Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Defining Evil

In writing the last post in regards to God actually causing evil rather than just being impartial to it, I noticed how careful I was in using the word ‘evil’. While the Scriptures clearly teach that God has no qualms about visiting evil on people (Exodus 32:12,14 Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6, KJV), I wanted to make sure that I didn’t impugn His name because of a careless use of the word ‘evil’.

So how is evil defined in the modern world? Wikipedia describes it in a way that I think most people would agree with; “Evil is the violation of, or intent to violate, some moral code. Evil is usually seen as the dualistic opposite of good [….] evil is commonly associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, [….], and acts of unnecessary or indiscriminate violence.

This description is certainly in accord with the common understanding of evil, but no Christian would dare to use such words to describe God! After some probing from a friend, it became obvious that the revulsion of modern Christians to the idea that God causes evil is because the modern definition of the word seems to be quite different to how it is used in Scripture.

A simple question will illustrate this; would you call Satan evil? I certainly would have. But seeing the verses where God Himself is described as causing evil made me second guess this assumption. So I looked up every verse that refers to Satan, and guess what? Not once is the word ‘evil’ mentioned in conjunction with Satan! Satan is never called evil, and more importantly he isn’t credited as causing evil either. It is clear from these facts that our understanding of how the word ‘evil’ is used in Scripture is quite errant.

So what then is the Scriptural definition of evil? The Hebrew word evil is רָע, or ‘ra’, which predominately means adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, sorrow or trouble. These things are the typical tools that God uses to deal with wayward humans, and I don’t think many Christians would have a problem with God causing these things. But the most import thing to note is that these definitions are categorically different to what the modern definition of evil is, as exemplified in the Wiki definition above.

But it seems that the most important thing in figuring out what Scripture means by the word ‘evil’ is the context that the verse in found in.

In Exodus 32, God is described as being angered that the Israelites built an idol to worship after only having just been miraculously rescued from Egypt; “Now leave me [God] alone so that my anger may burn against them [the Israelites] and that I may destroy them.Now Moses was distressed at this idea, so he beseeched God, and actually demanded that God “repent of this evil against thy people [….] And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”

The context makes it clear that the “evil” that God wished to visit on the Israelites was not some kind of arbitrary and woeful injustice, but rather it was a just punishment for a blatant sin. So the evil that God wishes to cause is; adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, sorrow and trouble.

The context of Amos 3:6 is similar. The chapter starts out with a statement of Judgement “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities”. So again, the evil that God wishes to cause as punishment is; adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, sorrow and trouble.

The context of Isaiah 45:7 does not mention any kind of punishment for sin. Instead the context of the chapter is to demonstrate God’s supreme control over every part of His creation. Not only does God “form the light, and create darkness”, but His infinite control means that the evil is his creation is under His control as well; “I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things”. But as the Scriptural definition shows, this “evil” is not some kind of violation of a moral code, or wrongdoing or act of unnecessary or indiscriminate violence as the common definition of evil is, because we know that God is just (Deut 32:4; Job 37:23; Psa 99:4; Luke 18:7-8) and righteousness (Isa 51:6; Psa 89:14; Jer 23:5-6; 1 Cor 1:30).

So while God certainly causes evil, it is clear from all this that God certainly does not cause evil in the modern sense of the word.

