Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 3): What is Evil?

In the last post, we laid down some ground rules for how to parse through this particular answer to the problem of evil – namely that we’ll be using Blocher’s “T”, and we’ll be accepting the theory of evolution by means of natural selection.

Point #1 of Blocher’s “T” is that evil must truly be evil. What, then is “evil” in an evolutionary paradigm? Isn’t the universe devoid of any kind of value judgment in such a framework, operating, as Richard Dawkins says, only with “blind, pitiless indifference”?

Well…yes and no.

I’ve read many things, and asked many people how they think evil manifests itself in the world. Inevitably, people say that evil manifests itself in things like rape, murder, genocide, abuse, oppression, and rebelliousness*, and in things like loss of property, life, or limb. From these manifestations, evil can be categorized as suffering. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Do we call it evil or suffering if a far-off star explodes and ceases to be? Certainly not. The explosion of a star is not evil – it simply is. The explosion of stars is simply the nature of things. Similarly, when a rock tumbles off of a remote mountain, or leaves decompose in a forest, do we think of it as suffering? No, instead it is simply the nature of things – leaves rot, rocks fall.

Similarly, when a deer eats berries or grass, we don’t think of that as evil. Neither do we think of it as evil when a pack of wolves hunts and kills that deer for food. It’s not evil, it’s just the nature of things, despite the suffering of the deer, or the potential hunger of the wolf. It’s just the deer being a deer, and the wolf being a wolf.

But what about rape and murder? Let’s turn again to the animal kingdom. Many species of ducks are well-known for the male forcing himself on the female. This often happens in groups where multiple males will assault a female, sometimes holding the head of the female under water until she passes out or dies. Most people, when they learn of this, are appalled, and rightfully so, because if this happened to a human there would be outrage. But ducks aren’t human – we’re projecting anthropomorphic sensibilities onto duck instincts when we are appalled at their behavior. Some species of duck only conceive through rape. It’s the only way that the species survives. So, is that evil? Or, is it simply a duck being a duck?

Silverback gorillas, when they take over the harem by defeating the previous alpha male, will often kill all of the infant gorillas in the harem, presumably to accelerate the fertility of the females so that genes of the new silverback can be more readily spread. In human society, killing babies is the very definition of evil. But what about for gorillas? Is the new alpha male evil, or is he simply doing what gorillas do?

My argument is that these things are NOT evil. Stars exploding, rocks falling, the brutality of the food chain, and even duck rape and gorilla infanticide aren’t evil. They simply ARE. They are the nature of things.


So, then, what is evil?

If humans are the product of natural selection, then our complexity as creatures is largely due to generations of selfishness and greed, envy and malice, and violence and indifference as our ancestors out-competed others. Deep within our collective biology lives a murderous rage, lustful eye, and selfish heart to all but our in-group. But if we are also to take Genesis 1 seriously, humans are the lone creatures called out as the Image of God (imago dei), which over-lays and defines our being. Natural selection (along with the wooing of the Spirit) may have given rise to our consciousness and complexity, but God defines our place in the cosmos. And if we are to take Genesis 1 seriously, it is only after this relating of humans to the imago dei that creation moves from “good” to “very good”.

Evil is a matter of identity. Humans, with our big brains and complex social structures seek a place. Thoughts about our place in creation cause anxiety, and in response to that anxiety, we fear the present and the future. There is a human tendency to act out that fear in ways that reinforce the behaviors that were so helpful for natural selection. It isn’t that this anxiety is evil in and of itself. That would be like calling the nature of rams to butt horns, or gorillas to have harems evil. How we respond to the identity crisis is what we call evil. Taking the biological path – reverting to primal violence, greed, and wrath is typically considered evil. That’s where rape and murder and oppression come from. But transcending the more primal aspects of our biological urges seems to be a uniquely human call. It’s the imago dei – this definition of who we are before God – that continually calls us into new identity as “self”. When our ability to transcend is thwarted – when we let our anxieties get the better of us and we despair that we can’t obtain our true identities – when we reject the call of the imago dei – we usually call that thing “evil”, because the imago dei was vandalized in both the victim, and the perpetrator.

But what if there is no perpetrator? Disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes are neither creatures, nor evil – they simply are. However, when they ruin our property, or result in loss of life or limb, then we assign the moral value of “evil” to otherwise neutral phenomenon. What we perceive as evil is not the tornado itself, but the inconvenience of the event. We do this, I argue, because we have an identity crisis as we face our own mortality and potential for non-being in the face of seemingly uncontrollable forces. Disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornadoes threaten to render our self-complexity moot. They threaten to erase the imago dei and make us not-being without providing a way to resist. During such natural events, we feel the weight of being demigods and yet have no control over our own mortality. We are deficient.

We have these giant brains that can imagine literally anything. We can harness nuclear power and make energy from light, but we can’t stop our own bodies from turning against us. We are the smartest things we know of, but can’t keep ourselves from perishing from the blind and unthinking forces of nature. And so we face an identity crisis – we are gods, and yet we are frail. We suffer physically and mentally because this world makes no sense – it defies the definition of who we are. And so we despair. Not because the tsunami itself is evil, but because in its wake we don’t know who we are anymore. Our true selves and place in creation as the imago dei has been lost. And that is evil.

So, what is evil?

It’s our warped response to the identity crisis we all face as we interact with the world. Evil is the despair of not being a true self before God.

But if evolution is the paradigm, and evil is the result of God’s call on humans, in what way can God be said to be good or sovereign?

In the next post, I’ll examine this question as I explore the next two points of Blocher’s “T”.

*There might be some equivocation about the fact that stars exploding or leaves decomposing are from entropy due to “the fall”, but that goes back again to discerning the intent for creation from scant data, and using the assumed intent to say how things work. This integration is  interested in looking at the mechanisms within creation to determine how things work.


2 thoughts on “Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 3): What is Evil?

  1. Pingback: Christianity and the Problem of Evil (pt 4): Is God good? Or sovereign? | Ben Rhodes

  2. Pingback: Theology and Politics and Philando Castile | Ben Rhodes

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