Skip to main content
Select Source:



The descriptive-normative term evil is a significant anomaly in our relativistic and noncognitivist age. Otherwise careful thinkers deploy it as if its extension were obvious and indisputable. And yet it is used in widely differing ways even in our own time. A narrow meaning confines it to the deliberate infliction of harm. This corresponds to only part of the so-called problem of evil, and it is different again from what is feared by those who pray, "deliver us from evil."

Aspects of the problems of wickedness, of suffering, of finitude, and indeed of meaning come together in reflection on evil. But it is not obvious that these problems form a larger whole. Paul Ricoeur (1985) suggests that it is distinctive to western thought to see "sin, suffering and death" as aspects of a single enigma.

Evil's enigmatic character seems to demand narrative treatment. How did evil come into the world? Why and how are human beings sucked into it? And no less important: what can be done to escape it? Given the variety and extent of evils, we should perhaps not be surprised to find every tradition replete with stories and theories. As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty has suggested, a welter of often incompatible stories may be the most psychologically satisfying response to an insoluble problem.

Yet evil is not just an intellectual challenge. Some of the worst forms of suffering human beings endure are caused by human agents. Our capacity for inflicting such suffering challenges our very understanding of human agency. Can a will capable of evil ever be fully trustedor even understood?

The challenge goes deeper yet. Because vulnerability to evil and a capacity to inflict it are parts of human nature, evil is not something we can hope to consider in a disinterested way. The very desire to generate a disinterested account of it has often been seen as itself a manifestation of evil, whether as hubris, curiositas, or disregard for the humanity of one's fellows. Religious ritual is turned to because we are out of our depth, our capacities for understanding and reform so weak it is a danger to take comfort in them.

It is sometimes thought a specifically modern condition to be suspicious of philosophical theodicies, but the truth seems closer to the opposite. What is specifically modern, rather, may be supposing that we can peer into the abyss without being overwhelmed by it.

The following discussion will first survey understandings of evil as a problem so broad that it defies conventional intellectual or ethical response. An account of the changing fortunes of philosophical accounts of "the problem of evil" will show the distinctiveness of modern discussions. Reference to other traditions will be made, but the discussion will focus on Western materials.


Modern understandings of religion make accounting for evil one of the fundamental tasks of religion. It is widely believed, for instance, that Buddhism is primarily a response to a universal "problem of evil." But dukkha, "suffering, unsatisfactoriness" is not evil. Different traditions define different things as evils (as they do goods), and prescribe different kinds of responses. Thinking about evil is usually accompanied by ritual.


Ricoeur has argued that an "enigmatic element" makes evil the realm of human experience most profoundly ruled by myth.


Myth narrates the creation or emergence of the world, often out of chaos. Suffering and death are often presented as the consequences of poor choices made by the first humans. But the miserable lot of humanity is also sometimes seen as the result of the carelessness, malice, or envy of the gods. Not all gods are good. The orderly world we know may be the result of the destruction and dismemberment of a primordial evil power. In many traditions the world remains evil, a place of exile or punishment.

The creation or imposition of meaning and order is precarious. Jon Levenson has shown that the fear that chaos will return permeates the Hebrew Bible. The force of evil, associated with the seas and often represented as a sea monster (Leviathan), continually threatens order and is continually reconquered by God. That God will prevail is never in question. He may need reminding, however.


The world may be the site of a struggle between good and evil forces. True dualism, such as that of the Manichaeans, is rare; even in Zoroastrianism, the eventual victory of good and light over evil and darkness is assured. But dualism haunts monotheism, as the near-omnipresence of the devil in Christian tradition shows. While defeated by Christ, Satan is still the prince of this world. His power and indeed his very existence are a serious problem for monotheism. What kind of God permits the devil such poweror is God too weak to control him?

Beyond good and evil.

One response is to assert that evil happens when God turns his back on creation or is silent. The hidden God is beyond our understanding. But perhaps evil is no less an expression of the divine nature than is good. "I form the light, and create darkness," says the God of Second Isaiah, "I make peace, and create evil" (45:7). It has even been suggested, as the Jewish mystical Book of Bahir puts it, that "God has an attribute called 'evil'."

Metaphysical accounts.

Metaphysical views of the nature of evils arose in response to tensions within and among mythical views.


Many traditions speak of a fate or order to which even the gods are subject. This fate can be just, as in Buddhism's karmic "law of cause and effect." It can also be meaningless. "Vanity of vanities," says Qoheleth, "all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Eccles. 1:2).

