It is difficult to produce a single definition of evil-as if a string of words linked together could make the reality of evil comprehensible. In the Christian tradition, it is noted as the seventh petition in the "Lord's Prayer," when the gospel author places in the mouth of Jesus these words, "but deliver us from evil. . . ." In a very real sense, we have to see it and then say, "This is it. This is evil." This is it; this is evil: institutionalized slavery, apartheid, the Holocaust, genocide, "9/11": these provide a few signposts that point to the reality of evil. Poet Maya Angelou once referred to the Holocaust-the mass murder of 6 million Jews during the Second World War-as the time when millions of ourselves killed millions of ourselves. This is evil. Evil is in opposition to life.
Evil can be referred to as a plight of and blight upon humankind to which there appears to be no solution. The world is riddled with an abundance of shaping traditions, political systems and social structures that have given birth to racial, sexual, social, and economic forms of prejudice and exploitation. Such is the stuff of which evil is made. For example, evil is made manifest through human inventions of thought and practice, which give prerogative to be arbitrarily cruel and punitive, for example, to those who are determined as intrinsically inferior. Many of the world systems or social orders are structured on a model of domination or subordination, meaning reality is skewed to established power relations where those who "naturally" are meant to dominate do so over those who are, supposedly by nature, meant to be dominated.
Institutionalized slavery is an example. The master or slave system is organized on the premise that there are those who "need" to be dominated by those empowered to dominate. It then becomes the privilege of those who perceive themselves masters to grant themselves permission to brutalize those whom they claim are theirs to control. Civilization in the 20th century through law and practice has confronted this system as evil. One race of people is not by nature superior to another.
Through history and across religious history humans have struggled to come to terms with the root cause of that which twists, knots, and gnarls human nature to such an extent as to produce suffering on a massive scale. The realization of the capacity for perversity in the exercise of free will is a common feature of virtually all the major religious traditions-Eastern and Western. How can evil be so predominant when most who live upon the face of the earth profess to adhere to the standard of the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matt. 7:12)? This guiding principle for right action exists in all major religions in some form.
The question of theodicy is fundamentally a philosophical and religious one: What kind of a God permits evil, especially innocent and undeserved suffering? Why would God permit evil, pain, destruction, and death when God is the epitome of absolute goodness, manifestation of grace, creator of life, and omnipotent eternal One? The attempt to reconcile the existence of God and the reality of evil is called theodicy, from two Greek words meaning God (theos) and righteousness (dike). Theodicy is the religious response to the problem of pain and suffering; an intelligible effort to bring together the unlimited goodness of an all-powerful God with the terrorizing reality of evil. The word was coined in the 18th century and has engaged theologians who explore the nature of the Divine in juxtaposition with the inconceivable horrors of death and destruction and the seemingly endless human propensity to cause harm and inflict suffering generation after generation.
Generally, the notion of evil is categorized in a twofold way: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil refers to the exercise of human freedom and free will to deliberately inflict pain, cause harm, and destroy wholeness. For example, moral evil is the outcome of taking incredible human genius and using it to create weapons of mass destruction and then using those weapons upon human beings and the environment. Natural evil, on the other hand, refers to unpredictable phenomena beyond human control, such as earthquakes, tornados, floods, hurricanes, and all forms of "natural disasters," that result in catastrophes of epic proportions. There is argument that it is inappropriate to name such natural phenomena evil, as if the rain could stop itself from becoming a torrential flood or the winds control the direction of a hurricane to prevent a trail of destruction. The results of nature can be brutal, but uncontrollable nature is not evil. For some, the category of evil belongs exclusively to humankind's capacity to voluntarily perpetrate forms of inhumanity.