Evil

Satan before the Lord (about 1750) by Corrado Giaquinto.
Satan before the Lord (c. 1750) by Corrado Giaquinto .
In Christian belief there is a near-duality of good and evil. For those who believe, evil opposes good and is driven by intent to cause harm. Consequently ‘evil’ in nature is assumed to have an intent behind it. Evil is punished by God.

Some people don’t believe in it at all.

Does Evil Exist?

Evil is relative to good. It is also subjective: what’s evil for me, might be good for you. An example is genocide.

Some argue that whether something is good or evil is only a matter of perspective, and it is illusory – good and evil are just shades and glories. There is no ‘evil’; just degrees of ‘bad’ or ‘unfortunate’.

Some believe that the idea of evil is only cultural. Others think that evil is more fundamental – that there are things which everyone agrees are evil such as murder (but oddly, not genocide).

Some distinguish between ‘natural’ evil and ‘moral’ evil. Natural evil is bad stuff that happens without anyone intending it – like earthquakes (assuming God didn’t intend them) – while moral evil is bad stuff that’s caused by intent.

Some think that natural evils are imperfections, thinking that anything that is not perfect, contains evil, which must be eradicated. Unfortunately, zealots attack such perceived imperfections with religious zeal, and are sometimes ultimately proved wrong, having unleashed a greater evil such as eugenics. Imperfection doesn’t involve intent: those who call imperfection evil may have ascribed intelligence and subsequently intent to the system as a metaphor.

According to Wikipedia, the concept of ‘evil’ has a religious context and arose out of ideas of ritual impurity. Seemingly, it didn’t matter if there was an evil intent, as Uzzah was killed when he reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant in transport.[1]

Consequently, evil implies a deliberate universal moral or ethical evil in the sense of opposing God’s intent (or nature’s, or the universe’s, or humanity’s).

The Evil Spirit

“How different it was, Gretchen,
When you, still innocent,
Came here to the altar,
And from that well-thumbed Book,
Babbled your prayers,
Half, a childish game,
Half, God in your heart!
Gretchen!
What’s in your mind?
In your heart,
What crime?
Do you pray for your mother’s soul, who
Through you, fell asleep to long, long torment?
Whose blood is on your doorstep?
And beneath your heart,
Does not something stir and swell,
And trouble you, and itself,
A presence full of foreboding?”

The Evil Spirit talks in Goethe’s Faust.

The Doing of Evil

Why is there evil? In the best of all possible worlds, does evil exist? Can’t God stop evil?

If evil is a punishment, why isn’t it clear what it’s punishment for?

Why doesn’t God just do away with evil?[2] We try to justify evil doled out by a loving God, but nobody has a really satisfactory answer. One explanation is that evil tests and strengthens us: evil could be part of God’s plan to push humans to grow and mature as ‘moral agents’. Another argument is that we’re simply too far out of the loop to know what God intends – and it’s really none of our business (an idea underlying Faust). God has better things to do than to explain Himself to us.

The best we can do is to conclude that He has His own reasons.

Who is Responsible?

If evil is driven by intent, then evil emanates from awareness, and in the Christian belief that means one of God, the Devil, or Man. In other belief systems, such as the Greek and Persian, which also influenced European thought, there may be different contributing entities or spirits.[3]

The Christian Dilemma

Evil is a sticky business for Christians who believe in a loving God, because evil sucks, and what kind of loving God allows evil?…unless of course, He isn’t as omnipotent as our priests and ministers say He is….

Religious leaders take this problem very seriously because religious people, leaders especially, are supposed to have all the answers – it’s how they keep their jobs and sometimes their heads. So we clearly need to point fingers, and it begins with God.

God

God Classic:

Back in the really old days, the God of the Old Testament wasn’t explicitly a god of love and could be pretty stern and severe when He was annoyed, so good and bad were understood to be things He doled out in appropriate measure.

“In the light of Catholic doctrine, any theory that may be held concerning evil must include certain points bearing on the question that have been authoritatively defined. These points are

  • the omnipotence, omniscience, and absolute goodness of the Creator
  • the freedom of the will
  • that suffering is the penal consequence of wilful disobedience to the law of God.”

