This blog is now published in The Fourth R 26 (2013): 15-16 under the title “Where does Evil Come From?”
What I mean by “evil” is an unethical, deliberate malicious act that results in harm to human beings in some manner. By this definition, however, not everything hurtful happening to humans is evil. For example, an accident involving harm to another party is not an evil act, although it may maim or even result in someone’s death. What is lacking is deliberate malicious intent, and the one causing the accident may be as grieved as the friends and family of the injured party.
Nature is benign. Although “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson, In Memoriam, canto 56), it does no “evil.” The forces of nature (floods, tornados, hurricanes disease, etc.) are not acting with malicious intent; they are simply natural forces operating according to natural laws—by that I mean they act according to the usual observed patterns for such things in the universe). The natural world and the animal and plant worlds are therefore ethically benign. When you get cancer or are bitten by a poisonous snake, maimed by a bear, or your home is destroyed by a tornado or flood these forces are not acting with malicious intent toward you, they are just being true to their nature.
Unless, of course, you happen to subscribe to a belief that both the world of human beings and the world of nature fall under the influence of unseen mysterious, malicious, unethical forces that are able to use the usually benign forces of nature and even unsuspecting human beings for their own devious ends. In other words the natural world is benign unless you believe that Good and Evil are personified Spiritual Entities competing against one another in both natural and social worlds. These spiritual forces are popularly believed to harness the usually benign forces of the natural world and its living elements (flora and fauna) to their own ends, whether good or evil.
Traditionally in the Judeo-Christian West, God gets the nod as the proponent for the Good. But what should we say about evil? Here the picture is not so clear. In the Hebrew Bible before the fall of Judah to the Babylonians (587 B.C.) there was only one figure in Israel that dispensed both good and evil in the world. Prior to the deportation of the Judahites to Babylon, God alone was believed to be the source of both good and evil (Job 2:10). Frequently one finds in Hebrew Bible the repetitive expression “the Lord repented of the evil” he planned to do (Exod 32:14; Jer 26:13, 19; Jonah 3:10; 1 Kings 14:10; 2 Sam 24:16), or “the Lord brings evil” against . . . . (Josh 23:15; 1 Kings 9:9; 2 Kings 21:12; Ezekiel 5:13-17; 2 Sam 17:14; 2 Kings 6:33; Neh 13:18; Job 42:11). Particularly impressive are the descriptions of God putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets to deceive (1 Kings 22:13-23), or the idea that God uses evil spirits to do his bidding (Judges 9:23; 1 Sam 16:14-16, 23; 18:10; 19:9). Evil intentions and actions were, of course, always thought to lie within human beings (Gen 6:5; 8:21; 50:20).
After the Persian conquest of Babylon (539 B.C.), Cyrus the Great King of Persia permitted the exiles to return to Judah (Ezra 1:1-11), and sometime after their restoration in the land (described in Ezra and Nehemiah) Satan gradually becomes the source of personified evil. This evil force the Judahites developed from their exposure to Zoroastrian religion in which there were two competing forces in the universe, one Good and the other Evil. Initially Satan (accuser/adversary) was described as a functionary of the divine court (at this point he is not the incarnation of evil, Zech 3:1-2); his principal activity appears to be accusing or finding fault with human beings (Job 1:6-13; 2:1-6). The shift in theological thinking gradually coming after 539 B. C. is evident in a passage in the late text of 1 Chronicles 21:1 (ca. 350 B.C.) where Satan appears as the figure inciting David to number the tribes of Israel. In the earlier (ca. 650 B. C.; that is, prior to 539 B. C.) parallel text, which the Chronicler “borrowed” from 2 Sam 24:1, it is the Lord who incites David to number the tribes of Israel. This shift from the Lord to Satan is apparently due to changes in theological thinking in Israel.
In the Jewish Apocrypha the earliest reference to an evil competitor to God comes in the Book of Jubilees (ca. 150 B.C.), where he appears as Mastema, Chief of the unclean demons (Jub 10:8). But even as late as the beginning of the second century B.C., Sirach can trace to God the “evil” aspects of nature (vipers, teeth of wild beasts, hail, famine, etc., Sirach 39:28-31).
