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The problem of evil in world religions

by Ernest Valea

Evil in Hinduism
Evil in the Vedas
Evil in the Upanishads
Evil in Samkhya-Yoga
Evil in the Epics and Puranas
Evil in Buddhism
Evil in Taoism
Evil in dualistic religions
Evil in Christianity


The problem of evil is a touchstone of any religion. From our direct confrontation with evil results suffering, and thus endless questions about the meaning of life. That is why all religions have to give a proper answer regarding the origin, nature and end of evil.

There are three major religious alternatives in explaining evil, stated by the pantheistic, dualistic and monotheistic religions. Pantheistic religions regard evil as ultimately unreal. Human suffering is a product of spiritual ignorance gathered in previous lives and distributed in the present one according to the dictates of karma. In the dualistic religions, good and evil are two eternal and rival principles. Neither has created the other one and each acts according to its own nature. In the monotheistic religions, evil has a personal identity. Its source is a being that has fallen from an initial good status as a result of misusing freedom of will. Let us analyze these perspectives and see to what extent they are compatible with one another.


Evil in Hinduism


As mentioned in a previous article, Hinduism is a complex mixture of religious trends. Concerning the relation between Ultimate Reality and evil, there are at least three major perspectives, given by:

1) the Vedas;
2) the Upanishads and the whole corpus of pantheistic writings;
3) the Epics and Puranas


Evil in the Vedas


In the hymns addressed to Varuna evil is a matter of humans not fulfilling his laws or not performing the ritual properly. Often it has a moral significance, in that people are evil-minded or commit adultery (Rig Veda 4,5; 10,10). Those who commit evil deeds must repent before Varuna (Rig Veda 5,85) and try to repair their evil deeds through ritual sacrifices.

In other hymns, as those addressed to Indra, evil is personified by demons. Thus the fight against evil is a perpetual combat between personalized good and evil forces.


Evil in the Upanishads


The Upanishads ground a pantheistic perspective on Ultimate Reality and introduce karma as the explanation of evil in the world. Ignorance launches karma into action and karma brings suffering. As the manifestations and dissolutions of the world have no beginning and no end, so is karma, meaning that suffering is a part of the eternal cosmic cycle. Suffering in the present life is the natural consequence of past lives’ ignorance and it has to be endured without questioning.


Evil in Samkhya-Yoga


Although the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas are not pantheistic, they follow a similar view in defining evil. It is a matter of how much one is caught in the psycho-mental illusions generated by the primordial substance (prakriti). Two of the three gunas (rajas and tamas), are causing the manifestations of what we call evil in the world, both in the physical and in the mental realm.


Evil in the Epics and Puranas


The writings of Hindu theism adopt a middle way in explaining evil, between the dictates of karma and the responsibility of the gods in producing it as sovereign agents in the universe. As these two elements are irreconcilable and mutually exclusive, the solutions to the problem of evil are themselves contradictory. The character of the gods becomes quite ambiguous in the Epics and the Puranas. They are responsible for producing both good and evil. Here are some examples:

Indra, the ex-hero of the Vedas, commits adultery in the Skanda Purana (2,7,23,8-40) and justifies himself by the effect of his past karma. In the Mahabharata (12,258,42) he is excused for seducing Gotama’s wife since he was in a process of working out his karma. No wonder that in the Ramayana (7,30,20-45) he is accused of having initiated adultery in our world by his bad example.

Although Krishna is to be followed as example according to the Bhagavad Gita (3,23), when committing adultery in the Puranas he justifies himself in reference to human behavior, saying: "Since even the sages are uncontrolled and act as they please, how could one possibly restrain Vishnu when he becomes voluntary incarnate?" (Bhagavata Purana 10,33,35).

Brahma, the creator god, is often accused of being creator of both good and evil. In one situation described in the Mahabharata, he grew jealous of people and their heavenly destiny and planned to delude them: "Formerly, all creatures were virtuous, and by themselves they obtained divinity. Therefore the gods became worried, so Brahma created women in order to delude men. Then women, who had been virtuous, became wicked witches, and Brahma filled them with wanton desires, which they in turn inspired in men. He created anger, and henceforth all creatures were born in the power of desire and anger (Mahabharata 13,40,5-12). According to the Vishnu Purana (1,5,1-18), evil precedes and accompanies Brahma’s creation, this being the reason why mankind is evil: "His fourth creation produced creatures in whom darkness and passion predominated, afflicted by misery; these were mankind." In the Markandeya Purana (45,40) it is said that he created both "cruel creatures and gentle creatures, dharma and adharma, truth and falsehood."