Among the most widespread of these views is the view that time itself leads to decay and returns creation to chaos. Rituals like the human sacrifices of the Aztecs sought to erase time. In most ancient traditions, time moves in greater and smaller cycles. Even if all rituals are correctly performed, the world will one day succumb to chaos, but from its ashes a new world will emerge. Only in noncyclical traditions are the depredations of evil seen as final.

The philosophical correlate of cosmological dualism is the view that evil is an inescapable part of creation: the stuff of which the world is made is inert or even resistant to order. In his Timaeus Plato argues that the demiurge brought the best possible order to unruly matter. Aligned with other dualities inherited from Pythagoras, the dualism of reason and matter was soon connected with mind/body dualism. While opposed to each other, Gnosticism and Neoplatonism both offered dualisms of matter and spirit.


In response to dualisms, evil was reconceptualized. It is not a substance or a force at all, but just an absence, a privation. God created ex nihilo, nothing constraining him. "Whatever is, is good, and evil is not a substance, because if it were a substance it would be good" (St. Augustine, Confessions 7.12). This was the official view of medieval theologians, but it is difficult to maintain in practice. Reproducing a similar move in Plotinus, Augustine conflated it with a dualism of body and soul to arrive at the view that it is because we are made of nothing that we are prone to error and sin.


A different kind of view claims that it is impossible or undesirable to create a world without evil, either because there cannot be evil without good, or because good cannot be recognized without evil with which to contrast it. These often conflated views are sometimes described as examples of "aesthetic theodicy." The place of evils in a good creation is justified by reference to the value of beauty or variety. A mosaic is not only more beautiful with dark as well as light pieces but impossible without them.

Human evil.

As the pawn or the prize of the forces that made and govern the world, the human being has always been seen as a source of evil.


Humanity may be seen as essentially limited because its understanding is finite. Justifications of evil almost always appeal to a bigger picture the questioner does not or can not see. Incomplete understanding of things not only leads to error but is also a reason human beings should not expect to be able accurately to judge God's work. Finite reason may be seen as essentially incompetent to understand reality or divinity at all. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:89).

Negative theology starts from this premise, as do those views that insist on the centrality of paradox to a proper human understanding of God. God may operate by different standards than ours. He may indeed make the rules. The moral and even the logical laws that rightly bind us come from God but in neither case do they give us access to his nature. Human evil can thus arise from resentment at creaturely dependencebut also from misplaced efforts of imitatio Dei.


Free will is the centerpiece of reflection on human evil. This view goes beyond the evil that humans do out of ignorance to assert that free will is the ability to choose between good and evil. Evil can be deliberately willed, not just under the view that it is good. It undermines freedom to invoke a tempter here. (It also makes the creator of the irresistible temptation the true author of evil!) A free act has no cause beyond itself. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it when asked why Satan willed evil: "Only because he wills this will has no other cause by which it is forced or attracted, but it was its own efficient cause, so to speak, as well as its own effect" (De casu diaboli 27).

But an understanding of freedom as "liberty of indifference" does not yet explain why human agents might choose evil, and indeed has a hard time doing so. Augustine insisted that trying to understand an evil will "is like trying to see darkness or to hear silence (City of God 12.7). Immanuel Kant thought evil "radical"it is not grafted onto a human will pre-disposed to the good but is a tendency at its very "root." Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling took the next step and insisted that freedom is abyssal in good no less than in evil acts, opening the way for postmodern explorations.

Not all human beings were thought to be similarly able to use their free will for good. It was Eve who succumbed to the serpent's wiles and submitted to Adam's authority in punishment. Throughout history groups denied (and so demonstrated) their own capacity for evil by projecting this onto outsiders.

Original sin.

Not all explanations of evil as the consequence of poor or perverted human choices think human will is free. On some accounts, the wills of fallen humanity are no longer free to do good at all; only humanity's original parents had complete freedom. The idea that we are responsible for the sins of our ancestors and for evil acts of our own that we could not avoid seems incoherent and masochistic. It does, however, give human agency a cosmic significance. It was a human act that brought death into the world.

Original sin can be understood in less dramatic ways as a humility that expects human failure and so is not thrown into despair by it. It may also provide a framework for conceptualizing the ways in which our societies and characters are shaped by the ignorance and injustice our ancestors left us.

