Anna’s Question

Anna’s question: ‘Do you believe there’s such a thing as evil?’


Anna is my 13 year old niece, and this was the RE essay topic she’d been given. There’s usually a very specific question that requires an answer (such as, ‘Do you believe in a personal source of evil – Satan?’); in this case, I received the question in an email with no further details.  It’s a huge question – and a very important one!  I jotted down some thoughts to offer her:


Evil is defined by its destructive capacity.  If something brings great harm, it is evil.  I have no doubt that evil resides in systems: Apartheid and the Holocaust are pretty obvious examples.  I say ‘resides’, like some entity lurking in the shadows, because our experience is that they sweep people up in ways that control and trap them.  In the same way, riots and regimes can be evil: they seem to unleash destructive powers and passions in people that end up controlling them.  In other words, there is something more than just the sum of all the individual actions of all the individuals: when you’ve done the addition, there is something more – a power that gets unleashed.  I’d call that ‘Evil’.


St Augustine wouldn’t agree.  He defined evil as the privatio boni – ‘the privation (absence) of good’.  He denied that evil had its own substance; God is Good and therefore only goodness has substance (or ‘existence’).  Evil ‘happens’ when people abandon goodness.  He likened it towards people walking away from the Light (God) into darkness (non-God) until theywere swallowed up in the darkness.  It’s interesting theology and philosophy; I’m not sure it gives an adequate account of our experience of evil, which seems to be far more ‘concrete’.


We must also recognise that human beings are capable of evil actions – of ‘doing evil things’.  Their victims experience evil at their hands.  Those who habitually do evil things become hardened to them and do more and more.  Evil is therefore a kind of process – a ‘downward spiral’.  It describes the willingness and concrete actions of people who are prepared to sacrifice the well-being of others to achieve their own advantage/ends.  To that extent, it makes sense to talk of being ‘involved in evil’, without it being ‘Evil’ (ie a capital ‘E’).


Central to ‘doing evil’ is some element of deliberate choice.   The more someone deliberately sets out to do something evil, the more reprehensible and blameworthy their action is and the more justified we are in punishing them.  It belongs with the notion of ‘Free Will’ (capitals deliberate).  Disturbingly, we have had to acknowledge that there is no such thing as ‘Free Will’ in reality.  We know, now, that our deliberate choices are never made freely.  They are determined (or at least shaped) by unconscious drives (psychological drives), damage, culture and socialisation.  We’re used to recognising that legally in the concept of ‘mitigation’: some criminal (and very evil) acts are not intended by their perpetrators.  A paranoid schizophrenic, for example, may go on a killing spree because they ‘heard God telling them to’.


So there are at least two aspects to evil actions: both their effects and the intentions of those carrying them out.  Legally, we call those aspects the  ‘acts reus’ (unlawful act) and ‘mens rea’ (unlawful intention).  So, if I plan to kill someone, it’s murder; if I unintentionally kill someone, it’s manslaughter.


What is a very interesting area of debate here is the point at which we define evil as some sort of ‘mental illness’; in other words, the extreme liberal position can easily end up by assuming that no sane person would do anything really evil; if someone does evil, they must (by definition), be mentally ill.  I don’t believe that is true.  Sane people can do great evil.


So we’ve established that there is such a thing as ‘the power of evil’; that people can become involved in evil as a ‘habit’ that takes them deeper into it; that people are capable of very deliberate evil because we are frighteningly prepared to profit from the ‘use’ of other people – to live at their expense.


What about Satan?  Whether or not Satan actually exists (and I’m not sure whether Satan does or not), Satan is ‘true’ – ie at least a symbolic or narrative device for designating the truth that there appears to be a ‘dark force’ within creation that is opposed to the goodness of God and God’s intentions for creation.  Whether that is something different from the ways in which ‘principalities and powers’ become resident within systems, I don’t know.  I do know that our experience and participation in evil requires two things: forgiveness for what we cannot undo and make right, and liberation from what we cannot overcome ourselves.


This isn’t any sort of comprehensive answer to the question – just some musings when trying to answer my niece.  What would you say to her?


Lawrence Moore


Download Anna’s Question



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