I have a question about evil. Basically, what is it? When people say “evil” do they just mean really, really bad? The shootings in Sandy Hook are “evil,” passing a bad check is just bad. No? How does this work? Is this something where knowing the Greek or Hebrew words for “evil” will let you in on something?
The timing of this question is poignant because, as several commenters noted, coming off of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, we may be more keenly aware of evil in our world than other times. That is, a mass shooting of 6-year-olds seems to us even more “evil” than bombs dropping in Palestinian neighborhoods or the gunning down of a dozen adults in a movie theater.
But why is that?
Augustine famously said that evil is the “privation of good” (privatio boni). Just as darkness does not exist as an entity — it is, instead, the absence of light. But Augustine is problematic here; we might even say that he’s wrong. Augustine writes this,
For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents.
We now know that he is completely wrong in this analogy. Many diseases are, in fact, substantive. A virus or bacterium is not simply a defect in the substance that is me, it is a foreign substance that has invaded my substance and upset it.
As usual, Augustine comes to this determination in an effort to defend God,
For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.
In an effort to defend God’s omnipotence, Augustine assumes that God surely could not allow a substantive thing called evil. (Hey, Augustine, your neo-Platonism is showing!)
Irenaeus, Augustine’s theological rival on this issue, has a very different perspective. Whereas Augustine thinks of humanity as created perfect and then virtually destroyed by the introduction of sin and evil in the Garden, Irenaeus considers Adam and Eve to be the least mature of all human beings. As humanity has matured, we have done so in an environment of good and evil — only by navigating that environment, given to us by God, have we become more morally responsible. Thus, for Irenaeus, evil plays a pedagogical role in the maturation of humanity.
Tanya asked particularly about the Greek — or New Testament — terms for evil, and whether they give any insight. There are two terms used in the NT, and they are used interchangeably.
– kakós means “bad;” it’s used 50 times in the NT, and it traces back to Homer. It has the sense of lacking something, and is often used in contrast to agathos (good). In the ancient world — before the NT, but known to the first Greek readers of the NT — kakós was 1) a metaphysical principle (Pythagoras, Plato), and 2) rooted in human ignorance (Democritus, Socrates). Thus, evil is overcome by knowledge.
In the NT, kakós always has less power than good, and it always comes from humanity, never from God. “No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil [kakós] and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).
– ponerós means “in a poor condition;” while it’s not found in Homer, it is used in other pre-NT literature to mean full of toil, suffering, and to be pitied. It’s used 78 times in the NT; 26 times in Matthew alone. A blind man, for example, is afflicted with a sickness (ponerós) of the eye.
It’s also used ethically, as that which is opposed to God. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil [ponerós], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11).
Used as a noun, ponēros means “bad man/person,” and with the definite article, ho ponēros, it means “the evil one/Satan.”
In other words, in the Bible, evil is not a metaphysical substance. It’s not something, out there, that afflicts us. Evil is a characteristic of humanity. Basically, it’s an adjective, not a noun.
So, Tanya, if I have to land the plane on evil, I land it here (not far from Irenaeus): Evil is part of the environment, part of the world that God gave us, in which we find ourselves. It’s not substance. It’s a characteristic. It’s the name that we give to episodes (or even persons) who exhibit those attributes.
In other words, we know it when we see it.