2-2 The Origin Of Sin And Evil
Many believe that there
is a being or monster called the Devil or Satan who is the originator
of the problems which are in the world and in our own lives, and who is
responsible for the sin which we commit. The Bible clearly teaches that
God is all-powerful. We have seen in Study 2-1
that the Angels cannot sin. If we truly believe these things, then it
is impossible that there is any supernatural being at work in this
universe that is opposed to Almighty God. If we believe that such a
being does exist, then surely we are questioning the supremacy of God
Almighty. Hence the importance of the matter. We are told in Heb. 2:14
that Jesus destroyed the Devil by His death; therefore unless we have a
correct understanding of the Devil, we are likely to misunderstand the
work and nature of Jesus.
the world generally, especially in the Christian world, there is the
idea that the good things in life come from God and the bad things from
the Devil or Satan. This is not a new idea; we saw in chapter 1 how the
Persians believed there were two gods, a god of good and light (Ahura
Mazda), and a god of evil and darkness (Ahriman), and that those two
were locked in mortal combat (1). Cyrus, the great King of Persia,
believed just this. Therefore God told him, “I am the Lord, and there
is no other; there is no God besides me... I form the light, and create
darkness, I make peace, and create calamity (‘evil’ KJV, ‘disaster’
NIV); I the Lord do all these things” (Is. 45:5-7,22). God creates
peace and He creates evil, or disaster. In this sense there is a
difference between evil and sin, which is man’s fault; sin entered the
world as a result of man, not God (Rom. 5:12). The Is. 45:5-7 passage
is highly significant, in that it is one of the many allusions in
Isaiah to creation. God created the light and darkness in Genesis 1; it
was the same God who separated light from darkness. The fact God
created literally all things means that any 'darkness' is ultimately
from God and under His control. The record of creation in Genesis is
framed to deconstruct popular views of evil, personal Satans, etc. For
example, the sea was understood by the ancients as a source of radical,
uncontrollable evil. Yet the Genesis record stresses that the sea was
created by God, and He gathered it together and set bounds for it (Gen.
1:9; Job 26:10; 38:11). It was been observed that "The creation account
of Genesis 1 is best understood as a piece of anti-mythological
polemic" (2). And perhaps this is why it is alluded to so strongly by
Isaiah, in his demonstration that there is no god of evil and god of
darkness- there is only the one all-powerful God of Israel. God told
Cyrus and the people of Babylon that “there is no (other) God besides
me”. The Hebrew word ‘el’ translated ‘God’ fundamentally means
‘strength, or source of power’. God was saying that there is no source
of power in existence apart from Him. This is the reason why a true
believer in God should not accept the idea of a supernatural Devil or
Biblical record seems to very frequently seek to deconstruct popular
ideas about sin and evil. One of the most widespread notions was the
"evil eye", whereby it was believed that some people had an "evil eye"
which could bring distress into the eyes of those upon whom they looked
in jealousy or anger. This concept is alive and well in many areas to
this day. The idea entered Judaism very strongly after the Babylonian
captivity; the Babylonian Talmud is full of references to it. The sage
Rav attributed many illnesses to the evil eye, and the Talmud even
claimed that 99 out of 100 people died prematurely from this (Bava
Metzia 107b). The Biblical deconstruction of this is through stressing
that God's eye is all powerful in the destiny of His people (Dt. 11:12; Ps. 33:18); and that "an evil eye" refers to an internal attitude of mean spiritedness within
people- e.g. an "evil eye" is understood as an ungenerous spirit in Dt.
15:9; Mt. 6:23; 20:15; or pure selfishness in Dt. 28:54,56; Prov. 23:6;
28:22. We must remember that the people of Biblical times understood an
"evil eye" as an external ability to look at someone and bring curses upon them. But the Bible redefines an "evil eye" as a purely internal
attitude; and cosmic evil, even if it were to exist, need hold no fear
for us- seeing the eyes of the only true God are running around the
earth for us and not against us (2 Chron. 16:9).
God: The Creator Of Disaster
The Bible abounds with examples of God bringing evil into people’s lives
and into this world. Am. 3:6 says that if there is calamity in a city,
God has done it. If, for example, there is an earthquake in a city, it
is often felt that ‘the Devil’ had designs on that city, and had brought
about the calamity. But the true believer must understand that it is God who is responsible for this. Thus Mic. 1:12 says that “disaster came down
from the Lord to the gate of Jerusalem”, in fulfillment of God's own prediction
that "Behold, I will being evil upon this people" (Jer. 6:19).
