World Scripture


How can we define what is good and what is evil? Are there universal indicators behind, within, or consequent upon an action by which one can determine whether it was a good or an evil act? How can one tell whether a person is good or evil? The scriptures of the world's religions provide a variety of answers to these questions.

The first group of passages define good and evil by their fruits. A good person or a good deed bears good fruits; and an evil person or an evil deed produces evil fruits. From the fruits, the person's heart and sincerity can be known. Among the good fruits, of special importance for their traditions are the Confucian Five Happinesses and the Christian Fruits of the Spirit.

Second are passages which define good and evil by purpose and intention. Purpose may mean to follow an objective standard: the Dhamma or the will of God or Way of Heaven. Or, intention may be known inwardly and intuitively. Defining good and evil by purpose or intention permits one to know good or evil even when the result is not visible. But since intention is often hidden, it may have to be brought to light by testing, as in the final selections.

You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

1. Christianity. Matthew 7.16-20

If you, Rahula, are desirous of doing a deed with the body, you should reflect on that deed of your body, thus: "That deed that I am desirous of doing with the body is a deed of my body that might conduce to the harm of self and that might conduce to the harm of others and that might conduce to the harm of both; this deed of body is unskilled, its yield is anguish, its result is anguish." If you, Rahula, reflecting thus, should find it so, a deed of body like this, Rahula, is certainly not to be done by you.

2. Buddhism. Majjhima Nikaya i.415, Ambalatthika-Rahulovada Sutta

The five sources of happiness: the first is long life; the second, riches; the third soundness of body and serenity of mind; the fourth, love of virtue; the fifth is an end crowning the life. Of the six extreme evils, the first is misfortune shortening the life; the second, sickness; the third, distress of mind; the fourth, poverty; the fifth, wickedness; the sixth, weakness.

3. Confucianism. Book of History 5.4.9

Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.

4. Christianity. Galatians 5.19-23

God's messenger said, "Do you know the thing which most commonly brings people into Paradise? It is fear to God and good character. Do you know what most commonly brings people into hell? It is the two hollow things: the mouth and the private parts."

5. Islam. Hadith of Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah

Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.... Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.

6. Christianity. Matthew 15.11-20

How can activity be good or wicked? That which is performed with good intention is good; and that which is performed with evil intention is wicked.... That which purifies the soul or by which the soul is purified, is merit--producing a happy feeling. That which keeps the soul away from good is demerit--producing an unhappy feeling.

7. Jainism. Pujyapada, Sarvarthasiddhi 6.3

Is there a "righteous man" who is good and a righteous man who is not good? He who is good to Heaven and good to man, he is a righteous man who is good; good to Heaven but not good to man, that is a righteous man who is evil... But a wicked man who is evil to Heaven and evil to man, he is a wicked man who is evil; he who is evil to Heaven but not evil to man, that is a wicked man who is not evil.

8. Judaism. Talmud, Kiddushin 40a

"All who commit crimes, robbing, stealing, practicing villainy and treachery, and who kill men or violently assault them to take their property, being reckless and fearless of death--these are abhorred by all." The king says, "O Feng, such great criminals are greatly abhorred, and how much more detestable are the unfilial and unbrotherly--as the son who does not reverently discharge his duty to his father, but greatly wounds his father's heart, and the father who can no longer love his son, but hates him; as the younger brother who does not think of the manifest will of Heaven, and refuses to respect his elder brother, and the elder brother who does not think of the toil of their parents in bringing up their children, and is very unfriendly to his junior. If we who are charged with government do not treat parties who proceed to such wickedness as offenders, the laws of our nature given by Heaven to our people will be thrown into great disorder and destroyed. You must resolve to deal speedily with such according to the penal laws of King Wen, punishing them severely and not pardoning."

9. Confucianism. Book of History 5.9

Whosoever seeks, by whatever means, merely the happiness of cyclic existence for personal ends, he is to be understood as a mean person.

Whosoever reverses deeds done from base motives and turns back the happiness of worldly pleasures for the sake of his own liberation, that person is called middling.

Whosoever wishes to eliminate completely the sufferings of others through his own sufferings, that is the excellent person.

10. Buddhism. Bodhipathapradipa

God's definition of goodness is total giving, total service, and absolute unselfishness. We are to live for others. You live for others and others live for you. God lives for man and man lives for God. The husband lives for his wife and the wife lives for her husband. This is goodness. And here unity, harmony, and prosperity abound.

Evil is the emergence of selfishness into this world. God's principle of unselfish giving was twisted into an ungodly principle of selfish taking. The ungodly position of desiring to be served rather than to serve was thereby established. The origin of evil is Satan. He was in the position to serve God, but instead he posed as another god and subjugated man for his own benefit.... His motivation was selfishness. Out of his selfishness comes the origin of evil and sin.

