What is Evil?
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
In the above verse we see Jesus telling the disciples that they are evil. At first glance this can seem a little harsh – after all the disciples were trying to sort their lives out in many ways! In looking at what evil is we will see begin to see why Jesus spoke in this way on that particular occasion and in doing so can be encouraged in our own thinking.
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘evil’? Do you think of sex trafficking, drug dealers, murderers, or the horrors brought to light by human rights organisations? Perhaps you think of serial killers or Nazi Germany during the Second Word War – or the white supremacist that, as I write, has a website advocating following Satan, also stating that Hitler was something of a hero and there was no holocaust. Then again you might be thinking of evil as some of the things you did before you became a Christian.
Now of course all of these things are evil, but if this is the only way we view evil then we can easily run into trouble because the above pictures of evil can paint us in a good light. After all, we are not a Chairman Mao, Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot. If I want to see what evil is like I can easily view it in the wars, suffering and human degradation around me, yet to see the root of evil I need to look to what scripture has to say because it is the blueprint of life ( 2 Tim 3:16) and sees right to the heart of man.
In Genesis we see that evil is a corruption of something which was originally good. In being a corruption of that which was good it cannot have existed by itself in the first place. In the Garden of Eden, Satan, through a serpent, seeks to pervert the word of God and through wrong decisions Adam and Eve then fall into sin; they are now outside-covenant and under the judgement of the covenant. It is the ‘outside covenant’ existing with its wrong-thinking, dysfunctional and life-sapping ways that gives rise to evil in all its forms. This can be seen for example in Adam and Eve running in fear from God (Gen 3:10-12). Their actions separated them from God yet God still reaches out to them. God also pronounces judgement on Satan with prophecy that speaks of a forthcoming Messiah who will destroy the work of darkness (1 John 3:8, Rom 8:37-9).
Ultimately evil is the fruit of separation from God. It is dysfunctional, outside-covenant existence and a lack of willingness to come to our Father and therein lays man’s problem. We see that the root of evil is not a lack of morality first and foremost, but a broken relationship with God. We were created to know God’s love and to engage with Him as sons and daughters, yet through breaking God’s command sin has entered the world. We have become rebellious and seek to control and dominate the environment we live in, in order to gain a sense of security, wellbeing and worth.
In assuming that evil is a moral problem first and foremost we run into difficulty because it is a relationship problem – or rather the fruit of a lack of relationship with our heavenly father. There were many in Jesus’ day who appeared morally upright through adhering to a set code of conduct, yet did not take into consideration the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Mat 15:19).
In the Western world there is a certain amount of freedom by adhering to the law and we are quick to invoke the law when someone comes against us. Yet the problem for man is that we know something about law, but don’t always want to keep the law and, on occasion, put our own ‘spin’ on it. Law, on its own, does not control the heart and Charles Colson in his book, ‘Lies that go Unchallenged’ picks up on this point of knowing law but not always following the law. In the book Colson points out that juries were found to acquit up to half the defendants in a case if they were from the same ethnic origin as them. He then goes on to say,
“That’s why it is no longer enough to tell juries that something “is the law.” Many Americans believe that the law isn’t fair, and if it doesn’t reflect their values and beliefs, they refuse to enforce it. The law is what makes it possible for us to live as free people. To understand what happens when the rule of law breaks down, just look at countries such as Somalia and Bosnia. Justice gives way to private revenge. Disputes are resolved by force, with no safeguards to protect the innocent.”
C. Colson in ‘Lies that go Unchallenged’ page 336-7.
Outwardly it is possible to be doing what appears the right thing, whilst inwardly thinking something completely different. This can be seen, for example, in the story of the loving father and two sons. The older brother remained at home and got involved with all that was going on yet, as can be seen later in the parable, his thinking was as much out of place as his younger brothers. For example, in his conversation with his father, we see that there was little understanding of his relationship with his father and a distancing of himself from his brother on his brother’s return. In fact, he was not even willing to call his brother, ‘brother.’ This older son may have stayed at home and worked hard, yet in other ways he was as far from home as the younger brother. In any church there is the possibility that there will be older brothers present, so to speak.
In church life maturity can wrongly be measured by how many physical years a person has been a Christian, how well a person knows the Bible and, for example, how many verses they can quote. However Jesus does not view maturity in this way as can be seen in His words with many of the Pharisees and religious leaders around Him. Jesus came along and took everything much deeper than outward actions, pointing out that God looks at the heart (Mark 7:21). In this respect all wrong thinking is outside covenant, so to speak, and can be viewed as evil – that which is dysfunctional and separate from God.
Evil is a disturbance of harmony in God’s world on a physical, emotional and spiritual level – a disturbance of the shalom wholeness that God, as a heavenly father, desires for all people.
“Sin is always a departure from the norm and is assessed accordingly. Sin is deviant and perverse, an injustice or iniquity accordingly. Sin in the Exodus literature is disorder and disobedience. Sin is faithlessness, lawlessness, and godlessness. Sin is both the overstepping of a line and the failure to reach it – both transgression and shortcoming. Sin is a missing of the mark, a spoiling of goods, a staining of garments, a hitch in one’s gain, a wandering from the path, a fragmenting of the whole. Sin is what culpably disturbs shalom.”
