, cannot remove evil without simultaneously removing some corresponding good, then THE ONE GOD is not omnipotent. If he can create good without evil, and can remove evil without taking away good, but chooses not to, then THE ONE GOD is not omnibenevolent. The problem of evil remains.


Augustine, writing a century or so later, saw that the problem had not been resolved:

"Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither? What is its root, and what its seed? Or hath it no being? Why then fear we and avoid what is not? Of if we fear it idly, then is that very fear evil, whereby the soul is thus idly goaded and racked. Yea, and so much a greater evil, as we have nothing to fear, and yet do fear. Therefore either is that evil which we fear, or else evil is, that we fear. Whence is it then? seeing God, the Good, hath created all these things good. He indeed, the greater and chiefest Good, hath created these lesser goods; still both Creator and created, all are good. Whence is evil? Or, was there some evil matter of which He made, and formed, and ordered it, yet left something in it which He did not convert into good? Why so then? Had He no might to turn and change the whole, so that no evil should remain in it, seeing He is All-mighty? Lastly, why would He make any thing at all of it, and not rather by the same All-mightiness cause it not to be at all? Or, could it then be against His will? Or if it were from eternity, why suffered He it so to be for infinite spaces of times past, and was pleased so long after to make something out of it? Or if He were suddenly pleased now to effect somewhat, this rather should the All-mighty have effected, that this evil matter should not be, and He alone be, the whole, true sovereign, and infinite Good. Or if it was not good that He who was good should not also frame and create something that were good, then, that evil matter being taken away and brought to nothing, He might form good matter, whereof to create all things. For He should not be All-mighty, if He might not create something good without the aid of that matter which Himself had not created. These thoughts I revolved in my miserable heart, overcharged with most gnawing cares, lest I should die ere I had found the truth" (quoted in The Age of Belief, Anne Freemantle ed., New American Library, 1954, p.42).

Unfortunately for his peace of mind and the philosophical coherence of Catholic dogma, Augustine found it every much easier to believe in the concrete evil which he saw all around him than in the abstract good of his speculations. In short, Augustine found it almost impossible to believe that anyone human could do anything good. In that, his most congenial vein, he wrote:

"The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord must be understood as that by which alone men are delivered from evil, and without which they do absolutely no good thing, whether in thought, or will and affection, or in deed; not only in order that they may know by the manifestation of the same what should be done, but moreover in order that by its enabling they may do with love what they know" (On Admonition and Grace, 2.3;).

"...this part of the human race to which God has promised pardon and a share in His eternal kingdom, can they be restored through the merit of their own works? God forbid. For what good work can a lost man perform, except so far as he has been delivered from perdition? Can they do anything by the free determination of their own will? Again I say, God forbid. For it was by the evil use of his free will that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so, when man by his own free will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost...what kind of liberty, I ask, can the bondslave possess, except when it pleases him to sin? For he is freely in bondage who does with pleasure the will of his master. Accordingly, he who is the servant of sin is free to sin. And hence he will not be free to do right, until, being freed from sin, he shall begin to be the servant of righteousness. And this is true liberty, for he has pleasure in the righteous deed; and it is at the same time a holy bondage, for he is obedient to the will of God. But whence comes this liberty to do right to the man who is in bondage and sold under sin, except he be redeemed...?" (Enchiridion, 30)

And so on, and so on, and so, miserably and cravenly, on.

Thus, according to the Saintly Father Augustine, Man who is born in evil, lives in sin and dies in sin and all his works are evil, evil, evil. Only through the entirely undeserved grace of God can any man do any good, and a very few of them be saved from eternal damnation. Very well, so be it. The question nevertheless remains. "Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither?" Augustine answers:

" the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the evil. For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease itself is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents...

"All things that exist, therefore, seeing that the Creator of them all is supremely good, are themselves good. But because they are not, like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, their good may be diminished and increased. But for good to be diminished is an evil, although, however much it may be diminished, it is necessary, if the being is to continue, that some good should remain to constitute the being. For however small or of whatever kind the being may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being long as a being is in process of corruption, there is in it some good of which it is being deprived; and if a part of the being should remain which cannot be corrupted, this will certainly be an incorruptible being, and accordingly the process of corruption will result in the manifestation of this great good. But if it do not cease to be corrupted, neither can it cease to possess to be corrupted, neither can it cease to possess good of which corruption may deprive it. But if it should be thoroughly and completely consumed by corruption, there will then be no good left, because there will be no being. Wherefore corruption can consume the good only by consuming the being. Every being, therefore, is a good; a great good, if it can not be corrupted; a little good, if it can: but in any case, only the foolish or ignorant will deny that it is a good. And if it be wholly consumed by corruption, then the corruption itself must cease to exist, as there is no being left in which it can dwell" (Enchiridion, 11-12;).

Evil then, according to Augustine, though it is prevalent and persistent, though the depraved sons of Adam are soaked in it, does not, in fact, exist! It is unreal. It is a mere linguistic confusion. It is "privation of the good". Oh yes? Let's take as brief as possible a run through the confusion.


I am myself in many respects a product of Saint Augustine. Some of the unhappiest years of my life were spent as a victim of Saint Augustine's Secondary School (situated, very appropriately, behind Saint Monica's, on the Ravenhill Road in Belfast). The clerical authorities ultimately responsible for the regime there had a very real and, it always seemed to me, properly Augustinian, conception of the theory and practice of hell, which they had set about confirming on earth. Given which I was somewhat disturbed to come across the preceding formulation of his theory of evil as the privation of good. Could it be that the saintly Father did not himself believe in the damnation of which his successors had done their damnedest to give me an intimation? Could it be so?

The corruption of a body, that privation of the good which is the true nature of evil, does not itself exist. Only the good exists, which alone permits the body (and its corruption) to exist. If a body be wholly consumed by corruption it ceases to exist. So only the good can be tormented in hell; the evil does not exist to burn. Surely Augustine could not then have advocated belief in hell; a hell in which only the good could have suffered!

But he did. Of course he did.

In The Nature Of The Good (9) he wrote:

"What sort of punishment, and how great, is due to each fault, belongs to Divine judgement, not to human; which punishment assuredly when it is remitted in the case of the converted, there is great goodness on the part of God; and when it is deservedly inflicted, there is no injustice on the part of God; because nature is better ordered by justly smarting under punishment, than by rejoicing with impunity in sin; which nature nevertheless, even thus having some measure, form and order, in whatever extremity there is as yet some good, which things, if they were absolutely taken away, and utterly consumed, there will be accordingly no good, because no nature will remain."

The precise nature of that punishment was made clear by Augustine in The City Of God (XXI, 4):

"As the soul, too, is a proof that not everything which can suffer pain can also die, why then do they yet demand that we produce real examples to prove that it is not incredible that the bodies of men condemned to everlasting punishment may retain their soul in the fire, may burn without being consumed, and may suffer without perishing."

So there it is. God is all-powerful and all-good. There is nothing evil, merely an accidental absence of good. Man is almost irredeemably evil, incapable of himself of any good. Such good as may be in us is tormented eternally in hell by the all-good, all-powerful god.

Such then is Augustine's Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic God. He may or may not be omnipotent and omnibenevolent: he certainly is omniverous, the creator that devours his creatures.


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