The Moral Face of Evil
Now that we have looked at what evil is not. Are we any closer to an answer?
The question remains: “How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to exist?” This is a hard question for Christians. But for an atheist it’s easy to answer. An atheist would say, “The solution is obvious. The fact that evil exists proves that an all-powerful, all-loving God does not.”
However, the existence of evil proves exactly the opposite. Evil proves the existence of a God who knows right from wrong. Without a moral God, standards of good and evil would not exist. We would not be able to conceive of the categories of good and evil. Morality would not exist.
But our God exists. Our God is good. If our God is good, moral evil in the world shows that we have rebelled against Him. He tells us what is good. We refuse to follow His right and good ways.
Well, then, what is evil? Evil is a puzzle wrapped in mystery. Is all evil alike? Is evil our fault, God’s fault, or just bad luck? Are we able to understand evil? Christian theologian J. J. Haldane, in his book “Atheism and Theism,” says yes and no.
I am in something of two minds about the possibility that we may not comprehend the place of evil. On the one hand, . . . [since] we are specially created in the image of God, I am inclined to think that it is within our power to understand evil much better than we do at present. On the other hand, believing with Augustine that we carry the wounds of sin in our disturbed passions and darkened intellect, I think we cannot expect for much on our accounts.
We are able to understand good and evil because we are made in the image of God. We are rational beings. But sin has such a negative effect on our lives (disturbed passions; darkened intellect). We do a poor job of consistently choosing good over evil.
Two Components of Evil
Evil seems to have two parts: moral evil and natural evil. Dividing evil into these two components makes it easier to study.
Moral evil is based on choices made by moral agents. We often choose to do evil intentionally. These evil choices result in pain or suffering either to us or others.
A moral agent is a being with the ability to make moral, ethical choices. On this planet the moral agents are us—you and me and other people. The Bible also includes angels and other spiritual beings. God is able to discern evil without entering into it.
Animals do not make moral choices. They act on instinct. Lions, for example, hunt gazelles. A lion will stalk the animal, chase it, and catch it. But usually the lion does not kill the gazelle. He renders it unconscious. The gazelle is alive when the lions begin to eat it. But the lion is not being cruel or evil. This is the way lions kill. The lion doesn’t make a moral choice to cause the gazelle to suffer. He is acting by instinct. There is no evidence of any evil intent.
That’s not the way it is for you and me. We know the difference between good and bad. We often can choose to cause pain and suffering. Sometimes we cause suffering or discomfort to do good. For example, a mother’s intentions are good when she sends her child to school. Or, when a surgeon operates he knows his patient will suffer during recovery. But the surgeon is choosing to do good, not evil.
People can choose to do good or evil. Our bad choices often result in needless pain and suffering. Sometimes the suffering falls on us. Sometimes it affects others. But it is our choice. To do good or evil is something we choose.
But how do we know whether something is good or evil? Is there some kind of rule book we can consult? Did anyone ever make a list of things that are good or evil? What if there are no rules? How can we discern good from evil?
Evil in a Morally Neutral World
Atheism began to flourish in Europe during the Eighteenth Century (the 1700s). Atheists asked difficult questions. “If God does not exist,” they asked, “why do we obey ‘His’ rules?” “We are rational beings,” they declared. “We can make up our own rules.”
Some philosophers followed atheism. They tried to invent moral systems apart from God. Jeremy Bentham developed Utilitarianism. He wrote in 1780 in his book “The Principles of Morals and Legislation,”
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.
Utilitarianism believes morality comes by doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Sounds good, doesn’t it? But utilitarianism failed. Why? People started to realize “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” could justify slavery in the antebellum American south. Or validate Nazi Germany’s genocide of six million Jewish people.
Friedrich Nietzsche went another direction. He was lost in nihilism. Nihilism declares that the world has no meaning. There is no truth. Nihilism denies the existence of traditional values. Human existence has no meaning or purpose. Nihilism marks the end of any moral interpretation of the world. It destroys all sense of hope.
Nihilism solves the problem of good and evil. But is it worth the cost? There is no evil. There also is no good. There is no hope. There are no values. There is only emptiness and darkness and nothingness.
