The Nature of Evil: What Augustine,The Fall, and Exorcism Can Teach Us

The problem of evil has confounded man for centuries, but what exactly is evil? What does evil look like? Why does God allow evil? The answers to these questions can be found in the rich intellectual history of the Catholic Church. St. Augustine attempted to tackle the problem of evil when he asked, “Where then is evil? What is its origin? How did it steal into the world? . . . Where then does evil come from, if God made all things and, because He is good, made them good too?” By examining the existence of angels, the ministry of exorcism, and Augustine’s understanding of evil, a concrete picture of the theological understanding of evil will be illustrated.

Human beings have tried to understand evil for as long as man has existed in his fallen state. Even for Christians who have received the saving news of Christ, the problem of evil can be a source of scandal to those who observe the grave injustices and suffering of the world. Our experiences of evil, suffering, injustice, and death seem to contradict any “good news.” These events can shake our faith and become a temptation against it. With regard to the nature of evil, it should not be thought of as an abstraction, which Fr. Gabriel Amorth addresses:

“Those modern theologians who identify Satan with the abstract idea of evil are completely mistaken. Theirs is true heresy; that is, it is openly in contrast with the Bible, the Fathers, and the magisterium of the Church.”

If evil is to be understood, then one must go back to the beginning.

In the third chapter of Genesis, a serpent enters into the picture and is described as being the most subtle of all creatures. The serpent’s only goal is to tempt mankind, and thus his strategy is to plant the seed of doubt in Adam and Eve which in turn distorts their view of God from that of a loving Father to that of a hindrance to their freedom. Regarding this temptation and choice, the Catechism states:

“Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of.”

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It is in the account of the fall that the Bible teaches man about the origin of evil, and it is of particular note that evil does not come from God, rather it is  result of the free choice on the part of man to turn away from God in disobedience. But the question still remains, if the serpent was the origin of the temptation, who is the serpent?

The serpent is none other than Satan, a creature of God created with an intellect and free will. Satan now uses his intellect and will to try and thwart God’s plan for creation by leading man to eternal perdition. Although Satan tries to inflict evil upon creation, he was made by the same Word that created all things, and as Augustine points out, this includes that which is invisible: “…Angels, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, and Powers. All were made by him.” Satan was created good, the highest of the angels. But throughout history angels have been extremely misunderstood; they are not chubby babies with wings and harps.

The figurative language used to describe angels is to help man understand their fundamental role in creation. Dionysius the Areopagite wrote:

“… the Word of God artlessly makes use of poetic representations of sacred things when speaking of the shapeless minds, out of regard to our intelligence, so to speak, using a mode of education proper and natural to it, and molding the inspired writings for it.”

A proper theological understanding will aid in grasping what the figurative language of scripture is expressing.

The word ‘angel’ literally means “messenger.” Angels are pure spirits created by God to serve the divine will, and as incorporeal beings they have no bodies. The angels then, like man, were created for the beatific vision (a direct knowledge of God). And like man, the angels were also put to a test of fidelity. As Peter Kreeft writes:

“Angels were created with free will and tested in Heaven, as we were on earth (in the Garden of Eden). Some chose to love and serve God. Others chose to rebel.”

Satan was created as the highest of all creatures, and it is his rebellion that Kreeft says, essentially “invented” evil. Here, it is worth quoting St. John Damascene at length regarding Satan:

“Out of those angelic powers, the one who was set over the earthly realm to guard the earth was not made wicked by nature. He was made good, and for good purposes, and his Creator put no trace of evil in him. But he did not keep up the brightness and honor the Creator had given him, and – by his free choice – was changed from being in harmony with his own nature to going against it. Thus he became angry with God and decided to rebel against him. He was the first to leave the good and become evil…but along with him went an innumerable host of angels under him, whom followed him and shared his fall. They were of the same nature as the angels, but they became wicked, turning away from good to evil by their own free choice.”

Reiterating what has been said to this point, St. John Damascene makes it clear that God did not Himself create evil, rather, evil is said to be created by those who choose to turn away from God who is the source of all that is good and true. Satan’s actions are truly a suicide because in turning away from God, Satan did not hurt God, that is, he didn’t change anything about God (who needs nothing outside of Himself), rather, Satan corrupted his own nature. Scripture gives further clarity to this angelic fall. The book of Revelation details the fall of Satan and his minions in the twelfth chapter:

“Now a war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

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Amongst scholars there exists various theories for what motivated this battle in Heaven, but almost all scholars believe that it was fundamentally the sin of pride. Because the free choice of the angels was made in an instant with the full knowledge and capacity of their will, the decision was final and no repentance is possible for them. It’s important to remember that Satan doesn’t want to be forgiven, even if it were possible.

