What is Evil And How Does it Differ From Suffering?

Welcome to the book study/review of Randy Alcorn’s book “If God Is Good.”  Today’s post will look at chapter three “What is Evil And How Does it Differ From Suffering?”. You can find links to the Introduction and chapters 1-2 under the heading Bible Studies in the menu above.

Suggestion: You might benefit from printing each post and keeping it in a binder for quick reference.

Understanding Evil

The chapter opens with the following statement: “God wants the difference between good and evil to remain clear.”

Many people switch price tags, so what’s valuable looks worthless, and what’s cheap demands a high price. It’s bad enough to do evil and abstain from good. However, God also condemns the moral sleight of hand by which we confuse good and evil.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light, and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.”  – Isaiah 5:20

God calls upon His people to embrace good and reject evil.

Consider the following passages:

  • You who love the LORD, hate evil! Psalm 97:10
  • The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; Proverbs 8:13
  • Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate. Amos 5:15
  • Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Romans 12:9

The above passages presume we know the difference between good and evil. However, in a culture that so often switches the price tag, this doesn’t come naturally.

We must regularly withdraw to scripture and ask God’s Spirit to train our minds and consciousness to recognize what’s truly good and what’s truly evil.

The Essence of Evil

Evil in its essence refuses to accept God as God and puts someone or something else in His place.

Evil is a fundamental and troubling departure from goodness. The Bible uses the word evil to describe anything that violates God’s moral will. The first human evil occurred when Eve and Adam disobeyed God. From that original sin, a moral evil came, the consequence of suffering.

Evil could be defined as the “refusal to accept the true God as God.” True evil elevates itself or another to replace God.

For this very reason, the Bible treats idolatry as the ultimate sin, since it worships something else as God.

  • Any attempt to liberate ourselves from God’s standards constitutes rebellion against God.
  • In replacing His standards with our own we not only deny God but affirm ourselves as God.
  • Evil is always an attempted coup, an effort to usurp God’s throne.

“Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision. Then He shall speak to them in His wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasurePsalm 2:1-5

Evildoers not only reject God’s law and create their own, but they also attempt to take the moral high ground by calling God’s standards unloving, intolerant, and evil.

Moral evil comes in two forms:

  1. Blatant evil that admits its hatred for goodness.
  2. Subtle evil that professes to love goodness while violating it.

Some view evil as the absence of good. However, more than the absence of good, evil is the corruption of good.

Moral And Natural Evil

Scripture portrays moral evils as rebelling against God and natural evils, including disease and disasters.

Child abuse is evil. Demonstrated by the harm it inflicts on innocent victims. We consider cancer and earthquake evils because they bring suffering.

While the evils of cancer and earthquakes differ from the moral evil of rebellion against God, the two are related.

The human rebellion led God to curse the earth which brought severe physical consequences.

While often called “natural” evils, diseases and disasters are in “another sense” unnatural because they result from the evil that is an “unnatural condition”.

Primary and Secondary Evil

The immoral things we do are primary evils, while the consequences we suffer are secondary evils. Disobeying God, inseparable from the failure to trust God, was the original evil. From that sin, a moral evil came the consequence of suffering. So, suffering follows evil just as a caboose follows an engine.

Scripture sometimes refers to calamities and tragic events as evils.

To distinguish these, we can call moral evil “primary” evil, and suffering a “secondary” evil.

God Builds Punishment Into Moral Evils

“Therefore, it shall come to pass, that as all the good things have come upon you which the Lord your God promised you, so the Lord will bring upon you all harmful things, until He has destroyed you from this good land which the Lord your God has given you.”  Joshua 23:15.

Consider that the evil mentioned here is not a moral evil, rather it’s a holy God bringing judgment upon guilty people.

In some cases, God builds punishment into moral evils. Paul says that those committing sexual sins received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Likewise, also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.” Romans 1:27

Secondary evil points to primary evil. It reminds us that humanity, guilty of sin, deserves suffering. Secondary evil, the direct and indirect consequences of primary evil provoke our indignation.

Why Do Innocent People Suffer?

God hates the primary evils we commit, while we hate the secondary evils the consequences God determines or permits.

As humans, however, we all stand guilty. Although many secondary evils befall us even when we have not directly committed a sin that causes them, we would not have to deal with secondary evils if we did not belong to a sinful race.

Consider that short-term suffering serves as a warning and foretaste of eternal suffering. Without a taste of hell, we would not see its horrors, nor feel much motivation to do everything possible to avoid it.

Thereby, the secondary evil of suffering can get our attention and prompt us to repent of our primary moral evil.


Scripture sometimes speaks of primary and secondary evils in the same context, explaining how God uses secondary evils as judgments that may produce ultimate good.

The Hebrew word for evil is “Ra”. Strong’s Concordance #H7451. In Jeremiah 11:17 the same word is used for the primary (moral)  and secondary sense (adverse consequences of moral evil).

“The Lord of armies, who planted you, has pronounced (a Secondary/adverse consequence evil) against you because of the (Primary/Moral evil) of the house of Israel and the house of Judah, which they have done to provoke Me by offering sacrifices to Baal.”  Jeremiah 11:17 NASB (Emphasis mine)

Other versions, including RSV and NIV, translate the use of “Ra” as “disasters”.

The translators correctly recognized that the evil God brings is the consequence, a judgment upon Israel’s actions.

This is not a moral evil as is the evil committed by Israel. God is righteous and just in bringing this disaster.

For good reason, most translators normally render “Ra” as evil when used for people disobeying God, but disaster or calamity when used for God bringing judgment on sinful people. The original Hebrew readers could contextually discern the difference in the meanings.

However, the English word evil is for most a synonym for moral wickedness, making it a narrower word than the Hebrew “Ra”.

There can be righteous “Ra”, but there cannot be righteous evil.

People may endure temporary judgments for their sins, but God makes an everlasting covenant promising “I will never stop doing good to them.” (Jerimiah 32:40)

Evils, whether moral or natural, will not have the final say…

God will replace both with everlasting good!

In Closing

In the closing of chapter 3, the author mentions that a surgeon inflicts suffering on the patient, and the parent disciplines the child they love. However, they are doing good, not evil.

Likewise, God can permit and even bring suffering upon his children without being morally evil. God hates moral evil and is committed to utterly destroying it. Yet for now, He allows evil and suffering and can provincially use them for His own good purposes.

In the next post, will look at the final two chapters in this section. Chapter 4 looks at some possible responses to the problem of evil and suffering. Chapter 5 is a closer look at the central issues and problems of evil.

Do you have a relationship with the King of kings, Jesus Christ?

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