Does evil exist? Yes, but it’s not a clear mic drop for any particular worldview. If the physical world is all that exists, then it’s difficult to explain why people deliberately do evil—and why some of these manifestations of evil give off demonic vibes. Yet if God exists (and not just the physical world), then why should evil have infiltrated every corner of the globe he created? In this article, we’ll explore if either worldview, Christianity or atheism, offers an explanation that makes sense of the very real evil we experience.
Atheism’s Problem: Evil Is Not Supposed to Exist…
In writing my first book, The Atheist’s Fatal Flaw, I read every atheist book I could get my hands on. I grew to appreciate many of these rebels, these spiritual iconoclasts, even as the shelling was aimed at my core beliefs. Many of them had taken unpopular stands and had developed tough skin. The unfiltered yet eloquent Christopher Hitchens comes to mind.
Yet there’s a topic which tends to transform these Rambo atheists into spectacled, lab-coated hypothesizers out of touch with reality. It’s the topic of evil. At first glance, atheists are of all people the ones most aware of evil’s evilness. They’re the ones who force us to reckon with gas chambers and stray bullets and tiny caskets, asking, “If God, why evil?”
“They’re the ones who force us to reckon with gas chambers and stray bullets and tiny caskets, asking, ‘If God, why evil?'”
Yet, after expelling God, the question doesn’t exit the room. If no God, why evil? If they haven’t reshuffled the premises of their logic, atheists are left explaining a world in which all that exists is physical. This means more than just no God: If everything that exists is physical, then they have to relabel reality to exclude any mention of what’s nonphysical. So, in the words of neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen, “good” becomes an abundance of the brain’s ability to empathize with other humans. “Evil” becomes a “empathy erosion” in the brain. Free will is an illusion.
Agnostic Ron Rosenbaum is not sure he likes this dissolution of good and evil: “No one in this deterministic conceptual system chooses to be good, courageous, or heroic. They just have a well-developed empathy circuit that compels them act empathetically.”
In this way, the same atheists who got us shaking our heads in unbelief at the utter evil in the world turn out to be philosophical magicians: While one hand used evil to make God disappear, the other hand quietly stuffs evil out of sight too. Rather than being unfiltered and raw, the atheism that emerges is dismissive about evil, treating it like an unwitting disease for which no one is responsible.
“The atheism that emerges is dismissive about evil, treating it like an unwitting disease for which no one is responsible.”
Atheist Sam Harris, himself a neuroscientist, writes,
We know, for instance, that no human being creates his own genes or his early life experiences, and yet most of us believe that these factors determine his character throughout life. It seems true enough to say that the men and women on death row either have bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, or bad luck. Which of these quantities are they responsible for?
Atheist Bertrand Russell equates the man with a propensity for crime with a man who has hydrophobia: “There should be no more idea of guilt in the one case than in the other.”
And Yet Evil Does Exist…
It’s telling that Sam Harris, whose book Free Will purports to expose human free will as an illusion, still finds himself describing human actions as obviously evil: Racism and slavery are evil. Rape is evil. Global jihadism is evil. This is no “gotcha” against Harris’s system of belief; he has his own nuanced view of how we can call actions good and evil from a secular perspective. No matter how you slice it, however, evil seems to persist as more than a metaphor, even for someone who blames the whole show on physiological factors.
Similarly, Christopher Hitchens called Osama bin Laden evil’s “near-flawless personification.” Rosenbaum, Hitchens’s fellow commentator at Slate, describes how the atheist hesitated to use the word “evil,” but that he felt he could not avoid “that simplistic (but somehow indispensable) word.” Evil keeps popping up in the world which was supposed to be exorcised of spiritual forces.
“Evil keeps popping up in the world which was supposed to be exorcised of spiritual forces.”
It’s perhaps comforting to try to blame physiological factors for some of our worst examples of evil. True-to-life defense pleas include a woman who murdered her son blaming “battered women’s syndrome,” a man who shot his common-law wife blaming “temporary insanity,” a sex offender who kidnapped and assaulted his psychotherapist blaming multiple personality disorder, and a fourteen-year-old who stabbed his classmate blaming schizophrenia. Each year, some states issue acquittals based on around a hundred such defenses. It is certainly difficult to reconcile some actions with healthy mental capacities. But is mental imbalance really the cause of all, or even most, bad actions?
If badness were due to mental imbalance, one should expect Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizers of the Holocaust, to be something of a crazed madman. In her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, Hannah Arendt shocked the nation with her portrait of a terrifyingly ordinary man. Far more sinister than any portrayal on the screen of Nazi brutality is what Arendt called evil’s “banality.” Eichmann’s means revealed him to be an amazingly competent organizer; it was the ends that give us reason to fear. Something deeper than mental imbalance was at work.
“Something deeper than mental imbalance was at work.”
