Let us remember that every worldview-not just Christianity’s-must give an explanation or an answer for evil and suffering…this is not just a problem distinctive to Christianity. It will not do for the challenger just to raise the question. This problem of evil is one to which we all must offer an answer, regardless of the belief system to which we subscribe—Ravi Zacharias1
Evil has been a subject matter long discussed and debated. Dialogues and deliberations concerning evil have ranged across all academic and non-academic platforms. Various explanations of the origin, function, and even the reality of evil has formulated many religious, philosophical, and theological ideas. Of course, not all of these explanations about the problem of evil are in agreement, but in fact contradict one another; yet they each vie for your mind. As human beings we know (at least we should know) contradictory truth claims cannot all be equally true. Either all of the truth claims are false, or one of the truth claims is in fact true. Never have and never will contradictory truth claims be equally true.
As we are bombarded daily with a smorgasbord of ideas about what evil is (and isn’t), how do we decide which view of evil is in fact true? Remember in my last blog The Necessity of Truth, truth was defined as that which corresponds with reality. Using this working definition of truth, what view or understanding of evil best fits everyday reality? This question must be approached objectively in order to arrive at an accurate answer. It is my hope one will do so in order to accurately interpret the immoral behaviors of the world in which we live.
Evil in a Maze of Definitions
Normally when a person thinks of the word evil, one’s mind think of an act which is considered evil; whether it be murder, rape, theft, etc. How many, however, actually think about what evil itself actually is apart from any act of evil? To be absolutely honest, most don’t think that deeply about evil. We simply condemn an act of evil and keep it moving, but this way of approaching the topic of evil is not good enough. Anybody with a sound mind from any worldview can condemn an evil act, but how do those of differing worldviews interpret those evil acts? These various interpretations of an evil act are grounded in how that particular worldview defines evil. Let’s look at some definitions for evil.
According to the second largest religion in the world, Islam teaches “that whatever takes a person away from God, and thus incurs His anger is evil.” (Good and Evil in Islam) So evil is that which incurs the anger of Allah (God), but how can we know what actions incurs the anger of Allah? The answer is that we can’t know because “The Qur’an clearly states that God is the only authority in defining good and evil.” (Good and Evil in Islam) Hence, Sura 2: 216 says,
“Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.
Yes, it is true that people can hate something that is good for their all-around well-being (God) and love something that is bad for their all-around well-being (drugs), but is it true we cannot know what those good and evil behaviors are apart from Allah? No, this is not true and any non-Muslim would reject this claim; whether they are religious or not. If, according to the Islamic definition of evil, only Allah knows what is evil and one can’t know for themselves what behaviors incur the anger of Allah apart from Allah, then one cannot truly know what evil is. Thus, the Islamic definition of evil is insufficient.
At first glance, the topic of Buddhism and the problem of evil can seem pretty complex, but the deeper one studies this topic, the clearer things begin to get. The Buddha, Gautama Buddha, is quoted as saying the following about what evil is,
“What is evil? Killing is evil, lying is evil, slandering is evil, abuse is evil, gossip is evil, envy is evil, hatred is evil, to cling to false doctrine is evil; all these things are evil. And what is the root of evil? Desire is the root of evil, illusion is the root of evil.”
First, the Buddha answers the question of what is evil by giving us a list of behaviors which one would agree are in fact evil: killing, lying, slandering, abuse, gossip, envy, hatred, and false doctrine. Then the Buddha asks a follow-up question: What is the root of evil? Gautama Buddha’s answer: Desire and illusion. The Buddha gives us this answer because according to Buddhist ethics, desire and illusion are what brings about suffering. Deep within our minds we crave or desire things which we think will satisfy us and “…this thirst or craving takes different forms: craving for the objects of the senses, for existence and non-existence.”2
Consequently, our desire for these things and more give us the illusion that they can bring about our satisfaction, but in actuality “It is the cause of suffering because it can never be finally satisfied.”3 In other words, according to Buddhism, desire is evil because it leaves us with the illusion that obtaining our desire for things like objects of the senses will bring about satisfaction when in reality it won’t. It’s just an illusion and is therefore evil since such satisfaction is not obtainable. Thus, we are left with a “… mind that is unhealthy, harmful, based on ignorance, and resulting in suffering.” (Good, Evil, and Beyond)
So is desire the root of evil? No, it is not. There are plenty of desires which are not evil. Even in Buddhism there are desires which Buddhists have, though they wouldn’t dare admit it. For example, is not becoming a monk a desire? Otherwise, what would motivate a Buddhist to become one? The logical answer is desire. One other example: Why should a Buddhist be concerned about reaching nirvana? Is it not because a Buddhist desires to break free from the continuous cycles of rebirths (reincarnation)? Of course it is. So then, the Buddhist understanding of evil is not only insufficient, but unlivable as well.
