Evil: Ancient and Modern

“It’s an old story but one that can still be told.” —The Epic of Gilgamesh

It’s important to pay attention to the history of the question of evil. Seeing how our understanding of evil has changed through the centuries shapes our response to it—and may give us more compassion and forgiveness for others, looking back.

Depending on how one defines evil, the earliest recorded story of its entrance into the world is in the Babylonian creation myth called the Enuma Elish. We will compare it to the account in Genesis 1. We’ll also look at the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest stories in the world, and one that has helped to shape how we view friendship, loss, and death. Finally, we will look at Susan Neiman’s book, Evil in Modern Thought, to see how philosophical thinking about evil has changed since the Enlightenment.

The Enuma Elish (named after the first line which begins, “When on high”) is the Babylonian cosmogony myth (story of how the world and the universe came to be) and theogony myth (story of how the gods came into existence). It is also the oldest combat myth on record, in which the universe is seen as a battlefield split between good and bad divine powers. An early foreshadowing of the Great Controversy, you might say.

In this story, reality begins with two gods, Apsu and Tiamat. They create all the other gods, which live in Tiamat’s body until she births them. The children of that generation, the grandchildren of Apsu and Tiamat, get on their grandparents’ nerves. As children do, they get noisy, so noisy that Apsu, their grandfather, threatens to kill them. Before he can, Marduk, one of the grandchildren, gets wind of the plot and kills his grandmother, Tiamat. From her body he forms the earth and the sky, and in the process becomes the primary god in the Babylonian pantheon.

This myth has several aspects that are key to our thinking about evil. First, Tiamat, the chaos god, is not identified with evil as such. Rather, the emotions of hatred, envy, fear, and murderous rage are associated with the younger gods such as Marduk. Second, these gods, the ones victorious over Apsu and Tiamat, show us that evil is in some way intrinsic to reality and the inevitable conflict that establishes the cosmos. Because it is brought to being through conflict and chaos—through combat—the cosmos is laced with evil; evil is literally embedded in the very substance of the cosmos.

When we turn to the biblical creation myth of Genesis, especially the first one in Genesis 1, we can see some striking differences from the Babylonian combat myth. For one thing, there is no destruction at the creation of the world. Rather, God “created the heavens and the earth” without struggle. The “deep” (tehom) over which God’s spirit hovers, passively awaits God’s action. Further, God sees what he has created and deems it good, very good in fact, if God says so himself. The author of Genesis 1 seems to be distinguishing the narrative in contrast to the Enuma Elish, with which he was most likely familiar.

For the ancient Hebrews the Fall is not the entrance of evil into the world. Rather, Adam and Eve actualize the potential for evil, which is part of the structure of the cosmos that God has created. As Charles Mathewes, a scholar of religion points out, despite the fact that the Genesis account resists the Babylonian combat myth, “it still suggests that evil and temptation were a potential presence in the world (Mathewes 20).”

Adam and Eve act on that potential, eating from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the serpent’s words, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This raises all sorts of interesting questions.

What is the sin here? Is it the experience of temptation or the disobedient act itself? Does God know evil objectively or subjectively, from observation at a distance or experientially through suffering from it—or causing it? Was the Fall inevitable, given the combination of human freedom plus desire, arrogance, and ignorance?

Or is the Fall a breakthrough of human consciousness, one that opens the universe to us through imagination and desire, but in so doing tragically defines our limits and their consequences?

The Hebrew root of the word for ‘knowing’ suggests an intimacy that goes beyond acquiring a set of facts; it’s more akin to sexual intimacy in which two become one. In some way the knower and the known enter into one another. For convenience we might think of the symbol of the Tao, two complementary opposites joined as one.

The third great myth is the Sumerian-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the first recorded attempt, as Mathewes says, “to understand and inhabit a world in which suffering occurs and perhaps a world in which suffering is partially constitutive of what makes us human.” The tablets found at Ninevah date back to the 7th century BCE, but scholars now believe that oral traditions of Gilgamesh most likely date back to about 3,000 BCE, well before the Genesis account.

Gilgamesh is the aggressive king of the great city of Uruk. He harasses and tortures his people until they cry to the gods to give him a competitor to distract him. The gods send Enkidu, a wild man from the desert. The two meet in the wilderness, engage in combat, and Gilgamesh is the victor. They become best friends and go on many adventures together. But the gods become jealous of their friendship and kill Enkidu. Wild with grief, Gilgamesh sets out on a quest to find immortality.

Perhaps insane, he tried

to bring Enkidu back to life

To end his bitterness,

His fear of death.

His life became a quest

To find the secret of eternal life

Which he might carry back to give his friend (Mason 55).”

