The Nature of Evil

For years I’ve tried to remain neutral on the question of what constitutes evil. It’s the sort of thing you can get yourself in a lot of trouble with on the one hand, since the people in the world that I consider to be the most evil actually have their friends and defenders. And beyond that, there are too many religious fundamentalists out there getting extensive mileage out of labeling those who don’t share their opinions as being of the devil. So why should I add to the collection of those labeling others as evil? Isn’t there enough of that going around without my contribution?

But looking at the various treatment of the subject by both hypocrites and sincere, well-intentioned individuals –– both religious and non-religious –– I’ve reached the conclusion that the issue is too important to too many people for me to keep evading it. Do I really believe in evil as such? Is there a power in the supernatural world opposed to all that I hold to be virtuous and dear? Or using non-religious language, is there some collection of tendencies, active among human beings, that I have a moral obligation to stand up against? Does this work in such a way that anyone who fails to oppose these tendencies and forces is thus de facto a bad person?

You might be seeing why I’d wish to evade such questions.

From a religious perspective, on the one hand the early Hebrew prophets had nothing to say about a devil. No where in the sayings of Abraham or the writings of Moses or David is there any reference to a personalized force of evil. Their spiritual enemies were the various gods of nations they were at war with, their own unbridled passions and their lack of direct obedience to God’s instructions. That was enough to explain all of the evil that needed explaining back then. So in principle one doesn’t need to believe in a devil in order to base one’s life on faithfulness to the One True God.

Yet on the other hand, for the later Jewish prophets, who had the issue of explaining the actions of brutal and powerful conquering empires to deal with, the devil started to become a pretty important figure. It is thus no surprise that fighting against the power of the devil is a huge issue in the teachings of Jesus and in the narratives of his life. Thus one really cannot claim to be a Christian without acknowledging and accepting the idea of a power of evil out there which needs to be fought against. From there the cultural history involved becomes very much a secondary issue.

But this leaves us with a few very thorny theological problems: Where did this power of evil arise from to begin with? To what extent is it part of the universal human condition? How did it get that way? What can ultimately be done about it?

Those are the questions that American evangelicals in particular love to take a swing at every now and again, but in doing so they are more often than not forgetting one profoundly significant aspect of the problem of evil: throughout the Bible it is associated with major colonial powers. The devil, or the anti-Christ, is always related to some empire which is preventing God’s people from having things the way they would have hoped and expected. In the Hebrew Scriptures it was the Babylonians and Persians. In New Testament times it was the Romans. The question for all of Jesus’ followers was, since the devil was working for the Romans, when was God going to give the Jews (and believers in Jesus’ kingdom) power from on high to kick some Roman butt? That actually never happened.

Eventually Rome started to fall of its own weight, and when it did a political genius named Constantine decided to use Christianity as a means of propping the empire back up for another century or so. The evil empire thus became an official ally of Christianity! This gave rise to a whole new set of problems regarding the essence of evil which the newly politically empowered church largely swept under the carpet: How do we reconcile the idea of the empire being evil with us being the empire? How do we determine what the new focus of the devil’s power on earth might be so that we can join together in fighting against it? How do we go about separating ourselves from “the evil of the world” when we’re in fact more in control of the world than anyone else?


To say that the answers to these questions offered by church leaders over the past 1700 years or so have been variable is a pretty serious understatement. Suffice to say, there is no pat answer to the question of the nature of evil in Christian doctrine that would save us the trouble of thinking about the subject. Far from being troubled by this, I actually consider it to be a good thing.

This brings us to the point where Christianity essentially believes that all of us have evil within us that we have to deal with somehow. And more than in any other world religion, the focus of Christianity is on receiving God’s mercy to deal with that. From there it’s a matter of being God’s special servants, and “doing our job” in a spirit of being incredibly grateful for having been “hired” while we were still hopelessly under-qualified for the position. Our main task in this job is to prevent evil from keeping others separated from God and keeping us separated from each other. Far easier said than done.

