(The “Philosophizing Theology” series of posts will philosophically, as opposed to systematically or only Biblically, look at theological issues.)
Earlier this morning I watched a short video memorializing the events of 9/11. The video almost brought me to tears as there were recordings of voicemails that people had left with their loved ones. When 9/11 happened I was in 7th grade. Seventh grade is a weird stage of life. I was still young enough to have parts of my childhood self still innocently and naively intact, but old enough to understand that the world was not all about playing with action figures, watching cartoons, and having fun with friends. 9/11 abruptly annihilated my childish notion that the world was basically a safe place. Before 9/11, I could not have articulated the difference between a tourist and a terrorist. After, the idea of “terrorists” existing in our world would forever shape my worldview.
Evil, Bad, and Wrong
Evil is a nebulous thing. It is something that the unbeliever or skeptic often tend to either reduce or ignore. “Evil” and “bad” and “wrong” do not exist. Rather, there are things deemed by the collective whole to be socially unacceptable or, at worst, there are things that threaten the peace of the society as a whole. Meaning, there is no moral absolute. There is simply the consensus of the masses. For example, a skeptic friend of mine once explained that there was an Eskimo tribe that practiced female infanticide for survival. The tribe needed men to hunt and provide the means of survival for the whole, therefore, a male baby was infinitely more valuable to the tribe. Female infanticide was practiced in order to keep the population of the tribe and the ratio of men to women at a sustainable level for the greater good of the whole. This was not “wrong” or “immoral” because….well, because the consensus of the masses deemed it necessary.
According to the secularist, people are also not “evil” or “bad.” People are simply byproducts of their environment. The collective contribution of our genetic predisposition, cultural context, environmental stimuli, family of origin, and bio-chemical responses shape our brain chemistry and behavioral expressions. This is actually true in part. I cannot deny that these factors shape up us. Sociology and behavioral psychology have confirmed this.
However, these ideas—that things are only bad or wrong if they affect the greater whole negatively or adversely impact survival and that people are simply passive victims of their environment—do not seem to adequately define or deal with the presence of what I will presently call “evil” in our world. There seems to be both a physical and metaphysical presence in our world that is fundamentally destructive to life. It manifests as hatred, violence, prejudice, racism, sexism, divorce, child abuse, slavery, sex trafficking, war, murder, gossip, bullying, nationalism, greed, pride, dishonesty, mass shootings, vitriolic responses on social media, adultery, selfishness—do I need to elaborate?
These things exist. Contemplate that for a moment. While some of them are completely immaterial, we live with and cope with the reality of this “evil” presence in our world. Whether you call it evil, whether you believe humanity is culpable or not, and whether you believe it is defined by some morally absolute standard or not does not have any bearing on the fact that this destructive force exists. Our world is plagued with a reality that regularly invades our present space and wreaks havoc on our existence.
Further, we can use psychological language to attempt to avoid the claims of the Christian faith (and most other faith traditions I might add) that there is something in the human nature that is fundamentally broken, but this attempt is simply semantics. Some streams of thought would say that there is not “right” and “wrong.” There are simply behaviors and attitudes that positively or adversely affect us and our relationships. For example, it is not that being kind is morally good. Rather, being kind elicits more favorable responses from other people which is therefore more preferable for my survival. It is better for my survival that I do not punch you in the face so that you do not punch me in the face in response. We are simply biochemical masses of flesh that act and react according to what produces the most optimal likelihood of survival.
However, this language simply masks this reality: certain attitudes and behaviors are more life-giving than others. Furthermore, there are a number of these behaviors and attitudes that transcend culture, time, and place. For example, most of humanity has agreed that killing an innocent person in cold blood is not a favorable behavior. Therefore, I contend that using language that prescribes adjectives such as “evil,” “sinful,” and “wrong” with such behaviors is not only reasonable, but helpful. Murder is wrong. It is antithetical to life.
Evil and Life
Evil then, both from a secular perspective and a Christian theological perspective, can be defined as that which is not life-giving. This is where some Christians get it wrong. So often Christians have treated sin and evil like it is as simple as this: “God said it that settles it.” While that line of logic has some validity from the perspective that God is God and we are not, it actually misses the biblical trajectory of sin. What is defined as sin in the Bible is not simply a random list of arbitrary rules. Sin is that which is antithetical to life (Romans 6:23). We need to understand this in order to understand the heart of the Creator. His laws and standards are not arbitrary.
Even the Old Testament laws express a high value on life. Many of the laws that seem primitive to us were culturally embedded. It would not make sense for God to not reveal Himself from within a framework that would make sense to the original audience. Some of the OT laws were hygienic in nature. Some were very specific for Israel’s worship practices. Others demonstrated a high value on life—even animal life. There is this odd law about not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk. Why? Well, it is kind of sick to be honest. There were laws about freeing people from debt (Leviticus 25), leaving the edges of grain fields for the poor to reap (Leviticus 19:9-10), and preventing cycles of murderous revenge (Joshua 20).
I will explore in my next post the problem of evil as something that infects each one of us, but for now let us simply wrestle with the reality that there is such a thing as evil in this world. Whatever this reality we call evil is, it is at least something that threatens to destroy life and that which is life-giving in nature.
Food for Thought:
If you do not claim to be a Christian, how do you name and identify the existence of what I would call “evil”?
Would you say that the totality of the human issue is that they are just innately sinful regardless of environmental factors or would you deem humanity as simply helpless victims of their environment?
If you admit that there is such thing as evil in our world, the next question you have to ask is this: How have you contributed to the evil? Does the same evil out there exist within your own heart?