EVIL:  A BIBLICAL ANALYSIS OF A PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEM

 

In an age of science, technology, and mass education, the problem of evil continues to bear down on the human consciousness. Human genocide in Germany and Cambodia, perpetual threat of nuclear holocaust, and suffering of immeasurable proportions among impoverished people throughout the world present ample testimony to the power of evil in the contemporary world. The reality of the continued existence of evil raises two important issues before the Christian community; one is a philosophical matter and the second is of practical importance.

 

The philosophical dilemma inherent in the presence of evil has long plagued philosophers. Perhaps the first formulation of the problem was made by the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. But the most forceful restatement came from a Scottish philosopher, and historian, David Hume, in a work published posthumously in 1779 entitled Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. In Hume's view, God cannot be both absolute goodness and omnipotent and allow evil to exist.  If God is all-powerful, Hume reasoned. He would be able to prevent evil; if He were perfect goodness. He most certainly would want to prevent evil.  Therefore, Hume continued, since reality includes the phenomenon of evil, an inescapable contradiction exists in the character of God.[1]  For Hume, the schism was so profound that no rational person could see the existence of such a God in creation, and so His existence was denied.[2]

 

As a practical matter, the existence of evil raises the question of how to eliminate it, or at least control it—particularly moral evil.  Secular man, entrapped by his own philosophies, has responded to the challenge with almost as many solutions as there are symptoms.  These range from educating the masses to new levels of enlightenment, thus permitting man to reason moral evil into oblivion, to schemes to biologically "refine" the genetic constitution of the human specie. Christians must be prepared to recognize such programs for what they are, "worldly plans of salvation," and be prepared to deal with them in concrete terms.

 

In contradistinction to the secular speculations on the origin and continuance of evil and man's responses to it stand the biblical teachings. In the pages that follow, the biblical material on evil will be reviewed. Space will not permit an exhaustive treatment of the biblical data on sin and evil, but the major biblical concepts will be highlighted. The biblical data subsequently will be analyzed in light of the issues raised above.

 

The appropriate point of departure is the first chapter of Genesis. In that chapter God's creative activities are described. Of particular note regarding the immediate topic is the fact that at several points in the creation process God looks back at what He had created and judges it to be "good" (vss. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25).  In the concluding verse of chapter one, "God saw all that He had made, and it was very good."[3] Clearly, by the conclusion of His creative act, God's creation was very good, i.e., in complete harmony with His will and purpose.

 

The Bible clearly indicates that sin, at least conceptually, existed prior to the actual rebellion of man and woman in the garden. Genesis 2:9, 2:17, and 3:5 all indicate that the distinction between good and evil pre-existed before the fall. It is particularly instructive to note that the root of the Hebrew word for evil used in Gen. 2:9 means a violent disordering.[4] Since God created an orderly universe, one which was in complete harmony with His being and will, the very act of bringing His creation into existence would raise the issue of its antithesis. It is this inevitable fact which is recognized in these verses.

 

The account of the fall of man in Gen. 3 contains additional relevant information. The several points contained in that important chapter are summarized as follows:

 

The fall of man is clearly depicted as the consequence of the disobedience of a command of God. The man and woman were explicitly told by God not to partake of the fruit.

 

The disobedience of that part of God's creation made in His image centered on a challenge of wills. The relevant issue raised in Gen. 3 is, whose will is to prevail? Is man to be like a god (v. 5) determining his own destiny?[5]

 

The word of God was directly challenged as to its absolute and- unconditional validity (v. 4, 5).  This fact not only encompasses a questioning of God's authority but His motives.[6]

 

In light of the preceding observation, the sin of Adam and Eve was as much, if not more so, a matter of a corruption of their hearts rather than an outward act of rebellion.[7]

 

Even before facing the God against whom they had rebelled, the first man and woman immediately experienced shame because of their sin.[8]

 

Their sin resulted in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden and death, which was both physical and spiritual.[9] Not only did man become alienated from God as a result of his rebellion, but Gen. 3:17 and Gen. 4:8 suggest that man also became alienated from nature and his fellow man.

