The Origin of Evil
On April 6, 1994, civil war broke out between Rwanda's
Hutu and Tutsi tribes when the country's Hutu President was killed in a
suspicious airplane explosion, reigniting centuries-old hatred between
the two peoples. At once, the Hutu militia was triggered into a
nationwide killing spree using machetes, clubs, knives and any
available weapons. A swift counter attack soon closed the airport in
Kigali, forcing the U.S. Embassy to launch a 48-hour emergency overland
evacuation. In those first few days and weeks an estimated 500,000
Rwandans died in massacres, and millions of refugees fled the
country--many of them innocent children. When the worst of the fighting
finally seemed over, deadly disease ravaged the most weak and
vulnerable in squalid refugee camps. One can only speculate about a
connection with the subsequent eruption of Ebola in the vicinity of
these same refugee camps (1). Now that the shock of the daily news has
finally passed we simply must acknowledge that the Spectre of Evil is
alive and well at the dawn of another millennium.
At the most basic level of human inquiry there has always been a desire
to know who or what is responsible for the suffering, pain, and death
experienced in our world. When viewing life as a process one cannot
help but see it in stages of pain and suffering: first in the tears of
birth, then in the burdens of knowledge, further in the worries of
maturity, and finally in the struggles with death. The experience of
pain is so universal in our world that one might imagine if all were
beheld at once, it might be simply called "The Planet of Pain" (2). To
be sure, most people are convinced that the pleasures of life far
outweigh the pain, yet whenever we personally encounter the fact of
evil there naturally arises the most basic question of all. That
question is often uttered in a single word... "Why?" And as often as
not, there will also arise a desire to assign blame to someone or
something, since we are ever ready to declare that "it's not my
fault!" But who or what must take the blame for all that is called evil
and the consequent pain and suffering in our world?
So far, the word "evil" has been used interchangeably with pain,
suffering, and death. But clearly the problem of evil is not always
understood with so simple an equation. In order to fairly address this
problem it is necessary to define what is really meant when referring
to "evil." Yet many would differ on what constitutes a proper
definition of evil. There are even those who would go so far as to deny
the existence of evil altogether. Surely such disagreement is more than
a matter of semantics, but rather due to some fundamentally different
ways of viewing our world. In what follows we will briefly examine some
of the most basic world views in order to develop an understanding of
the Biblical view of the origin of evil.
Within this sweeping
panorama of faith there are many distinctive ideas; however a belief in
"monism" unifies them all. In its metaphysical form, monism is a
doctrine that perceives only one ultimate substance or principle
underlying the universe from which all things emanate. This view is
sometimes summarized in the mystical utterance, "All is one." In a
universe so constructed the explanation for what we perceive as evil
is: "It's just a perception." Taoism has summarized this idea in the
doctrine of "Yin and Yang." Yin is always related to the complementary
Yang. Black to white. Darkness to light. Evil to good. According to
monism, although there may appear to be two sides, there is really just
one coin. Ultimately, when "everything is one" it is impossible to
differentiate between good and evil, since "everything" includes all
the things and events that we would otherwise call good or evil. In the
words of the 19th century Hindu mystic, Ramakrishna, "'The Omnipotent
Differentiation' is the face of God Himself" (3).
Although this teaching can often lead to apathy about evil, it is
usually portrayed as the way to find peace with the harsh reality of
suffering which would otherwise weigh down the soul. The goal is to
rise above "appearances" and cease striving with evil which, "if the
truth be known," is somehow connected to the good we prefer. The means
to this end is found in understanding that "everything is connected,"
and therefore, to strive with evil is to strive with oneself. The
realization of this state of mind is only achieved by discarding all
notions of personal, self distinction which only sustain our painful
alienation from the "universal one." It is with such reflection that
those in paganism, polytheism, and pantheism have sought rest for their
souls. With this view in mind, the experience of what we call pain,
suffering, and evil is the result of ignorance that "all is one."
The deist holds a
belief in a creator God who, after setting the creation into motion,
chose to abandon it and no longer interfere with the natural laws or
life He set in place. The deist also believes that such a view can be
founded solely upon reason, and since revelation from God is not
available, neither is it desired. Agnosticism, in turn, should be
thought of as the anticipated child of deism. The agnostic is not so
sure about God's existence, but of one thing he is sure--that if God
exists He cannot be known. The foundation for the agnostic argument is
the disparity between the finite knowledge of man and the infinite
nature of God. Any claim to know God on the part of a finite man
reveals the arrogant presumption of the man. For both deism and
agnosticism, man is unable to know God or His will. In the one case He will
not be known, in the other he can not be known.