Through a perilous journey Gilgamesh makes his way to the sea of Death, on the shores of which a young woman finds him and cares for him in his extremity. She tells him:

The gods gave death to man and kept life for

Themselves. That is the only way it is (Mason 65).”

Eventually, Gilgamesh returns to his city of Uruk, older, sadder, perhaps wiser, knowing now that death is what lies ahead for every person, and in that knowledge, he is able to find some peace in the achievements of his people.

From these three ancient myths we can glean a multitude of insights. From the Enuma Elish, we see that combat and conflict is riddled through human consciousness from the beginning. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, we understand the tragic joy of friendship and the limit of death upon all our passion and loves. From the Genesis account we learn that knowledge acquired through defiance gives us both freedom and terrible suffering. But most of all it means we are separated from God. Innocence to experience and then to a chastened but healing innocent experience.

Now a leap of centuries to 1755 and the city of Lisbon.

The earthquake in Lisbon on November 1, 1755, took an estimated 60,000 lives in a matter of hours. Hundreds of people who had gathered for All Saints Day services perished in churches. Many rushed down to the quay and the harbor, only to be engulfed by the tsunami that sunk ships and swept hundreds of people out to sea. Then the fires burned for five days. The earthquake devastated areas of Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and North Africa, and was felt as far away as Norway, Sweden, and Italy. The earthquake even got two pages in Ellen White’s The Great Controversy.

The Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the history of philosophy, for it marks the beginning of modern philosophy and its attempt to take responsibility for the world we find ourselves in. Up to that point earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other natural disasters were ascribed to God’s acts of judgment on a stubborn and sinful people. After Lisbon, scientists, philosophers, and eventually theologians separated natural disasters from moral evil.

It is Susan Neiman’s thesis in Evil in Modern Thought, that “the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought (Neiman 2-3).” In fact, she asserts that the problem of evil is the heart of philosophy, especially from the early modern period until the Holocaust. The other end of the spectrum she examines is the Holocaust, what she refers to as Auschwitz. Whereas Lisbon provoked tremendous discussion and the production of essays, plays, books, and bad poetry, the philosophical silence after Auschwitz was deafening. Here we reach the limits of reasoning. If Lisbon differentiated natural disasters from our own moral evil, in an effort to take more responsibility for our actions, then Auschwitz simply stunned philosophers, humanists, and artists into silence.

“Before Lisbon, evils were divided into matters of nature, metaphysics, or morality. After Lisbon, the word evil was restricted to what was once called moral evil. Modern evil is the product of will (Neiman 268).”

The problem of evil exists, Neiman and countless others have noted, when we try to hold three propositions together:

1. Evil exists 2. God is benevolent 3. God is omnipotent

No matter how you bend or twist or crush them together, they will not fit. One of them has to go.

“The premodern world,” says Neiman, “experienced earthquakes with fear and trembling that not only didn’t threaten religion but often enhanced it (Neiman 246).” Science looked at the earthquake as the natural world following certain immutable laws. In that regard, there was no sense in blaming God nor should it be taken as a judgment. Rather, there was some relief and certainty in seeing these terrific natural forces at work. Newton, with his laws of the universe, both freed the world from God’s arbitrary judgments and shrank the sphere of God’s influence.

But Auschwitz was several orders of magnitude beyond Lisbon—in fact, not even in the same category. “Auschwitz was conceptually devastating because it revealed a possibility in human nature that we hoped not to see,” says Neiman (254).

The moral conundrum of Auschwitz is that natural evil is now in the category of regrettable accidents and metaphysical evil is just the recognition of our finite limits, but moral evil is that which is produced with evil intention. Yet, “at every level,” notes Neiman, “the Nazis produced more evil, with less malice, than civilization had previously known (Neiman 271).”

Theodicy, the attempt to rationalize evil with a good and omnipotent God, springs from the desire to see the world put right. If our century has given up on theodicy it has more to do with our recognition that reason cannot explain evil, but hope cannot give up on seeking a better world.

In a sentence that frames the Parkland students so well, Neiman says, “In the child’s refusal to accept a world that makes no sense lies all the hope that ever makes us start anew (Neiman 320).”

Notes & References: Mason, Herbert (1970). Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Mathewes, Charles (2011). Why Evil Exists. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses. Neiman, Susan (2002). Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. This essay was originally presented at the Faith and Reason Sabbath School at Sligo SDA Church in March 2018. It is reprinted here with permission. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Atlas Green / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8739
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Whether “Ancient and Modern,” the underlying foundation of “good and evil” share a common trait, the loss of a conscience. But whereas God does not require a conscience, a requisite for being God, finite men are born and develops a conscience, a prerequisite for being a created being. Two mechanisms influence the loss of conscience in men, the first through the merging of the conscience and personality and the second being the loss of empathy. There are a number of situations where both loss of conscience and loss of empathy are common, alcohol, drugs and religion among many.