Not only is evil inevitable in creation, but it is said to be a good thing, a necessary dynamic factor in the universe. For instance, in the Devibhagavata (4,13), Brihaspati, the guru of the gods says: "All creatures, even gods, are subject to passions. Otherwise the universe, composed as it is of good and evil, could not continue to develop." According to the Vishnu Purana (1,5,59-65), the existence of evil in creation is both the will of Brahma the creator and the result of the obligation created by karma. In the same situation is Vishnu (Linga Purana 2,6,1-57), who creates under the power of karma both good and evil, "good people and bad people, those who follow the right path, but also the heretics."

These ambiguous solutions to the problem of evil in Hindu mythology are caused by the fact that the gods cannot be at the same time sovereign, and in tune with karma. If the gods are responsible for the existence of evil in the world, they either create it willingly, and then are evil themselves, or are forced to create it by the higher law of karma, and then are weak.


Evil in Buddhism


Buddhism rejects the authority of the Vedas and of the other writings of Hinduism, explaining the nature of evil through the process of constant becoming. Evil is the perpetuation of illusion by the factors that fuel the chain of dependent origination (paticca-samuppada). Ignorance in perceiving that the world is impermanent, devoid of a self and in constant becoming leads to suffering. The Buddha proclaimed that in fact the whole of existence is suffering:

The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering - in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering (Samyutta Nikaya 56,11).

There are three fundamental defilements of the mind that combine and interact leading to suffering: greed (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (avidya). Their origin is desire to experience existence in personal form. As personhood is nothing but an illusory result of the temporary gathering together of five aggregates, the desire to perpetuate the illusion of personal existence produces suffering, so its extreme solution must be the abolition of personhood. There is no suffering if there is no person left to experience it.


Evil in Taoism


Since any aspect of the world is a manifestation of the Tao, corresponding to a different participation of the Yin and Yang principles, nothing can be considered to be essentially evil in the world. Even if Yin is termed as a negative principle, it never manifests itself alone. In the Tao-te Ching it is stated:

When beauty is abstracted
Then ugliness has been implied;
When good is abstracted
Then evil has been implied. (Tao-te Ching 2)

Every positive factor involves its negative or opposing one. What is usually called evil, as physical and mental manifestation, is the result of a lack of balance between the two opposing principles and corresponds to a bigger participation of the Yin principle. Evil belongs to the nature of the world, so humans have to subscribe to the universal harmony and respect the equilibrium of the two polarities. Tao is eternal and so are the two principles Yang and Yin, so that good and evil must be eternal, as necessary elements of our world.


Evil in dualistic religions


According to the dualistic religions there are two antagonist and coeternal deities involved in creation and in governing the destiny of humans. Zoroastrianism probably stated the first true religious dualism. Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu are the two coeternal gods responsible for the existence of good and evil in the world. The Yasna states: "There are two fundamental spirits, twins which are renowned to be in conflict. In thought and in word, in action, they are two: the good and the bad" (30,3). In the latter tradition of Zurvanism, Ohrmazd and Ahriman are twin brothers, each one creating according to his own nature:

The first of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was Paradise, by the good river Araxes. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created by his witchcraft the serpent in the river and winter, a work of the devils.

The second of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was the plains in Samarkand. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created by his witchcraft the fly Skaitya, which brings death to the cattle.

The third of the good lands and countries which I, Ahura Mazda, created, was the strong, holy Merv. Thereupon came Angra Mainyu, who is all death, and he counter-created by his witchcraft sinful lusts.... (Videvdad 1,3-5).

Humans are in the center of this eternal conflict, having the duty to choose always the good and thus help it defeat the evil.

After the 1st century AD the Western world witnessed the emergence of many dualistic religions. Their interpretation of the Genesis account of creation is sharply anti-Judaic and anti-Christian, being aimed at undermining their basic tenets. Marcionism, Gnosticism, Manicheism, Bogomilism and Catharism (as well as other dualistic religions that swept through the medieval world) all acknowledge the God of the Old Testament as creator, but take him as a minor deity among higher spiritual deities (the Aeons). He created the physical world out of his ignorance. It is therefore hazardous and generates nothing but problems. Contrary to the Bible, these religions see humans as superior to their creator because they are endowed with a higher spiritual essence by the Aeons. However, the physical body keeps them bound to a miserable condition, which perpetuates through reincarnation. The only way of escaping from this condition is the attainment of true knowledge (gnosis).

In Gnosticism the name of the creator god is Ialdabaot. He ignores the higher deities whose descendent he is and creates this world out of pre-existing matter. Then he boasts of being the only god. However, humans are superior to him, having received the spirit of life from a higher Aeon (Sophia, the mother of Ialdabaot). Satan and Jesus are the enemies of Ialdabaot and teach humans how to attain true knowledge that may save them from ignorance. A detailed study of Gnosticism, of its contradictions and incompatibilities with Christianity can be found in Irenaeus' treatise Against Heresies.

