Posted by: aboutalbion | July 23, 2012

Evil (1)

In 1945, Hannah Arendt wrote that “the problem of evil will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe”. [quoted in Miller (1998) p3]

This quotation isn’t far from my mind when ‘unfathomably senseless acts’ dominate the media.  I have in mind at the moment the events in Aurora (Colorado USA) a few days ago, and Utoeya (Norway) a year ago.

In my European culture, explanations of evil derived from previous Christian centuries are still discussed.  Such explanations search for the meaning of evil in their attempt to defend the existence of ‘god-like beings’.  In this context, evil refers to both sin and suffering.  Sin is linked with morally wrong deliberate choices.  Suffering is linked with unwelcome bad experiences that lead to misery and pain.

These Christian explanations of evil are of at least four types.

First, Augustine’s account argues that the problem of evil does not exist because evil does not really exist.  “Evil is nothing in itself; it represents only an absence of good.” [quoted in Richardson (1983) p193]  In other words, evil is not the opposite of good – just the absence of good.

A second account involves dualistic ideas and circumscribing the power of ‘god-like beings’.  In this approach, associated with Luther, restricted ‘god-like beings’ work with Christians to defeat the forces of evil in the world.  The difficulty here is that if Jesus defeated the powers of evil about two thousand years ago, then the presence of evil after the crucifixion remains unexplained.

A third account, associated with Calvin and Barth, emphasizes the all-powerful nature of ‘god-like beings’.  This approach emphasizes the sovereignty of the divine to the extent that the problem of evil is eliminated.  Whatever is, is right.

A fourth, more modern, account sees ‘god-like beings’ as choosing to limit their power so that human beings can freely choose that which is true, beautiful, and good.  “God allows evil for the sake of some greater good, and the good most often cited is human freedom.” [Flint (2000) p222]  Here, the suggestion is that the price of living in a world where we have the freedom to be good is the presence of some people who choose to be evil.

If I were a grieving relative in Aurora or Utoeya, which I am not, I would find it difficult to be comforted by such outlines of Christian explanations of evil.  If I were a neighbour in Aurora or Utoeya, I hope that I would remember that silence can be just as graceful as words ……. any words at times like this.

[Flint, T P (2000) The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought.  Oxford: OUP.
Miller, S (1998) “A note on the Banality of Evil” The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn.
Richardson, A (1983) A New Dictionary of Christian Theology.  London: SCM.]

I hope to post about non-religious perspectives on evil in coming days.



  1. Just asking out of curiosity, because I have been finding it quite difficult to conceptualize, do you believe that there is such a thing as an “evil person?” If so, what does an evil person look like, what lies at the heart of evil in humanity? Could it be some type of inborn cruelty, malice, or greed? That seems unlikely to me, but I am open to arguments. It seems much more likely that fear (of death, of loss) lies at the heart of the evil that men do, that evil is the corruption that occurs in those that surrender to fear of death, rather than to love of life. If that is the case, is there such a thing as an evil person?

    • Thank you for dropping by. I am surveying published views on evil at the moment, and I would like to reply to your post after that.

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