Wow! Not a high recommendation to read Neiman!
A desire to harm others or to see others suffer; extreme ill will or spite.
Perhaps it would be true of Stalin’s killing of 20-60 million what wth planned starvation’s and all, but certainly not true of the death camps like Auschwitz, certainly a hard case to make that the Nazis’ had less malice!

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Neiman’s comment has to do with the bureaucratic efficiency of the Nazis genocide, not the horrific outcome of their paperwork. She cites Hannah Arendt’s book on Eichmann and the ‘banality’ of evil he exemplified. But there is no question that she regards the Holocaust as the epitome of evil in this age.

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Evil doesn’t exist by itself somehow. Evil is there as an absence of good. We couldn’t evaluate something to be evil unless we also knew an established good. Good and evil is a comparison one against the other.

In order to discuss evil we need to define it. Is it evil when the tsunami kills thousands - is it evil when the earthquake destroys a community? Isn’t a tsunami and an earthquake the way the earth works according to natural laws established by God. Isn’t that human activity, and an ignorance or disregard of natural laws. If you take a chance and build your house on the coast in California, you may get hit by a tsunami if there is an earthquake off shore.

The struggle with evil seems to be part of all cultures - but what it looks like may be different; yet, most people know evil when they see it. C.S. Lewis describes how even those who don’t ascribe to an idea of a God, will understand fairness and the difference between good and evil. At the same time, evil can surface as a means to a good end. So the question for me - is evil in the intension (motivation) or the action or both?


Thank you for not offering a simple answer to evil. For not blaming it on Eve and the Devil, who made us an evil driven people (although they make excellent scapegoats.)

Instead of teaching that evil rose from the perfectly pure heart of Eve, when she made an honest mistake. When she was deceived into wanting to be like God whom she loved and respected. When evil stepped into Adam, when he loved his God-given-gifted wife, choosing to stand beside her in love. I don’t believe that Adam had evil intent in his love for Eve. Out of innocence and over fond love–evil sprang forth.

The answer to evil is Hebrew’s advice: “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” Heb 10:24. Evil just exist. It is overcome by doing good (Rom 12:21). This should be the content of most of our sermons, “seeking to make a better world.”


Was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world? Here we have the idea of forethought.

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

—Revelation 13: 8

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves also know - him, being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it. —Acts 2:22-24

In other words, are we evolving rather than devolving? Going forwards rather than backwards?

Also from Prometheus (meaning “forethought”):

Was Eve a Promethean figure? Dare we think such thoughts?

(Prometheus’ was brother to Epimetheus, or “afterthought.”)

So the sticky wicket of theodicy: did God create this world with malice aforethought?

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Or worse than silence.

Parenthetically: Clive James could make just about anyone feel like this, I imagine:

  1. I don’t know anything.
  2. I can’t write.

Perhaps we are just using the wrong tools an incomplete skill set.

Adding: Philosopher, David Abram:



And was Eve a Pandora figure?

The Pandora myth is a kind of theodicy, addressing the question of why there is evil in the world. According to this, Pandora opened a jar (pithos), in modern accounts sometimes mistranslated as "Pandora's box", releasing all the evils of humanity.

Hesiod’s anti-feminist interpretation of Pandora’s story eventually went on to influence both Jewish and Christian theology and so perpetuated her bad reputation into the Renaissance.

Later poets, dramatists, painters and sculptors made her their subject and over the course of five centuries contributed new insights into her motives and significance.



Boulder friend, Nancy Stetson’s film:

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Something we DO NOT like to think about, because of its TRUTH.
++++ God ALLOWS.
God does NOT choose to intervene every time.
We find this all throughout the Scriptures.
BUT, God IS WITH US! No matter our circumstances, no matter how horrific.
the Psalmist says, “Thou Lord seest me!” this is closeness.
Psalm 56:9- “This I know, God is for me”.
In 33AD Jesus told Peter how he would die around 65 AD. No intervention. but
God was there.

In Genesis 4:10 the writer said that Abel’s blood was calling from the ground for God
to avenge his unjust, untimely death. God IGNORES the pleading call. Sets Cain free,
and actually puts some type of skin blemish on him so no one will harm him.
However, from then on, “men” mimicked the actions of Cain. And the world became
so unsafe that in the time of Noah God, in His mercy, put an end to it all.

Jesus made a comment about the Days of Noah. And said that the world’s Civilization
would once again become very dangerous and unsafe like it was before the Flood.


Thanks for the reference about Clive James. I got the Cultural Amnesia book.