Evil. The Catholic Encyclopedia at NewAdvent.org

Indeed, in the Old Testament there is no clear or pervasive incarnation of evil: Satan didn’t exist,[4] and there wasn’t a force opposed to God, because He was the totality, encompassing both good and evil.[5]

But then in 597 BC, after the siege of Jerusalem, many Judeans were forced into captivity at Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. In captivity for several generations, the Jews were finally given their personal and religious freedom by the Persian conqueror Cyrus. Choosing to remain and live among the Persians, many Judeans became familiar with the Persian culture.

The Persians were followers of Zoroaster, and Zoroastrianism espoused a duality of good and evil represented by Ahura Mazda (or Spenta Mainyu) on the good side and Angra Mainyu/Ahriman on the bad[6]. Angra Mainyu was the destructive spirit: he existed in opposition to Ahura Mazda.

The Jews became conversant with the myths, legends, beliefs and traditions of the Persians and of the land itself. Those who subsequently returned to Judea returned familiar with the idea of evil as opposed to good.

The last books of the Old Testament are dated to a few hundred years before Christ, generations after the first Judeans had returned to Judea. In them, we can see the first mentions of Satan as a name and as an opposing spirit.

Compared to the old God, the God of the New Testament – the God of Jesus – has been portrayed as a loving god, and according to the New Testament, Jesus battled with devils who opposed Him.

God Lite:

The Christian God is omnipotent. He is lord of good and evil. He created both of them, but He’s mostly a good and loving god. For His own reasons, he permits a contrary spirit to exist that wages a war of sorts against humans (specifically). This evil-loving spirit is His ex-angel, Satan. He’s the Devil and usually spends his time in Hell. The job of each human is to avoid and battle evil, and to grow closer to God – but Satan may try to lure him away. If the Christian fails to resist doing evil, he’s punished forever, unless he’s forgiven by God.

Natural evil consists of the bad things that happen to us through nature. Although such ‘evil’ is defined as ‘unintended’, for Christians, natural evil can be a result of God’s intent. Natural disasters and epidemics are often (more-so historically) considered by Christians (and others) to be a sign of God’s judgement.

The Revelation of John…The End of Evil

“In the nineteenth and twentieth chapters is set forth the preparation of that mystical sacrament called the marriage of the Lamb. The bride is the soul of the neophyte, which attains conscious immortality by uniting itself to its own spiritual source. The heavens opened once more and St. John saw a white horse, and the rider (the illumined mind) which sat upon it was called Faithful and True. Out of his mouth issued a sharp sword and the armies of heaven followed after him. Upon the plains of heaven was fought the mystic Armageddon–the last great war between light and darkness. The forces of evil under the Persian Ahriman battled against the forces of good under Ahura-Mazda. Evil was vanquished and the beast and the false prophet cast into a lake of fiery brimstone. Satan was bound for a thousand years.”

The Secret Teachings of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall, at The Internet Sacred Text Archive

The perception of natural evil has changed over the centuries. In the time of the early Faust stories (16th/17th centuries) people still expected God to make His displeasure known through natural disasters and disease. However, Europeans were also developing the means and freedom to study and understand the reality behind these things – hence Faust’s frustrations with the limits of his knowledge.

When the 1755 Lisbon earthquake killed tens of thousands of decent, God-fearing Christians in their churches on All Saints Day, the faithful were appalled and confused by what seemed to be God’s displeasure and punishment directed at some of the least deserving. The Lisbon earthquake contributed to people looking for natural and not supernatural causes for events, and also caused them to question the nature of evil and God’s justice. It was very hard to explain why God allowed such destruction and suffering. Almost all of the churches in Lisbon were destroyed, and it didn’t seem like the sort of thing God would do.

We don’t expect a supernatural explanation for natural events so much anymore, certainly not on a functional level. Nature’s neutral, what goes around comes around – cause and effect.

Where once God dealt out both good and evil, a new spirit of evil explained that God, unfortunately, didn’t always deal directly with evil.[7] Sorry. Don’t blame God.

The Devil

“I’ve my amusement in it too!”

Mephistopheles explains himself in Faust, by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, at The Project Gutenberg

At this point, we introduce the Devil. He has taken on the reputation for evil for God. He tends to the damned in Hell, well out of the sight and hearing of God. He tempts men into evil, and he is a trickster. He followed the Judeans home from Babylon.

In the Old Testament the Jews were the chosen people, and when the chosen people had pissed off God in too many ways over too long a period, God re-created His covenant with the followers of Jesus (according to the followers of Jesus). To the followers of Jesus, evil is what is done to them and to their God.

