A Comparison between Manichean and Christian Views of Evil

Kile Jones

Evil in Manicheism and Christianity

Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. ... If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. ... If, as they say, God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world? -Epicurus-


Second to ‘Does God Exist’, the question ‘Why is there Evil’ ranks among the deepest of human questions ever asked. It was in the heart of Job, the ethics of Gandhi, and the quest of Siddhartha. It might even be understood as that grand question which motivates the formation and conclusion of our worldviews, the daily moral decisions of our lives, and gives us the angst required for serious contemplation. Yet, as is seen from Epicurus, this question is far from modern. The early Hindu's answered the problem of evil by positing evils non-existence as part of the 'Maya' or illusion of this world of phenomena; the Bhagavatam explicitly says that “good and evil of this world of duality are unreal, are spoken of by words, and exist only in the mind.”[1]  In the ancient Egyptian work 'The Babylonian Theodicy', one friend attempts to comfort his suffering comrade by reminding him that the gods reward the pious and punish the wicked, but to this the sufferer replies that the “gods do not impede the way of a devil" for "those who neglect the god go the way of prosperity, while those who pray to the goddess are impoverished



and dispossessed.”[2]  Similarly the ancient Israelites wondered of God’s justice; Solomon noted that “there is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his wickedness;[3] and righteous Job achingly said to God: "You have become cruel to me.”[4]

Around this time Zoroastrianism emerged with an answer to the problem of evil by postulating two co-eternal substances of good and evil, the so-called “original twins.[5]  Buddhism attempted to answer the problem by disassociation, meditation, and avoidance, for evil was nothing but the outcome of desire and greed stemming from a misunderstanding of the self and of the world. The Buddha's answer was “to avoid all evil, to do good, and to purify one's mind.”[6]  A century later Plato and Aristotle would equate evil with a lack of knowledge, making evil synonymous with intellectual ignorance, with it’s antidote being rational contemplation. Eventually Christianity would emerge with its own answer and explanation of evil, as well as those who parted ways with the Church, such as Manicheism. This paper will focus on the ways in which Christianity and Manicheism define evil as well as the various problems which arise by their definitions.  The only difference as far as the layout is concerned is that Manicheism will be



given an introduction and not Christianity, for Manicheism is a religion far from the popularity of Christianity.

Brief Overview of Manicheism

Mani (210-276 C.E.), the founder of Manicheism, was raised in a Judeo-Christian desert sect known as the Elchasites. Similar to the Essenes, this sect was centered in the Mesopotamian desert, dressed in white robes, and were disenchanted by the religious establishment of their day. At age twelve Mani reported having his first revelation, but decided to keep it secret and wait until the right time for its proclamation. At age twenty-four Mani parted ways with the Elchasites and started writing, teaching, and preaching his own religious doctrines which he considered as final and authoritative. Mani saw himself as the final seal of the prophets; he closed the revelation which had started with Buddha and Zarathustra and had been passed on through Jesus and Paul. On the subject of Mani's conception of his own religion, P. Oktor Skjaervo notes that "according to Mani his new religion was not simply to replace the previous religions, rather it represented the fulfillment of what the previous religions had promised but had not been able to live up to."[7]

One of the central doctrines which Mani brought forth was the doctrine of ontological dualism. Mani taught that there were two separate and opposing entities which existed from eternity: light vs. darkness, life vs. death, good vs. evil, etc. According to Manichean cosmology the Light substance devised a plan to defeat the Dark substance, which in turn 'mingled' or


'mixed' the two together. The goal, or salvation process, is the ultimate recovery, through astrology, asceticism, and ritual, of the Light particles which have become trapped in the material world.

Evil in Manicheism

            There are four ways in which I will go about describing the Manichean view of evil: firstly, their doctrine of ontological dualism will be explained; secondly, their view of matter as evil; thirdly, the mixture of Good and Evil; and fourthly, the notion of ‘sins’ within their theological system.  Each of these areas will shed light upon their overall outlook on evil as well as their reasons for believing such doctrines.  Afterwards various critiques will be offered which reveal the logical tension that exists within their modes of explaining evil; this method will also be the way that Christianity is dealt with.

