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Evil, in many cultures, is a broad term used to describe intentional negative moral acts or thoughts that are cruel, unjust or selfish. Evil is usually contrasted with good, which describes acts that are kind, just or unselfish. In some religions, evil is an active force, often personified as an entity such as Satan or Ahriman.

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The modern English word 'evil' (Old English Yfel) and its cognates such as the German 'Übel' and the Dutch 'Euvel' are widely considered to come from a Proto-Germanic reconstructed form *Ubilaz, comparable to the Hittite huwapp- ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European form *wap- and suffixed zero-grade form *up-elo-. Other later Germanic forms include Middle English evel, ifel, ufel Old Frisian evel (adjective & noun), Old Saxon ubil, Old High German ubil, and Gothic ubils. The root meaning is of obscure origin though shown to be akin to modern English 'over' and modern German 'über' (OE ofer) and 'up' (OE up, upp) with the basic idea of "transgressing".[1]

Concepts of evil

Judaeo-Christian religions

In Judaism and Christianity, evil is the result of forsaking God. (Deuteronomy 28:20) Judaism stresses obedience to God's laws as written in the Torah (see also Tanakh) and the laws and rituals laid down in the Mishnah and the Talmud. In Christianity, some doctrines stress obedience to God's law. Others emphasize Christ's statement that love of God and love of your fellow man is the whole of the law. Still others emphasize the idea that humanity is, within itself, irremediably evil, and in need of forgiveness.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, evil is related to the concept of sin; "sinned" translated in Hebrew as chata which means, "missed the mark" (a term from archery). The mark in question is the law of God.

In some Abrahamic faiths, evil is personified as Satan, a challenger of the law or will of God. Satan is defined in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek writings collectively as the evil, the adversary, false accuser, slanderer, the counterfeit, a liar, a murderer, one with no truth, the serpent, the evil one, the tempter and a prowling lion seeking someone to devour. These faiths also teach that spirits or demons may possess humans or animals and tempt them to do evil. It is argued by those who follow the documentary hypothesis and higher Biblical criticism that this concept of Satan developed over time. Hebrew "Satan" seems originally to have been the accuser, a title given to the prosecuting attorney at the heavenly court. He maintains this role within the Book of Job. It is argued that the larger role of Satan and his identification with Lucifer, later associated with the snake in the Garden of Eden, occurred during the period of the Babylonian captivity and subsequent exposure to Iranian beliefs. Orthodox Jews still hold to the traditional view of Satan being an accusing angel in the heavenly court.

Some forms of Christianity, as well as Judaism, do not personify evil in Satan; these instead consider the human heart to be inherently bent toward deceit, although human beings are responsible for their choices, whereas in Judaism, there is no prejudice in one's becoming good or evil at time of birth. In Judaism, Satan is viewed as one who tests us for God rather than one who works against God, and evil, as in the Christian denominations above, is a matter of choice.The Greek word used in the New Testament for evil can just as well be rendered by "a wrongdoer" or even as "the evil one". This ambiguity means that a passage in the Sermon on the Mount has been translated "Do not resist evil" and "do not set yourself against a wrong-doer."

Judaism and Christianity both focus on individual repentance of sin, but in Judaism, repentance requires the forgiveness of the injured party, and thus is rather difficult in some cases, such as murder, but for other crimes, if one is sincerely asked for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement by someone who has truly repented, it is a religious obligation to forgive. In Christianity, the nature of repentance is dependent on denomination. Jewish beliefs and Christian teachings say each person will give an account of all their actions, including faith and obedience.

"The One forming light and creating darkness, Causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these". Isaiah 45:7

In the Bible, the story of Job is a bold example of how evil exists and seems at times to be victorious, although according to Christian beliefs, all have sinned and fallen short of the perfection of God (Romans 3:23), and the price of missing the mark of perfection (sin) is death. The crucifixion of Jesus was the sacrifice of a sinless, superior, and good being for the sins of mankind; thus, salvation from death occurs in understanding this idea and making the Christ Lord over one's life.

