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Evil - Evil

human god world dualism

Modern understandings of religion make accounting for evil one of the fundamental tasks of religion. It is widely believed, for instance, that Buddhism is primarily a response to a universal "problem of evil." But dukkha, "suffering, unsatisfactoriness" is not evil. Different traditions define different things as evils (as they do goods), and prescribe different kinds of responses. Thinking about evil is usually accompanied by ritual.


Ricoeur has argued that an "enigmatic element" makes evil the realm of human experience most profoundly ruled by myth.


Myth narrates the creation or emergence of the world, often out of chaos. Suffering and death are often presented as the consequences of poor choices made by the first humans. But the miserable lot of humanity is also sometimes seen as the result of the carelessness, malice, or envy of the gods. Not all gods are good. The orderly world we know may be the result of the destruction and dismemberment of a primordial evil power. In many traditions the world remains evil, a place of exile or punishment.

The creation or imposition of meaning and order is precarious. Jon Levenson has shown that the fear that chaos will return permeates the Hebrew Bible. The force of evil, associated with the seas and often represented as a sea monster (Leviathan), continually threatens order and is continually reconquered by God. That God will prevail is never in question. He may need reminding, however.


The world may be the site of a struggle between good and evil forces. True dualism, such as that of the Manichaeans, is rare; even in Zoroastrianism, the eventual victory of good and light over evil and darkness is assured. But dualism haunts monotheism, as the near-omnipresence of the devil in Christian tradition shows. While defeated by Christ, Satan is still the prince of this world. His power and indeed his very existence are a serious problem for monotheism. What kind of God permits the devil such power—or is God too weak to control him?

Beyond good and evil.

One response is to assert that evil happens when God turns his back on creation or is silent. The hidden God is beyond our understanding. But perhaps evil is no less an expression of the divine nature than is good. "I form the light, and create darkness," says the God of Second Isaiah, "I make peace, and create evil" (45:7). It has even been suggested, as the Jewish mystical Book of Bahir puts it, that "God has an attribute called 'evil'."

Metaphysical accounts.

Metaphysical views of the nature of evils arose in response to tensions within and among mythical views.


Many traditions speak of a fate or order to which even the gods are subject. This fate can be just, as in Buddhism's karmic "law of cause and effect." It can also be meaningless. "Vanity of vanities," says Qoheleth, "all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Eccles. 1:2).

Among the most widespread of these views is the view that time itself leads to decay and returns creation to chaos. Rituals like the human sacrifices of the Aztecs sought to erase time. In most ancient traditions, time moves in greater and smaller cycles. Even if all rituals are correctly performed, the world will one day succumb to chaos, but from its ashes a new world will emerge. Only in noncyclical traditions are the depredations of evil seen as final.

The philosophical correlate of cosmological dualism is the view that evil is an inescapable part of creation: the stuff of which the world is made is inert or even resistant to order. In his Timaeus Plato argues that the demiurge brought the best possible order to unruly matter. Aligned with other dualities inherited from Pythagoras, the dualism of reason and matter was soon connected with mind/body dualism. While opposed to each other, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism both offered dualisms of matter and spirit.

Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (1820–1823) by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. Mural transferred to canvas. Due to its amorphous nature, evil is said by some to be the concept of human experience most profoundly influenced by mythology. © Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis


In response to dualisms, evil was reconceptualized. It is not a substance or a force at all, but just an absence, a privation. God created ex nihilo, nothing constraining him. "Whatever is, is good, and evil … is not a substance, because if it were a substance it would be good" (St. Augustine, Confessions 7.12). This was the official view of medieval theologians, but it is difficult to maintain in practice. Reproducing a similar move in Plotinus, Augustine conflated it with a dualism of body and soul to arrive at the view that it is because we are made of nothing that we are prone to error and sin.


A different kind of view claims that it is impossible or undesirable to create a world without evil, either because there cannot be evil without good, or because good cannot be recognized without evil with which to contrast it. These often conflated views are sometimes described as examples of "aesthetic theodicy." The place of evils in a good creation is justified by reference to the value of beauty or variety. A mosaic is not only more beautiful with dark as well as light pieces but impossible without them.

Human evil.

As the pawn or the prize of the forces that made and govern the world, the human being has always been seen as a source of evil.


Humanity may be seen as essentially limited because its understanding is finite. Justifications of evil almost always appeal to a bigger picture the questioner does not or can not see. Incomplete understanding of things not only leads to error but is also a reason human beings should not expect to be able accurately to judge God's work. Finite reason may be seen as essentially incompetent to understand reality or divinity at all. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8–9).

Negative theology starts from this premise, as do those views that insist on the centrality of paradox to a proper human understanding of God. God may operate by different standards than ours. He may indeed make the rules. The moral and even the logical laws that rightly bind us come from God but in neither case do they give us access to his nature. Human evil can thus arise from resentment at creaturely dependence—but also from misplaced efforts of imitatio Dei.


Free will is the centerpiece of reflection on human evil. This view goes beyond the evil that humans do out of ignorance to assert that free will is the ability to choose between good and evil. Evil can be deliberately willed, not just under the view that it is good. It undermines freedom to invoke a tempter here. (It also makes the creator of the irresistible temptation the true author of evil!) A free act has no cause beyond itself. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it when asked why Satan willed evil: "Only because he wills … this will has no other cause by which it is forced or attracted, but it was its own efficient cause, so to speak, as well as its own effect" (De casu diaboli 27).

But an understanding of freedom as "liberty of indifference" does not yet explain why human agents might choose evil, and indeed has a hard time doing so. Augustine insisted that trying to understand an evil will "is like trying to see darkness or to hear silence (City of God 12.7). Immanuel Kant thought evil "radical"—it is not grafted onto a human will pre-disposed to the good but is a tendency at its very "root." Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling took the next step and insisted that freedom is abyssal in good no less than in evil acts, opening the way for postmodern explorations.

Not all human beings were thought to be similarly able to use their free will for good. It was Eve who succumbed to the serpent's wiles and submitted to Adam's authority in punishment. Throughout history groups denied (and so demonstrated) their own capacity for evil by projecting this onto outsiders.

Original sin.

Not all explanations of evil as the consequence of poor or perverted human choices think human will is free. Woodcut of a witch, a demon, and a warlock, c. 1400. Throughout the centuries, humans have sought to understand evil by ascribing it to certain supernatural beings or even to other humans who they perceived to be "different" from the accepted norm of society. HULTON GETTY/LIAISON AGENCY On some accounts, the wills of fallen humanity are no longer free to do good at all; only humanity's original parents had complete freedom. The idea that we are responsible for the sins of our ancestors and for evil acts of our own that we could not avoid seems incoherent and masochistic. It does, however, give human agency a cosmic significance. It was a human act that brought death into the world.

Original sin can be understood in less dramatic ways as a humility that expects human failure and so is not thrown into despair by it. It may also provide a framework for conceptualizing the ways in which our societies and characters are shaped by the ignorance and injustice our ancestors left us.

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