With such uncertainty about the will of God it follows that there will
be uncertainty about the nature of evil. While morality may be found
within the ranks of deists and agnostics, they are hard pressed to find
a basis for the condemnation of evil. For them, situational ethics is
deemed the only serviceable instrument for human judgment, but as the
principle is applied to the diverse cultures of the world, the rule of
the least-common-denominator reduces ethics to a tolerance of
all possible alternatives. The primary diagnosis of human pain and
suffering is ignorance of the harsh "facts" of reality. In the words of
Bertrand Russell, "the secret of happiness is to face the fact that the
world is horrible, horrible, horrible...." (4). The one
remaining hope for improving the human experience is education. And
science is thought to possess the greatest potential for overcoming the
limitations of human knowledge. If anything will "save" humanity it is
the increasing acquisition of scientific knowledge. But with the power
of new knowledge comes even greater moral challenges, however now
without the hope of moral certainty (5). Even so, for the deist or
agnostic, ignorance is the root of all evil.
Atheism, just as with all other belief systems,
is a claim to know something. The atheist claims to know that God does
not exist. In contrast to this, when someone states that he is not sure
whether God exists he has assumed the agnostic view. A preference for
agnosticism over atheism may often be due to the awkward position the
atheist finds himself in when attempting to argue against the existence
of God. Proof for atheism is incessantly sought, but nowhere to be
found. How would we ever "prove" the non-existence of anything, much
less a spiritual God. In the words of the noted atheist, Isaac Asimov:
"Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that
God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't
want to waste my time" (6). In contrast to atheism, the theist can call
upon many arguments for the existence of God. These include the
argument for a first-cause of the universe, the apparent design of the
universe, and the existence of objective morality. However, the central
argument for atheism is based upon the problem that the existence of
evil presents to theism. The atheist demands to know why a
creator God who is all powerful and all loving would create a world
with pain, suffering, and death.
One of the paradoxes of atheism is that one must call upon the
existence of an objective moral law in order to argue against the
existence of an objective law-giver. Of course this fact is not
conceded when entering into such a debate. Instead an attempt is made
to construct a "pragmatic morality" based on evolution which itself
requires a simultaneous denial of the causality and design arguments
for the creative origin of the universe. Yet, in practice, it is
difficult to sustain such a "pragmatic" view of morality when we take
evolution to its logical end. In point of fact, Social Darwinism is
generally conceded to be a terrible embarrassment for those who
experimented with morality based on the principle of "survival of the
fittest." The results of this experiment include imperialism's
exploitation of the "uncivilized savages," communism's "ends justify
the means" plan for political advancement, and Nazism's "final solution
for the advancement of favored races." And yet, even when all the
logical problems with atheistic morality are considered the "emotional"
reasons remain. Why would a good God create a world where pain,
suffering, and evil now exist? In order to address this question we
must finally turn to Biblical theism.
Biblical View of the Origin of Evil
If the problem of
evil is really the most basic question of the human experience, then
the Bible is ordered with first things first. Opening with Genesis 1:1
we are to told that "in the beginning God created the heavens and the
earth." Here we are introduced to the self existent God who transcends,
or is independent of, all created things. Before there was any created
thing there was God. This is not to say that the God of the Bible is
distant to the creation, since he immanently sustains it (Dt 33:27; Isa
46:4; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3). Even so, God is absolutely autonomous and
therefore cannot be confounded with his creation. He created all things
out of nothing including time (the beginning), space (the heavens), and
matter (the earth). Then after the creation of the substance of the
universe God infused it with order during a period of six days. And on
six different occasions God said that the creation was "good." When God
finally completed all his work he declared that the whole creation was
"very good" (Gen 1:31). According to the scriptures the completed work
of a wholly good God is a very good creation. The obvious meaning to be
drawn from the Biblical text is that "in the beginning" the creation
was entirely without pain, suffering, or death (7).
