The Appearance of Evil


(This post is part of a series. For an introduction to the topic read, “How ought we read the Bible?” To see all posts in this topic, go to “Does the Bible really say that?”)  

Avoid even the appearance of evil.

So the saying goes.

Is it possible to do this? Is it possible to live in such a way that no one could misconstrue your actions as sin? I don’t think so. No matter what you do, I could find a way to misread it. (“Did you see him talking to that woman?” … “Did you hear what she said to her child?”)

Here’s the thing. The verse I referenced above isn’t In the Bible. Well, not like that anyway. And even the correct version is misunderstood.

First issue: the word “even” does not appear in any version.

Second issue: the rest of the phrase only appears like that in the King James Version. The KJV reads, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” But I don’t think that word means what we think it means. Let’s look at the words used in other versions.

First word. Avoid. Flee. Abstain. Stay away from. Pretty plain.

How about that last phrase?

  • All appearance of evil
  • Every kind of evil
  • All forms of evil
  • Every evil matter

So, putting this together we have something like “Do not do anything that is evil.”

Let’s see if this fits the context test. The verse in question is 1 Thessalonians 5:22, so let’s see what comes before. Verse 21 says to “…test everything; hold fast what is good.”

So putting 21 and 22 together we have this paraphrase:

Check out everything you hear and do. Think it through. Put it to the test. If it’s good, hold onto it! If it’s bad, run away! Does this fit? I think so.

Let’s run this understanding past what we see in the life of Jesus. After all, he is the model. He lived the perfect life. Just a few examples to consider:

  • Jesus hung out with prostitutes
  • He brought wine to a wedding party
  • He did work on the Sabbath
  • He claimed equality with God

Would any of his contemporaries have seen any of these things as appearing bad? Absolutely! All these things appeared sinful, but they were not sinful.

Should we appear evil? Of course not. Paul made repeated appeals that we ought to be above reproach. But reproach means that people ought not be able to accurately accuse us of sin – not that they ought not be able to see sin where there is none.

We can’t abstain from “even the appearance of evil.” But we can follow Paul’s instruction to avoid evil in all its forms.