📄 The Biblical Meaning of “Evil”

I am hearing the word “evil” bantered around to describe some of our political leaders, which makes me shudder. In English, the word means profoundly immoral and wicked. I was so disturbed that I went to Scripture to see what God says about “evil” and I was completely taken aback with what I discovered. But first let me draw your attention to God’s commandment about how we should respond to ungodly leaders. 

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29

When I first accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I had a hunger to know God. I was fortunate to find a group that taught me how to do a word study. My curiosity was voracious, so I did hundreds of these word studies, but there is one I have never forgotten. I was using the King James version at the time and was drawn to 2 Corinthians 1:19-20. “The Son of God, Jesus Christ, was not yea and nay, but in him was yea.” As I took this instruction to heart my life began to change and grow with a positive attitude and outlook on life. So, I can identify with the verse in Ephesians. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.

Then we must ask, “How do we respond when our leader is an ungodly person?” Well, God gives us the answer.

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. Titus 3:1-2

This instruction may be hard to accept. Our natural inclination is to resist any ungodly person that has authority over us. After all, we have the history of our American Revolution that led to our democratic government. However, God’s commandment is clear. We must submit to rulers and authorities. I would suggest one exception. If we are asked (or required) to do something that is contrary to God, we must refuse.

I pondered for some time the reason for accepting an ungodly ruler and finally understood. I now see two reasons. First, God wants peace, not discord and division. Second, and most important, we must trust God that He knows the situation and is in control of it. Again, our natural inclination is to take charge and try to fix things, but that is not want God desires.

Trusting God during difficult and even tragic times can be difficult, but I always remember Abraham. God promised Abraham that He would give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan. Of course, Abraham did not see that promise fulfilled, but his ardent belief in God’s Word allowed his descendants to inherit as we are seeing today. That is, we don’t know when or how God will act, but we must simply trust that He is in charge.

Now let me share with you what I discovered about the word “hate”. Of course, that is an English translation, so what does the Bible say? 

God gives us only two categories – good which is righteous, and bad or evil that is unrighteous! So, we can’t go around calling all people who are acting in unrighteous ways “evil”. That would make most of our brothers and sisters in Christ profoundly immoral and wicked, which is not the case. Let me give you an example of God’s duality and the biblical meaning of “evil” as unrighteous.

In the creation account, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That gives us two things, good and evil. The word translated “good” is טוֹב (tov) and  “evil” is רַע (rah), but the distinction in the Hebrew text is between what God sees as good (righteous) versus evil (unrighteous).

To convince you of this concept of duality let me take you to another verse that uses rah. “Every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). So, let me ask you. Is your heart evil all the time? Of course not. But I’m sure you do exhibit unrighteous behavior from time to time and that is what God is talking about when He contrasts tov with rah.

Here’s another one. “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil” (Proverbs 3:7). The evil here refers to pride. Is pride profoundly immoral and wicked? No! It is simply a sin, which is a condition of unrighteousness that is contrary to God.

Now comes the most exciting part about good and evil. There will come a time in the future, and the time is now when we walk by the Spirit, when we WILL be able to eat symbolically from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “Solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). That is, as we grow in righteousness (a process of maturing) we are learning not only how to distinguish between good and evil, but we are also walking and living only in what is good or righteous with God.

So, please refrain from using the word “evil” to describe someone with whom you disagree. Just trust that God knows what He is doing and live your life in a way that is good in God’s sight.

Our natural inclination is to resist any ungodly person that has authority over us. After all, we have the history of our American Revolution that led to our democratic government. 

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Dr. Anne Davis is a professor of Biblical Studies who enjoys working with graduate students to enhance their exegetical skills for exploring the depth of Scripture.

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