The Reality of Evil

by Fr. John Garvey

Evil is a word that disturbs most of us. Secular people are put off by its theological overtones; many religious people are rightly concerned with the way it is too frequently used about others, and seldom about ourselves. And this discomfort takes place in a society in which a belief in the reality of evil (seen as something transcendent, something with power) is considered a quaint superstitious remnant, and is equated with, say, the denial of evolution or a belief in fairies.

14th century image of a monk in combat with a demon (Biblioteque Nationale de France)

But then disasters like the recent tsunami happen, and atheists say to believers, “Explain this! If God is good, how can this terrible thing happen?” They see it as, well, an evil, or anyway something so horrible that it seems to rule out the idea of transcendent or even immanent goodness. Better an ultimately meaningless universe than one with such apparent contradictions.

Or take the discomfort that settles over the language when someone like Hitler or Pol Pot comes up. “Hitler was insane,” it’s said; or “He must have been psychotic.” But the mystery of evil here is that Hitler had followers who were not insane, and there is no real evidence that he was anything other than sane, and so were his followers. The guy who stands ranting on the street corner about how the CIA is reading his thoughts doesn’t usually gather a flock, and is a long way from the man who rallied Germany to mass murder, or from Charles Manson, Jim Jones … or a man I once met who was surrounded by such a powerful aura of evil that it scared the hell out of me.

The discomfort is understandable. Evil brings up too many easy dramatic associations – images from The Exorcist and Gustave Dor’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno – and conjures up a nearly Gnostic sense that Satan is another kind of God, a bad one, doomed ultimately to fail, but with godlike powers. This has always been resisted in Christian theology, but it tempts the popular imagination.

I suspect that another source of discomfort with the notion of evil is that it introduces us to territory we seem to have left as a society, and even as Christians. That is, we have somehow lost the idea that life really does involve a struggle for light against darkness; a series of choices between good and evil; a sense that we must ultimately choose between life and death, and that there is something that draws us toward darkness and death.

There is something that does not love humankind, and it goes deep. All religious traditions have understood this. Satan in the book of Job is part of God’s court, but the way he helps out is through destruction. The Buddha is tempted by Mara, in a way not unlike the temptation of Christ in the desert. We dilute our understanding of the darkest human possibilities by reducing them to a set of psychological problems. Henri Nouwen once told me, after he read the Desert Fathers, that Christians should avoid importing psychological concepts into those areas of Christian thought where the traditional vocabulary served perfectly well. And the traditional vocabulary, including that used by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, was a lot more comfortable than most of us are with the idea of evil and hell. We have sentimentalized our understanding of God’s relationship to humanity. It is curious that we should have begun doing this in such a blood-drenched century as the last one. So we try to explain the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the killing fields of Cambodia, My Lai, Jonestown, the Manson family, September 11, all without any reference to radical evil, or the power evil has to take us over, one by one, or as a society.

It goes without saying that the invocation of religion does not help us out of this dilemma, since the history of religion is so studded with evil events, done in God’s name. But to deny that evil is real is to deny something we really do experience, out there – that is, in our suffering world – and in here, in our own hearts. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has said that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and it is essential for us to keep this before us every time we use the word.

A recent tragedy on the Red Lake Chippewa reservation showed us what happened to a sixteen-year-old boy, his father a suicide, his apparently abusive mother in a nursing home after an accident brought on by drunken driving, sent against his will to live with his grandfather, ridiculed by his classmates. Internet chat rooms seemed to be the only places he communicated freely, often with neo-Nazi racists, and his postings show him to have been rather articulate, and tortured. The result of whatever life poured or beat into him was the murder of nine people, and his own suicide. He was fascinated by death and drew pictures of the dead, dying, and zombies. He loved the myth of Hitler.

I thought of W. H. Auden’s lines, from “September 1, 1939″:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn:

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

But the mystery of good (a more profound mystery than the mystery of evil) is that so many do not. Evil scares us, and should, but we fall for a lie if we think it is stronger than goodness. Satan is the father of lies, and the truth is that there are so many people who, having been beaten, do not beat others in return. This involves choices, and responses to temptation. There are children of abuse who do not abuse, people who have been bullied whose response is to refuse to pass that pain on to others, people whose pain-filled lives have even led them – this is a miracle, I think – to gratitude.

I know a woman whose own background was terribly hard, who was for a while a thief and a prostitute, whose husband died of AIDS, who because of her own serious illness had to give up her child, and whose response to all this is to thank God that she and her husband met a monk who helped them both to a better way of living, that her child is alive and well cared for. She is a person whose purity of heart and goodness shame me and make me grateful for having met her. Evil, even demonic evil, is real. What she reveals is deeper, and more true of the world.

Fr. John Garvey is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and columnist for Commonweal, where his article first was published. His most recent books are Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox (Templegate Publishers) and Death and the Rest of Our Lives (Eerdmans).