Biblical Concepts

The Source of Evil

The World is Not as God Intends

It is impossible to read the Bible, and not realize the world is not now as God intends. In the beginning, God made the world “very good” (Genesis 1:31). He set every living thing in its place; and man, the crown of his creation, he appointed to care for his special place, the garden in Eden. God has decreed that the world will once more conform to his intent, as he described through the prophet Isaiah:

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

One does not need to be unusually perceptive to see that the world of today is nothing like the creation God first established, or the goal He described in Isaiah. Where the world at the beginning was only good, and the world at the end will be safe and peaceful for all, today the world is a sad mixture of beauty and good, mingled with danger, tragedy and grief. Alongside the joys of life we find war and oppression, disease and crippling, treachery, pollution, death, drought, natural disasters and daily pressures that drive many to despair. If man has filled the Earth and subdued it, it is also true that “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” (Job 5:7)

What happened that there is so much evil in the world? If the world is not as God intended, why did it go wrong? Some say an enemy is causing all the trouble. Others say God just walked away and let the world fall into its current state. As we will see God has definitely not abandoned his creation and while there is an enemy, it is not the one of whom most people think.

Two Kinds of Evil

It will be helpful to divide the evils in the world into two broad categories. Both are called “evil” in the Bible, but the natures of the two classes are very different. One category comprises the destructive forces of the natural world: drought, flood and earthquake would fall into this group. People are affected by these things but generally they have no part in causing or preventing them. The other category of evil contains moral or spiritual wrongs: oppression, treachery and war may be classified here. These things happen only if people do them.

Man the Source of Evil

Much of this second category of evil in the world is obviously the work of man, either as the result of fearfulness, stupidity or wickedness. In this category fall wars and killing, robbery, fraud, abandonment, adultery, hatred and suchlike. Indeed, many of the evils we classify as natural disasters are actually incurred at man’s hand: droughts in Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia were made much worse when wicked men made hunger a weapon in their wars. The exact source of all those evils is described in the Bible. James writes:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:13-18)

Notice in James’ reasoning that God cannot be responsible for tempting man to do evil. God is above all consistent (see Malachi 3:6, for example). He has expressed his will by bringing His children to life in the word of truth. He cannot also be the source of temptation and sin, since these are contrary to the word of truth. Instead, man’s lusts alone are the source of his temptations, sins, and death.

Jesus reinforces this thought, making it very clear that the heart of man is the source of all these evils:

He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man unclean.’ ” (Mark 7:20-23)

With verses such as these clearly indicating the source of evil is actually man himself, one might wonder: Wasn’t Jesus tempted forty days by the Devil? (Matthew 4) How could that be if he was a perfect man? Jesus’ temptation does not contradict these previous verses. Rather, Jesus’ example shows that temptation need not lead to sin: ultimately each of us is fully responsible for our own actions. Jesus says the source of all the wickedness that defiles a man is his own heart. Ultimately, Jesus’ example proves that we don’t have to act on these wrong impulses.

Another example illustrating evil coming from the heart of man was shown in the Garden of Eden. Though Eve was tempted by the serpent, and though the serpent is punished for his part in the transgression, Eve and Adam are both cursed as well, and banished from the Garden, because of their sin. The Bible makes it plain that, though the serpent put the idea into Eve’s head, it was her own desires that resulted in sin:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Genesis 3:6)

There are other times in the Bible when a tempter is named, but not blamed. This may seem unfair until it is realized that the fault for wrongdoing truly lies in the sinner himself. Ananias and Sapphira were believers in the first days of the church in Jerusalem.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?” (Acts 5:1-3)

This is an odd question indeed! How would Ananias know why Satan acted in this way? The following verses clear up the problem: When Sapphira, Ananias’ wife, comes in not knowing what has happened to her husband, the conversation continues:

Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” (Acts 5:9)

The true source of their lie, by which they thought to deceive Peter and God, was their own thoughts: they had agreed together and together they were punished. “Satan” in this case indicates their own desire to appear more generous than they really were. They had devised the plan, they alone were punished for it. In the same way for ourselves, we all are personally responsible for our own sins whether we accept the blame or not; whether we acknowledge or not that the evil thought arose from our own desires.

God the Source of Evil

But of course not all the troubles in the world are the fault of man, are they? We’ve already mentioned earthquakes, droughts, disease and the like – events the insurance companies like to call “acts of God.” Are they really acts of God?