Atheism seems to stagger under the weight of the evil dumped in its arms by its own premises. Christianity, on the other hand, has a God. This means that, metaphysically at least, there is a clear foundation for being able to call some things good and other things evil. Yet, as the classic dilemma goes, if God exists, why should we be experiencing evil and its effects? Shouldn’t he have guarded his world better against the emergence of evil? The question for Christianity is whether it is able to grapple with the full weight of evil without dropping its belief in a perfect God in the process.
Christianity’s Problem: Evil Does Exist…
The Christian faith is very candid in acknowledging that evil exists. Consider the following Scriptures:
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” (Gen. 6:5-6)
“Let those who love the Lord hate evil, for he guards the lives of his faithful ones and delivers them from the hand of the wicked. Light shines on the righteous and joy on the upright in heart.” (Psalm 97:10-11)
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matt. 6:12-13)
“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” (Mark 7:20-22)
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21)
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Evil’s reality is actually one of the premises that the Christian gospel of Jesus is built on. As the angel foretold, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Paul’s letter to the church in Rome (the book of Romans) starts by making it clear that literally everyone struggles with evil, and only after establishing the universality of evil does Paul crescendo by bringing in Jesus as the solution (Rom. 3:21-26).
…But It’s Not Supposed To
And yet, why should evil be such an all-present force—when the only omnipresent being is supposed to be God? Shouldn’t a good God be able to keep evil out of his good creation? “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
The Christian answer is that while “It was very good” rounds out the Bible’s first chapter, its third chapter brings a 180-degree twist: In Genesis 3, a crafty serpent appears in the paradise garden to undermine the humans’ trust in their Creator. He took the one prohibition God had given them (don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) and made it seem like the key to happiness their life was missing. They listened to the serpent, set themselves up as their own gods, and the result was shame, blame, and pain.
“They listened to the serpent, set themselves up as their own gods, and the result was shame, blame, and pain.”
But hang on. That may be the Christian answer to why evil exists, but there are some serious questions that seem unanswered. For example, if God created everything, then doesn’t that meant that God created evil? And even though the first humans were introduced to evil by the serpent, how did the serpent (Satan) himself become evil when he had no tempter tempting him? It is to these and related questions that we’re going to turn.
Our guide in how Christians answer these questions will be one of the great philosophers of history, a Christian theologian from North Africa named Augustine. In his books The City of God and Confessions, Augustine wrestled with the ugly and unmistakable reality of evil as set against the backdrop of a Christian worldview.
Evil does exist…so did God create it?
If God created everything, then wouldn’t that mean that he create evil? Augustine’s answer is that evil is not an original thing. Rather, evil is the corruption of a thing. It’s a bit like rust. An automobile manufacturer may make a car, but he doesn’t make the rust that corrupts a car. You’ve got to have a car before you can have rust. Or it’s like a broken arm. You’ve got to have an arm before you can have a broken arm. In the same way, God didn’t make evil; he made creation. Evil is a corruption of that creation, just like a wound is to an arm or rust is to a vehicle.
Specifically, God created creatures with freedom to make moral choices. Evil is a corruption of our freedom.
Evil does exist…so how did it arise without a tempter?
It’s one thing to ask how the first humans fell for evil, an answer given early on in Genesis. The Devil tempted them to misuse their moral freedom to be their own gods. It’s another question to ask how evil arose prior to the well-placed temptations of an expert tempter. I’m referring to the angel who became the devil that we know of as Satan, as well as to the angels who became his demons.
So, the question of evil is posed in its purest form in the situation of the angels. For angels, evil seems to have arisen without any external provocation from a tempter. How did evil take root in the wills of unfallen, angelic creatures? Without external provocation, what caused their wills to turn evil, transforming angels into demons?
“Without external provocation, what caused their wills to turn evil, transforming angels into demons?”
Augustine’s answer is that there was no “efficient cause” (the agent that brings something into being) of their evil, only a deficient will. “For what is it which makes the will bad, when it is the will itself which makes the action bad?” If there were an external cause of the evil will, then that cause would itself either be good or evil. If good, how could it possibly create an evil will? And, if evil, then what made it evil? The former explanation is unthinkable, while the latter explanation yields nothing but an infinite regress. Thus, pointing to something external to the angels which caused them to have an evil will doesn’t help us answer the question. The best explanation is that evil arose in them because it was something that they themselves willed.
Evil does exist…so has it always existed?
If there is no external cause of evil, are we forced to conclude that evil has always existed? No. Some people have held a dualistic view of good and evil existing eternally (for example, a philosophy Augustine had formerly embraced called Manichaeism). But this dualism of good and evil is confronted with the fact that evil necessarily exists in at least a partially good nature. For, again, in whatever person evil exists, it acts as corrupter or injurer. If it does not corrupt or injure, in what sense is it evil? And if it corrupts and injures, it necessarily corrupts and injures that which was originally good.
