I am thinking this afternoon about the nature of evil. Possibly a rather strange subject to be contemplating on a Friday afternoon. Maybe it’s all the bizarre crimes that we hear about these days. Or maybe it’s the violence raging its way through the Middle East right now. Or perhaps it’s simply the clouds and gloom that I see outside my office window. Whatever the reason, the matter of evil keeps coming to mind.
Evil is one of those realities of life that we all live with, suffer through, and accept (to a certain degree). We grudgingly recognize it as a normal part of life. We concede its influence and inevitability, though with reluctance. We all know that at times our only recourse is to choose “the lesser of two evils,” as much as we hate to admit the necessity of such a regrettable decision. We long for a perfect world—dreaming of utopia—yet all the while living next door to hell. We shake our heads in disbelief at the latest brutality reported on the evening news—as though this was the first time we had ever known of such a thing, choosing to forget that we heard much the same kind of news last week. There is certain element of denial, it seems, in living with evil. Reading the latest rape statistics or watching a special news report on domestic violence elicits the same kind of response we feel at the death of a loved one—we don’t believe it at first because we really don’t want to believe it at all. Evil, like death, is something that we weren’t originally created to experience. And so our inner frame, the internal make-up of our being, shudders in disbelief when exposed to it.
I think that part of our incredulous reaction to evil’s presence may be result of the nature of evil itself. So let us consider this question. What is evil? What exactly is its nature? How does it function and what causes it to happen? Specifically does evil have its own being, its own reality—or is it the lack of some reality?
At first glance, the answer may seem simple. Something as pervasively influential, ubiquitous and persistent as evil must exist in its own right. Look around. The world is full of evil. There are natural evils: hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, fires, lightning strikes, and earthquakes abounding. And there are no fewer moral evils to deal with: murder, rape, theft, lying, infidelity, abuse, violence, blasphemy, idolatry, greed… and the list could go on until we are sick of it. Evil exists, plainly, obviously so.
But I press the point. Does evil “exist”? I challenge you to think of about this, to really ponder it. Does evil really exist? Or could it be that that what we perceive as the reality of evil is actually the non-existence of something, the lack of a certain reality.
Let me use an analogy to explain what I mean. Suppose a man were very ill. Some dread disease has ravished his body for months on end. He now finds himself weak to an extreme degree. He can barely lift his arms to feed himself. It is an effort to raise his own body to sit on the edge of the bed. Now is that man’s weakness a thing in itself, or is his weakness actually the lack of something—muscular strength and ability? Is weakness an active force that is working on his physical body, or is it the lack of physical capacity that makes him what we call “weak.” Is weakness actually a thing in itself, or it is rather the lack of a particular thing that is usually present? Is not the answer obvious? Weakness is not a force, power or activity in and of itself. Instead, weakness is the lack of something—strength.
May I now apply the analogy to our larger discussion? Is evil a force or action in itself? I do not think so. In fact, that is to credit evil with too much. It is to give evil an essential reality that it cannot have. In a sense, to view evil as a thing in itself would be to assert it as being a positive factor or force. How absurd! For evil is only a negative.
Allow me to use some moral illustrations to further illuminate the topic. Take cowardice for example. Should we consider cowardice as an active influence in a person’s life? Or does it not make more sense to view cowardice as the lack of courage? Is fear something that acts in a positive way on a person’s mind and heart? Or is it rather the absence of confidence, faith or trust? Get the idea? Now for a classic example. What about hate? Do we really want to endow hatred with an active, positive capability? Is hate a thing in itself? Or would it be better to consider hatred as what is left in a person’s heart when love, kindness, compassion or goodwill is missing?
These examples are rather easy to see, I think. Some others may be a little more difficult to conceptualize. Take sexual lust, for example. If anything appears to be a driving, forceful actuality it would seem to be lust. But is it? The sex drive is a normal, positive compelling dynamic in a human being. But when there is a lack of moral restraint and the absence of purity and holiness in a person’s heart, then lust results. Lust itself is simply a natural, wholesome, positive quality that has gone awry. How about greed? This may seem to be a rather direct urge in a person’s life. But if we go deeper, is greed a thing in itself? Or might we discover that a greedy person is actually one who lacks trust in God’s provision, or deserts love of spiritual matters for the love of material things, or lacks a proper understanding of what is truly valuable in life? There may be many different causes of the evil, and it may vary its manifestation from person to person. However, the essential nature of greed itself demonstrates that it is a negative, not a positive, quality of the human heart.
