Evil Is (Not) [Questions That Haunt]

I posted Tanya’s Question That Haunts a week ago. It’s taken me too long to get to it, but that’s fine because it gave all of you more time to post amazingly smart comments.

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.

Of course, that drives us to look at the empirical evidence. Are we maturing? On the one hand, we don’t own human beings any more, we allow women to vote, and we don’t think that persons with darker skin are only 3/5’s human. On the other hand, we have school shootings and drone bombings and we’re not that far removed from the Holocaust.

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.

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  • so, if augustine is wrong – does that make him evil? 😉

  • Ric Shewell

    “if I have to land the plane on evil…”

    That’s a short runway with no lights or ground support!

    How do we know that we are using the term correctly when we call something “evil”?

    And if evil is part of the environment for our own maturity, is evil bad? Is evil evil?

    It doesn’t sit right.

  • I learned a long time ago, from some Jewish friends, a couple of things about evil. One was that they believe people have both a “yetzer hara” (inclination to do evil) and a “yetzer hatov” (inclination to do good). The other was that the Hebrew word for evil, ra, is used in Isaiah 45:7 but most English translations do not translate it as evil in that instance. I think the KJV may be the only familiar translation that uses it though:

    KJV Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

    God creates evil? It’s problematic in the minds of many Christians.

    Other translations say woe or calamity or disaster. Taking all those images together, I think we see “ra” lining up nicely with your point about evil being a characteristic of humanity, because humanity definitely knows a thing or two about actions that bring woe, calamity, and disaster.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    Does this then mean that God made people with evil? If people were not made with the “characteristic of evil” then we could only do (and receive) good. Extrapolating, Tony’s answer seems to mean that metaphysically evil and free will are interchangeable terms.

  • Thanks for this, Tony. Super helpful. I try as much as possible to avoid absolutes, so I definitely appreciate the subjectivity of this post.

    Maybe I will try to follow some of my former logic around a “trajectory” and the Kingdom of God, in relation to evil. Part of the reason I had such a hard time associating with Christianity for a long time was that I thought I had to interpret “good” and “evil” as a list of specific things or thoughts or actions that needed to be repeated or avoided.

    What if to “do” evil is for ones life to be pointing in a direction opposed to the Kingdom? And to “be” evil is to persist on that trajectory to such a degree that your very presence is toxic to everyone around you? Neither of which is “irredeemable”…

  • Nathan

    Thanks for the bit on Augustine too.
    He painted himself into corners on several issues because he couldn’t interrogate his a priori commitments about the nature of God, the role of the Church, etc.
    however, he later wrote his Retractions, and I wonder if we would do well to see what he put down there.

  • T.S.Gay

    I’m not that deep. I’m still sort of guessing on this one. But I don’t see bacteria, or a virus, or protozoa, or animal. or plant, or fungus as evil. And I definitely don’t put non-living(weather, shifting plate tectonics,etc.) in an evil category either. Basically I feel this planet and its evolution is good. Now humans on the other hand, not so much. I kind of feel we can reflect a holy spirit or an unholy one. Sort of on a sliding scale. and definitely a scale that we can practice little habits that can help us in the good area. And I believe there are ways( almost unconsciously) that can drive us toward the bad. And I’ve noticed that people who have attributes that one would say are very in line with “good”, still have these evil attributes bubble up in them, from who knows where? So am I Augustinian, Irenaeus, or just plain out there? I won’t be surprised if I’m way on the margine of this topic.

    • Phil Miller

      I’m not that deep. I’m still sort of guessing on this one. But I don’t see bacteria, or a virus, or protozoa, or animal. or plant, or fungus as evil.

      I don’t think the world separates out into such neat categories so easily. There are, for example, bacteria or parasite that will literally drive people (or other animals) to madness if left untreated, and in that state those people can inflict all sorts of harm on themselves and others.

      It’s hard to come up with any type of theodicy and not address natural evil in some way or another. Primarily because so much pain and suffering in the world is the result of natural causes.

  • nathan

    Is the unstated assumption that suffering of any kind is “wrong” or “bad”?
    I wonder why we have to assign a value category to certain kinds of natural occurrences. Is it because we have a deep, unconscious assumption that this world is really some kind of “neutral space”, when it clearly isn’t?

    If we accept the realities of the natural order of the cosmos, I don’t think it lessens the “tragic” dimensions of human existence, but I think it does put them in a perspective that highlights what we call “tragic” is really just a complex category of our responses to disrupted expectations, hopes, etc.

