Published by Worldview Publications
November/December 2004 

The Mythology of Evil

For thousands of years mankind has been enthralled, frustrated and terrified by the presence, nature and origin of evil. Virtually every religio-political power structure over the past 6,000 years has developed a mythology for the emergence of evil. This human concern not only has survived until today; it has intensified. Following are some selected explanations for the existence of evil.

Christian Myth

The Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in an effort to find a political solution to the Protestant Reformation, to clarify Catholic doctrine, and to initiate reform within the church. In its summary statement on the origin of evil, the council declared:

Adam sinned, lost original holiness, incurred the wrath of God, incurred death, and slavery under the power of the devil, and was changed to a worse state.

Adam lost righteousness and holiness for his descendants, transmitting the sin which is the death of the soul, as well as bodily death and pains.

Adam’s sin, transmitted by propagation, is present in all humans.1

Prior to the Council of Trent, John Calvin and Martin Luther had expressed their convictions on the origin of evil. “Calvin followed Luther in his view of total depravity:

But to sin in this case, is to become corrupt and vicious; for the natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, though it bring not forth immediately its own fruits, is yet sin before God, and deserves his vengeance: and this is that sin which they call original. For as Adam at his creation had received for us as well as for himself the gifts of God’s favor, so by falling away from the Lord, he in himself corrupted, vitiated, depraved, and ruined our nature; for having been divested of God’s likeness, he could not have generated seed but what was like himself.2

Similar Christian views on the origin of evil could be traced to the church fathers and particularly to St. Augustine and even the apostle Paul, who himself declared, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned . . . ” (Romans 5:12).

It is therefore clear that Christianity has typically attributed the origin of evil to the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Hebrew Myth

Rabbinical Judaism emphatically stated where evil originated: “God says, ‘My children! I created the evil inclination. . . . ’”3 Nevertheless, a number of mythological explanations for the origin of evil emerged from Judaism. For example, the apocalyptic Book of Jubilees (ca. 175-140 BCE) develops the account given in Genesis 6:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. . . . There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. — Genesis 6:1-6.

Thus, the Book of Jubilees tells that, “as mankind multiplied, some of the angels were so overcome by the beauty of the daughters of men that they came down to earth, took on human form, and acquired a wife each. By so doing they polluted themselves and forfeited the spiritual quality with which God had endowed them. . . . [T]he illicit intercourse between angels and women produced a race of giants — a most destructive breed, who set about devouring everything on earth, including human beings and even one another.

“From the devastated earth the cries of the murdered rose to heaven, where they were heard by the archangels. At their request, God intervened. He sent the Flood, from which only Noah and his offspring would be saved. He had the giants fight one another until all were killed. As for the fallen angels . . . they were imprisoned beneath the hills. . . .

“ . . . [A]lthough the fallen angels are held captive inside the earth, their spirits remain[ed] active on its surface, leading Jews to transgress the purity laws, and seducing them to sacrifice to pagan gods.”4

Another Jewish myth for the origin of evil was borrowed from Babylonian demonology and its female demon, lilitu. “According to medieval Jewish apocryphal tradition, which attempts to reconcile the two Creation stories presented in Genesis, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. In Genesis 1:27, God creates man and woman simultaneously from the earth. In Genesis 2:7, however, Adam is created by himself from the earth; Eve is produced later, from Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21-22). In Jewish legend, the name Lilith was attached to the woman who was created at the same time as Adam.”5 Lilith is mentioned just once in the biblical record (Isaiah 34:14).6 However, Jewish legend suggests that Lilith was gravely disturbed by Adam’s domination when, in fact, she was created equally and simultaneously with Adam. (Genesis 1:27: “ . . . male and female created he them.”) In her frustration and anger, Lilith left Adam and determined to satisfy her grievance. In one legendary version Lilith retaliated by disguising herself as a serpent, entering the Garden of Eden, and there tempting Adam’s second wife, Eve, to eat the forbidden fruit.7

Still another Jewish legend, originating in Egypt among the Jews of the Diaspora, describes the female aspect of God (YHWH), known as Sophia (Wisdom). Sophia became discontented when she found that her male consort (aspect) had begun creation without consulting her first. “ . . . [S]he wished to . . . produce offspring of herself alone, without a partner, in order that she might achieve a work which would not be in any way inferior to that of the Father.”8 In one version the divine virgin, Sophia, then gave birth to Samael (Satan) and also to unformed chaos. Later, “Sophia was . . . helped back to the upper world, grieving at the dire state of her offspring.”9 In a profound sense Samael (Satan) thus became the alter ego of YHWH’s “only begotten son” (cf. John 1:18).

Zoroastrian Myth

The Persian prophet, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), lived about the time of the Hebrew king, David.10 He too pondered the origin of evil. “ . . . [I]n vision he [Zarathustra] beheld, co-existing with Ahura Mazda [the good god], an Adversary, the ‘Hostile Spirit’, Angra Mainyu [Ahriman], equally uncreated, but ignorant and wholly malign. These two great Beings Zoroaster beheld with prophetic eye at their original, far-off encountering: ‘Truly there are two primal Spirits, twins, renowned to be in conflict. In thought and word and act they are two, the good and the bad. . . . And when these two Spirits first encountered, they created life and not-life, and that at the end the worst existence shall be for the followers of falsehood (drug), but the best dwelling for those who possess righteousness (asha). . . .