In the New Testament period (after 50 A. D.), Satan and the Devil are conceived as one figure (Rev 12:9; Mark 1:13—compare the substitution of Devil for Mark’s Satan: Matt 4:1; Luke 4:3). This figure, appearing as the chief opponent of God in the world, is known by a number of other names and designations; for example: Beelzebul (Matt 12:24); Belial (2 Cor 6:15); Prince of the Power of the Air (Eph 2:2); Ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)—among others. One statement by Jesus in Luke alludes to Satan’s former association with God’s Heavenly Court (Luke 10:18; but compare John 12:31). Revelation 12:7-12 describes a war in heaven in which Michael and his angels fight against the Dragon, who is called the Devil and Satan. Michael wins the battle and Satan is cast down to the earth, where he makes war on those who for a short time “keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.” A description of a battle among the stars appears in The Sibylline Books (Book 5: at the end of the second century C.E.), which features the Morning Star, Lucifer (Latin), popularly thought to be waging war in the “heavens” (512-30).
Lucifer (transliteration of the Latin: Lucifer “Light-bringer,” or Morning Star) is a special problem. Lucifer does not appear in the New Testament as an evil force, as such, although the equivalent term in Greek (Phosphoros) does appear in 2 Pet 1:19, where it is translated “morning star.” It does not, however, in 2 Pet 1:19 refer to an evil opponent of God. The name or description also appears in the Hebrew Bible where the word is translated “Day Star” in the RSV; in the context the word is applied to the King of Babylon (Isa 14:12-15). Later Christian writers (3rd century following) associated Lucifer with Satan. Origen (De Principiis, book 1, chapter 5) has been given credit with being the first specifically to argue that “Lucifer” is to be associated with Satan as the evil force in the world opposing God (Roberts/Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, 259-60).
This brief summary brings me to an important question: is there in actuality a malicious Spiritual force in the world opposing God, or are we humans alone the source of deliberate malicious evil? It seems to me there are at least three responses: (1) recognize nature as benign and human beings as the only source of deliberate malicious evil in the world. (2) accept the idea that there is a God, and allow God to be the sole ruler of the world, and hence God is the source of both good and evil. (3) admit that pagan thought was more insightful than Hebrew thought in recognizing that a “good” God simply could not be the source of evil, and so they invented another competitive unseen wicked Power in the universe.
The third option creates a host of theological difficulties, not the least of which is: does any force actually control the world—other than Mother Nature? And if so what do we do with Flip Wilson’s famous line: “The Devil made me do it”? What do you think?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
Even Mt 18:7 finds that malicious evil will always be present: "Woe to the world for temptations to sin. For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes."
I happen to find that this verse is close to what Jesus actually said. If so, why is it necessary that temptations, including malicious evil, come? As per Roger Ray, the latter arises through ignorance, greed, lust for power and lack of ethics, as through unawareness of the Golden Rule. And ignorance of right from wrong exists until it is gradually replaced by increased wisdom, which I believe is synonymous with developing one's conscience.
So, those who believe in evolution of one's spirit or of one's consciousness can find purpose in temptations to sin. The latter can cause us to make mistakes (sin) and then learn from our mistakes, all of which comprises spiritual evolution. This then would be its evolutionary purpose, although its evolutionary goal would include the reduction of malicious evil to a bare minimum. If Jesus had this in mind, it would not have been expressed within the Gospels, unless through careless editing of an original source. The Gospel writers would need to have weeded out such material from Jesus' teachings because it was Jesus/God that was supposed to be our savior from sin, not our own individual human spirits. Hence I believe that ignorance and poverty of spirit (lack of sufficient spiritual development) are what "made me do it," not the Devil.
Posted on 3/14/2013 at 11:29am
If what Flip Wilson says is true, then this seems to raise the question whether we humans really have our oft-cherished free will after all. Of course, I think this is also true if everything that happens is determined by God or occurs according to God's will.
Posted on 3/13/2013 at 12:38pm
There is a huge desire to make evil external. I always think of the warning in Genesis 4, "6The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.’"
