PhilosophyTheology & Spirituality

The Ethics of Evil

Because religious institutions have placed such emphasis on avoiding evil, those who never do anything good consider themselves to be moral people. Contemporary understanding of ethics demonstrated by mottos of “Do No Evil,” “Just Say No,” or “DARE to Resist…” highlight certain actions that should definitely be avoided. However, the very act of defining something as off-limits often stirs a desire within human beings to cross that line. What is worth protecting with these rules? It must be worth experiencing.

On the other hand mottos like “Do Good,” “Just Say Yes,” or “DARE to Accept…” don’t really make sense. What is good? Say yes to what? There is no clearly defined moral standard of good even though most people seem to be aware of what is not good. Thus, those who pursue evil understand what they do, but those who try to avoid evil do so in a way that does not counteract its effects. The result is an overall cultural shift toward what has been defined as evil.

Consider the space between 1 and 3 on a ruler. Traditional understanding of morality has colored the space in between 1 and 3 as white. Anything outside of that space is black. There are 2 integers of space from which a person can choose any kind of behavior.

No one has yet explored the darkened depths of evil behavior beyond the boundaries of 1 and 3, but they are thought to extend infinitely in either direction until a person reaches Hitler or possibly Satan himself. Various levels of iniquity are considered worse than others, but everything outside of that space between 1 and 3 is definitely bad, badder, and even worse.

The more easily forgivable sins may extend as far from the white space as 3.5 or maybe even 4. But by the time a person has reached the number 5, it is likely that he or she is a god-forsaken sinner that has no chance of recovering a moral lifestyle.

Within the Christian tradition, there are many who would consider a person that had just crossed the threshold at 3 to be only mostly evil. Whereas one who had gone all the way to 5 or even 7 would probably be completely evil. Some, however, believe that any who cross the line at 1 or 3 into the dark space are equally guilty and worthy of judgement by the wrath of God. All that it takes is one step over the line to cross from good into evil.

Thankfully, these boundaries are defined by things like the Ten Commandments and other laws from the Bible and religious traditions. The gatekeepers of ostracism, humiliation, self-respect, public image, and eternal torment keep most people on the white side of the line for fear of the consequences prescribed by God and society for crossing the line. Yet despite all the precautions, everyone at some point in their life will cross the line – if only for a moment.

If it were possible to be at peace with living inside the white space, this would never happen. A life spent without stepping into the dark space would be happy. But it is never possible to completely get away from the haunting shadows of ‘the line’ at 1 and 3.

Because most moral people are so afraid of these shadows, they spend their whole lives running back and forth between 1 and 3 trying to get away from the perpetual problem of sin.  However, it is an impossible quest, for the further one runs from the number 3, the closer he or she comes to the number 1 and vice versa. Thus it is impossible to find contentment in the white space.

Those who choose the black space are no better off, for the rules have a purpose of keeping people safe from the consequences of their behavior. Those who choose to indulge in sin will reap its consequences.

The unfortunate conclusion that most people eventually come to is that somewhere in between the dark space and the furthest edges of the white space is a gray area. The best of both worlds. Neither evil, nor good. They end up choosing to live somewhere in these gray areas that surround 1 and 3 where no one can really tell whether or not they’ve crossed the line.

If they could, these self-made people would extend the white space to include all the space between 0 and 4. After all, they believe moral standards are nothing more than a personal choice. However, the boundaries don’t move, only the people do. Inching closer and closer to the darkness, they rationalize that as long as there is still some white on the space, they are alright. Then they wonder at the consequences of their ‘not very evil’ behavior.

From the gray areas that mark the traditional boundary between good and evil, most people avoid judgement as all-out sinners, but they do not receive the satisfaction of judgement as good people. All they can do is look at those who have gone further into the darkness than they have gone in order to feel temporarily ‘less evil’ than the other guy.

Their alter-egos let themselves be totally consumed by the moral standard. They try to build temporary boundaries that shrink their 2 integers of white space down to 1. For within that narrow and confined range of choices, they believe they are more effective at avoiding the darkness at 1 and 3. They are effective for awhile. However, the claustrophobia often forces components of this view to begin hating the white space and eventually leave for the darkness. Otherwise, every time a shadow crosses their temporary boundary they build smaller and smaller spaces of ‘not evil’ from which to judge those who believe they have the ‘freedom’ of a larger territory. Given enough fear and enough time, they will build smaller and smaller spaces in which to hide from the shadows until there is no room left to move at all.

In this way, the contemporary moral system (fashioned in part after Aristotle’s ethic of the “middle way”) gives people no ability to define what is good. Meanwhile, it causes those in pursuit of morality to spend all their time looking for evil in order to run away from it.

Everyone kind of knows what is evil (beyond the borders of 1 and 3), and no one really knows what is good. They do know what is ‘not evil:’ the unsatisfactory white space. Yet, because the focus is on avoiding the black space, most people end up walking into evil by accident, or else giving up on their frantic rush to escape it and embracing both its short-lived pleasures and long-term consequences.

Part 2

It was in the midst of a similarly hopeless situation that humanity long ago received a solution to the problem of evil. Near the very beginning of the Biblical story, God Almighty looked down from heaven upon the people He had created. He promised to send someone to knock down the boundaries at 1 and 3 and to defeat the alluring darkness beyond them. After centuries of history had passed,  His only son, Jesus, fulfilled the promise by smashing down the walls of morality and replacing the vaguely defined white space with a bold new standard: the cross where He died.

The penalty for crossing the line is death, but Jesus had never crossed the line. Because Jesus chose to pay the price of crossing the line even though he never left the white space, the whole system collapsed.  Through His sacrificial death, Jesus overwhelmed the demands of justice with his love and then shattered the power of the dark space by coming to life again.

The cross that represents this world-changing event offers hope to all who believe its truth: Jesus has broken down the walls that once separated mankind from his Creator and made it possible for the relationship to be restored. The morality of good and evil was put to shame and replaced by the power of love.

Yes, the foundations of the old walls at 1 and 3 remain. People can still see where crossing the line will bring about certain consequences, but now the pursuit is no longer one of running from these boundaries. There is no longer any power in the dark space because the ultimate consequence of sin (death) has been defeated. For those who will choose to believe this truth, life can become a happy pursuit of the unreachable limit of that demonstration of love at the number 2.

Similar to the infinite possibilities of evil that existed in the old system, this new standard of morality includes infinite possibilities for good. The number 2 is like a mathematical limit. Because Jesus, being perfect, can never be reached, one can draw infinitely closer to Him from either direction without ever experiencing the fullness of His infinite goodness.

Jesus is a standard of goodness that does not require a person to constantly run in fear from the power of evil. There is purity, light, and perfection found in the love of God as demonstrated through Him. Those who pursue this light become like this light and demonstrate its goodness to the world. Those who choose to turn away from this light become ‘less good,’ or less like the ultimate standard of goodness.

The judgment of the action is no longer based on the action itself, but on the individual who committed it. To the pure all things are pure. To those in pursuit of righteousness, all things are righteous. Those who turn their faces toward the number 2 and do what they know to be right based on where they are at (whether inside or outside the boundaries of 1 and 3) are far better off than those who have come much closer to reaching the limit, yet decided to turn away from their pursuit.

Everything hinges upon the relationship of the individual with the standard of beauty and goodness at the number 2. Some will choose to ignore its truth, but its good news of freedom is available for all who will choose to reject the old system of morality and humbly embrace the truth of Jesus.

The choice of morality has become incredibly simple. Choose love, or don’t. Choose Jesus, or don’t.  Excellence is not achieved through perfection, but through pursuit. Hypocrisy has fallen to honesty. Evil has fallen to good. Good has become infinitely good. Evil has become that which is less than all that it could be. There is no room for boasting, no room for gray areas, and no room for building claustrophobic walls of ‘not evil’ from which to judge others.

The radical message of Christianity is not one of defining morality, but one of grace that reaches across the broken moral boundary to restore relationships at the cost of personal sacrifice.


This article is a preview from Charles’ upcoming book on sex and morality. Sign up to receive updates and excerpts below.

Image Courtesy of Scott Akerman.

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Charles Heyworth

Charles Heyworth

Author, philosopher, entrepreneur, and musician, Charles Heyworth likes to blur the lines between Christian traditions and focus on the pursuit of one thing. His journey from a religious lifestyle to the joy of a relationship with God has been published as a book: “Road to Royalty: A Journey to Relationship."

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