by David Allen Bledsoe
An overview of the evil eye and three gospel-based truths to encourage those who fear it.
While paying a bill, I noticed the nicely dressed Brazilian professional who attended to me wore a small bluish pendant around her neck. Recognizing it as a charm to avoid the evil eye, I asked her kindly, but directly if she knew the intended purpose of the pendant. She responded, “Why, yes. This jewel keeps evil energies and forces away from me. I need every sort of assistance.” She then issued me a receipt and proceeded to resolve a pressing matter that demanded her attention.
I left reflecting upon this woman’s situation. First and foremost, she needed the gospel, just as everyone else. Second, obedience to the gospel would require that she put aside amulets like the one she wore around her neck. It then dawned on me, however, that she would likely need to understand God’s sovereignty and goodness before she would ever obey such a demand. I then asked myself if I would know how to accompany her to receive deliverance from such spiritual dependencies, if the opportunity arose.
Definitions and Motivations
The evil eye is a folk belief—ancient, yet contemporary—found in most societies no matter the principal religion among a people or their culture. The concept and consequent fear are that evil or negative energy can be transmitted from the eye gate of one individual to another person or object, oftentimes provoked by jealously or revenge. The evil eye really manifests as a form of animism, which Gailyn Van Rheenen summarizes best as
…the belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power. (1991, 20)
There exist several pertinent reasons to address this subject in a venue for students and practitioners of missions.
First, transcultural servants need awareness of the evil eye and its remedies, which likely exist among the peoples they serve. As missiologists have pointed out in the past three decades, missionaries coming from more secular contexts tend to either fail to detect such practices or merely dismiss them as superstitions for the simple-minded.
Second, the Church must give biblical responses to folk beliefs such as the evil eye, which consequently shows the sufficiency and applicability of the gospel to all areas of life. If not, many will think that the Christian message is irrelevant or powerless for day-to-day living; what’s more, converts will tend to hold their new Christian faith in one hand, while hiding their old practices in the other.
Third, a study of the evil eye can serve as a starting point to understand and offer biblical responses to other folk beliefs and fears. Examples include witchcraft, sorcery, use of negative words to bring about undesired events, contact with persons thought to carry evil spirits, profaning a totem, and using amulets and rituals to undo curses.
Counter Measures to Avoid the Evil Eye
People who fear malefic effects of the evil eye frequently utilize charms and gestures which act to divert the gaze of one with evil intent or serve to ward off evil itself. This section mentions only a few to demonstrate the vastness and variety of options.
One way thought to avoid the evil eye is with the “good eye.” The Eye of Horus as seen in figure 1 below is believed to derive from ancient Egyptian mythology. According to the myth, the god Horus set out to protect humankind from the evil god Set, and Horus lost his right eye in the battle. Over time, the symbol of Horus’ eye came to represent health, fullness, and protection against evil. In fact, Roman doctors used the letters Rx on their prescriptions as a shorthand depiction of this eye in order to supplicate Horus’ cure upon their ill patients (in Bohigian 1997, 92-93).
I recall an encounter in an exercise gym with a young Brazilian businessman who bore a large tattoo of the Eye of Horus on his arm. I asked if he knew the meaning of the symbol. He said that he surely did and chose it after careful research concerning its significance. I then asked him if the eye had offered him what he expected. He enthusiastically testified that “only good things have occurred to me since I put this tattoo on my arm.” This dialogue led to an opportunity to introduce to him to the idea of divine protection to Christ followers. I concluded our conversation by giving him my business card so he could call me when life eventually turned sour.
A nazar, shown in figure 2 below, represents another “good eye.” I have noticed the spread of this symbol in Brazil during recent years, especially among the upper classes. As is common in other cultures, people place this symbol around their necks, attach it to the front door of their homes, and suspend it below the rearview mirror of cars. Since it makes an attractive piece of art, some give it as gifts to family members and friends. To illustrate, the topic of the evil eye came up in a cell group meeting in our home. As we were discussing different amulets, a new believer realized that the key ring she received from her daughter after visiting the country of Turkey was a nazar. She pulled the key ring out of her purse and discarded it, understanding that it was contrary to her new Christian faith.
The Hasma, often called the hand of Fatima, is an amulet frequently observed in Northern Africa (see figure 3). It should not be surprising that North African Muslims, as well as other Muslims, have a preoccupation with the evil eye since oral tradition holds that Muhammad affirmed its existence. In one book of the Haddith, the prophet was recorded twice as saying, “The influence of an evil eye is a fact” (Sahih Muslim, Book 26, No. 5426 and 5427), and he proceeded to elaborate in one of those records that “if anything would precede the [sic] destiny it would be the influence of an evil eye, and when you are asked to take bath (as a cure) from the influence of an evil eye, you should take bath” (Sahih Muslim, Book 26, No. 5427).