“If it corrupts and injures, it necessarily corrupts and injures that which was originally good.”
Only if evil could exist in a completely evil nature could evil have always existed. But for evil to exist in a completely evil nature would be impossible, because evil cannot injure or corrupt that which is already completely evil, only that which has good which is able to be corrupted. Not only is an eternally evil nature impossible because of its need for some good to corrupt, but also because that which is “deprived of all good” ceases to exist. This is why evil cannot have always existed. My teacher Norman Geisler used to compare evil to a moth-eaten garment, and then he would ask, “What do you call a completely moth-eaten garment? A hanger.” In the same way, evil is a parasite needing a host to corrupt.
Evil does exist…so what kind of person can it corrupt?
Just what kind of nature could host the parasite of evil? As we said earlier, the nature can’t be something which has always been evil (because there needs to be some good to corrupt). In addition, in Augustine’s words, neither can the nature be “sovereignly good,” for anything sovereignly good would be incorruptible, impervious to becoming evil.
Because evil cannot exist in a nature which is either completely evil or sovereignly good, it must set itself up in a nature “at once good and mutable [changeable],” a nature which can be corrupted and injured. This is the nature common to those good creatures who are given freedom, whether angels or humans. It is this kind of nature, somewhere in between complete good and sovereign evil, that evil can take up residence and begin to corrupt.
Evil does exist…so what was the first example of it?
With the creation of angels and people, more than one kind of being arose. Thus, a new temptation was born, without there first needing to be a tempter: It was the temptation to reject one being for another. According to Augustine, some angels “cleave to Him who supremely is.” In other words, they followed God. However, some “are miserable because they have forsaken Him who supremely is, and have turned to themselves who have no such essence.”
What’s a good word to describe turning away from God in order to follow ourselves? The biblical word is “pride.” Pride is inordinate self-exaltation. It’s to prefer to exalt ourselves over worshiping God. Thus, pride, according to Augustine, is the “beginning of sin.” Preferring themselves to God, these angels severed themselves from the Source of their being, thus descending into a wretched nature of lesser existence. For nothing in itself is evil to God. Evil arises when good things “unharmonize” with other good things and corrupt the order of things.
“They severed themselves from the Source of their being, thus descending into a wretched nature of lesser existence.”
When a creature prefers himself to God, though both beings are good, the creature, of his own accord, brings himself out from under the divine order.
Saint Augustine was pretty unsaintly for a good portion of his life. He grew up with a devoutly Christian mom, but he very quickly rejected his upbringing for a life of sexual pleasure. Interestingly, the sin of his youth which made Augustine most pensive had to do with something much less steamy.
Reflecting on his wayward growing up years, Augustine recounts a time when he and a gang of fellow ruffian youths stole loads of pears and, having but tasted them, threw them to the pigs. Far from innocent mischief, the crime greatly troubled him. For why should he commit such gratuitous evil? He didn’t even like pears! What he liked was stealing. How low could his heart have sunk to love the sin, not for what he received from it, but for the sin itself? “What then,” he asks, “did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, thou deed of darkness?” He concludes that the only reason for the crime was pride: “For so doth pride imitate exaltedness; whereas Thou Alone art God exalteth over all.”
“What then did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, thou deed of darkness?”
In the theft, he had grasped for a “darkened likeness” of God’s omnipotence. In fleeing from the Lord, he obtained God’s shadow. For the soul turns from God, seeks its own, and in so doing, commits fornication. Thus, Augustine’s view of evil rises from his view of God, for evil is the search for rest outside of the One in whose presence rest alone is found.
God is not the cause of evil. It’s us. In our pride, creatures who are created good choose love of self over love of God.
A final question arises, however. Why did the all-knowing God permit the conditions under which evil would arise? Augustine’s answer lies in the guarantee that such a God foresees more than just the evil; he foresees the greater good that he will bring about in the sinner as a result. “For God would never have created any…whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him.”
That’s a lot of we’re asked to believe. Christianity asks us to trust that God is going to bring about a greater good which we can’t see amid the current carnage which human evil causes. But one thing we can see: God has already brought about measureless good from history’s greatest injustice: the cross of Christ.
“God has already brought about measureless good from history’s greatest injustice: the cross of Christ.”
Some will see the crucifixion of such a good person as yet another reason we can’t trust that there’s a good God watching over us. Yet there are also those of us who see in the cross of Christ the opposite implication. We join the centurion who oversaw Jesus’ execution, but then exclaimed after seeing Jesus die, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
 Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York: Noonday, 1996), 7-8.
 St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), 383.
 St. Augustine, Confessions, 122.
 St. Augustine, Confessions, 25-28.
 St. Augustine, City of God, 361.