But setting aside the challenges inherent in those details for the moment, let me ask, does anyone have a better suggestion as to what the basic point of ethics should be? With all due respect for atheists and non-religious thinkers in general, their proposals for what our ultimate goals in life and purposes for our existence should be –– reasons why anyone else should really give a flying rat’s ass –– have historically been even more vague and variable than the Christian and theistic ones. Could it be to do whatever we feel like, as long as we pay a little attention to where our actions might be leading us along the way? Is it to make as many people as happy as possible? Is it to terminate unspeakable suffering? Is it to learn to be logical as an end unto itself? Is it to “keep evolving,” in some abstract sense of the term or another? All of these suggestions are rather problematic in their own rights.

So perhaps the question of the ultimate good is too abstract and difficult for us to reach any functional agreement on. Perhaps agreeing to fight some sort of evil together is the best we can do in terms of a basis for human cooperation. Rather than looking for something we all can agree on as a positive motivation for shared action, perhaps we need to find things that we can all agree together to hate and to fight against.

But there’s a long and problematic history of such motivations. Just within the scope of church history we have the examples of Diocletian gathering the Romans together to fight against the scourge of Christianity; then Christians taking charge and having a very troublesome time in the Dark Ages when they couldn’t find enough evils to fight against besides each other; then the popes began calling together all western European Christians to fight against the evil Muslims –– freely killing off any Jews, Orthodox and non-believers who happened to get in their way –– which in turn brought the Muslims together to fight against these evil Christian invaders; then you had the grand Catholic versus Protestant wars throughout Europe and their colonies, with plenty of anathemas going back and forth; then there was a phase of white colonists rising up against the evil empires which sent them out to begin with, seeking to be free from the evils of the economic oppression they felt they were under; then the darker skinned residents of European colonies abroad started fighting together against the evil burdens white men were placing on them; then came Marxist revolutionaries, attempting to unify peasants and factory workers against the evils of global capitalism; then there were the Nazis rising up against what they saw as the twin evils of Communism and the Jewish conspiracy to oppress the “master race”; then came the Cold War, with a drawn out stalemate between NATO and Soviet blocs, each thoroughly indoctrinating their children as to how evil the other side was; until now we’re once again we seem to be in a state where people can’t decide which evil is most important to join together in fighting against, and where uneducated Americans in particular seem to be randomly attacking whatever evils they can find.

What evils should we be fighting against here?

Odds are that somewhere within that last run-on sentence each reader here came to some point where they said to themselves, “yes but that really was evil!” That would essentially demonstrate my point: for all their problems, hatreds and indignations over perceived evils get people involved and get stuff done. This is a dynamic we really can’t ignore. We have to find ways to use it to get stuff that really needs doing done. Towards that end we have to form some sort of clear picture of evil to motivate people with.

For President Obama the first great evil that he has worked to unite people in opposition to was the completely dysfunctional state of the US healthcare system. The second great evil that he has tried to rally people in opposition to is the lack of concern that many Americans feel for those who are suffering and abused, often at the hands of rich Americans, both at home and abroad. Those are tough evils to convince Americans to fighting against though, especially since it isn’t entirely clear how those evils are different from those being rallied to fight against them. American Republicans, on the other hand, are trying to rally people together to fight against the concept of taxation in general as inherently evil; and against the idea of evil, dark-skinned, non-English-speaking foreigners (like the late Barack Obama Senior) coming into our country, using our public services, stealing our women and giving us little in return. Those are far less coherent concepts, but far easier to sell to the ignorant as objects of hatred to fight against.

Can I do better than that in terms of presenting a clear picture of what evil is worth opposing these days? I frankly doubt it, but do I feel that I at least have a moral obligation to present a coherent picture of what I see as evil and what I am willing to stand up and fight against. I believe that if more people would take the trouble to do this for themselves, politicians and hate-mongers would have less to work with when they come to manipulate us. Here then are the great evils I wish to fight against:

Envy – Too many people get hung up on competition with others to the point where they would rather destroy everything the other has than accept the roll of being the one with fewer toys. This sort of destructive competitive impulse has been the cause of ridiculous amounts of needless violence, pointless consumerism (and the environmental destruction it causes) and useless personal anxiety. If people could get beyond this impulse the world would be an infinitely safer and more pleasant place for all of us. And all it would really require is for them to grow up a bit.