New Age Movement
Perhaps one unexpected addition to this discussion about evil is the New Age Movement, but like any other worldview, the New Age Movement has its own view about what evil is. In New Age thought, good and evil are relative. This means that New Agers do not believe that there is such a thing as moral principles or moral laws which humans must abide by. There are no moral absolutes. There is no clear cut category of which behaviors are good and which behaviors are evil. This is known as moral relativism.
At the core of New Age ethics is love. Love, according to New Age thought “is something like a Force in that it is basically neither good nor evil. By love they do not mean a voluntary act of compassion for another individual.”4 Love instead is an impersonal binding force which brings all people and things together.5 Thus, love is “…the energy which makes humanity one.”6 It is only on a lower level of existence where there is a distinction between good and evil, yet still there are no moral absolutes, but only voluntary acts.
Famous actress and high profile New Age representative Shirely MacLaine was clear about her moral relativism. She stated unabashedly in her book Dancing in the Light that “We are not under the Law of God. We are the Law of God. We are God.”7 In other words, since we are God, we are a law unto ourselves and “until mankind realizes there is, in truth, no good, and there is, in truth, no evil, there will be no peace.”8 My question here is: Is it true that there is no good and there is no evil? Is MacLaine making an absolute truth statement about the non-existence of good and evil? If not, her statement is relative, and therefore meaningless.
As we have seen, the New Age Movement is in no position to give us a definition for evil, since they reject the existence of evil, as well as good. Morality is relative. New Agers like Shirely MacLaine, however, contradict their own moral relativism. Is it good not to be under the Law of God? Is it good to be God ourselves? Instead, could it be evil to claim to be God? Is it true that there is no good and evil? To answer either yes or no to any of these questions will affirm the reality of absolute truth. The only way for a New Ager to avoid this problem and maintain relativism is to remain speechless and letter-less for a lifetime.
So can Christianity give us a solid definition and understanding of evil? Christianity’s definition and understanding of evil is given and explained both philosophically and theologically. Let’s start with the philosophical definition of evil. Christian philosophers and apologists define evil as the absence of good. They argue that evil is not a stand-alone substance or entity in the same way good is. An illustration of this argument is found in the nature of light and darkness. Light is a stand-alone substance. Light cannot be diminished by anything; especially as it pertains to light from the sun. A cloudy day does not diminish the light from the sun and plunges us into total darkness; we may not see the sun rays from the sun, but we still continue to experience the light coming from the sun.
On the other hand, however, darkness like what we experience at night does not remain regardless of atmospheric changes. When the sun appears in the morning, does the darkness of the night remain? No, it doesn’t remain. The darkness is diminished by the light of the sun. When the sun goes down in the evening, the darkness appears again. The existence of and non-existence of darkness is determined by the presence or lack of presence of the sun.
In a similar way, like darkness, evil does not stand alone in the way good stands alone. Just like darkness indicates to us that there is a lack or deprivation of light, so evil indicates to us that there is a lack or deprivation of good. Darkness is not a deprivation of light, for to say that it is to imply that darkness is a stand-alone substance, which clearly isn’t the case. Evil is not a stand-alone entity either like good is. This is so because good and goodness flows from the very nature of God. Good is a stand-alone substance since its existence is contingent upon God. Evil on the other hand does not flow from the nature of God for “… in Him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5) Hence, evil is not a stand-alone substance since it has no object of contingency.
