This article discusses the real meaning of the Greek words usually translated as evil, and good. This article also once included the word "sin" and "forgiveness", but that has been moved to a new article on the Greek word translated as "sin" that you can access here.
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.” Notice that there is not sense of malevolence in these ideas.
There is a different Greek word that actually does mean “evil” in the sense of malicious and malevolent. 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 Jesus rarely uses but specifically to refer to what we produce, not people themselves. (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. When used as a noun, the sense is "worthlessness" more than "evil," or, when referring to actions, "failures."
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 Kakos/Kakia Evil?
Another pair of related words that mean "evil" or "bad" are kakos and kakia. These words are much less common than poneros, and they are translated less consistently. However, these words have more of the sense of "moral badness" and "wicked" than poneros, but they have other meanings as well. In translation, the focus, however, is usually more on "evil" as opposed to their less judgmental and more common meanings.
Kakos is used by Jesus only about a dozen times. It is an adjective that means "bad", "mean", "base", "ugly", "ill-born", "evil", "worthless", "sorry", "pernicious," and "ill." It is sometimes used as a noun, for example, in Luke 16:25, as "evil things." In Mark 7:21, itis translated as "evil." As an adjective, it is often translated as "sick" (Matthew 9:12).
Kakia is even less common. It appears only in Jesus's words in Matthew 6:34. It means "badness in quality", "incapacity", "defects", "cowardice", "faint-heartedness", "moral badness", "vice", "ill-repute", "dishonor", "hurt", "damage done or suffered," “wicked,” “slanderous,” and “cowardly.”
Is Anomia Iniquity?
Another Greek word used by Jesus 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, Chrestos is Good
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." Jesus 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.”
Another word that is translated as "good" is chrestos (χρηστός ) but it is uncommon. It refers to "good" wine in Luke 5:39, "kind" acts in Luke 6:35, and "easy" in Matthew 11:30. This word means "good", "useful", "good of its kind," and "serviceable;" of persons, "good", "kindly;" "honest", "worthy," in war, "valiant", "true;" of the gods, "propitious", "merciful", "bestowing health or wealth;" of a man, "strong", "able in body for sexual intercourse;" when used as a now, "benefits", "kindnesses", "happy event", "prosperity," and "success.;" in a moral sense, it is also the opposite of kakos, which means "bad" and "evil," but which is not the word usually translated as "evil" in the NT. For more on this topic, see this article.
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.