For centuries, folk Christians have used Christian symbols, images of saints, and signs of the cross to invoke protection from evil. Many Hindus believe that the Bottu, sometimes called the “third eye,” which women fix on their foreheads, gives protection from the evil eye. Some even propose that the use of a bridal veil, bride’s maids, and the throwing of rice evolved to prevent an envious person from gazing at the bride and, thus, cursing the newly-married couple (Bohigian 1997, 97).
Many have thought horns contain powers to shun malefic intents. The gesture of raising both the little finger and the index finger simultaneously allows one to form this symbol. The ballet girls, for example, in the novel The Phantom of the Opera formed this sign with their hands upon hearing the mention of one named Persian, a man suspected to possess an evil eye (LeRoux 1994, 5).
Carriers and the Vulnerable
There are many opinions concerning who bears and who may fall victim to an evil eye. While there is no fixed rule, variations arise according to particular peoples and regions. Envy is one oft-mentioned denominator, although there are others. A few examples merit mention.
A poor, hungry person watching an individual eat is thought by some to provoke sickness. Others believe that a barren woman can cause harm if she looks upon a mother or her children. A discontented woman and a person who has a strange appearance are also frequently suspected of an evil eye. Some even feel a child associated with an unfulfilled pregnancy may be a carrier (Bohigian 1997, 97).
Children appear to be among the most vulnerable to an evil eye, likely because of their innocence and low tolerance for sickness. Although not unique to this context, many Catholic families in Brazil restrict neighbors and friends from seeing a newborn child until after the baptismal ceremony. Likewise, it is not rare to see an amulet of Buddha suspending over the stroller of a Chinese infant.
Another vulnerable group comprises those who achieve some level of success; they fear that those around them possibly desire their misfortune. Bumper stickers and signs in Brazil frequently display statements such as “do not envy me” or “do not envy, work instead” to countermeasure the envious who look upon their vehicle or business with resentment.
What Does the Bible Say about the Evil Eye?
Believers, particularly ministers and missionaries, must derive a compassionate, biblical response to the evil eye. A foundational step would be to determine if the phenomenon of the evil eye actually has biblical merit and what connection exists between the heart/mind/soul and the eyes.
The translators of the King James Version chose to use the term “evil eye” in three scripture passages (Prov. 23:6-7; Prov. 28:22; Mark 7:21-22). They likewise used near-equivalent phrases in two other places (Deut. 28:54-56; Prov. 16:29-30). Translators of the New International Version (NIV 1984, used for citation herein) and the English Standard Version avoided the term and selected other words which convey the biblical authors’ intent. Selected words from these two versions include “begrudge”, “stingy”, “envy”, “no compassion,” and the idea of one who cunningly winks an eye when plotting mischief.
Well-known passages certainly affirm a link between the human heart’s affections and resolve and what is looked upon with desire. Job righteously determined not to look lustfully upon a woman (Job 31:1). Jesus associated the eye with a lamp which in reality reveals the heart’s condition; a healthy eye discloses a devoted heart while a bad eye reveals an evil heart (Matt. 6:22-23; Luke 11:33-25). Why? Solomon pinpointed that the heart “is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23).
This brief examination undeniably confirms that the human heart relates to the eyes. If a person’s heart has evil interests and malefic intent, then his or her eyes follow and reflect the evil of his or her heart. Scripture, on the other hand, does not support the reality that evil or evil intent within the individual’s heart can transmit through the eye gate to another human or object. One may verify rather easily through general observation that a covetous, selfish, or revengeful person causes harm to him or herself and to others within his or her realm of influence. The suffering which results from these evil intentions and desires, nevertheless, must not be mistaken for the transmission of evil as in the case of the evil eye, which would be a form of contagious magic.
Toward a Gospel-based Solution
Merely declaring that the Bible does not support the reality of the evil eye will do little to dissipate a person’s perception and fear. It is hoped that if Christ-followers in churches better understand the relationship between the heart and the eye, then they can convey to others a biblical and culturally-compatible worldview. If one, however, believes that the evil eye exists or is under control of its curse, then this perception lends opportunity for the devil to operate through deception and captivate on this fear (cf. Priest, Campbell, and Mullen 1995, 34-35). For this reason, the following three truths should equate into a gospel-based solution to instruct and/or counsel one who fears its influence.
Conversion into the Kingdom of God through the gospel gives absolute protection from the evil eye and other enslaving beliefs. The Lord God grants an individual who receives the gospel his Spirit, and the Spirit brings about adoption and places the person in God’s kingdom as a co-heir with Christ (Rom. 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:19; Tit. 3:5-6). A child of the Creator God, therefore, need not continue as a slave to fear (Rom. 8:15-16). The Lord promises that he will never abandon him or her. The believer can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Heb. 13:6).
