Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Defining Evil

In writing the last post in regards to God actually causing evil rather than just being impartial to it, I noticed how careful I was in using the word ‘evil’. While the Scriptures clearly teach that God has no qualms about visiting evil on people (Exodus 32:12,14 Isaiah 45:7, Amos 3:6, KJV), I wanted to make sure that I didn’t impugn His name because of a careless use of the word ‘evil’.

So how is evil defined in the modern world? Wikipedia describes it in a way that I think most people would agree with; “Evilis the violation of, or intent to violate, some moral code. Evil is usually seen as the dualistic opposite of good [….] evil is commonly associated with conscious and deliberate wrongdoing, [….], and acts of unnecessary or indiscriminate violence.

This description is certainly in accord with the common understanding of evil, but no Christian would dare to use such words to describe God! After some probing from a friend, it became obvious that the revulsion of modern Christians to the idea that God causes evil is because the modern definition of the word seems to be quite different to how it is used in Scripture.

A simple question will illustrate this; would you call Satan evil? I certainly would have. But seeing the verses where God Himself is described as causing evil made me second guess this assumption. So I looked up every verse that refers to Satan, and guess what? Not once is the word ‘evil’mentioned in conjunction with Satan! Satan is never called evil, and more importantly he isn’t credited as causing evil either. It is clear from these facts that our understanding of how the word ‘evil’ is used in Scripture is quite errant.

So what then is the Scriptural definition of evil? The Hebrew word evil is רָע, or‘ra’, which predominately means adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, sorrow or trouble. These things are the typical tools that God uses to deal with wayward humans, and I don’t think many Christians would have a problem with God causing these things. But the most import thing to note is that these definitions are categorically different to what the modern definition of evil is, as exemplified in the Wiki definition above.

But it seems that the most important thing in figuring out what Scripture means by the word ‘evil’ is the context that the verse in found in.

In Exodus 32, God is described as being angered that the Israelites built an idol to worship after only having just been miraculously rescued from Egypt; “Now leave me [God] alone so that my anger may burn against them [the Israelites] and that I may destroy them.Now Moses was distressed at this idea, so he beseeched God, and actually demanded that God “repent of this evil against thy people [….] And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”

The context makes it clear that the “evil” that God wished to visit on the Israelites was not some kind of arbitrary and woeful injustice, but rather it was a just punishment for a blatant sin. So the evil that God wishes to cause is; adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, sorrow and trouble.

The context of Amos 3:6 is similar. The chapter starts out with a statement of Judgement “therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities”. So again, the evil that God wishes to cause as punishment is; adversity, affliction, calamity, distress, sorrow and trouble.

The context of Isaiah 45:7 does not mention any kind of punishment for sin. Instead the context of the chapter is to demonstrate God’s supreme control over every part of His creation. Not only does God “form the light, and create darkness”, but His infinite control means that the evil is his creation is under His control as well; “I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things”. But as the Scriptural definition shows, this “evil” is not some kind of violation of a moral code, or wrongdoing or act of unnecessary or indiscriminate violence as the common definition of evil is, because we know that God is just (Deut 32:4; Job 37:23; Psa 99:4; Luke 18:7-8) and righteousness (Isa 51:6; Psa 89:14; Jer 23:5-6; 1 Cor 1:30).

So while God certainly causes evil, it is clear from all this that God certainly does not cause evil in the modern sense of the word.

“He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he.” Deut 32:4 NIV

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