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…I’ll meet you there…

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While reading this article and a recent one called ‘Burn for the Infinite’ in your own blog a few thoughts came to mind:

You wrote that ‘…maybe with respect, we need to bracket for the time being the things we’ve been indoctrinated with and widen our scope.’ That’s what I tried to tell you earlier by saying I think you are trapped in Adventist theology and by providing you a link to a very different understanding.

You also wrote, ‘…thought and desire, reason and imagination…these are the avenues of the soul Godwards…’ once again, an anthropocentric, Adventist view as all four are man-centred.
What about personal revelation by God?
The title of your blog article reminded me of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?’ Not according to their free will, but when Jesus deemed it appropriate, ‘their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him’ and when He deemed it appropriate ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized Him’. Are we different? Isn’t that how the gospel was explained to Paul? (Gal 1:11-12). I’m beginning to think that’s how it must be for all of us - a revelation given to each of us when God sees fit; some in this present age and some through death and judgment ‘in the ages to come’ (Eph 2:7), as Andrew Jukes explained. Did you study his article?

I’ll spare you the thousand words:

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus

Thanks Cassie.
Interesting reactions of the listeners in the painting. I wonder if the third one (the one standing) represents the Holy Spirit (with the wine and water nearest him on the table) or another person attentively listening and trying to absorb what Christ is explaining but without judgment and reaction. (Many think the two disciples were Jesus’ uncle Cleopas, and Luke.)

I appreciate your contributions to all these discussions but I cannot hope to read (let alone study) all that you suggest. The breadth and depth (and sometimes dizzying speed) of your intellect is often too much for me.

As I try to digest the recent comments on another thread from those supporting LGT (particularly one in church employment), and its seeming endorsement by Adventist leadership, I am becoming more and more convinced that many in positions of influence in Adventism do not base their faith on the gospel. To me, the lack of support offered to The One Project is a verification of this. One reason for my suggestion to Barry to explore other views.

That’s why I think Hanz Gutierrez’ contributions are so important, Dave.

He understands the paradoxical, dialectical nature of a prophetic movement, it seems to me.

Adventism is dead in the water, and only by embracing process can we catch the Zephyr of the Holy Spirit, I fervently believe.

And…I certainly hope no one tries to “read and study” all this stuff that comes out of the fire hose that is me! :smile:

It’s all fractal. Feeling into it suffices, but only if one is interested, of course.

And maybe it all signifies nothing. That thought occurs to me regularly. . . .

(Been listening to Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross on Audible—the ways we fool ourselves into thinking we’re “spiritual” are legion…sigh. . . .)


I believe that Ellen White idolatry is the root systemic sin that has left Seventh-day Adventism dead in the water.

See thou do it not!



Enchanted Dialectical Theology:


Interesting question, Dave.

Some say that the standing man is impassive because he is a wait person who didn’t previously know Jesus, therefore the rush of Revelation, which I can almost physically feel coming at me from that dynamic moment, passed him by.

Plausible. But I like your take, really.

And once the writer writes or the painter paints, the future of the creation is in the control of the beholders.

We are all meaning makers, so I can see it both ways without laboring over the proper “exegesis,” so to speak.

Caravaggio was a murderer, so what did he know about Revelation? Maybe more than he knew he knew, as he tried to make a buck.

And, most importantly, I think, Hanz is not North American or British, with all the nauseating, unconscious, horribly damaging baggage that come with that, e.g., Manifest Destiny (which Ellen White was not immune to), The White Man’s Burden, British Israelism, etc.

The White Man’s Burden

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Send forth the best ye breed–
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild–
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper–
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard–
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:–
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Have done with childish days–
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

British hymn, Jerusalem

It could be a very good development that Adventism is becoming de-centered from North America.

Go Hanz! Change comes from the fringe; open-source innovation!

Cassie, I think you are much more optimistic about Adventism than I am.

Proclaiming the imminent return of Christ constantly for almost 175 years can’t be good for a prophetic movement’s credibility.

Hence, I try to provide thoughts about and links to other views, which I believe embrace more of Scripture and in different (and I believe profound) ways.
If I read you correctly, you try to do the same thing.

I am slightly familiar with St. John of the Cross and the trials of his life but confess that at this point his writings are still on my ‘to read’ list.

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Please notice that I make an (obviously not clear enough) distinction between “Adventism” and “a prophetic movement.”

Adventism is doomed. My opinion.

Racism alone could sink it. My opinion.

The Great Advent Movement…well…you can’t rope the Wind!



As for “reading lists,” St. John of the Cross, etc., it is enough to sorta/kinda get my drift that we have many slippery ways we fool ourselves.

I certainly do, anyway.