Evil is an enduring enigma that has captivated human minds throughout the ages. It is a concept that exists in various forms across cultures and religions. Because it is a multifaceted concept that varies according to worldview and the assumptions behind the questions people ask, we can’t summarize evil in a single tidy definition.
When speaking of evil, some people focus on the deliberate moral transgressions of individuals. Others have the malevolent actions of societies or societal systems in view. Still, others focus on “natural evil,” the seemingly indiscriminate natural disasters that destroy life or hinder flourishing. We approach the question “What is evil?” from the unique vantage point of Christian theology.
A Christian Perspective
Christianity provides a framework of narratives, interpretations, and resulting doctrines that offer insight on the nature and origins of evil. In the Bible and theological traditions that have solidified interpretations of the texts into orthodox teaching, we discover a nuanced perspective on what is often called “the problem of evil,” the question of how evil can exist in a world created by an all-powerful and benevolent God.
The notion of evil presents a profound challenge for individuals, whether they are grappling with significant metaphysical inquiries concerning the purpose of human existence or merely contemplating the reasons behind their personal encounters with profound suffering. For Christians, the existence of evil in an allegedly good creation ruled by an all-powerful and all-loving God is more than just a philosophical quandary or an abstract theological puzzle.
A specific understanding of evil shapes their worldview, aligns their ethical compass, and provides profound insights into the human condition. Fundamentally, the Christian understanding of evil points to the need for redemption and reconciliation with God, which Christians find in the saving work of Jesus Christ, who they believe conquered evil on behalf of humanity in an unprecedented and eternally significant way.
The Redemptive Example of Christ
In addition to redeeming humanity from the effects of sin and evil, Christians also view Christ’s suffering as a worthy example and a source of hope when facing pain. Christ’s willingness to suffer in a world marred by evil in order to save humanity demonstrates God’s love and willingness to fully enter into the human experience. It offers believers comfort in their own encounters with suffering and evil, reminding them of the possibility of redemption and ultimate victory.
Types of Evil
Christian theology provides a nuanced perspective on evil by distinguishing between two primary categories: moral evil and natural evil.
This form of evil is tied to human choices and actions. It encompasses acts of cruelty, deception, violence, and other forms of harm or injustice committed by individuals or societies.
Many Christians see moral evil as a result of inborn moral imperfection in humanity, a sinful nature. They see this sinful nature, or natural propensity to choose evil, not as something God created in humanity, but as something humanity brought on themselves because God granted them free will to make their own choices.
Different Christian traditions have different understandings about how this sinful nature came to affect all of humanity and how necessary a literal or historical interpretation of Adam and Eve as the parents of all humanity is to the understanding of humanity’s current sinful condition.
In contrast, natural evil encompasses the suffering and calamities that are unrelated to human choices and beyond human control. It includes natural disasters that cause harm and death to humans and other animals, such as droughts, earthquakes, and floods. It also includes diseases, harmful birth defects, and the broader human experience of pain and suffering. Christian theology grapples with the existence of natural evil and seeks to reconcile it with the benevolence of an all-powerful God.
Sin and Evil
In Christian thought, moral evil is intrinsically tied to the concept of sin, a multifaceted notion vividly illustrated through various metaphors in the Bible. These diverse metaphors serve to illuminate the manifold dimensions of evil and its impact on individuals, while also aiding in a more profound comprehension of Jesus Christ’s role in atoning for sin. The metaphors for sin often align with Christian representations of atonement.
Throughout the Bible, sin is metaphorically depicted in various ways, including as a disease or sickness, a perilous path leading to a negative destination, a slavemaster or kidnapper, an adversary, a contaminant or pollutant, a failure to meet a standard, a predatory force, a manifestation of filth or uncleanness, vandalism against God’s creation, a menacing beast, a master of slaves, unfaithfulness in the marriage to God, pollution and contamination, a lost animal, and criminal behavior.
In light of these diverse characterizations of sin, the remedies depicted encompass healing, a path leading to life, a ransom or liberation from slavery, triumph, purification, cleansing, acquittal, rescue, safety, a bride price securing union with God, being found, and being declared innocent.
Christianity does not shy away from addressing the reality of human suffering caused by sin and evil. In addition to preaching that the atonement offers the solution to evil, Christian theology emphasizes the importance of compassion, empathy, and tangible support in response to human suffering. It calls believers to stand in solidarity with those who are in pain and to work in Jesus’ name to right some of the wrongs that have resulted from humanity’s pride and selfishness.
The Fall of Lucifer
The traditional Christian understanding of evil begins with an event referred to as the fall of Lucifer which is understood to have occurred before Creation. , This understanding draws on an interpretation of texts found in Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14. In Ezekiel 28 we find a prophecy directed at the king of Tyre, which many interpreters think is comparing him to an angel who rebelled against God in heaven and was cast down to earth as punishment:
You were the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: carnelian, chrysolite and emerald, topaz, onyx and jasper, lapis lazuli, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings. (Ezekiel 28: 12-17, NIV)
In Isaiah 14:12-15, we read a similar prophecy, this time directed at the king of Babylon:
How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.