“An essential element in this revelation is that the two primal Beings each made a deliberate choice (although each, it seems, according to his own proper nature) between good and evil, an act which prefigures the identical choice which every man must make for himself in this life. The exercise of choice changed the inherent antagonism between the two Spirits into an active one, which expressed itself, as a decision taken by Ahura Mazda, in creation and counter-creation, or, as the prophet put it, in the making of ‘life’ and ‘not-life’ (that is, death); for Ahura Mazda knew in his wisdom that if he became Creator and fashioned this world, then the Hostile Spirit would attack it, because it was good, and it would become a battleground for their two forces, and in the end he, God, would win the great struggle there and be able to destroy evil, and so achieve a universe which would be wholly good forever.”11

Babylonian Myth

“The Babylonian epic tale of creation, known by its first line, enuma elish (when on high), may have been composed as early as the Old Babylonian period. . . . The epic describes the creation of the world as the outcome of a cosmic battle between the forces of order and chaos.

“Long before anything had been created, generations of primeval deities were born to Apsu (the personification of sweet water) and Tiamat (salt water). When certain lesser deities proved noisy and troublesome, Apsu was persuaded by his vizier Mummu to slay them. When Ea the ‘all wise’ learned of the plan, he cast magic spells paralyzing Mummu and resulting in Apsu’s death. Ea then retired to his shrine, newly founded on the motionless sweet underground waters (Apsu). Ea and his wife produced a son, Marduk, who was eventually elected to battle Tiamat and her army of dragons and serpents. Marduk, however, had a price: he demanded to be proclaimed supreme deity of the land.

“With the gods’ approval, Marduk proceeded to battle and vanquish Tiamat, who represented the older powers of darkness and inertia. From Tiamat’s corpse, Marduk triumphantly created the universe. After putting it in order and fixing the courses of the sun and stars, he created mankind to perform the toil of the gods.”12

Egyptian Myth

One of the first mythical accounts of the combat of the good gods against evil originated in ancient Egypt. The traditional Egyptian belief was that the boundless ocean of watery chaos, called Nun, existed from all eternity and would endlessly persist through the rulership of Apophis, the evil dragon-like serpent god, along with his demonic cohorts, under the principle of isfet — disorder, injustice, evil. At some point in the distant past, however, an island hillock emerged from the watery chaos. With the rise of the hillock there also emerged the good gods, including the sun god, Ra, the moon god, Thoth, and the earth god, Ptah. These gods proceeded to form the earth, the sky, and all helpful created beings — demigods, humans and animals.13

The good gods were dedicated to the principle of ma’at — order, justice, goodness. To support this principle in opposition to isfet, the demigods emanated downward and eventually reached the god, Horus — the living Pharaoh — who reigned over Egypt. On a daily, weekly, monthly and annual cycle that persisted through eternity, the good gods, their offspring, their officials, and the good Creation dedicated themselves to combating isfet. Those who supported ma’at determined to fortify the gods through offerings, sacrifices and liturgical services. They also vigorously fought all enemies to secure victory in war and/or rebellion.14

Conclusion

The myths, legends, fables and stories about the origin of evil differ in many ways. However, they all share certain similarities. None of them offers a definitive reason for the origin of evil. None of them attempts to answer the question, “Why?” Furthermore, few even offer a coherent explanation for the ultimate resolution of evil.

Nevertheless, these mythical accounts of the origin of evil provide an abundance of metaphors used to convey the significance of the Christ event. That unique event must therefore be addressed in this context. For the Christ event alone not only reveals the ultimate source of evil; it also discloses its ultimate resolution. “ . . . [T]hanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

Notes and References

  1. Quoted in Jerry D. Korsmeyer, Evolution and Eden: Balancing Original Sin and Contemporary Science (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), p. 43. (go back)
  2. Quoted in ibid., p. 42. (go back)
  3. Encyclopaedia Judaica, CD-ROM ed. (1997), s.v. Louis Jacobs, “Sin.” (go back)
  4. Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 183. (go back)
  5. Janet Howe Gaines, “Lilith,” Bible Review 17, no. 5: 12-20, 43, 44. (go back)
  6. “The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl [Lilith] also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest” (Isaiah 34:14). (go back)
  7. See Gaines, “Lilith.” (go back)
  8. Margaret Barker, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 187. (go back)
  9. Ibid., p. 188. See also Joseph M. Baumgarten, “The Seductress of Qumran,” Bible Review 17, no. 5: 21-23, 43, 44. (go back)
  10. See “Origins of Human Destiny,” Outlook (September/October 2003). (go back)
  11. Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2001), pp. 20, 21. (go back)
  12. A. Bernard Knapp, The History and Culture of Ancient Western Asia and Egypt (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1988), pp. 153, 154. (go back)
  13. In Egyptian mythology the supreme god, Ra, created the demigods by spitting into his hand, mixing the fluid with the earth, and bringing forth the subordinate deity. For the Egyptians, “spit” was the metaphor for male semen, and the hand was the metaphor for the female vagina. (go back)
  14. See Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come, p. 30. (go back)

Copyright © 2004 Worldview Publications