Medieval Christian philosopher Augustine in his classic work Confessions spoke in depth about evil not being a stand-alone substance like good is a stand-alone substance. Augustine said,
“So then, if they are deprived of all good, they will be nothing at all. Therefore, as long as they exist, they are good. Accordingly, whatever things exist are good, and the evil into whose origins I was inquiring is not a substance, for if it were a substance, it would be good.”9
In other words, any existing thing or substance is good for it comes from God; for good flows from His nature. Evil has no substance and is the deprivation of good, thus it is nothing at all. Augustine’s own pronouncement on evil, “For you evil does not exist at all…”10 Evil then, according to Christian philosophy, is the deprivation of good. Now we must attempt to link this philosophical definition of evil with the biblical/theological definition of evil. If done, then Christianity has the proper definition of evil which accurately corresponds with everyday reality.
According to the Bible in I John 3:4, “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” “Wait a minute!” one may say, “this verse is talking about sin, not evil.” True, but interestingly, sin is a synonym for evil. Since this is so, the verse can be read as following “…for evil is the transgression [breaking] of the law.” [Emphasis mine] The Greek word here for sin is parabasis. Parabasis, according to the Moody Handbook of Theology, means “overstepping, transgression.”11 Therefore, sin (evil) is the overstepping of God’s Law. We overstep or break God’s Law by failing to do what is good according to what God’s standard of good is.
God’s Law says, “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13) To murder is to bring about the death of a human being, which results in the deprivation of life. Life is good, but the deprivation of life is evil. God’s Law also said, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16) To lie to someone is to deprive them of the truth. Truth is good, but the deprivation of truth is evil.
Do you see the connection between the philosophical definition of evil as presented by Christian philosophers like Augustine and the biblical/theological definition of evil? Furthermore, the definition of evil given by Christianity does in fact correspond with reality. In light of the acts of racial injustices that are taking place in the United States, we know from this that justice is good, but its deprivation (injustice) is evil. Racial equality is good, but its deprivation (racism) is evil. Therefore, Christianity has the precise definition of evil for it perfectly corresponds with the reality we experience daily.
Who Puts Evil in its Proper Place
In conclusion, we have examined some definitions for evil as given by Islam, Buddhism, the New Age Movement, and Christianity. Islam told us evil is that which incurs Allah’s anger, but then tells us we cannot know what is good and evil apart from the knowledge of Allah. Humans, however, can and do know what behaviors are good and evil apart from a divine being.
Buddhism teaches that desire and craving are evil for they bring about the illusion that we’ll obtain satisfaction from those things we desire and crave, when in actuality they won’t and that is evil. The problem is, however, Buddhist do express desires such as being monks and/or reaching nirvana. Otherwise why pursue these things?
In the New Age Movement, we are taught that good and evil are relative, for there are no objective moral values. Is it good to not be under the Law of God as Shirely MacLaine said? Is it good or evil to say we are gods? As we have come to realize, objective and absolute moral truth claims cannot be avoided.
Finally, in Christianity we learn that evil by definition is the deprivation of good. Also, evil is the transgression of the Law of God, which is the deprivation of keeping and honoring God’s Law. It is with Christianity that we find the precise definition of evil for it corresponds with our everyday experience of evil; both from without and from within. Through the Christian worldview we can know what evil is and there is no need to look any further than Christianity. Through the lenses of the Christian faith evil is put in its proper place.
(1) Ravi Zacharias, Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007), p.182.
(2) Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.70.
(3) Ibid., p. 70.
(4) J. Yutaka Amano & Norman Geisler, The Infiltration of the New Age (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989), p. 137.
(5) Ibid., p. 137.
(6) Benjamin Creme, The Reappearance of the Christ and the Masters of Wisdom (North Hollywood, Calif.: Tara Center, 1980), 123.
(7) Shirley MacLaine, Dancing in the Light (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 247.
(8) Ibid., p. 342.
(9) Augustine, Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 124-25.
(10) Ibid., p. 125.
(11) Paul P. Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), p. 310.