“He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” Deut 32:4 NIV


  1. Hey old man ;)
    It's me again...tehehehe, I'm going to disagree again :P
    So I agree that there are definite judgements that God wills against people as a form of justice for their sins. These are inflictions, afflictions, plagues, pestilence, and yes even death, depending on what the sin was and how far they rebelled against God, yet I do not know that that is the same as evil, in the modern sense or not. If that is evil, then what is satan? I know htat we have sliding scales of injustice and affliction in this world, one person's suffering will not compare to another's, but it isn't a comparison anyway really. I'll grant you that God uses bad things to judge and teach, if we've been in rebellion, but what about things like rape, murder and paedophillia, surely stuff like that is evil, no matter whether it's the modern term or not?
    In saying that God causes 'evil', you're forgetting about sin and the fall I think. The fact is we live in a broken world, God does have control yes, but he's also put natural laws of cause and effect into place, and free will. I am the victim of a paedophile, at age of 3. Now this guy is broken, is sinful is wicked, he has exercised his free will to engage in an evil practice. Did God will for me to be abused by this guy? According to your logic I'd have to say yes, but I don't believe this for an instance, and to any other rape and paedophile victims, I will tell them that it was not God who did this-or willed this- to happen. Satan is the opposite of God, where God does use afflictions etc as consequences of rebellion, as a just judgement, satan uses evil to wound, destroy cause chaos and rent us assunder from God as he hates God and us cos we're made in God's image. Those two things are entirely different, and the modern terminology aside, I cannot call anything God does as evil. It is not a black and white world that we live in. We have sin, we are saved, we have free will, there is predestination, we can choose what we do each and every day, yet God can intervene and cause things to happen. God is good, yet we see suffering and stuff all around us. Do I believe that God has used my abuse in the past for good now, absolutely, do I believe that He willed it to happen, never. Do I believe that he has absolute control, definitely, do I trust Him with my life, wholeheartedly, does this sound like a contradiction, assuredly! But that is what it is like, in the bible and on earth, we live in 2 wolrds almost, where 2 truths that seem to contradict each other go side by side, almost like what was supposed to be (pre sin) and what is now (with sin) wavering over the top of each other to form this reality we live in. I would be very interested to hear where you think satan fits in and if God is the one doing the evil (not the modern version I'll grant you), then what the heck is satan doing, and where do the atrocities in this world fit in. Also by the by, God didn't judge Job, Job's legalistic frineds kept telling him he'd sinned and that's why judgement came, but Job believed otherwise and retained that God was good and knew what he was doing. God afflicted Job, but it was not for judgement it was to prove to satan that Job's love was real, so that doesn't fit in with your theory of God's 'Just Evil'anyways!I appreciate that you're trying to tackle this subject and I think you've written it with more sensitivity than your Yahweh article, which is good, as there are a lot of broken hurt people out there who already blame God for their sufferings, and don't really need another excuse to do so. I'd love it if there was a black and white answer to suffering and why God allows it for some and not for others, or even if he causes it/allows it or if it's the natural laws he first set in place, or if it's the ultimate nature of free will..... if someone comes up with an answer pre-eternity, I'll be first in line to find out!

  2. Hey Missy,
    As far as natural evil (I mean 'evil' in the modern sense) goes, and the actions of Satan, nothing happens without God's explicit approval, the story of Job makes this clear. In fact, in these things God claims total responsibility. When Job was afflicted God made it clear that it was He Himself that caused the affliction (Job 2:3). Also Job was in no doubt that it was God causing it (Job 1:20-21). Scripture constantly states that God is in total control and takes full responsibility of natural 'evil'. Also, I can find no example in the Bible of Satan violating a command of God, he can only do what God allows, and probably only out of a naive and wicked sense of power.

    But is moral evil different? I tend to think not. I see a ton of Scripture stating that God is in control of mans actions, but I can't think of any where God disassociates Himself from it. God describes Himself as having total control, and Scripture doesn't seem to exclude the actions of man from this control.
    It is certainly more difficult to accept that God's control extends to the most macabre of human actions, but I tend to think it must be true if God is truly in total control as the Scriptures say He is. I keep thinking about the fact that Christ was destined to suffer the moral 'evil' (again in the modern sense of the term) of crucifixion. God had no plan for Christ to live as an earthly king as most of the Jews expected, it was God's sole intention that Christ HAD to be killed. So if God willed the moral 'evil' of Christ's death, then to me it seems logical that God also wills all other moral 'evil'.

    If there was something specific that I didn't address just let me know

  3. Thanks Timmy-Tim,
    So it does give one food for thought, I still don't know that I'll ever be able to reconcile it all in my head as I feel it is one of those paradoxes that exist in Christianity. I used to struggle with this in the past, I don't think I struggle with it now in the same way as I definitely trust God much more now, and have a more alive relationship with Him that's built on love- not fear (the bad sort)-as I did have in the past. I think that I still look to how predestination and free will work, each day and with every decision, it's always in my mind, but at the end of the day if I never get the answer-or get the right balance- I know that God is good and can be trusted. I find that personally this is a good place to be in.
    Oh and I totally know the thing with Job, that it was God in control and satan couldn't kill Job because God said he couldn't. This is always a challenging concept, I've wondered if even though God said satan couldn't kill Job, God let satan work out the exact nature of torture and conflict to bring upon Job. So maybe there's testing times in our life, or troubles and tribulation and God has said here's the line you can't cross it, but then let's the natural laws or satan or people's free will run the course. If that makes sense, it's harder for me to put thoughts in words because I can't use my flipping hands and arms for expression!! Just another thing to ponder and look into I guess! :)

  4. Yeah I know what you mean. It does seem that Satan has a small degree of free licence.
    There are two reasons why I am starting to favour the idea that God ‘wills’ both the natural and human caused suffering. Firstly it seems to be well supported by Scripture, and secondly I intuitively feel that it is correct. It has allowed me to shed so much anxiety, stress and frustration, I think that this is because if God has purpose in even the bad things in my life, then I needn’t fret over them, I can freely trust God now like I have never been able to before.
    I read the book of Job last night and there is one verse that is perseverating in my mind:
    “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” Job 2:10 NIV

    This kind of thinking may or may not work for other people, but I know that this revelation has had an amazing effect for me.