What is evil?

by Matt Slick

Evil is that which is contrary to the will of God and which is of malevolent intent. It is a moral category.  It is what is immoral and counter to God's holiness. There are different ways in which evil can be defined. But, biblically speaking, it is anything that is contrary to the holy character and will of God. Evil is wickedness, an attempt to cause unnecessary harm, to deceive, etc. It is an attitude of malice.

Evil is a moral issue

If people are nothing more than evolved human creatures, then nothing can be evil by nature. This is because actions would have no inherent moral value. They would just be things that happen. Lifting a glass off atable is not a moral issue. When a lion kills and eats a zebra, it is not evil. It is just a function of the natural realm. Likewise, in a materialistic world of evolution where God is not a factor of moral truth, there is only function, instinct, and reason - in the case of people. There can't be any ontological evil. There would just be different degrees of suffering and a variety of opinions on what is good and bad.

Objects are not evil. A rock, a cloud, or water are not evil by nature. They are things. But, actions performed by people are different than objects because people have motivation behind their actions. If I break someone's arm to save his life, that is not evil. But if I break his arm for merely my personal pleasure because I want to watch him suffer, then that is evil because in the Christian context it goes against the character of God by violating the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).

Without a standard, nothing is right or wrong. People can have opinions about what is right and wrong, but opinions don't make something morally good or bad. Opinions are subjective and are not universal truths applicable to everyone. If something is morally wrong by nature, that it is morally wrong universally. But consider that morality is an abstraction. It is a concept. If there are universal moral truths, then it implies a universal moral concept. But concepts require a mind. If there is such a thing as a universal moral truth, it implies that there is a universal mind. In a materialistic world without God, saying something is evil by nature means that it is evil everywhere, all the time. But you can't have that in a nontheistic worldview. It is only with the Christian God who is the universal standard of moral truth, can we then judge what is good and bad.

Satan is evil

Some people do not believe that there's an actual being called Satan, who is evil by nature. But the Bible clearly tells us that he exists and he works to thwart the righteous and holy work of God. He opposes God.  He is evil in that he is wicked in his inner most being and seeks to harm us and defy God. 

In the context of discussing him, we enter into the realm of that which is evil by nature. Satan is evil in his innermost being and, it seems, his evil can be experienced. Now, we don't want to make doctrine out of such experiences but there have been countless people who claim to have had a profound experience of the presence of evil. They describe it as terrifying, cold, malevolent, hateful, ugly, foul, etc.  Whether or not these experiences are real is not the issue here. But when enough people, thousands of people, describe a similar sense of foreboding wickedness as something that is palpable, then the suggestion is there is a cause to it. Biblically speaking we could say that the demonic realm, which is evil, and headed by Satan can oppress people sufficiently that the sense the very presence of evil.

A universal moral truth

Sometimes when speaking with those who deny that God exists and are trying to say that all morals are relative, I like to ask them if a particular statement is true or false. Here is the statement.

It is always wrong for anyone to torture babies to death merely for one's personal pleasure.

If the person says the statement is true, then he is saying there is a universal moral truth that applies to everybody. But how do you have that without God? If the person says the statement is not true, then he is advocating that there are occasions where it is morally good to torture babies to death merely for one's personal pleasure. So far, I've not had anyone successfully defend the latter position, though I have encountered one or to have tried. Of course, they failed miserably.

If there are such things as universal moral truths, and moral truths are concepts, then the implication is there is a universal mind authoring the universal moral truths. Of course, as a Christian, I would say that our morality is rooted in the character of God and he reveals what is true. Since he knows all things, it is only possible to no absolute truth by his revelation. Therefore, in the Bible, we can have absolute moral truths.

Evil,  רע,  πονηρός

There are different words used in the Hebrew for evil. But the primary one is rah, רע.  The Greek word is ponaros, πονηρός. Let's take a look at some of the verses in the Bible that mention evil.

  • Exodus 32:22, "Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil."
  • Numbers 14:35, "'I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die.'"
  • 1 Samuel 15:19, "Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD, but rushed upon the spoil and did what was evil in the sight of the LORD?"
  • Psalm 5:4, "For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; No evil dwells with You."
  • Proverbs 12:20, "Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but counselors of peace have joy."
  • Isaiah 32:7, "As for a rogue, his weapons are evil; He devises wicked schemes to destroy the afflicted with slander, even though the needy one speaks what is right."
  • Matthew 5:11, "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me."
  • John 3:20, "For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed."
  • Romans 1:29-30, "being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,"
  • 2 Timothy 3:13, "But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived."
  • James 1:13, "Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone."
  • 3 John 11, "Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil has not seen God."




About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.