Bigotry – The ignorant assumption that “our group” is naturally better than “their group” might be useful for inspiring some sad souls whose self-image is in the crapper otherwise, but that doesn’t by any means excuse it. This might be harder to outgrow than envy, but it can be seriously improved on with education. When people actually come to understand something about where the “others” are coming from in terms of their own situations and motivations, they actually tend to discover that they aren’t nearly as strange, disgusting or inferior as they had previously assumed, or been conditioned to believe.

Bullying – In this form of evil –– yet another sort of defensive maneuver used in personal competition –– juvenile-minded individuals start looking for someone they can prove that they are stronger and “cooler” than, and they then proceed to find ways of torturing that vulnerable individual in order to beef up their own status. As a teacher I’ve told students that I consider bullies to be a life form somewhere between earthworms and cockroaches on an evolutionary scale, but that wasn’t a very philosophical way of putting it. The main point is that bullying causes all sorts of deep personal damage to both the bullied and the bullies that in turn lead to lifetime patterns of destructive and anti-social behavior in both. Teach kids not to bully each other –– teach adults not to continue bullying each other –– and a great number of the stupid and immoral things that businessmen and politicians do beat up on others could be eliminated within a generation.

Scape-goating – Rather than following the ritual given in the Jewish scriptures that this practice takes its name from, these days we have extensive numbers of evil people who look for vulnerable individuals to take the blame for all of their problems and the results of their bad decisions. The classic example that everyone seems aware of is what Hitler did with the Jews: claiming that all of the Germans’ problems were then Jews’ fault, thus they deserved to die. Usually, however, this evil practice is far more individualized and subtly personally vindictive. It can be a teacher, a classmate, a co-worker, a boss, a spouse, a neighbor… that the escapist accuses of having caused all of the problems in their life, or that of their child. And far too often these accusers manage to convince themselves that the charges they press are perfectly valid. Not only can this do the same sorts of damage on both sides as bullying, but it also prevents people from ever facing up to their personal responsibility for the state of their own lives. Fix that, and a whole range of other problems automatically get dealt with in the same stroke.

Sexual abuse – This is one of the more traditionally recognized forms of evil, where some aggressor (male or female) chooses some involuntary participant (male or female) to satisfy his or her sexual desires. Even if this is not a physically torturous experience, which it most frequently is, the emotional damage this causes to the victim in terms of a loss of self-confidence and a personal sense of value are immeasurable. The way in which this can prevent the victim from experiencing sex as a form of deep personal bonding thereafter is a tragedy of the highest level. The way in which victims of such abuse proceed to self-medicate and take out their sense of bitterness and resentment on others can lead to social dysfunctions of epic proportion. What counts as criminally prosecutable rape is not the issue here. The question is, are both parties in the sex act doing it as partners, in every sense of the word? If not, regardless of the legalities involved, there’s something evil going on. Another thing that can turn sexuality into a form of abuse is when it is based on some form of deception, such as adulterous cheating. I believe that complete physical intimacy should always have, at the bare minimum, a fully voluntary and mutually respectful quality to it. Ideally it should also have a dimension of emotional and/or spiritual connection to it. Lacking the latter can make it cheap; lacking the former can make it out and out evil.

Dehumanization – Perhaps in the broader sense of the word, dehumanization is the common thread in all of the evils mentioned above, but in the deepest sense of the word this is the essence of what combatants are trained to do to each other: don’t think of the enemy as a fellow human being; think of him as a target to take out as part of the game, or an animal to be hunted down, or a strategic objective to be accomplished. Give them slang names that keep you from thinking of them as real people. That makes it a lot easier, if necessary, to torture, rape, kill and mutilate these individuals in order to gain an advantage in battle. While I’m not a strict pacifist, I can’t believe that any objective which requires that form of psychological conditioning in order to be achieved can be used as a justification for such means. Whenever we have to stop thinking of other people as inherently valuable human beings in order to do what we intend to do, we have stepped over the line into complete evil, regardless of how we try to justify it.

