The Greek of "Evil," "Sin," "Forgive", and "Goodness"

This article discusses the real meaning of the Greek words usually translated as evil, good, sin, and forgiveness. Much of the historic use of Christ's words center translation of these concepts that really misses the mark. Which, some might say is a sin.

Is Poneros Evil?

The Greek term that is almost always translated as “evil” or “wicked” is poneros, which means “oppressed by toil,” “burdened,” and “worthless.” Of things, it means “toilsome,” “painful,” and “grievous.” In a moral sense, “worthless,” “base,” and “cowardly.”

There is a different Greek word that actually does mean “evil” in the sense of malicious. The term is kakia. It is a word the Christ uses very rarely, but he does use it (Matthew 6:34). Another similar concept is sapros. That Greek word means “corrupt” or “rotten,” but again, it is one that Christ rarely uses but does use (Matthew 12:33).

So, when Jesus says something is poneros, he is not saying that it is malicious, corrupt, or rotten. He is saying it is worthless and second-rate. In most situations, the best translation for poneros is "worthless" though "burdened by toils" works better in some contexts.

A good example of how poneros really works can be seen in Matthew 6:23, "But if your eye is evil..." It doesn't make sense to call an eye that isn't working well as "evil", especially when contrasted in the previous verse ( Matthew 6:22) where the "good" eye is described as "focused". Some biblical translation have even changed the word meaning "focused" to "good" so that this makes more sense, but, the word used, which means "single" or "to make single", doesn't mean anything like "good" and isn't translated that way anywhere else in Greek (including the KJV). In this context, "worthless" works but "second-rate" makes a little play against the "single" of "focused".

This makes a significant difference in understanding what Christ teaches. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to “deliver us from evil.” However, what Christ said was, "Deliver us from what is worthless." This isn’t a plea to save us from the malicious intent of others or dark forces of evil, but rather a plea to be saved from the burdens and toils of life, to be rescued from our own worthless and base impulses. This fits well with the concept that is mistakenly translated as "sin," which we will discuss in the next section.

As we suggest above, this poor translation becomes more misleading when poneros, an adjective, is used as a noun. This happens a lot for many such adjectives in the Gospels. In the case of poneros, it gets translated as "the evil one," as in many translations of John 17:15 where he asks the Father to keep the apostles from "the evil one." This gives Christi's teaching the feeling a sense of the Zoroastrian cosmology, the universe as a battle between good and evil. Christ's words in the Greek never give this impression. In Greek, he asks the Father to keep them from "worthlessness" or "being second-rate."

This is not to suggest that Christ doesn't discuss satan, the demons, and what gets translated as "evil" spirits." That topic is covered in this article. However, we instantly get closer to his teaching if we simply change the "evil spirits" to "worthless spirits." Christ use of the term "satan" is untranslated Aramaic meaning "adversary" or "opposition". In the story of Job, satan was not a name but the description of the role of a servant of God whose job it is to test Job.

In other parts of the Gospel, people are described as “evil” but, because poneros is almost always used. This changes the meaning from the way the Gospel is normally read, especially since the word's "oppressed by toil" meaning often fits better than its "worthless" meaning. For example, in Matthew 7:11, Christ says: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children..etc.” This sounds like a condemnation of humanity or at least his opponents as evil. However, a more accurate reading would be “You, being oppressed by toil, know how to give good gifts to your children…etc.” Christ isn’t condemning our moral nature as much as recognizing our burdens and limitations.

Is Hamartia Sin?

The word translated as “sin” in the Gospels is either the verb, hamartanô, or the noun, harmartia. which mean “to miss the mark,” “to fail in one’s purpose,” “to err,” “to be mistaken,” "to fail in having," “to neglect,” "failure", "fault," and "error."

This real meaning of hamartia is a well-known fact. It is commonly mentioned in sermons that quote verses referring "sin." However, it is somehow forgotten in translating the NT, where it is almost without exception translated as "sin."

