Ten children are killed every day in the United States by guns; people are murdered senselessly; Columbine High School; Over one-third of middle school children in Cascade County have used illegal drugs and over one-half have tried alcohol; innocent people in foreign countries are being wiped out (Kosovo); The Holocaust; Hiroshima; Vietnam; poverty, starvation and oppression in third world countries; Capitalism; environmental decay and neglect; the media; Oklahoma City; the uni-bomber; earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, airplane crashes; domestic/child abuse; disease, birth defects and mental disorders. Why?Why?Why?… The question never changes and is asked over and over and over and over. People in every age and every time try to understand why evil exists, what may be its purpose, and why does it seem at times to be so present and powerful, or in other words – “why did this have to happen to me, again?!” Or better yet – “What did I/they do to deserve this?!” Oh, and here’s another one – “God must be really angry at you for this to happen!” And finally – “If there really is a God, then why does He allow such evil to even exist?!” When confronted with the dark side of life, these questions come naturally to most and not so naturally to some. Yet, they still come. They have to. As humans made in the image and likeness of a creator who acted out of pure love and complete freedom, it is our obligation to ask these questions and to confront the evil situations that exist, situations that go against the very nature and Spirit of God.
Many conflicts can rise from determining exactly what is evil and what it is not. I don’t want to go there. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should dismiss this argument altogether. I just don’t want to get caught up in the triviality of different perspectives. In other words, some people refer to evil as sin and suffering; others think of it as a separation from God while still more people personify it in the form of satan. My purpose here is not to discuss what form evil may take in an individual’s life even though it may come up periodically. The central fact remains that evil, in one form or another, does exist and anyone not willing to believe in this reality quite frankly lives in a different dimension. Either that, or they simply live in a total state of denial! Keeping all this in mind, what I want to accomplish in this paper is to first explore the idea that evil is a relative term that exists within the context of each situation. Ah, yes! Even as I wrote that last sentence, I could see the wheels turning in your head. But not to worry. I will clarify soon. From this point, I will seek the wisdom of people who have tried to answer these tough questions proposed on the first page, come to some more conclusions through personal interviews and then end on a more personal note, using the help of my life experience as a Christian. This topic hits me hard at times. I often find myself in reflection, trying to formulate an answer to the evil that I see, and yes, the evil that I do. This evil will sometimes leave me feeling totally powerless and at its mercy. Yet I never give up hope for I know that just through the process of writing this paper, some new insights will be reached and I will come to some new levels of awareness. And isn’t that what it is all about anyway? For I don’t know what the final answer will be, but the search will go on and on and on. It must. And as a recovering Catholic and a student of theology, God is calling me to speak boldly and with confidence so as to reaffirm the ‘purely good’ and ‘totally free’ nature from which I was created.
For most who take the time to research and probe into the topic of evil, there exist two different kinds, natural and moral. I am going to spend the majority of this paper talking about moral evil for one simple reason: it’s really the only evil that exists. Natural evil are two words that just don’t go together. One definition of natural evil says that it is the suffering and pain that human beings experience at the hands of nature. Earthquakes, flash floods, and tornadoes, just to name a few, are all part of the natural order of this evolving world we live in. To actually say that these things are evil is false and to imply that they are evil because they cause pain and suffering to people is, in my view, false as well. I am not trying to diminish the human conditions of pain and suffering, nor am I trying to excuse the tragic losses that occur because of nature. I suppose that all I’m trying to relate here is that the idea of evil, as I understand it, does not fit as a proper term for dealing with the sometimes-violent acts of nature. “God has created a world in which there is both birth and death, both rationality and contingency, both order and freedom, both risk and vulnerability. In such a world, challenge, struggle, and some forms of suffering belong to the very structure of life.” Moral evil, which will be referred to as just plain old ‘evil’ for the rest of this paper, is the suffering and pain that human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhabit. I want to make this my focus since it is here that I believe the reality of evil takes root.