So what do all of these things have in common? Besides a laundry list of sins that I particularly hate, is there some basic quality to all of these things that makes them really evil? And to what extent are all of these tendencies inborn rather than the result of corruptions we are educated into? My answers –– and you are free to disagree with me without my consequently considering you to be evil –– are that in our postmodern world these are the things which most deserve to be hated, because they lead to the greatest damage to and destruction of the human spirit. They isolate people from God (or a sense of spirituality, if you prefer) and from each other, and they prevent people from truly loving themselves in a healthy way. These things potentially happen for all sorts of reasons, but more than anything else because of a tendency for cut-throat competition to become the meaning of life for some people. If “winning” is ultimately more important to you than any other form of human satisfaction, that makes you a potentially very evil person.

Redemption, in turn, comes back to a matter of setting aside our pursuit of personal victory, and putting a shared sense of thriving, connection and appreciation for the gift of life at the top of our personal priorities. In this regard the essence of the Christian message is that if we live by our own competitive instincts, we automatically lose where it really counts; but by throwing ourselves on the pure mercy of God we can still “win,” as long as we are willing to set aside our competitive nastiness in the process.

Can atheists and those of other religious persuasions find their own ways of living beyond their competitive instincts? In individual cases I have little doubt. In fact I have greater doubts as to whether my fellow Christians can ever consistently live up to ideals expressed in this message of redemption. What I won’t do is lay out the alternative narratives by which the others can find their paths to personal redemption, but in order not to be a bigot or a bully about it I need to acknowledge that I don’t have any exclusive right to represent God, and it is completely possible and plausible that they can find such a path without my help.

Meanwhile, in terms of my own “spiritual warfare,” on my honor I pledge to fight against all six of the evils listed above, with whatever strength and by whatever means God grants me. How many others are there here who will pledge to join me in this sacred quest?



Filed under Education, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Spirituality, Tolerance

25 responses to “The Nature of Evil

  1. Good and evil is a subjective judgement against a rule book. If the rule is broken then the rule breaker is “evil”, if they abide by the rule then they are “good”.

    An alternative philosophy I now use is teleological, the ultimate purpose or design of things. A purpose of knife is to cut objects: a bad knife is a blunt knife for its purpose is impaired; but a good knife is a sharp knife for it cuts better.

    • Alex, are you saying then that the Holocaust and the 911 attacks were only “evil” because they violated someone’s taste in rules?

      • Outside of human experience the Cosmos is indifferent to what goes on within it, there is just design. A river can supply food, water and transport, but throw yourself in with lead boots on and it will drown you, for that is the nature of the river, it won’t judge you, it will assist or kill you based on what you do with it.

        9-11 and Holocaust are man-made, it has nothing to do with the Cosmos, nor does the human judgements based on man-made rules. The consequences of 9-11 and Holocaust may go against certain aspects of the design of the Cosmos, and that may have implications for those that caused those events.

  2. Lyman Grover

    I’m with you Alex, evil is a human construct. So is good.

  3. Stealing this from another friend’s status today:
    “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.” — Bertrand Russell

    I essentially agree with him in all aspects of this quote.

  4. anewpairofeyes

    A man with no female compliment, with evil as his opposite, its no wonder that the pagans who had been inflicted with Judeo/ Christianity had to borrow the feminine back and smuggle her into their holidays (like ‘easter’ eggs!)

    From a Taoist metaphysical underpinning, (a dialectical neutral monism) all things are shaped through the union of complimentary energies that BOTH can cause various types of imbalances. Neither the masculine or feminine elements are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ as some sort of inherent quality, they can just become over-exaggerated and exert undue influence.

    There is a subtle shift in that meta-physical standpoint from the view of polarized opposition where the pairs involved are antagonistic at all levels….

    From that world view even the alternative to competition is competing ‘against’ it. A solution to a problem is difficult to come by when dealt with from the framework that is the source of that very problem.

    I admire your motivation for trying.

