Recently, in discussions about racism and inequality in America, Christian friends have challenged my claim that part of the problem is systemic evil.
No such thing, they insist. Sin is an individual problem, a problem of the heart, of the human will—but it does not and cannot infect the structures and institutions of society. If some organization is treating customers or staff unfairly or adhering to unjust policies or somehow perpetuating injustice, it’s only because sinful individuals working inside that institution are doing unjust things. Help those individuals see their error and repent, my friends assure me, the injustice will be stopped, and the societal problem solved. If some sector of the market, like real estate produces unfairly unequal outcomes it’s because sinful individuals do not respond to equal opportunities equally well. If the banking system treats loan applicants unfairly it’s because bank employees intentionally or inadvertently allow their sinful bigotry to distort their work. Evil and sin is always individual and only in human hearts, perhaps enhanced by Satanic temptation but never embedded in institutions or structures and systems of the world. Systemic racism is impossible; prejudice, racism and inequality are the result of individual sinfulness alone.
I suspect my friends are unaware they are speaking directly contrary to the biblical doctrine of evil. But they are. I wish they would listen to Tim Keller’s message, “Racism and Corporate Evil: A White Guy’s Perspective.” This is how he begins:
I want to talk to you about the concept of corporate evil or systemic evil and injustice. I’ll start off by saying Western people in general, and White Americans in particular, have little or no concept of corporate evil or they are actively set against the idea. I think it’s very important for me as a White man to say “Look, that’s wrong.”
If we don’t get what the Bible says about corporate evil, we will not only misunderstand the Bible itself, but we also won’t understand what so many of our non-white brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors are saying. We just won’t get it. 1
Keller is correct, and as he says, it matters. “Doctrine proceeds from an authoritative script,” Kevin Vanhoozer insists, “and gives direction as to how individuals and the church can participate fittingly in the drama of redemption.” 2 Mistaking what the Scriptures teach means we will believe wrongly and as a result, live wrongly. My friends are sincere, but wrong—systemic evil is not only real, it is part of the biblical teaching on evil.
And so, I will do my best here to give a summary of the biblical perspective on evil, with special emphasis on systemic evil.
At the beginning
Basic to understanding the Christian view of evil is the Scriptural teaching that evil is rooted in three equally essential and interrelated realities: the flesh, the devil and the world. Systemic evil is part of the third—the world—inflamed by and inflaming the other two, individual sinfulness and satanic oppression or temptation. This 3-fold perspective of evil is taught from the very beginning of Scripture.
Evil appears in the story of the fall (Genesis 3), immediately after the creation narrative (Genesis 1&2). In the biblical account, our first parents sinned by refusing to trust God’s word and were then held to account. “What is this you have done?” God asked, and in that moment individual sinfulness was acknowledged by both God and humankind (3:8-13, 16-19). “Adam, by sinning,” J. I. Packer says, “became a sinner by nature; Adam’s descendants are born sinners, and so sin by nature.” 3
But notice that the biblical story of the fall does not limit the nature of evil to individual sinfulness alone. The dark, subversive power of temptation and spiritual wickedness, the wily serpent the devil, was involved, accused and cursed as well (3:1-5, 13-14). Packer again: “Man is God’s creature, made in God’s image to enjoy God’s glory; Satan’s ambition ever since man was made has been to deface that image and thwart God’s will for our life and destiny.” 4 From the opening pages of Scripture, in other words, we find both the flesh (the apostolic term for individual sinfulness, as we will see) and the devil.
And the biblical story of the fall does not stop there, either. Besides individual sin and satanic manipulation, the world itself was involved, thrown off balance and out of kilter at the fall. God’s good creation was corrupted, debauched and spoiled. There is awful specificity in God’s word spoken to our first parents as poetry:
…cursed is the ground because of you
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you
by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread… (3:17b-19a).
To make full sense of this, we must read it in light of the textual and narrative context, which includes Adam and Eve’s original calling. They were placed “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” to creatively cultivate and tenderly care for the garden established by God (2:15). This is a vocation in husbandry. But now at the fall the good order of agriculture as made by God is upended, now resisting and thwarting their best efforts to fulfill their calling. The very structure and direction of agriculture in our fallen world has been perverted by the fall, and remains so to this day, as any farmer, arborist and gardener will affirm.
The creation and fall narratives of Genesis thus provide in embryonic form the biblical view of evil. It consists of three intimately interwoven and interrelated parts, and like ultimate reality, God himself, is trinitarian: the flesh, the devil and the world. All three are essential for a proper understanding of evil. To deny any of the three is to misconstrue the true nature of evil, and so be unable to diagnose the problem properly or supply an adequate solution. The three together reveal the Christian conviction that there is no person or place or human endeavor, no corner or aspect of created reality, visible or invisible, except the throne of God alone, that is not now broken and infected by sin.
The biblical story continues
Now, we can read through the Bible and see how this 3-fold perspective is consistently used to reveal the truth about our broken reality and God’s promise of redemption. Consider a few examples, taken at random.
Occasionally all three appear together in the same text. An example is the parable of the four soils, told by Jesus (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20. Luke 8:4-15). Each plays a distinct role in rendering the good seed of God’s redemptive word ineffective.
The flesh. “Against you, you only, have I sinned,” David says to God, “and done what is evil in your sight,” after his unfaithfulness and murderous treachery with Bathsheba and Uriah (Psalms 51:4). And when the prophet Nathan confronts him, he repents, recognizing the horrible results that flow from his sin (2 Samuel 12).
It is in the New Testament where individual sinfulness is often referred to specifically as the flesh, not meaning the physical body but our inner nature, corrupted by the fall. We are not merely sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. “I know that nothing good dwells in me,” St. Paul says, “that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7: 18-19). Which is why the apostle commands us to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).
The devil. Then, in what is probably the oldest book in the Bible, we read of scenes that seem to partake of fantasy literature.
Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job…” (Job 1:6-8).
And the prophet Daniel was allowed a vision that pulled back the veil on a spiritual battle that involved angelic and demonic beings that held sway over kingdoms and nations (10:1, 4-6, 12-14).
In the New Testament the devil is both the person of Satan and a catch-all term for the principalities and powers that range and rage around us in the spiritual realm. “Be sober-minded; be watchful,” St. Peter tells us. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9). This is a not merely a literary metaphor but a solemn mythic, literal description of reality.
The world. And throughout the Old Testament, as the text from Daniel implies, the world is always present as a source of evil as well.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision. (Psalms 2:1-4)
Here the nations are not viewed as neutral entities, but systems of governance and life with worldviews in opposition to God, kingdoms that promote themselves as alternatives to God’s kingdom. The gods and values of the nations around Israel were always a subtle snare to them, seducing them away from faithfulness. As John Stott comments, we “know that evil is ingrained in human nature and human society.” 5
“Now the Bible uses the term world in different ways,” John Frame notes. “Sometimes the world is simply the whole creation of God, the inhabited earth, without reference to sin or salvation. But Scripture often reminds us that the human world has fallen into sin. So it often uses the term world—either the spatial term kosmos or the temporal term aion—to designate everything opposed to God.” 6 St. John identifies the specific ways the world exerts influence. “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:16). The values and expectations of a fallen world always conflict to some extent with the values and expectations of the Kingdom of God. This is not a condemnation of culture nor an excuse to either withdraw or fight a culture war. Rather it is a warning about being tempted by societal visions of success or images of the self, or to be shaped by cultural liturgies, or to adopt the ideologies that act idolatrously to shape the lives, hearts and minds of those that embrace them. “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” the apostle says. “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). “The curse of sin,” Richard Mouw insists, “touches thrones and principalities, constitutions and legal systems.” 7
James K. A. Smith explains that “world” in the New Testament “is the name for disordered creation, often with a specific emphasis on the misdirected cultural formations of human society.” This means “the world names fallen, broken systems, idolatrous configuration, the garden of Eden remade as Babylon.” 8
All of this comes full circle in the hope we are provided in Scripture for the coming fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom. Then individual sin will be fully erased and righteousness complete (Revelation 7:9; 19:8; 21:27). The devil will be cast into the hell prepared for him (Matthew 25:41; Revelation 12:7-9). Babylon will be cast down (Revelation 18) until the “kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15-16).
Much more could be included in this list, but this is sufficient to demonstrate how the 3-fold take on evil—the flesh, the devil, the world—comprises the biblical perspective of evil. The fall into sin is not limited to only an isolated portion of created reality but infects every aspect. And every instance of evil is best understood when viewed as if all three aspects are always involved, even if we finite creatures cannot parse exactly how each is implicated.
The biblical view lived out
This is why in my church tradition three questions in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer are asked of a candidate for baptism:
Question: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? (Answer: I renounce them.)
Question: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? (Answer: I renounce them.)
Question: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? (Answer: I renounce them.)
Though the words used in the 17th century were of course different, this formulation is found in the original, 1662, edition of the Prayer Book. 9
Then, a decade later, in 1678, John Bunyan published Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s an allegory of the Christian life, telling the story of a pilgrimage that takes the believer progressively through a life of faith towards the Celestial City. We meet individual sinfulness and the devil and follow along as Christian and Faithful must pass through Vanity Fair. Established by “Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion,” it is a place “wherein should be sold all sorts of vanity,” idolatries and ideologies, so dangerous to the soul. Vanity Fair is the place where Christian’s and Faithful’s friend, Hopeful lives as an exile. 10 As do we.
My friends who deny the reality of systemic evil counter that my belief in it comes from the influence of Critical Race Theory. I have no real expertise in CRT, but I have read enough to say this. CRT was developed in the mid-eighties as a theory that posited that racism is a structural or systemic evil that yields inequality and injustice for Blacks (and other minorities) in America. Developed as a legal theory, it influenced scholars in a variety of fields, moving into literary criticism, sociology, history and political science. CRT is based on postmodern philosophy, an unstable and insufficient foundation; unstable because postmodernism is self-defeating, and insufficient because it is essentially reactionary, and so proposed solutions are too limited. I agree with Critical Race theorists when they correctly diagnose institutional racism, but part company with them on why systemic racism exists, its extent and reach, and what to do about it. My belief in systemic racism is not due to CRT; I was convinced that it exists a decade prior to CRT’s development.
In 1976, John Perkins published Let Justice Roll Down. I still have my copy from that original printing with a foreword by the late Senator Mark Hatfield. The glue in the binding has long since dried, so that pages are loose, and the paper yellowed. The next year I joined the staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship where lively debates about racial injustice drove me into serious Bible study and a furious recalibration of what I believed about justice. I had much to learn, much prejudice to shed, and much for which I had to repent. Perkins’ story and words gripped me, upending the easy conservative assumptions of my middle-class White world.
Whether we admit or not, our reading of biblical ethics is colored by our perception of the world around us. If we think there are only a few “bad guys” such as burglars and murderers, and that all the given political, legal and economic structures around us are basically okay, then we are bound to read our Bibles in a certain way. We will assume that it tells us to “lay low,” whether we are a part of the law or only under the law; that the person who speaks out is a rebellious agitator.
But that assumption can be badly shaken up by a good look at what happens to many people who are simply crushed by, rather than helped by, these social structures and institutions we take for granted. If sin can exist at every level of government, and in every human institution, then also the call to biblical justice in every corner of society must be sounded by those who claim a God of Justice as their Lord. 11
The biblical view in experience
The biblical view of evil accords well with our personal, existential experience of evil. To take an easy example, consider the outrage that has rippled across our deeply divided society.
The flesh. My individual sin is very present and obvious here, as I intentionally doom-scroll through social media looking for some folly to despise. I can’t believe they actually said and did that, and so I click Send to share the update with as many as I can. If I’m outraged, you should be too. I’m not talking here about righteous anger, because that takes calm reflection, prayer and careful conversation. This is simpler than that, more primal, more divisive, and makes me feel morally superior and powerfully involved.
The devil. But really. When I look up from my device and see the anger boiling across my beloved America, people calling neighbors “enemies” and issuing death threats, isn’t it obvious that far more than individual sinfulness is involved? The spiritual foe of unity and neighborliness, love and gentleness, is doubtlessly fanning the flames of fragmentation behind the scenes. I feel the temptation to open social media even though I know the danger and have determined to remain cool. I resist the temptation only to be tempted again. And again.
The world. But my outrage wouldn’t spread so widely except for social media, for the technologies that invite me to share with little thought, even less effort, and all in a matter of seconds. I realize that the innovators of these technologies might be good people, meaning it all for good, so we could be better connected, but sin infests our world, and, in the process, good things are malformed by the fall to become purveyors of destruction. Sin manifests itself as corruption, and the fall distorts systems. And so unexpected consequences are birthed, and in a fallen world, good things like technology can be deformed to promote evil instead of good.
And so, my sinfulness births outrage which feeds yours, fanned by hidden principalities and enabled by the systems of our broken world. All three are doubtlessly involved, because that is the biblical perspective on evil and because that is the only explanation that seems to me to make adequate sense of it all.
That is one example, but there are many more we could consider. Busyness as normative for the good life. Fame or wealth as one’s definition for human flourishing. Efficiency and productivity as a measure of human worth. Racial inequality and injustice. In each case more is going on than only individual sinfulness. In each case all three aspects of the biblical perspective on evil are required to make full sense of it.