The Problem of Evil

The experiences of wickedness, suffering, and death are presumably universal, but they do not come to pose intellectual problemslet alone a single problemuntil there are philosophical expectations with which they clash. For most of Western history, the problem of evil has been dismissed as beyond our ken. Philosophical engagement with it is the historical exception.


Discussions of various kinds of evil appear in some of the oldest texts from antiquity.


The biblical Book of Job is often seen as an early response to the problem of evil, but it is both less and more than this. The Book of Job recounts the vindication of the innocence of a human sufferer by the very God who permitted the infliction of the suffering anddespite Job's pleas and accusationsnever explains why. Appearing in a whirlwind, God rails at Job for the effrontery of his demand to understand what was going on. "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" (38:4) But it is Job's friends, who interpreted Job's suffering as punishment, whom God condemns: "ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath" (42:7).

Is the Book of Job itself an answer to the problem of evil? Job's example shows that the faithful can live without knowing the reason for their suffering, but his story's power comes from its insistence that the problem of the suffering of the just is at once inescapable and insoluble.

Hellenistic debates.

In its philosophical form, the problem of evil seems to be one we inherit from Hellenistic philosophy. Stoics asserted the existence and intelligibility of providence. Epicureans argued that the way to achieve happiness was to accept that there is in fact no providence, to avoid such pains as can be avoided and stop thinking of the rest (like death) as evil. Skeptics argued that it was best to avoid strong views for or against providence, and poked holes in the arguments of both sides.

What made this the first real debate on the problem of evil was the overall agreement of the parties concerned on meansphilosophical analysis of human experienceand endseudaimonia, happiness in this life. Both of these would be called in question by Christianity, leading to an eclipsing of this problem until the revival of the Hellenistic philosophies in the changed world of early modernity.

Religious views.

Religious traditions are important sources for thinking about evils.

Jewish views.

Jewish tradition does not offer systematic accounts of evil before the medieval period. Apparent injustices are either consequences of past or foreign sins or tests that will be redressed in the world to come, but the point is that God, who has bound himself to Israel despite its flaws, is perfect and perfectly in charge. "The Lord has made all things for Himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Prov. 16:4).

While there may or may not be evil powers, there is an evil inclination in human nature itself, which the human individual is free to resist. This evil inclination, too, is part of a creation that the God of Genesis deemed "very good," however, so it is not to be rejected as alien but assimilated. In a widely quoted early rabbinic view, "had it not been for the Evil Inclination, no man would build a house or marry a woman or procreate children." Even when kabbalistic authors argued that evil came from the godhead or was a consequence of the flawed design of the Creation, the emphasis was always on the power of free human good deeds to repair the world.

Christian views.

An understanding of a God mercifully active in history shaped the way Christians, too, approached (or avoided) the problem of evil. Christian views were various, but John Hick has argued that Augustine was the father of all the most important elements. Alongside aesthetic views and the claim that God brings a greater good out of every evil, the central claims were the privative nature of evil and the Fall. The last were not explanations for woes of the world so much as reasons for the questioner not to get stuck in the question, however. The answer lies not in philosophy but in conversion and repentance.

Moral and Natural Evil

A distinction is commonly made between evils that are caused by free human acts (moral evil) and those that are part of nature (natural or physical evil). Moral evils alone seem our responsibility, and so natural evil has largely fallen away in secular discussion. (It lives on in a different form as the problem of suffering.) And yet in experience the two seem entangled.

Moral evil causes suffering in its victims, and suffering seems to be the only way to atone for it. But evil seems deeper than the distinction between agent and victim. Paul Ricoeur (1985) describes a "strange experience of passivity at the very heart of evil-doing." And the extremest forms of suffering, as Simone Weil argued, can feel deserved.

Caution about these categories is in order. Historically, they are the remains of the closed system of culpa (fault) and poena (penalty), which from Saint Augustine of Hippo on claimed to justify all evils at once. All natural suffering, including death and even the carnivorousness of animals, was understood to be just punishment for the crimes of men (or angels), crimes defined not in terms of the harm they do to other creatures but of disobedience or rebellion. Ignoring victims, this system elides the central problematic of modern discussions, innocent suffering.

Conceptually, most discussions of moral evil subscribe to a philosophically embattled understanding of human freedom, which is threatened also by developments in the sciences. By restricting discussion to intentional individual acts, these theories also obscure (and quite literally naturalize) social or cultural evils.