11. Unification Church. Sun Myung Moon, 10-20-73

Evil and good are not equal, even though the abundance of evil may amaze you; so heed God, you men of wits, so that you may prosper!

12. Islam. Qur'an 5.100

Easily known is the progressive one; easily known the one who declines. He who loves Dhamma progresses, he who hates it declines.

13. Buddhism. Sutta Nipata 92

The things which men greatly desire are comprehended in meat and drink and sexual pleasure; those which they greatly dislike are comprehended in death, exile, poverty, and suffering. Thus liking and disliking are the great elements in men's minds. But men keep them hidden in their minds, where they cannot be fathomed or measured. The good and the bad of them being in their minds, and no outward manifestation of them being visible, if it be wished to determine these qualities in one uniform way, how can it be done without the use of the rules of propriety?

14. Confucianism. Book of Ritual 7.2.20

The Master said, "The true gentleman is easy to serve, yet difficult to please. For if you try to please him in any manner inconsistent with the Way, he refuses to be pleased; but in using the services of others he only expects of them what they are capable of performing. Common people are difficult to serve, but easy to please. Even though you try to please them in a manner inconsistent with the Way, they will still be pleased; but in using the services of others they expect them [irrespective of their capacities] to do any work that comes along."

15. Confucianism. Analects 13.25

That again which is virtue may, according to time and place, be sin. Thus appropriation of what belongs to others, untruth, and injury and killing, may, under special circumstances, become virtue.

Acts that are apparently evil, when undertaken from considerations connected with the gods, the scriptures, life itself, and the means by which life is sustained, produce consequences that are good.

16. Hinduism. Mahabharata, Shanti Parva 37.11, 14

No creature shall be harmed for one's own sake, one's own enjoyment. All depends upon the purpose; not even a blade of grass shall be cut without a worthy purpose. What is called sin becomes a merit if it is done for a higher purpose, even as what is considered uplifting becomes a force for binding if done in disregard of the higher Truth. Rightly used, rightly directed, the very means of fall become the means for rise....

[In Tantric ritual] wine is not to be taken as wine nor flesh as flesh; nor is it permissible to partake in the ceremonies as a mere human animal ridden with greed and desire. The wine is the Shakti, the Divine Energy; flesh is the Shiva, the Divine Substance, and he who partakes is none other than Bhairava himself, the Divine Enjoyer. The bliss that arises when all these three are fused in the consciousness of the worshipper is real Release. Bliss is the intimate form of Brahman and it is there installed in each individual body; wine brings out, releases into manifestation this indwelling Bliss... and awakens the sense of godhood which unties the knots of life. To be otherwise, to do otherwise, is simply to be drunk.

17. Hinduism. Kularnava Tantra 5

And verily We shall try you until We know those of you who really strive and are steadfast, and until We test your record.

18. Islam. Qur'an 47.31

Once there lived a housewife named Vedehika who had a reputation for gentleness, modesty, and courtesy. She had a housemaid named Kali who was efficient and industrious and who managed her work well. Then it occurred to Kali the housemaid, "My mistress has a very good reputation; I wonder whether she is good by nature, or is good because my work, being well-managed, makes her surroundings pleasant. What if I were to test my mistress?"

The following morning Kali got up late. Then Vedehika shouted at her maid, "Hey, Kali!" "Yes, madam?" "Hey, what makes you get up late?" "Nothing in particular, madam." "Nothing in particular, eh, naughty maid, and you get up late?" And being angry and offended, she frowned.

Then it occurred to Kali, "Apparently, my mistress does have a temper inwardly, though she does not show it because my work is well-managed. What if I were to test her further?" Then she got up later. Thereupon Vedehika shouted at her maid, "Hey, Kali, why do you get up late?" "No particular reason, madam." "No particular reason, eh, and you are up late?" she angrily hurled at her words of indignation.

Then it occurred to Kali, "Apparently, my mistress does have a temper inwardly, though she does not show it because my work is well-managed. What if I were to test her still further?" She got up still later. Thereupon Vedehika shouted at her, "Hey, Kali, why do you get up late?" and she angrily took up the bolt of the door-bar and hit her on the head, cutting it. Thereupon Kali, with cut head and blood trickling down, denounced her mistress before the neighbors, saying, "Madam, look at the work of the gentle lady, madam, look at the action of the modest lady, madam, look at the action of the quiet lady. Why must she get angry and offended because I got up late and hit me, her only maid, cutting me on the head?" Thus the housewife lost her good reputation.

Analogously, brethren, a person here happens to be very gentle, very humble, and very quiet as long as unpleasant things do not touch him. It is only when unpleasant things happen to a person that it is known whether he is truly gentle, humble, and quiet.

19. Buddhism. Majjhima Nikaya i.123-24, Kakucapama Sutta