God, Evil, Suffering, and Teens: Part 2- So, Where Does Evil Come From?

As we saw in Part 1 of this series, the problem of evil isn’t an abstract philosophical problem.  Evil really exists, and it affects us personally and tangibly.
As we look at the evil in the world around us, reflect on our experiences, and discern how evil is portrayed in scripture, we discover that we can categorize the evil we face into three types: spiritual, physical, and moral.
Spiritual evil, as I use the term, refers to evil in the “supernatural” realm.  Like the wind, you can often see the effects and influence of spiritual evil, but you can’t usually see it directly.  False (pagan) gods, satan, and demons (fallen angels) often represent this sort of evil in scripture.
Whereas many adults remain skeptical of such evil (thinking demons and the like to be false superstitions of less enlightened cultures), most of the youth I know today readily accept such categories.  I guess they’ve read enough Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, and other such books  to be open to the idea that there is more to reality than meets the eye. (Or, to put it another way, the  reason today’s youth are so drawn to books like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight is because in their heart of hearts they know that there is more to reality than meets the eye and are drawn towards anything that touches on this hidden reality.)

Physical evil is used to describe evil in the “natural” realm.  Unlike spiritual evil, physical evil can be seen and touched directly.  Sickness, cancer, mental illness, decay, tsunamis, tornadoes, and hurricanes are all examples of physical evil.
Moral evil is best understood as evil in the ethical realm.  As such, moral evil arrives from the decisions and actions of conscious beings.  Biblically speaking, moral evil is sin and it involves rebellion against God.
Okay, okay, okay, you might be saying (because it’s likely what your youth are saying to you right about now), so we can categorize evil. Whoop-de-do.  Enough with the philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  Where does evil come from…? Did God make evil…?  Why does he allow evil to exist?
It’s here that we need to remember back to what we saw in Part 1 of this series: you can only meaningfully speak of evil as a category when there is also a corresponding category for good (which requires a moral standard and therefore a moral standard giver).
The flip-side of this argument is that when you create the category for good, you also allow for the existence of evil–for evil is best understood as the perversion of what is morally good.  This is particularly true if God also allows for conscious life that can think and act of their own volition, thus allowing for willful rebellion against the good.
Therefore, whereas good can exist on its own, evil requires the category of good from which to draw its perversion.  As C.S. Lewis colorfully puts it, “…good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence.”
Thus, to answer their questions: No, God didn’t create evil, for evil in and of itself doesn’t have substance–it’s an absence of the good.  But God does allow for evil when he declares his creation “good” and gives elements within his creation (specifically angels and humans) the freedom to willfully rebel against God’s goodness.
With this in mind, let’s turn to scripture to discern God’s response to the problem of evil and suffering.
When we begin carefully reading Genesis 1-3, the first thing we notice is that the story isn’t trying to tell us about evil’s origin in God’s good creation.  Although, given the understanding of evil as the privation of good, the possibility for evil existed as soon as God declared his creation good.  In fact, God introduced the category of evil within creation when he planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden–something he did before humanity fell.
We aren’t told when angels chose to rebel against God, thereby bringing spiritual evil into existence, but we are told that this happens sometime before the fall of humanity.  This is seen most clearly in existence of the serpent (who is satan according to Revelation 12:9 and 20:2) in the garden of Eden who is already seeking to deceive and distract Eve and Adam from obedience to God’s ways.
It is also likely that some form of physical evil existed before the fall of humanity.  A careful reading of the creation account in Genesis 2 discloses that in addition to the garden of Eden, there was the not-garden.  It is from the dirt of the not-garden that God forms Adam before placing him in Eden.
Biblically speaking, we don’t know much about the not-garden.  All we know is that Adam and Eve were called to subdue and have dominion over the whole earth, which would lead us to believe that part of the earth did, in fact, need subduing.  (And if you believe in the reliability of the geological record, it seems apparent that there was much physical evil in the world that needed to be subdued.)
Peter Hicks, a Baptist pastor and former lecturer at the London School of Theology, writes, “Was the garden of Eden itself entirely free of pain and suffering?  It is hard to imagine that it could have been so.  Quite apart from the fact that the words of God to the woman in Genesis 3:16 spoke not of the introduction of pain but of the increasing of pain, it is hard to conceive of life in any garden that could be pain-free….  If [Adam] experienced loneliness before the forming of the woman, did he not also feel other emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant?  Surely Eden was not free from pain and suffering; but what made it Eden was the presence of God.”1

So really, the first three chapters of Genesis 1-3 aren’t about the origin of evil in all forms; they provide the story of humanity’s moral rebellion and the devastating impact this has for all of creation.  For as we’ll see in Part 3 of this series, humanity was created for a special purpose: to be a central part of God’s “setting-to-right” plan for his creation.  Humanity is meant to play the key role in God’s victory over evil.

Part 1: (Re)Framing the Conversation
Part 3: Humanity and God’s Solution to Evil

Mark Howard serves as pastor to students at Trinity Presbyterian in Covington, GA. He holds a masters in theology from Wheaton College.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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