Nihilism is too extreme for most people. We want to have hope. We want to believe the world has meaning and purpose. However, many of us rebel against rules. We want to live according to our own rules. We want to do what we want to do. We want to believe in good and bad. But we want to supply our own definition for good and bad.
So our society settled on moral relativism. What is moral relativism? It means there are no set rules or absolute values to guide moral decisions. Right or wrong depends on context. For example, is it wrong for a father to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? What if you are the baker? If people steal your bread, your family will starve.
Our society applauds statements such as Hamlet’s when said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet, Act 2, scene 2) Moral relativism allows each one of us to set our own rules as we go along through life.
Moral relativism leads us into a confused swamp of conflicting ideas. You may think it’s okay to run red lights at three o’clock in the morning. I may disagree. Which one of us is right? Both of us? Neither of us?
Is it wrong for an old man to help his dying wife end her life? Is it wrong for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving children? People have struggled with these questions for millennia. But when I live by one set of rules and you live by another, how does that help build society or a sense of community? Atheist Sam Harris said in his book “The End of Faith,”
The problem is that once we abandon our belief in a rule-making God, the question of why a given action is good or bad becomes a matter of debate.
Moral relativism leaves us with no foundation on which to build any system of morality. Atheists base their idea of morality on moral relativism. They say there are no absolutes. Atheists often defend their belief system by accusing God of doing evil. But how can they accuse God of evil if their moral relativism cannot define good and evil?
Moral relativism gives us no firm guidelines of good or evil. Was Hitler’s murder of six million Jews good or evil? You and I would say it was evil. But Nazi leaders in Germany during World War II did not agree. Was American slavery good or evil? Again, you and I call it evil. What would an antebellum Southern slave owner say?
Without firm guidelines how can we agree that anything is good or evil?
Free Will or Slavery?
Free-will is an important requirement for morality. What if we are not able to make choices? What if all of our actions and decisions were predetermined? If our wills are not able to make moral decisions, we cannot be held responsible for the evil we commit. If we are only puppets, the blame rests on the puppet-master.
But we are not puppets. God gives us free-will—the ability to make moral choices. God is very serious about free-will. He has been committed to free-will from the beginning of Creation.
When God created us, He had a decision to make. Should He give us free will or not? Without free-will we would be His robots. We would never misbehave. We would never disobey. But we would never be able to make moral decisions.
What happens when God gives us free-will? We immediately destroy His good world. Free-will often causes trouble. So why did God give it to us? Why is free-will so important?
God gives us freedom to choose. And free-will is a lie unless we have opportunities to choose evil. We must have possible ways to rebel against God. We must be able to choose sin. Otherwise, free-will is a lie.
When we choose to sin it breaks God’s heart. Why? Because choosing sin leads to slavery and death.
When we choose to sin it breaks God’s heart. Why? Because choosing sin leads to slavery and death. The Bible says in James 1: 13-15:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God;” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. (NAS)
The Bible also says in Romans 6: 23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NAS)
Sin has a strong pull on our lives. Even the apostle Paul struggled when he tried to overcome sin. He wrote in Romans 7: 14-20:
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.(NAS)
Sin is a powerful force. We need power from God to break its hold on us.
Slaves to Sin
Why is it difficult for atheists to believe in free-will? Could it be they are slaves to sin? According to the Bible, yes they are. We all are. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” John 8: 34 (NAS)
Only Jesus Christ can set us free from sin and death. The Bible says in Romans 8: 1-2,
Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. (NAS)
Jesus Christ tells us the source of true freedom? See John 8: 31-32:
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
We all are slaves to sin until we turn to Christ. In Christ we become free. If we continue to follow Jesus with all of our hearts, we are transformed into the image of Christ. In II Corinthians 3: 17-18 the Bible says,
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (NAS)
There are two primary sources of evil in the world: natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is terminology made by man. Evil can be performed only by a moral agent. Moral evil is the result of sin and our turning away from God.
Remember our opening question: “How can an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil to exist?” The answer to moral evil is this: God gives us free-will. We choose to fill the world with evil.
When God gave us free-will, He suffered a terrible personal cost. Free-will put Jesus on the cross. But God turned Christ’s death into victory. He did this two thousand years ago. He can do this for you and me today. In II Corinthians 2:14 we read,
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.
Thanks be to God.