What is evil?
Evil is no easy concept to embrace. Perhaps the simplest definition of “evil” is that which causes destruction and suffering. Evil is the antithesis of all which is good and is the principle or force behind every event or action which afflicts harm—evil is that which corrupts the good. Theologically, Christians have understood evil to manifest itself in two forms: natural evil and moral evil.
“Natural evil” refers to the suffering which results from natural causes—causes which stem from nature and not from human agency. Earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, hurricanes, cancer, floods, viruses, droughts, and death are among those natural phenomena which are often considered natural evils.
“Moral evil” refers to the suffering which results from human agency. This form of evil does not stem from pain, affliction, and death which human beings naturally endure but from pain, affliction, and death which human beings inflict on each other. Perjury, extortion, persecution, theft, terrorism, prejudice, slander, hatred, war, and murder are among those actions of human agency which are often considered moral evils.
What is the problem of evil?
Presbyterians, like most Christians, believe that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and wholly benevolent (perfectly good). These attributes of God seem to imply that there can be no evil. For, if God is omnipotent, then He has the ability to destroy evil. If God is omniscient, then He certainly knows whether or not evil exists. And, if God is wholly benevolent, then He desires to destroy evil.
But, we also believe that there is indeed evil in the world. And this is the problem of evil. For, given that evil exists, God, it would seem, is either not omnipotent (unable to destroy evil), not omniscient (ignorant of evil’s existence), not wholly benevolent (indifferent to evil), or possibly some combination of these three.
There have been many attempts throughout history to solve this problem of evil. Most of the proposed solutions have been rejected as contrary to the Christian faith.
Is God evil?
One such attempt to resolve the seeming contradiction of the existence of both God and evil is to challenge the affirmation that God is wholly benevolent. By denying that God is perfectly good, the existence of evil can be explained as a principle which originates from God Himself. God would be the inevitable source of this evil principle in that God is the Creator of everything which is.
This explanation for the existence of evil, however, is incompatible with a Biblical account of creation—an account which affirms the goodness of God’s creation. According to the book of Genesis, “God saw everything which He had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Presbyterians, like all Christians, reject the notion that God is the Creator of evil. For, if God were the Source of the evil principle at work in the universe, then God would not be God. God must be a God Whose goodness is beyond compromise. If God were not wholly benevolent, then evil itself would be declared good—the principles of good and evil would become indistinguishable. But, despite its existence, we Presbyterians believe that God is not the Author of evil.
Is God powerless to destroy evil?
Another attempt to resolve the seeming contradiction of the existence of both God and evil is to challenge the affirmation that God is omnipotent. By denying that God is all-powerful, the existence of evil can be explained as a principle which is powerful enough to frustrate God’s benevolent designs. This evil principle would be equal to God in power in that evil can thwart God’s will to create and govern a good universe.
This explanation for the existence of evil is commonly referred to as “dualism.” Dualism claims that there are two equal principles at work in the universe: a Good Principle (God) and an Evil Principle (often identified with Satan).
Like most Christians, Presbyterians reject the doctrine of dualism. For, if there were two equal principles at work in the universe, then God would not be God. God must be a God Whose sovereignty is beyond contest. If God were not omnipotent, then there would exist the possibility that evil might be victorious. But, despite the existence of evil, we Presbyterians believe that God’s goodness shall prevail.
Is God unaware of evil?
One other attempt to resolve the seeming contradiction of the existence of both God and evil is to challenge the affirmation that God is omniscient. By denying that God is all-knowing, the existence of evil can be explained as a principle which arises as a flaw in creation itself because God could not foresee and does not know of its emergence. This evil principle would emerge from the goodness of creation as a consequence of the Creator’s ignorance.
This explanation is sometimes employed to account for certain angels (whom God created good) who chose to defy that goodness by their own agency and have consequently fallen from God’s grace. Among these angelic rebels is Satan (whose name in Hebrew means “adversary”). Also, this explanation is sometimes employed to account for the evil agency of human beings who, like fallen angels, defy God’s goodness. Accordingly, unforeseen by God, some of God’s creatures chose to defile the goodness of creation. In effect, God’s good creation turned against itself (and against God) because the Creator failed to recognize the risk of creating potentially rebellious creatures.
Although we acknowledge the existence of Satan and of human malevolence, Presbyterians do not believe that the creation of willful agents (whether angelic or human) is the result of a “less-than-omniscient” act of God. We have historically rejected the notion that God created the universe from a position of ignorance—that the Creator was unaware of evil’s existence and of creation’s potential to turn against itself. For, if evil exists as a result of divine ignorance, then God would not be God. God must be a God Whose knowledge is beyond deficiency. If God is ignorant of evil, then He would also be ignorant of creation’s need for redemption. But, despite the existence of evil, we Presbyterians believe that God intentionally saves us from our sins and reconciles creation to its intended goodness.
So, where does evil come from?
So, if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly benevolent; then how do we account for evil? The answer to this question is found, not in rejecting the attributes of God, but in considering the nature of evil’s existence.
Presbyterians believe that, although we experience the existence of evil, evil does not exist in the same way that creation itself exists. If we were to make a list of all the things which God created,—rocks, trees, stars, oceans, angels, mountains, animals, emotions, nations, comets, ideas, human beings, etc.—evil would not be among those things listed. Indeed, nothing on the list would in and of itself be evil because everything in all of God’s creation is good. Evil, therefore, is not real in the same way that creation is real. That which we call “evil” is actually that which lacks creation. And, given that every created thing is also created good, evil is nothing other than the absence of goodness.
