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Why Evil Exists

Award-winning Professor Charles Mathewes offers you a richly rewarding encounter with dynamic inquiries into Western civilization's greatest question; why do humans do evil?
Why Evil Exists is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 118.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Thought Provoking -- Despite His Atheism Mathewes presents a number of challenges for thought and brings in a lot of interesting historical information. I was surprised to see that he was listed as a Religious Studies professor, because his presentation seems to indicate that he is an atheist, or at least an agnostic. It's not just that he uses the trendy BCE and CE designations for historical years; it is evident in the way he presents and describes key scriptural passages. More irritating is his obvious virtue signaling in repeatedly referring to the Christian/Jewish God as "she." It is not surprising to see this, however, after a quick look at his extremely left-wing Twitter/X posts. I consider it disrespectful to people of faith for him to refer to God as "she," since the scriptures clearly identify Him as "the father." But I guess this is a product of the age we live in. Is there value in this course anyway? Yes, as long as you are prepared to roll your eyes occasionally. I don't mind having my worldview challenged (although I would be happier if it wasn't disrespected at the same time), and it is interesting to see all the different ways throughout history that people have wrestled with the question of evil. If you can put up with his manner, there is material worth thinking about and wrestling with.
Date published: 2024-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course by a brilliant professor Amazing and well-structured course by a brilliant and very knowledgeable professor, whose narration ability makes it even better.
Date published: 2024-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! I have taken many of courses through Wondrium and The Great Courses and enjoyed most of them but this one is the best. Professor Mathewes is a brilliant lecturer and incredibly knowledgeable about this very complex subject. He examines theories of evil from a historical, philosophical, theological and scientific perspective from prewritten historic times through today. I admit some of his lectures were a bit above my head, (and I speak aa a former law school professor so I'm accustomed to complex ideas) but he inspired me to buy several books I've not read since college, and carefully re-read them. I will probably take this course again because it was so rich. Definitely not a course to hurry through. Thank you!
Date published: 2024-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent. Long but really worth it. This is an interdisciplinary treatment of the subject of evil and is well worth the 36 lectures. The professor covers everything from the dawn of civilization (Gilgamesh) to the horrors of the 21st century. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2024-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "The" Best Lecture Series out there I see in our future a bad vibe coming from ignorant sources that lack any character and obey any order, who turn and obey the status as presented. I see totalitarianism on a level unprecedented and suffering unimaginable. I see rational thought being thrown away for the irrational musings of a clown. I can only hope that there are enough introverts in our civilization with the character and moral rectitude to call the beast for what it is. Hope, empathy and love are our weapons.
Date published: 2024-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful Journey I found this series absolutely fascinating & well expressed. Not only a history of evil but also civilisations around it a d the writers. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. Far exceeded my expectations. Wonderful lecturer.
Date published: 2023-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very knowledgeable Prof First.... It seems some reviewers have issues with Dr. Mathewes mannerisms. He does have a smile that comes across as a smirk which bothered me a bit initially. I decided quickly that he just did not know how to smile very well and ignored it. Secondly… He was very upfront that there is no definitive answer as to why evil exists, so if that is what you are looking for, look elsewhere. What this is course is, is a survey of human thought down through the ages as to why evil does exists. Obviously, this a wide range of possibilities from the gods playing with us to something just basic in human nature. In this course, Dr. Mathewes touches on many different religions and many different schools of philosophical thought. He adds in more modern concepts from psychology. His explanation of various philosophers that in past I found a bit confusing was clear and on point. He has a real, wide ranging mastery of the subject, both from a religious point of view and as a philosopher. This is a course that takes a little work, a little thought on the part of viewer, but it is well worth it, even if you never get an absolute answer as to why evil exists. I found it interesting in the extreme and a great presentation.
Date published: 2023-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Definitively worth it I enjoyed and learned from this course a great deal and I definitively recommend this course. Having said that, I do have a couple of caveats about it: Firstly, I think the course is too long and could have easily been split in two closely related courses. Secondly, I had to watch several lectures twice and even after that I still could not completely follow Dr Mathewes' explanations specially the more philosophical ones. But in fairness to him, perhaps this was a result of my weak background on the subject more than his eloquence.
Date published: 2022-12-01
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Why do humans do evil? Is evil a spiritual or a cosmic problem? Why, in the end, does evil exist? Discover the answer to these and other provocative questions in Why Evil Exists. Award-winning Professor Charles Mathewes offers you a richly rewarding encounter with dynamic inquiries into Western civilization's greatest thinking on this critical subject. Covering nearly 5,000 years of human history and invoking the perspectives of many of the West's most brilliant minds, these 36 lectures probe intimately into how human beings have conceived of evil, how they've grappled with it, and how they've worked to oppose it.


