Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Rethinking “Evil”

I'll be the "meet the author" guest at Barnes & Noble in Springfield, Missouri on Saturday, April 13 from 1-4pm. The Bookstore is featuring my new book: Unmasking Biblical Faiths. The Marginal Relevance of the Bible for Contemporary Religious Faith. If you happen to be in or around Springfield at that time drop in and check out the book - and take a few minutes for a chat.

The word "evil" has its roots in the Middle Ages (Middle English, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic).* Hence it appears to be a relatively late word in the family of languages that translators have chosen, along with its later associated ideas, to use in translating much earlier Greek texts. As used in English today, the word "evil" is a sinister word with supernatural associations. We generally reserve its use in the human community for the most "profound immorality and wickedness," and/or to describe an abstract supernatural force, which is the matrix of all wicked acts that are counter to all that is "good" or "right" in human life. Basically the word "evil" or its cognate in another language, in a secular context seems to mean "well beyond the limits of acceptable conduct."

I began this brief study by looking at value-laden language in English. There appear to be five sets of contrasting moral expressions in English. The expressions contrast human behavior in terms of positive and negative behaviors. The contrasts, as I describe them here, are what I gather to be polar opposites. As we use them in the Western world, each contrast arises out of a different context and each contrasting term carries a different significance deriving from the context in which it arises.

            The five sets and, in my view, the contexts from which each derives are as follows:
good/evil: religious or secular contexts based upon personal views;
good/bad: social contexts based upon particular community values;
right/wrong: social contexts based upon particular community values;
moral/immoral: social contexts based upon particular community customs;
legal/illegal: legal contexts based upon particular law codes.

The first contrast on this list (good versus evil) might be considered an abstraction and hence a basis for the other contrasts, which are then regarded as specific instances of good versus evil in the human community. At least I found the paired contrast between "good" and "evil" has appeared more often in the New Testament texts. When I checked the contrasting pairings of good versus evil in the New Testament, however, I discovered that it was apparently the translator's call whether or not to render certain Greek words by the English word "evil," for in the pairings of good versus evil other words are sometimes contrasted with good. In the contrasting pairings of good versus evil two Greek words (kakos and ponēros) are generally translated by the English word evil; sometimes the Greek words are translated as bad, wrong, or harm. In the pairings good or right is used to translate the Greek words kalos and agathos.**

One significant deviation from the usual contrast is the use of the Greek word phaulos for the negative value in the contrast of good and evil; phaulos is translated by the word "evil" in 2 Cor 5:10, but in Rom 9:11 it is translated as "bad." This latter Greek word in the lexicon has the following semantic value: "ranging in meaning from 'easy, light, simple' to 'common, bad'" (Danker/Bauer, 1050)—evil is not given in the lexicon as one of the translation possibilities for phaulos. In other words, in every instance where "evil" appears as a translation of the paired opposites the underlying Greek word might just as easily have been translated throughout as bad or wrong, or perhaps by harm.

To judge from the pairings of good versus evil, New Testament writers do not seem to conceive of "evil" in the abstract (i.e., disassociated from any specific instance of harm) as readers might think or as translators seem to suggest when they translate kakos or ponēros as "evil." If the evidence justifies this conclusion, one may reasonably therefore argue that the New Testament does not recognize the idea of an abstract principle of evil in the universe.***

Satan, for example, is portrayed in the New Testament as a kind of wicked actor who does bad things to people. The only passage that gives Satan a comprehensive role is Rev 12:9, where Satan is described as the "deceiver of the whole world." Nevertheless, Satan is not described as an abstract principle, but an individual actor. Even a passage like Eph 6:12 ("…against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places") is likewise particular rather than abstract.

So how does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*See Webster's Third New International Dictionary, s.v. "evil."

**These are the passages I checked in the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament that contrast good versus evil: Rom 3:8, 7:21, 9:11, 12:21, 13:3, 16:19; 2 Cor 5:10; Heb 5:14; 1 Pet 3:11, 17; Matt 7:11, 7:17-18, 12:34-35, 20:15; Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9, 11:13.

***See also: "What should be done about Evil in the World," Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, March 13, 2013; and "Does God Collude with Satan," Wry Thoughts about Religion Blog, June 20, 2018.


Jim said...

Re: Rethinking Evil


Interesting subject and discussion. I prefer to think of human thoughts and actions to be described over a varying scale from extremely good to extremely bad, evil being at the extreme bad side of the scale, e.g. a "1" being a harmless lie or thought and a "10" being something like genocide.
The labels good and bad label human thoughts and actions that directly or indirectly cause any benefit (good) or harm (bad) to conscious animals including one's self.


Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Expanding on your final paragraph, how about a sixth "set": Satanic/Holy.

Satan/Quotes from scripture (Mark 1:13; Matt 4:1-11; Luke 1-13)
Unclean spirit/Holy One of God (Mark 1:23-24)
Demons/Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29)
Demons/Spirit of God (Matt 12:28)
Demons/Finger of God (Luke 11:20)

Jesus success with the Satanic involves rejecting pursuit of self-centered goals (Matt 4:1-11; Luke 1-13) and helping others to experience their right mind (Mark 5:15). Folks are released from social isolation and self-abuse (Mark 5:3-5), and from conditions that don't allow a person to hear and speak for themselves (Mark 9:27).

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

When I see the word “evil,” I think of it as behaviors that are perceived to threaten the community, culture and/or society, which are inculcated into the values of the individual and many times the legal system. These perceptions and the values formed are not always rational or universal, but can be based on fear of the unknown or false stereotypes. They become learned within the group. Gods are fashioned (Genesis 2 allusion – “yatsar”) to speak the voice of the group in order to codify “good and evil.” Some behaviors, like those prohibited in the “Second Table” of the Decalogue, (I’m thinking of Roger Williams) are somewhat universal in their threat to a cohesive society, since they relate to harmful human relationships. I see evil as a behavioral manifestation that threatens the community or culture. It is known not by thoughts but by behaviors.

My thought is that “evil” is a somewhat flexible societal construct. Almost fifty years ago I discovered two lines in a translation of an old Chines poem that crystalized my views of “good and evil,” satori as I sat in the college library: “You ask of good and evil; Hark, on the lake, a fisherman is singing.” I can’t remember the name or author of the poem, but the message of the malleability of the two concepts stuck.

Nature has one goal: survival. One way to look at good and evil in this context is that good perpetuates the species, while evil deadens it. The walnut, through its root system, poisons most plants within its reach so it can reach toward the sun and procreate. When I watched a doe stomping a rabbit into the ground a few years ago, I wondered why until I saw her young fawn following her a few minutes later. Quails rush from brambles to divert attention from young and brightly colored cardinals dart through trees leading one away from nests. If one truly lives within nature, one realizes that there doesn’t seem to be noticeable a “good” or “evil” construct in animals other than this, a desperate urge to survive and maintain each species, which could be similar to that in cultures. It would be interesting to know how the “rules” of other animals who live in “communities” are formed and preserved.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Of all places, came across these quotes about evil in a recent international terrorism novel by Newt Gingrich and Pete Earley.

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction." - Blaise Pascal, Pensees

"Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their end, than that good should look on and do nothing." - John Stuart Mill, 1867 British Philospher and Political Theorist

"The Devil pulls the strings which make us dance." - Charles Baludelaire

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

I think of evil as purely human action, with malice aforethought. it is neither supernatural nor the result of natural forces.