 

Since the curse placed on man and woman was from God, it suggests that the bondage man finds himself in can only be removed by God.[10]

 

Finally, the account of the fall indicates that sin is not just the result of a strong, lustful desire on the part of man.  Rather, a third party, not specifically named in the Genesis account, plays a powerful role "... being able to lead man, even man made in the likeness of God, into error."[11]

 

Further insight into the biblical category of sin can be gained by a brief review of Old Testament vocabulary. As previously noted, the earliest word used in the Bible for sin (usually translated as evil) employs the Hebrew root of ra: a violent disordering. A common word for sin in the Old Testament is hattah.  This word refers to a missing of the mark. The term is most frequently used in a moral sense of failing to achieve a right goal or path.[12] Scriptures use this form in the context of one person misbehaving against another as in the case where Jephthah accuses the Ammonite king of wronging him.[13]  Hattah is also commonly used in the context of man's misbehavior against God; for example, when David admits to having sinned with Uriah's wife.[14]

 

Another important biblical term used as an expression of sin is pesba, which means to transgress. It first appears in Genesis 23:21 where Israel is told not to rebel against the angel of the Lord. The root of the word suggests a deliberate and premeditated rebellion against an authority.[15] in Job 34:37 rebellion is described by Elihu as sin. In numerous other passages God condemns the nation Israel for its rebellion.[16]

 

The word awon suggests a twisted situation in which something is amiss.[17] It is frequently translated as iniquity or crookedness.[18] Awon is also used several times in reference to a burden of guilt,[19]and rarely is it used in other than an act of sin of man against God.[20]

 

Other Old Testament terms are used to designate various facets of sin including resh, which means wickedness.  The root of resh means loose or ill-regulated. Another term translated as wickedness is awen. The term ma-al means "to trespass," and its root carries the connotation of treachery or faithlessness to a covenant. Finally, awel is translated as perversity. The root of awel suggests a deviation from a proper cause.[21]

 

An additional important aspect of the biblical material on sin is God's reaction or response to it. The Old Testament indicates that sin irritates or offends God.  The same word raas is also translated by some as causing God to have grief, or to be provoked to anger.[22] For example, in Deuteronomy 4:25 the Lord warns that idolatrous practices are evil and will provoke Him to anger.[23] In Numbers 14:11 God almost seems to be expressing exasperation over the continued non-belief of His people.

 

Although the passages noted above suggest God is affected by sin, it would be incorrect to assume that God suffers in some substantive way as a result of man's sin; or, in other words, that something is taken from God, thus reducing His transcendence or omnipotence. For instance, in Jeremiah 7:19 God asks Jeremiah, who is really being provoked by the people's sins, since they are really only harming themselves? And in Job, Elihu restates this point when he says :

 

"If you sin, how does that affect him?

If your sins are many, what does that do to him?

If you are righteous, what do you give to him, or what does he receive from your hand?

Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men.[24]

 

And yet, the question remains:  In what way is God affected by sin if it provokes Him to anger? Lyonnet and Sabourin resolve this issue when they comment:  "It may, therefore, be argued that sin in some way does affect God in-as-much as it wounds man, whom God loves. "[25] Because of God's love for His people, He jealously protects Israel.[26] But Scriptures indicate God's willingness to allow suffering to befall His people.[27] This God does partly as a matter of judgment and partly in an effort to cause those who have strayed to return to Him, and to make their return possible.[28] God must provide the ultimate purification of the sinner.

