This is a rather convoluted discussion of the nature of evil. I have wanted to rewrite it for some time, but haven’t gotten around to it. The most important part is the distinction between evil and depravity. Evil is garden variety selfish sins. Depravity is where people perform truly horrific actions.
A Rational Faith Section 3.8 The Nature of Evil
Another important concept in understanding the Bible is the nature and origin of evil.
What is this thing we call evil? Why do people do evil? How did evil enter into the
world? Because these questions are vitally important when attempting to understand the
Bible, it is important that we clarify our terminology by examining what the Bible says
about evil. The Bible tells us about evil indirectly, directly and by analogy.
The Bible tells us about evil indirectly when it tells us about good. Jesus gives us the
foundation of the law when He says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two
commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) Evidently, God
wants us to “love the Lord” and “love your neighbor”. Any way in which we do not love
the Lord or our neighbor, therefore, is a violation of God’s fundamental commandments.
The Bible talks about evil directly when it rebukes us for violating the Law. What kind
of behavior does the Law forbid? Let us take the Ten Commandments as representative.
The first four commandments deal with loving God. Have no other gods before the Lord, do not take the name of the Lord in vain, do not worship something aside from
God by making graven images and remember to set apart one day in seven to
contemplate the goodness of God. What does it mean to love God? At the bare
minimum, it means honoring these four commandments.
The next six commandments deal with loving other human beings. Honor your mother
and father, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness
and do not covet. What does it mean to love your neighbor? At the bare minimum, it
means honoring these six commandments. God’s law is a minimum standard meant to
point us toward the true standard of loving God and loving our neighbor. When we do
evil, therefore, we are failing to love the Lord or love our neighbor.
The Bible tells us about evil by analogy when it compares good and evil to light and
darkness. This comparison tells us that the essential thing to understand about evil is that
it is the absence of good. Darkness is not a thing on its own, it is the absence of light.
Turn on a light in a dark room and watch the darkness disappear. Evil is not a thing on
its own, it is the absence of good. Evil is the failure to love God or your neighbor. Committing acts consistent with a lack of love is what the Bible calls sin.
In order to understand evil, it is important to understand that it occurs on two scales. The
more basic level of evil is individual evil and it consists of being selfish and self-
centered. When an individual is being evil, he lies, steals, murders or uses others for his
own convenience in various ways. Defining individual evil in this way explains why
people do it and how it came into the world. People are by nature selfish and self-
centered. When a human being does evil, he or she is doing something according to their
own desires for their own gratification. These selfish desires come in a number of
different forms. Some people desire to show themselves stronger than others because
they were abused when they were younger. Some people desire to affirm their self worth
by having sex with many members of the opposite sex because they were rejected earlier
in life. Some people want to make themselves appear greater than they are by distorting
the truth of their accomplishments through bragging. Some people are lazy and attempt
to live off of the work of other people. Whatever form it takes, individual evil is inherent
to mankind and entered into the world because God wanted to create beings to bless.
Because these beings were not him, they were not good and they were therefore evil.
This is individual evil and we see it and perform it continually.
The second scale of evil is corporate evil and consists of the acts of groups of evil
individuals acting in concert. This form of evil is most visible in spectacularly evil
episodes in history like the Holocaust or slavery in the American South. Less visible
examples are child pornography rings and other criminal conspiracies that involve large
numbers of individuals. What these larger scale examples of evil have in common is a
mob, “least common denominator” mentality where whatever moral reservations the individuals may have are sacrificed to the desire to “fit in” or preserve financial stability.
In extreme cases of corporate evil like the Holocaust, for example, the tacit participation
of a large fraction of society is ensured using violence and the threat of physical
privation. During such horrific times, the least evil members of society do not dare
question evil corporate actions for fear of losing their jobs or going to prison. This is
corporate evil and it is vastly larger in scale and effect than individual evil.
Probably the most difficult thing to understand about evil is the fact that what appears to
be loving behavior can actually be unloving behavior through pride. In this way, pride
makes evil difficult to understand because pride can disguise itself. A person can appear
good, for example, by doing acts that are beneficial for other human beings around them
and not for themselves. If they pride themselves that they are better than other human
beings or equal to God because of their charity, however, their motivation is not the
selfless love of 1 Corinthians 13. Charitable acts motivated by pride may appear to be
good in their short term positive effects. The lack of love for others that is the fruit of
pride, however, can cause injury on a large scale.
The most insidious forms of evil occur when people appeal to the love of something
greater than self in order to justify egregious acts against others. Racial supremacists like
Adolf Hitler argue that love of the Aryan race requires committing acts of violence
against individuals of other races. Religious fanatics like those who ran the Inquisition
argue that loving God requires forcing others to pay lip service to God through torture.
Fanatics of ideologies like communism argue that loving “the people” requires violent
revolution. The selfish motivation for these acts is the pride that these people take in
their own understanding of the “greater good”. Because pride can pervert love to do evil
in this way, it is the worst form of evil.
As we have seen in this discussion, evil is a failure to love God or your neighbor. People
do evil because it is their nature to put themselves first and do things that are beneficial
or gratifying for their own selves. Evil entered the world when God created beings who
were not good like him. Evil occurs at the individual level and at the societal level.
Societal evil tends to be much worse because the actions of the group are determined by
the least common denominator of their morality. Pride is the worst form of evil since it
can disguise itself as good and motivate evil on a societal scale. This is what we mean
when we talk about evil and these concepts will play an important role in formulating a
rational Christian faith.
3.8.1 Horrific Evil
The fact that selfish and self-centered acts are evil is all very well, but how do we explain
individual acts of horrific evil? Child molestation, sadistic mass-murder and other
heinous acts cannot be explained in the same way as other acts. Let us turn to the
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents… (NIV Romans 1:28-30)
From these verses, we see that when people perpetually refuse God’s words and He gives
them over to evil. When a human being is given over to evil and continuously refuses to
repent, that human being is now capable of horrific evil. God does this in the hope that
others might see their need for the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.