Why does evil exist?
This is one of those basic questions people have been struggling with since time immemorial. (Spoiler: I’m not going to solve it in this essay.) If God is good, and God is powerful, then why do pain and suffering exist? Why does God permit people to do bad things? Why do the world’s problems persist?
A comprehensive answer to this question would fill a small library and require me to have several degrees I don’t possess. It’s unlikely to be relevant to one’s worldbuilding anyway, outside a very small subset of books that take the ultimate nature of reality as their focus. Later in this essay we’re going to turn our attention to the more day-to-day concept of sin — but I’m starting with the problem of evil because that question has a lot of bearing on how characters conceive of their deity or deities, and how they exist in the world.
For example, note what I said above about God being good and powerful. Specifically, one of the main formulations of the problem of evil is predicated on God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence: God knows about problems, can fix them, and wants to do so. So why does evil exist? Take one or more of those qualities away, and it can be explained more easily.
Or you can approach this issue from the direction of free will and fate. If our actions are predestined, then bad things may happen because they are meant to, in service to some larger, ineffable plan. (Of course, that also raises the question of whether you can blame and punish someone for doing ill . . . and then the question of whether you can avoid punishing them, if your own actions are likewise predestined . . . and down the rabbit hole we go.) Alternatively, God may have made the decision to allow us free will, and evil is simply us choosing to use that gift badly.
There’s also the question of what evil is. At the start of this essay, I used the phrase “pain and suffering;” are those things synonymous with evil? We certainly don’t like them, but that isn’t the same thing. They may serve an important purpose: pain, for example, is a way for our bodies to tell us DON’T DO THAT. An inability to feel pain is dangerous, as you may badly injure yourself without realizing it. More theologically, Christian thought has sometimes characterized suffering as redemptive, the path by which we encounter God.
Considering the nature of evil leads us toward the topic of sin, beginning with the question of whether it’s universal. In the sense that human beings are universally tempted to do bad things, yes, you’ll find sin more or less everywhere. But sin as a religious concept? Perhaps not. Many of us likely think it is, because many major world faiths today (especially the Abrahamic ones) take sin as one of their central concerns. If you conceive of it only in the terms imposed by that framework, though, you’ll find it curiously absent in many places: Greco-Roman priests, for example, were not hugely occupied with the sins of the people who came to their temples.
Of course, as my phrasing implies, there is more than one way to think about sin. One of the most common is a legalistic definition: sin is a violation of the laws laid down by the divine (whether that’s a singular God or many gods). Sin is, in essence, a special instance of crime, and it invites punishment in a similar fashion as more worldly wrongdoing. It isn’t hard to find instances of this concept throughout history — especially around fairly universal crimes, like killing your own father. The difference is, it may be characterized simply as a crime, as an evil deed, rather than a special theological category that requires special religious treatment.
Another view of sin tends to be more recent. This one casts matters in a relational light: sin is anything that breaks down the relationship between the individual and the divine. Here, it’s characterized in terms of selfishness; when you prioritize your own desires above God’s, you’re turning away from God’s love for you, and that is sin.
A third approach — which, as before, may or may not be spoken of as sin — characterizes evil deeds more as a form of pollution, or as acts that disturb the proper balance of the world. The difference between this and the legalistic view is that the proscribed acts don’t pollute or imbalance because the gods laid down a law saying “don’t do that;” they do so because that’s simply how the world works. Stick your hands in mud, and you will have mud on your hands.
What counts as a sin? Like I said, some things are fairly universal; I don’t know of a single culture where killing your father is considered okay. (Killing family members in general tends to be viewed as worse than murdering other people: just ask Cain, or Orestes.) If the focus of the religion is moralistic, then you may see a two-part mentality where an act like theft is a crime, but the impulse assumed to underlie it, e.g. greed, is a sin. Basically, if something damages the social order, it tends to be frowned upon more or less worldwide.
Other sins are far more specific to the culture in question. For example, taboos against killing or eating particular animals tend to be based on local beliefs about the nature of those animals or their relationship with humans. Blasphemous acts as a general category are widely sinful, but saying that it’s wrong to enter a sacred space or touch a sacred object without first being purified will be particular to faiths where purification is important. When the view of sin is legalistic, failing to uphold divinely mandated duties such as certain prayers or festivals is a sin.
Along with the question of “what acts are sinful,” though, there’s also the question of circumstances. Is it a sin to think about doing a bad thing? Most people would say no — thinking is not doing, and the decision not to follow through on one’s impulses is a laudable, moral act — but the truly strict might say it’s wrong for such thoughts to even enter your head (albeit a lesser wrong than making those thoughts reality). What about sins you performed by accident, or without knowing they were sinful, or under coercion from without? Much depends on both how forgiving you think the gods are, and what you think sin consists of. A polluting act will pollute regardless of intention, but breaking divine law without intent might not count as a crime.
I find it interesting how rarely this seems to figure into the stories I read. I think it’s part and parcel with how religion in speculative fiction is often treated as set decoration, rather than meaningful faith for the characters; if they don’t believe, they won’t be particularly concerned with whether their actions would get divine approval or not. Heck, given the frequency with which religious establishments exist to be corrupt antagonists, the characters might take pride in thumbing their noses at the words of the priests! I’d love to see more stories where morality has a spiritual dimension, where the concern isn’t just with what secular law says you can do, but with where people’s actions fit into the larger metaphysical picture.