In the Bible we find words like “sin,” “wickedness,” and “evil.” Are these terms interchangeable, or do their meanings differ?
First, let me comment on the words “evil” and “wickedness.” The Hebrew word ra often appears in our Old Testament as both of the words that you cite. For example, Psalm 7:4 and 5 state, “If I have repaid evil to him who was at peace with me, or have plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue me and overtake me” (emphasis mine). In the same psalm (v. 9), we also read, “Oh, let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end, but establish the just; for the righteous God tests the hearts and minds” (emphasis mine). In verses 4, 5, and 9, the English words are different, but the same Hebrew word is used. This difference in translation is often, but not always, the case.
In the New Testament, we find the Greek word kukos, or kaki (depending on the part of speech), used for “evil” in Matthew 6:34 (KJV and others), but also for “wickedness” in Acts 8:22: “Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.” Another Greek word, poneros, similarly is used as both “evil” and “wickedness” in the English. The difference between kakos and poneros can sometimes be a little difficult to explain, but generally the first indicates what is evil in character and influence, and the second refers more to evil that causes sorrow, pain, labor, and the like—often used in a physical sense.
Generally we think of evil (or wickedness) as referring to the world’s system or to the diabolical (Devil’s) scheme of things and the scheme’s effects. It is a broad word of origin and source. This may be where we get the term “the evil one” for Satan. In contrast, we have the word “sin,” which we tend to understand as more of a personal issue—often we define it as a person’s “missing the mark” with regard to God’s character, will, and purposes. In spite of these differences, people tend to interchange the words “evil” and “sin.”
When we look at the words for “sin” in the original languages, we are introduced to a completely different word, hamartia, which literally means “the missing of the mark.” (This is where we get the word “hamartiology,” the doctrine of sin.) We miss the mark, of course, by transgressing, wronging, or going against a holy God and His precepts. Then we also have the issue of “sin” versus “sins.” In the latter we usually think of specific wrong actions of a given person, while the former deals with the universal aspect of the problem. We commit sins because of the reality of the presence of sin in the world through the Fall and thus in ourselves (1 John 1:8), because of the sin nature we possess.
The truly important thing to know in the matter of sin, wickedness, and evil is that the differences and usage of words and their nuances aren’t nearly as important to understand as the fact that God hates it all and that we’re commanded to shun it all. Let’s be like Job, who did just that (Job 1:1). We shun sin by hiding God’s Word in our hearts (Psalm 119:9–12).
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