“Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?” Even today, decades after radio detective shows have left the airwaves, people remember this phrase from the 1930’s. (The answer, incidentally, was “The Shadow Knows.”) But what is “evil?” Is it a “thing” that can hide, undetected for a period, only to be unleashed when a person’s guard is down? If so, can it be located, identified and eradicated? Or is it an ethereal spirit, an invisible cloud that somehow infects all with whom it comes into contact?
This question has perplexed the minds of thinkers, great and small, since man first recognized his own seemingly endless capacity to do harm. In a recent conversation, a skeptic posed the question: is evil a personal being or is it some type of ethereal force?
Many people are inclined to identify evil as a thing, often without giving the question much thought. As the famous phrase implies, evil must be a thing if it can lurk somewhere. And viewing it that way can help to excuse one’s conduct. A popular gag from the 60’s summed it with the phrase “The devil made me do it.” But is it as simple as that?
As a Christian, I have no doubt that a personal agent of unquenchable evil exists and that, for a time at least, he has been given access to the Earth and its inhabitants. But he does not create all evil, nor can he force evil upon us. For “evil” is not a thing. If it were, the question would rightly become: “How could an all-good God have created evil?” Doesn’t this make Him evil as well?
St. Augustine did groundbreaking work on this in the Fourth Century. He constructed a syllogism that helps make better sense of the question:
1. God created all things;
2. Evil is a thing;
3. Therefore, God created evil.
By stating it this way, he was able to see where the problem lay. The logic is sound, but is premise 2 true? Is evil a thing, something that is created? He answered that in the negative, and his exploration of the topic makes for intriguing, though sometimes difficult, reading. Evil is not a “thing” at all. It is the measure of the departure of a thought or action from the perfect good. Evil exists only to the extent that there is first an identifiable good from which it departs or falls short. Evil, therefore, is always volitional because it involves a thought or an intentional action. For example, trying to push someone over a cliff is evil, even if you fail; while unintentionally bumping someone is not, because there is no volition involved, even if injury is inflicted. Similarly, evil can only be committed by human beings. A lion devouring its prey is acting on instinct, as is the family dog that protects his master. A human being who acts in a similar manner will be judged based on his motives and ultimate ends, regardless of how similar his actual behavior might be to that of an animal.
Augustine spends considerable time developing this concept, and it would take a book to fully convey his views. He realizes that what we see as evil is never a positive quantity of a thing; it is always a perversion of a good. We can add light to a room, but we cannot add darkness. To achieve darkness, we must remove the light. So too with evil. We cannot heap quantities of “evil” onto a workbench and examine it. No, we use the word evil to describe what we perceive as a diminution of the good. For example, betrayal is a departure from the good of loyalty or love; violence is a departure from the good of peace; deception is a departure from the good of honesty; rape is a departure from the good of mutual consensual love. It is simply not possible to come up with an “evil” that is self contained, self generated. It is always a falling short, a perversion, from the norm or the good.
Reflecting on the discussion, the skeptic asked if "it is necessary for evil to decide to pervert something." Because evil is volitional, it would seem that the answer must necessarily be yes. But I would substitute “personal agent” for “evil” because “evil” is the product – again, the measure of the movement away from, the perversion of, the good, while the personal agent is the one who acts. Earthquakes, for instance, are tragedies, because of the harm caused. But I would not call them “evil” because they serve an important purpose for the viability of life on earth and because (presumably) they are not intentionally caused. If, however, a mad scientist created a device that could cause earthquakes, hoping to terrorize or to gain some advantage, that would indeed be evil.
While the devil is real, he does not embody all “evil” and evil is not itself a spirit. It is the product of a personal agent, a manifestation of the will to rebel against God and against his perfect good. Does it lurk in the hearts of men? Perhaps, but not in the sense of something hiding; rather, it would seem, in the sense of something continually welling up within us, and spewing forth at times unbidden to wreak havoc, far and wide.
Thankfully, however, this affliction is not permanent. Through his grace, God has provided the means to cap that well, and to be reconciled with him. And he’s given us the means to choose him. It is essential for us that we choose wisely.