A similar stand was adopted by Manicheism, a new religion that appeared in Persia in the 3rd century AD. Matter and the physical body are considered intrinsically evil as they derive from the bodies of the dead forces of evil (the Archons). As a result of captivity in the bodily prison, the soul is overwhelmed by ignorance and forgets his true origin. Reincarnation occurs until the soul is released from its earthly sufferings. Manicheism was addressed by Augustine in many of his writings in the 4th century AD. See On the Morals of the Manichaeans and On the Nature of Good.

In Catharism the god of the Old Testament is considered to be the ultimate representative of evil. He created the physical bodies of humans and locked angels inside them. According to radical Catharism, human souls are angels who served the good God but were tempted by Satan to experience earthly pleasures which they could not resist. The original bodies and spirits of these angels remained in heaven, but their souls fell into physical bodies. Reincarnation works until humans recognize their heavenly origin and purify themselves by the use of asceticism. Once cleansed of impurities they are accepted back in the heavenly world.


Evil in Christianity


According to Christianity, God created all things, but this doesn’t make him the creator of evil. The Apostle John states: "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1,5). When God finished his creation, he appreciated that "all that he had made was very good" (Genesis 1,31). However, anyone can clearly see that evil exists in our world, in awful measure. From here arises a major puzzle: If God is all-good, he should want to stop evil; if he is omnipotent, he could stop it; but evil exists in the world, so God lacks either all-goodness (if he can stop evil but does not want to) or omnipotence (if he wants to stop evil, but cannot), or both. As God is declared to be all-good (1 John 4,8) and all-powerful (Revelation 19,6), how can this puzzle be solved?

According to the Christian view, the origin of evil is to be found in the world of angels. God created them in time immemorial, as personal and immaterial beings endowed with free will. They were created ex nihilo, the same way as the material universe, and thus have a nature different from God’s. These beings have minds (Acts 12,7-10; 1 Peter 1,12), feelings (Luke 15,10), and wills (Jude 6) and are not limited by a physical body. Their number was very large and there was a hierarchy among them (Hebrews 12,22). Evil appeared in the world of angels when Lucifer, one of God’s cherubs, rebelled against this order. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel we can read the following metaphorical description of this incident:

You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones. Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to the earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings (Ezekiel 28,15-17).

This angel, who became Satan ("adversary") out of Lucifer ("angel of light"), was expelled from heaven together with all the others who joined him in his act of rebellion. The cause of his fall was pride, the desire to be independent from God, to refuse submission and inferiority to God. Lucifer wanted to be by himself more than his created status could permit him.

Satan’s fall couldn’t have occurred without a real freedom of choice. He had the ability to choose either to obey God and recognize him as the ground of his being, or to follow a selfish way and seek auto-determination. His choice for the second alternative constitutes the origin of evil in the universe. Therefore, evil is not created by God, but is a perversion of his creation, a result of using free will against the very purpose it was created for, against free-willed obedience to God in a communion relation based on love. In order to have this kind of perfect communion with the creator, a personal being needs the possibility to choose it freely. This is why God allows starvation, disease, murder, war, and all other evils in our world to exist. Although such facts constitute reasons for atheism, they represent the cost of preserving our (misused) free will. However, evil was not intended by God and is not linked to the essence of God and creation.

The destiny of Satan and demons is that of spiritual death, of irrevocable separation from the Source in which they should have found their fulfillment. This is hell, the realm where they are granted the liberty to eternally renew their wish to exist "by themselves." The doctrine of hell, as horrifying as it looks to be, points to the fact that evil has an end, that is has limited temporal power and influence in God’s creation.

A few comments on the alleged illusory status of evil must be added here. To what extent can evil be termed as illusory? In terms of absolute existence, terms that characterize only God’s being, we have seen that evil cannot exist by itself. This is what the Church Fathers meant by the fact that evil is without substance, reality, being or existence. For instance, in his writing On the Incarnation of the Word, Ch. 1, Athanasius says that "God alone exists, evil is non-being". This is not an affirmation of the illusory status of evil, but an ontological perspective on the fallen state of God's creatures that lost communion with God. The context of his words is as following:
For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.