Sickness likewise is from God and not a personal Satan. "The Lord will bring upon you all the diseases of Egypt" (Dt. 28:60); "an
evil spirit from the Lord troubled [Saul]" (1 Sam. 16:14); "Who
has made man's mouth? Or who makes the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or
the blind? Have not I the Lord?" (Ex. 4:11). In the book of Job we
read how Job, a righteous man, lost the things which he had in this life.
The book teaches that the experience of ‘evil’ in a person’s life is not
directly proportional to their obedience or disobedience to God. Job recognized
that “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). He does
not say ‘The Lord gave and Satan took away’. He commented to his wife:
“Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not (also) accept
adversity?” (Job 2:10). At the end of the book, Job’s friends comforted
him over “all the adversity that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11
cp. 19:21; 8:4).
Thus God, who is in control of all things, uses wicked people to bring
evil as a chastisement or punishment on His people. “For whom the Lord
loves he chastens... If you endure chastening... afterward it yields the
peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it”
(Heb. 12:6-11). This shows that the trials which God gives us lead eventually
to our spiritual growth. It is setting the Word of God against itself
to say that the Devil is a being which forces us to sin and be unrighteous,
whilst at the same time he supposedly brings problems into our lives which
lead to our developing “the peaceable fruit of righteousness”. The orthodox
idea of the Devil runs into serious problems here. Especially serious
for it are passages which speak of delivering a man to Satan “that his
spirit may be saved”, or “that (they) may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Cor.
5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). If Satan is really a being bent on causing men to sin
and having a negative spiritual effect upon people, why do these passages
speak of ‘Satan’ in a positive light? The answer lies in the fact that
an adversary, a “Satan” or difficulty in life, can often result in positive
spiritual effects in a believer’s life.
If we accept that evil comes from God, then we can pray to God to do
something about the problems which we have, e.g. to take them away. If
He doesn’t, then we know that they are sent from God for our spiritual
good. Now if we believe that there is some evil being called the Devil
or Satan causing our problems, then there is no way of coming to terms
with them. Disability, illness, sudden death or calamity have to be taken
as just bad luck. If the Devil is some powerful, sinful angel, then he
will be much more powerful than us, and we will have no choice but to
suffer at his hand. By contrast, we are comforted that under God’s control,
“all things work together for good” to the believers (Rom. 8:28).
There is therefore no such thing as ‘luck’ in the life of a believer.
If we unflinchingly set our faces to get to the bottom of the question
of where evil / disaster comes from in this world, and if we accept the
Bible as the ultimate source of truth and God's revelation to us, then
we are left with the sober conclusion- that God is ultimately the cause
of it. This is so hard for many to accept, and we saw in Chapter 1 how
pagans and orthodox Christians alike have struggled and wriggled to get
out of it. Basil the Great [so called] even wrote a book entitled That
God Is Not The Author Of Evil (3). Such is the stubborn refusal to
accept Biblical testimony, even amongst the so called 'fathers' of the wider
The Origin Of Sin
It must be stressed that sin comes from inside us. It is our fault that
we sin. Of course, it would be nice to believe that it was not our fault
that we sin. We could freely sin and then excuse ourselves with the thought
that it was really the Devil’s fault, and that the blame for our sin should
be completely laid upon him. It is not uncommon that in cases of grossly
wicked behaviour, the guilty person has begged for mercy because he says
that he was possessed by the Devil at the time and was therefore not responsible
for himself. But, quite rightly, such feeble excuses are judged to hold
no water at all, and the person has sentence passed upon him.
We need to remember that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23); sin
leads to death. If it is not our fault that we sin, but that of the Devil,
then a just God ought to punish the Devil rather than us. But the fact
that we are judged for our own sins shows that we are responsible for
our sins. “There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him...For
from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries,
fornications, murders... pride, foolishness. All these evil things come
from within and defile a man” (Mk. 7:15-23). The idea that there is something sinful outside of us which enters us
and causes us to sin is incompatible with the plain teaching of Jesus
here. From within, out of the heart of man, come all these evil things.
This is why, at the time of the flood, God considered that “the imagination
[Heb. 'impulse'] of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21).
1:14 tells us how we are tempted: “Each one (it is the same process for
each human being) is tempted, when he is drawn away by his own desires
and enticed”. We are tempted by our own evil desires; not by anything
outside of us. “Where do wars and fights come from among you?”, James
asks; “Do they not come from your desires for pleasure?” (James 4:1).
