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Do You Know What Evil Is?


Albert Einstein famously said, “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” This observation has become outdated in our society today with its almost religious adherence to moral relativism. People still don’t do anything about evil, but what’s worse—and why the world is indeed a dangerous place to live—is they don’t even recognize evil for what it is.


This became crystal clear to me, not only by observing our society as it embraces organizations that are built on hate in the name of sowing love and peace—a classic example of Isaiah’s words “calling bitter sweet and sweet bitter” (5:20)—but also reading the book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing by James Waller. I’ll soon be writing a series on the observations of this book as they apply to us today, but for now I want to highlight one part where he talks about the concept of evil and how it is addressed in today’s secular society. He writes,


In virtually every human culture, there has existed some word for “evil,” a linguistic acknowledgment of its reality in everday human affairs. For millennia, the concept of evil was central to religious, and much secular, thought. Despite its universality, however, it is not a construct with a generally accepted definition. Part of this stems from the fact that it is a word that has fallen out of widespread use. Until the events of September 11, we hardly used the word “evil” in everyday conversation. Even now, for many, it seems redundant with other more often used terms. In general conversation, we easily substitute “moral wrongness” or “bad” for the term “evil” without any loss of meaning. Some see “evil” as grandiose and others find it esoteric, mystical, or supernatural. For most of us, “evil” is simply an antiquated concept. It is a relic heavy with archaic baggage (for example, the notion of sin). In short, though we know it from fairy tales, children’s books, comic books, horror films, and Sunday school class, “evil” is a word modern folk do not often hear or use. Until recently, the concept of evil also had almost completely disappeared from the vocabulary of the social sciences that seek to understand the human situation. In 1969, the eminent sociologist Kurt Wolff of Brandeis University wrote, “To my knowledge, no social scientist, as a social scientist, has asked what evil is. ‘What is evil?’ is a question that rather has been raised (both in the West and in the East) by philosophers and theologians, as well as by uncounted, unclassified, unrecorded people since time immemorial.” More than three decades later, it appeared that little had changed: a survey of psychology articles written in the past ten years found only nine that were pertinent to the concept of evil.

Waller goes on to wonder why social scientists have rejected the term and even the concept of evil. He thinks it’s because evil is so hard to define, so they avoid it, especially since there seems to be no objective definition and scientists try to remain “morally neutral.”

“To be sure, any definition includes, in part, a value statement reflecting one’s own perspective,” he writes. “As Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century English philosopher, wrote, ‘No man calleth good or evil but that which is so in his own eyes.’” 

This is the heart of the matter and why evil has fallen out of our education, dialogue, understanding of human nature, and even religious instruction. Today, evil is missing from just about everything: schools, church pulpits, social sciences, entertainment (where it’s more likely to celebrated, not just ignored), philosophy, and fairy tales, which, once upon a time, were parables for moral instruction but now they’re merely tales of glitz, glamour, and romance.

The Bible is filled with warnings about wickedness and evil, but how often do we hear these terms used? God isn’t shy about calling the wicked exactly what they are—wicked. But rarely do we speak his words to an ungodly generation. Paul wrote, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6), but how often do Christians fail to recognize evil because they have put an anemic understanding of love over truth and substituted their will, feelings, and worries about how they’re perceived in the eyes of others for God’s will?


God tells us to “reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22), but we cannot reject that which we don’t recognize, and in a society that has rejected God’s objective truth for our own “truths,” we won’t know what evil is even when it is staring us right in the face.


The decline of the notion of evil in our public discourse is directly due to our society’s rejection of God and his righteousness—his objective moral standards. If you don’t know what goodness, purity, and righteousness are, then you certainly won’t know the opposite. If you don’t know what real love looks like, you won’t discern hate. If you have made yourself the definer of truth, then you will do as Hobbes said; you’ll be the one who calls something good or evil—not the True Judge.


The frightening thing we’re seeing today is not just a loss of understanding evil, but a new subjective definition of it born of moral relativism and an existential self-focus that is more concerned about power than godly love. For a time in our history, this relativism and subjectivism quieted all talk of evil, as noted by Waller. But now the notion of evil is gaining relevancy in national dialogue again. We’re hearing it mentioned more and more as our nation has become polarized and forced into a tribalism mindset in which anyone who isn’t “just like me” is the enemy. The topic of evil is making a comeback, but it’s not how God defines evil. It’s not the truth about evil. It’s not evil exposed by love. It’s whatever each one of us makes out to be evil, or whatever each group that shares some agenda of “subjective truth” believes to be evil—all for power and control.

The examples are numerous, and they all center around identity politics and political-social movements in response to crises like COVID. If you don’t admit your “white privilege,” you’re called evil. If you don’t wear a mask, you’re evil. If you don’t support a female politician, you’re evil. If you think marriage should be between a man and a woman, you’re evil. If you think divorce is wrong, you’re evil. If you think homosexuality is a sin, you’re evil. If you vote for Donald Trump, you’re evil. If you oppose abortion, you’re evil because you don’t respect a woman’s choice. If you don’t cheer on Black Lives Matter, you’re an evil racist.


Because our society is drenched in moral relativism and the exaltation of self as the source of truth, any real understanding of the true nature of evil is lost. Evil is now determined by one’s desire for power, legitimacy, and moral authority in order to bind the consciences of others to one’s own will.


This should terrify you because the implications can lead to violence—and they are (just look at the “protests” in Portland). As human beings, we still have a sense that evil needs to be vanquished. It must be defeated and annihilated. Evil carries with it the most crippling of stigmas. Nothing will rally folks to “the cause” better than convincing them their adversaries are evil. How can one overcome such a label when it’s part of our human design to hate it? We recoil at the thought of evil, even now, even with our rejection of God and his truth. The problem is we can’t identify it. Our wires are crossed. We don’t know what it is. It’s not that we fail to do anything about it (though that’s common too), it’s that we are calling good evil and evil good—all because we have abandoned God’s truth, his morality, and his standards.


Sadly, too many churches and Christians are complicit in this realignment of evil. Because they have been captured in the postmodern web of wanting to be nice and nonjudgmental, they have failed to remain informed by God’s Word about what true evil is. They have pushed it to the back burner instead of keeping it ever before them as the true enemy in the spiritual battle that they’re supposed to be engaged in every day. They have also become moral relativists, choosing to replace God’s truth with their own because it makes them feel more comfortable and more empowered in a culture at war with itself in its worship of Self. 


If we’re going to be Christians who abide by all of God’s Word, by his teaching that says, “The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the memory of them from the earth” (Psalm 34:16), and by his command that the light have nothing to do with darkness, we must be able to properly discern what is true evil. We have to be able to see the darkness to expose it with the light. This can’t be done if we don’t accept that God’s way is not the way of the world, that his truth is paramount, and that his morals are not relative but absolute for all. It can’t be done if we’re not convinced that the darkness really does hate the light.


Standing according to God’s TRUTH, seeing evil for what it is, calling it out to a deaf and blind generation that loves its sin will not be easy. You will be hated for it, but it is better to be hated for the sake of Christ and his truth than to be hated because you don’t measure up to another’s truth, which shifts and changes with the blowing of the wind. Today, you might be called “good” by those who seek power and influence; but tomorrow, you could be called “evil” just as easily. This is the nature of moral relativism—it changes. But God’s standards remain forever fixed, and we can rest in that reality, being confident in him and finding refuge in his Lordship as the One who conquers evil.


Therefore, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).


This article was originally posted at Romans One, and is reposted with permission from the author, Denise McAllister.

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