I feel very uncomfortable with idea that evil is a “thing” in the same sense as a glass of water is, or that invisible evil spirits blow about the world as leaves on an autumn breeze.
Humans believe in a lot of things. I have an acquaintance who treats football as a religion and players as gods. This does not mean that they are. We have to distinguish between subjective and objective opinions and often they may be confused.
Similarly between the ‘internal’ emotional environment of perception, memory and feelings with the ‘external’ physical reality in all forms and complexity. Even the most rational scientist is not devoid of emotion and it is this that contrasts him with even the most advanced computer. Evil is qualitative, it must be assessed against some objective standard.
Historically this is where history and religion has played its part. Whether this emanated from god or a man such as Moses can never really be determined. Our belief that its origins were divine and ethereal, does not make it so, although believing such may help many to lead a ‘good’ life.
When a lion gives chase to an antelope, we do not assume it is an evil act, even if we judge it a cruel one. We might apply the same criteria to the native tribesman killing it to feed his tribe. But what of the highly paid American dentist who shoots a well known lion? In fact the act may be less cruel but surely less defensible morally? Less good, in fact possibly positively evil?
So we see how circumstances alter cases and what we consider to be good or evil, so to regard evil as just one ‘thing’ flowing from a formless inchoate being can surely not be at all helpful. Rather we should subject the beliefs, and the people that hold them, to a rational and objective examination, when we will probably discover alternative explanations for them and the actions they support.
The scriptures contain many wonderful stories and sayings that can help to transform a person’s life and make it more useful and fulfilling. It may even make a better person. But quoting from it selectively to support a particular view is very risky. "The Ten Commandments", rather akin to other historical documents such as the "Magna Carta", have been epochal and axiomatic. In the case of the former it is quite remarkable that after about four thousand years, other than the injunctions predicated on the personal nature and existence of a divine being itself, the precepts have remained relevant.
The Ten Commandments, also known as the Decalogue, found in the Ark of the Covenant are:
- You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything.
- You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
- Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, or property.
It is the application of the primary rules that are more liable to redundancy, which in the case of the Old Testament are contained in the detailed bureaucratic rules of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
For example in Leviticus 19 this is expanded to over thirty rules. No one could reasonably claim that all of these should be applied or are relevant today including reference to slaves and other archaic practices such as animal sacrifice.
20. "If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another manbut who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed."
The god of the Old Testament, and perhaps even of the New, is clearly not averse to torture, capital punishment and even mass genocide! This rather puts a question mark to the rather simplistic ‘good = god’ and ‘evil = devil’ hypothesis doesn’t it? No, it is more important that humans develop standards based on more objective criteria that may or not accord with a biblical one.
This was the revolutionary power of the teachings of Jesus and which Christians imperfectly seek to emulate. They may be boiled down to this one simple precept: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ later interpreted by thinkers to the injunction to endeavour to ‘do good and avoid doing harm’. Once applied it would of course cure all the ‘evils’ of the world. Conversely that such hatred, selfishness and violence continues indicates how little, and presumably how difficult, it is to fulfil and be fulfilled.
1. From Wiki: "God is Dead" is a widely quoted statement by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It first appeared in Nietzsche's 1882 collection The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, also translated as "The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding")