Evil a challenge for believers and non-believers

Barney Zwartz looks into the question of what 'evil' means in our time

By Barnery Zwartz

March 3 2020 

Sometimes, circumstances arise where “evil” seems the only possible adjective. The Holocaust is often cited here, because words such as unfair, wrong, immoral, even abhorrent or horrific, do not carry enough weight. As philosopher Rai Gaita once observed, it entirely misses the point to say of those who died in the gas chambers that their “rights were violated”.

Yet, in a thoughtful piece in the Spectator last month, Matthew Parris argued that, especially outside the religious realm, evil is not a particularly useful concept.

“Evil eschews any notion of understanding or explaining, and sits uneasily with the idea of rectification, compensation or apology,” Parris wrote. “It’s hard to reconcile even with thoughts of forgiveness. And evil brushes aside the possibility of miscalculation, error, ignorance or accident.”

Parris, an atheist who has often been sympathetic to Christianity, argued that evil suggests a kind of cosmic force – not the evil deed itself, but something inhabiting that deed — as the wind fills the billowing sail, but is not the sail.

But he used to accept the argument of Christian moralists that to downplay the concept of evil was to downplay the ideas of right or wrong, highly dangerous for a society. “It has taken me almost 70 years to realise that the concept of evil is not a stern corrective of errant behaviour: it’s an evasion, a way of hiding our eyes from what men are or can be, or can do.”

Parris read an account of Nazi death squads, and realised that describing them as evil would not sharpen his distress but relieve it: “It would be an explanation, a diabolus ex machina.”

There’s a strong sense in which Parris is right. Evil, like the victimhood of identity politics, removes agency and responsibility and transfers the onus elsewhere. Yet even so it remains essential to the Christian vocabulary for conveying a particular depth of depravity.

Evil, for the Christian, begins with rebellion against God which is the natural state of us all. As I often remark, original sin is the only Christian doctrine presented to us in the news media every day. The concept of sin has almost vanished in mainstream society – it is more associated in the public mind with expensive chocolates and lacy negligees, which consumers “deserve”.

The Apostle John (3:19) is quite clear: people prefer the darkness to light because their deeds are evil. What makes them evil? It is not the motivation or the consequences (key factors in various humanist moral theories), though these are far from irrelevant, but their contradiction of God’s revealed will.

That is why, once removed from its religious context, the concept of evil becomes etiolated. As philosopher Bertrand Russell was forced to admit, morality to him was merely a subjective preference. To claim something is evil, by this understanding, is simply to express an emotion or an attitude about it, for there is no moral reality. This, along with Scottish philosopher David Hume’s argument that there is an unbridgeable gulf from is (the way the world is) to ought (the way it should be, however defined) seems to me an argument atheists cannot rebut.

Of course, evil is often used to argue against the existence of God. According to this “problem of evil” (technically known as theodicy), the reality of evil proves that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful.

Theodicy is an important and valid branch of theology. But sometimes it is merely a philosophical debate about God’s attributes, missing entirely the person of God. I can’t help feeling there’s a chasm between an intellectual exercise and somebody crying out in personal despair or desperation.

Why does a good God allow evil? (The Bible asserts in many places that God is not the author of evil.) There are many things we can say, and they may bring consolation to the suffering, but in the end our only answer is that given to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?”

In other words, to comprehend God’s plan perfectly one would have to be God. One of the best metaphors I have encountered compares God’s plan is to a flawless tapestry, but in this life we see only the reverse side, with threads and knots flying in all directions, apparently haphazardly.

Atheists, of course, should not see evil as a moral problem since they live in a pitiless, indifferent cosmos in which the only values are those that are arbitrarily imposed. Yet they usually do, and it is to their credit.

God’s whole saving activity is directed to deal with evil. As my venerable New Bible Dictionary elegantly explains, the Cross is God’s final answer to the problem of evil, for there his love is supremely demonstrated in the identification of the Lord with the suffering world as the Sin-bearer.