The essence of Satan’s choice in relation to God can be synthesized by Frank Sheed when he writes, “Union with him would be self-love’s crucifixion, and self-love has become their all.” Sheed gets to the crux of the matter. Just as caritas is the greatest of all virtues, pride is the foundation for every sin.

Pride is a refusal to love, it is the turning in on oneself. In understanding pride, we glimpse the nature of the war in heaven. The war was not a physical one like might be thought of in human terms, however it was no less a war, it was just more of a philosophical battle of sorts. The chief commander of the angelic host that expelled Satan from Heaven was St. Michael. Michael in Hebrew means, “Who is like God?” Michael’s name, signifying the opposite of pride, further illustrates what this war truly signifies. Thus, Satan’s fall can be understood in terms of simple logic.

As scripture says, “. . . there was no longer any place for them in heaven.” The result of the fall is logical because there is no evil in Heaven and there is no good in hell. But scripture also gives an ominous warning to mankind:

“But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short.”

Satan has a short amount of time to tempt man to forsake God and join him in eternal perdition. Related to the significance of time, is that of place. There exists a misconception that Satan is in Hell. While this is true in a sense, it’s also misleading. Scripture is clear, and others have emphasized that Satan was cast down to the Earth with his minions. Properly speaking, Satan is not in a “place” as we might think of it because he has no physical body, but being pure spirit, he is said to be present wherever he is acting. Thomas Aquinas speaking on the matter:

“An angel is in a place by exercising its powers there; it can cease to apply its powers there and begin to apply them elsewhere; and this, equivalently at least, is a kind of local movement.”

This “local movement” that is a manifestation of demonic activity is an important element in understanding the existence of evil and to make the concept of angelic locality more concrete, one can examine the most extraordinary activity assigned to demons: possession.

The Rite of Exorcism was promulgated in 1614 in an official capacity for the first time. Even though the official Rite was not promulgated until 1614, the Church has always had exorcists. According to the Catechism, exorcism is defined as such:

“When the Church asks publicly and authoritatively in the name of Jesus Christ that a person or object be protected against the power of the Evil One and withdrawn from his dominion, it is called exorcism.”

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Jesus performed exorcisms throughout the Gospel, and through apostolic succession, the Church has the authority to expel demons through the official Rite of Exorcism. Properly speaking, only a priest can perform an exorcism with the permission of the local bishop.

Taking what we have learned from Aquinas in regard to “local movement”, the act of possession exemplifies this principle. When an individual is possessed, the demons can be said to be exerting their influence and power over the individual. Fr. Mike Driscoll notes, “The Demons are literally in possession of the victims’ bodies, and are therefore controlling their words and actions.” But as has been seen in the Garden of Eden, man has a choice with regard to evil.

Our choice can lead to obedience or sin. Sin, and in particular, mortal sin, which is of the gravest “…destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.” Just as Satan echoed the words, Non serviam, “I will not serve,” so too can man choose not to serve God.

We must understand that God allows man to choose evil become love cannot exist apart from freedom. Furthermore, God can allow evil to manifest if it will bring about a greater good. With regard to the will of man, Augustine rightly says, “. . . nothing is so much within our power as the will itself, for it is near at hand the very moment that we will.” Nothing that exists can evade God’s providence, and even that which seems to go against the divine law cannot thwart the will of God. Thus, the existence of evil can be, in a sense, characterized more as a non-existence.

Augustine characterizes evil, not as a positive actuality, but a deficit. There is no efficient cause, only a deficient cause. Augustine describes the seeking of an evil cause likened to one who, “sought to see darkness, or hear silence.” The nature of a created being is itself good and is not contrary to God, it is vice that is in opposition to God, but not because it hurts God, rather because vice is fundamentally opposed to the good and is thus defined as contrary to the nature of man.

Even Satan, the father of lies, remains good in so far as he has being, because being is superior to non-being. Augustine illustrates the essence of evil in Book Twelve of The City of God:

“As, then, when we say that blindness is a defect of the eyes, we prove that sight belongs to the nature of the eyes; and when we say that deafness is a defect of the ears, hearing thereby is proved to belong to their nature.”

