The Problem of “Evil”: What Is It?

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Let me begin by eliminating what this post is not about. It is not about the problem of evil—why bad things happen in a world created by a good God. Moreover, I am not using evil as a mere synonym for sin, though sin and evil are clearly and closely related.

The query I’m proposing concerns not the “problem of evil” but the problem of “evil.” That’s not a typo in the title. It’s an attempt to isolate and investigate a very specific question: not only “the question of the origin of evil,” which, “second to that of existence itself, is the greatest enigma of life and the heaviest cross for the intellect to bear,”1Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:53 but the very definition of evil itself.

Where did evil come from? Why does it exist? How did it originate? Was it created by God? Such questions are not new. But sometimes we get ill-formed answers because we ask ill-informed questions. Such questions can assume that “evil” is a specific entity or thing that is always inherently evil; it is in that detail where the devil resides.

Sin is reasonably simple to define. “Sin is the transgression of the law” (1 Jn 3:4); it is any thought, act, or disposition of disobedience to God’s revealed will. But what, exactly, is evil? In perusing a number of theological dictionaries and encyclopedias, one finds extended discussions of the problem of evil, the origin of evil, and the nature of evil. But rarely if ever does one come across anything approaching an actual definition of evil. An outright definition of “evil” is devilish hard to come by.

It seems obvious that if we’re going to talk about the nature, origin, and problem of something called “evil,” we jolly well ought to be able to define exactly what “evil” is. Let me try to demonstrate the significance of this definitional lacuna.

The Origin of Evil

One of the continental divides between potential solutions to the question of evil’s origin is the definition or extent of divine sovereignty. Those who insist that the sovereignty of God is the ultimate, absolute, and defining quality of deity see no problem with making God the originator and author of evil. Not long ago I received an email in response to one of my blogposts which took this view. “Errant fool,” it began. “What you lack is humility. Do you really presume to know God’s Nature? God can’t sin? God can do anything, blubbering ignoramus, he is all powerful.” (Such emails are an occupational hazard of blogging.)

Others would argue that our understanding and application of God’s sovereignty must be consistent with everything else he himself has revealed about his own character and actions. Apart from express revelational fiat, we have neither the wit nor the authority to isolate and exalt one divine attribute over the others. As I have written elsewhere,

Scripture specifies several things that God cannot do. He cannot do evil (Jer. 9:24; James 1:13). He cannot tempt man to do evil (James 1:13). He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13). He cannot lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). And He cannot fail to do what He says (Isa. 55:11). The things God cannot do have nothing to do with God’s ability and everything to do with God’s character. God can do anything consistent with His character. God’s character prohibits Him from doing certain things and, likewise, compels Him to other actions.2The Trustworthiness of God’s Words: Why Every Word from God Matters [Christian Focus, 2022], 149.

If we are to understand God’s inherent sovereignty in conjunction with (not in contradiction to) his inherent righteousness, then to assert that God created evil is problematic. What’s more, even that statement still evades the central quarry we’re pursuing in this essay. What does it even mean to “create evil”? What is evil?

One theory of the origin of evil explains that God is absolutely perfect and created only perfect creatures; one of the capacities God gave his perfect creatures was volition, and those creatures chose evil. Therefore, an originally perfect creature caused evil. The value of this line of reasoning is debated since differences exist over the definition and nature of that volition.

I want to raise a different objection, however, because there seems to me to be a missing step in the argument. If we’re talking about the origin of evil, how can the first mention of evil be that it was chosen? When the creature first chose evil, what was it and how did it come to be a possible choice? Most discussions of evil, it seems, just assume (a) that we already know what it is, and (b) that it existed as an option or choice from the beginning, a sort of “Door Number 2.”

Evil was an option from the beginning (of creation), but what was it? The first choice of evil (whether angelic or human) was not a choice to murder, or to commit adultery, or to enact genocide. The first choice of evil (both angelic and human) was the choice of something much more fundamental. It was the mother (or father) of those and all other sins.

The choice of evil was a clash of volitions—the exercise of a created volition (whether human or angelic) instead of the divine volition. It was the choice to step outside of the reality of the created order, to make a choice other than God.

The Definition of Evil

Since Augustine evil has been defined privatively as the absence of good, or “that which is the reverse of good” (OED). But what does that mean? And how does that help us define what it is, where it came from, or how it came about?

The first thing to be said is that, like Satan himself, evil has no independent existence. It is not an eternal counterpart of God or of good. God has always existed and God is infinitely, eternally, and only good. That means that good—as it is identified in and with and by God—has always existed. The only way for evil to come into existence, then, is through some being other than God. And if God is all and always good, then evil must itself be something outside of God. Those conditions necessitate God’s creation of some other being or beings besides himself and outside of himself.

In its most primeval sense, evil may be provisionally defined theologically as “not God.” By “not God,” however, I do not mean that anything other than God constitutes evil; after all, everything God made other than himself was “very good” (Gen 1:31). What I mean is that anything in place of God—everything not God—is, by definition, evil. Likewise, the choice of anything instead of God is both an evil choice and a choice of evil. That nudges a definition of evil decidedly in the direction of volition and implies that evil requires two components to exist: (a) a choice, and (b) something, anything, other than God to be chosen. (I am speaking primarily here of original evil, but I think the basic nature, definition, and components of evil remain the same.)

