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.

In 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 demons.

The 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 Christian church.

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).

James 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. 51:5).

The 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 human make-up.

And 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 and Ananias.

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.

Practical Observation

Sin 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

I 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.

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