Charles Mathewes

The same energies of intellect and will that led mankind to cure innumerable diseases and put men on the Moon led us also to poison gas and ICBM's.


University of Virginia

Dr. Charles Mathewes is Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he teaches religious ethics, theology, and philosophy of religion. He earned his B.A. in Theology from Georgetown University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Chicago. From 2006 to 2010, Professor Mathewes served as editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the flagship journal in the field of religious studies. He was Chair of the Committee on the Future of Christian Ethics for the Society of Christian Ethics, the inaugural Director of the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion, and he currently serves on the House of Bishops Theology Committee of the Episcopal Church. He is the author of Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, A Theology of Public Life, Understanding Religious Ethics, and The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. He is also associate editor of the 3rd edition of the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Senior Editor of Religious Ethics: The Major Works/em>. He has been a Mead Honored Faculty-one of UVA's highest teaching awards-and also a Mead Endowment Teaching Award. Every year since 1999, Professor Mathewes's classes have been named as exemplary classes for prospective students to attend during UVA's Days on the Lawn

By This Professor

Books That Matter: The City of God
Why Evil Exists
Why Evil Exists


The Nature and Origins of Evil

01: The Nature and Origins of Evil

Consider the range of human thought across history, which has sought understanding of evil. First, examine three dominant historical views of the nature of evil. Then, grapple with the key questions of abstract theory versus concrete description, the transcendence or mundaneness of evil, and evil's function in nature and civilization.

34 min

02: "Enuma Elish"—Evil as Cosmic Battle

In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, see how the dualism of good and bad divine powers locates evil as an innate structure of reality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, probe one of the earliest recorded attempts to understand suffering and to find meaning in the face of death and evil.

30 min
Greece—Tragedy and

03: Greece—Tragedy and "The Peloponnesian War"

This lecture explores contrasting views of evil and suffering in ancient Greece. In Greek tragic drama, trace the cruel paradoxes of fate and responsibility, under divine governance, that afflict the characters. Conversely, uncover the historian Thucydides' linking of evil to "accidents" of circumstance and chance in his account of the Peloponnesian War.

32 min
Greek Philosophy—Human Evil and Malice

04: Greek Philosophy—Human Evil and Malice

The inquiry continues with the seminal views of Plato and Aristotle. Follow Plato's developing views of evil as "miseducation," a political fact of human society and ultimately as metaphysical revolt. Then ponder Aristotle's "mundane" vision of malice and evil as akrasia, weakness of will, and a misordering of fundamental human drives.

32 min
The Hebrew Bible—Human Rivalry with God

05: The Hebrew Bible—Human Rivalry with God

The Hebrew Bible roots evil in various forms of rebellion. In the Hebrew book of Genesis, see how the Fall actualizes an intrinsic potential for evil. Then consider three faces of rebellion: the rejection of God's plan (the Fall), interhuman strife (Cain and Abel), and direct rivalry with God (the Tower of Babel).

31 min
The Hebrew Bible—Wisdom and the Fear of God

06: The Hebrew Bible—Wisdom and the Fear of God

The Hebrew Bible also offers a contrasting view of evil and suffering - as phenomena reflecting the mysterious will of God. Explore the implications of the covenant between God and Abraham, and Abraham's mandated sacrifice of Isaac. In the book of Job, see how Job's faith is established through determined acceptance of suffering.

33 min
Christian Scripture—Apocalypse and Original Sin

07: Christian Scripture—Apocalypse and Original Sin

This lecture addresses the New Testament heritage on evil. Uncover the early Christian view of a cosmic struggle between God and darkness in the Gospels and the book of Revelation, noting numerous references to demonic powers. See how the doctrine of original sin is linked to the very goodness of Jesus.

33 min
The Inevitability of Evil—Irenaeus

08: The Inevitability of Evil—Irenaeus

The early Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyon proposed an important "theodicy" or theory of evil. Discover the tenets of Irenaeus's thinking, based in his view that the descent into sin is necessary for the fulfillment of human destiny. Study his conceptions of natural and moral evil, and the redemptive "tutelage" of suffering.

30 min
Creation, Evil, and the Fall—Augustine

09: Creation, Evil, and the Fall—Augustine

Saint Augustine propounded another seminal "theodicy" of evil. Contemplate his two foundational claims: evil as "privation" of fundamental good, and evil as perversion of human nature toward the meaningless. Consider also his views on the rationale for evil, evil's ultimate mysteriousness, and its interior implications for the doer.

34 min
Rabbinic Judaism—The Evil Impulse

10: Rabbinic Judaism—The Evil Impulse

Rabbinic Judaism resists the Christian "cosmic drama" of sin and redemption. Study the rabbinic conceptions of tov (goodness/conscience) and ra (badness/self-interest), as each functions in human nature. Also grasp the notion of ra as a practical challenge of will and responsibility and an ultimate gift from God to mature humanity.