In Latter-day Saint theology, Mortal life is viewed as a test of faith, where our choices are central to the Plan of Salvation. Evil is that which keeps one from discovering the nature of God. Choices that are made between Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, Truth or Falsehood are those things that allow us to understand who God is. Those that, through Force or Deception, steal away this ability to make these choices, are taking away our ability to know God. This is evil. Temptation is the constant desire to "Force" others to do what we want and go where we would like. Satan personifies this "Force." Good persuades, learns and adapts. Evil forces, lies, and demands.

Christian Science believes that evil arises from a misunderstanding of the goodness of nature, which is understood as being inherently perfect if viewed from the correct (spiritual) perspective. In the same way that misunderstanding mathematical concepts results in incorrect answers, misunderstanding God's reality leads to incorrect choices, which are termed evil. This has led to the rejection of any separate power being the source of evil, or of God as being the source of evil; instead, the appearance of evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good. Christian Scientists argue that even the most "evil" person does not pursue evil for its own sake, but from the mistaken viewpoint that he or she will achieve some kind of good thereby. However, Christian Science does not answer the question as to where our capacity to make such a mistake came from, apart from stating that as--in reality--we do not have such a capacity, such a question is ultimately based on a mistaken premise.

An important concept relating to the belief that "all have sinned" and "sin separates Man from God" is that these beliefs imply a certain equality of all humanity; no one is no "more evil" than any other person. The murderous are in the same category as the saintly, and the rich are no more worthy of attention than the poor (James 2). The only difference between people, in terms of Christian salvation, is that some have made the commitment to Christ and that others have not.

For the French philosopher Michel Henry, God is the invisible Life that never stops to generate us and to give us to ourselves in its pathetic self-revelation. God is Love because Love itself in an infinite love is Life. By consequence life is good in itself. The evil corresponds to all what denies or attacks life; it finds its origin in death, which is the negation of life. This death is an inner and spiritual death which is the separation with God, and which consists simply in not loving, in living selfishly as if God did not exist, was not Father of us all and we His beloved Sons; as if we were not all Brothers generated by a same life. The evil peaks in the violence of hatred that is at the origin of all the crimes, of all the wars and of all the genocides. But the evil is also the common origin of all those blind processes and of all those false abstractions that lead so many people to misery and exclusion.


In the originally Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, the world is a battle ground between the God, Ahura Mazda (also called Ormazd), and the evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (also called Ahriman). The final resolution of the struggle between good and evil was supposed to occur on a day of Judgement, in which all beings that have lived will be led across a bridge of fire, and those who are evil will be cast down forever. In Iranian belief, angels and saints are beings sent to help us achieve the path towards goodness.

Western Philosophy


In Western philosophy, evil is usually limited to doing harm or damage to an object or creature. Plato argued that which we call evil is merely ignorance and that good is that which everyone desires. Benedict de Spinoza said that the difference between good and evil is merely one of personal inclinations: "So everyone, by the highest right of Nature, judges what is good and what is evil, considers his own advantage according to his own temperament... ."(Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley, Penguin Classics, 2005, ISBN10 0140435719, ISBN-13: 978-0140435719)

The duality of 'good versus evil' is expressed, in some form or another, by many cultures. Those who believe in the duality theory of evil believe that evil cannot exist without good, nor good without evil, as they are both objective states and opposite ends of the same scale.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung, in his book Answer to Job and elsewhere, depicted evil as the "dark side of God". People tend to believe evil is something external to them, because they project their shadow onto others. But from a psychological point of view to be evil is to refuse to acknowledge the weaknesses in one's own personality. Jung interpreted the story of Jesus as an account of God facing his own shadow., Dreams of Wholeness: A course of introductory lectures on religion, psychology and personal growth (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 1997/2008), see especially Chapter XI.)

