The Problem of Evil
When acts of evil occur in our world today, it always follows that a person is to blame, an evil person. Have you noticed that evil acts occur exclusively within the realm of humanity? You will never hear a wildlife commentator describing the savage killing of a gazelle by a pack of hyenas as being evil. It goes without saying that killing is what hyenas do. This distinction surfaces interesting questions, like: Why is the descent into evil uniquely reserved for the domain of humans? What IS evil? How do we recognize something as being evil vs. not being evil? Why does evil seem to be more pervasive during certain periods of time, like during the Holocaust? Is evil an entity that stalks us, another form of life? Could evil simply be a force or power that has no bodily form and yet can be manipulated to gain power over other humans? While these questions might seem at first glance to be more fitting for a Hollywood script, the notion of evil being real and pervasive in our world is no mere fiction. Who among us would not lament that we see evil in the news everyday?
What Evil is Not
In order to to understand what evil is, it is helpful to first consider what evil is not. While we naturally connect the effects of evil with a source – people who have committed evil or regimes in history that perpetrated evil; evil does not have a form per se. In other words, evil is not a person or a thing. Said another way, evil is not a corporeal entity lurking in search of another victim on which it can bring terror and destruction. If that is true, what exactly then is “evil”?
What Evil Is
Theologically, evil has been understood throughout history by employing two terms: “privation” and “negation.” The Latin meaning for privation was defined as “the loss or absence of a quality or attribute that is normally present.” Over time, the term was expanded to encompass things that are essential to well-being of a person. For example, all people must have food to survive and if a person is “de-prived” of food the result will be damaging and eventually destroy the well-being of the individual. Another example would be that cold is the “privation” of heat.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism applies the concept of privation in defining sin as being:
Question: What is sin?
Answer: Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 14
In other words, we can know what sin is precisely because when someone does not conform to the standard of God as expressed in the Law of God, it is sin. Therefore, sin can rightly be expressed as a privation of our well being precisely because sin is a rejection of God’s design for us. When understood in this way, the notion of evil as an entity lurking in the bushes or a force to be manipulated is eliminated. Sin is to be understood as a privation of the righteous standard of God. Stated another way, when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they received a privation in their relationship with God – the loss of their well-being.
The second term – Negation, finds its meaning in being the opposite of something else. For example, when we say God is infinite we are also saying at the same time (via negation) that God is not finite. If we say someone is ungodly, it is because they acting in the opposite way of how God acts. If we point to injustice in society, it is precisely because what we are viewing is a negation of what truly is just or a legitimate expression of justice. Negation is simply knowing what something is in direct relationship to what it is not.
How Can We Recognize Evil?
Given that evil is not a thing or entity, how can we recognize it when we “see” it? Augustine argued that evil is recognizable when either a privation or a negation occur. Said another way, when a person deliberately acts in a way that violates the well-being of another person (privation) or acts contrary to God’s will toward another person (negation), it is evil.
How Do We Categorize Evil?
Although evil is not a corporeal being, it is real and its effects are evident in our world. How do we know this to be true? Given that humans are real beings living in time and space, when we do not conform to the Law of God (“privation”) or we act opposite to the Law of God (“negation”) toward people we commit evil. Therefore, when we violate a standard of God, we bring evil into existence as a result of our actions. In the simplest of terms, evil is a result stemming from a condition resulting in an action that violates both our Creators will and character. Therefore, evil is a direct result of either (or both) a privation or negation of the God’s will in its most pure form.
Where Did Evil Come From?
It would seem that evil must have derived from the freedom of Adam and Eve’s will. Although it stretches beyond our comprehension, it would seem that the infusion of freewill given to Adam and Eve by God is the starting point from which we can begin to perceive the origin of what we call evil. Although evil does not exist in a bodily form, evil came into being when Adam and Eve refused to conform to the revealed will of God (Gen. 2:16-17). It could be said that evil was brought into existence as a result of their original sin. There are some who may propose that since the creation was deemed “very good” (Genesis 1:31), God must have created evil as part of the creation. However, as previously considered, evil is not an entity or a thing with form that was part of the material creation but is mentioned after the creation was completed. Additionally, the idea that God created evil or has ever enticed someone to commit sin contradicts the teaching of the Bible (see James 1:14-17) and is both philosophically untenable as well as illogical. If evil is a privation (lack of conforming to the wellness of a being) or negation (opposite to the character of God), it follows that God cannot be the author of evil given it would be a contradiction of His very nature. Since God does all that He pleases (Psalm 115:3), evil would have to please God. Said another way, for God to create evil He would have to create something that opposes His very nature. In doing so, God would be opposing Himself (or acting in opposition to Himself) within the very act of creating. We would classify an act like this as displaying a psychotic disorder, like schizophrenia. Therefore, while the Bible does not speak with the type of precision we may prefer regarding the origin of evil, we can be confident that it arose from the uniquely free will of Adam and Eve in opposing the clear command that expressed both the will as well as the character of God.
Note: The freewill of Adam and Eve is both fundamentally different from and vastly superior (in the sense of exhibiting true freedom) to our own today. While we do exhibit a measure of freedom to make choices in this world, no one is spiritually or truly free in regard to our ability to obey God. Why? When Adam and Eve rejected God they moved from being willfully free to being willfully depraved, unable to choose anything other than contra-God (see Romans 3:19-23) in their motive. Given we inherit this nature from Adam and Eve, we are born in this same spiritual condition. While this does not mean we cannot make decisions that are real and valid regarding the trajectory of our lives, it does mean that we always choose ourselves over God unless enabled by His grace to do otherwise.
The Good News
Jesus Christ came into this fallen world and lived a life that both conformed to God’s standard (in living by faith as a human) and absorbed God’s wrath for sin and evil that His holiness demanded. In doing this, Jesus satisfied both the justice of God in His death and provided for us a righteousness that now forms the basis for our relationship with the Lord. The foundation of our relationship with the Lord is no longer what we do for Him (which is impossible given our fallen nature) but the merit of Christ and we enter into this union through faith alone. This is the Gospel. This is good news!