We can really see the effect of the Babylonian captivity in the New Testament where Jesus speaks frequently of the Devil and of demons. Since Jesus never (apparently) elaborated about the Devil and would have known it wasn’t prominent in the Old Testament, it is unclear whether the literal Devil was part of his teachings or was just a figure of speech. Did he mean “the Devil” in the literal sense or did he just talk with references to the folk-Devil because he knew people would understand the allegory?

Humans aren’t so foolish or so blatantly hypocritical as to blame God, so the foreign Devil makes an welcome scapegoat – everybody’s happy.

It’s nice to be able to blame evil on the Devil, but he might say that his part is small, and that evil is in the hearts of men: that men do evil, and that through free will, man has the choice to do evil or to not do evil.

Man

To a Christian, evil is that which opposes God, yet at the same time, God encompasses both good and evil. God has some control over good and evil, however, so do we all.

Man, moreover, has free will – the freedom to choose good or evil. Of course Man’s supposed to choose good, but sometimes, for various reasons, he doesn’t. Sometimes he gets screwed-up in his head and does evil for an idea or a belief, and he often stupidly and blindly follows leaders and mobs, and he forgets to think for himself, if at all.

In modern days, most evil roosts in Man. Our well-reasoned investigations through science – coming into itself in Europe during Faust’s early centuries – and a disappointment to Faust – have absolved God of any direct responsibility for the natural evils we have suffered; explaining them, and hopefully making them foreseeable and controllable. The Devil has been dismissed because he vanishes when God does. With those two spirits out of the immediate picture, Man remains.[8]

God

“Well and good, you’ve said what’s needed!
Divert this spirit from his source,
You know how to trap him, lead him,
On your downward course,
And when you must, then stand, amazed:
A good man, in his darkest yearning,
Is still aware of virtue’s ways.”

God instructs Mephistopheles in Faust, by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, at A. S. Kline’s Poetry in Translation.

Faust – Individual Responsibility

Because humans possess free will, intentionally doing evil is a sin.

This is germane to both understanding evil and Faust, too. The individual decides what is evil. That is his responsibility, and so is the obligation to act for his own good, and for the good of others. According to many Christians, God gave humans free will so that they could make these decisions themselves.

This is the dilemma Faust is faced with as Mephistopheles leads him along a downward slope of temptation and sin.


See the Wikipedia article Evil.

Footnotes

  1. 1 Chronicles 13:7-11. []
  2. Of course if evil is relative to good, there will always be subjective evil. []
  3. Though ruthlessly suppressed by the Catholic church in Europe, there were once large populations of Christian Cathars (and Bogomils, and Paulicians, etc.) who believed that the God of the Old Testament was the god of the material world and was an evil god, while the God of the New Testament was the god of the spirit world, and was good and liberating. The Cathars were called “the good people” and practiced a form of Christianity that is considered by some to be closer to true Christianity. The Cathars were brutally exterminated in the Albigensian (Cathar) Crusade. The Catholics thought this was a good thing. Oddly, so did the Cathars who probably thought that with the victory of the evil Catholics, their point had been made. []
  4. “The Hebrew Bible uses the word as a proper noun only three times, all in relatively late books, ones written after the Jews had returned home after the Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C.E.” ( The problem of evil in the Western tradition) []
  5. Satan in the book of Job didn’t represent evil per se, but was merely a spirit who took the part of God’s sounding board in a dialogue about Job (which is echoed in Goethe’s Faust prologue). []
  6. Zoroastrianism also had a concept of Hell which differed from that of the Greeks and the Jews []
  7. Did the first appearance of a god of evil force a corresponding reinterpretation of the Judean God as a God of love? Did evil beget good, and prepare the way for the theology of Jesus? []
  8. We have committed to science and technology to protect us. We have abandoned faith in God for faith in science. This is our deal with the Devil; our hope for freedom. We risk God’s wrath in abandoning Him in the breath-taking belief that our chances are best if we rely on ourselves. Life teaches us that, but starting around the early Faust centuries, with freedom from religion and the development of scientific method and the printing press, good roads, and trade, the process has accelerated possibly past our ability to hang on; and we risk destroying everything because something goes wrong, even through we were promised it could never go wrong, and there were all sorts of measures in place to ensure that it never did, even though it couldn’t. []