For seminary, I’ve been starting to work on some of what will one day be a response to questions in ordination paper work. Here’s my first go at the Book of Discipline’s question “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in our world?”
Here is my answer to the question of evil in an academic mode: Evil is the contradiction of good. It exists as a negation. It is a parasite. It is the darkness that is only visible in the presence of light. In an ontological sense, as Augustine taught us, evil does not exist.
This is the beginning of my academic answer. It is my bookshelf answer. It is not one that feels in any way adequate, however. Where life is lived, evil is real. I read this week a story about a man who bludgeoned a 3-year-old girl to death because she had an accident in her pants. You cannot retreat behind the cool, dispassionate pose of the academic musing on the nature of evil when you read such a story. Augustine’s argument about the non-existence of evil shatters in the face of such stories.
Or does it?
Augustine argued that evil does not exist because he knew that God is good. This good God created everything, and all that God created is good. Evil cannot exist as a thing because God could not have created it. God only creates good. This goodness is the light by which the darkness of evil becomes visible. We are repulsed by the story of a 3-year-old girl being beaten to death because we recognize that the world is not meant to be a place where that happens. Even if we in unbelief cannot name that place as God’s will, the grace of God whispers to us of a world in which such horrors do not happen. Evil can only be known as evil because we know of that other world, the world as God intends it to be. Evil is the gap between the world as it is and the world as God created it to be.
This is a world we both long for and resist. We resist it because it is the world in which our own will matches the will of God. It is the world in which we say, as Jesus did, not my will be done, but yours. We resist this because we are very much in love with our own will.
If you have ever read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, you know the real problem of evil. The real problem of evil is not that it is repugnant, but that it is so seductive. In Milton’s poem, it is hard not to admire Satan for his driving will, his resolution, and his declaration that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. Here is Frank Sinatra belting out his defiant “I did it my way.” Here is Katy Perry singing “Roar.” Here is the serpent in the garden urging Eve to think for herself. Evil comes to us in the disguise of independence and self-respect. It urges us to set up a false god called “my own thing.”
Of course, the real seduction of evil is that it takes things that are good – critical thought, perseverance in times of trial, determination, personal gifts – and uses them to shake us free of the God who is the source of all good. These things in service of God’s will are blessings. It is the way of evil, though, to take what is good and detach it from God, corrupting it. The evil we experience in our lives comes when human beings reject God.