What Is Evil?

AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan

Everywhere we turn these days we see evil in action. It was always thus, but in the current social, political, and medical environment it seems especially prominent. We observe a pandemic that has caused global and historically immense damage and devastation, a cataclysm of biblical proportions. We see governments, official agencies, and corporate consortiums that have fed the public with lies and misinformation as to the origins, causes, and cures of the plague. We witness elections that have been rigged and stolen and note corruption in high places that seems unprecedented. We see wars that have been fought for no useful purposes and thoughtless surrenders that only accentuated their stupidity. We experience legislation in democratic countries that remind one of the practices of totalitarian regimes. We see honest people and reputable professionals censored by monopoly media and digital platforms and deprived of their livelihoods. We face mobs of co-opted citizens, fearful and manic, who resemble the brainwashed masses in Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


Every day there are a plethora of new reports of dissimulation, atrocity, depravity, crime, and social breakdown that have become standard fare. The News changes from day to day and even within the same day, and yet it is almost always the same. “Hot button” is cold coffee and “topical” differs only in particulars, remaining generic and fundamentally indistinguishable, part of a ditto realm. We are captive, as Canada’s premier columnist Rex Murphy writes, to “the morbid isms of our time” of “confected scandal and demonstrations” that characterize “the imperial reach of this timid and repressive age.”

In a world torn asunder by violence, cruelty, and corruption, the question of evil, addressed by philosophers and theologians for millennia, is unavoidable. We tend to use the word indiscriminately, as a catch-all phrase and verbal convenience devoid of substantive content and analytic rigor. Is what we call “evil” a concept of the human mind, a descriptive term that applies to impulses, acts, and events that issue in various forms of suffering in both the world of man and the world of nature? Life in nature, including predatory disease, is essentially predicated on the digestive tract—“this munching universe,” as Lawrence Durrell called it. Death is the operative principle. Life in the human world is a theater of greed, deception, hatred, and murder recognized by the Ten Commandments, a list of axioms that have proven largely unable to counteract the bloodbath of history and the pathological compulsions of the individual psyche.


In this sense, what we call “evil” is inherent in the Creation, as it were, accidentally. But the selective panorama of existence as a sphere of menace is not “evil” in the metaphysical or canonical sense. The word is a function of language in extremity, a way of designating what we abhor, fail to understand, and wish were otherwise, a subjective response to things we find unacceptable.

Or is evil something objective, a pure yet tangible absence, “a deviation from some absolute standard of goodness,” as John G. Stackhouse Jr. puts it in his fascinating study, Can God Be Trusted: Faith and the Challenge of Evil? The early Christian Gnostics, of whatever stripe, believed that the universe had been created by the Devil masquerading as a paternal god, or that the Throne of Heaven had been usurped by the Prince of Darkness in that infinitesimal moment when God blinked. The Demiurge then proceeded to feast upon the fear and agony of every living thing, and especially on the confusion and terror inherent in human consciousness.

For those who believe that evil is not merely a descriptive term but an actual reified entity or material force, like magnetism or gravity, who are convinced that the Devil really exists, that there was a “war in heaven,” as John portrays it in Revelation 12, and that the great dragon, “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” was cast out upon the earth to persecute the spirit of life, fertility, and hope—for such people the question of theodicy, “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil,” arises to trouble the mind.


Such is the core issue for Christians. If God has foreknowledge of all that is to come, “for a time, and times, and half a time,” He knows in advance that Adam and Eve, free will notwithstanding, would inevitably sin, that Cain would kill his brother, and that human history would unfold upon a path of physical and moral destitution. And if He knows all that impends before the event and if His knowledge is intrinsic to His Creation, then man is not free and the dilemma is unanswerable. Alternatively, if God is the “ground of being,” a source and power the precedes being itself, as Paul Tillich asserts, this is not a comforting possibility since it absolves God of moral responsibility for what occurs within being itself, like an artist, as James Joyce wrote, who remains “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (One thinks of the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza who believed that human values and moral norms could not be derived from an impersonal God who is the universe itself.) Finally, the ostensibly consoling thesis that suffering, pain, and death are a kind of redemptive gift, the means by which the human spirit educates itself toward goodness and moral triumph, seems an indulgent attempt to extricate oneself from the paradox.

For many Jews, God died in the Holocaust. How can one revere and worship a Divine Father who watched six million of his innocent people, infants, children, the young and the elder, turned into ash, soap, and lampshades? “How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz?” wrote Richard Rubenstein in After Auschwitz; “The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept.” Elie Wiesel in Night presents a more nuanced view. “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my god and my soul and turned my dreams to dust,” he laments; yet, “I did not deny god’s existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.” Theodicy fails.


Theologians have labored mightily to unravel the mystery of evil, but without much success. Is God then responsible for human suffering, or merely indifferent to it? Is God, as Nietzsche proclaimed, dead, that is, as an object of belief and naïve confidence or as a guiding principle in human history? Or is He merely absconditus, as we read in the Vulgate version of Isaiah 45:15 (Vere tu es Deus absconditus—“Truly, You are a God who hides Yourself”), and taken up by Aquinas and Luther to account for God having grown bored with the travails of nature and the absurd and dispiriting antics of man? Is Luther’s reconsidered “theology of glory,” the rediscovery of an estranged God, even plausible? Is the Devil actually among us, determining the course of events? Is evil real? Is Henri Blocher right in Evil and the Cross when he lays it down that “Evil is not to be understood, but to be fought.” But how is evil to be vanquished when the combat is ultimately asymmetrical?

There can be little doubt that evil is afoot in the world, but what is it? How do we come to terms with the nature of evil, the basic structure of a feral universe, which escapes our conceptual nets and leaves only a shadow behind? We are properly concerned with specifics, with the traumatic issues of the day, but these are only aspects of the Big Picture. The question persists. Is “evil” merely a linguistic abstraction for what we find malefic and incomprehensible? Or is evil a concrete fact, like a virus that has been released into the Creation and into the soul of man, the ultimate “gain-of-function” pathogen? Absolute faith in God and endless moral striving appear to be the only vaccines, yet their effect is problematic and, for many, unworkable.


What I am doing here is advancing a set of humble observations and thoughts. The subject is perennial and has been plumbed by minds far superior to mine in a vast library of deep and magisterial tomes. Yet it is a subject that defeats resolution and continues to assault every waking sensibility, insinuating itself into all our confrontations with ourselves, with the disruptive world of men and the killing fields of nature, and ensuring that every minor victory of presumed understanding or resistance is always pyrrhic and recessive.

And yet we struggle on, a mystery equal to any other.


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