What is Evil?

Questioning Church
Deepening Spirituality
Life Events
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Ian Wallis

Ian Wallis, a former Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Vicar of St Mark’s Broomhill and Chair of St Mark’s CRC, continues to teach and write in the areas of biblical studies and contemporary theology.

What is evil? There are various categories of action that most reasonable people with a moral compass would describe in this way, including murder, enslavement, sexual abuse, extortion, discrimination, perpetrating injustice and oppression. Others would also describe as evil cases where someone’s failure to act causes harm to others, such as when parents neglect their children or companies refuse to acknowledge when their products are proven to be dangerous or when a government ignores the plight of its most vulnerable citizens. What all of these have in common is human agency in the sense that suffering is perpetrated or intentionally sanctioned. But there are other phenomena which are often described as evil even though they are not, directly at least, the consequence of human malpractice. These would include natural disasters (eg earthquakes, tsunamis), various degenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s) and health pandemics (Bird Flu, Cholera, Coronavirus).

Adding this third category brings into focus an important distinction, namely between what philosophers describe as moral and nonmoral forms of evil where the first results from the intentional actions or inactions of human beings and the second is caused by other factors. But what is it in each of these occurrences that is evil? For example, death is not evil in itself, nor is an earthquake or a virus inherently evil. Rather, evil seems to arise from the circumstances in which these natural phenomena occur and, in particular, on their detrimental effects. We are all going to die, but it is evil for you to take my life against my will. In themselves, earthquakes and viruses are amoral (neither moral nor immoral); the evil resides in their impact on life, especially it seems human life.

In all of these cases, evil is being used as an interpretative category, as a judgement, to describe behaviours or consequences which cause harm, principally to other human beings. As such, in most cases, the word ‘evil’ could readily be substituted for other words with similar meanings (eg bad, destructive, inhumane, depraved, heinous). Implicit in this acknowledgement is the less palatable recognition that as an interpretative category it is, at least to a measure, subjective, relative and anthropocentric. For instance, a pandemic which wiped out half the global population of homo sapiens would be judged evil by its victims and, probably, by survivors as well; yet, from the perspective of preserving biodiversity and conserving the earth’s natural resources, it could be argued to be a force for good. Or, again, the fact that massive financial inequalities show no signs of disappearing within most free-market democracies suggests that the ensuing evils (child poverty, destitution, poor health, lack of opportunity, reduced life expectancy, etc) tend only to be viewed as such by the minority who suffer the detrimental consequences.

But is there more to evil than this? Is evil principally a value judgement placed upon certain categories of harmful events and occurrences? A good case can be made for claiming that there are thoughts and drives that tempt us to behave in evil ways. Some would go so far as to say that they feel compelled to act in a certain manner because of, for instance, an all-consuming prejudice or an irrepressible urge. There are at least two points to note here. Firstly, if human beings are capable of exercising free-will and, as such, are morally responsible agents who can be held accountable, then they must be able to weigh different options and contemplate different courses of action. If everything is predetermined and there is no possibility for us to act other than we did, then we are reduced to automatons slavishly performing our pre-programmed roles. Moral agency requires that in any ethically-charged situation we could always have chosen a different path – which seems to require that we are able to contemplate doing evil, even if we are never ultimately tempted to do so. Secondly, the testimony of those who claim that their capacity for exercising free-will has been overridden by a compunction to act malevolently raises the question of whether evil has some form of independent existence and is able to influence human conduct detrimentally – compromising, if not incapacitating, the exercising of free-will and moral agency.

This seems the appropriate juncture to bring into focus the theological dimension, because although ‘evil’ is used freely within secular discourse, it also raises major, some would claim insuperable, challenges for belief in the existence of a loving, all-powerful creator God. The Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-76), in the spirit of one of his ancient forebears (Epicurus, 341–270 BCE), expressed it succinctly:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?

Then is he impotent.

Is he able, but not willing?

Then is he malevolent.

Is he both able and willing?

Whence then is evil?

With this memorable conundrum, Hume calls into question the very nature of the Judaeo-Christian God by demonstrating the logical impossibility of evil existing if God is thoroughgoingly beneficent and limitlessly powerful. But the most persuasive objections are etched on human history, including the mass extermination of Jews in the concentration camps, gas chambers and crematoria of the Third Reich that permanently leave the words ‘God is love’ stuck in one’s throat. Then there are those cases where the perpetrators of evil, in a calculating and premeditated manner, derive their pleasure from the torture and suffering of their victims as was the case with Fred and Rose West and what transpired in the cellar of 25 Cromwell Street between 1967 and 1987. Again, silence seems the only satisfactory response.

But attempts to reconcile the reality of evil with belief in a loving God who is the source of all that exists have been attempted. Some have maintained that evil is a necessary consequence of free-will as we have alluded to previously. Interestingly, one of the creation narratives at the beginning of the book of Genesis seems to acknowledge as much when it states: ‘Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2.9). Although the primordial pair are forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, its very existence is the basis for their moral agency as they are subsequently tempted to taste of its fruit. If it hadn’t been there, they couldn’t have opted to disobey God; but, equally, having no choice, they couldn’t have opted to obey God either. But, as we have seen, not all forms of evil result from humans exercising their free-will (eg natural disasters, etc). Further, the sheer scale of evil throughout human history which, despite huge technological, scientific and medical advances, shows little sign of abating raises the question of whether God has created the conditions for the best possible world in which free-will could have evolved.