We may infer from the revelation we have that prior to (or apart from) creation—specifically the creation of volitional agents, both angelic and human—nothing other than God, and therefore nothing in place of God, existed. That, again, is why we can say that evil has not always existed and could not exist until there was something other than God. At the same time, neither of the above components alone constitutes evil.

Evil is not a substance, an object, or an entity in and of itself. Evil is a metaphysical, volitional choice of “not God”—a choosing of anything other than, or instead of, God. Evil, then, is anything other than God, anything outside his character, his purpose, his will.

The biblical record indicates that the first creature to choose evil was not Adam or Eve, but Satan. And yet, our information about the original evil—the angelic fall—is minimal and obscure, captured primarily in the symbolic reflections of passages like Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14. But insofar as such passages are echoes of that original angelic fall, they seem to describe the origin of evil—the first choice of “not God”—as the choice of self over and instead of God. In other words, the first created thing to exist outside of God that could also be chosen over and instead of God was the creature itself.

Our information about the subsequent human origin of evil is considerably fuller. As I read the text, what Genesis 3 describes is not first and foremost the choice of self over and instead of God, but the choice of another creature—specifically, the choice to believe another creature’s depiction of reality over and instead of God’s. (I have elaborated on this essence of the first human sin in The Trustworthiness of God’s Words as the decision to trust someone else’s words instead of God’s.) And yet, both the angelic and the human choice was the choosing of evil in essentially the same sense: to not choose God.

Drawing Conclusions

Evil originated as a choosing outside of God, instead of God, other than God. Evil could come into existence only if and when there is something or someone other than God to choose—an option that is “not God”—and evil first became a reality when that choice was made. That’s why, even post-fall, a chosen object or action may not be intrinsically evil (say, a particular person or a particular desire) but may become evil if it is chosen over or instead of God. (Choices that are explicitly contrary to God are what the Bible identifies as sin.)

So, God’s act of creating both things and beings other than and outside of himself created the first possibility for something other than himself to exist, and therefore created the first possibility for sentient, moral creatures (whether angels or humans) to choose something other than him. That begins with the possibility of choosing not only something or someone else over God, but (which is much more common) choosing oneself over God.

In creating volitional creatures outside himself, God created the conditions that rendered the origin of evil possible. In creating a world outside himself, God created the conditions that rendered the multiplicity of evil possible. Not only do we have an innumerable array of sinful choices due to the fall, but we also have a countless number of good things to choose over and instead of God, transmuting them from good to evil. The good that God created and intended we may turn to evil when chosen over or instead of him, or we may enjoy as good when chosen under and in submission to him. What God did not do—indeed, per biblical revelation, he could not and cannot—is initiate or prompt or compel the choice of evil itself. In short, “God made evil possible” but “creatures [made] it actual.”3Geisler and Amanu (“Evil,” New Dictionary of Theology) locate the core of their discussion of evil in the concept of volition; but the meaning and identity of evil is largely assumed. What I have … Continue reading

Defining evil as “not God,” and “doing evil” as choosing anything other, over, or instead of God, gives meaningful shape to our discussions of the origin and nature of evil. If God’s ultimate goal is both to display his glory and to invite his creatures into an enjoyment of that glory—including perfections like his mercy, forgiveness, condescension, self-sacrifice4If evil is not “eternal,” how can we describe certain other attributes of God as eternal—attributes that essentially require evil in order to be manifested (e.g., forgiveness, mercy, etc.)? If … Continue reading—that divine purpose would seem to require such a world as he created. That world includes sentient, volitional beings with the potential to choose something other than him, a capacity withheld from the rest of the material and even animate creation.

Based on this understanding of evil, I would suggest the following synopsis. God can create and initiate only good; since God created creatures with the capacity of volition, the capacity of volition is good even though that capacity entails the possibility of choosing “not God.” The choice of “not God” is, by definition evil. Therefore, God’s good creation of volition made evil possible, but the creature’s exercise of volition to choose other than and instead of God made evil actual.

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1 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:53
2 The Trustworthiness of God’s Words: Why Every Word from God Matters [Christian Focus, 2022], 149.
3 Geisler and Amanu (“Evil,” New Dictionary of Theology) locate the core of their discussion of evil in the concept of volition; but the meaning and identity of evil is largely assumed. What I have tried to explore and fill in is the content of evil.
4 If evil is not “eternal,” how can we describe certain other attributes of God as eternal—attributes that essentially require evil in order to be manifested (e.g., forgiveness, mercy, etc.)? If we say that God’s mercy or forgiveness is an eternal attribute, doesn’t that necessarily imply the eternality of evil, since without evil there would be no need or basis for any act of mercy or forgiveness to manifest those attributes? My own explanation revolves around two points. First, there is a difference between possessing attributes and exhibiting (or exercising) attributes. I may theoretically be placed in a situation that calls forth, for the first time, my reaction to circumstances that I have never encountered before; how will I react? What characteristic will I display in this uniquely new situation that I have never before confronted? Ideally, the rest of my character would shape that reaction. Likewise, we do have clear grounds (BT and ST) for love being an eternal attribute of God; mercy and forgiveness are merely specific, consistent extensions of that divine attribute of love when it encounters “new” circumstances never actually encountered from eternity (like sin or evil). Second, we need to remember that we are dealing with an eternal Being infinitely beyond our comprehension, because he is beyond our understanding and experience of what timelessness even means. If God is eternally omniscient and “lives” every “moment” in full cognizance of all history (as well as pre-history and post-history), then those “contingent” attributes would always be present and part of his character as well.