Online College Courses for Credit



Author: Ted Fairchild

Understand how the concept of evil is dealt with by a variety of religious traditions.

See More
Fast, Free College Credit

Developing Effective Teams

Let's Ride
*No strings attached. This college course is 100% free and is worth 1 semester credit.

37 Sophia partners guarantee credit transfer.

299 Institutions have accepted or given pre-approval for credit transfer.

* The American Council on Education's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit®) has evaluated and recommended college credit for 33 of Sophia’s online courses. Many different colleges and universities consider ACE CREDIT recommendations in determining the applicability to their course and degree programs.


Video Transcription

Download PDF

Hello, welcome. Today we're going to talk about evil. The problem of evil is a haunting dilemma for humanity. The etymology of the word can be traced back to the Indo-European root "wap," W-A-P, which means simply evil or bad. Usually, an Indo-European root points to other meanings that are connected to the modern terms through a web of other signifiers. But when you get down to it, evil is just evil.

But let's look at how evil is regarded among some of the religions of world. In spite of the fact that evil seems to poke its head into every era and every culture, it has been predominantly a topic of concern, study, and analysis in the west among the monotheistic religions. However, polytheistic religions-- like certain ancient Egyptian religions-- also had references to the forces of evil, sometimes in the form of gods.

For example, Set, the gods of storms and chaos. In many sects, he was a terribly feared not trusted because he chose to remain separated from the other gods. And this hints at the tension, the dualism between good and evil.

There's a story in the Hebrew Bible about how evil came to be in the form of Satan. It began with the angel Lucifer who disobeyed God's orders and desired autonomy from God. Fatally unaware of his own pride, he was cast out of heaven and thrown down to earth there to suffer with his cohorts. So this sharp dualism between good and evil, particularly emphasized in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is also a characteristic of Zoroastrianism, one of the ancient Persian religions in the region of present day Iran.

Its founder was a man named Zoroaster, who wanted to simplify the Pantheon of gods. So he divided the system up into what he believed to be two oppositional forces, represented by Ahura Mazda, known as illuminating wisdom, and Angra Mainyu, destructive spirit. This dualistic element of the Zoroastrian religion, after serving as the state religion for a few hundred years, in turn had various influences on the monotheistic religions.

Analyzing this problem of evil in the light of notions of God as an omnipotent, beneficent creator is known as theodicy. It's a philosophical theological attempt to justify God's goodness despite the reality of evil. There are many attempts at this, but theodicies generally try to show that God is not responsible for evil, but that when goodness is corrupted by individuals it manifests as evil.

And one key force or factor in this structure of dualism is the idea of individual free well, a doctrine explicated in great detail by certain Christian theologians beginning with Saint Augustine in the fourth century in the common area. The doctrine of free will suggests that, as individuals created by God, we have the freedom to choose and decide how to behave, the freedom to choose between what is right and what is wrong, between good and evil.

In his 1940 book, C.S. Lewis writes-- the title of the book is The Problem of Pain. "When we act from ourselves alone-- that is, from God and ourselves-- we are collaborators in or live instruments of creation, and that is why such an act undoes with backward mutters of dissevering power, the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species."

This has to do with an abuse of free will. It's the idea that mankind made a fatal error by disobeying God's command to the Garden of Eden. It's a story of Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and being cast out of paradise, and now subject to illness and old age and death.

And following from this that our future destination in other the realm of Heaven or Hell will ultimately be determined by God's judgment of our actions in life, Judgment Day, the day on which God will call human beings to account for their sins and other misdeeds. With regard to the problem of evil, the complex relationship between God's creation and God's judgment is often understood as a single act. And this interpretation highlights God's goodness and omnibenevolence.

And in Judaism, the day of judgment is recognized every year as Rosh Hashanah, and God's final verdict is sealed on the Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and praying to God for repentance for any and all wrongdoings. As we noted in the beginning, all religions grapple with the problem of evil. The other Abrahamic tradition that we haven't mentioned yet is Islam, which also emphasizes God, Allah, omnibenevolent and just creator, and evil is something that arises from people's actions independent of God and ultimately a corrupted force.

In the Eastern religions, very generally, evil is understood as ignorance and illusion. Any Western dualisms between good and evil don't directly apply. In Buddhism, for example, it's the structure and the deep roots of suffering that might be considered evil in the sense that it obstructs the path toward enlightenment. Ultimately, our suffering is caused by the endless clinging and grasping for identity, an identity which is constantly changing and in flux. Being impermanent, any identity and the associated experience of suffering-- and even the notions of evil we might have-- are therefore mere illusions.

In Hinduism, any idea of evil has to do with actions or karma, things that are impure and might cause one to endure the rounds of reincarnation. Karma determines how things unfold, for better or for worse. Our free actions are often misinformed and misguided. Then this brings further interpretations which are inaccurate, producing negative results which hinder spiritual development. In this sense, they could therefore be termed evil. But because we are ignorant of Brahman, the ultimate source and divine principle of being, and equally ignorant of Atman, our true selfhood which is identical with Brahman, we grasp on to what we think is real, like our images of selfhood, and even our ideas and conceptions of good and evil.

And looking at Confucianism, some interpreters of Confucian thought understand evil as anything that corrupts, the harmony and the balance and the strength and the integrity of society. But also that any manifestations of evil are nevertheless opportunities to reaffirm the values of order, discipline, and respect for authority and the stabilizing force of healthy relationships in society, some of the foundational principles of Confucianism.

The notion of evil according to Daoism, or for someone who is following the path of the Dao, might be understood a little bit differently. Any corruption of the pure state of nature, known as the uncarved block, might be considered the unfortunate work of society. The path of a Daoist would therefore include disregarding any such negative evil influences.

So now we can review. We started out talking about evil with reference to ancient Egyptian religions, and that often there was a reference to Set being an evil god because of the chaos and destruction that he brought, and also because of his isolation from the other gods. He was regarded as evil because he had made the choice to separate himself from the other gods.

And this leads to the other conceptions of evil, which are not dissimilar to that. In Zoroastrianism, there was a separation between-- Zoroaster believed that there was a separation between two forces, and this was the beginning of a dualistic structure of thought with regard to evil, which had a big influence upon the monotheistic religions. And we looked at examples from Judaism of Lucifer, who also desired autonomy from God and as a result became separated. And this is often thought to be the origin of sin and evil and Satan.

And we also looked at, again, disobeying divine authority in terms of Adam and Eve, and how this was also related to the idea of free will. So evil and free will and judgment, these all play together in the monotheistic religions. And we looked at different constellations of that. And then we looked at Judgment Day also and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah in Judaism which is celebrated every year.

And then we looked at the Eastern religions and we noticed that evil is really regarded as something of an illusion, something that either obstructs the path to enlightenment or something that disrupts the order and balance and harmony of society.

Terms to Know
Free Will

The ability to choose between good and evil, prominent in the religious philosophy of Augustine.

Judgment Day

The day on which God will call all human beings to account for their sins and other misdeeds.


A philosophical attempt to justify God's goodness despite the reality of evil.

Uncarved Block

In Taoism, the original state of the human mind, before and independent of experience.