Evil does not exist. If it did, then God would not exist. And all suffering at the hand of evil people would cease to have significance. Yet God created the world out of the overflow of his goodness, and he made all creation “very good” (Gen 1:31). Since nothing exists outside of what God made, then either God created evil or evil does not exist. But God did not create evil. So evil does not exist. It can only corrupt good things.
Augustine recognized this when he wrote, “For you evil does not exist at all, and not only for you but for your created universe, because there is nothing outside it which could break in and destroy the order which you have imposed upon it” (Augustine, Confessions, 7.13). Hundreds of years later, Thomas Aquinas wrote, “For evil is the absence of the good, which is natural and due a thing” (Summa 1.49).
And this is good news because if evil exists God would not and our suffering would be meaningless. Here’s why.
God Is Good so He Made Everything Good
Jesus says, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). God alone possesses goodness. He is good. And he can never change: with him, there is “no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). God always has been and always will be good. For this reason, everything that he created is good: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31).
For evil to exist, God must have created it since apart from his Word nothing was made that was made (John 1:3). Had God created evil, then he himself would capable of it. He would not all holy, all light, all good, all the time. But he is just that. So he did not create evil nor can he do so because it would contrary to his perfection.
A god who creates evil by giving it substance would differ from the God of the Bible. Our God possesses goodness by nature and cannot change. In himself, he is a fount of life—eternally giving himself to the Son and Spirit. In history, God does not change. God’s eternally life-giving nature does not change with his creatures. He always gives of himself whether in his being or to his creatures.
Everyone called by God’s name, God moulded “for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa 43:7). God formed and made those called by his name to share his glory, meaning that “for my glory” means to glorify God’s people. As Jesus prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22).
God’s glory is his pure light of goodness that he shares with those whom he has set upon his love. The very glory of God—the life that is in Son (John 5:26) that divine and therefore eternal life—we have by union with the Son who shares with us his divine life, that is, eternal life.
Had God created evil, he would create something contrary to his eternally good nature. He would be a different God. He would not exist as we know him. He would be something other than perfection itself. He would not be eternally beneficient. He would not exist. Either God exists or evil does. Both cannot be true.
Our Suffering only Has Meaning If Evil Does not Exist
Evil signifies a corruption of goodness. It corrupts good people and good things. It rusts out goodness—taking away a substance while not being a substance itself. Paul tells us that creation is in “bondage to corruption” (Rom 8:22). Evil has no real existence but merely is a word that describes the privation of some good thing (See Augustine, Confessions, 7.12; Thomas, Summa, 1.49). What God created to be good, corruption infests.
Peter contrasts “the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” with partaking “the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). We corrupt the world through sin, while the world itself partakes of corruption due to its bondage due to sin (Rom 8:20). False teachers promise freedom yet themselves become enslaved to corruption since they have no way out of it apart from God (2 Pet 2:19). Corruption can touch all.
But Jesus conquers death, brings life, and grants incorruptibility (ἀφθαρσίαν) through the Gospel (2 Tim 1:10). We return to God by union with Christ through which we receive divine life, eternal life, and so incorruptible life. As Paul says, those who seek “for glory and honor and [incorruption (ἀφθαρσίαν)], he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:4).
For this reason, we experience suffering now with hope. We count it all blessing to suffer in the footsteps of Jesus because we know that our suffering has an eternal reward. We know that our corruptible bodies will be raised incorruptible (1 Cor 15:42). We suffer for the sake of the kingdom where we gain an inheritance of incorruptibility (1 Cor 15:50).
All of our sufferings have significance now because they imitate Christ’s life in which he put death to death, abolished corruption, and gave eternal life. Through suffering, we enter into an incorruptible mode of life whose reality comes at the resurrection.
Were evil to exist, how would it cease to exist? Were evil to exist, how could the God of the Bible exist? Since evil does not exist, it merely corrupts the good. Then perfect love can cast out fear of evil for it is a cheap mimic, a rusted nothingness. It has no future for the future belongs to the kingdom of God where we will gain our inheritance of incorruption. Corruption will cease because the incorruptible one will recapitulate all things in himself—whether things in heaven or on earth.
