At Mo*Con II, our spiritual panel was asked a question by writer, Sara Larson: “how would you define evil?” It’s one of those questions that seems pretty obvious to answer (at least until you’re called upon to answer it and you want to say something more than “evil is like porn: you know it when you see it”). The way I think about it, evil is failing to live up to what we were created to be, eikons/image bearers of God. To not live up to that or, more on point, to turn your back to that is evil. In short, evil is that which dehumanizes us and in so doing, allows us to dehumanize others.

But that “answer” still leaves many things undealt with. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is the age-old question we all find ourselves asking, often overshadowing the fact that even posing the questions reflects our innate understanding of justice: that bad things are supposed to happen to bad people. The fuller question that theologians and philosophers have been arguing over for years is the “problem of evil.”

The story is old as Creation itself. In fact, the first mystery might be “why did God choose to create in the first place?” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a triune God, co-eternal and co-existing in perfect love and community chose to create from an overflow of that wanting a creation that would participate and reflect that same sense of love and communion. So the creation poem in Genesis paints a picture of Creation with God, His creation declared good. Yet evil exists. Evil shatters our illusion of safety, those things that are so heinous we can all agree that it’s name is evil. Denying the humanity of others, rape, murder, torture, racism, pedophilia – using free will to make bad choices.

Creation is under siege by hostile, evil forces seeking to thwart God’s plan for the cosmos and we long for a rescue from the chaos. So we can’t help but ask “how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent, all-loving God allow evil into a world He created and thus responsible for?” “The Problem of Evil” argument to deny the existence of God doesn’t work much better if you remove God from the equation and talk about the goodness of man, placing the burden of our free will choices (preventable evil) on us. We look at the world around us and see it in our social conditions, in drugs, in crime. If humanity is basically good then our solutions aren’t working. Our progress and democracy, our education and technology, we’re still left with the problem of evil.

Not that any answers will be found here for a conversation that has been going on for as long, but the occasion does mark an opportunity to examine the origins and ontology of evil from a Christian worldview. Those same theologians and philosophers argue how to define “evil,” the crux of the problem being who defines, who sets the standards for, goodness and beauty. So we have to move beyond Augustine’s “absence of goodness” as we begin to flesh out a fuller definition of the nature of evil.

Societies tend to agree that certain things are badBinjustice, oppression, greed, apathy, murder, theftBand keep the group from co-existing peacefully. These sort of notions begin to shape the idea of a working definition of evil. I like what Greg Boyd said in his book, God at War:

Evil cannot be adequately grasped in a detached, neutral, abstract way. It cannot be known through faceless, nameless statistics or abstract theorems. All approaches to the problem of evil that do not go beyond this will be in danger of offering cheap and trite solutions. Radical evil can be known only when incarnated and experienced concretely. (Boyd, pg 34)

We have no trouble recognizing radical evil when we see it: the African slave trade, the Holocaust, the genocide of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, as well as the all too everyday evil of child abuse, molesting, and murder. We don’t ask “by whose standards are these things evil?” We know them to be evil. We know the darkness, the shadows of humanity not living up to their full potential; those things that oppose the ideas of truth and light, peace and unity. We know that there are daily horrors in life, the unending waking nightmare of pain; the meaningless, irrational, senseless acts and attitudes that fragments us.

Evil can be seen as a process, a corruption, a force with its own energy, in all of us and all around us. Moral blind spots that allows us to treat each other badly and drive us to become more confident in our ability to dehumanize one another. But does any of this help us figure out anything about where evil comes from? Or why it is?

*Yeah, I pretty much just like to use the word “ontological” whenever I can.

Ontological Evil – Part I: Defining Evil
Ontological Evil – Part II: The Story of Evil
Ontological Evil – Part III: Spiritual and Natural Evil?
Ontological Evil – Part IV: Evil Defeated?

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