Each of us has specific, personal temptations. They therefore have to
be generated by our own evil desires, because they are personal to us.
Truly we are our own worst enemies. Ps. 4:5 locates the key to overcoming
sin as being within the human mind: "Sin not- commune with your own
heart". James 1:13-15 uses a family analogy- a man and "his
own lust" beget a child, called sin; and sin, in due time, gives
birth to death. Strange, surely, how James makes no mention of a personal
Devil or demons as having any part at all to play in this process.
The book of Romans is largely concerned with sin, its origin, and how
to overcome it. It is highly significant that there is no mention of the
Devil and just one of Satan in the book; in the context of speaking about
the origin of sin, Paul does not mention the Devil or Satan at all. In
fact, Digression 2
explains how Romans is actually a case of Paul deconstructing the
popular ideas about the Devil. Paul's silence about the Devil in the
Romans passages which speak of sin's origin has been commented upon by
others: "Paul never goes beyond the realm of history, nor does he
speculate on man's origins or on the mythic-cosmic reasons for his
fallen state, be they the devil or fate. Instead he keeps to Adam's
sin, the characteristic sin of all men, that is to say, man's desire to
assert his own will against God, the desire that brought Adam under the
curse of death. Thus [for Paul] man's will is the cause of sin" (4).
If there is an external being who makes us sin, surely he would have
been mentioned extensively in the Old Testament? But there is a very
profound and significant silence about this. The record of the Judges
period, or Israel in the wilderness, show that at those times Israel
were sinning a great deal. But God did not warn them about some
powerful supernatural being or force which could enter them and make
them sin. Instead, He encouraged them to apply themselves to His word,
so that they would not fall away to the ways of their own flesh (e.g.
Dt. 27:9,10; Josh. 22:5). Num. 15:39 is especially clear about our
innate sinful tendencies: "Do not follow after your own heart and your
own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly" (Heschel's
translation). In some Orthodox Jewish liturgies, this verse is to be
repeated twice each day. And so it should be by us all. For this is the
heart of the matter, the essence of the believer's struggle against sin
within. The book of Ecclesiastes addresses the problem of life's
unfairness and the essential suffering of every person, rich or poor-
and again, the words Satan, Devil, fallen Angel, Lucifer etc. simply
don't occur there.
Paul laments: “nothing good dwells in me – my unspiritual self, I mean
- ... for though the will to do good is there, the ability to effect it
is not... if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who
am the agent, but sin that has its dwelling in me” (Rom. 7:18-21 REB).
Now he does not blame his sin on an external being called the Devil. He
located his own evil nature as the real source of sin: it is not I that
do it, “but sin that has its dwelling in me. I discover this principle,
then; that when I want to do right, only wrong is within my reach.” So
he says that the opposition to being spiritual comes from something that
he calls “sin... dwelling in me”. Sin is “the way of [man’s] heart” (Is.
57:17). Every thoughtful, spiritually minded person will come to the same
kind of self-knowledge. It should be noted that even a supreme Christian
like Paul did not experience a change of nature after conversion, nor
was he placed in a position whereby he did not and could not sin. David, another undoubtedly righteous man,
likewise commented upon the pervasive nature of sin: “I
was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps.
Bible is quite explicit about the sinful tendencies within man. If this
is appreciated, there is no need to invent an imaginary person outside
our human natures who is responsible for our sins. Jer. 17:9 says that
the heart of man is so desperately wicked and deceitful that we cannot
actually appreciate the gross extent of its sinfulness. Ecc. 9:3 could
not be plainer: “The hearts of the sons of men are full of evil”. Eph.
4:18 gives the reason for man’s alienation from God as being “because
of the ignorance that is within them, because of the hardening of their heart”.
It is because of our spiritually blind and ignorant hearts, our way of
thinking that is within us, that we are distanced from God. In line with
this, Gal. 5:19 speaks of our sins as “the works of the flesh”; it is
our own flesh ("unspiritual nature", R.E.B.), which causes us
to commit sin. None of these passages explain the origin of sin within
us as being because the Devil put it there; sinful tendencies are something
which we all naturally have from birth; it is a fundamental part of the
yet although the heart is indeed a source of wickedness, we must seek
to control it. Quite simply, "Depart from evil and do good" (Ps.
