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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

To Define Evil: Nature and Origins

Of all the questions one could ask pertaining to God there may be none more cumbersome than that of evil. While one must recognise that any search for answers to questions concerning God ultimately end up as speculative formulations, this by no means should discourage one from their pursuit. Indeed, the problem of evil is one that every person struggles with at one point in their lives or another. Anybody and everybody has questions regarding evil. While it is a daunting task with no promise of solid answers, it is somewhat of an important one, if only for its universal presence. Yet, evil's seemingly universal presence is not the only feature that causes distress. In fact, for those who worship a deity evil poses a greater problem. This dilemma presents itself brutally to those religions that insist the object of its worship is perfectly good and unlimitedly powerful. It follows that this challenge of evil is therefore inescapable for Christianity as we have attributed omnipotence and infinite goodness to God straight from our Judaic roots. While it does not seem problematic to attribute what we, as humans, experience as evil to a wholly transcendent and unlimited - indeed Almighty - God, it would seem as though evil may have its origin within humanity itself. That is, with the good gift of free will endowed upon us by our Creator, we were allowed the possibility to act against the Sovereign Lord's good will and reject His divine purposes. Evil then comes as a result of humanity's sin. Still, this proposition comes with its own problems, but may be further resolved by first attempting to re-define what evil in fact is. In seeing that evil is a rebellion against God, its origin can be undoubtedly placed in that of the human creature, and natural calamities are not produced by any 'demonic' presence, but are the workings of an ordered universe created by a good God.

The argument is everywhere: If God is perfectly good, He must want to abolish evil; if God is unlimitedly powerful, He must be able to abolish evil - however, since evil in fact exists, God is either not perfectly good or not unlimitedly powerful. To re-word the argument and posit a question: How can the presence of evil in the world be reconciled with the existence of a God who is unlimited both in goodness and in power? Perhaps before one can begin to postulate any answer, one must first undertake the somewhat difficult task of defining what we mean when we speak of evil. The term itself is unfortunately, yet somehow advantageously, broad. That is, when one speaks of evil it is all-encompassing and often used rather flippantly; an evil can range from a toe bruised by the leg of a chair to the death of a thousand people on the shores of a beach. Non-theologically we are approaching evil with the preconception that there are certain experiences we feel are not acceptable.1 Indeed, each one of us has our own unique likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, desires and diversions, so that what is bad is what we dislike, fear, resist, shun, and are averse to. In this sense, bad is merely seen as the opposite of good, where good is what we like, welcome, preserve and long for - that is, good is what we desire. It follows, then, that happiness is seen as the highest good attainable for the individual, where happiness is the realisation of every desire.2 This assertion, however, seems far too relative and appears to not take evil as seriously as it should. For evil to be evil it must be more than simply a state of personal misery, non-fulfillment and frustration. For evil to be evil it must move beyond merely what happens to 'me.'

To continue this definition of evil, one must note that evil can be divided into distinct yet somewhat intimately related classes, and one encounters two sets of these in their study of evil, depending on who is read. There is the class of physical evil with the class of moral evil, as well as the class of natural evil with the class of moral evil. Now, natural evil and physical evil can be merged into one class with little difficulty, so for the purposes of this discussion such will be done and simply referred to as that of natural evil. Yet, within this class one must realise that there are some details of physical evil and natural evil that are not shared by both. Regardless, we are left with two wide groups of evil: natural and moral. We will begin with natural evil, as it is one that will eventually be disregarded as not the evil we have been speaking of here. That is, natural evil may not truly be evil after all.

  1. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Great Britain: Macmillan and Co Ltd., 1968), pp.12-13.
  2. Ibid, pp.13-14.