Is there biblical warrant for such a view of evil? Yes, indeed. For instance, there are several words in the Hebrew Bible that are translated “sin.” One of these is awen. This word carries the idea of something that is weak or worthless. It seems to be related to the Hebrew word for “nothingness” (ayin). It connotes the deficiency of true worth. Thus, sin is presented as the lack of something. We also see this negative quality in the most common word for sin in Greek, which is hamartia. This word literally means to “miss the mark.” Sin is to be off center, to miss the target, to not be where we should be. Again, the idea of deficiency or lack is evident. Thus, we see that even in Scripture we have the idea that evil is a want of goodness, it is missing something—not the presence of something.
Based on all this, we now understand that moral evil is not a positive reality at all. Instead, it is a deficiency of rightness, of virtue, of what is good. It is the lack of those qualities or tendencies that actively work to make us godly, that motivates us to be what we were created to be—good, virtuous and righteous.
Okay, you say, this is an interesting discussion (at least I hope you find it to be so) but what does this have to do with my life on this dreary Friday afternoon? I tell you what… tons! We need this understanding so much. I think that one of the most devilish deceptions that most people face is the belief that they can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” that they can just “turn over a new leaf” whenever they want. Satan, the ultimate deficient one, the one with huge amounts of emptiness and lack in his spiritual reality, deceives us into believing that we can do something regarding the terrible plight we are in as human beings. (Even Christians fall prey to this lie.) What folly!
The problem with human nature is that we are flawed and fallen. We have lost our spiritual link to God, and thus we are lost in life’s journey. The biggest need in our lives is the void in our souls, our lack of spiritual excellence. We are born sinners—which means we lack essential goodness and moral strength. We are all prone to do wrong, because we do not have the wherewithal to do right. (In theology this is called depravity.) The only goodness and moral rightness we find in the human race is the positive influence of God’s truth, God’s Spirit, and God’s people (more on them in a moment). If there is virtue in the human race it is the direct result of the common grace of a good and merciful God. We can’t help ourselves otherwise. We are incapable of changing our degenerate, deficient hearts. Asking a fallen, sinful human being to be virtuous is like asking an armless man to arm wrestle. He just doesn’t have the necessary equipage to do it.
Now, understand me—I don’t denigrate and devalue mankind because of this. Rather, I agree with Francis Schaeffer when he said, “Man may be sinful, but he is not junk.” How true! If anyone would question the value of man, he would only need to look at the Cross to find himself corrected. Mankind was valuable enough to God that the cost for our redemption was the life of the Deity Himself! What greater evidence could we desire before we could accept the worth of every person in the sight of God?
But, and here’s the rub, there is still the problem of sin, of evil. Every one of us needs to be filled with those qualities and essential traits that we all lack. We are all deficient in a very fundamental way. (In a real way, before coming to Christ we are “sub-human,” less than human beings were designed to be. In Christ, we are raised to again enjoy the true humanity that Adam once knew in his primitive state. But we boast not of this raised status, for it is all by grace!) Without Christ, we are all empty, needy, deficient creatures, awaiting the filling of His goodness. How rightly did Pascal say, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” And as much as nature abhors a vacuum, God does so even more. He longs to fill our evil, empty hearts with His loving, righteous fullness.
And wonder of wonders—He graciously does so. How many millions can testify to this fact! As a result, we who were as empty and lacking as any other sinful person, find our lack taken care of by His goodness. Our deficiency is overwhelmed by His sufficiency.
And after this individual transformation and infilling of virtue, we then find that He calls on us to be part of the solution for the evil of this world. We learn that we can be a positive force to counteract the deficiencies so prevalent around us. We find that by acting in cooperation with the Holy Spirit that we can actually combat the emptiness of evil with the abundance of God’s grace. And for ourselves personally, we discover that in Him we are more than adequately equipped to deal with whatever comes our way in life—that we are sufficiently enabled to confidently face life with power, virtue, joy and peace.
Child of God, are you like I am? Are there some days when you feel overwhelmed with your own sense of inadequacy and insufficiency? Take hope. Have confidence. He who is the fullness of life, the all in all, the rich Source for everyone who has need—He has promised to deliver us from this dreary and struggling existence and to supply all our lack with His abundant provision. What a wonderful promise and joyous prospect!
(See 2 Corinthians 3:4-5, Romans 7:18-8:2, Colossians 1:12-13)