- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled
On April 19, 1995, I was home (which at that time was Toledo, Ohio) watching The Price is Right. I was in the kitchen when I heard the news update: an explosion occurred in Oklahoma City with many feared injured. No deaths reported so far. It didn’t sound too bad, but because I grew up in Oklahoma, the news was jarring. I quickly switched over to CNN to see if there was more information.
At first, the news had an optimistic tone. CNN cut to a local Oklahoma City newscast, because they were on site. I remember vividly the news anchor’s shaky voice as he talked to the reporter on the street. The reporter said it was hard to see and couldn’t confirm anything specific, but they had heard of only 2 or 3 injuries and no fatalities. The news anchor was saying things like, “Oh, thank you Jesus” and “Oh Jesus please let everything be OK.” As he continued the commentary, he was talking about the “most important things in life” and all but led the audience in the Sinner’s Prayer!
Of course the scope of what actually happened was much worse than at first feared. 168 people died, including 19 children under the age of 6. And it was no accident. It was an act of domestic terrorism. Somebody did this on purpose. I was just over 20 years old when it happened—old enough to be aware of the world around me—but that event was really the first time I fully comprehended the devastation of evil.
What am I referring to, specifically, when I use the word evil?
- An evil doer is one who purposely abuses, causes pain, murders, or otherwise harms other human beings (or, for that matter, animals).
- An evil act is something that causes horrific, intolerable, unbearable circumstances which cause profound suffering and, often, death.
- Therefore, evil is an adjective that describes something that purposefully and maliciously causes pain, suffering, and death.
That day was over 18 years ago. Maybe because I’m getting older; maybe because social media technology connects us, quickly, to a larger scope of information. But for whatever reason, ever since that day, it seems that bone-chilling, gut-wrenching horrors are happening one right after the other, with shorter lapses of time between each event. There’s barely enough time to catch one’s breath—let alone try to process—before the next tragedy or unspeakable discovery is breaking news.
PLEASE NOTE: in this section, I describe in some detail some horrible recent events including Newtown, Boston, and the Cleveland kidnapping. Skip to section III if you'd rather not read this section.
This year has been especially evil.
It was shocking news in Oregon (where I live now) when the report surfaced of a mass shooting in a mall near Portland. But not even a week had passed when we heard about the murders at Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT.
Honestly, the tragedy in Newtown affected me just as deeply and profoundly as September 11. Perhaps more so; children were specifically targeted and murdered. It’s still too much to take in. I don’t know how others process tragedy and horror, but I try to put myself in the shoes of those affected. I’ve tried to remember what it was like when I was in kindergarten, and how I would have felt hearing gunshots, hiding, or if I saw someone with a gun enter my classroom and then…hell. Although I’m not a parent, I’ve tried to think how it would feel if my children were inside; how it would feel if my children were murdered; how would I feel if my children survived.
Then another horrific act occurred—this time at the Boston Marathon. Not as many fatalities, but hundreds of serious injuries including the loss of limbs.
These tragedies affect us so deeply because we can’t imagine the pain, let alone imagine purposefully causing that pain.
Most recently, the news has been detailing the escape of the women who were imprisoned against their will in Cleveland. Unspeakable crimes were perpetrated against these women, held captive against their will for TEN FUCKING YEARS. How long is 10 years? It is 520 weeks; or 3,640 days; or 87,360 hours. Living in terrible fear. Being degraded and violated. Not being around anyone who loved them or held them or comforted them. In constant turmoil. Often starved. Often raped. Often beaten. Often chained.
** UPDATE: Since I wrote this post, there has been YET ANOTHER mass shooting, this time in New Orleans during a Mother's Day parade. Twelve were killed. **
Every year it seems to get worse and worse. When will it stop?
Why is there evil in the world? Being a good evangelical, I used to have a quick and easy answer for that: sin. It’s a short, quick answer to end what should be an agonizing search. Furthermore, it is an coldly theological answer to a question that cries out for a response from us that is much deeper and much more human. While there is definitely something broken about our world and within humanity—one could call this “sin” as the Bible does—simply labeling the problem (and then dismissing it as something from which we have been saved) separates us from those who suffer and prevents us from truly loving them. We separate and disconnect from them, labeling them the Other.
One can see this separation in evangelical Christianity today. There is little regard for the poor, the oppressed, or the marginalized. There is little regard for making the world a better place than when we found it. Since we have been “saved,” we are going to heaven and we don’t need to worry anymore about all the horrible things in the world, because somehow God is going to make everything right again. This view blinds Christians to the injustice in the world, and prevents us from truly loving. Being unloving means that we either hate the Other or are indifferent to the Other.