The Fall of Man is perhaps one of the best known and yet least
understood events in the Bible. Central to the misunderstanding is the
problem of free will. "Why?" it is asked, "was man given freedom of
choice at all?"(8). The answer to this question begins with an
understanding of the creation of man "in the image of God." First we
must realize that the scriptures teach that the chief purpose for the
creation of man was for him to glorify God and enjoy fellowship forever
(Ps 86:12). Further, we know that all genuine fellowship is based on
the willing consent of persons. Without freedom of choice there is
neither personhood, nor fellowship. And as any mature person has
learned, when we attempt to constrain the will of another in order to
maintain a relationship, we forfeit the very basis of fellowship--which
is freedom of choice. Thus God's unique creation of man included what
are referred to as his "communicable attributes." These include man's
eternal spirit (or soul), reason and will, and free moral choice. But
with freedom comes responsibility, and therefore God warned man of the
consequence of wrong choices from the very beginning:
And the LORD God
commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden;
but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Gen 2:16,17)
Man soon abused his
freedom when he succumbed to the serpent's temptation to acquire one of
God's incommunicable attributes--that is, absolute autonomy.
The temptation to be "like God" (Gen 3:5) was also the cause of Satan's
fall and has its origin in self-centered pride (9). And since God is
also the righteous judge of the universe and not merely an injured
party in a broken relationship, he judged man's sin with the forewarned
curse of death. According to the Bible, it was this curse that brought
pain, suffering, and death to the entire universe.
Most of us can understand how interpersonal sins can affect the
relationships of the innocent generations that follow. Many examples
could be given, but one will suffice. When a father breaks relationship
with his wife through adultery the whole family will be broken as well,
and especially the innocent children. Later, these children have a
choice to either follow their father's example or turn away from it in
favor of relational faithfulness. Today the increase of divorce and
fatherless families is hard evidence for the difficulty of choosing
right over wrong in generations that follow.
The cause and effect relationship between suffering and personal sin is
often obvious, but what about the suffering, pain, and death we see
that has no apparent connection with the sins of others (10). We must
consider, for example, natural disasters, accidents, and disease. It
would be difficult to argue that the suffering, pain, and death
experienced by innocent people through these tragedies are any the less
"evil" than are those experienced as a result of obvious personal sins.
These occurrences are sometimes called "acts of God" for lack of a
better explanation. Yet according to the scriptures, all evil is a
result of personal sin, whether it can be directly traced to personal
sin or is indirectly related to sin in general (11). In point of fact,
we are told that "the curse" due to Adam's sin had an effect on the
entire creation which ultimately extended to the uttermost stars (12).
But not only is the Bible clear about what effect the fall of man had
on the universe, it also reveals that when man is redeemed God will
remove the curse on the universe and thus restore it to its original
state. The Apostle John records a beautiful vision of the future in the
book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new
heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had
passed away... and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now
the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will
be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He
will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or
mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed
away...No longer will there be any curse" (Rev 21:1-4; 22:3) (13).
An Effect, Not A Cause
Now in perspective,
the doctrine of "original sin" is the only viable answer to the
question of the origin of evil. Evil is not some independent entity
which threatens to cause suffering and pain, but rather the terrible
effect of personal sin. Therefore the real problem with evil is not
that "something out there might get me," but rather that the potential
for sin is within me ready to manifest in evil. This potential is
described throughout the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. The
Apostle Paul captured this idea in an extended citation of the Hebrew
scriptures given in the letter to the Romans. In the summary citation
he decried our state: "All have turned away, they have together become
worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom 3:12)
(14). In the 20th century, of all times, we must finally realize that
the problem with evil is rooted in the heart of man. The following
testimony of Yehiel Dinur should warn us all.
In 1961, the world watched the first televised courtroom trial as a
Jerusalem court tried the Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann for
"crimes against the Jewish people." Eichmann was the merciless
mastermind behind driving the Jewish people from their homes, into
ghettoes, and ultimately to concentration camps for death. When giving
his testimony, Yehiel Dinur, a survivor of Auschwitz, had a powerful
reaction to the sight of Eichmann. Upon seeing him who was formerly the
Nazi's foremost "Jewish specialist" he collapsed on the floor (15).
Afterward, in an interview, it seemed that the thing that struck him
with terror was that Eichmann didn't look like an evil monster--he
looked like an ordinary man. He summarized his feelings by saying,
"Eichmann is in all of us" (16).
In the end, our problem with evil is not ignorance of its cause--we all
know that sin resides in our heart--but rather ignorance of the
cure--the wholly good God in Christ.
