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 clearly is some thing. Is it merely the ab-sence of holiness? Or the absence of God? Is there a way to explain the core essence of what evil is?
Well, it is ... some of these questions, Tony, are just ... I mean they are just so ultimate like philoso-phers… and we are supposed to do this in 5 minutes. Okay . 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. Okay, 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, loving anything not for God’s sake. So evil is an act of preferring. Where there is no will, no volition, there is no evil. Evil is a function of willing. Satan is willing. Demons willing. Humans willing. It is not a function of stuff, it is a function of willing and evil is always defined in the Bible in reference to willing in regard to God. God is the supreme value in the universe and therefore evil is defined in reference to this ultimate reality, this reality value, ultimate treasure. Failing to value the ultimately valuable appropriately, is evil. That is what evil is.
Now here is a text. Jeremiah 2:13: “My people have committed two great evils.” Number one, “they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters.” Number two, “they have hewed out for themselves cis-terns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” So what is evil according to Jeremiah 2:13? It is prefer-ring broken cisterns to God. That is what evil is. Preferring anything to God. Because anything meas-ured against God is a broken cistern. God is the fountain of living waters.
Or here is another one. Romans 3:23: “All have sinned (all have 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? And I think the answer is found earlier in Romans 1:23 where it says “they exchanged the glory of the immor-tal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” So 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 20th century one, rather than, say, an image of a snake on a pole or something. We love the one in the mirror. And we prefer getting praise for ourselves rather than getting praise for God, and being made much of rather than making much of God. And so sin is feeling and doing and saying anything that reflects the exchange of God for lesser things. Anything that reflects the exchange of God for lesser things.
So here is one more textual example. Take the 10 Commandments. Most people think the 10 Com-mandments are a good summary of what is right or what is 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. So it is renouncing evils.
Now here is the interesting thing. The First Commandment—“you shall have no other gods before me”—Exodus 20:3—and the last commandment—“you shall not covet”—I think are virtually saying the same thing one negatively and one positively. Don't covet means don’t prefer things you shouldn’t pre-fer. Don’t have other gods before me means don’t prefer anything before me. So the beginning of the 10 Commandments and the end of the 10 Commandments are, I think, stating the essence of evil, which underlies all the other evils that we have to turn away from inside the 10 Commandments. And the es-sence of that evil is wanting, preferring, desiring something that wouldn’t cause God to look less than supremely valuable.
So we start with God. He is good. Yes. He is good. By what standard is he good? By himself, by his own value. So God’s moral goodness is always acting in harmony with his infinite value and, therefore, our good is acting in harmony with his infinite value, or, the essence of evil is feeling or thinking or speaking in any way at all that would make God treat God as though he were not supremely valuable.
Thank you Pastor John. And thank you for listening to this podcast. Please email your very diffi-cult questions to us at askpastorjohn AT desiringgod DOT org. At desiringgod DOT org you will find thousands of free books, articles, sermons, and other resources from John Piper. … I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening.