I am a huge fan of science fiction movies. I grew up watching Star Wars and imagining being on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon as it entered hyperspace. As I have gotten older, I have become a huge fan of what Marvel has done with its slate of interconnected movies and TV shows in what they call the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
I hope my introduction doesn’t put you off if you are not a fan of this media, but for me, my connection to this material has always seemed to go beyond the thrill of fast-paced action and great visual effects.
George Lucas’s motivation to create Star Wars was more than to develop a hit movie franchise; it was far more philosophical. He was fascinated in representing what he called the universal conflict of good versus evil. Through the medium of storytelling, using the central characters, he wanted to explore the question, “Am I a good person?”
In an interview with Senator Bill Bradley on the American Voices podcast in 2015, Lucas said, “To me it’s really about a compassionate person as opposed to a person who is consumed with self-interest, we all have good and evil in us, because we all have the selfish side in us and we all have the compassionate side within us.”
Almost every great story—historical, mythological and everything in-between—seems to pit two opposing sides against each other, good and evil. But the question is, where did this idea come from? What has caused good and evil’s existence? If we were just creatures evolved to the rule of “survival of the fittest”, wouldn’t compassion make us weak and less likely to survive? Doesn’t pure logic dictate that the selfish ones are “good” because they have a better chance of survival?
Origins of good and evil
Where does morality, the belief that some things, traits, choices or actions are inherently good or bad, come from? How do we explain why we determine some things to be good and others bad?
Secular scientists have suggested many reasons for this framework of assessment. Some suggest religion has created a beliefs-based framework of what is good and bad based on what the religion dictates.
Some say it arises as a social construct in order to “keep our brutish nature under control”. This social construct also results in positive outcomes: When I am kind and co-operate with my neighbour, we can plant and care for a bigger crop. We both end up with more of what we need to survive than if I just worked on my own.
Some suggest it is a purely logical framework based on rational choices. We determine if something is good or bad purely on the merit or harm of the outcome. For example, speeding through a red light is bad because you might die or kill others. There are no universal moral laws under this explanation, just actions which can hurt or help others.
One interesting piece of research by philosopher Patricia Churchland, published in the journal Nature, even suggests that morality is genetic in nature. She uses the example of mammals whose genes produce the chemical oxytocin and vasopressin, which prompt them to care for their young. This means when they do something that is good for their species’ survival, their genetic make-up will release brain chemicals which make them feel good and hence reward that behaviour.
The reality is that all of these probably work together to provide a framework of what is right and wrong. The only problem is that in history, the definition of good and evil has not been consistent.
In their book What if Jesus had Never Been Born? Kennedy and Newcombe state that, “It was a dangerous thing for a baby to be conceived in classical Rome…children who outlived infancy— approximately two-thirds of those born—were the property of their father; he could kill them at his whim. Only about half of the children born lived beyond the age of eight, in part because of widespread infanticide, with famine and illness also being factors. Infanticide was not only legal; it was applauded. Killing a Roman was murder, but it was commonly held in Rome that killing one’s own children could be an act of beauty.”
In Aztec culture, public human sacrifices was a common practice and well-accepted as they believe it secures the favour of the gods, thus avoiding drought and securing crops.
These are brutal and extreme examples, but they show that even in highly civilised cultures, what we consider to be morally good and bad is not and has never been consistent. If morality is purely determined by objective variables such as genetic make-up, evolutionary outcomes and environmental factors, these wide variations cannot be adequately explained.
I believe that the concept that good and evil exists has been built into our genetic make-up, but the Bible also gives me the only explanation that adequately addresses both the origins of good and evil, and why we see so much variance over their definition.
The biblical origin of good and bad
The Bible describes a spiritual realm in which God and God’s creation (called angels) live. It mentions that originally, this was a place where no evil existed, until one of God’s angels—the Bible calls Lucifer, the Devil or Satan—decided he didn’t want to live under God’s government or by His rules anymore. The Bible says he rebelled against God (see the Old Testament passages of Ezekiel 28:12–19 and Isaiah 14:12–14).
How a “good” being living in a place devoid of evil became evil is hard to comprehend, however it gives us some clues in these passages, Ezekiel tells us that Satan was “blameless” yet Isaiah says that he wished to “raise his throne above the starts of God” and wished to “make [himself] like the Most High [God].” In essence he wanted to depose the Lord God and conduct a heavenly coup d’etat.
The term the Bible uses to explain this rebellion or betrayal is “sin”. This word indicates two main ideas, firstly the breaking of a relationship of trust and the second, desiring not to live under someone else’s rules. The Bible describes this second concept as lawlessness (1 John 3:4).
This angel, Satan, then spread his ideas of rebellion against God among the other angels in heaven. This resulted in one third of God’s angels deciding to follow Satan in his rebellion against God as described in the New Testament book of Revelation (12:3, 4) where Satan is pictured as a Great Dragon and the angels are symbolised as stars.
Because God chose to give both his angels (and us humans) free agency or choice, they were always free to choose to remain faithful or turn on Him. It was God’s intention to allow this because He wanted to gain influence through love rather than control (1 John 4:10).
Consider that some things are inherently good and others bad. Satan didn’t so much create evil as he chose it. This doesn’t mean evil existed before Satan but the potential for it did. This is because it comes down free will: you can respond to God’s love by following His purpose and will for you, or you can reject Him and try to live according to your own way of doing things.
Ultimately it is choosing to determine what is good and bad based on our own desires and purposes, or choosing to trust that God sees a bigger picture than we ever can and knows what is best for everyone.
Satan began this conflict between his way and God’s way, but every being in God’s creation has the free will to choose which way they want to follow. It’s how this conflict came to earth, as the Bible describes in Genesis 3.
God created a perfect world for humanity to live in. He provided all we needed to live fulfilled lives. He also gave us the option to choose to follow Him or to follow our own way. The biblical story describes God placing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden. He gave our first parents, Adam and Eve, a clear rule that we were not to eat from its fruit. He told them the natural outcome of choosing to separate ourselves from God, the Lifegiver, would be that they experience death.
According to the Bible, Satan used this tree to tempt Adam and Eve—telling them that God was withholding the knowledge of good and evil from them and that by eating the fruit, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). They took what God called bad and chose to call it good. It led to this entire world coming under Satan’s influence, and death, sickness and suffering came as a result.
Why do we have this innate sense that there is a good and evil? Because it is a basic inherent part of the make-up of the universe and how God made us. Why is there so much variance over what people call good and evil? The Bible suggests it depends on whether we try to determine what is good and bad based on our own terms and frame of reference, or whether we look to what God has shown us is right and wrong.
The question is, what will you use to determine right from wrong? How can any of us be sure that if we only use our understanding and the information available to us, that we will make the right objective decision which is the best choice for everyone? If that is impossible, then is there a being in the universe who has enough knowledge to make this decision based on every consideration?
And if that Being wanted to connect with you personally and guide you in your life, would you choose to seek His guidance?
Matthew Hunter is a Seventh-day Adventist minister in South Australia.