This is not to say that philosophical reflection has no part to play. No less a figure than Thomas Aquinas mentioned the problem of evil as the first objection to the existence of God. Aquinas discussed evil in many places and even devoted a separate work to it, but his final view was that it was the special kind of nonproblem that privatio implies, pointing toward the good, and so toward God. The point was that philosophical reflection conducted without the acknowledgement of the differences between ourselves and God leads nowhere.

The problem of evil remained a challenge to natural theology. Theodicy became harder to avoid as physico-theology came to seem more and more important. Reformation theologians insisted the issue be faced head-on, albeit for a different reason. Martin Luther thought it necessary for philosophy to experience shipwreck over evil. And John Calvin insisted that while it was importunate to claim to be able to understand the fallen world, a view of God without providence was tantamount to atheism.

Theodicy and modernity.

The problem of evil as a philosophical challenge to the intelligibility of the world, with or without God, became a central concern of Western thinkers with the rise of the modern age.

The invention of theodicy.

The goodness and intelligibility of creation became a battlefield in the fight for religion as the world became increasingly disenchanted, as religious authority fractured, and as confidence in the capacity of human beings to make objective moral judgments grew. The problem of evil was presented as proof for the incompatibility of reason and faith by the skeptic Pierre Bayle in the 1690s. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz responded with the claim that this is "the best of all possible worlds," a view he traced back to Plato. His argument is entirely a priori, however, and designed precisely to prevent anyone's drawing conclusions like those of Pangloss in Voltaire's Candide (1759). Sounding more Stoic than he knew, Leibniz argued that if we knew all that God does, we would see why this was the world he chose.

The challenge of new Skeptics and Epicureans made this position seem weak, and a half century of nervous teleologizing ensued. Arguing that human beings can and should see the optimality of everything in the world, from bedbugs to avarice, these arguments were quickly conflated with arguments like Bernard Mandeville's linkage of "private vice" with "public virtue," and seemed to many to undermine not only religion but morality too. If the world, with all its horrors, cannot be improved upon, and for reasons we cannot hope (and perhaps do not need) to understand, why do anything at all?

Theodicy overturned.

Immanuel Kant presented theodicy as the enemy of piety and ethics. In a manner Luther would have appreciated, he argued that the experienced "failure of all philosophical efforts in theodicy" ensures the continued importance of moral struggle and makes religious faith both permissable and necessary. Kant commended the figure of Job for basing his religion on his morality and not his morality on his religion: both do better when the pretension to theodicy is abandoned. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer in their very different ways found this view premature, insisting that one needed either to find the meaning of suffering in history or to accept that there is and never will be one.

Friedrich Nietzsche dealt the decisive blows to theodicy. In the Genealogy of Morals (1887) he argues that "evil" is not merely a human category, but a bad one, developed by creatures of ressentiment chagrined by the excellence of other human beings. Arguing that the others must be evil because they themselves were good, "slaves" and their priests succeeded in upsetting an earlier and more noble set of values. The noble "free spirit" does not ask whether the world is good or meaningful (this question defines nihilism) but affirms it in all its joys and pains. Value is not found in the world but generated by the overflowing vitality of creative spirits. Nietzsche's historical relativization of value categories and his call for a transvaluation of contemporary values spelled the end of theodicy, at least in continental European thought.

Epicurus' Old Questions

The monotheistic problem of evil is often summarized as a trilemma cited in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (book 10): "Epicurus' old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"

While it seems to force the question, "God or evil?" the trilemma can be approached in other ways. Ancient skeptics and dualists found it congenial to their ends. Theological reflection has taken the "aporetic" path of accepting all of the three claims as valid. So understood, the trilemma challenges us to deepen our understanding of the nature of the divine attributes and of evil.

Contemporary developments.

But the philosophical problem of evil has not gone away, in part because the twentieth century brought with it new and unprecedented horrors. Some religious thinkers have responded to the "logical problem of evil" (Is the existence of evil compatible with divine omnipotence and goodness?) by proposing views of a divinity in some way limited in power; the growing, suffering God of process thought is an example. Hick's "Irenaean" view of theodicy argues that God is doing as well as anyone could at the time-consuming task of getting human beings freely to love him.

Analytic philosophers of religion have largely moved beyond the logical to the "evidential problem of evil" supposedly inaugurated by Hume in his Dialogues. The question is no longer whether evil in the abstract is compatible with theismthat may even be truebut whether the quantity and variety of evils we find do not constitute an argument for the irrationality of theism. While still far from concrete, discussion now hangs on the existence of "horrendous" or "irredeemable" forms of evil.

But there are also strong religious movements rejecting the very enterprise of theodicy, in Christian thinkers like Karl Barth (building on the Lutheran Søren Kierkegaard) and Jewish thinkers like Emmanuel Levinas (building on the Neokantian Hermann Cohen). Especially in response to the Holocaust, thinkers have argued for the obsolescence of all traditional views and have urged reconceptualizations of God and his relation to human history and suffering.


After decades of neglect, the language of evil has been reintroduced to public life in the rhetoric used by political leaders in the early twenty-first century. Some political theorists, too, have argued that a revival of the language of evil is required to maintain a sufficient outrage at genocide, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and threats to the ecological stability of the planet.

Shared indignation at the worst things people do seems to be all that remains of a shared normative view of the world. But does this justify reviving the language of evil? Feminist scholars are not the only ones to caution against so quintessentially dualistic a concept. Evil allows no compromise. But the history of human societies shows that it is almost always the other who is demonized. Perhaps what Carl Gustav Jung called a "morality of evil"an integration through honest recognition of the capacity for evil in human natureis safer.

The modern problematic of theodicy, with its confidence in reason and shared conceptions of the good, may not survive our postmodern age. As long as we try to make moral sense of the world and of human life, however, "evil" will remain a challenge and a temptation.

See also Christianity ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Natural Theology ; Religion ; Theodicy .


Adams, Marilyn McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Bernstein, Richard J. Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2002.

Copjec, Joan, ed. Radical Evil. London: Verso, 1996.

Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. 2nd ed., with a new preface. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel, ed. The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Larrimore, Mark. The Problem of Evil: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Leaman, Oliver. Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Levenson, Jon. Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Marquard, Odo. "Unburdenings: Theodicy Motives in Modern Philosophy." In In Defense of the Accidental: Philosophical Studies. Translated by Robert M. Wallace, pp. 828. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Noddings, Nel. Women and Evil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Ormsby, Eric L. Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute over al-Ghazālī's "Best of All Possible Worlds." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Ricoeur, Paul. "Evil: A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 53, no. 3 (1985): 635648.

. The Symbolism of Evil. Translated by Emerson Buchanan. New York: Harper and Row, 1967.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. The Prince of Darkness: Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Schreiner, Susan. Where Shall Wisdom Be Found: Calvin's Exegesis of Job from Medieval and Modern Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Schwarz, Hans. Evil: A Historical and Theological Perspective. Translated by Mark. W. Worthing. Lima, Ohio: Academic Renewal Press, 2001.

Surin, Kenneth. Theology and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Weil, Simone. "The Love of God and Affliction." In Waiting for God, pp. 117136. Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Whitney, Barry L. Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography on the Problem of Evil, 19601990. New York: Garland, 1993.

Williams, Rowan. "Insubstantial Evil." In Augustine and His Critics: Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner. Edited by Robert Dodaro and George Lawless, pp. 105123. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Mark Larrimore

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Evil." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (December 13, 2017).