This passage is also where the name Lucifer comes from. Lucifer is a name derived from the Latin word meaning “light-bearer” that referred to Venus, the morning star, and was appropriated into Christian discourse as the name for this being who fell from heaven. Lucifer is traditionally linked to Satan, a character in the Bible who is God’s adversary and embodies temptation and all attempts to undermine and thwart God’s will for creation. Putting together various oblique references in these and other biblical texts, some Christian theologians propose that Satan led a rebellion in heaven and the army of angels who joined him in his rebellion (referred to as demons or unclean spirits in the Bible) are now present on earth and interact with people in supernatural ways.
It is important to note that while this is the traditional interpretation many scholars today do not agree that these poems were referring to the Adversary (the Satan). The poetry of Isaiah and Ezekiel seems to them to be drawing links between the connection of prideful earthly rulers and spiritual rulers
In the Garden
The earliest recorded instance of a spiritual being rebelling against God the Creator is woven into the narrative of the initial human rebellion, as depicted in Genesis 3. According to the biblical account in Genesis 1-2, God fashioned the world and its inhabitants, deeming His creation “very good” and expressing satisfaction with all that He had brought into existence.
The initial account of a creature rebelling against this harmonious creation unfolds through the personified serpent. Many Christians interpret subsequent biblical narratives as revealing the serpent to be a spiritual being that challenges God’s word, enticing humans to distrust Him and instead rely on their own desires.
Following this rebellion, God addresses the serpent and foretells a perpetual enmity between the serpent and the woman, as well as between their respective offspring. A prophecy emerges, promising that an offspring from the woman will ultimately rise to crush the serpent’s head, bringing an end to the rebellion and the devastation inflicted upon God’s creation and creatures (Genesis 3:15)
In Genesis Chapter 4, the term ‘sin’ makes its first appearance, describing the beast-like desires within humans that lead to their own harm. Throughout the subsequent Hebrew Scriptures, the spiritual entity or entities seeking to tempt humanity toward self-destruction are often referred to as ‘the satan,’ derived from the Hebrew word for ‘the adversary’ or ‘the accuser.’
Although there are uncertainties surrounding the origin of this adversary and its supporters, it is evident that they actively engage within creation, exert influence over worldly powers, and stand in opposition to God’s good creation. Just as humans, created in God’s image, have rebelled and misused their power and authority to cause destruction, these spiritual beings have similarly rebelled, leveraging their power and authority to sow chaos and devastation.
Many Christian traditions today view “the satan” as a proper noun “Satan” and equate Satan with Lucifer.
The Power of Satan
Christians have different perspectives on how much power and influence Satan and his demons have in the world and on people or whether they should be understood as real entities or simply the personification of spiritual forces opposed to God. In any case, Christian theology teaches that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection to eternal life defeated Satan and all forces of evil, though the full effect of this victory has not yet been realized.
Although Christians believe they have been freed from the power of sin and evil, they must still live with the presence of sin and evil until Jesus returns to initiate a newly created order in which evil does not exist.
Satan as Archetype
Satan’s rebellion against the divine order becomes an archetype of defiance against God’s will and creates a cosmic rift that introduces evil into God’s creation. The Bible claims in Genesis 1 that God created the world and everything in it “very good” and that he was pleased with all he had made. But then in Genesis 2, an adversary of God, personified as a serpent appears to already be part of this good creation and immediately attempts to undermine God’s loving rule.
The Fall of Humanity
We find the account of the temptation of humanity to rebel against God in Genesis 3. The account is set in the Garden of Eden, a sacred space where God lives in relationship with the humans he has created to represent him and do his work on earth, Adam and Eve.
When Adam and Eve give in to the temptation to disobey God symbolized by eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, it disrupts the relationship between God and humanity, and Christian tradition (interpreting Paul in Romans 12) teaches that sin enters the world, causes spiritual death, and becomes a corruptive influence on all human society.
Since humanity is tasked with representing God on earth and working toward peace and righteousness, humanity’s rebellion brings suffering to the entire created order.
Some Christians who take a very literal view of these Genesis accounts believe there was no suffering or physical death in nature until Adam and Eve sinned. In addition to having spiritual effects on humanity that lead to widespread harm, they posit that the Fall initiated all forms of evil including natural disasters and diseases, and all forms of death, including predation in the animal world. Other Christians who read the account more literarily limit the effects of the Fall to the spiritual condition of humanity and do not see it as the source of all-natural evil and physical death.
Separation from God
Whether one takes the fall of Adam and Eve as literal history or a symbolic way of explaining the human condition, the act of disobedience marks humanity’s separation from God, referred to in Christian theology as “the Fall of humanity” and introduces the concept of moral evil into Christian thought.
When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, it symbolizes the defiance of divine command, the assertion of human will against the divine order, and the entrance of sin into the human experience. The narrative of Adam and Eve’s fall echoes through Christian theology, underscoring the profound implications of human choice and the consequences of pride, selfishness, and moral failure.
The Problem of Evil
A theodicy is a theological term for an attempt to explain why evil exists if a loving and powerful God could have foreseen it and prevented it. Throughout history Christian philosophers and theologians have proposed different theodicies that attempt to solve “the problem of evil.”