    In other words, when a young mother died in my congregation, the tragedy was not that she died of cancer. She, like us all, was going to die one way or the other…the tragedy comes because we have a set of expectations about the time frame in which death “should occur”. But that expectation isn’t really grounded in any real objective standard. It’s rises from our hopes, and the general pattern of our modern living, but it’s not really anything we reasonably have the right to expect or even see as a “right” or a “should” or an “ought”. The “evil” is really a constructed category of our response to failed expectations and our helplessness in the face of it all. So we try to take some philosophical high ground and name it evil.

    When I hear people start to wonder about God, etc. in light of these things, I just have to think it’s an understandable set of questions, but the questions really don’t get to the real heart of the issues, and they are fundamentally grounded in a refusal to accept natural reality as it is.

    Even for the “non-religious” person, it’s about magical thinking and reducing God to some kind of cosmic gumball machine in the sky.

    So, for me, Tsunamis and bridges falling and cancer and the like from the natural world…they are hard, they are tragic, they hurt, they disrupt, and they are a value neutral feature of the self-organizing complexity of the universe. they are not evil. they just are…moral categories actually don’t obtain.

    • Phil Miller

      Not to get all reductionist or slippery slope on you, but I have a hard time seeing how simply accepting things like cancer and other things that take human life as simply part of nature that we have to live with wouldn’t eventually lead to the point where we become afraid to start calling anything evil. A mentally ill person who manages to get a hold of an assault rifle and takes out a bunch of innocent bystanders is something that simply happens in nature, too.

      Or perhaps a better example that fits in with what you said. Thousands of children die each day on the globe from diseases that have vaccines or can be cured. Thousands die from hunger. The factors that cause this are many, but it seems one could simply see they lost the genetic lottery when they were born, so too bad.

      I guess I just don’t understand what the hesitancy is in the comments here to call things evil. I understand that it can easily be abused, but the alternative seems much worse to me.

  • Nathan

    I hear that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think there Are things that are evil, but I think it’s an ethical category, not a phenomenological one.

    A mentally ill persons illness occurs in nature….that’s not evil, it’s just tragic. But if we order our society in such a way that does not deny access to weapons to the ill person then WE have failed ethically and allowed evil in the slaughter of the innocent.

    A moral category obtains, but it doesnt reside in the natural occurrence of mental illness.
    Do you see the distinction I’m making?

    So with kids in Africa, the situation of natural disease, etc. is not evil, but our ethical failure to prevent what is actually easily preventable is what could be described as “evil”.

    I don’t want to dilute the idea of evil to mean generally sad and tragic phenomenon.

    • Nathan: “So with kids in Africa, the situation of natural disease, etc. is not evil, but our ethical failure to prevent what is actually easily preventable is what could be described as ‘evil’. “

      Starving kids is the classic example. That’s one of the reasons I work on hunger issues. And not just because it is so tragic, but because is touches on so many other things. We need to get food to them now, but we also need to work on the structures that caused them to be in their situation. If you get too attached to saving every life, it can be debilitating work. You know what needs to be done, but you need almost god-like powers to accomplish it.

      And really, god has not pulled off miracles on that scale. He’s drowned a few Romans, sent down a localized plaque, even raised the dead, but never solved a systemic problem on a continental scale. Tony seems to be getting at this limited God in the QTH; evil is just descriptive, demons are something people use to lay blame, goodness is arbitrary, and certainly God is not fully revealed, we have to continue to discuss who God is.

      If we simply try to define evil like Aquinas did, we can be almost certain that our definition will be found flawed in the future and thus obsolete. Worse, if you use that interpretation to defend a definition of God, when it is found flawed you lose converts, exactly what is happening in America now. The fine line Tony rides is redefining simply to get converts or to truly answer the question of how to live a just life. When he comes down on the side of we need to do the work of feeding those kids, I tend to agree.

  • Phil Miller

    I do get what you’re saying, but I think the thing that is preventing me from agreeing completely is that I don’t know that I agree with the assertion that there is really such as a thing as moral neutrality in the universe. God’s declaring of Creation as good in Genesis seems to imbue the cosmos with some sort of moral meaning in its very core, and actually, else Scripture says that Creation declares the glory of God.

    Basically, when it comes to discussions like these, I’m very much influenced by people like Greg Boyd and Walter Wink. I think that in a sense the universe is a spiritual war zone. That doesn’t mean that I see demons everywhere or anything like that, but I do think that distinctions of good and evil mean more than an ethical judgement that we are assigning to things.