Many of the things we think of today as evil, or as disasters, are presented in the Bible as God’s work: the Flood of Noah’s day annihilated the population of the Earth. God’s judgments on Egypt, and his commandment to Israel to drive out all the Canaanites, certainly were not “good” for those nations. God is, in this sense, the source of the evil that came on the enemies of his people. In the Bible, “evil” often means calamity or hard circumstances; and in more than one place the Bible describes God as bringing such things about (Isaiah 45:7-9, Amos 3:6). More than that, the Bible makes it clear He is the only living God, and therefore the only god among all the nations who can do either good or evil (Isaiah 41:23, 24; 45:7). Amos goes so far as to say that no evil can come upon a city unless the LORD has done it (compare Amos 3:6 with Psalm 127:1). Other ancient peoples believed in many gods, who could have arguments and wars among themselves, who could be overruled by more powerful gods, who could act remarkably like foolish humans. To such peoples, the word “god” could refer to any supernatural being. So, when the God of Israel declares to all the nations that there are no other gods, he does not mean only that there is no god comparable to himself: he means there is none at all, who can do good or evil contrary to his will.

God in Control

God’s control of natural forces is absolute. What is more, the evil that men do is also subject to his oversight. The prophets agree that the Babylonian forces under Nebuchadnezzar were able to conquer Judah and Jerusalem because God appointed them to do so (Jeremiah 27:6). Yet the wickedness of Babylon was not overlooked, and God reserved special punishment for that nation because of their cruelty in executing his judgment:

“Sit in silence, go into darkness, Daughter of the Babylonians; no more will you be called queen of kingdoms. I was angry with my people and desecrated my inheritance; I gave them into your hand, and you showed them no mercy. Even on the aged you laid a very heavy yoke.” (Isaiah 47:5-6)

Because of their cruelty, pride and superstition, God condemns Babylon to oblivion.

Even individual acts of the wicked are subject to God’s will. Luke’s gospel relates the words of Jesus:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-3)

Jesus presents this brutal act of Pilate as a judgment on sinners, and a warning to others that they should repent. Ultimately, most of Jesus’ audience did not repent, and did perish at the hand of the Romans. All of this was under God’s controlling hand. Of course God is equally capable of frustrating the evil works of wicked men, when he chooses. Recall that he delivered Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), and Daniel from the den of lions (Daniel 6).

No Other Source of Evil

What then of the Devil, called Satan? Is he not a great supernatural force of evil, opposing God and leading his people into sin and damnation? For the purposes of this article we will note only that Satan, along with all wicked men, has only such power as God allows him. As a character in the book of Job, Satan is expressly given power to afflict Job (1:12; 2:6). Even so, the book does not say that Satan actually did the things that brought Job low, and every reference to the evil that Job endured names God, not Satan, as the one who afflicted him (e.g. 2:10; 42:11). Whatever Satan is, in the book of Job he is no great force, either of evil or of good, supernatural or otherwise. He has no power at all contrary to God’s will: all he can do is talk.

Devils, or demons, are a special case. In the Old Testament they are hardly mentioned at all, and never are they exorcised by any of the prophets or priests. The New Testament mentions demons in connection with symptoms that in today’s medical terms would be psychological or chronic disorders. For instance, the demon called Legion would today be diagnosed as a schizophrenic, a psychological disorder with symptoms such as auditory hallucinations (voices) and delusions of persecution. The demon that afflicted the lunatic boy in Matthew 17 would today be called epilepsy. Today these disorders are treated with drugs and other therapies, with degrees of success varying from marginal to complete. It is evident that a supernatural being is not subject to control by such means: so there is nothing supernatural about these disorders. But, the people of the day termed these evils demons, and it suited the Lord to treat them as such. In fact, the same power that drove out demons also healed withered hands (Luke 6:6-8). The word of Christ is effective to dispel all the afflictions of man: “be ye whole,” “be ye cleansed,” “depart from him.” The lesson of all these healing acts is no evil can stand against Christ, whether physical, spiritual, or psychological.

The entire natural world is under God’s control, and all the evil acts of wicked men are subject to His overruling will. So also the Son of God exercises control over the wind and the waves, over every affliction of mankind, over opponents and over false doctrines of men, and over demons. By his word all these evils are dispelled.

The World God Intends

We are left then with two sources of evil that the Bible describes have changed the world from the unblemished goodness in which it was created and which God intends. One is the wickedness of humans, and all the terrible things that arise from that source. The other is God himself, controlling and judging all the peoples of the Earth by means of both natural and human events. The pictures the Bible shows us of a purified world to come, freed from the wickedness of man, can come true only when God intervenes to suppress the evil deeds of wicked men. This he has promised to do when he establishes his Kingdom, with Christ himself ruling as king. In such a world, the evil arising from men’s pride, avarice or cowardice will be held in check. No seducer will be allowed serpent-like to deceive the people, calling what is evil, good (Isaiah 5:20-21) and there will be ready instruction in the way of life (Isaiah 30:20-21). In the course of this Kingdom, all opposition to God will be eliminated until, in the very end, even death will be abolished (1 Corinthians 15:21-26). And then the judgments of God against such wickedness will be complete. Then the scripture will be fulfilled:

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

In that day we will truly be able to see the world as God fully intended it, a world where the wicked desires of men’s hearts will no longer ruin the beauty of God’s creation.