Every senseless, horrific act of violence brings up the question of good versus evil, and when you read that children have died by violence – a common thread linking the Newtown shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing – there’s even more reason to shudder and doubt. In fearful times maintaining the most minimal idea of “God is good” becomes harder. If it is blasphemy for believers to think God isn’t good, it betrays humanity to let God get away with turning his back while innocents die in random acts of terror.
I don’t want to parse theology. Every faith argues for a just and merciful God, which means finding a reason why evil persists under the gaze of a loving deity. If the reasons satisfy you, you stay with your faith. If they don’t satisfy you, you may stay with your faith anyway. There are real benefits to being part of a religious community, and no one is forced to confront cosmic questions that have baffled centuries of debate.
In the aftermath of mass violence, after the horror and shock recede, all of us cobble together a truce with good and evil. But why not confront the issue head on? Our emotional revulsion against evil is powerful; it’s one of the main reasons that moral people are moral: They want to identify with good. They want to oppose evil. So where does evil come from? If we break this question down, it’s not so monolithic.
Evil has many explanations that sound plausible, each taking a different tack. Here’s a sampling.
-In ancient India, evil is whatever leads to suffering.
-In the Old Testament, evil is sin born of disobedience to God.
-In the New Testament, evil is complicated, since in some gospels Jesus speaks like a rabbi promoting the Old Testament model of Satan versus God, while in other gospels evil is the absence of love. The redemption of the world, where all sin is forgiven, would abolish evil through an act of divine love.
- In the medical model that’s usually dispersed by mass media after a violent tragedy, evil is mental illness. Bad people are sick.
- In the minds of countless everyday citizens, evil is what “they” do, and “they” is simply defined as “not us.”
Instead of trying to settle which definition is true – a totally impossible task – I’d point out that each explanation is paired with a solution. You can counter evil with good from any angle.
- If evil is due to sin, the solution is not to sin.
- If evil is whatever causes suffering, go out and relieve suffering.
- If evil is the refusal to accept God’s love, find a way to experience that love.
- If evil is a mental disorder, help those who are afflicted.
- If evil is us-versus-them, remove the walls that divide us from them.
I can’t think of any explanation for evil that doesn’t imply a solution, a way for good to prevail. This, for me, is the best answer to the issue of good versus evil. It isn’t necessary to excuse God, run into the arms of militant atheism, or seek revenge as if revenge is the answer that goodness gives to evil. It isn’t. Revenge may be a lesser evil or a necessary one – every nation that wars against its enemies adopts its own justifications – but it can’t be called an absolute good like love and compassion.
In other words, I’m a pragmatist about evil, because at heart I believe in the ancient Indian definition of evil as anything that creates suffering. I don’t have to go cosmic; I only have to be useful in relieving suffering wherever I can. Where does God fit into this scheme? He can no longer coast on his reputation. If God is good, he needs to be good here and now. Also, God can’t be a blind eye who ignores suffering, because that merely excuses our own blind eye. Evil is a human problem, not a cosmic one. If God reaches down to help us be good, he’s part of the solution.
I realize that millions of people doubt that God does reach down. The Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, 9/11 – pick any mind-numbing episode of evil-doing and you clear the stage for rage and doubt directed against God. Wasn’t it his responsibility to save us, to protect us as a loving Father should? Sadly, that metaphor has worn out. Evil has become our sole responsibility, a pollution of the heart akin to pollutants in the atmosphere. Only after we take up the burden to foster good, even when our lower instincts howl for revenge and hatred, do we have the right to enlist God. The divine is a hidden power, a silent voice, an invisible ally. For some people, that will never be good enough. Our best hope are the witnesses who testify that at the most unexpected moment, what was silent and invisible suddenly manifested itself, and then God began to be clothed in reality.