 

Finally, in reviewing Old Testament data on sin and evil, it is essential that the book of Job be considered. Throughout the ordeal Job steadfastly defended his position that the suffering he was experiencing was not direct punishment for one or more sins. In 31:35, Job demands his accuser (God) set forth the charges against him.  By the end of chapter 37 Job and his friends have exhausted all possible explanations for his suffering without satisfactorily resolving the dilemma.  In chapters 38-42, God speaks to Job and while ignoring the stream of allegations and speculations made by Job and his friends, proceeds to question Job about His creation, its origin, and its enormous complexity. Twice during the monologue God sets the theme of His address.  Initially in responding to Job, God asks Job who he thinks he is to question His wisdom. From there the questions flow until 40:8 when God asks, "Would you discredit My justice? Would you condemn Me to justify yourself?" For the remainder of chapters 40 and 41 God continues to demonstrate to Job the vast ranges of reality unknown to him and, therefore, the futility of any attempt to sit in judgment over God's purpose and wisdom.

 

The New Testament does not alter the biblical teaching on sin and evil, although it does place a somewhat different emphasis on certain aspects of the problem.

 

As far as the vocabulary of sin goes, the New Testament uses six different terms, most of which seem to relate to more of a general condition rather than a specific abnormality. The six terms are as follows:[29]

 

*Hamartia - To miss the mark or aim.

*Hettema - To fall short of one's duties.

*Anomia   - Nonobservance of a law.

*Agnoema - To do something wrong in ignorance which you should have known about.

*Parabasis- To transgress.

*Adikia   - Unrighteousness.

 

The New Testament clearly indicates that man is the cause and source of sin in the world. And, with that, sin and death are said to have entered into every being.[30] Like the Old Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles teach that sin rises from within the hearts of men and results from a willing choice by man not to obey God but Co pursue his own desires.[31] For example, in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the younger son is depicted to have made a conscious and free choice to leave his father and go out on his own. The sin, therefore, is not the squandering of the money which is an outward expression of the rebellion felt inside, but the desire to separate from the father and no longer be a son. And, in fact, the eldest son, who continues to be faithful to the father by abiding by the rules, transgresses his main duty—that of being a "son."[32]

 

In general, therefore, the New Testament views sin as a refusal to submit to God's power and His authority.[33] Perhaps more importantly is the view seen in the New Testament of sin as a refusal to accept God's love.[34] Many forms of sin are seen in the New Testament as idolatry with greed being a prime example. For this reason, sin is seen more as a problem of the inner person rather than some exterior influence, albeit Satan is recognized as having the power to manipulate the sinful propensity of man. For this reason, the New Testament tends to deal with sinful actions as examples of the inner sinfulness being expressed rather than as the essence of sin.

 

As a consequence of man's sinful nature, all men must die. Furthermore, persistent rejection of God's plea for repentance will result in the darkening of the mind or the inability of the mind to recognize absolute truth.[35] Without reconciliation with God, man is permanently alienated from his Creator.[36]

 

And how does the New Testament see that reconciliation being achieved? In light of the fact that the source of the problem is taken as a perversion of the inner being of man, the reconciliation must take the form of a radical transformation of that inner nature. The New Testament message is that that radical transformation comes about when the sinner personally accepts Christ as Lord and Master over his life.[37] When this is done, the power to combat sin comes from Christ Jesus and, as Romans 8:1-2 so beautifully says:

 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life sets men free from the law of sin and death.

Prior to returning to a consideration of the philosophical issue outlined at the outset of this paper, it would be worthwhile to summarize several pertinent points which surface from the biblical data on sin and evil.

 

1. At the time of its origin, the creation. God's creation, was good.

2. Evil, meaning a disordering of a uniquely ordered universe, was at least potentially present before the fall.

3. The sin of Adam and Eve did not consist of taking the fruit—that was its outward manifestation. Their sin was placing their will above God's. Both Old and New Testaments consistently state throughout that sin is the consequence of a free and conscious rebellion against God. As Lyonnet and Sabourin eloquently put it:

 

The greatness and the tragedy of man's destiny lies in his having to choose between love and hate, between light and darkness, between Him who is true and the evil one (I John 5:19f). Man will eternally be a child of God or of the devil.[38]

 

This point is also evident from the vocabulary in both testaments.