We would like to say that sin is hiding behind the door, waiting to jump me but I find no realistic escape from the fact that evil is entirely within us. Sometimes we do evil things for personal gain, for power, promotions or even for revenge. What I find even more curious is how often, and honestly I see it in church more than anywhere else, people will hurt someone just because they can. Perhaps it gives them a sense of importance or superiority but often they lose a friend in the process and are much worse off because of it but I have seen it so often that I am no longer surprised by it but I am still perplexed.
Hurting people who are doing you no harm must serve some evolutionary goal but I can't imagine what it is. But a devil..... not in a spiritual real but in the flesh for sure.
Roger Ray, D.Min.
Posted on 3/13/2013 at 12:33pm
Good Morning Jim,
My comments are meant for you, Roger, and Lee. You and Roger seem to agree that evil originates from within human beings (i.e., there is no devil to make us do bad things), but Lee seems to change the subject to “free will.” I assume he raises that issue in the context of the issue of evil, but his observation seems to rule out any influence from supernatural forces both good and evil. Let me push you guys a bit: Lee can you be a bit more precise? Where do you come down of the origin of evil in the world? And for all of you: are we alone in the universe bereft of any supernatural forces to influence us to good or to evil? So good and or evil in the world is only the result of human motivations?
If we're talking only about the good and evil that we humans commit, then it seems to me that we don't need to go beyond ourselves to find the reasons for our actions. And this is consistent with the way we run our judicial system: Criminals who are caught are normally held responsible for their crimes.
Charlie, are you asking whether or not there is evil in the world, or is it a question of who or what causes evil? Just looking at the events of the past century should convince anyone of the existence of evil. As to its cause, if one believes that God is omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, then there can be no question that God causes, or at the very least, allows evil. But there's the conundrum: how can a perfect, loving God allow evil? Christians use the doctrine of free will and a modified dualism to "answer" this, but I don't find this a very satisfactory answer. I find it equally as hard to find a satisfactory response in science. I certainly have no answer, but I do believe it exists. Whether its origins are human or supernatural is moot; I just hope I have enough wisdom to recognize it when it appears and the integrity and character to confront it. Sorry to plug another author's work, but I just finished reading Bart Ehrman's "God's Problem" on this subject and recommend it.
By the way, have you gotten through "The Murderess"? I struggled with it in English.
Good Morning Marcia,
Thanks for the reply, and your plug for Bart’s book. You write “whether [ evil’s] origins are human or supernatural is moot.” If by “moot” you mean something like “purely academic”—like how many angels can stand at the same time on the head of a pin (an actual Middle Ages scholarly debate), I think I disagree. How one answers the question about the origins of evil will determine one’s view of reality and that will make a difference in how they live their lives, or at least that has been the historical response to the question. In part religion as an ancient and modern institution owes its origin and influence to how people answer the question—and perhaps even the science of psychiatry as well in part is concerned with the question.
I am still struggling with the book. The Greek, written from the Greek island of Skiathos near the turn of the last century, is mixed (modern and Koine), and the vocabulary is virtually all new to me—all of which makes for a difficult read.
Humans are no more than the highest form of animals. Evil in humans is the same as in say lions who kill for food, territory, threats, the pride, off springs, mates, and sometimes just because they can. Human brains allow for even more complex actions than lions just as lion are more developed than bacteria or viruses, both of the latter harming more than most humans or lions. Human societies generally don't charge bacteria, viruses or lions with sin. Fortunately, human brains development allows for significant development of social awareness, and thus capable to learn to minimize harm to others. Certainly not guaranteed, but possible. The idea of good and bad spirits outside of humans influencing human behavior is ignorant superstition passed down for thousands of years and still widely believed.
I think I would have described human beings as mammals since there are six classifications of "animal." And I agree with you about the religious term sin (it is God specific). You will notice that I did not use it in the essay, choosing instead to use the word evil to describe deliberate malicious acts against other human beings. And I don't believe I even hinted that evil was directed against God. I limited evil specifically to human beings, but I may have to reconsider that since one author tracks humanism-like characteristics to primates (De Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist [Norton, 2013).
I agree with you and with DeWaal.
Thanks for your comments. You are a very fine teacher, but then you have had a long history of teaching. What better, i.e. meaningful way to spend one's life.
Post a Comment