Ontological Dualism

            The central and sine qua non aspect to the Manichean outlook on evil is ontological dualism.  In the Epistula Fundamenti Mani clearly lays out this doctrine: “For there were in the beginning these two substances divided from one another”[8], and Augustine, who is understood by most scholars to have an accurate grasp on Manichean doctrine, notes that Mani “put together two principles, different from an opposing each other, as well as eternal and coeternal (that is,




having always been), and also two natures or substances, namely, of good and bad.”[9]  Evil, then, is ultimately not an object of the will or of the mind, but a separately active pre-cosmic substance. 

Matter as Evil

            According to Manicheism, this coeternal evil substance created the material world for the purpose of trapping the Light substance within it.  Along with Marcion, Mani taught that an evil god created the world for an evil purpose.  The creation of humankind becomes even uglier: the demon son of the King of Darkness, Ashaqlun, and his female companion, Nebroel, have sexual intercourse and Nebroel gives birth to Adam and Eve.  These various creations accounts reveal the central emphasis in Manicheism on matter being evil.  Since an evil god created the material world, and evil demons created Adam and Eve, then what is material has the same quality as its progenitors.  In the Acta Archelai (350-400 A.D.), which contains a theological discourse between a Manichean and a Christian, the Manichean, during a discussion on anthropology, ends his speech by concluding that the “body does not belong to God, but to matter, that it is dark and must be kept in the dark.”[10]

The Mixture

            As was stated before, the two coeternal substances ‘mixed’ during the original battle which in turn created the physical universe.[11]  Augustine sums up this process succinctly:

Then they [the Manicheans] declare that the world has been made by the nature of the good, that is, by the nature of God, but yet that it was formed of a mixture of good and evil which resulted when these two natures fought among themselves.[12]

      What this mixture illuminates is that Manicheism saw evil as an active substance waging war against the Light, and that the practical evil in the physical world directly correlates to the metaphysical evil which existed from eternity.  Here is where we have a threefold connection of evil: the pre-cosmic ontological dualism of Good and Evil corresponds to the battle between Good and Evil in the material world, and then corresponds to the inner battle which exists between the Evil/material and the Light/spiritual aspects of the human constitution.   

Evil as Sin

            This inner battle highlights another way that Manicheism defines evil, that is, evil is sin.  During the Bema festival Manicheans would pray to Mani saying “forgive the sins of they that know your mystery”, and declare that “this [the Bema seat] is the sign of the remission of your sins.”[13]  It is clear that Manicheans believed in sin and its forgiveness through prayers, fasting, and good works, but what exactly do they mean by ‘sin’?  Sin within the Manichean system is quite different from that within Christianity, for instance, Manicheans viewed all activity in the physical body as sin:

And if a man walks on the ground, he damages the earth.  And whoever moves his hand causes damage to the air; for the air is the soul of men, of animals, of birds, of fishes and of reptiles, and of anything else there is in the world.[14] 

 What this means is that evil is not only doing some particular act, but doing almost any act within the physical body; sin is not only doing but being.  In addition, sin and evil have a corrupting effect whereby parts of the Light become unsalvageable and unrecognizable.   



Critiques of Manichean Teachings about Evil

            With the Manichean definition of evil portrayed it must be noted that many logical problems arise by the definitions themselves.  Firstly, there arises a philosophical problem when two coeternal substances exist; this is known as the ‘problem of two infinites.’  If these substances are infinite, then how can there be two of them?  What happens in any dualistic system is that the two substances limit each other; they limit each other in knowledge, power, location, perfection, and immensity, which in turn means that each of these substances are finite, imperfect, and lacking omnipotence.  Yet how can any substance which is finite and imperfect be eternal?  Likewise, within the Manichean system the Good eventually triumphs, but the question is how can the Good triumph over the Evil if they are both equal in strength, knowledge, and eternality? 

           Secondly, there are natural problems within any anti-cosmic worldview.  Manicheans, as with most other worldviews, view the natural world, including its rivers, mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets, as beautiful and awe inspiring.  The question we must ask pertains to how something like Evil could produce such beauty, design, and wonder?  It seems that if we are to be consistent Manicheans we must view the natural world with disgust and contempt, yet this is not what they do.  The Manicheans value knowledge, but this is obviously connected to our physical bodies; they value ethics and ritual, yet these are only intentions, thoughts, and movements of the physical body; and they value family, community, and even food, and yet all of these things are physical relationships, one physical object relating to another physical object. 




Thirdly, the Manichean view of sin has many difficulties.  If our evil actions are equivalent to Evil propagating itself then how is there any moral agency at all?  Any evil action done in our bodies could be blamed on the Evil substance itself and not on any morally responsible ‘self’; likewise, any praiseworthy act could be blamed merely on the Light substance.  In fact in Manicheism there is no essential self to be held morally accountable; the physical body is part of the Evil substance and the soul is part of the Light substance, there is no room left for any essential ‘I.’ Manicheism also defines sin and Evil as ‘corruption’ and good and Light as ‘incorruption.’  The late 4th century Christian theologian, Titus of Bostra, notes the trouble of this definition in his polemical tract Contra Manichaeos:

If they call the good “incorruption” they will doubtless give evil the name “corruption”.  But what is it that the corruption corrupts?  It is impossible that it is the good.  But if it is corruption itself that is corrupted, it has been corrupted for many eternities, and they fantasize to no purpose that it (still) exists.  But how can corruption be corruption of itself?  For it is at any rate something other that is corrupted by it, and not itself.  Bit if it was itself it corrupted, it would not have existed to begin with either, for it should be noted that it would rather have been corrupted than have existed.[15]


Evil in Christianity

            With these various problems in mind we will now turn to Christianity’s definition of evil.  As with Manicheism earlier, there are four ways in which I will define evil within Christianity: firstly, evil will be looked at, in the Augustinian definition, as a lack or privation of good; secondly, evil will be considered as something of the will or volition; thirdly, evil will be defined as that which is contrary to God’s nature; and fourthly, evil will be described as sin.    After these




definitions are given various critiques will be offered revealing difficulties that exist within these definitions.

Evil as a Lack of Good

            Given the Christian presupposition of a good natured God, the existence of evil is explained as a lacking of that goodness which God conferred upon His creation.  This means, according to Christianity, that all created beings (specifically Lucifer, Adam, and Eve) were created with the ability to lack good and usher in the entrance of evil.[16]  Augustine was the first to lay out this concept explicitly, saying that evil was a lack of good (privitio boni), though this teaching comes as a logical inference from many biblical texts.[17]  What this teaches is contrary to Manicheism, for it denies ontological dualism and upholds strict monotheism; in Christianity evil is not something ontologically active and vital, rather it is something deficient and deprived.

Evil as Volitional

            According to Christian teaching, evil is not located metaphysically but volitionally.  Evil is the moral lack of goodness as a result of willful disobedience to God; it is located in the human mind and will’s turning away from and actively breaking God’s commandments. 


According to Christian teaching, sin is evil, and John the apostle describes sin as “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4); unlike Manicheism which views just being physical as sin, Christianity views evil as particular immoral actions.  Not only immoral physical actions are seen as evil, but also immoral mental actions (thoughts and intentions): Jesus speaks of this when he said that “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.  These are the things which defile a man” (Matthew 15:19-20). 

Evil as contrary to God’s Nature

            Within Christianity evil is also defined as that which is contrary to God’s nature.  What this means is that the Christian assumption is that God is pure, good, and morally perfect, and that evil is always defined as those actions and thoughts which are not pure, good, or morally perfect.  To do evil is to act in a way which God does not approve of and which does not conform to His moral law that reflects His good nature.[18]  Thus when evil is defined and practiced it is always seen as that which is contrary to God’s own character.  Once again the difference here between Christianity and Manicheism is that Christianity has one ultimate being through which a moral framework is constructed and utilized, and not two equal and separate beings who are defined one against the other. 





Evil as Sin

            Lastly, in addition to these various modes of defining evil, Christianity teaches that evil can be described as sin.  There are some forty ways of describing evil in the biblical text, all of which like ‘sin’ are fairly synonymous; a couple of these are ‘iniquity’ (James 3:6), ‘wickedness’ (Romans 6:19), ‘trespass’ (Numbers 31:16), and ‘transgression’ (Romans 5:14).[19]  All of these refer to thoughts and actions which displease God, though each have their own syntactical and contextual point of emphasis.  The most common term for evil in the bible is ‘sin’, which in the Greek is hamartia and literally means ‘to miss the mark’ and ‘to be guilty of wrong.’[20]  The picture behind this word is one of an archer who is supposed to hit on the target but falls short and ‘misses the mark.’  In the Christian worldview God requires that those He created act in a way consistent with His own nature and if they don’t they are guilty of falling short of that standard.

Critiques of Christian Teachings about Evil

            The first and most common critique of the Christian concept of evil is its origin.  If we assume that there is a good God who knows all things and controls all things then we have to explain how something like evil could be originated, ordained, or at least permitted.  Centuries of debate beginning with Augustine, translated through Luther and the Reformers, have been continuing over the origin of evil.  There are three prominent ways in which the question of evil have traditionally been answered: firstly, some say that this question is not worth asking because


we could never understand the answer or because God’s ways are so beyond ours; secondly, there are those who say that evil originated by the free will of humankind; and thirdly, there are some who say that God ordained evil for a morally sufficient reason (bringing about greater good) that we cannot fully understand.

            The problem with the first answer is that it seems to act as if the problem of evil is not truly a ‘problem.’  This position cannot even enter into the dialogue over evil for it is too agnostic to contribute anything remotely intelligible.  The second answer has numerous problems as well and may possibly, along with the first answer, be attempting to skirt the issue.  To say that evil originated in humanity’s free will is not to answer the problem at all, for God (according to the Christian worldview) knew that evil would happen (via prescience) and allowed it to take place even though He could have prevented it (via omnipotence).  The third answer at least attempts a straightforward embrace of the problem, though some people find it difficult to accept that a good God has some morally sufficient purpose for the horrendous events which have taken place on earth. 

            Another critique of the Christian view of evil lies within Christianity’s eschatology.  According to the teachings of the New Testament those who believe in Jesus Christ will go to eternal bliss, while those who reject him will be sent to eternal torment (John 3:15-18, Matthew 25:46).  The existence of an eternal place of damnation is difficult to fit with the existence of an





eternal place of bliss, for how could there be bliss while there are those who are continuously being damned?[21]  It seems as if Christianity has to explain, if they believe in hell, how a good God could allow, ordain, or even create this place.  Once again, one of three previous answers to the problem of evil will most likely be used, each with their own difficulties.

Summary of the differences between Manichean and Christian views of Evil

            In summary, there are numerous differences between the Manichean and the Christian definitions of evil.  Manicheism teaches that evil has a substance which is coeternal with the good substance and that creation took place with the wicked intention of trapping the Light within matter.  On the contrary, Christianity teaches that evil is a lack of good, a corruption of the creation which started off completely good.  Similarly, Manicheism teaches that matter is the personification of evil itself and that the goal of the human is to excrete the Light which is in them, sending it back to its home.  On the other hand, Christianity teaches that matter is not inherently evil, but that it is only in the immoral use of it that evil exists, and that the goal of humanity is to become saved from their guilt before God.