Evil is a relative term that exists within the context of each situation. To start, evil does not exist by itself and to help explain what I am proposing, I will call upon process philosophy, which says, “Metaphysically speaking, evil arises from the incompatibility of alternative potentialities.” However, this does not imply that evil has to be a realization in every situation. But what it does say is that the potential for evil is present. It has to be. Otherwise the potential to realize what is truly good in every situation would not exist. This is a lot easier to understand by looking at the subjective nature of human beings. We are intelligent beings and we have been given a gift that allows us to respond to each other and to the world around us from an emotional perspective. Our focus in life is intertwined with our emotional state of being and can lead us to experience a life of love, happiness, and joy. Or it can lead us into a journey with the dark side where our emotions are ruled by feelings of fear, pain, and despair. I will expand more on this in my conclusion where I will talk specifically about love and fear. For now, a good summation would be to say that since we were given the freedom to choose our own path, we must respect the potential that exists for both good and evil – in every situation – in any given place – in any given time.
I know that making the statement that evil does not exist by itself could present a problem to those who believe in the devil/satan. The personification of evil is recorded throughout the Bible as a way for the people of Israel to make sense of the evil acts they witnessed. In the book of Job, they took it a step further by trying to demonstrate that evil does exist by itself and can strike anyone at any time, even those obedient to God. The message of Job, however, is not one that puts the focus on evil, but rather it is a message that calls all people to remain faithful to the covenant, no matter what happens to them in the temporal world. Today is no different than 2-3 thousand years ago. As Christians (or Jews), we are reminded that God’s creation is “good.” So in order to cope with the evil that exists, it has become necessary for many to personify evil so as to separate it from the loving nature of God. Personally, I believe the creation of a devil by humans is just a way for them to excuse their poor efforts in exercising the free will that was given to them by God. This is a gift God always hopes we will use to recognize the potential of “good” in His creation. “The devil made me do it!”— Sorry, but I just don’t buy that one!
I have taken the time to look up many articles from well-known scholars and theologians and have also read excerpts from several books regarding the topic of evil. I don’t feel the need to get caught up in quotes and citations here because what I found was that for the majority, the scholars are faced with the same task of answering the questions, or ones similar, that I proposed on the first page. They may use different wording such as moral evil, natural evil, metaphysical evil, social evil, sin, suffering. And they may phrase it in different ways so as to appeal to their specific audience. But what I found evident through all the reading and through all the different terms and phrases was one central theme: “How can we understand that an infinitely good and wise God has, if not willed, at least allowed humanity to be plunged into an ocean of physical and moral evil?” Or in other words, if God is all-powerful, then He could or should prevent the existence of such evil. Different religions have tackled this problem in many ways and one could easily make each response a topic for research. With that in mind, I believe I will stick with the Christian response to the reality of evil since it best relates with the ideas expressed in the interviews I conducted and also because it best relates to my own personal beliefs. So lets go back for a moment to the invention of satan. The Hebrew Scriptures talked a lot about this and the New Testament followed suit in their efforts to link the Old with the New and to provide the reader with a solid explanation for the existence of evil. Even Christ Himself is said to have battled directly with the devil. This was important because it was very necessary to separate God from evil and how better to do that than to set up an epic battle where the God of creation, incarnated in Jesus Christ, is victorious over any force which opposes His goodness. The focus for Christianity today needs to go beyond the notion of personification and thus far beyond the epic battle. To sum up the Christian response to evil, I will rely on the closing comments on this topic found in the New Catholic Encyclopedia:
“It is in the Cross that the mystery of moral evil comes to its emblematic focus. But it
is also in the Cross that the love of God condescends to meet and suffer that evil, and
ultimately to supersede it, not through a denial of suffering and death, but in a passage
through the reality of suffering and death to the definitive reality of the Resurrection.
The Resurrection is the reclaiming by God of the life that has been robbed by the
invasion of evil and the reestablishment of all creation in the ambit of God’s life.”
The mystery of evil is just that – a mystery. And the Christian message is one that recognizes its permanency within the temporal order and in turn reassures us all that God is in control and that ultimately the goodness of God works toward the good of all things. God freely chose to participate on a very intimate level with His creation and has thus provided us with an antidote to the evil that exists. We need only pick up our cross and walk towards the light!