Furthermore, God “keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him” (1 John 5:18). Hence, the evil eye is powerless over God’s Spirit and protection which are provided to his child. If Satan, however, brings temptation or affliction, the Christian can be assured that it comes only with the Lord’s permission, and his grace and wisdom are available to him or her to withstand the trial (e.g., Job 1-2; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; James 1:2-8).
The believer should cultivate daily trust in the Lord of the gospel, which in turn can eliminate fears. He or she must also resist the temptation to return to old beliefs and practices such as the evil eye. This truth and the next apply only if one embraces the gospel. It is after receiving the gospel that progressive sanctification should take place. As one grows in Christ, elements of the former folk religious worldview should deconstruct.
The Apostle Paul similarly instructed the church at Colossae not to return or incorporate their newfound faith with the old experiences, rituals, and practices (Col. 2:23). Their predicament no doubt relates to those who struggle with using amulets and formulas to avoid the evil eye. The Colossians did not necessarily abandon their faith in Jesus, but they were tempted to supplement the gospel with other spiritual sources to deal with this-world issues (Flemming 2005, 217).
Paul viewed this fusion as unacceptable, as well as unnecessary, because the Lord Jesus reigns over all spiritual domains, and in Christ the fullness of God through the Spirit already inhabited them (Col. 2:9-10). His prescription was simply to “continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” and not revert back to old philosophies which actually denied the Lord and his power (Col. 2:6-7).
The believer must guard his or her heart from “all kinds of strange teachings” (such as the evil eye) which are in realty the works of the flesh, contrary to the law of the Spirit and schemes of the devil. He or she should instead strengthen him or herself in the grace through the Lord Jesus, walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 6:10; Heb. 13:9).
The believer must learn and obey the Lord and serve others in the context of Christian community rather than self-preoccupation. A general trait of most folk religious fears and practices is the gravitation toward self; that is, the individual preoccupies with receiving a divine blessing for him or herself or at best his or her family and avoiding a curse. The fear one feels toward the evil eye, for example, in reality comprises a self-centered, idolatrous preoccupation, which actually throws suspicion and blame upon another instead of assuming personal responsibility and trusting in the Lord.
There are legitimate reasons that a counselor typically prescribes to patients suffering from worry and fear volunteer service or assistance to the less fortunate. Adhering to this behavioral therapy, the individual begins to consider others instead of focusing only on him or herself.
The local church functions as the ideal setting and New Testament precedence for the believer to serve and consider others, particularly since the “church is part of the Gospel” (Stott 2003, 99). By mutually helping and loving his or her fellow brothers and sisters in Christian community, the believer allows God’s grace to bring divine assurance to his or her condemning heart while obeying God’s command to love his or her brothers and sisters in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-23).
Christian missions, no doubt, can benefit when leaders and missionaries recognize and develop assessments for folk beliefs. The evil eye is one phenomenon which requires such a treatment, given its vastness and supra-cultural traits. Although scripture does not confirm its reality, a person’s perception that the evil eye exists and must be controlled through amulets and other formulas lead to grave implications, including self-preoccupation, idolatry, demonic deception, and captivity to fear. A gospel-based solution which responds and hopefully dissipates one’s fear, therefore, is necessary and has been delineated herein as a starting place for further reflection and elaboration.
Bohigian, George H. 1997. “The History of the Evil Eye and Its Influence on Ophthalmology, Medicine and Social Customs.” Documenta Ophthalmologica 94(s.n.): 91-100.
Flemming, Dean E. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
LeRoux, Gaston 1994. The Phantom of the Opera. Kindle version from public domain edition.
Priest, Robert J., Thomas Campbell, and Bradford A. Mullen 1995. “Missiological Syncretism: The New Animistic Paradigm.” In Spiritual Power and Missions, Ed. Edward Rommen, 9-87. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Sahih Muslim. Mika’il al-Almany, editor. Abd-al-Hamid Siddiqui, translator. Accessed on July 15, 2012, from d1.islamhouse.com/data/en/ih_books/single/en_Sahih_Muslim.pdf
Stott, John 2003. Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness. Revised edition. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Van Rheenen, Gaylin 1991. Communicating Christ in Animistic Contexts. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.
Residing in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, David Allen Bledsoe has served as a missionary with the International Mission Board (SBC) since appointment in 1998. He coordinates the MTS program in Brazil for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as teaches in other settings. He holds a MDiv and DMin from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary and a DTh from the University of South Africa.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 404-410. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.