            In conclusion, we have seen how Manicheism and Christianity define evil as well as the difficulties which arise by such definitions given their overall worldview.  Each religion offers some way of understanding and coping with the existence of evil and each wish their hearers to

be comforted by their various teachings.  What we are left with is deciding which worldview more accurately can account for and explain evil in light of human reason and experience.  This way, if we are inclined towards theological explanations of evil, we may better console those who are suffering and experiencing that which is more than an academic exercise.  Not only must we look at the definitions given by these systems of thought, we must also understand them as complete worldviews, which teach divergently on a whole host of human questions.  We may then, upon viewing the whole worldview, see whether their definition of evil fits or is coherent along with their teachings on other areas of human phenomena.    





[1] Bhagavatam 11, ch 22



[2] Winton, Thomas, The Babylonian Theodicy, Documents from Old Testament Times, Harper Publishing: New York , 1961, pgs 97-103

3  Ecclesiastes 7:15

4  Job 30:21

5  Gathas 30:3

6  Dhammapada 14:5




[7] Skjaervo, P. Oktor, An Introduction to Manicheism, course book for EIrCiv 103: Manicheism, HarvardDivinity School, pg 39

[8] Epistula Fundamenti, Frg. 5a, translated by P. Oktor Skjaervo for EIrCiv 103: Manicheism, HarvardDivinity School, pg 63 

[9] Augustine, De Haeresibus, pg 1

[10] Iain Gardner and Samuel N.C. Lieu, Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire, Cambridge University Press: 2004, Cambridge, pg 184

[11] The mixture actually started when the First Man and his Five Sons entered into the Darkness with the overarching metanarrative of poisoning the Darkness.  Though it may not explicitly be deemed a ‘battle’ it is nonetheless described in warlike language and metaphor.  

[12] Augustine, De Haeresibus, book XLVI, 4

[13]Iain Gardner and Samuel N.C. Lieu, Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire, Cambridge University Press: 2004, Cambridge, pgs 238-239

[14] Ibid, pg 185

[15] Titus of Bostra, Contra Manichaeos, published in Demonstrative Proof in Defense of God by Nils Arne Pedersen, Brill Publishing: Leiden, 2004, pg 431

[16] There are two fundamental ways of viewing the ‘ability’ to lack good.  The most popular way is known as Arminianism, which says that ‘ability’ implies free will, for free will means the ‘ability to do otherwise.’  The other way of defining ‘ability’, which is used in Calvinistic circles, is that merely by our composite (made of parts) nature and finitude we, like machines and other objects, break down and fall apart naturally, which is why evil and sin entered into the world. 

[17] Firstly there is, contrary to Manicheism, no two substances existing eternally; the biblical text starts with the existence of one good God who created all things (Gen 1), and eventually goes into detailing strict monotheistic teachings (Isaiah 40-43, 1 Timothy 2:5, etc).  Secondly, the biblical texts explicitly teach the absolute goodness and moral perfection of God, saying ‘it is impossible for God to be tempted” (James 1:12-13).  Thirdly, God gives His divine sanction on all of His creation as ‘good’ (Gen 1:31), which means that evil did not exist at the period of creation.  All of these components together leads one logically to find the source of evil in humanity’s ability to lack that goodness which was conferred upon it by God. 

[18] There are numerous debates about ultimate authority regarding morality.  This is seen in the dialogue titled ‘Euthyphro’ where Socrates questions whether God is good because He wills good, or whether God wills good because what is willed is good.  The question is whether there is a higher standard than God which is called ‘good’ or whether God himself decides what is good.  The typical Christian answer is that God is the ultimate authority on goodness and that He wills good because His very nature is good.

[19] Norman Geisler lists forty ways in which evil and sin are described in his Systematic Theology: Vol 3, Bethany House: Minneapolis, 2004, pg 103

[20] Perschbacher, Wesley J., The New Analytical Greek Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody, 1990, pg 16

[21] There are some Christians (Adventist and others) who deny that hell is an actual place of eternal torment, rather, they teach that those who do not receive salvation will be annihilated (placed into non-existence) at the judgment.