Other approaches focus on the greater good that can result from the evils of suffering. This, again, takes different forms. For example, as with God’s command that Abraham should sacrifice his only son, Isaac, or God’s granting permission for Job to be stricken to within an inch of his life, suffering can be a means of proving faithfulness or strengthening obedience. In contrast, as with the visiting of plagues upon the ancient Egyptians, suffering can be a means of punishing transgression to secure the divine will, in this case the liberation of an oppressed people. But in addition to raising far-reaching challenges about God’s moral character (What kind of a God would require a father to kill his son or would wipe out the firstborn of a nation?), there is the whole question of incommensurability in the equation between ‘means’ and ‘ends.’ As Ivan Karamazov protests in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the gratuitous suffering of innocent children is too high a price to pay for securing God’s harmonious purposes.

An entirely different account begins with the reality of evil and refuses to speculate about how it could have come about if God is good. Instead, it asks, in the midst of the sufferings of evil, where is God to be found? We hear it in the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel’s account of the hanging of a young boy during his incarceration at Auschwitz. As the prisoners who had been compelled to witness the execution filed passed his writhing, tortured body, too light to secure a swift demise, Wiesel hears one of his comrades inquire, ‘Where is God now?’ and another respond, ‘Here he is, he’s hanging here on the gallows’ (Night, 77). We hear it again in the correspondence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, from a cell in Tegel where he had been imprisoned for conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler, when he writes, ‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us … only the suffering God can help’ (Letters and Papers from Prison, 360-1). Traditionally, Christ’s suffering on the cross has been interpreted vicariously – he suffers in our place; but, here, the cross becomes an embodiment of solidarity and compassion – Christ suffers with us, instead of, for us. This conviction possesses potent emotional force and some who have experienced this companionship in suffering have derived comfort and fortitude from it, although I’m not sure where making God into a victim of evil’s sufferings, instead of being their ultimate source, leaves us. Are we saying that evil ultimately prevails? If I’m drowning in deep waters, the presence of a co-drown-ee may bring fleeting solace, but only until I draw my final breath.

Probably the most ingenious and, in certain respects, persuasive theodicy was conceived by Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE). Convinced of the inherent goodness of God and of the intrinsic goodness of all that God created, yet equally aware of the consequences of evil, he concluded that evil isn’t something in its own right – something for which God could be held responsible; rather, evil is an absence, an absence of good (privatio boni). As a vacuum is caused by the expulsion of air, so evil results from the deprivation of good. How, then, does this deprivation occur? Augustine puts this down to the exercising of free-will, but not in the sense of being tempted by evil (remember, evil has no independent existence), but rather of turning away from a higher good to a lesser good. It is the act itself, of opting for a lesser good, that constitutes evil: ‘For when the will abandons what is above itself, and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil – not because that is evil to which it turns, but because the turning itself is wicked’ (City of God, Book 10, Chapter 6). In terms of exonerating God, Augustine’s approach has much to commend it, but does it offer a satisfactory account of evil? Doesn’t evil possess positive definition, some kind of substance or independent existence – something able to bring pressure to bear?

Certain religions, such as Zoroastrianism, are thoroughgoingly dualist in constitution. That is to say, they maintain that there are two equally matched, yet opposite, eternal and uncreated realities, good and evil, which are engaged in cosmic conflict – a conflict which erupts into space-time and is played out on the human stage. Most commentators would maintain that such a view is incompatible with the central claims of the three principal monotheistic faith-traditions. But are there any other options? I think there is at least one which attempts to account for evil resulting from human agency. In truth, it is highly questionable whether earthquakes, viruses and the like are intrinsically evil any more that other phenomena governed by the laws of nature; in such cases, recourse to the language of evil is surely a means of expressing a value judgement upon their effect, rather than their cause. So back to that other option.

First, some requisite groundwork needs to be put in place. If God’s essence is love, then God cannot be, or create, evil – for evil is incompatible with love (as a leopard cannot change its spots, so God cannot be other than God is). But, equally, if God creates out of love, then a measure of freedom must be intrinsic to creation, for love’s essence is the offering of itself without condition or demand. In the case of humans, that freedom manifests itself as free-will, exercised within the constraints and opportunities of creation itself (there is no such thing as absolute free-will). It follows from this, that no one, including God, can see beyond the choices that creatures such as homo sapiens have yet to make; if God could, then free-will would evaporate into determinism. So, in creating out of love, God necessarily introduces the conditions within which humans (perhaps other creatures as well) can opt to frustrate God’s loving purposes and cause suffering that could otherwise have been averted. In this way, each ‘bad choice’ becomes a vehicle for evil; in one sense, evil is no more than the performance and consequence of these exercises of free-will. And yet there is more to it than that because each instance of evil adds to its definition which, in turn, increases the options for all future choices. Like it or not, our awareness of evil was extended by what happened in Auschwitz and Cromwell Road – and our possibilities broadened as a result. But more than that, the sum of bad choices gives momentum to evil, influencing future decision-making. It becomes a source of temptation and for those exposed to evil, as well as for those practised in perpetrating it, that momentum can become overwhelming, all but destroying a capacity for free-will. Let me close with a partial analogy. Consider, of all things, a snowball rolling down a hill, gaining mass and momentum en route, consuming snowflakes into itself, leaving destruction in its wake. In one sense, that snowball is simply a constellation of snowflakes, each inconsequential of itself with little impact; yet when those same snowflakes cohere together, forming a substantial body, they not only exert a centripetal force, attracting other snowflakes, but also a destructive one upon whatever stands in the snowball’s way. The sum has become greater than the parts. Could the same be true of evil?


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