 

4. The Bible clearly states that the drama is not just between man and God but that a third party—Satan—plays an important role.

5. The consequence of sin is alienation from God, alienation among men, within man himself, and with his environment.

6. God does not like sin and He does not tempt men to sin. In fact God is constantly beckoning man to turn from his ways to His own.

7. On the one occasion when God is challenged to explain evil, He does so by making the questioned (Job) aware of how little of His purpose he knows and understands.

 

The philosophical dilemma stated by Hume and others centers around the apparent contradiction between God's omnipotence and His goodness.[39]  It would seem to this researcher that an adequate treatment of the problem of evil must also encompass additional issues which relate to other attributes of God. First, an issue which inevitably is brought to the fore in a discussion of this topic is the question of the origin of evil and sin. A solution to the problem of evil should satisfactorily encompass the question of its origin and, at the same time, be reconciled with the fact that God had foreknowledge of the outcome. Secondly, as will be seen below, analyses of the problem of evil frequently fall into a discussion of God's purpose, and this, too, must take a proper seat in the arena of inquiry.

 

As noted earlier, the Genesis account of the creation and fall indicates that what was created was good, but that at least the concept of evil pre-existed the fall of man.  Secondly, the account of the fall and subsequent events clearly indicate that a radical transformation took place in the relationship between man and God, man and himself, and man and his fellow creatures. It also suggests that the world itself was radically transformed as death entered the universe.  In addition, numerous passages in the Old and New Testaments indicate God hates sin and that God strives to have people voluntarily surrender to His lordship. All these points suggest that the Iranaean view of evil, suggested by the Greek church as a solution to the philosophical problem, does not accord with the Scriptures. In part that view suggests that man was not wholly good at his creation and that the fall was not a disastrously transforming event but, rather, served only to delay and complicate his advance from the "image" to the "likeness" of God.[40]

 

Augustine devoted considerable attention to the philosophical problem, and his views have had substantial influence on subsequent generations of Christians. Augustine's solution took two courses. On the one hand, he argued evil was not a substance, i.e., did not have its own essence, but is only the product of rebellion against good. Thus, God and His creation are inherently good "... and the phenomenon of evil occurs only when beings, which are intrinsically good (though mutable), become corrupted and spoiled."[41] Evil origated, in Augustine's first view, as the result of the expression of man's free will against God's goodness, i.e., a negative choice caused evil. Natural evil resulted as a consequence of that decision by man.

 

In Augustine's aesthetic view of evil, he argues that what appears evil to man is really only a consequence of man's limited horizons.   If man could just have a clear view of God's long-range purpose, then the pain and suffering would really be seen as a blessing. And, in fact, the Bible does teach, as has already been noted, that God will allow evil to befall His people to judge them and cause them to repent.[42] in this view, what appears as evil is seen as such only becaus of our limited perspective. In addition, "... things that are transitory by nature, appearing and then perishing within the ever-changing pattern of nature's beauty, contribute, even by their death, to the perfection of the created world order. "[43] The perfecting arises out of an increased variability and diversity which more closely approaches the properties of the infinite. In order to build a common bridge between his two views, Augustine argued that it is better that the world possess beings with free wills, although fallen, than to not be free at all. In such a world, he reasoned, moral balance is sustainable as long as evil is balanced off with divine judgment.[44]

 

Augustine's analysis has been criticized for failing to provide an explanation for how a finitely perfect being acting out of free will could ever opt to fall into sin. Second, his solution to moral evil is seen to be at variance with his position on predestination which views moral evil as being within God's overall purpose.

 

It is important to note that Augustine, in developing some of his arguments, and particularly the connection between moral evil and his aesthetic conception of evil, is forced to resort to speculations about God's purpose. This is not unique to Augustine but seems to be common among theological works on the problem of evil.[45] Inevitably, the question of God's purpose arises as though if only we could see more completely God's total purpose, we would be in a position to judge for ourselves the right or the wrong of evil and sin.