27 min
Islam—Iblis the Failed, Once-Glorious Being

11: Islam—Iblis the Failed, Once-Glorious Being

Islam locates the origin of evil precisely in the rebellion of Iblis, the fallen angel. First, define the relation of the Qur'an as a sacred text to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Then probe Iblis's fall through his "misappropriation" of faith, and the paradoxical dimensions of evil as both personal and impersonal.

30 min
On Self-Deception in Evil—Scholasticism

12: On Self-Deception in Evil—Scholasticism

The monastic tradition of Christian scholasticism offers compelling views of satanic psychology. In the thought of Anselm of Lyon, explore the "logic" of Satan's rebellion against God, rooted in bottomless, unspecified desire. In Thomas Aquinas, trace the psychology of Satan to a self-deceptive motive to become what God is.

34 min
Dante—Hell and the Abandonment of Hope

13: Dante—Hell and the Abandonment of Hope

Dante's Inferno poetically elucidates Christian thinking on evil. In his observation of the damned, see how the literary "Dante" learns the meaning of both pity and piety. Then grasp the nature of Satan's punishment, revealing Hell as a self-made crucible where the damned become what they internally want to be.

35 min
The Reformation—The Power of Evil Within

14: The Reformation—The Power of Evil Within

This lecture investigates the pivotal thought of reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. In Luther's works, discover his view of Satan as a subtle, inner force, working to induce delusive thought and action. Also study Calvin's core conceptions of moral predestination and the innate depravity or corruptibility of the human spirit.

32 min
Dark Politics—Machiavelli on How to Be Bad

15: Dark Politics—Machiavelli on How to Be Bad

Niccolò Machiavelli's writings are often read as a nihilist sanction for wickedness in government. Push beyond that view to a deeper understanding of his thought, suggesting practical means for dealing with the inevitable "dirty work" of politics, with the determined aim of the stability and good of the polity.

29 min
Hobbes—Evil as a Social Construct

16: Hobbes—Evil as a Social Construct

Hobbes, considered the first modern Western philosopher, proposed a hugely influential understanding of good and evil. Study his conception of innate human savagery, amoralism, and self-interest in the "state of nature," and his theory of compensating social contracts, suggesting that moral distinctions themselves are invented constructs of language.

32 min
Montaigne and Pascal—Evil and the Self

17: Montaigne and Pascal—Evil and the Self

Philosophers Montaigne and Pascal offered sharply contrasting, "interior" accounts of sin. Evaluate Montaigne's view of zealous extremism as rooted in pathologic denial of the "disorderliness" of human nature, against Pascal's contention that that very nature requires spiritual zealotry to counteract and heal it.

32 min
Milton—Epic Evil

18: Milton—Epic Evil

Milton's Paradise Lost is another deeply influential literary meditation on evil. Here, travel deeply into the psychic agony of Satan, in Milton's complex portrait of temptation, choice, rebellion, and futility. Conclude with reflections on the distinction between satanic and human sin, and the Fall's significance in God's plan.

31 min
The Enlightenment and Its Discontents

19: The Enlightenment and Its Discontents

The Enlightenment fostered several critical arguments on the problem of evil. Track the debate questioning the limits of reason in dealing with evil between Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Leibniz and later between Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Then follow David Hume's incisive critique of both religious and atheistic thinking.

33 min
Kant—Evil at the Root of Human Agency

20: Kant—Evil at the Root of Human Agency

Kant's extraordinary insights revolutionized Western philosophy. Grapple with key elements of his thought, including his view of all arguments for and against an omnipotent God as essentially indeterminate, morality as located in the human will, and "radical evil" as the tendency of that will to privilege itself above the general good.

32 min
Hegel—The Slaughter Block of History

21: Hegel—The Slaughter Block of History

Hegel was the architect of a global philosophical system encompassing the realities of evil. Study his conception of original sin as a condition of alienation rooted in the human impulse to reflective self-consciousness, and his grand vision of history as the intelligible working out of the problem of evil in time.

34 min
Marx—Materialism and Evil

22: Marx—Materialism and Evil

What is the relation of human social systems to evil behavior? Explore Marx's legendary analysis of material circumstances as the source of both thought and action, material inequalities as the wellspring of evil, and his determined view that transforming social conditions would erase the motive for human oppression.

32 min
The American North and South—Holy War

23: The American North and South—Holy War

Two American voices spoke poignantly of the evils of slavery. In Huckleberry Finn, see how Twain portrays the agonizing moral double bind that afflicts Huck in his friendship with the slave Jim. Contemplate Lincoln's distinctly theological interpretation of the Civil War, and his visionary conception of healing for both North and South.