The same meaning is attached to the words of Gregory of Nyssa when mentioning that "there is no evil other than wickedness" in his Great Catechism, Ch. 7. The context here is his address to the heretics that claimed that man is the creation of an evil deity (in order to explain the fallen human nature). Gregory of Nyssa states that God is not responsible for man's turning away from him through sin. This act separates man from his presence and consequently from real existence, as only God is the source for it. Here is Gregory of Nyssa's commentary on the nature of evil:
Since, if their thoughts had taken a loftier view, and, withdrawing their minds from this disposition to regard the gratifications of the senses, they had looked at the nature of existing things dispassionately, they would have understood that there is no evil other than wickedness. Now all wickedness has its form and character in the deprivation of the good; it exists not by itself, and cannot be contemplated as a subsistence. For no evil of any kind lies outside and independent of the will; but it is the non-existence of the good that is so denominated. Now that which is not has no substantial existence, and the Maker of that which has no substantial existence is not the Maker of things that have substantial existence. Therefore the God of things that are is external to the causation of things that are evil, since He is not the Maker of things that are non-existent. He Who formed the sight did not make blindness.

According to Christianity, evil entered our world as a result of Satan’s fall, so it has a personal character. Jesus Christ spoke directly to Satan at the moment of his temptation (Matthew 4,1-11; etc.). He cast out demons (Mark 1,21-28; etc.), and the apostles did also (Acts 5,16; etc.), so they were not addressing illusions. The Apostle Peter warned his fellow Christians that Satan is a real and dangerous presence: "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5,8). Likewise, the Apostle Paul emphasizes that "Satan himself is masquerading as an angel of light" in order to deceive humans (2 Corinthians 11,14). Although belief in the existence of demons is old-fashioned, to say the least, such verses cannot be ignored and taken as mere childish bogus tales.

Although Satan is the initiator of evil, humans are responsible for spreading it into our world through sin. Thus we are not innocent victims lacking any responsibility. By misusing the freedom of choice that God has granted us, we became the perpetrators of evil in our world. Although we have real freedom to refuse evil, we don't do it, so evil continues to spread. The reason why God allows this situation and does not extinguish all evil in an instant is that such an act would necessarily involve the damnation of all those who perform it. This would cancel any possibility for them to repent and be reconciled with God. As he takes no pleasure "in the death of the wicked," but rather wants "that they turn from their ways and live" (Ezekiel 33,11), a sudden extinction of evil would contradict his love for mankind. Which one of us would pass the test of God’s holiness if the extinction of evil were performed apart from his love?

God’s attitude in tolerating evil in our world is perfectly expressed by Jesus in the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13,24-43):
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner's servants came to him and said, "Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?" "An enemy did this," he replied. The servants asked him, "Do you want us to go and pull them up?" "No," he answered, "because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn" (13,24-30).

The explanation to this parable is the following:
The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear (37-43).

God tolerates "weeds" among "wheat" until a certain moment. His purpose in doing so is that "weeds" could be properly differentiated from "wheat" and pulled up at the right moment. As the parable refers to humans, the people who may be called "weeds" still have the chance of converting and becoming "wheat." This can happen only as long as they can benefit from God’s grace, that is during their earthly lifetime. It is God’s grace that allows evildoers to live, not his lack of justice or power, that they may still have the chance to repent and return to a personal relationship with him.

As a result, humans' attitude toward evil should be neither one of resignation, nor of rebellion against God, but of conscious and responsible participation in the world. Evil has an end, as does human suffering. What is required from us while waiting for this end is to fight against evil and suffering, and especially against our sinful nature, which perpetuates both our suffering and that of our neighbors. Jesus descended in the midst of our problems and misery, and he urges for action in imitating him in daily living. Although we are not spared from troubles and many times we do not understand their meaning, we should always remember that Jesus promised his help and power in order to conquer them. He said:
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16,33).

Therefore there is no contradiction in God's character. God is omnipotent and all-good. Evil is not everlasting. God can stop it, and he will stop it one day forever (Revelation 20,10). It is only sin that prevents us from understanding what evil really is and from doing what we can do in order to stop it spreading around us.




The general pattern in Eastern religions is to consider evil as the effect of spiritual ignorance. The first noble truth proclaimed by the Buddha states that the only reality of human existence is the all-pervading reality of suffering. This perspective is valid for most of the Eastern religious thinkers that followed the period of the Upanishads. The only possibility of escaping suffering is to know the true nature of things and so to escape from the dominion of ignorance, karma and reincarnation. In the dualistic religions, evil is coeternal with good. Matter and embodied existence are evil, and our ignorance keeps us from attaining perfection as angelic beings. According to Christianity, evil is neither created nor a natural or necessary element. It is a parasite state that perpetuates itself by misusing God’s good resources and by following a wrong direction. It is the illness of beings that are no longer in communion with God. Therefore, world religions contradict each other in explaining the meaning of evil.

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Copyright Ernest Valea. No part of this work will be used or reproduced by any means without prior permission from the author.