  5. A link to a blog by a pastor of a rather large evangelical church that raises some interesting points related to what I am pondering here:

  6. apocalypseicons

    Recently discovered you via LinkedIn and delighted by your clarity of thinking. I am trawling at random through your blogs as I promised and would like to re blog your six evils on my blog with link to here. I am not a philosopher and yet what you say is essentially my own experience of the ‘way (some or a lot of) people are’. Not just towards me but to all those I come into contact in my work who have suffered humiliation, rejection etc. John of the Cross being one most particularly abused in historical/theological spheres.
    My mystification is why it persists despite the obvious unpleasantness, sorrow and hatred it brings. Even when you do your best to be as loving as possible it would seem the hatred, envy and rottenness intensifies like a bunch of weeds springing up. Then why should I be surprised? I just have to contemplate Christ on the Cross to see that even he could not change such hearts. Yet the act of suffering and dying for us in such a way has brought about some kind of cosmic shift; a pathway for the truly righteous to travel on, maybe. Perhaps we just cannot fight against these evils. Working on a commission for an image of Archangel Michael these past weeks I am seeing the need to stand up to evil with fortitude but not through anger or retaliation but with a sense of Divine purpose of some kind. I need to think a little longer about this.
    Let me know if I can reblog.
    pax et bonum

    • Thanks Constantia. You’re welcome to any use of my texts which acknowledges their source. If they help in your own thinking and spiritual path, so much the better. All the best with your artistic explorations as well. I’ll give them a skim every now and again.

      Rauhaa ja siunausta
      (Finnish for what you wished in Latin)

      • apocalypseicons

        What an interesting language- have never seen Finnish before! Thanks for the permission- I will think about it for next blog.

      • apocalypseicons

        David, I have posted extracts of some of above on my blog this evening. Please check and be sure you are fine with it. Have added link to your blog and your photo if that is ok.
        I come across many people who have been at the receiving end of bad stuff one way or another- they blame themselves always- and I think it helps to have the truth of it articulated with clarity as you have done.

  7. Pingback: On the Nature of Evil – a Finnish Philosopher’s Perspective « apocalypseicons

    • I am quite flattered. There is just one little correction that would be in order: I am in fact an expatriate American (having spent roughly half my life in Finland) of Dutch descent, not actually Finnish… for what difference it makes.

  8. The devil does not exist. Even liars sometimes tell the truth.

  9. Good to see your virtual face again, Sam. 🙂 I’m still not going to go dogmatic either way: denying the devil’s existence or giving him/her/it credit for things that can easily be explained via basic human drives.

  10. FunkyO

    Nice read Mr. Huisjen!

    “Can atheists and those of other religious persuasions find their own ways of living beyond their competitive instincts?”

    I think most certainly that they can and have done it for a long time. Now that I am thinking of many world religions, I feel that Christians are by far the most affected in a negative way by competitive instincts. But, I guess this has something to do with the spreading of Capitalism in the world. If you see a pile of gold, you reach out for it.

    About the 6 evils you mentioned. I think that most people have some tendencies for all of them except Sexual Abuse. Of course there are people who abuse others sexually, but I think that is just a small amount of people.

    For the other 5 I can say that I can recognize these “evils” inside me. I feel they are just a part of human nature. The most important thing to do is understand this and also understand that we always have a choice. In everyday life we have many choices, so just choose the path that you feel is most ethically correct. If you constantly choose the path to good, then it will slowly become a habit and you will become a better person. This is just how I feel.


    • Thanks Olli,

      I think that sexual abuse is more widespread than we realize, especially if we include various forms of deception being used in cheating and seduction, which keep sexuality from being a truly mutually desired experience between truly consenting adults. But beyond that you’re right: we need to fight evils first of all within ourselves before fighting to remove them from the rest of the world… and Christians in particular need to take that more seriously.

  11. Good and Evil can be objectively defined, although they are subject to debate over what constitues ‘harm’ or ‘benefit’, I define evil as the knowing destruction of sentient beings, and good as it’s opposite, the knowing creation of such. No supernatural definitions or religion required.

    • Michael, I appreciate your efforts to simplify and objectify the question, but I cannot agree with the implication that all killing of animals is inherently evil, and all intentionally procreative sex is good/virtuous. I’m willing to take a certain amount of time to discuss the matter with you here, for you to clarify your views in this regard, but I don’t think we’re going to come to full agreement on the matter.

  12. A good read to mull over. Makes me think of going for a philosophy degree (it might not give the answers, but I’d feel on a more level field arguing these concepts). You say, “Our main task in this job is to prevent evil from keeping others separated from God and keeping us separated from each other.” Can you rephrase this, especially the first part? Do you mean keeping us separated from God, or do you mean keeping our evil from separating other’s from God, or do you mean to simply imply that we should be more concerned with others’ well being than ourselves? (If it is this latter, injecting God into it seems like a recipe for evil in itself!)

