10 million Ukrainians without power because of Russia. Help us purchase electrical generators for churches.
Consider helping today!

Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


Additional Links

As a prerequisite for any discussion of evil, moral evil must be distinguished from physical or natural evil. This essay uses the term "moral evil" to include both social offenses (ethics—murder, theft) and cultic sins (those offenses aimed directly against the deityblasphemy, idolatry). Moral evil, therefore, whether its setting be cultic or social, when carried out may be considered a sin. That cultic and ethical values were one and the same in the Hebraic mind may be illustrated by the similar penalties exacted for the severest offenses in either category (death, being cut off). Cultic values are addressed in the first four of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-11; Deuteronomy 5:7-15 ) and by the first of Jesus' "Great Commandments" (Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5 ); ethics are considered in the last six of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:16-21 ) and by the second "Great Commandment" (Leviticus 19:18 ).

Accordingly, what is morally good is not what human society decides is in its best interest, but what the revealed will of God declares. There can be no biblical ethics that stand apart from cult nor a biblical morality apart from theology. Instead, morality is defined by theology, which carries within it certain cultic affirmations and prohibitions together with the ethical. For example, the same Decalogue that declares that stealing and murder are wrong likewise forbids idolatry and blasphemy. What makes these things wrong is not some abstract quality called "the good" as sought by philosophers in time past. Instead, what constitutes social evil is what is so defined by God, and in that respect (i.e., as to why a given act is good or bad), differs little from cultic evil. There are, therefore, no grounds for the oft-repeated error wherein the "moral law" (the ethical) is in some way distinguished from the "ceremonial law" (the cultic) in Israel's values system. There can be no such distinction! That which is ethical is right because God has declared it so; the cultic portions of the Law likewise determine what is right for the same reason. Because of this, cult and ethics often appear fused in the Bible, as in Cain's admission of guilt for a faulty sacrifice and the murder of his brother (Genesis 4:13 ); a similar fusion of the cultic and the ethical occurs in Genesis 15:16 ("the sin of the Amorites"), where idolatry and unethical activity are considered as one.

If God is the definer of what is good (2 Samuel 10:12; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19 ), right (Genesis 18:25 ), and just (Job 34:12 ), it is not surprising that the Bible never attributes moral or cultic evil to him (Job 34:10 ). Indeed, he hates evil (Psalm 5:6 ) and is the avenging judge who punishes those who practice it (Isaiah 31:2; Micah 2:1 ).

On the other hand, what ethicists term physical evil (or, natural evil) is often connected with the activities of God, and thus demonstrates the importance of defining these categories before discussing the subject further. An ethicist may distinguish these two types of evil thus: (1) moral evil, which is real if any intellectual being knowingly does anything he or she ought not to have done without being compelled to do it; and (2) physical evil, which is real if some beings have suffered in situations caused by nonrational beings, or through actions of rational beings acting nonrationally.

Moral Evil and Sin . Distinguishing moral evil from sin is no simple task, yet it must be attempted before any discussion may proceed further. First, it is important to differentiate a sin (an individual expression of sin) from generic sin, the condition that gives rise to its expression. An individual sin, as mentioned earlier, is an acting out of cultic or social evil. But generic sin) is the condition that gives rise to the evil expressed in the individual sin.

However sin and evil may be considered by a secularist, the theological perspective held by the Bible that presupposes an involvement by God in his creation and an active will of God governing that creation requires that evil assume a theological dimension. Accordingly, moral evil finds its roots in disobedience, whether deliberate or accidental, premeditated or unpremeditated, cultic or ethical, to the revealed will of God, and as such, becomes associated with generic sin and virtually synonymous with wickedness. The stress in the Old Testament lies not on the conceptual, but in the practical outworking of a state of disharmony with God and one's fellow humans. It may be expected, therefore, that there will be an extensive overlap between terms for sin and terms expressing moral evil, whether the expression of this sin/evil be cultic or social. The origins for sin and evil in both Old and New Testaments are traced to the activities of an evil creature, Satan (1 John 3:8 : "the devil has been sinning from the beginning" ) and to human sin that led to a fall (Romans 5:12-14 ) and banishment form Eden and the tree of life (Genesis 3 ).

Cultic and Social Evil . In biblical theology, natural revelation ties humanity in general to a responsibility before God which, when ignored, leads to human relationships that are immoral (Romans 1:18-25 ). In both Testaments, proper worship and social ethics are subsumed in a common covenant that ties the people of God to him and to one another. Since what God ordains is good, what is ethical is not clearly differentiated from what is cultic. Both belong to that aspect of sin that sets itself against the divinely instituted order, whether social or cultic, and thus inexorable finds itself in incessant conflict with God. Like Gollum's ring in The Hobbit or the addict's first "fix, " evil does not always seem immediately repulsive, but may even be seen as attractive on superficial examination (Genesis 3:6 ), while profoundly destructive at a deeper level (Isaiah 59:7 ).

Because what is right was what was ordained by God, and what is wrong was what was proscribed by him, deviation from this paradigm constitutes what is evil. The most common term for cultic evil in the Old Testament (used over 200 times) is awon [ Nehemiah 9:2; Job 13:23,26; Psalm 130:3; Jeremiah 5:25; 33:8; Ezekiel 36:33; 43:10; Lamentations 4:13; Daniel 9:16 ); (2) the ensuing guilt (often in formulations such as "bear their guilt" [NRSV NIV, "held responsible"], Leviticus 5:17; 17:16 ); and (3) the punishment for the act (e.g., Genesis 4:13; Job 19:29 ). It may be used to describe idolatry (Exodus 20:5; Joshua 22:17; cf. Jeremiah 11:10; Ezekiel 7:19; 14:3,4 , 7 ), trivializing the deity (2 Samuel 3:13-14 ), apostasy (Jeremiah 13:22 ), breach of the covenant (Jeremiah 5:25 ), or other activities that would in some way demean God's character or name (1 Samuel 3:13-14 ). It may refer to doing away with the fear of God (Job 15:4-5 ) or a lack of steadfastness toward him (Psalm 78:37-38 ) and it functions to alienate the individual from God (Leviticus 26:40; Isaiah 59:4 ). Prohibitions sometimes list words for "sin" together with awon [ Deuteronomy 19:15; Isaiah 1:4 ).

A frequently used word to convey the wrongness of idolatry is awen [ Genesis 35:18 ). The word is often used along with "toil" or "labor, " and in such cases may designate the sin that brings the trouble (Psalm 7:14; Isaiah 10:1 ). It may also be used to emphasize the absence of any theological value to a religious exercise (Isaiah 1:13 ). Taking on the nuance of power used in a harmful manner, in Psalm 36:4 awen [ Job 31:3; Psalm 5:6; 6:9; Proverbs 10:29; 21:15 ).

Other common words for evil include the nouns awel, awla, derived from a root meaning "to deviate." The two words have virtually no detectable difference in meaning and denote what is contrary to the character of God; thus they bring at their heels a divine response. They are used to describe what is not right (Leviticus 19:15,35 ) and dishonest business practices (Deuteronomy 25:14-16 ). Although Ezekiel generally seems to stress a need for cultic correctness, he uses awel to denote moral lapse, dishonesty (3:20; 18:24,26; 33:18) such as taking usury and showing partiality in judgment (18:8), dishonest trade that desecrates the sanctuaries (28:18), and taking pledges for loans, stealing, and so on (33:15). Moreover, awel is sometimes found in one's hand (18:8). Both words are clearly seen as denoting actions by their frequent use as objects of verbs of doing. They are frequently seen as antonyms for words denoting justice, faithfulness, honesty, proper (just) administration, and rightness. They are frequently paired with synonyms with other words denoting persecution, wickedness, rebellion, violence, and evil.

Many Hebrew words are used for both cultic and social evil. For example, awon [ Leviticus 18:20 ), adultery (Numbers 5:15,31 ), and other civil or social perversions (1 Samuel 20:1,8; 2 Samuel 3:8; Nehemiah 4:5; Psalm 51:2 ). The words rasa [ רָשַׁע ], resa [ רֶשַׁע ] are the most important antonyms for "what is right, just."

The words ra [12:13), and has no future (24:20). Job complains that the evil man is spared in the day of calamity (21:30). In Jeremiah 2:33 , Israel, the unfaithful wife of Yahweh, has so departed from his ways that she is able to teach her ways even to evil women. The men in 1 Samuel 30:22 termed evil are those who had pursued the Amalekites with David but who had selfishly decided that those left to guard the baggage should not share in the Amalekite spoil. In Genesis 13:13 the word describes the men of Sodom. In Psalm 140:2 , evil things are devised in the hearts of violent men. The Revised Standard Version interprets ra [ רַע , רַע ] in Psalm 10:15 as the "evildoer."

