Alright Pastor John, here’s a doozy of a question we get via email from time to time, so take a drink and a deep breath. Here it is: What is evil? Evil is clearly something. Is it merely the absence of holiness? Or the absence of God? Is there a way to explain the core essence of what evil is?
More than God
Some of these questions are just so ultimate, and we are supposed to do this in five minutes. The only reason I have any presumption to answer questions like this is because I have a Bible in front of me. I mean, if God hadn’t said anything, I would be so stupid to try. Here is my answer to it. I am going to try to show it from the Bible in just a few minutes.
“The core essence of evil is preferring anything more than God.”
The core essence of evil is preferring anything more than God, loving anything not for God’s sake. Evil is an act of preferring. Where there is no will, no volition, there is no evil. Evil is a function of willing — Satan willing, demons willing, humans willing. It is not a function of stuff — it is a function of willing. Evil is always defined in the Bible with reference to willing in regard to God. God is the supreme value in the universe, and therefore, evil is defined with reference to this ultimate reality, ultimate value, ultimate treasure. Failing to value the ultimately valuable appropriately is evil. That is what evil is.
For Lesser Things
Here is a text — Jeremiah 2:13: “My people have committed two evils.” First, “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.” Second, “[They have] hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” So what is evil according to Jeremiah 2:13? It is preferring broken cisterns to God. That is what evil is. Preferring anything to God. Because anything measured against God is a broken cistern. God is the fountain of living waters.
Or here is another one — Romans 3:23: “All have sinned [committed evil] and fall short of the glory of God.” So sin is defined in relationship to the glory of God. And fall short of is literally lack, be without. Now why would you lack the glory of God or be without the glory of God? I think the answer is found earlier in Romans 1:23, where it says they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
The reason we lack the glory of God in Romans 3:23 is because we have exchanged it. That is, we preferred images, especially the one in the mirror. That would be the twentieth-century one, rather than, say, an image of a snake on a pole or something. We love the one in the mirror. We prefer getting praise for ourselves rather than getting praise for God, and being made much of rather than making much of God. So, sin is feeling or doing or saying anything that reflects the exchange of God for lesser things.
Check the Tablets
So here is one more textual example. Take the Ten Commandments. Most people think the Ten Commandments are a good summary of what is right and good, and yet almost all of them are stated in terms of negation. “Don’t do this. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Don’t commit adultery.” They are renouncing evils.
Now here is the interesting thing. I think the first commandment (Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods before me”) and the last commandment (Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet”) are virtually saying the same thing — one negatively and one positively. “Don’t covet” means, “Don’t prefer things you shouldn’t prefer.” “Don’t have other gods before me” means, “don’t prefer anything before me.” So the beginning of the Ten Commandments and the end of the Ten Commandments are, I think, stating the essence of evil, which underlies all the other evils that we have to turn away from inside the Ten Commandments. The essence of that evil is wanting, preferring, desiring something that would cause God to look less than supremely valuable.
We start with God. He is good. By what standard is he good? By himself, by his own value. God’s moral goodness consists in always acting in harmony with his infinite value. Therefore, our goodness consists in acting in harmony with his infinite value. The essence of evil is feeling or thinking or speaking in any way at all that would treat God as though he were not supremely valuable.