"Evil." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


230. Evil (See also Demon, Devil, Villainy, Wickedness.)

  1. Ahriman represents principle of wickedness; will one day perish. [Persian Myth.: LLEI, I: 322; Zoroastrianism: Benét, 16]
  2. Alberichs curse on the Rhinegold ring: possessor will die. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Rhinegold, Westerman, 233]
  3. Apaches name given to Parisian gangsters. [Fr. Hist.: Payton, 31]
  4. Apollyon demon, personification of evil, vanquished by Christians wholesomeness. [Br. Lit.: Pilgrims Progress ]
  5. Archimago enchanter epitomizing wickedness. [Br. Lit.: Faerie Queene ]
  6. Ate goddess of wickedness, mischief, and infatuation. [Gk. Myth.: Parrinder, 32]
  7. Avidyā cause of suffering through desire. [Hindu Phil.: Parrinder, 36]
  8. Badman, Mr. from childhood to death, has committed every sin. [Br. Lit.: Bunyan The Life and Death of Mr. Badman in Magill III, 575]
  9. black symbol of sin and badness. [Color Symbolism: Jobes, 357]
  10. black dog symbol of the devil. [Rom. Folklore: Brewer Dictionary, 329]
  11. black heart symbol of a scoundrel. [Folklore: Jobes, 223]
  12. black poodle a transformation of Mephistopheles. [Ger. Lit.: Faust ]
  13. crocodile epitome of power of evil. [Medieval Animal Symbolism: White, 810]
  14. darkness traditional association with evil in many dualistic religions. [Folklore: Cirlot, 7677]
  15. Darth Vader fallen Jedi Knight has turned to evil. [Am. Cinema: Star Wars ]
  16. dragon archetypal symbol of Satan and wickedness. [Christian Symbolism: Appleton, 34]
  17. Drug principle of evil. [Zoroastrianism: Leach, 325]
  18. Gestapo Nazi secret police. [Ger. Hist.: Hitler, 453]
  19. Golden Calf Mephistos cynical and demoniacal tarantella. [Fr. Opera: Gounod, Faust, Westerman, 187]
  20. Iago declaims I believe in a cruel god. [Br. Lit.: Othello ; Ital. Opera: Verdi, Otello ; Westerman, 329]
  21. John, Don plots against Claudio. [Br. Lit.: Much Ado About Nothing ]
  22. Klingsor enemy of Grail knights. [Ger. Opera: Wagner, Parsifal, Westerman, 248]
  23. Kurtz, Mr. white trader in Africa, debased by savage natives into horrible practices. [Br. Lit.: Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness in Magill III, 447]
  24. lobelia traditional symbol of evil. [Flower Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 175]
  25. Loki god of fire, evil, and strife who contrived the death of Balder. [Scand. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 560]
  26. Mephistopheles the cynical, malicious devil to whom Faust sells his soul. [Ger. Lit.: Faust, Payton, 436]
  27. Miles and Flora apparently sweet children assume wicked miens mysteriously. [Am. Lit.: The Turn of the Screw ]
  28. Monterone after humiliation, curses both Duke and Rigoletto. [Ital. Opera: Verdi, Rigoletto, Westerman, 299]
  29. oNell, Peg wicked spirit claiming victim every seven years. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 323]
  30. Pandoras box contained all evils; opened up, evils escape to afflict world. [Rom. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 799]
  31. Popeye degenerate gangster and murderer who rapes Temple Drake. [Am. Lit.: Sanctuary ]
  32. Powler, Peg wicked water-demon; lures children to death. [Br. Folklore: Briggs, 323324]
  33. Queen of the Night urges the murder of Sarastro, her husband, by their daughter. [Ger. Opera: Mozart The Magic Flute in Benét, 619]
  34. Quint, Peter dead manservant who haunts Jamess story. [Am. Lit.: Turn of the Screw ]
  35. Rasputin immoral person of tremendous power and seeming invulnerability. [Russ. Hist.: Espy, 339340]
  36. Satan the chief evil spirit; the great adversary of man. [Christianity and Judaism: Misc.]
  37. Vandals East German people known for their wanton destruction (533). [Ger. Hist.: Payton, 705]
  38. Wicked Witch of the West the terror of Oz. [Am. Lit.: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz ]
  39. Wolfs Glen scene of macabre uproar. [Ger. Opera: von Weber, Der Freischütz, Westerman, 139140]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Evil." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . (December 13, 2017).

"Evil." Allusions--Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


evil evil communications corrupt good manners proper conduct is harmfully influenced by false information or knowledge; the saying is also used to assert the deleterious effect of bad example. The saying is recorded from the early 15th century. Often with biblical allusion to 1 Corinthians 35:33, ‘Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.’
evil doers are evil dreaders someone engaged in wrongdoing is likely to be nervous and suspicious of others. The saying is recorded from the mid 16th century.
the Evil Empire a term for the former Soviet Union, deriving from a speech by Ronald Reagan in 1983. The name is often used allusively of a political approach focusing exclusively on the perceived dangers from a particular direction.
the evil eye a gaze or stare superstitiously believed to cause material harm; the expression in this sense is recorded from the late 18th century.
evil to him who evil thinks the person placing a disgraceful interpretation on words or actions is likely to bring ill upon himself. A saying, recorded from the mid 15th century, which in its French form honi soit qui mal y pense is the motto of the Order of the Garter.
never do evil that good may come of it the prospect of a good outcome cannot justify wrongdoing; often with biblical allusion to Romans 3:8, ‘And not…Let us do evil, that good may come.’ (Compare the end justifies the means.) The saying is recorded from the late 16th century.
of two evils, choose the least a statement of what to do when none of the possible course of actions is palatable. The saying is recorded from the late 14th century, but the idea is found earlier in Greek, in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, ‘we must as a second-best course, it is said, take the least of the evils,’ and Latin, in Cicero's De Officiis, ‘of evils choose the least.’

