Without intrinsic substance or being, evil materialized into an active agent of destruction when it was ‘hypostasized’, that is, when it became a reality in the form of the devil and the demons. Fr Geogres Florovsky speaks of evil as ‘nothingness’, as ‘a pure negation, a privation or a mutilation’. Evil is primarily a lack, an absence of goodness. Compared with the Divine being, the operation of evil is illusory and imagined: the devil has no power where God does not allow him to operate.
Yet, as being a slanderer and a liar, the devil uses falsehood as his main weapon: he deceives his victim into believing that within his hands are concentrated great power and authority. The truth is that he does not have this power at all. As Vladimir Lossky emphasizes, in the Lord’s Prayer we do not ask God to deliver us from a general evil, but to deliver us from the evil one, from the evil-doer, a concrete person that embodies evil. This ‘evil-doer’, whose nature was originally good, is the bearer of that deadly non-being, non-life, which leads to his own death and the death of his victim.
Most assuredly, God is not a party to evil, yet evil is somehow under His control: it is God Who sets the boundaries in which evil can operate. As the opening of the book of Job shows, there is a certain direct and personal relationship between God and the devil (cf. Job 1-2); the nature of this relationship is, however, unknown to us. According to the mysterious ways of His Providence, and for purposes of edification, God allows evil to act as a means of setting people aright. This is evident from those parts of Scripture where God is recorded as visiting evil upon people: thus God hardened the heart of Pharaoh (Ex 4:21; 7:3; 14:4); God visited Saul with an evil spirit (1 Sam.16:14; 19:9); God gave the people ‘statutes that were not good’ (Ezek 20:25); God gave the people up to ‘impurity’, ‘dishonorable passions’ and a ‘base mind’ (Rom 1:24-32). In all of these instances it is not God Who is the source of evil: in possessing utter power over both good and evil, God can allow evil to operate in order to transform it into a source of virtue and to direct it towards good consequences. He can also use it to deliver people from a yet greater evil.
The obvious question still remains: why does God allow evil and the devil to exist? Why does He permit evil? St. Augustine confessed that he could not answer this question: ‘I am unable to penetrate the depths of this ordinance and I confess that it is beyond my powers’, he wrote. St. Gregory of Nyssa answered the question in a more optimistic manner: God permits the devil to act for a certain time only, yet there will come a time when evil will be ‘finally obliterated by the long cycle of ages’ and when ‘nothing outside of good will remain, but the confession of Christ’s lordship will be unanimous even from the demons’. The belief in the final restoration of the demons and the devil into their initial state was held also by St. Isaac of Nineveh, as well as by some other early church writers. However, this opinion has never become a magisterial teaching of the Church.
The Church knows that evil is neither co-eternal with God nor equal to Him. That the devil rebelled against God and even became the king and ruler of hell does not mean that his kingdom will last for ever. On the contrary, Christian eschatology, as we shall see later, is profoundly optimistic and strongly holds faith in the final victory of good over evil, God over the devil, Christ over the Antichrist. Yet, what this victory will entail and what the final outcome of the existence of evil will be still remains unclear in Christian teaching. Pondering on this, the human mind once more falls silent in the presence of the mystery, powerless to delve into the depths of Divine destinies. As God says in the book of Isaiah, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways’ (Is.55:8-9 in Septuagint translation).