Why Evil Is Not A Mystery

I’m tired of hearing people talk of evil as a great mystery. Many things are mysteries in this world but evil is not one of them. Indeed I believe mystery to be the sole province of God; He alone creates and personifies it. Calling evil mysterious is our way of evading responsibility for sin, blaming bad things on God and hiding from our own guilt.

light-of-the-world-william-holman-huntIt is because we claim not to understand evil that we so easily succumb to it. And having embraced evil, lack of understanding is our great excuse, ensuring not only that we remain in its power but that we wallow in angst and self-pity. By contrast, the more candidly we admit that evil is no mystery, the more gladly may we exult in the one reality that is a glorious mystery: the goodness and love of God.

Augustine was greatly troubled by the problem of evil, so much so that in his early years he subscribed to Manicheeism, a dualistic religious cult that explained evil as the product of conflict between God, who is good, and all matter which is bad. A nice, simple theory, but wrong, for it was God who created matter. Later on, Augustine found in Christianity a much more satisfying explanation for both good and evil. Indeed I submit that many people become Christians precisely because Christianity offers the only compelling solution to the problem of evil, just as many others refuse faith because they shrink from this very solution.

Jesus gives the clear explanation for evil in John 3:19-20: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”

Jesus locates the solution precisely where we all know it belongs: in the sinful human heart. Describing evil as a mystery is our justification for remaining in the dark, rather than frankly owning that evil exists purely because people—including ourselves—disobey God.

God is good, people are not. Mystery solved.

How is this different from Manicheeism? It is different because people are bad not by default but by choice. Nor are we entirely bad, for once again, God created us and He does not make evil. But our wills are poisoned by sin. Through God’s grace we are capable of turning to Him, being forgiven and cleansed, and doing His will. If we all did this en masse, then His kingdom would come and the whole world would be set right. But if even one person held back and refused to honor God, some evil would remain and everyone would suffer.

Psalm 115:16 puts it this way: “The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to people.” Free will—that is the problem. On earth we can do whatever we want. God is still sovereign, but He intervenes in our affairs only to sustain and protect us, providing just enough evidence of His power and love to stimulate our faith.

In the Roman Catholic liturgy, every Catholic at every mass confesses aloud, “I have greatly sinned … through my fault, through my fault, through my own grievous fault.” At each repetition of “my fault” the congregant is instructed to beat his breast, driving home the reality of his words.

This is so hard for us—to admit that we ourselves are responsible for evil, every one of us. This is devastating news, but like all truth it is also deeply comforting. It is devastating because it shatters our pride, our cherished world view. It is comforting because, when fully embraced, it really does solve the problem of evil, utterly exposing it for what it is. No longer is evil some mysterious force “out there,” but it is in ourselves. We are the evil ones, perpetrating evil consciously and willfully. We know exactly what we are doing, and why. Evil comes from our mistrust and hatred of God.

This is not to say that there is necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between our own sin and our personal problems. No, the situation is more complex than that. But our communal responsibility for evil extends not only to violence and other human acts, but to disease and even to so-called acts of God. Because of us, says Paul, the whole creation is “groaning,” waiting in “eager expectation” to be “liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:19-22). In this era of global warming, is it not increasingly obvious that natural disasters are at least partly attributable to human sin? Did Adam and Eve experience hurricanes and tidal waves in Paradise?

But what about Satan? Isn’t he the evil one? Yes, but it’s no more use to blame him than to blame our neighbor. Satan doesn’t make us sin; we do it ourselves. We are the ones who have empowered him; our sin is Satan’s daily bread. Thus everyone who disobeys God is complicit in evil. There can be no shifting of blame, no refuge from this harsh light.

Of course, this devastating news must be completed by the full message of the gospel: that God is prepared through Jesus Christ to forgive our sins. But this part of the message carries no weight until we locate the root of evil squarely in ourselves. Then even the most heinous evil becomes understandable as we recognize our own capacity for the same behavior. There but for the grace of God go I.

To many, I know, this will seem a simplistic solution to a complex problem. But I could extend this rant to include all so-called problems, and to argue that however complex any problem may seem, its solution is always simple. In short, there are no complex problems at all, for such complexity—which is really obfuscation—is a function of sin.

I had an uncle who used to say that there are no answers, there are only questions. I beg to differ. There are questions, to be sure, but enough answers already stare us in the face to make the remaining questions irrelevant.

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