33 min
Nietzsche—Considering the Language of Evil

24: Nietzsche—Considering the Language of Evil

In imagining humanity's future, Nietzsche urged a profound rethinking of morality. Probe his view of the duality of good/evil as a structure that constrains and punishes, his "challenge to truth," and his proposal of a "pragmatic language" focused on the fruitfulness or healthiness of action and the cultivation of human creativity.

35 min
Dostoevsky—The Demonic in Modernity

25: Dostoevsky—The Demonic in Modernity

Dostoevsky's novels were driven by an obsession with Western intellectual movements that attacked traditional morality. Observe his portrayal of nihilist revolutionaries in Demons, undone by their failure to understand evil in their own nature, and of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, as he rejects moral structure, destroying his own soul.

32 min
Conrad—Incomprehensible Terror

26: Conrad—Incomprehensible Terror

Conrad's writing is perhaps the most profound modern literary representation of evil. In Heart of Darkness, sense the white colonials' corrosive moral rot, revealing a savagery greatly exceeding that of the "primitives" they claim to civilize. In The Secret Agent, witness Conrad's prescient evocation of the desire to destroy civilization itself.

31 min
Freud—The Death Drive and the Inexplicable

27: Freud—The Death Drive and the Inexplicable

In Freud's psychoanalytic picture of evil, study his notion of the pleasure principle and the roots of pathological behavior in the conflict between human desires and constricting cultural roles. Then follow his later delineation of the "death drive," a core, destructive force of the psyche in eternal struggle with Eros.

33 min
Camus—The Challenge to Take Evil Seriously

28: Camus—The Challenge to Take Evil Seriously

Two novels by Camus speak deeply to post-war thinking on the phenomenon of evil. Examine The Plague as an allegory for a society possessed by evil, resistant both to confronting evil and to recognizing its eternal recurrence. Contrast this with Camus' depiction of a "prophet" whose only prophecy is our own fall.

31 min
Post-WWII Protestant Theology on Evil

29: Post-WWII Protestant Theology on Evil

Three challenging perspectives: Explore Tillich's conception of the demonic as human "possession" by dimensions of reality beyond the personal self; Barth's vision of Das Nichtige ("the nothing"), a force opposing creation, to which God says "no"; and Niebuhr's "diagnosis" of sin as rooted in the desire to escape our condition as both matter and spirit.

34 min
Post-WWII Roman Catholic Theology on Evil

30: Post-WWII Roman Catholic Theology on Evil

In modern Catholicism, grasp theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar's nuanced spirituality of hope, based in the conviction that God's providence is so powerful that salvation is a possibility for all humanity. Then study Pope John Paul II's precise delineation of "objectively" evil actions as a resource in the church's larger public discourse.

32 min
Post-WWII Jewish Thought on Evil

31: Post-WWII Jewish Thought on Evil

The Holocaust radically challenged Jewish conceptions of evil, faith, and identity. Grapple with four major Jewish thinkers, confronting the apparent death of the God of the covenant, as they urge profound questioning, new understandings of faith, and a turning to fellow humans to find meaning in healing the world.

30 min
Arendt—The Banality of Evil

32: Arendt—The Banality of Evil

Hannah Arendt's writings provide critical insights into modern political evil. Look deeply into the totalitarian mindset and its intent to control and transform human nature. In particular, grasp the singular "moral inversion" underlying the genocidal actions of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, which "justified" history's darkest hour.

34 min
Life in Truth—20th-Century Poets on Evil

33: Life in Truth—20th-Century Poets on Evil

Three 20th-century poets responded powerfully to political oppression. Hear Paul Celan's evocation of the annihilation of meaning, continuity, and time itself in the death camps. Follow this with Czeslaw Milosz's searching words on the legacy of past suffering, and Zbigniew Herbert's vision of the power of art and beauty in opposing totalitarianism.

31 min
Science and the Empirical Study of Evil

34: Science and the Empirical Study of Evil

Contemporary psychologists have attempted to measure human tendencies toward what we may call "evil" behavior. Examine three landmark experiments studying obedience to authority and willingness to participate in cruel acts, and review the troubling evidence suggesting that human actions are driven much more by context or situation than by innate "character."...

28 min

35: The "Unnaming" of Evil

This lecture proposes serious reflections on humanity's current capacities to respond to evil. Grapple with highly relevant issues, including the question of whether our past resources of understanding are equal to current challenges, a possible template for anticipating genocide, and our tendency to "serially" forget the lessons of the past.

32 min
Where Can Hope Be Found?

36: Where Can Hope Be Found?

Professor Mathewes reviews the many themes and "layers" of thinking that articulate humanity's struggle with evil. Conclude with thoughts on what a workable present stance may be, balancing the intractable challenge that evil presents with the affirmative sense of the world revealed in our resilient will to face it.

31 min