Again, there are actually well-known Greek words in the era that do mean sin. In Greek, the word that actually means “sin” is alitros, which means “sin,” “sinner,” and “sinful.” However, Christ never uses this term. It is impossible that Christ and the Gospel's authors didn’t know it. Words from this base are it often used. We see alitria ("sinfulness"), alitêrios ("sinning"), and aleitês ("sinner") in the NT. Most amusingly, we even see alêtheia, which means "sincerity." The term captures the Greek idea that sinners are good at lying.

The best English translation for hamartia is "a mistake" or "failure." After all, this is the way we say "missing the mark," which is the word's primary meaning. It also works best because the verb most commonly used with the noun hamartia is poieo, which primarily means "to make." The phrase "make mistakes" is a much better translation for what is commonly rendered in Bible translations as "to do sin" or "to practice sin."

This meaning of "mistake" is supported all the other words Christ says must be "forgiven". For example Christ uses the Greek word, paratoma, which means "blunders" that we "forgive" in Matthew 6:14 (For if you forgive men their trespasses...) . Again, with this word, there is nor real religious dimension. It is simply a Greek synonym for harartia. Note this is not the same word that some biblical translations translate as the "trespasses" that are "forgiven" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12). That word, opheilema, simple means "debts" very much in the financial sense. In a sense, we might infer that debt is a mistake or misstep from Christ's perspective.

A lot of things that Christ says make much more logical sense when we replace "sin" with "mistake." For example, Christ says in John 8:21 that he is going away and that they would seek him and "die in [their] sins" because they cannot go where he is going. We have to ask ourselves what sin have they committed in seeking him? However, it is easier to understand if Christ is saying that they will die, "within their failure" because they do not know how to follow. This makes much more obvious sense.

"Forgiving Sin" or "Letting go of Mistakes"?

"Forgiving sins" is one of the most common phrases in which hamartia appears. This phrase is not only misleading because hamartia is translated as "sins", but because the word translated as "forgive" doesn't mean that except in the most philosophical sense.

The Greek term translated as "forgive" is aphiêmi, which means "to let fall", "to send away", "give up", "hand over", "to let loose", "to get rid of", "to leave alone", "to pass by", "to permit," and "to send forth from oneself." It means literally “to go from.  One of the reasons that Christ really like this word is because he loved double meanings like this. This same word is usually translated as "leave", "forgive", "suffer," and "let" in the New Testament, but a phrase like "Father, forgive them" could also be translated accurately as "Father, give up on them" or "Father, get rid of them". From his use, Christ uses it most consistently to mean "let it go". 

Another word that comes close in English is "pardon" because it has the same sense of "letting loose" and "sending forth" but it doesn't have the same sense of "leaving alone" or "letting" someone do something. Most importantly, however, "pardon" doesn't have the sense of "letting go". When applied to "mistakes", "letting go" had the double meaning of "stop the habit of making" and "stop dwelling on past mistakes". 

This word has the sense of both leaving something alone and leaving a place. Apiemi is the verb version of the noun meaning “letting go,” aphesis. this is Christ’s first word in the Gospel (Matthew 3:15) when he responds to John's concerns by saying, “Let it be” or "suffer this" (depending on the translation) and baptize him. It is usually translated as "to leave" or "to let" in the Gospels. It is first translated as "forgive" in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:12) where it is applied to forgiving debts.

Aphiemi is also sometimes translated to mean “to send forth” or “go forth” even though that meaning is a little misleading as well. Christ “sends forth” the apostles. The shepherd looking for the lost lamb “goes forth” into the mountains. Both are a translation of aphiemi.

The sense of the Greek phrase translated as "forgiving sin" is "letting go of failure." To let go, we must realize that we are holding on to our mistakes in one way or another. We must accept that all of us will always make mistakes. We must let go of our errors in the sense of not dwelling on them, but also in the sense of leaving them behind, that is, putting those behaviors in the past.

"Forgiveness," in the Christian sense didn't exist in Greek anyway, before Christ. But there are others words in Greek at the time that are used for various ideas of "forgive." Many are based on the root, aidôs, which means "respect for others", "reverence", "compassion," and "forgiveness." It is the most saintly form of forgiveness. Sunchôreô is another root which means "assent" or "concede" and is used to mean the economic forgiveness of debt.