Satan Brought This Corruption
The Devil denied God’s definition of his purpose and essence. He descended from being “very good” to being “bad.” He corrupted his good purpose by denying God. He did not bring evil into existence any more than we do by sinning. Instead, he infested the garden and corrupted Adam and Eve. They too fell from their perfect calling into something less. The lost the tree of life which represents the eternal life of God. They corrupted God’s good image in them. And so have everyone else after them.
But Christ brought being back to us by recreating into the image of God, the image of himself (Col 3:10; Eph 4:24). We are new creations. We pursue an upward call in Christ to reach incorruptibility which is our inheritance in Christ.
Christ put death to death, sin to rest, and crushed Satan’s head. Christ defeated the devil and his works, the very purpose for which he came: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). Yet to give room to evil by giving it substance or being means that Satan’s first work has the same status as God’s; it would mean that Satan too could create. But creation belongs to God alone. There is one God over all.
If evil exists, then God would not. And all of our sufferings would suffer from meaningless as we’d live in a world with gods who create good and evil from their nature. One half is good; one half is bad. But when we see the beauty of a sunset, we know that creation is good. We know that a forest represents the beauty of life. Evil simply cannot exist. It can only corrupt.
I’m not sure I understand how you say evil does not exist when it is talked about so much in the Bible.
“To fear the Lord is to hate evil” Proverbs
I understand that God did not create it but evil must be something if I am to hate IT.
Thanks for your comment! If I can, I will try to clarify what I meant. I am highlighting that evil has no substance, no real being. )This language has pedigree in Christian thought but is less common today). Evil is a word that describes the negation or privation of something. So, I am defining existence in a specific way. I do not doubt that it is a real word; I am arguing that the word does not point to some real being. God alone has being in himself (John 5:26) and given being to his creation. Evil is not something that he bestowed being upon.
In my understanding, the word evil signifies the corruption of some good thing. So lust corrupts love, for example. Lust uses people for sexual pleasure, but it does not love and respect the other person. Lust corrupts. It entices us to deny our true being created in God’s image. It follows the path of exchanging the glory of the incorruptible God for corruptible things.
Paul Frank Spencer says
Yes. Evil is like darkness. God is real. God is light. Darkness is merely the absence of light. Likewise, evil is merely the absence of good.
It is real in the sense that we can talk about it, but it lacks any real form or substance. It is a void. It is “not.” And it is self-destroying. Although God maintained the darkness in the beginning, he will eventually allow evil to be removed completely from his goodness, the only way for eternal goodness to reign.
Laura Ferris says
Another analogy is how there is no such thing as “cold”–only the absence of heat.
Funny how the person below who takes exception with textual errors uses an apostrophe in the possessive form of “its.”
Paul Frank Spencer says
I think you’re right, but I think we also have to be very careful with our wording when we approach topics such as these. By saying that evil does not exist, we can tempt those with less understanding to propose that everything is good and everything is God, which according to Lewis is a “false and disastrous converse.”
Christians need to think about these philosophical considerations very seriously. Interestingly, science also lends a hand in developing a full and mind-boggling understanding. I’ve presented these thoughts in detail in my book, Marvelous Light. Reality is terribly profound. We have to be very careful when we speak on these topics.
Thanks for writing. I agree that language matters. And I am sympathetic to your points. Perhaps what I wrote to Kathy would help clarify why evil is still hideous (and I should probably write on vice!):
“In my understanding, the word evil signifies the corruption of some good thing. So lust corrupts love, for example. Lust uses people for sexual pleasure, but it does not love and respect the other person. Lust corrupts. It entices us to deny our true being created in God’s image. It follows the path of exchanging the glory of the incorruptible God for corruptible things.”
If one believes evil has some sort of substance existence, then no, evil does not exist. Yet this is to describe something the Bible says “exists” defined by platonistic philosophical notions.
the Bible’s description of evil is as a function of relationship. This, it has no substance existence. Yet it has a relational existence. The covenant structuring of the Bible (i.e., God’s relationship with his creatuon) is sufficient then to describe evil as something that is real (it has existence) in the context of relationship.