34:15). We cannot blame our moral failures on the perversity of our
nature. “A heart that devises wicked plans” is something God hates to
see in men (Prov. 6:18). A reprobate Israel excused themselves by
saying: “That is hopeless! So we will walk according to our own plans,
and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart” (Jer.
18:12). The heart is a source of human evil, we are reminded in this
very context (Jer. 17:9). But sin lies in assuming that therefore we
have no need to strive for self-mastery, and that the weakness of our
heart will excuse our committing of sin. We must recognize and even
analyze the weakness of our natures [as this chapter seeks to] and in
the strength of that knowledge, seek to do something to limit them.
“Keep your heart with all diligence [Heb. ‘above anything else’], for
out of it spring the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). Ananias could
control whether or not ‘Satan’ filled his heart, and was condemned for
not doing so (Acts 5:3). If we think that a being called ‘Satan’
irresistibly influences us to sin, filling us with the desire to sin
against our will, then we are making the same fatal mistake as Israel
Orthodox Judaism calls our sinful inclination the yetzer ha'ra. But God isn't unaware of it. In fact He's intensely aware of it. "For He knows our yetzer /
inclination, He remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:14). And in His
perfect way, He made a way of escape through His Son having that same
nature, those same sinful inclinations; and yet He never sinned. And
the representative nature of His sacrifice opens the way for us to
identify with Him through baptism into His death, so that we might
share in His eternal life.
occurs as a major them in Paul's writings- not just in Romans, where he
speaks so much about sin without hinting that a supernatural 'Satan'
figure is involved with it. He sees sin as playing an almost positive,
creative role in the formation of the true Christian, both individually
and in terms of salvation history. He speaks of how the Mosaic law was
given to as it were highlight the power of sin; but through this it
lead us to Christ, through our desperation and failure to obey, "that
(Gk. hina, a purpose clause) we might be righteoused by faith" (Gal. 3:24-26). The curses for disobedience were "in order that (Gk. hina) the blessing of Abraham would come upon the Gentiles" (Gal. 3:10-14); "the Scripture consigned all things to sin, in order that (Gk. hina)
what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who
have faith" (Gal. 3:22). Note that it was the Law, "the Scripture",
which consigned things to sin- not a personal Satan. My point is that
sin was used by God, hina, 'in order that', there would be an
ultimately positive spiritual outcome. Indeed this appears to be the
genius of God, to work through human failure to His glory. This view of
sin, which any mature believer will surely concur with from his or her
life experience, is impossible to square with the ideas of dualism,
whereby God and 'sin' are radically opposed, fighting a pitched battle
ranging between Heaven and earth, with no common ground. No- God is
truly Almighty in every sense, and this includes His power over sin.
The life, death and resurrection of His Son were His way of dealing
with it- to His glory.
I have sought to share Bible
teaching that sin comes from within the human mind and therefore we are
responsible for our sin. Yet these conclusions surely coincide with our
experience and observations of human life. Freud analyzed our great
capacity for self-deception; Marx clearly saw how the whole world is
structured around human self-interest and the micro and macro level
decisions which our innate selfishness dictate. And it is these which
sculpture life and the world as we know it. These observations of Freud
and Marx are correct, even if their extrapolations from them are wrong.
And surely our own experience confirms that this is indeed how things
are in this world and in our own lives; and this is exactly what the
Bible teaches. Yet we also seek, madly, to justify ourselves, just as
strongly as we are able to deceive ourselves. We don't like to admit
that inhumanity, e.g. the horrors of Nazi or Stalinist death camps,
could really come from the very human nature which we also share; we
struggle with inhumanity being part of our humanity, exactly because we
share that same humanity. We possess a "tendency to identify evil pure
and simple with the Other, and good with ourselves" (5). The Bible's
teaching is quite clear- sin comes from within us, we are not wholly
evil and yet we are not thoroughly "good" either. Even the Lord Jesus
Himself objected to being called "good" in that sense- for He too was
human (Mk. 10:18). The true picture of our humanity, human nature, is
more complex than simply saying 'We are good' or 'We are evil'. I
submit the Biblical explanation of ourselves as outlined above is the
only accurate and workable one. Truly, "To see the serpent as the
representative of a power of evil, a personal devil from beyond this
world, does nothing to solve the problem of the origins of evil; it
merely pushes the problem one stage further back" (6).
Let me repeat again- yet again: the call to separate from sin within
us is writ large on every page of Scripture. The real battle, the
struggle at its most essential level, is within the human mind, and not
between us and some evil entity in Heaven or out in the ether. The fundamental
separation between light and darkness which began at creation is to be
lived out in every human mind. It's the failure to do this which leads
to so much human grief. Holocaust survivor Abraham Heschel gets to the
nub of the matter: "The ego is a powerful rival of the good... the
tragedies in human history, the cruelties and fanaticisms, have not been
caused by the criminals but by the good people... who did not understand
the strange mixture of self-interest and ideals which is compounded in
all human motives. The great contest is not between God-fearing believers
and unrighteous believers... the fate of mankind depends upon the realization
that the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, is superior
to all other distinctions... to teach humanity the primacy of that distinction
is of the essence to the Biblical message" (7). The things of which
we're writing couldn't be more important. This fundamental separation
between good and evil, right and wrong, spirit and flesh, has to be made
within our minds. The idea of an external Satan figure fudges the issue.
For true religion, correct Christianity, is all about our very personal
being and transformation. The evil we see in the world, the crass evil
that repulses us and provokes our outrage, is in essence what's going
on within us. We are not so divided from it as we may like to think. As
Heschel again profoundly put it: "Evil is indivisible. It is the
same in thought and in speech, in private and in social life" (8).
The hard thought is of the same essence as the hard word- as the Lord
Jesus so strongly emphasized throughout His Sermon on the Mount. The thought
is as the act. And likewise the murder of millions is part and parcel
with the quiet thought or act of unkindness. We can press this yet further:
if evil is indeed indivisible, then we must be aware that it can even
surface within religion. I refer not simply to all the evil done in the
name of religion, Christian, Moslem or otherwise. More piercingly I ask
us as 'religious' people to realize that flesh and spirit likewise mix
within us, right within our hearts, when we formulate our beliefs, act
upon them, seek to interpret the Bible, do acts of kindness etc. Our motives
are so often impure and tangled; and only before the higher and ultimate
authority of God's word can we untangle them.
Sin And Evil
have drawn a distinction between moral evil, i.e. human sin, and 'evil'
in the sense of disaster, which is ultimately allowed and even created
by God. The terms 'sin' and 'evil' are often used interchangeably and
the distinction which I've drawn needs to be recognized- for I believe
it is clearly taught in the Bible. This division, which is so clear in
the Bible, is not so clear in most other religions. "Most ancient
religions traced even moral evil to the matter of the physical
creation" (9), i.e. there was the assumption that the very fabric of
the world is somehow physically tainted if not 'evil' as a result of
the 'fall events' at the 'beginning'. The Bible emphasizes that God
created the world "very good", "the earth is the Lord's", and God so
loved the world that He gave His Son to die for our redemption. The
Bible likewise teaches that sin is always the result of the human will-
it is never blamed upon something material. Nothing from outside a
person can enter them and defile them, the Lord Jesus taught (Mk.
7:15-23). He certainly didn't teach that we can blame sin on 'Satan'.
Insistently, He urges that the human heart, the lustful thought, the
destructive impulses of anger, are what lead to sin in practice (Mt.
5:22,28). The apparently small surrenders made to sin within the human
heart are what lead to evil actions; the teaching of Jesus is really
very clear about this. Whilst the natural creation is in a fallen state
as the result of human sin, it is not evil in itself, and human sin
cannot be blamed upon its influence. It's surprising how many
religions, in seeking to explain sin and evil, fail to make this
distinction- as they seek to minimize human sin and by doing so
sidestep the fundamental focus of God's demand- to change the way that
we think to His way.
(1) Well documented in Edwin M. Yamachi, Persia And The Bible
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990) p. 438 ff.
(2) John McKenzie, Second Isaiah (New York: Doubleday, 1968) p. LIX.
(3) Quoted at length in J. Martin Evans, "Paradise Lost"
And The Genesis Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968) p. 88.
(4) Günther Bornkamm, Paul (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975) p. 124.
(5) Tzvetan Todorov, in Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower (New York: Schocken Books, 1998 ed.) p. 266.
(6) Mark Robertson, The Legacy Of Eden: The Meaning Of The Fall In Human Life (Grimsby: Endeavour, 2002) p. 15.
(7) Abraham Heschel, Between God And Man: A Philosophy Of Judaism (London: The Free Press, 1975) pp. 192,193.
(8) Ibid p. 257.
(9) G.P. Gilmour, The Memoirs Called Gospels (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1959) p. 115.