In the New Testament the words poneros [ Deuteronomy 31:17; Amos 3:6 b). The word appears in the New Testament without the attendant problems of theodicy that appear in its Old Testament setting. As such the adjective kakos [ Matthew 24:48 ), what is harmful (e.g., the tongue, James 3:8; cf. Romans 14:20 ), or, when used as a substantive, what is contrary to law (i.e., a sin, crime, John 18:23; Romans 7:21 ). Most of its occurrences in the New Testament are found in Paul's writings, where it can depict the evil one does unwillingly (Romans 7:15,17-20 ) and which becomes a law that rules him (7:21,23) and which can only be overcome by the grace of God through Christ (7:25).

The compounds and derivatives of the word poneros [ Matthew 7:11 ), the hardened Pharisees (Matthew 12:34 ), and the Jews as the evil generation (Matthew 12:39 ). In Matthew 7:17-18 , an "evil" tree bears "evil" fruit, whereas in 7:11 poneros [ Matthew 22:10 ) who will be judged in the final judgment (Matthew 13:49-50 ). Anyone who decides against Jesus is evil (2 Thessalonians 3:2; 2 Timothy 3:13 ). Particularly when used with the definite article it may serve as a sobriquet for Satan (Matthew 13:19; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12 ).

Although its literal meaning is "lawlessness, " anomia [ Matthew 7:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ).

Physical Evil . The denominative Hebrew root r with its derivatives ra [ רַע , רַע ], roa , and raa [ רָעַע , רָעַע , מֵרֵעַ ], is frequently used in the Old Testament to designate the physical aspect of the action, situation, or state as it appears to the one experiencing its effects.

What Is Harmful . This distinctive nuance of the root r may be clearly seen where one of the words listed above is used to designate something physically harmful and where no moral reference is clearly intended as primary. Examples of this are found in its use to describe poisonous herbs in Elisha's pot ( 2 Kings 4:41 ) and the bad water he heals (2 Kings 2:19 ). Closely allied to the latter are the "evil diseases" of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:15 ) and the "evil diseases" of Ecclesiastes 6:2 . Similarly seen as harmful are the deadly sword of Psalm 144:10 and God's arrows in Ezekiel 5:16 . Dangerous animals capable of destroying human life are called "evil" (Genesis 37:20,33 ). God will remove them from Canaan (Leviticus 26:6 ), but will send them again to destroy rebellious Jerusalem (Ezekiel 5:17; cf. also Ezekiel 14:15 ), only to banish them again when Judah is restored from captivity (Ezekiel 34:25 ). Edomites are chided for gloating over the disaster of the destruction of Jerusalem, called "his [Judah's] evil" (Obadiah 1:13 ).

What Is Subjectively Perceived . Jacob's assertion that "my years have been few and difficult [evil]" (Genesis 47:9 ) may be interpreted as either subjective, wherein the "evil" indicates suffering, or objective, as a hyperbole of humility. However, in 1 Kings 22:8 and its parallel ( 2 Chronicles 18:12 ) the king of Israel (Ahab) answers Jehoshaphat of Judah, declaring that there is indeed a prophet of Yahweh about, adding peevishly, "But I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad [evil]." That neither moral nor objective evil is intended is clear when the prophecy unfolds as a prediction of Ahab's death. The prophecy is evil to Ahab, for whom it bodes personal harm and by whom it must be subjectively received. Ahab recognizes this, and confirms this as what he intended when he had predicted an evil prophecy (22:18).