If we don’t love people, we do not have connection with people. This lack of love and connection is a primary reason that there is so much evil in the world. When we feel a connection with someone, it means that when they hurt, we hurt. Who would bully those with whom they felt a true connection? Would we ever purposefully cause pain to them? Would anyone denigrate, violate, rape, torture, and murder those they love?
Please know that I am NOT equating evangelical Christians with bullies, sadists, murderers, rapists, etc. I know many Christians, evangelical and otherwise, who are full of love for others and for the world. They mourn heartache and loss and suffering. They question why and struggle daily. What I am referring to is a potential hatred/indifference for the Other that can occur (and often do occur) in people who call themselves Christians.
As Christians, when presented with the reality of evil, we have some choices on how to deal with it:
1. Accept It
Our basic humanity doesn’t allow us to be completely cold in the event of disaster, so there is still some mourning that takes place when we choose to simply accept the reality of evil. However, this choice also involves repressing more intense emotions such as rage, confusion, and disillusionment in the name of “submitting” to God. For a long time I tried to follow option #1. I thought it was the right thing to do, following Job as the ultimate model of submission to God and his seemingly-random-like wrath and non-intervention.
2. Blame Something Other than God
There are many things we blame for evil in the world. We’ve already talked about the concept of sin, where mankind’s rebellion incurs God’s wrath. Reacting in this manner helps to ease the existential blow: no matter how good and moral one is, everyone deserves God’s wrath (insert proof-text Romans 3:23 here). Specific “sins” and/or “sinners” can also be cited, such as homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, feminism, other religions, or an opposing political party or politician, just to name a few. Other times, the blame is placed on Satan and demonic activity. Often, both the devil and our sin are blamed.
3. Rage Against God
Because our world is riddled with evil, many (if not most) Christians do find themselves at this stage occasionally. In our rage, we are fully connecting with our emotions and our humanity, and crying out to God to stop suffering and injustice. Being “mad at God” is, in actuality, an emotion that can bring us closer to God. God is big enough to handle our rage.
Most Christians react to evil using options #1 and #2. Many try option #3, yet with reservations and withholding of their truest, rawest emotions. Others just can’t make themselves believe anymore, so they are forced with a decision. Do they stop believing in God or adjust their view of God?
4. Stop Believing in God
One reason someone stops believing in God is the inability to reconcile the reality of evil with what one has been taught about God. (There are other reasons people stop believing in God, but the problem of evil is the focus of this piece.) This choice does not make someone a bad person. It is an honest, human response to available criteria.
I do not know much about atheism, and I hesitate to describe what an atheist actually “believes” for fear that I will oversimplify or explain atheism incorrectly and/or condescendingly. I have a large handful of friends who are atheists (and probably more that I don’t know about), and of these people none of them are nihilists. They have moral and ethical codes by which they live; some call themselves spiritual. For one reason or another, the label of atheism fits them most comfortably.
5. Adjust View of God
Still others go through periods of adjustment in their view of God. I believe that options #4 and #5 are iterative in that they can often be repeated and merged.
Because none of us have actually had a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with God, anyone who has ever believed in God constructs a view of God in their minds. Because we are finite beings, the construction of God in our minds is inevitably limited.
An evangelical Christian may argue that Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit tells us exactly what we need to know through the Bible. Our view of God must be constructed by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, they say. However, how do we know what interpretation of the Bible is correct? How do we know when the Holy Spirit is speaking? There are thousands of denominations of Christian churches alone. There are thousands of different religions that claim truth. I believe it is necessary, as Christians, to continually alter our view of God based on new information and experiences. We must continue to question what we think we know. We have to courageously face reality.
By becoming more aware of the reality of evil in the world, my view of God has adjusted radically throughout the years. I chose option #4 for a number of years; for me, that was a necessary step in my own spiritual journey. If I was to believe in God again, option #5 was also absolutely necessary. My view of God today is one of much more mystery. For example, it’s very difficult for me to believe that God is an interventionist, based on the horrors that continue to plague humanity. In the face of evil, I still often go with option #3. More importantly, evil reminds us how much this world needs true love and connection. It is a call to follow the way of Jesus for both inner healing and eventual healing of our world. It is the hope of the Kingdom of God. It is this concept of love that helps me continue to choose to live as a Christian.
UPDATE: Zack Hunt (a.k.a. The American Jesus) published a great piece at A Deeper Story called The Problem of Evil is Hanging in Your Closet. Something practical we can do to decrease the evil in the world!