See also axis of evil, a great book is a great evil, money is the root of all evil.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"evil." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . (December 13, 2017).

"evil." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


evil, antithesis of good. The philosophical problem of evil is most simply stated in the question, why does evil exist in the world? Death, disease, and sin are often included in the problem. Traditional Christian belief ascribes evil to the misdeeds of humans, to whom God has granted free will. The Christian systems that believe in predestination and justification by faith claim, like their Christian opponents, that God is still not the author of the evil men do. One explanation of evil is dualism, as in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. In optimism evil is treated often as more apparent than real. The book of Job is a literary treatment of the problem.

See R. Taylor, Good and Evil (1970); F. Sontag, The God of Evil (1970); R. Stivers, Evil in Modern Myth and Ritual (1982); D. Parkin, ed., The Anthropology of Evil (1987).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"evil." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 13, 2017).

"evil." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


Evil. The furthest reach of wrongdoing and wrong being. Although Kant maintained that the only evil thing is an evil will, there is much in human experience which evokes the word which is not a product of the will. Indeed, Hannah Arendt, observing the Eichmann trial, spoke of the banality of evil, lying as it does so far outside the compass of will, and being ‘excused’ by the appeal that, in a totalitarian regime, to obey orders and not to think is the only behaviour possible. Religions tend to see the occurrence of evil as the consequence of personal agency in the cosmic order (personified as Satan, the Devil or Iblīs, Māra, etc.), which if made absolute leads to dualism, an eternal principle of evil; and in either case, religions offer resources both to recognize and combat evil.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Evil." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . (December 13, 2017).

"Evil." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


e·vil / ˈēvəl/ • adj. profoundly immoral and malevolent: his evil deeds. ∎  (of something seen or smelled) extremely unpleasant: a bathroom with an evil smell. • n. profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, esp. when regarded as a supernatural force: good and evil in eternal opposition. PHRASES: the evil eye a gaze or stare superstitiously believed to cause material harm: he gave me the evil eye as I walked down the corridor. the Evil One archaic the Devil. speak evil of slander: it is a sin to speak evil of the king.DERIVATIVES: e·vil·ly / ˈēvəl(l)ē/ adv. e·vil·ness n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"evil." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 13, 2017).

"evil." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


146. Evil

See also 103. CRIME ; 117. DEVIL ; 367. SIN .

a form of witchcraft involving melting a wax image of the intended victim or, in voodoo, sticking it with pins.
the belief that the world is essentially bad or evil.
the branch of theology that studies sin and evil.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil." -Ologies and -Isms. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Evil." -Ologies and -Isms. . (December 13, 2017).

"Evil." -Ologies and -Isms. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


evil adj. and sb. OE. yfel = OS. ubil, MDu. evel (Du. euvel), OHG. ubil (G. übel), Goth. ubils :- Gmc. *ubilaz, prob. f. IE. base *up- (see OVER), the primary sense being ‘exceeding due limits’.
So evil adv., OE. yfle; survives in literary use in speak evil (of), evil-disposed, and the like.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"evil." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . (December 13, 2017).

"evil." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from



See Evil and Suffering; Theodicy

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Evil." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Evil." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . (December 13, 2017).

"Evil." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from


evil •Ethel • lethal • brothel • betrothal •Cavell, cavil, gavel, gravel, ravel, travel •Havel, larval, marvel, Marvell, rondavel •bedevil, bevel, devil, dishevel, kevel, level, revel, split-level •daredevil • she-devil • eye level •naval, navel •coeval, evil, Khedival, medieval, primeval, retrieval, shrieval, upheaval •civil, drivel, shrivel, snivel, swivel •carnival • Percival • perspectival •festival • aestival (US estival) •adjectival, arrival, deprival, genitival, imperatival, infinitival, outrival, relatival, revival, rival, substantival, survival •archival •grovel, hovel, novel •oval •approval, removal •Lovell, shovel •interval • serval • narwhal •coequal, equal, prequel, sequel •bilingual, lingual, monolingual, multilingual •rorqual • Hywel •Daniel, spaniel

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"evil." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"evil." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 13, 2017).

"evil." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from