Is evil its own thing or the absence of good?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: I think that evil doesn't really exist in the psychical world. I think that it is the absence of good. Look at our world. We are all so infatuated with money, entertainment, etc. (and religion is no real help) that we all commit sin, and the world is going down the drain. What will happen to future generations when evil gets greater than the good?

Answer: I would be hard-pressed to argue with your observations. Our world has grown to over 7 billion people, and evil proliferates. I am not sure if the rate of evil in people is increasing, but even if the rate remains the same, the population increase means that there is a greater quantity of evil in the world than ever before. (One thinks of  Noah [Genesis 6:13].) And because of this one may legitimately wonder, is there any hope for the future world?

There has only been one hope for the world from eternity past and into eternity future, and that is redemption through Jesus Christ. But please understand this about redemption: for something to be redeemed it must be in need of redemption, or else the process would be absurd. This tells us that the world is indeed broken, but it also tells us that God was watchful over its brokenness well before it broke. How do we know this? Because God instituted the plan of redemption before the foundations of the world.

“knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you” (1 Peter 1:18–20, ESV, emphasis mine)

I take great comfort that God has foreknown the world and its evil because as bad as evil seems at times, he puts limits on the activities of Satan. What this means is that all this evil that we put up with is part of God’s plan…and that is a hard thing to understand. Even we who have had our sins forgiven must put up with the evil in this age. But take heart. Evil must run its full course. But then, Jesus will come back and eliminate it totally.

“…the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Galatians 1:3–5, ESV, emphasis mine)

“and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Revelation 20:10, ESV)

Not only does Jesus redeem every person who comes to him, but he will also redeem the world when he returns for us again. So, we should consider redemption in two aspects. First, he redeems individuals from sin and gives them eternal life. Second, he will redeem the world — but by the world, I do not mean just the planet. But also the systems that define it. He will clean the place up physically, legally, spiritually and finally!

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” (Revelation 21:1, ESV)

That is all great news, I know. But what about until then? We Christians, although saved from the penalty of sin, have not yet been taken from the environment of sin, the world. We are soiled just as much as the people who were on their way to hell. I think that it is normal for redeemed people to feel their grime more so than the non-redeemed, and to identify it out there in the world as you have. I too am saddened by its presence, but I am cheered that you have noticed and that you are concerned over future generations living in what can only be described as a world of increasing evil.

If I am reading your question correctly, however, you are asserting that evil exists because good is not prevalent enough. If this is indeed your question, then the analogy would be that darkness can only exist where there is no light because darkness is not an element in itself; it is the absence of the element of light. Evil does not quite work that way. It coexists with good. By way of comfort, God draws people to himself continually (John 6:44) and all the evil in the world does not affect that. Each individual is responsible to respond to God’s call out the din, so the amount of evil — destructive though it may be, will ever thwart the Holy Spirit of God. Therefore, no one is at a spiritual disadvantage. Your grandchildren will have the same opportunities as you had to find the living God, even though their world will be thick with evil.

Let me close by making sure that your concept of evil lines up with that of the Bible. First, many people confuse evil with sin. To a contemporary English speaker the word evil evokes images that are anything but godly, like demons, a seamy underworld, unseen horrors — in fact, pop culture understands the forces of evil to represent cultural villainy. That is our definition of evil. However, that is not the biblical definition of evil…and it had better not be! Why not? Because God created evil!

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Genesis 2:17, KJV 1900)

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”
(Isaiah 45:7, KJV 1900)

“Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good?” (Lamentations 3:38, KJV 1900)

“Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6, KJV 1900)

Take a minute to absorb these four verses. We see that God created a tree with an evil component before man ever sinned. He declared plainly that he created evil. He told us that just as good comes from him, so does evil. Lastly, he declared himself to be the very cause of evil in a city. Your logic depends on God not having the power to dispense evil to Satan, but God’s word says very plainly that God does indeed dispense it. This common misunderstanding of evil is (largely) an artifact of the KJV (King James Version) translation. Today, when we hear the word evil we think sin. Four hundred years ago when the KJV translators heard the word evil, they thought calamity, disaster, bad things happening. Let’s examine three of these same verses in the ESV (English Standard Version), which uses the same English that we speak today.

“I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7, ESV)

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”
(Lamentations 3:38, ESV)

“Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6, ESV)

As you can see, when the KJV said evil, it did not mean sin. It merely meant bad occurrences as would be understood by the words calamity, bad and disaster, so disobeying God would constitute a sinful action, not an evil action as is biblically defined. So then, if God created evil, who created sin? The fallen angels and we create sin. What this means for your question is that evil, sin and godliness will coexist on this earth until Jesus comes back. This is not fun, but it is normal and biblical.

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