What does evil look like? Can you describe it? Can you define it? Can you draw boundaries and identify exactly where it begins and ends?
That’s a tall order—but if we’re going to talk about ending evil, we ought to have some kind of working definition. It’s not enough to say, “I know it when I see it.” That’s vague. That’s messy. If 100 people were asked to identify evil, would they all agree? Not likely. If we’re going to assert that a loving, all-powerful God is obligated to end evil, then whose definition of evil is He obligated to end? Mine? Yours? A stranger’s on the other end of the world? What makes one definition any better than another?
We need a standard, and it needs to be founded on something more solid than opinions and feelings.
Suppose for a minute that you had the ability to step back and see the bigger picture—to see every decision made by every human being in the world, and then to comprehend the exact impact made by each of those choices. Go one step further and imagine that you could know precisely what every individual was thinking and feeling when he or she made any given decision.
Just imagine it—seeing every detail of every decision ever made, along with how those decisions would pan out in both the short term and the long term. What do you think you’d find?
It’s hard to say. The human mind isn’t equipped to handle that kind of mental processing at that kind of scale. But supposing it could, you’d probably start to notice some patterns. You’d probably notice that some decisions produce good results, while others immediately backfire. You’d notice that some decisions seem like good ideas at first, but over time prove themselves to be disastrous. You’d notice that some decisions hurt the decision maker, while some hurt the people nearby. You’d watch the effects of some decisions resolve themselves immediately, while the effects of others might linger for generations.
After a while, you’d probably start to notice some similarities—some traits common to good decisions or an approach that kept resurfacing in bad ones. If you were very clever, you could probably start to put together a set of rules that would keep people from making bad decisions and steer them toward good ones—rules that would minimize suffering and consistently produce good results.
If you did all that, you would end up with a set of instructions that might resemble the ones already established in the Bible.
At the end of his life, after 40 years of leading God’s people through the wilderness, Moses walked the nation of Israel through God’s commandments one last time—and then gave them a warning:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).
That’s the key to all of this. In summarizing God’s commandments, Moses was inspired to explain the decision to obey or disobey God as a choice between “life and good, death and evil.” He later urged Israel to “choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Life and death. Good and evil. Earlier, we talked about what it would be like if we could know in advance the ramifications of every decision. Well, God does know. As the all-knowing Creator of the human race, He knows the decisions that are necessary for a meaningful, fulfilling life—and He knows what decisions will ruin us, harm us or leave us empty and broken, and He calls those decisions “sin.”
The laws established by God are far from arbitrary. As Paul writes, “I would not have known sin except through the law,” adding, “The law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:7, 12). The law of God defines sin. It defines all the decisions God knows will be self-destructive and harmful to others. It defines, in other words, the line between good and evil.
A common misconception holds that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ “did away with” the law, but does that really make any sense? That would mean doing away with the guardrails established to protect us from damaging decisions. Why would God do that—especially since He was the One who established them in the first place?
When we disobey God’s law, we hurt ourselves and those around us. Christ was emphatic: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17-18).
Evil isn’t something we can define by opinion or majority vote. None of us has the perspective or insight necessary to draw the line between good and evil—God and God alone has the wisdom to do that. And He does do that through the pages of the Bible, warning us against life choices that will ultimately bring pain and suffering—choices He defines as sin (Ezekiel 18:30-32). When obeyed, His commandments build a protective wall between ourselves and sin, for “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, King James Version).
When we step beyond the boundaries of God’s law, we sin. And when we sin, we introduce more evil into the world. It might be as unassuming as a little white lie, or it might be as appalling as murder—no matter the action, sin produces evil. It might seem obvious, but it’s a point worth stressing:
Evil comes from us. It’s generated by the collective actions of the human race, all of whom have been influenced by the devil. Suffering doesn’t just happen, and neither does evil. They’re both caused—and that cause is us. There’s no getting around it: Suffering exists because people do evil things, whether they realize it or not.
Knowing that, we can finally begin to tackle the question we’ve been dancing around this entire time:
Why does God allow evil?