    Would not a purely atheist view on the holocaust acknowledge, first, the visceral evil of knowing so many of ones own kind slaughtered and second, the extreme delusional madness that caused the slaughter. (This even before the secular humanist’s value of human life for its own sake.) After all, it is the dehumanization and the skapegoating of the victims that allows such events to continue taking place. If the holocaust was of deer or any other non-human species, the holocaust might be sad rather than a horror. Similarly, if the holocaust was a necessary evil, if the victims needed to die to save the rest of humanity, the holocaust would be tragic, heart-breaking, but not evil. It is the knowledge that these were delusions – they were people and their torture and massacre entirely arbitrary – that makes the holocaust and events like it the horror they are.

    Thinking slightly off track: If a dog comes out of a burning building, carrying a baby in its teeth, the dog would be hailed a hero for the rescue, awarded medals and lavished praise, and given an honorary seat in the next local parade. If the dog comes out of a burning building, carrying a puppy in its teeth, the dog would be praised, but not near so much, and certainly no medals. But from the dog’s point of view, which is the more moral choice (or the lesser of two evils): rescue the human child or the canine child?
    It is this species bias in the whole problem of evil and the meaning of life that bothers the atheist, methinks. A serial killer of animals is a hunter, while a serial killer of humans is a… serial killer; only one is evil.

    As to the meaning of life: is it a cop-out to say that the question itself is the answer? It is ones own responsibility to find ones own meaning in life, and it is morally reprehensible of me to subject my own meanings, inspirations and responsibilities on others. Religion deigns to offer this answer ready-made, but, since humans seem uniquely aggravated by this question of meaning, maybe that is the point?
    I feel like this answer is true – we must confront our own meaning without intermediaries – even though I cannot defend its inherent vacuousness.

    As “anewpairofeyes” mentioned a Taoist viewpoint, our need for meaning in life does not necessitate that life has ‘meaning’ or suffers from a lack of meaning, but it might speak more of our general disassociation with life, than our existence itself.

    • Hi Ben,

      It would be great to see you do a degree in philosophy, but as you know, you can’t expect that to solve all of life’s problems for you.

      In the context of explaining a very specifically Christian perspective on ethics, I’d leave the text you quoted phrased as it is. I realize it’s probably not the most eloquent sentence I’ve ever written but its message basically says what I want it to. It is working from the assumption that the gap between God and the believing individual has been bridged already, and it is talking about what moral responsibility gratitude for that miracle would entail.

      I’m not claiming an understanding of evil that excludes all other viable understandings of evil here; just one that can acknowledge evil as a reality and provide a consistent perspective on the subject for my own life. Certainly there are atheistic perspectives that can respond to evil as a purely visceral concept, as you suggest. Exploring the implications and consistency of such a concept could be a long project unto itself though.

      Re: the heroic dog: I suspect that the question is one of whether the creature in question was trying to impress humans or its own kind, or if it would even necessarily recognize the difference. My dog seems to recognize fellow canines as “more its type” for mating purposes, but he considers himself a member in good standing of the two-legged pack for most other purposes. In a crisis situation he would probably try to rescue the most endangered regardless of which sort it was. If it would put a human life ahead of its own though, of course it would impress humans. OTOH, if I would endanger my own life to save a dog, how grateful and impressed could I expect dogs in general to be? I guess that’s where the difference in intelligence and communication abilities between our species comes into play.

      Re: the search for meaning, etc.: You might notice that none of my approaches to meaning in my own life on this site are lifted as is from any ready made theological document; I’ve had to work them through for myself based on whatever resources I’ve been able to find. I would not in turn claim that what I present here is something that should, or even can, save someone the trouble of thinking these matters out for himself. Nor do I claim to have an exclusive copyright on “THE TRUTH”. I am very suspicious of those who make such claims, be they theologians or scientists. That might have more to do with the nature of the individual presenter than the essence of the message — religious or secular. Noah (“new pair of eyes”) seems to still be searching for his meaning, and there are many areas in which I’m still searching for mine. (

  13. Pingback: The Borderland | Huisjen's Philosophy Blog

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