Early Thinkers and Meaning of Evil in Christianity

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Why Evil Exists

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Over the years, there have been several approaches toward understanding the meaning of evil. Many thinkers have attempted to offer a distinct interpretation of the meaning of evil, where does evil comes from, and what can humans do about it.

Image showing a priest holding a Bible.
Christian theology attempts to understand the meaning of evil through different theories. (Image: Roman Zaiets/Shutterstock)

Theodicy: Understanding of Evil

Christian theology has a tradition of attempting to offer theories and accounts of evil, which make it intelligible, understandable, and ability to affirm the existence of a good all-powerful God in the face of the reality of evil.

This ‘justification of evil’ is known as theodicy; however, is not an invention of Christian theology. From the time Gottfried Leibniz coined the term in the late 17th century, people began to see, especially in the Christian school of thought, a lot of thinkers who had been generating things that looked roughly like theodicies.

In fact, in the history of Christian thought, there have been several distinct ‘families’ of theodicies. Two, in particular, have been very powerful: the Augustinian tradition of theodicy and the Irenaean tradition of theodicy.

Learn more about the nature and origins of evil.

Why Does Evil Play an Important Role in Christianity?

Christian theology is relatively unique, not just in comparison to Islamic or Jewish thought on evil, it is unique all around the world. There is not a lot of direct and serious philosophical thought in Buddhist, Hindu, and Shinto or Confucian thinking about the nature and origin of evil. For none of them, the problem of evil is quite as problematic as it is for Christians.

There are two reasons for this in the basic Christian narrative. First, Christians, like Jews, say God is wholly in charge of the world and the world is cosmically under God’s sovereign control. Secondly, what makes Christians distinct from Jews and other people is their belief that the world is much worse than one might initially think it is. The world is far more profoundly sunk in evil than people’s ordinary experience of the world suggests that it might be.

Christian Perception of Sinfulness, Evil, and Corruption in the World

According to Reinhold Niebuhr, the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically confirmable doctrine in Christian thought. In other words, it is the only doctrine among the many things Christians are supposed to believe in—about the unity of God, the trinity of God, the godliness of Jesus as the Son of God. The one thing, Niebuhr said, that everyone can see by looking around them is that humans are quite messed up.

Christians cultivate a certain perception of sinfulness, evil, and corruption in the world, and they need to do that. Why? The answer lies in the New Testament and the events in this text.

As the experience of Christ is processed by the early Christian community, the growing recognition of the magnitude of Christ’s saving work is so powerful that it requires one to revisit their assessment of the corruption of the world. In doing that, it allows them to rethink and deepen their sense of the sinfulness of the world.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

An illustration of Saint Irenaeus.
Saint Irenaeus systemized the Christian narrative about good and evil. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Irenaeus of Lyon

One of the earliest Christian thinkers, the great theologian, Irenaeus of Lyon, began to systematize Christian thinking about good and evil and the whole Christian narrative. Irenaeus offered a remarkable and profoundly influential discussion of the nature of evil, sin, and the ultimate vindication of God’s goodness in the last judgment.

However, Irenaeus was a Greek-speaker who lived in Lyon in Roman France, which makes his story quite interesting. He was born in Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Turkey, which is presently known as Izmir in Turkey, into a Christian family, probably between 120 and 140 A.D., and died as Bishop of Lyon around 200 A.D.

Learn more about the enlightenment and its discontents.

The First Great Church Father

Image of a hand-drawn religious phrase by Saint Irenaeus.
Saint Irenaeus’s writings were believed to be the foundation of the Christian faith, thereby making him the first Church Father. (Image: Bernardo Ramonfaur/Shutterstock)

It was believed that Irenaeus had heard and seen Polycarp, a disciple of John the Evangelist before Polycarp was martyred. Irenaeus is, thus, understood as a kind of link in the chain to the apostolic era—he saw and heard someone who was one of the disciples of John the Evangelist.

He is the earliest recorded witness the world has to the canonicity of the four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are, in fact, the only four Gospels that the Christian churches in the East and in the West now recognize as canonical and are considered the four authoritative tellings of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As Irenaeus published his writings, they were immediately recognized to be foundational to the Christian faith and used throughout the Mediterranean world and even into the East.

Much of Christianity in Irenaeus’s time was east of the Mediterranean in the Palestinian coastal areas such as Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and one could even trace early Christians in India. Thus, Irenaeus is believed to be the first great Church Father—the first great patristic.

Against Heresies

Irenaeus’s greatest work is called Against Heresies, and it is the first vast and ambitious Christian theological account of the universe and God, and the humans’ place in the universe before God. It has set the terms of later Christian speculative theology more profoundly than it is easy for people to realize. He is also important because as part of this first attempt to articulate the logic of Christianity in a systematic way, it is an attempt that is proposed, like the title of the book suggests, against.

Common Questions About the Meaning of Evil in Christianity

Q: What are the two most popular “families” of theodicies in Christianity?

Two of the most popular “families” of theodicies are the Augustinian tradition of theodicy, thinking about evil; and the Irenaean tradition of theodicy.

Q: What, according to Reinhold Niebuhr, is the empirically confirmable doctrine in Christian thought?

According to Reinhold Niebuhr, the doctrine of original sin is the only empirically confirmable doctrine in Christian thought.

Q: Why is Irenaeus understood as a kind of link in the chain to the apostolic era?

Irenaeus is understood as a kind of link in the chain to the apostolic era because it was believed that he had heard and seen Polycarp, a disciple of John the Evangelist before Polycarp was martyred.

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