Alvin Plantinga in his essay: “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics”.
Our desire to live independently of God and failure to keep God’s law of agape love means that, on one level, we are dysfunctional in heart and mind and this is the root of evil. So what does evil looks like on a basic day to day basis?
In answering the question let’s start with a game in an amusement arcade. The game has a flat surface like a table and has seven or eight tennis-ball sized holes in it. Furry toy animals then pop up from the holes and you’ve got to hit them before they disappear back down the hole. The more toy animals you manage to hit, the more successful you are as you seek to control what is happening with force. Life can sometimes be like this – we are constantly trying to supress and deal with all that disturbs our sense of security and wellbeing. In isolation and rebellion we assume the position of general manager in a world that is definitely not ours to use as we please and the world is getting out of control. We are outside covenant-relationship with our heavenly father and subsequently seek to dominate life. Ultimately this sort of thinking and living will dominate us.
Separation from God
“What God has decided to create must stand in a relationship to him. The creation of man in God’s image is directed to something happening between God and man. The creator created a creature that corresponds to him, to whom he can speak, and who can hear him.”
Dr McFarlane in ‘Christ and the Spirit’, p93.
Counter-covenant living is isolating oneself as we seek to protect and build a life separate from God. An example of this would be the amassing of wealth purely for one’s own security, regardless of the effect on others. It was recently said in the news that the eight richest people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world. Millions across the world starve to death each year not because God does not exist, but because people and nations are not willing to share if there is a cost to self.
Evil often speaks of the ‘outside covenant’ living that begins in the heart. It speaks of seeking to be in control and ends up with us dominating others or being dominated by them.
From what we have been looking at we see that the face of evil is not just the murderer, the rapist or the dictator. It is everything that is in disharmony with the way God calls us to think and live. This then is why Jesus could call His disciples evil on one occasion when He said, “If you then though you are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will my father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Luke 11:13. It was not that the disciples were morally wrong reprobates but that their thinking was dysfunctional and grounded in self and not in God’s word.
The disciples had wanted recognition and a special prayer which they thought would bring them closer to God, and I can understand why. After all they were not your ordinary well-educated pillars of the community sort of disciples that you would normally expect to see with a Rabbi. Instead they were fishermen and labourers, with a despised tax collector amongst them! They knew how society viewed them, they had seen the amazing things Jesus did and wanted a special prayer from Him. In the first century world they lived in, Rabbis often gave their disciples a special prayer which identified them as followers and gave them privy to deeper teaching. Whilst we cannot be absolutely certain at what was going on in their minds we know that they were seeing God the wrong way because Jesus then goes on to reason with them about what their heavenly Father was really like.
From what we have been looking at we see that primarily evil is the fruit of separation from God and a refusal to put God first. It is wrong-doing in regard to God’s original and ongoing intentions, and detrimental in terms of its effect on man. Evil is that which goes against the very fabric and workings of the Universe and is, therefore, the comprehensive term under which all disturbances of the divinely appointed harmony of the Universe are included and that includes your mind and mine at times. Yet there is good news.
There is good news because although God has stepped back from His world, allowing man to reap, to a certain degree, the fruit of his thinking, God has not stepped out, despite what we see. The reason the world suffers is because we choose to go our own way; the reason it still exists is because God has not given up on us.
Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, and in coming into this world as a man He showed us what a relationship with God is all about. He came and destroyed the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and stood in our place so that we could find forgiveness and reconciliation with our heavenly Father.
In all that Jesus did we see that He had a zero tolerance to sin, yet continually exercised compassion, grace and mercy towards the sinner. Note, for example, how He reached out to Matthew and Zacchaeus who were tax collectors and then look at His words to the woman caught in adultery. In standing with the sinner, whilst hating the sin, Jesus often endured the insults and accusations of supposedly morally upright religious people. It was these morally upright sinners who did not consider the true state of their heart that left family homes early one morning in order to make sure Jesus was tried and crucified.
Evil speaks of the dysfunctional, out of balance thinking that comes from a broken relationship with God. It speaks of how we seek to control our lives in a strength that is often spent on trying to dominate what goes on around us in order to make ourselves feel safe and secure. This happens to varying degrees across our world as can be seen throughout history. Whilst we retain something of what it means to have a moral code and be made in the image of God, this is no match for the fruit of separation from God and desire to do things in our own strength. Yet, it does not have to be this way and neither does it have to be the barrenness of empty religion. A religion that is little more than a basic moral code and a means of judging others in such a way that seemingly absolves us from having to go near them is nothing to do with the life God calls us to. In fact we could go so far as to call it evil.
Whatever we are going through, the simple and powerful truth remains: Jesus can restore, uplift and support us if we are willing to hand control of our lives over to Him on a moment by moment basis. Despite our wayward thoughts and actions being counter-covenant and out of harmony with how we are called to live, He still reaches out to us. Because Jesus was willing to shoulder our burdens, we can now fire on all cylinders so to speak, as we learn to walk with our heavenly Father in the power of the Spirit.
Jem Trehern, 26/01/2017