 

In fact, the key to the dilemma raised by the philosophers seems to rest with the issue of God's purpose. Biblically speaking, there is just no way to avoid the fact that at its beginning the creation was good, that sin entered the world as the result of the free choice of man, and that God, as C. S. Lewis so eloquently put it, " . . . saw the crucifixion in the act of creating the first nebula."[46]

 

But do those admissions seal a guilty verdict on an alleged biblical contradiction? Is it impossible for God to be both omnipotent and perfect goodness and allow evil and sin to begin at all and persist? The answer can only be no! This assertion is justified since, in order to know categorically whether omnipotence, goodness, and evil are inconsistent elements, one would have to have complete knowledge of what each consists of with reference to an infinite being. In other words, it would be necessary for a finite being to have complete knowledge of God, and, in particular. His purpose.[47] And it is this very point which God Almighty made to Job:

 

Then the Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said:

 

Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man;

I will question you,

and you shall answer me.

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand.[48]

Would you discredit my justice?

Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

Do you have an arm like God's,

and can you voice thunder like His?[49]

 

The implication of the biblical data is clear. The presence of perfect goodness and infinite power in a being does not categorically contradict the possibility of the presence of evil. The Bible tells us that God tolerates sin and the resulting evil only insofar as its origin and presence permit Him to fulfill a greater purpose. It is because of the greater purpose which God has set for Himself that He would voluntarily restrict His own power to deal with sin and evil.

 

Since God is still intact after the philosophers' onslaught, the Christians' response to world plans of salvation from pain and suffering can be but one. Clearly, all such schemes are doomed to failure. The only ultimate source of victory over evil is the uniting of each individual in Christ. Only then can Christ's Spirit provide the power for regeneration. Until this Christ returns and restores this world to a condition of harmony with God's purpose, sin and evil will be with us; but they do not have to control us.

 

Select Bibliography

 

Berkouwer, B. C. Sin. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Reprinted ed. s.v. "Evil, the Problem of," by John Hick.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Reprinted 1976 s.v. "Evil," by David R. Dungan.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.  Reprinted 1976 s.v. "Salvation," by Burton S. Easton.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Reprinted 1976 s.v. "Sun," by John E. Kuizenga.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. London: Geoffrey Bliss, 1940.

Lyonnet, Stanislas, and Sabourin, Leopold. Sin Redemption and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study. Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970.

Schoonerberg, Piet. Man and Sin: A Theological View. Translated by Joseph Douceel. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965.

Strauss, James D. The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1976.

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. "Sinner," by J. M. Houston.

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, s.v. "Salvation," by C. M. Home.

 

The Following Sources Were Less Useful or Not Available for Review

 

Anderson, F. I.  Job.  Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1976.

Bloesch, Donald G.  The Christian Life and Salvation.  Grand Rapids, MI:

W. B. Eermans Publishing Co., 1967.

Brunner, Heinrich E.  Man in Revolt, A Christian Anthology.  Translated by Olive Wym.  Philadelphia, PA:  Westminster Press, 1947.

Buchler, Adolph.  Studies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature. New York:  Ktau Publishing House, 1967.

Greeves, Frederic.  The Meaning of Sin.  London:  Epworth Press, 1956.

Hebblethwaite, Brian. Evil, Suffering and Religion.  New York:  Hawthorne Books, 1976.

Hick, John H. Evil and the God of Love.  London:  Collins, 1970.

Muller, Julius.  The Christian Doctrine of Sin.  Translated by William Urwick. Edinburgh:  T. & T. Clark, 1885.

Plantinga, A.  God and Other Minds.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1967.

________.  God, Freedom and Evil.  New York:  Harper Torch, 1974.

Porubeau, Stefan.  Sin in the Old Testaments: A Soteriological Study.  Rome: Herder, 1963.