Legal Definitions

The legal term, malice (from the Latin malus meaning "bad") describes the deliberate human intent to harm, while sadism refers to a psychological state in which a person derives pleasure from the pain of another person.

In the philosophical concept of evil, the intent to cause harm is crucial, so that acts that would otherwise be considered evil are not called evil when performed by very young children, by animals, or by the insane.

There is also a class of deliberate acts, known to be harmful to another, which are not considered evil because:

  1. they are acts of self-defense or defense of another
  2. they are considered justified (for instance, "Just War")

Philosophical quandaries about evil

Is evil universal?

A fundamental question is whether there is a universal, transcendent definition of evil, or whether evil is determined by one's social or cultural background. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, maintained that there are certain acts that are universally considered evil, such as rape and murder. On the other hand, it is hard to find any act that was not acceptable in some society. Less than 150 years ago the United States of America, and many other countries practiced brutal forms of slavery. During World War II, genocide was deemed acceptable, [2] Today, there is strong disagreement as to whether homosexuality and abortion are perfectly acceptable or evils. Universalists consider evil independent of culture, and wholly related to acts or intents. Thus, while the ideological leaders of Nazism and the Hutu Interhamwe accepted (and considered it good) to commit genocide, the universally evil act of genocide renders the entire ideology or culture evil.

Views on the nature of evil tend to fall into one of two opposed camps. One, moral absolutism, holds that good and evil are fixed concepts established by god, nature, morality, common sense, or some other source. The other, moral relativism, holds that standards of good and evil are only products of local culture, custom, or prejudice. Moral universalism is the attempt to find a compromise between the absolutist sense of morality, and the relativist view; universalism claims that morality is only flexible to a degree, and that what is truly good or evil can be determined by examining what is commonly considered to be evil amongst all humans.

A looser definition of evil describes it as death and suffering, whether it results from human or from other natural causes (e.g., earthquakes and famine). In other words, it is not merely the intention to do evil, but the end result, namely, harm to others, that is evil. This is sometimes referred to as "natural evil," and some philosophers hold the position that this is an inappropriate use of the word "evil," as it is without intent.

Some people define being evil as not only inflicting pain and suffering but also as performing an act for either solely selfish materialistic reasons (i.e. power or wealth), or because they are sadistic and derive pleasure from the act. Under this definition of evil, a person who commits morally wrong acts for sincerely benevolent reasons would not be evil, even if most people disagreed with the means thus justified. Disregarding whether the ends were to be considered morally wrong they would not be classified as evil, so long as they truly believed in the pursued higher goal. This does not mean the actions could not be viewed as morally wrong, just that there would not be an evil intent in them, as the intent of the actions is a key factor. Absolute ignorance of the concept of morality would render a person completely morally neutral.

Regardless of the source of their definitions, most human cultures have a set of beliefs about what things, actions, and ideas are undesirable. Undesirable circumstances are often categorised as evil within some cultures. Natural evils generally include accidental death, disease, and other misfortunes, although some cultures see these occurrences instead as a healthy part of the natural order. Moral evils generally include violence, deceit or other destructive and antisocial behavior toward others, although the same behavior toward "outsiders" of the group may be considered "good." War provides many examples, and "God is always on the winning side."

Most cultures recognize many levels of immoral behaviour, from minor vices to major crimes. These beliefs are often encoded into the laws of a society, with methods of judgement and punishment for offenses.

Is evil a useful term?

There is a school of thought that holds that no person is evil, that only acts may be properly considered evil. Psychologist and mediator Marshall Rosenberg claims that the root of violence is the very concept of "evil" or "badness." When we label someone as bad or evil, Rosenberg claims, it invokes the desire to punish or inflict pain. It also makes it easy for us to turn off our feelings towards the person we are harming. He cites the use of language in Nazi Germany as being a key to how the German people were able to do things to other human beings that they normally would not do. He links the concept of evil to our judicial system, which seeks to create justice via punishment; "punitive justice"; punishing acts that are seen as bad or wrong. He contrasts this approach with what he found in cultures where the idea of evil was non-existent. In such cultures, when someone harms another person, they are believed to be out of harmony with themselves and their community, they are seen as sick or ill and measures are taken to restore them to a sense of harmonious relations with themselves and others, as opposed to punishing them.

