One of humanity’s most common theological questions is how to answer the fundamental question, “What is evil?” How can you create a working definition of evil that accounts for (1) mass genocides, atrocities like the Holocaust, or a gunman walking into an elementary school and opening fire, and (2) natural occurrences that cause mass destruction like floods, tidal waves, hurricanes and the like? What about diseases, AIDS epidemics, and cancer? Are natural occurrences truly “evil” or should evil be limited to deliberate wrongdoing or acts of rebellion that intentionally cause harm to others?
The Epic Struggle of Good Vs. Evil
Within the framework of any compelling story, you will find the epic struggle of good versus evil – the good guys versus the villains. It’s a struggle that plays out daily in our lives. How do I conduct myself in a moral fashion and distinguish good or at least morally neutral actions from evil ones? If I have the freedom to choose which actions I will take, how should I act?
Most people don’t actively choose to cause others harm, excessive pain, or suffering – though occasionally, one’s actions may have unintended consequences. Yet, certain people deliberately choose to commit “evil.”
We know “evil” when we see it from an outsider’s perspective and can judge how one’s actions have affected another individual or a larger community. A parent brutally abuses their child. A serial killer chooses a victim for his next kill. An Abu Ghraib prison guard ruthlessly tortures his prisoner to extract information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The Nazis slaughter countless Jews in concentration camps. But certainly, not all acts we label as “evil” are that black and white, so how should evil be defined?
Does Evil Require Intent?
You might argue that for something to be considered “evil,” the perpetrator must intend to cause harm to another. Take these two examples:
- Example 1 – Seung-Hui Cho shot two people in a co-ed dormitory before walking across campus, chaining the doors shut, and opening fire on the students and faculty of Virginia Tech. In total, Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before committing suicide.
- Example 2 – A few years ago in New Jersey, a pack of wild coyotes in Middleton began attacking kids. The news reported a handful of victims under the age of six.
Both of these examples involve predators, but generally speaking, people will be much more likely to label Cho’s deeds as “evil.” With the coyotes, we can rationalize – perhaps they were looking for food or felt threatened – rather than declare the coyotes “evil” and try to decipher their intentions. But with Cho, we pick apart his mindset looking for possible influences and motivations. Why did he snap? What caused him to kill all those people?
In the note he left, Cho claimed, “you caused me to do this.” Humans have great capability to justify their behavior as right – even when it’s obvious to onlookers they are committing evil. It’s as if their belief paradigm limits their perspective of the unintended consequences.
Are All Humans Fundamentally Capable of Evil?
In the book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo recounts the situational forces involved in his now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In the experiment, which took place from August 14-20, 1971, 24 male college students were randomly assigned to take on roles of either prisoners or guards in a mock prison setting. The volunteer prison guard quickly adapted to their roles, leading to so much psychological abuse of the volunteer prisoners that the experiment had to be cut short after only six days. It is an eye-opening account of how any individual can, under specific circumstances, commit “evil” deeds, yet believe they are right and justified in their behavior.
If intent is required to label something as “evil,” would you label the behavior of these guards evil? They didn’t volunteer for the experiment to deliberately cause harm – and yet that was the outcome. Was it merely ignorance of cause and effect – or a deliberate choice to look the other way as wrongdoing was committed?
If Zimbardo’s work is to be taken seriously, any human is capable of evil in the right situation. We can see this play out in a number of ways:
- Positive reinforcement – A person “wins” a big payout by manipulating or taking advantage of others (e.g. Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme)
- Negative reinforcement – Ongoing abuse in childhood leads to repeating and amplifying those behaviors as an adult (e.g. many serial killers were abused as children)
- Dehumanization – A person is justified in their actions because they see the other as less than human or deserving of specific consequences. (e.g. slavery, Nazi concentration camps, Abu Ghraib torture)
- Substance abuse – Junkies steal or commit other crimes to get their next fix. Drug dealers defend their turf to make money.
Religious theologians and text offer guidance on the types of behavior considered sinful that can lead to the “dark side” – lust, pride, envy, anger, etc. Does that mean evil is a fundamental part of human nature and that we must constantly struggle to fight off our darker, destructive aspects?
How to Account for Natural Evil?
While human nature can account for some aspects of evil, what about natural events? For some, natural events like hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and the like aren’t “evil.” They are simply part of the series of causes and effects that take place within the cosmos.
Think of it as a chain of events. A causes B. B causes C and D. C causes E. D causes F. And so on. In this model, morally “good” or morally “bad” don’t exist. The events are neutral because they are simply the reactions to something that happened before it.
The butterfly effect is the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny atmospheric changes in one part of the world but that change is enough to set off (or prevent) a tornado in another part of the world. In other words, the flapping wings introduce a small change to an environment which sets off a larger chain of events. Perhaps all natural “evils” can be attributed to this.
Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters To Occur?
Natural “evils” become more of a problem when you introduce an omnipotent Creator who guides the events that unfold. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and said to love us like a Father loves his children, why does He allow these events to happen?
Presumably, God could prevent natural disasters from occurring if He wanted. So why doesn’t He? Why does he allow (or, perhaps, even cause) them to happen? Is God just being cruel? Does God like to see people suffer?
Or do these “evil” events happen due to circumstances outside God’s control? Some theologians claim that like humans, supernatural beings like Satan or other demons also have the free will to cause evil and thus, are responsible for such atrocities.
Taking all of these issues into consideration, it’s difficult to create a broad definition of “evil” that accounts for each of these examples. Certainly, human intent to do harm should play a large role in the definition, but with so many intricacies, it’s not surprising that people have grappled with the concept of what evil is for millennia.