The biblical view in research
Not surprisingly, responsible research points to the same realities. I will mention only two here.
Divided by Faith is a careful sociological study; the author’s research paradigm and data are included. Their conclusion is sobering in terms of how systemic injustice can occur even when the people being studied very much want justice instead. Divided by Faith, the authors, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith write, “examines the role of white evangelicalism in black-white relations. Our argument is that evangelicals desire to end racial division and inequality, and attempt to think and act accordingly. But, in the process, they likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than they do to tear it down.” 12 Their study examines evangelical belief and practice, middle class American values and assumptions, and the reality of continuing inequality in our racialized society. If you are a White evangelical, please be certain to read this book.
Or consider “Systemic Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System is Not a Myth” by Brandon Vaidyanathan. Columnist David Brooks called attention to this study that “simply gathers a massive amount of data to carefully describe the contours of systemic racism, while dismantling the studies that supposedly deny it.” 13 The essay is serious but accessible. “It’s easy to refute the assertion,” Vaidyanathan says, “that there is no systemic racial bias at all. Considerable evidence points to some degree of racial bias across nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system.” 14Calmly and carefully researched, annotated and written, this essay is a model of clear thinking about a difficult, important and fraught topic.
As Rev Keller warned, being wrong here matters. It matters a great deal. It matters, first, because rejecting the possibility of systemic evil means rejecting the teaching of God’s word in Scripture. And as always when we get biblical doctrine wrong, we will fail to live faithfully as God’s people.
What I have written here is only a brief introduction to the Christian perspective of evil. So, let me suggest a few resources for further study and reflection.
Be sure to listen to Rev. Keller’s talk in Endnote #1.
Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd edition, by Albert M. Wolters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing; 2005). Especially note chapter 5 “Discerning Structure and Direction.” For many of us, Wolters’ little book is a classic, a text that grounded our thinking in biblically orthodox teaching. It was formative in my spiritual growth and theological education as a young man.
Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin by Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing; 1996). A dark subject but written in light of the hope that redemption in Christ makes possible. A fine theology of evil written for ordinary Christians who want to know Christ better.
Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies by David T. Koyzis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2003). Koyzis helps us see that our modern world’s political ideologies are actually idolatries which seduce us to adopt values, lifestyles and convictions contrary to those of God’s kingdom.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2020). Though a study in biblical hermeneutics or interpretation, McCaulley helps us see how the Bible should be applied to the problem of institutional racial inequality and injustice.
Christ and the Powers by Hendrik Berkhof, translated by John Howard Yoder (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press; 1977). This one is recommended by my friend Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books, where you can order all these titles. Mention us when you place your order.
Here is the point: The biblical and Christian view of evil involves a clear understanding that three separate, yet interrelated forces of sin are involved and active: the flesh, the devil and the world. In this view, the world is not merely an aggregate of sinful individuals, but a distinct and meaningful part of created reality in its own right. The world also bears the marks of the fall into sin, and with its values and beliefs challenges the values and beliefs of God’s kingdom. Essential to its reality is systemic injustice. To deny the existence of systemic evil is to deny the witness of God’s word in Holy Scripture and the testimony of our sisters and brothers who have suffered it personally. If we deny it, our mind, imagination and heart will be less than fully biblical. As a result, we will fail to see sin correctly, to embrace redemption fully and to apply grace adequately in a world torn apart by systemic racial injustice.
- Tim Keller sermon online.
- The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press; 2005) p. 78.
- God’s Words: Studies in Key Bible Themes by J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1981) p. 74.
- God’s Words by J. I. Packer; p. 86-87.
- The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World by John R. W. Stott (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1992) p. 390
- The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John M. Frame (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing; 2008) p. 865
- When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem by Richard J. Mouw, revised edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing; 2002) p. 56.
- Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2009) p. 188-189.
- 1662 Book of Common Prayer online. “Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh; so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them?”
- The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Part 1, Sixth Stage. Pilgrim’s Progress from PC Study Bible formatted electronic database Copyright © 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc.
- Let Justice Roll Down: John Perkins Tells His Own Story by John Perkins (Glendale, CA: Regal Books, G/L Publications; 1976) p. 195
- Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith (New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000) p. ix.
- “The Sidney Awards: A hard year produces great writing” by David Brooks in The New York Times (December 24, 2020) online.
- “Systemic Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System is Not a Myth” by Brandon Vaidyanathan online.