It is the very recognition of the repulsiveness of Satan and the fallen angels that testify to the fact that they were meant to be united to God. Most human beings naturally find a dead body to be repulsive. Why? Because human beings have the innate recognition that the soul is not supposed to be separated from the body and is in fact contrary to the nature of humans. The ministry of Exorcism within the Church can illustrate in a very disturbing way what it looks like to recognize the corrupted nature that Augustine speaks of.

In observing a possessed person, there are three diagnostic criteria which are hallmark signs of an authentic possession: (1) the ability to speak or understand an unfamiliar language, (2) knowledge of future or hidden events, and (3) a display of powers that are beyond the subject’s age and natural condition.

These symptoms of such evil actually give testimony to Augustine’s understanding that evil is a deprivation of the good rather than a thing unto itself because demons who were made good with certain qualities, still retain those qualities fundamental to their angelic nature. Although now these qualities are left with a “. . . less ample existence, and therefore wretched.” Now, the demonic use their God given faculties to mock God and the three diagnostic signs as mentioned are, in fact, a mocking of God who has given the faithful the gift of tongues, prophecy, and miraculous physical power to overcome barriers. Here, it is made manifest that evil has no power to create, only to perverse and detract because that is what the corrupted nature has chosen in preferring self to God. Augustine’s notion of evil as decay is proper to how demons manifest and how the Rite of Exorcism seeks to banish them.

The Rite of Exorcism directs the exorcist to avoid any unnecessary dialogue with the possessing demon, but it does encourage the exorcist to find out the name of the demon(s), their number, and a sign of their departure. The parallels between the exorcist and a doctor are many because they are seeking to do the same thing: rid the victim of the illness that has overtaken them. Any good doctor would need relevant information before making a diagnosis and prescribing a cure; likewise, the exorcist is seeking to untangle the mess that allowed the victim to be possessed, and in doing so may find powerful antidotes to expelling said demons. From the Augustinian perspective, the exorcist is seeking to fill that deficiency that has allowed the possessed state to occur. This “filling” requires first and foremost a life of faith. The possessed individual must desire to be free and turn away from whatever has entangled them.

Performing an exorcism can be a gruesome experience. This gruesomeness is comparable in many ways to what a surgeon might deal with when dealing with traumatic injuries and death. However, the manifestations that can be exhibited by a possessed individual are more extraordinary. When exposed to sacred objects, possessed individuals might exhibit behavior such as laughing, snorting, howling, showing annoyance, repugnance horror, spitting, vomiting, convulsing, shouting, screaming, threatening, physical aggression, and violence. And the effect of witnessing an exorcism can have the effect of making the theoretical or abstract ideas of theology intensely real. As Father Gabriele Nanni explains:

“When you are outside of these experiences, you only have only an abstract idea of the spiritual world . . . Through being an exorcist I understood that there is much more to the faith than what we think . . . there is an almost objective, almost material level.”

Another priest, Father Gramloazzo says:

“The books that you read and study become something more theoretical; you don’t get inside the world of faith. When you perform an exorcism, however, you have to enter into this world; you get in touch with the supernatural.”

These explanations help one to see that an encounter with the corrupted natures of the demonic that Augustine speaks of, are made concrete with an encounter of the demonic manifestations in the Rite of Exorcism.

It’s important to note that one shouldn’t have an unhealthy interest or preoccupation with demons. However, Jesus performs numerous exorcisms throughout the Gospel and exorcism is a powerful manifestation of God’s power and mercy. While at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, our spiritual formation leader reiterated that while an encounter with the demonic isn’t good, per say, it can be very edifying to the vocation of a priest because of this extraordinary manifestation of Christ’s power.

My conversion from a life of sin started because of an exorcism movie. My completely unchosen patron saint is known for her role in the ministry of exorcism. I’ve personally experienced what I would call extraordinary manifestations of evil. All that being said, this topic feels personal to me.

In the end, we shouldn’t be altogether ignorant of the enemy and a theological approach to the topic of exorcism, in tandem with the wisdom of the Church Father’s, can be fruitful for truly understanding this reality. This all must be done in view of Christ and the salvation He has won for us.

St. Michael, Pray for us!

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