1. It would do the author much good to proofread for textual errors prior to publishing.
2. There is a fundamental confusion in the premise of this article. God didn’t create “good” just as He didn’t create “evil”. God declared His creation “good” or righteous, and sin “evil” or unrighteousness. Neither are created but instead are forensic declarations made by the only One who can make such determinations (thus Satan’s lie to Eve that she could be like God knowing “good” from “evil”).
The reason this article is so confusing for readers is that it is fundamentally flawed in it’s basis.
Being is good since all being derives from God (John 5:26 with John 1). So when God created, he bestowed being on his creation. This makes it good. Hence, he can declare that what he created is “very good.”
Scott Christensen says
To say that evil does not exist is, to be certain, provocative language, but it easily misconstrues Augustine’s meaning (as I understand it ). He is saying that evil does not have the properties of “being” because it is un-created. God cannot be the efficient cause of it. We certainly want to avoid what R. C. Sproul Jr. says, namely, that God created evil, albeit without sinning (‘Almighty Over All’, p. 54). But that does not mean that evil is “nothing.” This could easily lead people to think evil is an illusion as many Eastern religions propose. However, John Frame questions the language of non-being. How can something go from being (good) to non-being (evil) without ceasing to exist? This seems to be Platonic nonsense. He points out that Scripture never describes sin in metaphysical terms, therefore we should not reduce ethics to metaphysics. “Such reduction depersonalizes sin. In such reduction, sin becomes a defect in creation itself…rather than the rebellion of created persons against their personal Creator” (‘Systematic Theology’, pp. 288-89). He suggests that if there is truth in the privation theory (and I think there is), then we should speak of good as “created being” and evil as “uncreated being” (p. 299n40). BTW, I am writing a book on theodicy for P&R Publishing, so this issue has relevance for me.
Thanks for your comments, and your desire to clarify the truth of sin and evil. I understand that many good, godly people living today would disagree with (some) of what I’ve said. John Frame seems to add nuance to the discussion by using the language of “uncreated being.”
For my part, I think classical Christian language and metaphysics best describe and make sense out of what the Bible teaches. So I would not call it “Platonic nonsense.” We talk about theology today with contemporary language and conceptual categories. I know that early Christians did that too. But they drew on contemporary language and concepts to clarify what the Bible teaches. So while certain kinds of language in Christian thought do approximate platonic terms, they more often than not point to different realities. Providence may be fate for Greeks, but it is the personal will of God for Christians. The word itself may have had its origin in, say, Greek philosophy. But its Christian use and meaning does not.
I love John Frame. But I do disagree with him.
And yes: the title was somewhat provocative, although within the bounds of what I explain the article. I explain what evil is, and I also explain why I say evil has no existence, that is, substance.
Scott Christensen says
I do think there are metaphysical problems with saying evil does not exist, and I think the jury may be out on just what Augustine meant. However, I do like what Bavinck says, and I think he avoids some of the metaphysical problems with saying evil does not exist. “Sin cannot have its own principle and its own independent existence; it only originated after and exists only by and in connection with the good. While evil does depend on the good, the reverse is not true” (‘Reformed Dogmatics,’ 3:138).
Thanks, Scott. I do appreciate your kind and charitable engagement. It challenges me to think carefully about these matters. Iron sharpens iron.
How about Isa 45:7: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
Can you explain that?
God causes (creates) the evil of penalty (i.e., a calamity like earthquakes etc. to happen), but he does not author the evil of fault (so the creation of evil as an entity or substance or being since that is a privation of good). (I’m following Thomas here in Summa 1.49). Isaiah 43:7 contrasts “shalom” (peace) with calamity (heb: ra; or what may be translated as “evil” in the sense of calamity). The word “ra” can mean “badly made” or “bringing misfortune” (HALOT, 1250). It has a range of meaning that does not entail that it mean evil as in a substance. Since Isaiah contrasts “ra” with peace, it means God brings not-peace (calamity) upon someone.
Hogwash. God & the Devil if either of them exist they are one of the same.
Only a demon would create a world with total injustice and that would be your God.