What is the definition of evil?
Question: "What is the definition of evil?"
Answer: Evil is usually thought of as that which is morally wrong, sinful, or wicked; however, the word evil can also refer to anything that causes harm, with or without the moral dimension. The word is used both ways in the Bible. Anything that contradicts the holy nature of God is evil (see Psalm 51:4). On the flip side, any disaster, tragedy, or calamity can also be called an “evil” (see 1 Kings 17:20, KJV).
Evil behavior includes sin committed against other people (murder, theft, adultery) and evil committed against God (unbelief, idolatry, blasphemy). From the disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9) to the wickedness of Babylon the Great (Revelation 18:2), the Bible speaks of the fact of evil, and man is held responsible for the evil he commits: “The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20).
Essentially, evil is a lack of goodness. Moral evil is not a physical thing; it is a lack or privation of a good thing. As Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland has noted, “Evil is a lack of goodness. It is goodness spoiled. You can have good without evil, but you cannot have evil without good.” Or as Christian apologist Greg Koukl has said, “Human freedom was used in such a way as to diminish goodness in the world, and that diminution, that lack of goodness, that is what we call evil.”
God is love (1 John 4:8); the absence of love in a person is un-God-like and therefore evil. And an absence of love manifests itself in unloving behavior. The same can be said concerning God’s mercy, justice, patience, etc. The lack of these godly qualities in anyone constitutes evil. That evil then manifests itself in behavior that is unmerciful, unjust, impatient, etc., bringing more harm into the good world that God has made. As it turns out, we lack a lot: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’” (Romans 3:10).
Moral evil is wrong done to others, and it can exist even when unaccompanied by external action. Murder is an evil action, but it has its start with the moral evil of hatred in the heart (Matthew 5:21–22). Committing adultery is evil, but so is the moral evil of lust in the heart (Matthew 5:27–28). Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:20–23).
Those who fall into evil behavior usually start slowly. Paul shows the tragic progression into more and more evil in Romans 1. It starts with refusing to glorify God or give thanks to Him (Romans 1:21), and it ends with God giving them over to a “depraved mind” and allowing them to be “filled with every kind of wickedness” (verses 28–29).
Those who practice evil are in Satan’s trap and are slaves to sin: “Opponents [of the Lord’s servant] must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:25–26; see also John 8:34). Only by the grace of God can we be set free.
Physical evil is the trouble that befalls people in the world, and it may or may not be linked to moral evil or divine judgment. Ecclesiastes 11:2 counsels us to diversify our investments, for this reason: “thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth” (KJV). The word evil in this case means “disaster,” “misfortune,” or “calamity,” and that’s how other translations word it. Sometimes, physical evil is simply the result of an accident or causes unknown, with no known moral cause; examples would include injuries, car wrecks, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Other times, physical evil is God’s retribution for the sins of an individual or group. Sodom and the surrounding cities were destroyed for their sins (Genesis 19), and God “made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:6). Many times, God warned Israel of the calamities that awaited them if they rebelled: “[The LORD] also is wise, and will bring evil, and will not call back his words: but will arise against the house of the evildoers, and against the help of them that work iniquity” (Isaiah 31:2, KJV). In all cases, God works through the situation to bring about His good purpose (Romans 8:28).
God is not the author of moral evil; rather, it is His holiness that defines it. Created in God’s image, we bear the responsibility to make moral choices that please God and conform to His will. He wills our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3) and does not wish us to sin (James 1:13). In repentance and faith in Christ, we have forgiveness of sin and a reversal of the moral evil within us (Acts 3:19). As God’s children, we walk according to this command: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).
Recommended Resource: If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think about the Question by Norm Geisler
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Questions about Apologetics and Worldview
What is the definition of evil?