God was in Christ,
reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto
them.... For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that
we might be made the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:19-21 KJV).
Interactive Encyclopedia, (Compton's New Media, 1996 Edition).
2. I first heard the phrase "Planet of Pain" used by a colleague in a
discussion on the problem of evil.
3. Huston Smith, The Religions of Man, (New York: Harper &
Row, 1965) p. 29.
4. From Alan Wood, Bertrand Russell, the Passionate Sceptic,
[London: Allen & Unwin, 1957].
5. For an example of the necessity of moral certainty at a crucial
juncture in history we need only consider the new science of cloning.
When applied to plant and animal breeding, cloning may offer bright
possibilities. When applied to human procreation, cloning will demand
dark barbarities. The prospect of cloning has now forced us to
reconsider the Roe v Wade "decision," in which the Supreme
Court asserted that "we need not resolve the difficult question of when
life begins." We no longer have the luxury of such moral indecision.
The scriptural insights are clear, unambiguous, and reasonable: All
human life is sacred because man is created in the "image of God" at
conception. (Gen 1:26-27; Ps 139:13-16, Jer 1:5)
6. Free Inquiry, Spring 1982, p.9.
7. Death, in the Biblical sense, involves only that part of the
creation that possesses the "breath of life" (spirit of life), and
therefore plant life was excluded (Gen 1:30;7:15).
8. Another question that is often asked is, "Why was man created with
the freedom to choose between good and evil when God knew what his
future choice would be?" A discussion of predestination is outside of
the scope of this essay, however we can gain some insight by simply
observing the choice parents make to have children. A parent must
decide to have children even when there is an absolute certainty that
their child will make wrong choices--which for some, will be
disastrous. Yet we do not condemn loving parents for bringing children
into the world even though they possess such certainty of the future.
9. See Isa 14:13-15 and Eze 28:1,2,13-17 for the fall of Satan as seen
in the typology of evil earthly kings.
10. Jesus warned us against being too quick to judge the suffering of
others since people are often the innocent victims of circumstances
outside of their control. In fact, when the disciples encountered a
blind man they asked coldly, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his
parents, that he was born blind?" He replied that, "Neither this man
nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might
be displayed in his life." (John 9:2,3). Suffering is not always a
personal penalty for a past deed, but can be made "works of God,"
intended for our profit, that the power of God might be made manifest
in our weakness.
11. An argument by analogy can be made for a cause and effect
relationship between personal sin and natural disaster. The analogy to
be drawn is for the case of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Here, the
nuclear station technicians disregarded emergency instrumentation and
standard safety procedures. In this case of gross irresponsibility the
result was immediate death for more than 30 people. However there was
far more involved since many more people suffered from various
diseases, including cancer, which were brought on by the radiation. And
further, the surrounding environment, within a 20-mile radius, was
rendered uninhabitable for people and animals long into the future.
Finally, the effects of this personal sin will extend from the natural
environment to innocent people through disease and birth defects for
12. See Gen 3:17-19; Isa 34:4; Mat 24:29; Rom 5:12; 8:19-22.
13. See Isa 11:6-9 for the description of the redeemed creation which
waits for the removal of the curse as described in Rev 22:3.
14. In this one verse alone Paul quotes Ps 14:1-3; 53:1-3; and Ecc
7:20. Other quotations of the Hebrew scriptures in this extended
citation are as follows: Rom 3:4>Ps 51:4; Rom 3:13>Ps 5:9; Rom
3:13>Ps 140:3; Rom 3:14>Ps 10:7; Rom 3:17>Isa 59:7,8; Rom
3:18>Ps 36:1. This passage also may be understood as a paraphrase of
Jer 17:9; "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who
can understand it?"
15. Moshe Pearlman, The Capture and Trial of Adolf Eichmann, (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), pp. 383, 395-397. Another relevant
insight may be found in Pearlman's report of the truncated testimony of
Yehiel Dinur. He recounts how Dinur, just before his collapse,
painfully referred to his place of internment as "planet Auschwitz."
However, this place was a "Planet of Pain" created by man for man.
16. "The Devil is a Gentleman," CBS 60-Minutes
interview of Yehiel Dinur, aired February 6, 1983. This quotation of
Dinur was given by Mike Wallace during a summary portion of the
scripture references taken from the New International Version of the
Bible unless otherwise noted as the King James Version (KJV).