Silvester, Hugh.  Arguing with God:  A Christian Examination of the Problem of Evil.  Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1971.

Stroup, N.  The Fact of Sin:  Reviewed Historically and Doctrinally. Cincinnati, OH:  Jennings and Graham, 1908.

Wenham, J. W.  The Goodness of God.  Downers Grove, IL:  Inter-Varsity Press, 1974.

 

Dr. J. D. Strauss

World View Studies

Philosophy/Theology.

 Lincoln Christian Seminary



[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith, The Library of Liberal Arts (Indianapolis:  Bobbs-Merrill Education Publishing, 1947), p. 198.

[2] Ibid., p. 199; see my Sin and Salvation--for all vocabulary.

[3] Genesis 1:31. (Quoted from the New International Version.).

[4] James D. Strauss, The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary (Joplin, Missouri: College Press,1976), p. 545.

[5] Stanislas Lyonnet and Leopold Sabourin, Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), p. 5.

[6] Ibid., p. 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] lbid.

[9] Ibid., p. 7.

[10] Ibid., p. 9.

[11] Ibid., p. 10.

[12] Schoonenberg, Man and Sin: A Theological View, trans. Joseph Donceel (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), p. 1.

[13] Judges 11:27.

[14] Samuel 12:13. For other examples, see II Samuel 24:10, 17; I Samuel 15:24, 30.

[15] Strauss, The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary, p. 545.

[16] Hosea 7:13, 8:1, 14:9; Micah 1:5, 3:8, 7:18; Jer. 2:8, 29, 3:13, 5:6, 33:8; Isaiah 43:27, 46:8, 48:8, 53:12, 59:13; Ezek. 2:3, 20:38.

[17] Schoonenberg, Man and Sin: A Theological View, p. 2.

[18] Strauss, The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary, p. 545.

[19] For example, see Gen. 4:13; Ex. 28:38; Ezek. 4:4-7; and Isa. 53:4, 11.

[20] Lyonnet and Sabourin, Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study, p. 13.

[21] Strauss, The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary, p. 545.

[22] Lyonnet and Sabourin, Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study, p. 14.

[23] See also Deut. 32:24 and Jer. 7:l8ff.

[24] Job 35:6-8.

[25] Lyonnet and Sabourin, Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study, p. 18.

[26] See Ezekiel 36:5-8 and Zech. 1:14-16 as examples.

[27] Ezek. 23: 25.

[28] Ezek. 14:11; 16: 60-63.

[29] Strauss, The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary, p. 546.

[30] Rom. 5:12.

[31] James 1: 13-15.

[32] Lyonnet and Sabourin, Sin Redemption and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study, p. 37.

[33] Rom. l: 18ff and Rom. 3:19, 20.

[34] John 3:36.

[35] Rom. l:18ff..

[36] Eph. 4:17-19.

[37] Rom. 8:1, 2; II Cor. 5:17.

[38] Lyonnet and Sabourin, Sin and Redemption and Sacrifice: A Biblical and Patristic Study, p. 451.

[39] For example, see the survey article in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "The Problem of Evil," by John Hick, p. 136-41.

[40] Ibid., p. 138.

[41] Ibid., p. 137.

[42] Heb. 2:10. For a discussion of this topic, see C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bliss, 1940), pp. 77-97.

[43] Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 137.

[44] Ibid., p. 138.

[45] For example, C. S. Lewis remarks: "God might have arrested this process by miracle (the change undergone by man because of the fall): but this . . . would have been to decline the problem which God had set Himself when He created the world, the problem of expressing His goodness through the total drama of a world containing free agents, in spite of and by means of, their rebellion against Him" (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pp. 71, 72).

[46] Ibid., p. 72.

[47] Strauss, The Shattering of Silence: Job, Our Contemporary, pp. 543-44.

[48] Job 38:1-4.

[49] Job 40:8, 9.