St. Augustine taught that evil is not a substance. It is, as it were, a by-product of our freedom, and especially of our sin. Some say the effects of that sin did not fall solely on the world of humans, but spilled over into the natural world as well, in the form of storms and natural disasters. However, I am not sure I would label destructive natural phenomenon as evil. The natural world has patterns of life, death, and resurrection that make it healthy and complete. Nevertheless, any action, whether disastrous or not, by the definition of its existence, falls within God’s sovereign realm, even when God is not the sponsor or author of the particular event. This makes understanding evil a rather tricky process. But let’s give it a try.
Pastor Chuck Colson in his book The Problem of Evil is helpful in fleshing out the nature of evil. He writes: “Evil is not a ‘thing’ —like a rock or electricity. You can’t have a jar of evil! Rather, evil is something that occurs, like running. Evil has no existence of its own—it is really a lack in a good thing. For example, holes are real, but they only exist in something else. We call the absence of dirt a hole – but it cannot be separated from the dirt. So, when God created the world, it is true that all that existed was good. One of the good things that God made was creatures who had the freedom to choose good. In order to have a real choice, God had to allow there to be something besides good to choose. So, God allowed humans to choose good or non-good (evil). When a bad relationship exists between two good things we call that evil, but it does not become a ‘thing’ that required God to create it.”
Colson continues: “Perhaps a further illustration will help. If I were to ask the average person ‘Does cold exist?’ – his/her answer would likely be yes. However, this is incorrect. Cold does not exist. Cold is the absence of heat. Similarly, darkness does not exist. Darkness is the absence of light. Similarly, evil is the absence of good, or better, evil is the absence of God. God did not have to create evil, but rather only allow for the absence of good.”
To understand evil, we must understand freedom and the momentum of choice. Freedom is the independence God hardwired into humanity so we could know, experience, and share love. Love is the core characteristic of God. God loves us. For us to truly know love, we must have the capacity to freely accept God’s love, which means we also must have the capacity to reject it. There is no love without freedom. And so, we are free, and freedom affords choice. Choice has momentum. One bad choice can be turned back upon and reconciled. Two, three, and four bad choices can as well, but at some point, bad choices create their own momentum and form a survival system to sustain their own existence. Slavery is one such example. Racism is another. The momentum of bad choices forms into systems of evil, and good people can be trapped in and cooped by these self-sustaining systems of evil.
Good people can also create systemic forms of evil in their own lives. As a pastor, I have met more than one person who has been estranged from a relative for many years. When I ask what precipitated this broken relationship, often they can’t even remember the precipitating event. But over the years, a system has developed that has allowed this broken relationship to perpetuate itself.
Evil develops through the momentum of sinful choices. And so, evil can be thwarted through a series of intentional good choices. Evil has no existence of its own; it is simply the lack in a good that comes into being through one choice, or a series of choices that form into self-sustaining systems of evil. Evil can be stopped, but only through the decision to do good.