Make your own free website on

Home ] Syllabus ] Research Project ] Lectures ] Reviews ]


Defining Evil: Evil in the Natural World


 The term "evil" is yet another one of those words that is difficult to define. We know it when we see it, but it's hard to describe in precise terms. Some who would define evil as the deliberate imposition of suffering upon living beings.  However, suffering itself may is not necessarily evil.  Evil is suffering with no positive value.  In other words, evil is suffering that has no discernible purpose and meaning

We can identify two general types of evil.  The first is evil that simply happens in the natural world. This includes sickness, cancer, birth defects as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods.
One of the most important examples of this type of evil occurred on November 1,1755 when the town of Lisbon, Portugal was devastated by an earthquake. At the time Lisbon was the capital of the Portuguese empire and had a population of 275,000 people. It was one of the largest and most important cities of Europe. 


When the earthquake hit numerous buildings collapsed, burying those inside and on the street outside. The earthquake also triggered a tsunami (tidal wave), which arrived soon afterwards. A wave estimated at  50 feet high crashed through the city destroying ships, docks and buildings and sweeping thousands out to sea. 

As if that wasn't enough, lamps and cooking fires upset by the quake ignited fires throughout the city.  The city burned unchecked for three days, completing the destruction. In all more than 70,000 people died in the disaster in Lisbon alone. Thousands more died in other areas. The quake was felt throughout Western Europe and Northwestern Africa.


The Lisbon earthquake was not the greatest natural disaster to befall the human race.  Its importance lies in the fact that it stirred a debate among philosophers and theologians of the time. For example, the French philosopher, Voltaire was prompted to write Candide in part because of the Lisbon Earthquake. It was an attack on the Enlightenment that had viewed Reason as God: Voltaire argued that neither God nor Reason would have permitted such a horrific slaughter of the innocent.  Then Rousseau attacked Voltaire over his pessimism, suggesting that we can not know the Mystery behind Godís (or Reasonís) plan.  Thus for Voltaire, it was a "Day of Terror" with no meaning or purpose; for Rousseau, it was a  "Day of Tragedy." whose purpose was simply unknown or unknowable. 

The responses of Rousseau and Voltaire to the same event in many ways summarize the entire debate about evil. On the one hand, there is the possibility that what appears to be evil is not really evil because it has a meaning or purpose hidden from our view.  On the other hand, there is the possibility that no purpose or plan could possibly justify such terrible suffering.

We will return to these arguments later in this unit.  First, we must consider moral evil, which may better be described as "man-made evil."


Defining Evil: Moral Evil

Moral evil can be defined as the deliberate imposition of suffering upon other living beings. To put the matter another way, moral evil is "man-made."  Examples include murder, oppression, torture (even in the modern world), and genocide.  This generation has seen "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, genocide in Rwanda, terrorist attacks around the world and the killing fields of Cambodia.  .In spite of humanity's tremendous strides in technology and science, the past 100 years have witnessed almost unbelievable man-made suffering.

Moral evil may become embedded in institutions such as governments and corporations. Obvious examples include the government of the Nazis during the 1930's and 1940's which was responsible for the Holocaust.

 Holocaust literally means "whole burnt offering."  It is the name used to describe the Nazis' systematic extermination of six million Jews in Europe.  In many ways, the Holocaust was simply the culmination of centuries of anti-Semitism. It is also important to realize the in Hitler's mind, the purpose of the war was not simply for Germany to acquire more territory; the purpose was to exterminate all Jews in Europe and beyond.  When German troops invaded the countries of Eastern Europe, specially trained units (Einsatzgruppen) immediately moved into the conquered areas and began the extermination of the Jews in the area.  So determined was Hitler to exterminate the Jews that he diverted resources that were much needed for the war to continue the killing.  His generals pleaded with him to use the railroads to evacuate troops from the eastern front; Hitler denied their request because the railroads were needed to transport Jews to the death camps.

The Holocaust itself can be divided into several distinct phases:

  1. Nuremburg Laws - deprived Jews of legal and economic rights (1935); tightened control of Jewish ghettos.
  2. Einsatzgruppen (Action Groups). 1939-1942.  As soon as German armies secured control of an area, Special Groups would move in to round up and slaughter all Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirable" groups.  This was usually accomplished by highly organized "firing squads" that could kill thousands in a single day. 
  3. The Death Camps (1942-1945) were to provide the Final Solution. Jews were rounded up from the ghettos or areas that fell to Nazi control and transported to camps where they killed en masse in large gas chambers.


The impact of the Holocaust on Judaism is immeasurable. Jewish thinking, beliefs and place in the world were all re-examined in light of the Holocaust. The Holocaust confronts Judaism and Christianity with a serious challenge.  The basic issue is summed up in the single question, "Where was God in the Holocaust?"  In other words, how can the Holocaust possibly be explained as part of God's purpose and plan?  And if it is part of God's purpose and plan, what does it say about God?

One can also see institutional forms of evil in the United States.  For example, slavery, Jim Crow Laws, segregation and discrimination were "built into" the state and national governments as well as business culture of the United States.