Psychologist Albert Ellis makes a similar claim, in his school of psychology called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT. He says the root of anger, and the desire to harm someone, is almost always related to variations of implicit or explicit philosophical beliefs about other human beings. He further claims that without holding variants of those covert or overt belief and assumptions, the tendency to resort to violence in most cases is less unlikely.

Prominent American psychiatrist M. Scott Peck on the other hand, describes evil as "militant ignorance". (People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil, ISBN 0671454927). In this it is close to the original Judeo-Christian concept of "sin" as a consistent process that leads to failure to reach one's true goals.

According to Scott Peck, an evil person:

  • Projects his or her evils and sins onto others and tries to remove them from others
  • Maintains a high level of respectability and lies incessantly in order to do so
  • Is consistent in his or her sins. Evil persons are characterized not so much by the magnitude of their sins, but by their consistency
  • Is unable to think from other people's viewpoints.

He also considers certain institutions may be evil, as his discussion of the My Lai Massacre and its attempted coverup illustrate. By this definition, acts of terrorism and state terrorism would also be considered evil.

The international relations theories of realism and neorealism, sometimes called 'realpolitik' advise politicians to explicitly disavow absolute moral and ethical considerations in international politics in favor of a focus on self-interest, political survival, and power politics, which they hold to be more accurate in explaining a world they view as explicitly amoral and dangerous. Political realists usually justify their perspectives by laying claim to a "higher moral duty" specific to political leaders, under which the greatest evil is seen to be the failure of the state to protect itself and its citizens. Machiavelli wrote: "...there will be traits considered good that, if followed, will lead to ruin, while other traits, considered vices which if practiced achieve security and well being for the Prince."

Sociological views on evil

Some sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have attempted to construct scientific explanations for the development of specific characteristics of an "antisocial" personality type, called the sociopath. The sociopath is typified by extreme self-serving behavior and a lack of conscience as well as an inability to empathize with others and to restrain from, or to feel remorse for, harm personally caused to others. However, a diagnosis of antisocial or sociopathic personality disorder (formerly called psychopathic mental disorder), is sometimes criticized as being, at the present time, no more scientific than calling a person "evil". There is much debate over this, however. Some, most prominently Robert Hare, author of "Without Conscience", consider psychopathy to be a widespread disorder quite distinct from antisocial personality disorder.

What critics perceive to be a moral determination is disguised, they argue, with a scientific-sounding name but no complete description of a mechanism by which the abnormality can be identified. In other words, critics argue, "sociopaths" are called such because they are first thought to be "evil" - a determination which itself is not derived by a scientific method.

Research into sociopathology has also been investigated biologically,[3] Are there biological reasons why people are evil rather than moral? Are there physical underpinnings of behaviors that societies reject as sociopathic? Most neurological research into sociopathology has focused on regions of the neocortex involved in impulse control. Some other research seems to indicate that sociopathy may at least partially be related to a lack of ability to realize the true consequences of one's actions.

When a person acts in such a way as to use others as means to achieve one's own personal ends or fails to consider the consequences of his or her acts upon the lives of others, it is considered to be psychopathic or sociopathic. If one accepts the Christian ethic that "by their deeds you shall know them", such acts are evil. This is the view taken by Walter Wink, the Christian theologian of non-violence. Some authors, like the psychologist Benjamin B. Wolman, consider society as a whole to be moving towards a psychopathic mindset, but this stance has yet to gain wider acceptance. In the 2007, Ph.D Philip Zimbardo suggested that people may act evil as a result of a collective identity. This hypothesis, based on his previous experience from the Stanford prison experiment, was published in the book 'The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil'.