Simply put, the problem of evil states that it is not logically possible for an omnipotent, benevolent, all-knowing God to co-exist with evil. Either God is not powerful enough or loving enough to prevent evil, or he did not know evil would result from the freedom he gave creation.
Christianity upholds the significance of free will as a fundamental aspect of human existence. It is through the exercise of free will that individuals make moral choices, and it is through these choices that the existence of moral evil finds its foundation.
The capacity to choose between good and evil is central to the Christian understanding of human agency, but some people think that God giving humans this choice calls into question either his benevolence, his power, or his foreknowledge.
The paradox summarized in the problem of evil is not merely a philosophical puzzle; it is a question that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Exploring this paradox requires grappling with the nature of divine providence and the role of free will in a world where moral evil exists. It is a challenge that theologians and believers have wrestled with throughout history, seeking to reconcile their faith in a benevolent God with the harsh realities of a world marred by evil.
St. Augustine, one of Western Christianity’s most influential thinkers, offered a significant perspective on theodicy. According to Augustine, evil finds its roots in human sin, and all humanity is guilty of “original sin.” Original sin is a theological concept that is very important in Roman Catholic and Reformed Christianity but is not shared by Eastern Orthodox Christians.
According to Augustine, all of humanity is guilty of the sin that Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden because humanity’ “fallen” nature and state of rebellion against God is inherited by all of their descendants. Augustine’s view posits that evil is a consequence of human free will, as humanity’s choices to deviate from God’s divine order introduced moral evil into the world. Augustine’s theodicy focuses on the moral dimension of evil and the importance of human accountability in the face of suffering and moral imperfection.
In contrast to Augustine’s viewpoint, St. Irenaeus proposed a theodicy that perceives evil as a crucial element in human spiritual development. Irenaeus believed that the existence of evil allowed individuals to exercise their free will and make moral choices that lead to spiritual growth and maturity. In this view, the struggle against evil serves as a catalyst for personal transformation and the refinement of one’s character which is necessary for goodness to exist.
Irenaeus’ theodicy introduces a more optimistic perspective on evil, highlighting its potential for fostering resilience, moral development, and spiritual enlightenment. It reframes suffering as an opportunity for individuals to draw closer to God through their responses to adversity.
Another more recent attempt to propose a coherent theodicy has been offered by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. His ideas incorporate theorizing about the best possible world, and this approach has been influential on many Christian thinkers.
In short, he proposes that God aims to create a world that rises to a certain magnificent level of value, but that level of value can only be achieved by the Incarnation (God becoming a human in Jesus Christ) and Atonement (Jesus Christ redeeming humanity from sin and conquering evil and death), and these two tremendous goods require the Fall, sin, and the resulting consequences of suffering and evil.
Christian Perspectives on Overcoming Evil
Although Christians live in the hope that God will initiate a new creation where there is no evil, suffering, or pain, they must reckon with the effects of evil and the temptation to participate in evil in the here and now.
Prayer is a potent weapon in the battle against evil and temptation. When Jesus taught his followers how to pray, he instructed them to pray that God would deliver them from evil and keep them from yielding to temptation.
In addition to providing personal moral fortification and the power to make good choices, some Christians see prayer as a form of “spiritual warfare” by which they weaken or incapacitate spiritual entities or forces opposed to God that have an influence on people and the world.
The Christian community, embodied by the church, is supposed to play a pivotal role in addressing and combating evil in society. When functioning as Jesus Christ commanded, It serves as a source of support, guidance, and spiritual nourishment for individuals navigating the complexities of life in a world corrupted by the moral failures of others and constantly tempting the Christian to compromise with evil.
Christian Action in Light of Evil
Christians are called to engage actively in the world, addressing systemic injustices, advocating for the vulnerable, and working to alleviate suffering.
Acts of compassion, such as providing food, clothing, and shelter for people in need are tangible expressions of Christian love and empathy. They serve as responses to the moral evil inherent in a world where poverty, oppression, and inequality persist. Advocating for peace and justice, as a core component of Christian ethics, calls for the transformation of societal structures that perpetuate injustice and lead to suffering.
In this perspective, fighting evil is not limited to resisting personal temptation to make immoral choices, it extends to a collective responsibility to change society. Christians are encouraged to be agents of positive change, drawing inspiration from their faith to create a more just and compassionate society.
The End of Evil
The Christian church is empowered to engage in the fight against evil because of their hope that the ultimate destiny of humanity is to dwell with God in a renewed creation where evil will be banished forever and no one will choose to rebel against God’s will.
The Bible portrays the eventual defeat of the Satan, the chief adversary of God and the embodiment of evil. The Satan’s rebellion against the divine order and all who join him in perpetuating evil is a futile rebellion that will ultimately be crushed.
The Book of Revelation, in particular, provides vivid imagery of the final battle between good and evil, where Satan is cast into the lake of fire, marking his ultimate defeat. This biblical portrayal underscores the Christian belief in God’s ultimate over evil, offering believers a profound source of hope and assurance.
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