The Origin of Evil

evil1.jpg (10560 bytes)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.


Pantheism, Polytheism & Paganism

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."


Deism & Agnosticism

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.


The 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).


Evil: 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).



1. Compton's 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 untold generations.
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 program.

-All scripture references taken from the New International Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted as the King James Version (KJV).


Tim Nordgren,  2-20-98