The origins of evil

Where did evil come from?

The Bible does not specifically address this question. The first two chapters of Genesis tell us how God created a good world, but evil (in the form of the snake) is introduced without explanation in chapter 3. Where, when and how did it arise? We are not told. This leaves us with room for reverent speculation – but it can only be speculation.

When God created the universe, He did so by a process of separation: light from darkness, earth from heaven, land from sea (Genesis 1:4,7,9). At the end, He had created a world that was orderly and ‘good’, as opposed to the chaos that had preceded it (verse 2). But why did He begin with light and darkness – especially when our sources of natural light, the sun and stars, are not mentioned until day four? John tells us that “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5) “The dominion of darkness” (Colossians 1:13), on the other hand, is that which is under the rule of Satan. Perhaps, then, there is a hint that ‘evil’ is an essential part of the fabric of the universe (see Isaiah 45:7); yet at the very beginning of creation it was separated from the ‘good’.

For the continued well-being of the world, they should have remained separate – but they did not. The dividing line ran even through the Garden of Eden, in the form of a choice between two trees: one representing life and the other representing knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9,17). It was through the eating of the fruit of this latter tree, at Satan’s instigation, that evil contaminated the human race and the goodness of creation was corrupted.

The existence of evil cannot be ignored, but it must be kept in perspective. Christians are not dualists. Satan is the source of all the evil and suffering in the world; but he is part of God’s creation and is not as powerful as his Creator. He can do only what God allows him to (Job 2:3-6).

 

Is suffering inevitable?

“To seek a world without floods and droughts, diseases and deaths is to seek a world that could not be” (J Sacks: The Great Partnership)

The states of being that we call life, health, prosperity and happiness are inherently unstable; while we experience them we are balanced precariously on a knife-edge. We live only so long as we can take in air, water and food. Our health depends on the various organs of our bodies continuing to work in harmony. Prosperity is always dependent on income, and as for happiness – the American Constitution can give its citizens the right to pursue happiness but not the right to happiness itself. Well-being is a temporary condition, and the possibility of suffering in one form or another is never far away from us; we live under its shadow every day, whether we are aware of it or not.

Has this always been the case? Didn’t God originally create a perfect world, free from suffering? Maybe… maybe not. The Bible tells us that what God made is ‘good’ – but the word does not imply perfection. In fact, scientific research suggests that one of the reasons that our planet Earth is able to support life is its unusual structure. Unlike some other planets in our solar system (such as Venus), the Earth’s surface is composed of tectonic plates that are continually shifting – producing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the process. These phenomena are enormously destructive and cause suffering on a large scale – but they also dissipate the planet’s internal heat and help to stabilise the atmosphere. A world without earthquakes would be like a world like Venus – ‘safe’, but uninhabitable.

Another reason to suspect that not everything in Eden was flawless is the fact that the very first people were instructed by God to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). ‘Subdue’ is an odd choice of word if the creation was perfect; it implies that in some sense it was already out of control.

But what happened then? The human race rebelled against God, and ever since we have been unable to carry out our commission (Genesis 3:17-19). What power might we otherwise have had over our bodies, and over the rest of the physical world? Slowly, belatedly, we have begun to make headway against the destructive forces of nature. We have discovered antibiotics and other medicines to combat disease. We have invented technology that enables us to understand the mechanics of earthquakes and to construct buildings that can withstand them. But we have also contributed massively to the sum total of suffering in the world, through our own selfishness, hatred and greed. God gave us the freedom to make moral choices; and we have abused it. And then we have the cheek to blame God…

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