Over the course of the last month, I conducted several interviews with people from different walks of life and asked them questions concerning the topic of evil. The main questions that I proposed to each one of them were: 1) What is evil, that is, what does it mean to you personally?; 2) Do you believe in a devil/satan?; and 3) Is there a purpose for evil? I found this part of the research to be very beneficial for the purpose of demonstrating just how adverse and broad the topic of evil can be. I will share a few of the comments that I thought to be quite profound and very insightful. One person said that “evil isn’t only in action, it is in thought” and “a belief in God and His love helps us overcome these thoughts.” I agree with this and believe it to be instrumental in the process of overcoming evil. It makes logical sense that if we learn to overcome the evil that exists first in our thoughts, then the evil that we see as it is played out through our actions will be less and less visible. Another person said that evil is not necessarily real in itself, but rather it is an adjective used to describe the tragedies that occur as the result of poor choices. Again, I found merit in this insight and directly related it to the idea I proposed earlier in this paper where I said that evil exists within the context of each situation. More comments come from two different people who didn’t have much to say about evil except that both warned me to proceed with caution as I continued my research. For both of them, just the thought of spending this amount of time exploring this topic brings with it great potential for evil. One of them was so serious about this that he stopped midway through the interview and offered up a prayer, a prayer he hoped would keep me from falling prey to the temptation that he feels exists whenever someone exposes themselves to the dark side. My final comment from the interview portion comes from Pastor Tim Christensen. When I asked him if he had any thoughts on the subject of evil he said, “Marty, I don’t want to go there.” At first I was kind of stunned by his response but in retrospect, I am coming to understand and respect more and more why he said those words. For he did not offer me any words of wisdom, but his silence was a message that spoke loudly! (He did recite a definition of evil found in the book “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC” by Frederick Buechner that I would like to share with all of you in class if time permits.)
I will call upon two articles I found in different issues of “Christianity Today” for support as I share with you my personal beliefs in regards to evil. The first article is “How Evil Became Cool. (causes of the Littleton, CO massacre)” by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey. They discuss in brief how the teenage killers found inspiration in the postmodernist ideas of nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who was the catalyst for the emergence of Nazi Germany. They said, “underlying the killers’ fascination with swastikas and black uniforms was the outright embrace of evil – what literary critic Roger Shattuck calls an attitude of “approval towards moral and radical evil as evidence of superior human will and power.” I found myself drawn immediately to these comments because of my own experiences with evil. If I take an honest look into my past, there was many times when I chose to embrace evil, the consequences of which are still very present today. I chose to follow my own will and power and ignore God’s. There were times when I even mocked God and thought His guidance to be a sign of weakness. I take most of the blame for my actions but part of me can’t help but wonder what choices I would have (or could have) made had my view of God not been tainted by certain events that happened back in my impressionable childhood years. And yet I know that it is because of these events that I am able to not only grieve with the survivors and families of the Columbine victims, but also have a deep sense of compassion and forgiveness for the boys who committed these horrific acts. Overcoming evil, for me, involves both. This will lead me into the next article I found entitled “It’s Hard to Hug a Bully” by Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara discusses the idea that evil needs to be disarmed by absorbing it rather than letting it grow. She says, “Evil is never satisfied with controlling one side of a situation. Its goal is to infect everyone involved – the victim along with the bully, the plaintiff along with the defendant, the offended along with the offender.” I see this as being very true when I witness myself and others act from a state of vengeance towards people who have for some reason chose to act against us in an evil way. It is for this reason that I need to recognize the evil that exists in my life and I also need to recognize the evil that exists in others. From here it becomes vitally important that I always try to act from a position of love and compassion so as to depress the forces of evil and reinforce the innate goodness of God’s creation. I believe that God gives us the gift of free will hoping that we will use it wisely, knowing that at times we won’t. But our freedom to choose will never be taken away from us because to do this would require God to go against the truly free nature from which he created. I need to respect and honor the freedom of choice and I can do this if I strive to respond to evil from a state of love, compassion and forgiveness. Jesus Christ is my model and His unconditional love is my tool to make this happen. The message of the life, ministry, and resurrection of Christ is one that tells me that I can overcome evil. If a human named Jesus did it, then so can I!
Mary Christine Morkovsky, A Process view of Divine Providence (Terre Haute, IN: MLX Graphics, 1991), 15.
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, “How Evil Became Cool. (causes of Littleton, CO Massacre),” Christianity Today, 9 Aug. 1999, 80.
Barbara Brown Taylor, “It’s Hard to Hug a Bully,” Christianity Today, 11 Jan. 1999, 74.