Is Anomia Iniquity?

Another Greek word used by Christ is also related to these ideas. this is anomia, which means "lawless", "lawless conduct," and "the negation of law." In the KIV, this word is usually translated as "inequity," but it doesn't mean a lack of equality or anything like it. In other translations, it appears as "lawlessness." However, when appearing with words about acting this way, we also see "evil doers."

It is the negative, female form of the masculine word, nomos, which means "anything assigned", "a usage", "custom", "law", "ordinance," or "that which is a habitual practice." It is the basis of the English words "norm" and "normal." However, in the KJV, this is usually translated as "the law" referring to the law of Moses.

Christ uses it to mean ignoring the law of Moses, using it in verses that relate to neglecting the traditional rules passed down as God's commandments from Moses.

Kalos is Beautiful; Agathos is Useful

There are two different words commonly translated as "good" in Christ's words, kalos and agathos . Neither word means "good" in quite the same way as our English words. Both are more specific in the quality that they describe.

The most common Greek word translated as "good" is kalos. It means “beautiful,” “of fine quality,” “noble,” and “virtuous.” This word appears about three times more often than the other word, agathos, translated as "good."

This word is used in the many verses to describe both good acts and good things (Matthew 3:10 Matthew 7:17“good fruit,” Matthew 5:16 “good works,” Matthew 5:44 “do good,” Matthew 12:33 “good tree,” Matthew 13:8 “good ground,” Matthew 13:24, “good seed,” Matthew 17:4 “good for us,” Matthew 26:24 “good for that man”).

The sense of kalos is possible best captured by the concept of "fine quality." When a something is kalos, it is praiseworthy and easy to appreciate. It is also part of the Greek word

The other Greek word translated as "good" is agathos. Agathos, when applied to things, means “good” in the sense of “sound,” “serviceable,”“useful,”beneficial," and “correct.” When applied to people, it primarily “well-born,” “gentle,” “brave,” “capable,” and "correct.” Agathos is not used to describe good things except to refer to good deeds (as is kalos ) and good people (’the good”).

Agathos is closer to our concept of "correct" and "useful." Christ often contrasts agathos with poneros. This contrast is usually translated as some form of "good and evil." Throughout the Gospels, agathos is translated primarily as "good" in the sense of virtuous. However, this is misleading as well. The contrast here is less between good and evil, but between useful and worthless, well-born and oppressed, healthy and second-rate.

When used as a noun, agathos is usually translated as "goods" in the NT, but in English there is no real connection between the moral concept of "good" and the property of "goods". Perhaps a better translation would be "valuables" to get us away from the whole "good" and "evil" dichotomy. The real contrast is between the valuable and the worthless. 

Agathos is from the same roots as agape and agapao, the Greek words usually translated as "love," but whose real meaning is explained in more detail here.

Despite the alliterative ease of contrasting kalos, the fine quality goodness, with kakos, the more accurate Greek word for evil, we just don’t see that form in Christ's words. Kalos is used frequently, but kakos is never used except in the form of the adjective and then it isn't contrasted. As with agathos, it is contrasted with poneros. In Greek, as opposed to Christ's words, the opposite of agathos is most often kakos, which is the root of a word of an adjective that Christ uses, kakia, discussed above, which means “wicked,” “slanderous,” and “cowardly.”

What stands out in reviewing all these verses together is Christ’s view that there are two opposing types of things, actions, thoughts, and people. Those that serve a purpose and those that are useless. There are productive, reliable people and there are people who are useless. There are productive, reliable things, like good trees and good seeds, and there are useless things. There are productive thoughts and actions and there are useless actions. So Christ was less of a moralizer than a pragmatic teacher. With a better understanding of the term Christ used for evil, the Gospels come across much less condemning of actions and people and much more sympathetic to the condition of humanity, where we constantly try things that are really useless for us.