Almost as obvious as the preceding is the phrase an "evil name" found frequently throughout the Old Testament to designate an unsavory reputation. For example, the husband's charge of nonvirginity in his bride "gives her a bad [evil] name" (Deuteronomy 22:14,19 ). Nehemiah denounces the hireling of Tobiah and Sanballat as one who wished to intimidate him and thus "give me a bad [evil] name" (Nehemiah 6:13 ). The evil name does not indicate moral, objective evil (as, for instance, a blasphemous or lewd epithet or title), but a subjectively perceived harm. Similar is the "evil" report (NIV, "distressing words") of Exodus 33:4 , in which Moses reports to the people God's displeasure at calf-worship. An objective moral evil would require a foul, malevolent report. Instead, it describes the evaluation of God's reaction to Israel's idolatry and his decision not to go with them any longer. Nor is Joseph's evil report of his brothers objective, moral evil (Genesis 37:2 ), but a tale of their behavior that cast them in an unfavorable light. In Jeremiah 49:23 , Hamath and Arpad hear evil tidings about the fall of Damascusevil to them because Damascus was their ally and her fall portends their own fates.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes calls the disappointing pursuit of wisdom a "heavy burden" (1:13) and repeats the words in 4:8 to describe the unfruitfulness of materialism. In 5:13 he calls selfishness a "grievous evil" (RSV). Finally, discipline is called evil in Proverbs 15:10 because it brings pain. A net is evil to the fish it catches (Eccel 9:12); misfortune is an evil to Solomon as its recipient ( 1 Kings 5:4; NIV "disaster" ).

To "be evil in someone's eyes, " or "to displease someone" can describe a woman slave who does not please her master (Exodus 21:8 ) and Esau's Canaanite (Hittite) wives who displeased Isaac (Genesis 28:8 ). In 1 Samuel 29:7 , Achish warns David against displeasing the lords of the Philistines. God's mercy to Nineveh displeased Jonah (4:1) because it embarrassed him; he felt its effects in losing face.

Appearance is another way in which a subjective notion is expressed by the words in question. Ecclesiastes 7:3 speaks of an "evil of countenance" to indicate a sad expression, as the context demonstrates. The Persian king asks Nehemiah, "Why are your faces evil, when you are not sick?" ( Nehemiah 2:2 ), or, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?" (NIV ). Evil appearance denotes the poor quality of the cattle in Pharaoh's dream (Genesis 41:3,4,19,20,21,27 ); land (Numbers 13:19 ); and a bargaining session (Proverbs 20:14; [twice] ). The figs in Jeremiah's vision were so "evil" they could not be eaten (24:2,3, 8; 29:17; they were of such poor quality that they were already in a state of decomposition that rendered them inedible).

Prosperity and adversity are also seen in terms of good and evil. When the people say to Jeremiah, "Whether it is good or evil, we will obey the voice of the Lord our God" (42:6 RSV), they are really saying, "For success or failure, we will obey."

Evil as the Responsibility of God . While moral evil is never imputed to God, there is often a connection made between Yahweh and ra [ רַע , רַע ], roa , and raa [ רָעַע , רָעַע , מֵרֵעַ ]. The classical reference, Isaiah 45:7 , wherein God is called creator of evil would then refer to physical destruction, rather than moral evil, as the parallel term "maker of peace" would seem to render conclusive. God's judgments are not moral evil, else they would hardly be called judgments, but are physical, and called evil because of the adverse effects.

When God is pictured as "bringing evil, " it is nearly always an invasion of Judah by a foreign power as exemplified in Jeremiah 4:6 , where the term clearly refers to the impending invasion of Judah by the Babylonians (similar are 1 Kings 9:9; 21:29; 2 Kings 21:12; 2 Chronicles 7:22; Jeremiah 6:19; 19:3,15; 36:31 ). Especially clear is Exodus 32:12 a, which says, referring to the exodus from Egypt, "it was with evil intent that he [God] brought them [Israel] out." Isaiah 31:2 predicts the failure of the alliance between Judah and Egypt, proclaiming God as the one who is wise and "brings evil, " that is, brings defeat to his enemies. Similarly, Amos 3:6 asks, assuming a negative answer, if evil befalls a city, unless the Lord has done it. The meaning is clear. If a city is captured by an enemy, God has ordained it. In each of the preceding cases, the context verifies the interpretation as physical evil, in these cases as experienced subjectively by the victim of the military action. Lamentations 3:38 declares that it is the decree of God that brings good and evil.

The "Evil Day" may likewise be resolved as a day on which something harmful occurs rather than a day evil in and of itself. For example, Jeremiah 17:16-18 indicates that the "day of evil" (RSV) is a day on which Yahweh judges those who are his enemies, in this case, those who persecute the prophet. The "evil day" of Amos 6:3 refers to the fall of Samaria and destruction of Israel as a judgment by God (for similar language for Judah, see Jeremiah 16:10 ). Similarly, the psalmist declares that God's chastening is designed to keep him from days of trouble (Psalm 94:13; 27:5; 49:5 ). In Ecclesiastes 12:1 , however, the phrase "evil days" alludes simply to old age, as the context shows.