    • Phil, you wrote: “God’s declaring of Creation as good in Genesis seems to imbue the cosmos with some sort of moral meaning at its core.

      I’m not convinced that the declarations of “goodness,” as written by the authors of Genesis, connote moral meaning to the cosmos. Perhaps the authors wrote the “goodness” declarations to reflect their understanding of Creation as possessing a divine value in its very essence, a value reflective of its creator’s character. Of course, if someone beholds the deity of the Hebrew Scriptures to be the cosmic epitome of moral virtue, then “moral meaning” might make sense in this case.

  • T.S.Gay

    “a moral caregory obtains, but it doesn’t reside……”

    Nathan is on to it for me. I’m not trying to cloud this issue, but it was from two extremely different people that I came to ideas about evil. (1) Terence Fretheim- I think he has spent a lifetime thinking about the destructive forces that are on exhibit, and his conviction of the goodness launches into the dangers of reality, and he will take you with him into the mystery( Phil- he isn’t so far from Boyd and Wink). (2) Prigogine- the more we know about our universe , the more one realizes the untruth of determinism(cosmic gumball machine in the sky). Instability resists this type of explanation. Which humanly puts me back onto the sliding scale issue about evil, which I very much would like to talk about.

    • Phil Miller

      I’ve read Fretheim too, and I appreciate his perspective. And I think you’re correct in that it isn’t altogether that different than Boyd’s or Wink’s. Actually I think it was probably a recommendation from Boyd that pointed me to him.

      Anyway, I think what I’m getting isn’t that everything in the universe has to be given a label such that it’s inherently good or inherently evil. Actually, I don’t think most things would be able to be labeled in such a way. Most things we encounter come about because there’s an intricate web of good and evil motivations behinds them. What I think, though, is that there has to be some conceptualization of good and evil that exists beyond our subjective understanding of them. If society, for whatever reason, came to a place where a majority people believed that killing people with disabilities was good, we need to be able unequivocally stand up and say, “no, this is evil!”. And such a declaration needs to be able to be based on our own subjective ethical judgements.

      I think, on one hand, some people get queasy when going down this road because it feels like it’s leading to fundamentalism, or it will lead them to being grouped with fundamentalism. I totally get that reluctance. But on the other hand, I think if the church loses the ability to offer a strong prophetic voice in the face of evil, than we are giving up a huge part of our spiritual birthright.

  • To the question of why shooting children is “worse” than shooting adults:

    We have a genetic predisposition to protect our young. It’s what makes parents run into burning buildings or go hungry so their kids can eat. And it’s a good thing since kids are fairly helpless and they need us to watch out for them.

    Every parent who isn’t a complete sociopath knows that feeling of “I’d do anything to keep you safe.” So we empathize with the loss of children more than we do adults who we perceive as being (at least theoretically) capable of fending for themselves.

    Does that make it “more evil” in the abstract? No. But it does make for a more powerful response in our collective psyche.

  • Nathan

    Phil, I agree about the need to name evil. It would seem to me that we could make a distinction between the artificial imposition of death by human choice or neglect vis a vis the natural occurrence of death by the effects of plate tectonics, etc.

    • Jonnie

      Nathan, I appreciate your thoughts here and the desire to mitigate an over-moralizing of the universe. I think we certainly get something similar to this in the Yahweh speeches in Job where God propels Job in the the magnitude of the universe, showing him the chaotic (and monstrous) as inherent to the created order. I would also, however, hesitate in using too stringent of categories in distinguishing non-human phenomena as categorically amoral (or un-evil). Might we be getting a bit too anthropocentric (or even androcentric) by restrict true evil to only human action or omission? In other words, divorcing evil from the rest of created order sounds like the kind of move that elevates humanity, and the deep moral categories in reality, from the rest of reality. It seems an unintegrated cosmos has been fashioned, where evil is something which only pertains to creatures of our complexity and value. Thoughts here?

  • Tanya

    Thanks so much Tony — for what looks like a mountain of time spent on this question. I’m really glad to have someone tease out the difference between the way the New Testament uses the word, the way it has been treated in Christian tradition, and the way we use it. I’ve always thought that when politicians use the word, they want to invest theological importance, weightiness, to something — but now I see they (and we) don’t actually know what we’re talking about.

  • T.S.Gay

    Jonnie: I’m not Nathan, but about unintegrated:

    I’m going to qoute Roderick Chisholm, an absolutely careful, thorough thinker-
    “The metaphysical problem of human freedom might be summarized in the following way. Human beings are responsible agents: but this fact appears to conflict with a deterministic view of human action( the view that every event involved in an act is caused by some other event); and it also appears to conflict with an indeterministic view of human action(the view that the act, or some event that is essential to the act, is not caused at all. To solve the problem, I believe, we must make some far-reaching assumptions about the self of the agent- about the man who performs the act”.

    This isn’t about being anything other than what is the truth. It’s about being God-like, whether or not it is idolatry or a reflection. So you have today in the ecology realm- The God Species- a very forthright and reasoned position on environmental issues. You have probably the smartest people on earth signing the Humanist Manifesto III, assigning responsibility to us and us alone. You have the protestant principle, grossly misinterpreted, but stating philosophically, don’t absolutize the relative, and theologically don’t idolize(and truth is, this happens in religious circles often). The truth is the recognition of reponsibility
    by positivists and spiritual people alike. Now there are philosophies that have placed the created order in the evil sphere, but they aren’t mainstream. I realize that many feel the freedom position is weak in the natural evil areas, but I feel it is more realistic than the soul making theodicy of Irenaeus and John Hicks. My biggest problem with this growth type position is in reality it is the decadent that live in the insular and unknowing position, while the pious are most in touch with evil. It is true, that the freedom and Irenaean theodicity positions are the more evolved ones. I gravitate to the assertion of the dignity and autonomy of free personhood. To me it is the frontier that still has not been thoroughly grasped, be it by romanticism, existentialism, positivism, or religious ethics.

    • Jonnie

      Hey T.S. Thanks for your thoughts!

      So, I’m not really sure if I’m tracking with everything you’re saying. I know Chisholm, and the puzzles about freedom that spin the free will compatiblism debate in circles. Not sure how his agent causation allusions situate evil in the hands of human agents alone. Might need to say more for me here. Feel free to clue me in more here.

      As far as the multi-sided support for blaming us with the degradation of the environment, I’m totally on board. Completely.

      I was hoping to direct my point more to the question of locating moral evil strictly with agents. I think the assumption here (something Tony’s characteristic vs substantive distinction might come against) is that evil needs to be attributable to human beings, in every case. In other words, it needs an agent’s nature, or person, or whatever you think makes us ‘us’, to attach it to. Does this make sense? Sounds like an implicit need for something like a sin nature to attach the sin substance too… or something. I am wonder though, if it does not do violence to the in the world that happens, the ‘not rightness’ of all kinds of creatures circumstances, to categorically disallow moral categories from attribution to their strife and suffering. If evil is a characteristic, why must it always be an agent characteristic?

  • Nathan


    I really appreciate your thoughts and questions, and I think I would agree. For me the integration issue is covered by a participatory theology of “sin”. Conservative evangelicals tend to moralize the category of sin, epmhasizing Pauline juridical notions of sin while ignoring his participatory language. Sin in the participatory sense covers the tragic, broken realities of the natural world and doesn’t have to be essentially moral in character.

    So we see in Tillich a re appropriation of this in his category of the “tragic dimensions of existence”.

    I think we have to give an account of evil, tragedy, etc. but, for me, I think there is an incredibly crippling effect on humans when the natural world, or even certain natural human traits are problematized by imposing a moral category where none need be imposed to give a satisfying account of our circumstances.

    But I’ll freely admit that what I’m saying might not overcome your very valid concern.

    • Jonnie

      Super helpful here Nathan, and I agree with you concern. Working through this, especially musing over Tony’s exploration of the biblical concepts, has actually helped to ‘de-problematize’ it for me a bit in the sense that evil biblically isn’t always as malicious or ‘agent oriented’ as it is often used. If it is poor condition, breakdown in the intended working order in the cosmos, I think we get even more room to think of it as an integrated characteristic of all of reality, rather than simply a human agent concept. Great thoughts again. I appreciate them.

  • nathan

    poor condition, breakdown are great words that comport with the word PONEROS, found in the Gospels, that gets rendered as “evil”. The word has more to do with being full of hardship, or something being in a bad condition. the word sometimes even gets rendered as “sickness” instead of “evil”.

    Very interesting.

    This was a great interaction for me…gave me a lot to think about.


  • nathan

    HAHA.. just remembered that Tony already cited this stuff about Poneros in the original post…ooops. sorry… haha

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