We can better understand evil as the absence of goodness by referring to a Biblical illustration. In John’s gospel, Jesus compares good and evil to light and darkness.
Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
The relationship between good and evil is similar to the relationship between light and darkness. Darkness is not really a thing but, by its nature, is the absence of a thing. Darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. We can illustrate the relationship between light and darkness by imagining two rooms—one lit and one unlit—connected by an open doorway. We might notice that light from the lit room shines through the doorway into the room unlit; but we never observe darkness casting itself into the lit room. The reason for this is that darkness is not a real thing in the same way that light is real. As the apostle John writes in the opening of His gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
By analogy, evil is not really a thing but, by its nature, is the absence of a thing. Evil is nothing more than the absence of goodness. We can illustrate the relationship between good and evil by imagining a Good Principle (God) which creates the things which exist and an Evil Principle (perhaps Satan—perhaps human sin) which corrupts these things. We might notice that goodness has the power to bring things into existence, but we never observe evil corrupting things into existence. Goodness may be able to give existence to things which had no prior existence, but evil must have existing things in order to corrupt them. The reason for this is that evil is not a real thing in the same way that goodness is real.
So, where does evil come from? Like darkness, it doesn’t come from anywhere. Evil exists wherever God’s good creation is corrupted.
Who is responsible for evil?
Traditionally, Christians have understood evil, not as an impersonal force, but as a principle which lives through the intentions of any willful agent. This understanding, of course, begs the question: if evil expresses itself through someone’s intentions, then who is responsible for evil?
Concerning moral evil, Presbyterians believe that we human beings are the agents who are responsible. Whenever we choose to injure others, to abuse nature, or to harm ourselves, we are giving life and form to evil. Whenever we choose to act in such a way that we inflict suffering and destruction upon God’s creation, we are corrupting that which is good—we become agents of moral evil.
Concerning natural evil, the responsible agent is not so easy to discern as with moral evil. Some have suggested that God is the responsible agent behind natural evil. After all, we human beings are not all-powerful—we cannot destroy lives with earthquakes, nor save lives by preventing them. We are not all-knowing—we do not know how to create hurricanes so as to destroy lives, nor how to divert them so as to save lives. To suggest that God is responsible for natural evil is to suggest that natural evil is actually a special form of moral evil. Accordingly, God would be the responsible agent who, at best, chooses not to avert a natural disaster or, at worst, chooses to create it.
Presbyterians do not believe that God is the moral agent behind natural evil. We believe that natural disasters (although undesirable and even painful) are not evil in themselves. Tornadoes, diseases, and even death, are simply part of the natural order—part of God’s good creation. Death, for example, is not evil in itself; but the fear of death is evil. By fearing death, we human beings strive to fight death—to cheat death—to deny that we are destined to die. The natural order is not evil in itself; evil is imposed upon the natural order by human beings because we are unwilling to accept our finitude—our limitations—as creatures of God. Natural evil is not evil because of God; it is evil because we refuse to accept that the natural order applies to ourselves as well as to the rest of God’s good creation. We human beings are responsible for natural evil because we want to believe that we are exceptions to nature.
Isn’t Satan responsible for evil?
Occasionally, a person might try to account for immoral behavior by declaring, “The Devil made me do it!” But, we believe that blaming the Devil for our actions is nothing other than an attempt to disavow our responsibility as agents of evil.
Although Presbyterians do not refute the existence of Satan (also known as “the Devil,” “the Evil one,” or “the Tempter”), we do refute the claim that Satan forces persons to inflict suffering upon the rest of creation. Each person is accountable to God for his or her own actions. Satan is not to blame. Satan cannot make persons evil. This fallen angel does not have power in itself to corrupt God’s creation. Creation was not placed under Satan’s dominion, but under the dominion of humankind.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
So, if Satan does not cause persons to do evil things, what role does Satan play in the world’s ills?
We believe that Satan has no inherent power over us. The only power which he has is that power which we give him over us. Satan is often called “the Tempter” because he represents those temptations which entice us to act in ways contrary to God’s goodness. These temptations cannot make us do evil, but they can make evil things seem good to us. Temptations are not inherently evil, but yielding to them is. So, whenever we choose to give in to the enticement of temptation, we are giving life and form to evil. In other words, we are imbuing Satan with power over us which he did not inherently have.
So, why doesn’t God do something about evil?
The answer to this question is that God is indeed doing something about evil. But, all too often, God’s response to evil is not the response which some persons might expect. Some might say, “If we human beings are responsible for evil in the world, why doesn’t God make it impossible for us to choose evil?” To assume that God must take away our choice to do evil, is to assume that the ability to choose (with which humankind was created) is not part of God’s good creation. In fact, “choice” is part of being human—it is part of God’s goodness. But, by its very nature as a good thing, “choice” (which has the possibility of choosing goodness) must risk the possibility of choosing evil.
So, what is God doing about evil? God addresses the problem of evil in the world by bringing His perfect goodness into the arena of human agency. The good Creator becomes His own good creation in the person of Jesus Christ. God preserves the goodness of human choice by becoming a human being. As the goodness of God—as the grace and love of God—Jesus Christ chooses that which is good rather than evil.
Presbyterians believe that we participate in the goodness of creation and the goodness of the Creator by uniting ourselves through faith to the grace of Jesus Christ. As the Gospel of John put it:
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him; yet the world did not know Him. But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-10, 12-13)
RETURN TO WHAT WE BELIEVE