What is evil?

by Matt Slick

There are different ways in which people can be defined. But, biblically speaking, evil is that which 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 and is ultimately is an intention to do that which is contrary to the will of God--even if a person doesn't know whether or not God exists.

Evil is a moral issue

If all that exists are evolved human beings and there is no God, then nothing can be evil by nature. That is, actions would have no inherent moral value. They would just be things that happen. 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 without God, there is only function and 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 my personal pleasure because I want to watch him suffer, then that is evil. It is evil in the Christian context because it goes against the character of God since it violates the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).

But when we speak about evil in the context of moral right and wrong, then this implies that there is a God who is the standard of good and bad. When we go against what he has revealed about his holy character, then that is evil. Therefore, evil exists in contrast to God's character. But it does not exist in a realm without God. In an atheistic worldview evil would have to be defined by vote and or based on what people want such as not being harmed. But, that has its own problems.

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.

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.