For God to speak evil concerning someone (1 Kings 22:23 ) may mean passing sentence on him. Similar is Naomi's complaint that God has brought evil upon her (Ruth 1:21 ). Yahweh "brings evil" upon Absalom by defeating the counsel of Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:14 ). The "evil" of which God repents in Jonah 3:9-10 is evil only to the Ninevites, for they would have felt its effects physically and subjectively. But objectively, the act would have been justice executed because of the immoral conduct of the Assyrians.

Saul's Evil Spirit . The evil spirit from Yahweh that plagued Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-16,23; 18:10; 19:9 ) may be considered as a spirit (disposition) sent by God that eventually destroyed Saul. The spirit, then, was God's instrument of judgment on Saul because of his rebellious attitude. Morally, the issue is justice, not evil. Similar is the evil spirit sent between Abimelech and the inhabitants of Shechem, which turns the Shechemites against him (Judges 9:23 ).

While the above cited evidence might lead one to conclude that all natural evil (disaster) is a judgment of God for some sort of evil committed by the afflicted party, the Bible will not bear this conclusion. Job and Ecclesiastes issue a sharp challenge to the doctrine of retribution in this life and John 9:1-3 repudiates it as a means of explaining all suffering.

Why Evil? The Bible does not answer the oft-posed problem of how a just, omnipotent, and loving God could permit evil to exist in a universe he had created. A detailed examination to this question lies outside the scope of this article. Some suggestions, however, that have been offered about moral evil are: (1) while God is perfect, creation is only pronounced "very good" (Genesis 1:31 ); it is impossible for a created universe to rival God in perfection and the existence of moral evil is one example of its imperfection; (2) to compel all beings to act morally is to override their free will; likewise, to grant them free moral agency is to concede the possibility that someone at some time will act in an evil manner; and (3) God in his infinite wisdom created the best of all possible worlds; one can only consider that, were the world created any other way it would have been less than the best of all possibilities. The latter consideration also holds true as a possible explanation for natural evil.

William C. Williams

See also Demon; Sin

Bibliography . E. Achilles, NIDNTT, 1:561-67; M. Barker, Heythrop Journal 19 (1978): 12-27; K. H. Bernhardt, TDOT, 1:140-47; R. H. Bube, JASA 27:4 (1975): 171-80; G. R. Castellino, CBQ 30 (1968): 15-28; W. M. Clark, JBL (1989): 266-78; M. Dahood, Biblica 53 (1972): 386-403; G. I. Davies, VT 27 (1977): 105-10; J. E. Davison, JBL 104 (1985): 617-35; M. Ferguson, SWJTh 5 (1963): 7-20; C. T. Francisco, SWJTh 5 (1963): 33-41; B. Gross-Antony, Biblische Notizen 53 (1990): 23-25; M. Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20 ; R. Reuven, Judaism 39/3 (1990): 318-25; G. S. Kane, Religious Studies 11 (1975): 49-71; G. Krodel, Currents in Theology and Mission 17 (1990): 440-46; A. Lococque, Biblical Research 24-25 (1979-80): 7-19; W. F. Lofthouse, ExpT 60 (1949): 264-68; C. Morrison, The Powers That Be: Earthly Rulers and Demonic Powers in Romans 13:1-7 ; J. C. Moyer, ISBE, 2:825; G. S. Ogden, Technical Papers for the Bible Translator 38/3 (1987): 301-7; C. R. Priebenow, Luth Th J 15 (1981): 45-52; B. Ramm, SWJTh 5 (1963): 21-32; A. B. Randall, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 2 (1990): 39-55; J. F. Ross, Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion; D. S. Shapiro, Judaism 5 (1956): 46-52; J. A. Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah; W. Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament; idem, Unmasking the Powers; A. D. Verhey, ISBE, 2:206-10; R. G. Wilburn, Lexington Theological Quarterly 16/1 (1981): 126-41; R. Yates, EQ 52 (1980): 97-111.

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Evil'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Evil Spirit