Evil in business

In business, evil refers to unfair or unethical business practices. Firms that have a monopoly are often able to maintain the monopoly using tactics that are deemed unfair, and monopolies have the power to set prices at levels which are not socially efficient. Some people therefore consider monopolies to be evil. Economists do not generally consider monopolies to be 'evil' though they recognize that certain business practices by monopolies are often not in the public interest.

Recently, the term "evil" has been applied much more broadly, especially in the technology and intellectual property industries. One of the slogans of Google is "Don't be evil," in response to much-criticized technology companies such as Microsoft and AOL, and the tagline of independent music recording company Magnatune is "we are not evil," referring to the alleged evils of the RIAA. The economist David Korten has argued that industrial corporations, set up as fictive individuals by law, are required to work according only to the criteria of making profits for their shareholders, meaning they function as sociopathic organisations that inherently do evil in damaging the environment, denying labour justice and exploiting the powerless.

In the U.S. movie Wall Street, evil in business is identified with manipulation such as with corporate raider Gordon Gekko who famously declares to an audience of shareholders of a company that he wishes to purchase that "greed is good" while the results of Gekko's actions result in the dismantling of companies and destruction of people's jobs for the sake of Gekko's personal profit. The character of Gordon Gekko in the movie is based at least in part on Ivan Boesky, especially regarding a famous speech he delivered on the positive aspects of greed at the University of California, Berkeley in 1986, where he said in part "I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself"


"Evil is the unconscious or unintended transgression of the divine law, the Father's will. Evil is likewise the measure of the imperfectness of obedience to the Father's will.

Sin is the conscious, knowing, and deliberate transgression of the divine law, the Father's will. Sin is the measure of unwillingness to be divinely led and spiritually directed.

Iniquity is the willful, determined, and persistent transgression of the divine law, the Father's will. Iniquity is the measure of the continued rejection of the Father's loving plan of personality survival and the Sons' merciful ministry of salvation."[4]


  1. Harper, Douglas (2001), Etymology for evil,
  2. Sanders, E.P., "The Historical Figure of Jesus", Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, p. 115 (1993)
  3. Isaiah 45:7
  4. Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley, Penguin Classics, 2005, ISBN10 0140435719, ISBN-13: 978-0140435719, p. 135
  5. Stephen Palmquist, Dreams of Wholeness: A course of introductory lectures on religion, psychology and personal growth (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 1997/2008), see especially Chapter XI.
  6. Gourevitch, Phillip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With our Families. Picador. ISBN 0-31224-335-9.
  7. "Frontline: the triumph of evil.". Retrieved on 2007-04-09.
  8. Peck, M. Scott (January 1998). People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil. Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group. ISBN 0671454927.
  9. Martin Luther, Werke, XX, p58
  10. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Dante University of America Press, 2003, ISBN 0937832383 ISBN-13: 978-0937832387
  11. "Technology Review: What Can Neuroscience Tell Us about evil?".

Further reading

  • Baumeister, Roy F. (1999) Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York: A. W. H. Freeman /

Owl Book

  • Bennett, Gaymon, Hewlett, Martinez J, Peters, Ted, Russell, Robert John (2008). The Evolution of Evil. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. ISBN 978-3-525-56979-5
  • Shermer, M. (2004). The Science of Good & Evil. New York: Time Books. ISBN 0-8050-7520-8
  • Wilson, William McF., and Julian N. Hartt. "Farrer's Theodicy." In David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson (eds), Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer. New York and London: T & T Clark / Continuum, 2004. ISBN 0-567-02510-1
  • Evil and the Demonic: A New Theory of Monstrous Behavior ISBN 0-8147-6193-3
  • Vetlesen, Arne Johan (2005) "Evil and Human Agency - Understanding Collective Evildoing" New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521856942
  • a b Stapley, Elder Delbert L.. "Using Our Free Agency". Ensign May 1975: 21

External links