Understanding Evil

Just as darkness is defined in regards to the absence of light, so Christian thought has often defined evil as the absence of good; or to use Augustine’s (354-430) words, the privation of good (privatio boni). Evil then is what ought not to be, for evil is at the least unpleasant (as in a rotten peach) if not harmful or deadly (as in cancer or murder). Historically, then, Christian thought has referred to evil in two ways: moral evils, such as lust, lying, rape, and murder; and natural evils, such as tsunamis, measles, limb loss, and cancer. Further, most Christians consider that all natural evils result from moral evil—primarily the moral evils committed by Satan’s rebellion and then those committed by earth’s first inhabitants, Adam and Eve. When Adam and Eve rebelled and ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they plunged their descendants into a lifelong education of good and evil. God punished their disobedience by cursing the ground, increasing the pain of childbirth, and removing them from the Garden of Eden, which also removed them from the rejuvenating power of the Tree of Life (Gen. 3). Natural evil thus followed moral evil.

Adam’s offspring inherited his fallen nature and so followed his ways: “There is no one who does good, not even one” (Psa. 14:1, 3; 53:1, 3; Rom. 3:12). Instead of trusting God, like Adam and Eve, all of us, as Karl Menninger (1883-1990) put it, seek “to find out for ourselves whether what has been ‘told’ us is the real ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ of things.” But it’s more than that. Christians believe that evil goes deeper. Jesus said that the one who commits sin is “the slave to sin” (John 8:34). Christian theologians John Calvin (1509-1564) and James Arminius (1560-1609) disagreed on many things, but both held that humankind was so corrupted by evil that no one would ever seek God without the work of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the human propensity towards evil is illustrated by the work of most genocide researchers such as Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), Stanley Milgram (1933-1984), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918- ), who himself spent eight years in a Soviet gulag. They conclude that it is ordinary people who torture and murder. Thus, Solzhenitsyn encouraged everyone to ask the “dreadful question,” that “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become such an executioner?”

Historic Christianity answers this dilemma by proclaiming that Christ rescued humankind from its evil deeds by His death on the cross where he took on the sins of the world (1 John 2:2) and called on everyone to repent of their evil deeds and so be saved (Acts 26:20). Further, the Bible is considered the ultimate source for defining what evil is. Christian theologians point out that although evil is whatever God says it is, God does not make these decisions arbitrarily—rather, what He commands is exemplary of his own good character. For example, the Bible says “God is love” (1 John 4:16), so he commands everyone to love their neighbors as themselves (Mat. 19:19); and the Bible says God cannot lie (Num. 23:19; Heb. 6:18) so he commands everyone to speak the truth (Col. 3:9; Eph. 4:25). The Bible also teaches that God’s nature has been revealed to humankind so that everyone who does evil is “without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). Theologians call this general revelation.

Christian Distinctives

The Christian conception of evil differs greatly from that of other religions and philosophies. Christian Science practitioners consider evil to be an illusion, while Christians regard evil as completely real. Gnosticism and Manichaeism hold that evil has an independent existence (in other words, evil is a thing that could be located somewhere in the universe) whereas Christianity teaches that moral evil results from a misuse of the will. Zoroastrians are dualists who think evil is equal to good, while Christians believe one day God will destroy evil, and God could do it now if He wanted. Unlike the relativist who believes that what is evil is relative to each individual’s culture or even relative to each individual him- or herself, the Christian believes that there is objective evil; in other words, some things are evil for all people at all times (e.g., taking another man’s wife or another woman’s husband is always wrong).

Problem of Evil

Unlike the Hindu’s and Buddhist’s pantheistic conceptions that since God is all that exists and so within God are both good and evil, Christians believe that God is a person who is only good and “in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). However, since Christians consider evil to be real, they are confronted with why a good and all powerful God would allow evil to exist (called the problem of evil). Most Christians reply, however, that God did not cause evil but he created creatures on which he bestowed free will and then these creatures freely chose to disobey God. Christians also point out that although God allows evil now, He does so because He is accomplishing other valuable things (like allowing creatures to exercise free will). Also, Christians point out that God will one day end all evil. The unrepentant will be thrown into hell (Matt. 13:41-42) but the repentant will be ushered into an eternal kingdom where “nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful” (Rev. 21:27).

Christian Accomplishments

The Christian teaching of evil has profoundly affected not only Western civilization but most of the world. Although Greek and Roman cultures were rife with adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality, Christians did much to turn Western culture against these practices. Tertullian (ca. 155-230) wrote that among those in hell would be those “guilty of incest towards sisters, adulterers of wives, abductors of maidens, polluters of boys.” Thus the scathing critic of Christianity, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), acknowledged that “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians.”

It was the Christian church that ended the gladiatorial games and the Roman entertainment of watching people being tortured or ripped apart by wild animals. W. E. H. Lecky (1838-1903) wrote, “There is scarcely any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian Church.” Christian influence successfully interdicted the public deflorations of virgins in Samoa, Sati in India, and foot-binding in China. Christian influence all but abolished the exposing of children to die throughout the Roman Empire.

Reasons for Enduring Strength

The reason the Christian teaching on evil continues to prosper is because contrary perspectives on evil are unlivable. For example, those who believe that the definition of evil is determined solely by ones culture, or even individual perspective, will inevitably find their views clash with cultures or individuals holding contrary views. After all, if nothing is objectively evil, then the consistent relativist cannot do such things as condemn the Taliban for forbidding a woman to see a doctor or for shooting a woman for not wearing a head-covering. Also, the Christian teachings on evil prosper because societies or individuals that disregard them soon find themselves harming themselves and others. For example, drunkenness harms not only the drunk but also his family and drunk drivers kill thousands every year. Promiscuity frequently leads to disease and divorce, hurting children and spouses, often for the rest of their lives. God’s commands aren’t arbitrary but are given to benefit creatures and creation (Rom. 13:8-10). Ultimately, those who continue in evil sooner or later will reap the fruits of evil: corruption and death (Gal. 6:8; Rom. 6:23).


Arendt, Hannah. Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans. Cambridge, Cambridge University, 1998.

Chang, Iris. The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. NewYork: Penquin, 1997.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Harper, 1831. [Reference from vol. 3. p. 172.]

Gilkey, Langdon. The Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1975.

Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale, 2000.

Lecky, W. E. H.  History of European Morals From Augustus to Charlemagne. New York: George Braziller, 1955. [reference from vol. II, page 34.]

Menninger, Karl. Whatever Became of Sin? New York: Hawthorn, 1973. [reference from page 20].

Milgram, Stanley. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2004.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. [Reference from p. 160]

Tertullian, Apology. Alexander Souter, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1917. Chapter 11. Available online: http://www.tertullian.org/articles/mayor_apologeticum/mayor_apologeticum_00index.htm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *