We’ve had some spirited discussion below and some terms have been used that might need clarification. When we say that such and such or so and so are ‘evil’ (i.e. Bush, Islamofascism) what are we talking about? Is evil personal? Is it external? Is it corporate? Is it everyone else but us?

Who decides what is evil and what is not?

53 thoughts on “Evil?

  1. “If you don’t deny that Islam spreads by the sword, then I will chop your head off.” Is that evil, or ironic? “If you don’t deny that Islam is violent, then I’ll kill you.” Again, evil, or ironic?

    Let Yoda decide.

    How goes it Stace? Nice artwork!

  2. You sure like this crazy ass picture, don’t you padre.

    As to evil, I like the take of St. Aquinas. But then again, his is but an exercise in high scholasticism and doesn’t hold water in the “experience” of life. And the “experience” of life is where the proverbial rubber meets the road.

  3. According to some Catholic encyclopedia:

    “Evil, in a large sense, may be described as the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings at least, the sufferings in which life abounds.”


  4. Evil seems to be the enemy of good. Good comes from God. Evil must come from the enemy of God, the Father of Lies. Lies are evil. Truth is good. Liars are evil. Truthful people are good? But truth can be used like a whip, to inflict, not convict. There’s that fine line again.

  5. If I may offer a few others’ thoughts on the subject (Great subject, by the way – and more difficult than it might seem):

    It is told that Buddha, going out to look on life, was greatly daunted by death. “They all eat one another!” he cried, and called it evil. This process I examined, changed the verb, said, “They all feed one another,” and called it good.

  6. “What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

    -Hannah Arrendt

  7. “There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance”


    In googling around, I saw a few references to Ignorance as the greatest evil or the major evil.

    And, of course, the most obvious biblical verse on the subject to me is Jesus’ “The Love of Money is the root of all evil.”

    Very telling, that. Moreso than we give it credit for, I suspect. Jesus has the chance to define for us EVIL and he doesn’t choose murder or impure thoughts, homosexuality or infidelity, not even war or genocide, but the love of money.

    Which, of course, is always a problem for the other folk out there but not us.

  8. The term evil in the politically correct context of much of today’s discussion is something that has fallen into disuse and therefore lost a common understanding of its meaning. If social context does not allow for calling something or someone evil, then in time a common meaning of the term is lost. If context is lost, a common understanding of the meaning of a term is lost. To some degree we end up with an individual understanding of the term.

    I just tried a quick attempt at finding a definition of evil based upon its biblical usage. I see a range of usages which could be said go from wrong to horrific. The Authorized Version of Holy Scripture has 569 usages of the term evil. But I would contend that often the Elizabethan English usage of evil would today be the term wrong. The NIV has more than 100 less usage of the term evil for example.

    That being said a quick attempt at my view on evil. This is very much a personal answer albeit I tried hard not to become idiosyncratic.

    Is evil personal? To me there are evil people. This is not always synonymous with your enemies. This is also different from the idea that we are all sinners. While all sin can be seen as evil, to call a person evil is to say much more than they are a sinner. If by personal you mean that people can be evil I say yes.

    it external? I would say to some extent that evil is often external. For example you can say evil people create evil societies that foster evil people.

    Is it corporate? It can be corporate but need not be.

    Is it everyone else but us? I pray not.


  9. If I may now offer a couple of thoughts of my own…

    As I think of the biblical usage of the word, I suspect that the majority of the times it is used in the corporate sense. That is, “these people are evil” or “man’s heart is evil.” Also, I suspect that the majority of times when it is ascribed to an individual, it is talking about a specific act, as in, “You’ve done a great evil.”

    These distinctions, as opposed to saying, “This man is evil.” I think our usage of the term evil to describe a person is not especially biblical. A people, yes and specific actions of a person or a people, yes, but not “Bob is evil” or even, “Bush is evil.”

    I haven’t researched it yet, just pondered it a bit.

    The one exception I can think of would be Ahab, whom I believe was referred to as evil (or was it “He did evil…” again pointing to his actions and not him?).

  10. Take and read the book “The Third Peacock” by Robert Farrar Capon. It’s honest, hence revealing in many ways on the subject of said “evil.” Probably out of print now, but you can find it used rather easily I suspect.

  11. Well now to be fair, I WAS only quoting folk at that point. Still, I think those who spoke the words know of which they speak (in other words, who am I to disagree with Jesus?)

    And to be accurate, it is the LOVE of money that Jesus says is the root of all evil, not money itself. I wouldn’t want J to be misquoted.

    Hippy? Okay, if you say so.

  12. Morpheus,
    I disagree that “Liars are evil” is necessarily true. Partakers of and participators in evil, but certainly not always fully evil. Dan is right, it isn’t Biblical to call one evil, nor is it a very Christian thing to do. We can call out the fruits of men, the acts, as evil (and even disagree about that amongst ourselves), but never can we judge the hearts of men. It is not our job. I believe this is the patristic understanding of Matthew 7:1.

    Is it really evil/good that is the dichotomy? Is this at the right level? It seems these are ‘under’ the love/antilove category. Good comes from love, evil comes from antilove. (Hate didn’t seem to have full connotations of antilove or I would have used ‘hate’).

    This is why St. Paul didn’t teach us “Speak the truth” as an exhortation, rather, “Speak the truth in love”. Not to think that real love is always a ‘feel good’ experience — I discipline my children out of love, but they probably don’t always see it that way. I could tell the truth to someone to bolster my pride and to belittle them — surely not in love. Yet I could speak the truth in humility and love to help a brother I care about come to the full unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature by living as the Church of His disciples would have us live.

    Complex subject.

    In less popular language than currently is in vogue, is the good / evil distinction really the more classical virtue / sin distiction?

    I’m not surprised you mention the picture above all else. But that is another conversation… (grin)

    Knowledge, when pursued in a Machiavellian way (among others), certainly can be an evil lust… Similar to the love of money.

    Knowledge and ignorance aren’t evil, neither is money in and of itself, nor wealth nor poverty are evil. It is how we go about how these things are pursued or ignored that can be evil, how we live with them if we are in them, what we do about them if we aren’t.

    This suddenly feels a very clumsy place and way for me to communicate these ideas. I’m hitting “Publish” anyway.

  13. Well speaking as one who evaluates her bank account solely on her shoe buying power… I don’t know if I love money or shoes. Is a love of shoes evil? Where does one draw the line? Can I get absolution?
    I would equate evil with any purely selfish act that gratifies the flesh rather than the Spirit. This makes the line a bit foggier, because evil can no longer be seen as simply an action of right or wrong, but is tied to the motivation behind the action. In other words if I am doing what appears to be the right thing for the wrong motivaton, it is still evil . . .

    Which I guess in a round about way is the same thing that jholder said – except for the bit about the shoes… sorry – I do lapse into girliness once in a while . . .

    Morpheus, I liked your post about truth.

  14. I’ve spent a bit of time these last couple of days looking through a Bible concordance and finding evil in the Bible. Not an exhaustive study by any means, but a short study, at least. I’d be interested in any language scholars to perhaps chime in on the biblical words translated “evil” – is there any illumination in the original languages?

    There are three ways that “evil” appears to be used in the bible.

    1. Evil referring to the devil or evil spirits
    2. Evil referring to a man (rarely if ever a woman, but that’s more due to the patriarchal nature of their societies, I’d suggest), and
    3. “Doing evil”

    Evil in the context of the Bible is nearly always something someone DOES (“Ahab did evil in the sight of the Lord”). Rarely is evil used to describe a person. It happens (“An evil man is bent only on rebellion”) but it is the exception in the Bible, and even when it happens, it could still very well be considered to be a reference to “a man who does evil.”

    This jibes with what I think about evil. People aren’t evil. People do evil. I think it fairly helpful to make that distinction. I think way too often we used demonization methods to call “the others” evil, and therefore it is okay to ignore them, or worse, torture and kill them.

    Some seem to embrace doing evil more than others, but no one (or very few) are intentionally out to do evil. As Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley said, “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”

    I think our problem is way too often, we mistake for “good” that which is “evil.” The terrorists undoubtedly think that attacking the Great Satan is a good thing, pleasing to their God. Bush undoubtedly thinks that conducting attacks that result in dead innocents is done in an effort for a greater good.

    But for the families of those thus attacked (by Bush or by terrorists), it is apparent that the action taken is evil.

    So that might be one question I’d ask of our illustrious audience: How do we know that which we do is indeed a good, and that we’re not mistaking our evil actions for “good,” just as we think “they” have done?

  15. Dan said, “The terrorists undoubtedly think that attacking the Great Satan is a good thing, pleasing to their God. Bush undoubtedly thinks that conducting attacks that result in dead innocents is done in an effort for a greater good.”

    I think the terrorists should get top billing for killing innocents, since they actually target them. Don’t compare amateurs to professionals.

    I’ve thought a bit since my last post, too. I believe that men do do evil and become evil in doing so. The rich man and Lazarus are good examples. Jesus gave no quarter in calling men evil: sons of perdition. “You don’t know my father because your father is Satan” comes to mind. Find it in your concordance. It is not true that men do not know that they are doing evil and turning from God. They, we, know full well when we do it. I know I do.

    You can’t have the love of God without accepting the possibility of wrath. Righteousness is not a negotiated or nuanced value. It is pure. Opposing God is dangerous to your health. It isn’t a mis-understanding. We are to go on to perfection. Hard to do when you’re rationalizing your right to do evil, I would think.

  16. I think we tend to know it, at some level at least, when we do evil. I reject out of hand that we always know when we’re doing evil.

    I’d say those who support the Iraq war are supporting an evil action. Do you think that those who support the Iraq war think they’re supporting evil?

    I think the terrorists who’d kill innocents would reject your notion that their actions are evil. Do you really think they think, “Hmmm, this action will be good and evil. Let’s do it!”?

  17. Morpheus said:

    “Opposing God is dangerous to your health. It isn’t a mis-understanding. We are to go on to perfection. Hard to do when you’re rationalizing your right to do evil, I would think.”

    I’m not at all sure what you’re saying in this paragraph. What isn’t a misunderstanding? Who’s rationalizing their right to do evil?

  18. I get careless with pronouns sometimes. I’m sorry, Danny.

    What I was trying to speak to is your letting men off the hook by suggesting that they aren’t really evil, but may do evil, as in “Whoops, I did evil.” I have talked here and elsewhere about the blindness that seems to come over me when I am succumbing to temptation. I see the evil I do in the rear view mirror, often. However, since I seek to go on to perfection, I have a problem. I must admit that I often approach temptation with my eyes wide open. I see the warning signs, and as my tunnel vision toward committing sin is narrowning toward my pride or lust or anger, I barely feel the “old man” taking over. Then I’m through the moment and looking back with remorse.

    Well, who was that? Who did that? Was that me? Wasn’t that part of me evil? I can’t deny it. The good I could have done I didn’t do. The evil was overpowering. So, right there, I see my evil. I want to purge it. I want me to be different.

    I seem to be getting somewhat better over time, but I am evil, in truth. It is Christ in me who is not. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good. There is no one good but God.” In saying so, I believe he was pointing out the truth of what had been said, not contradicting the speaker. I have to admit that I am not God. I am not good. And, in my worst moments, I’m expressing the evil in me. I suppose I may not be able to say that I am pure evil, but it sure seems like it sometimes. I wouldn’t fault God for removing the blight that is me in the twinkling of an eye. And here I guess I am quite Protestant in saying that I believe the saving blood of Jesus is my refuge.

  19. Morpheus,

    Well K., you may sound quite classically Protestant (have you been reading Luther lately?) in general by eliciting the tell tale sign of seeking refuge in the saving blood of the Lamb, basically calling on the “alien” righteousness of Jesus outside of yourself, but you sound even more akin to Geneva buddy in how you make reference to yourself. Be careful of the fire that is Reformed theology. I should know. Calvin has a bite that sinks deep. Don’t forget, we even still bear the imago Dei.

    I saw a preview of the movie “Jesus Camp” the other day (it could be aptly described as the “Looney Camp” if you ask me) and those fools had kids, very young kids, bawling over their “sinfulness” (I know, I know…we sin because we are sinners and not v.v., but man-o-man they were destroying anything resembling a healthy self-image in those little ones). Being made in the image of God means we inherently have good in us by nature, and as such, have self-worth. I wonder if the whole notion of the doctrine of Original Sin needs to be revisited, if not reformulated frankly.

  20. I’m back. I just stood up to go mow the yard and this came to me. You know why the Orthodox, with all their smells and bells, fling around incense ad nauseam (as my wife once lamented, missing the point altogether I may add, “it burns my nose”) at you—the congregant if you will—during their Liturgy? (This is a rhetorical question because I suspect you know the answer, but I think it adds clarity to what I was saying earlier.) Because they are saluting the image of God within you. The Orthodox have their own set of problems and hang ups to be sure, but they have in some small, but nevertheless important ways, not fallen prey to the Western/Latin demonization of man. Alas, the conservative Protestants, especially in America, with their more ardent version of Calvinism a la Puritanism, are par excellence in bemoaning the evil that is in us—nay that IS us. This notion runs so deep in the culture that even Americans who are largely secular in origin have guilt complexes because the roots of Puritanism attach themselves like tentacles to our national psyche. Moreover, the additional side effect of all this is that folks are literally pushed away from religion because they instinctively know that a minor has been made into a wholesale major.

  21. C(or is it D),

    I follow. I have read the Reformers and about ten books of R.C.Sproull, too, but I do get the difference. I just sensed a “dodge the responsibility” move in what Danny was saying and tried to bring him into my world. All I said was true. But, it is also true that I know that I was made both in the image and likeness of God. I’m on a voyage to perfection. To get there is a matter of sanctifying grace. To see that there is somewhere to get is the justification I can’t deserve, it is the atoning sacrifice. It’s not the whole story, as the Baptists seem to think. I gotta do stuff. But it is a fight all the way.

    And speaking of crazy ass pictures, look at you, Bro.

  22. Yeah, to my surprise, I still well up w/ emotion when I happen to hear Dr. Sproul.

    So, are you speaking of my profile picture of Calvin Becker in Portofino?

  23. M said:
    “I just sensed a “dodge the responsibility” move in what Danny was saying and tried to bring him into my world.”

    When have you ever sensed in me, Morpheus, any attempt to dodge responsibility? Am I not constantly harping at Christians to live up to our responsibility to follow Christ in peacemaking? To call all of us to live more responsibly in regards to God’s cretion?

    This is NOT about dodging responsibility. Rather I was pointing to how the Bible defines evil, which is as an action, not a trait – for the most part. My revelation of God, my sense of God agrees with what I’m reading here (or perhaps what I’m reading helps define my sense of God and of evil).

    We have a responsibility NOT to demonize others – which is how “evil” is typically used. “They” are evil and must be stopped.

    Rather, we all do evil and must seek to stop that inclination towards evil and seek that of God within us.

    ‘Twould be a misrepresentation of my position to call that “dodging responsibility.”

  24. I didn’t say you said it, I said I sensed a letting off the hook. Did I misperceive? It’s true that you are hard after it, Daniel. I consider you a brother in Christ, fer sheur. I just heard in your argument a hint of “people are good” and went for it.

  25. Well, there IS a hint of people are good in humanity. We are, after all, God’s creation, which God pronounced Good.

    But it is also true that we are fallen. Fallen. Not evil, says I. Prone to do evil, says the Bible.

    Which is why we seek God’s face and righteousness and grace.

  26. I asked earlier:

    “So that might be one question I’d ask of our illustrious audience: How do we know that which we do is indeed a good, and that we’re not mistaking our evil actions for “good”?”

    And since no one has really bitten (except Morpheus, who thinks that people generally DO know when they’re doing “evil”), I’ll give it a few thoughts myself.

    My assumption:

    That many times we (individually and/or collectively) do “evil” with out the intention. In fact, we do evil sometimes even when we think we’re doing good.

    As evidence, I offer the “terrorists” who, says Dan, are taking actions they think pleasing to their God. I also offer the supporters for the nuclear holocaust of two japanese cities, many of whom will STILL contend that this was a moral good (as opposed to a necessary evil – which some supporters claim – or just evil, as opponents claim).

    The very real possibility of any individual or group being wrong on any issue (given our limited genius and tendency to do wrong), is one reason conservative doctrine advocates prudence in our actions.

    The more extreme the possible evil, the more extreme we should be in our prudence.

    So, for instance, if we think that we’d be right to drive a car 75 mph in a 25 mph residential neighborhood – because we have a dying person in the car who needs a doctor, say – but the possible consequences are other people dying, well, prudence would question the morality and wisdom of that decision. There’s room for much evil as a result of that decision.

    Is that fair enough so far?

  27. If god is omniscient;
    If god is omnipotent;
    and if god is all loving, how does one explain the recent slaughter of innocent school children?

    God cannot be all three at once and allow that to happen. Please do not respond with arguments plucked from the hermetically sealed vacuum of doctrine. Respond with reason, please, if you can. Do we really want to worship a god that is that callous and cruel? Can we expect much from mankind when our creator is willing to wipe all living things off the face of the earth for the sins of Sodom and Gommorah, or cast someone to eternal fire for not stoking his/her ego sufficiently?

  28. “I would equate evil with any purely selfish act that gratifies the flesh rather than the Spirit.”

    Is masturbation evil?

  29. Here’s an old canard. If God were an all powerful, omniscient, loving God, why would he allow x? I’m sure you are aware that evil is the doing of humans, not God. In fact, it’s in your premises. God allows free will. We commit evil. He allows us to choose him or not. We are allowed to choose wrongly. As for the early demise of innocents? What early demise? From God’s perspective all were made for eternal life, with or without Him. From His perspective, there is no demise. Short life, long life. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

    Using your definition, masturbation is evil. It is purposeless self-gratification, yielding to lust.

    Where is Seraph when we need him?

  30. That’s funny M. That’s what we need more of in life–a bit of levity. Kinda like Angevoix’s shoe comment. Some wine, song and dance.

  31. Morpheus, thank you for your thoughts. You are a good writer. Still, though, you really haven’t adequately addressed the “old canard.” Well, perhaps you did from the viewpoint of the gunman, but what about the little school girls who were feverishly praying their hearts out to God? God could have stepped in at any time and caused the gun to jam or the gunman to pass out. God knew it was going to happen, God could have prevented it from happening, but he/she/it did not. I am no God, but rest assured, I would have prevented that tragedy if there had been any possible way for me. Free will be damned.

  32. What I meant to say was that, in the hypothetical, the school girls didn’t choose anything. For them there was a complete denial of free will. The free will response always seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me. There are thousands who abandoned Christianity after 911, and for good reason, so I think the canard deserves more thought than the “God washed his hands of us” free will stuff. This is not meant to criticize you, Morpheus, in any way.

  33. Tera,

    I can’t explain God and his wisdom. But, thanks to C. S. Lewis book Miracles, I have an expanded understanding about what it means to be out of time and space. From where God stands, those girls were whisked out of there to his bosom. Evil did not win that battle. I don’t begin to understand His purpose in that or any act, but believe Him to be righteous and good. My evidence for that is the whole bible. These are wild times, for sure. I believe they may get wilder. Don’t turn your back on God because He doesn’t meet your standards. In times like these, I think we need to read the book of Job, and be humble.

  34. You’re right Morpheus – evil did not win the battle with those precious little girls because thier community which they are a part of chose to forgive and set an example for the world. As long as we are a part of this world we will face evil of all kinds, but our ability to win or lose in the face of evil is determined by our reaction to it.

  35. Whenever I hear the “old canard” regarding a loving God, I always remember the Genesis account, chapter 1:16-17.

    “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it, YOU WILL SURELY DIE'” (emphasis mine).

    Now, if this is the case, is it truly a surprise to see pain, suffering, and death in this world? Is this not exactly what God said would happen? Shall we not take God at His word?

  36. c.kent,

    Allow me but for a brief moment to play the Devil’s advocate.

    Why did God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden to begin with?

    If we are to assume as the Orthodox do (correctly I might add in my estimation) that Adam and Eve were not fully realized spiritually speaking, in other words, still in their infancy, vs. what the Latin West via St. Augustine propagated that they were perfectly and fully realized beings in a pristine paradise, then why would God subject Adam and Eve to such a “temptation?”

    I’m a father of two young daughters. I would never put a cup of poison (one that looks good to boot!) in front of them and say, “now, don’t you be taking any of that, you hear?!” In other words, if as a father I would give my daughters only good things to eat, how much more so should we expect God to do the same and better?

  37. Constantine said:
    I wonder if the whole notion of the doctrine of Original Sin needs to be revisited, if not reformulated frankly.
    Ahmen brother!! It is about time!!!!!

  38. The answer, Constantine, is choice.

    I remain unconvinced of the Orthodox argument that Adam and Eve were not fully realized spiritually speaking. Your own illustration regarding your daughters speaks volumes to the contrary.

    If Adam and Eve had the mental and spiritual understanding of wee babes, than I would be persuaded that their loving Father would keep them from tasting the poison. It makes sense to me, however, that God entrusted them with the capacity to make their own decisions. And with that choice comes the responsibility of accepting the consequences that follow. Would you allow your children to make a decision without fully equipping them with the capacity to do so?

    How do the Orthodox explain Genesis 3:9? Does an omnipotent and omniscient God honestly not know where His creation is? Or, is it possible that a loving Father is grieving over the loss of the spiritual bond He had with His children as a result of sin?

  39. …or, is it possible that their newly found knowledge of what is good and evil showed his creatures that they themselves were not good (let’s not revisit whether they were/are evil) and must hide in their shame. Shame unto death?

  40. c. kent,

    In this world, the real world, Jesus Camp not withstanding, Superman doesn’t come busting out of a phone booth all suited up, but instead gets Himself crucified and encounters kryptonite everywhere. That leaves some, like Bruce Wayne, honestly asking, “Why?” Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

    Anyway…in the EO Tradition, “image and likeness” are not wholly synonymous. “Image” connotes, as you said, choice and freedom, whereas “likeness” construes the idea of mankind’s organic growth—essentially theosis. Enough said on that front though. There are others here that know more about Orthodox theology than I ever will, so if clarification is needed, I’ll leave that to them to comment if they so wish. I’m not an apologist for that Tradition, or any other frankly, though I respect the Orthodox Tradition immensely.

    That being said, my reference to the Orthodox position was for the sake of pointing out that the common or assumed understanding of the Fall and its attendant consequences (i.e. in the West, Original Sin equates to Original Guilt) is far from a forgone conclusion. Therefore, quoting a particular passage from the Genesis narrative and using that text to prove a point or defend God does not in my mind settle the matter. It certainly doesn’t carry the weight that you infer that the text is perfectly clear and that to question it is to question God. The canard spoken to here earlier is an honest question. If it were not, we would not have a whole theological industry built on theodicy.

    A final comment: I fully believe that somewhere and somehow along the line, we, as in the human race, royally screwed up and have suffered innumerable consequences since. Regardless, any nuanced understanding of the Fall still falls (no pun intended) short of explaining in a satisfactory way the “why” of evil. Indeed, biblical “proof-texting,” often does more harm than good in my opinion because it makes it appear that we are saying to the hurting and suffering, “too bad, so sad, and, candidly, you/we deserve it.” THAT understanding fosters the biggest conundrum, which isn’t the opposition of an all loving God, with all His other assorted omni’s, to the “why” of evil, but instead brings the very nature of God Himself into question. That’s why I think a modicum of reformulation is needed. Even the See of Rome is reconsidering Limbo. Hmm…I wonder why?

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