The Question of Evil

Dr. Brian Allison

This past week a grave and despicable tragedy occurred in Dunblane, Scotland. Thomas Hamilton, a 43 year child-molester, described as self-absorbed and embittered, gunned down and slaughtered 16 kindergarten-aged children, and seriously wounded another 12. He also murdered their teacher. After carrying out this hideous and diabolical act, he turned the gun on himself and killed himself. The world community was shocked and horrified; and even though he killed himself, a nagging sense still lingers that justice has not been fully served.

Now, the question that immediately presses itself upon our minds is this: How could such a thing like this happen? How could anyone commit such a crime? There are no easy answers, but one thing is certain – this tragedy again revealed that we live in an imperfect world in which there are evil people. If you want to read something very enlightening, yet quite disturbing, on the phenomenon and workings of human evil, then I would suggest that you read Scott Peck's book, People of the Lie. Peck claims that some people are intrinsically evil; they are subtly, and even overtly, destructive. They want to inflict harm. These people are seemingly beyond human help. It is quite frightening to realize that some people are psychologically unamenable and immune to the good and the decent.

This unsettling tragedy that happened in Dunblane was not an unprecedented event. The annals of history contain numerous incidents of such atrocities. In recent days, we think of the brutalities and butcheries of Nicolae Ceaucescu (1918-89) in Romania; Joseph V. Stalin (1879-1953) in Russia; and Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) in Germany. Even the Scriptures present a similar account of such atrocity. We read in Matthew 2:16-18, "Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, 'A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, FOR THEY WERE NO MORE.'"

The reality of evil

Herod the Great was an evil man; he committed evil deeds. He was callous and merciless. According to history, even his children were evil. Flavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 101 A.D.), the Jewish historian, claimed that Herod was a king intolerant of rivalry; he would seek to destroy any possible opposition. Josephus records that Herod even killed three of his own sons, as well as several large groups of actual and suspected conspirators (and in one case, their families also). The slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem was simply one atrocity of his many.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi in the east saw His star in the sky and traveled toward it. They arrived in Jerusalem and inquired, "Where is He is who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him" (Mt. 2:2). Now, Herod secretly called the magi aside, having been informed by the religious leaders where the Christ was to be born, in order to determine the exact time in which they had seen the star. He then commissioned them to go to Bethlehem and carefully to search for the Child, and then to report back to him. However, God warned the magi in a dream to return to their own country by a different route and not to report to Herod. Further, God warned Joseph in a dream to take Mary and Jesus and to flee into Egypt for Herod was seeking to find the Child Jesus in order to kill Him. Subsequently, when Herod discovered that he had been tricked, he slew the infants of Bethlehem. An estimated 15-20 infants died on that fateful day because of his evil.

Evil, morally speaking, is the act or occurrence of that which violates, perverts or degrades human worth and dignity. It is a deliberate, and even a presumptuous, rejection of ethical propriety and decency. This past week, my wife and I were listening to a radio phone-in program hosted by Laura Schlesinger, an American psychotherapist. A woman, who had been sexually molested by her father when she was 3 years old, phoned in. Apparently, she had been sexually molested by her father for a duration of 4 years. Many people have suffered this kind of trauma and violence. Sexual molestation is not simply a wrong and offensive act, it is an evil act. Sexual molestation violates human dignity and worth. Now, perhaps the chief example of moral evil is the senseless slaughter of the innocent and unsuspecting. So, for instance, we read, "For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil and his brother's were righteous" (1 Jn. 3:11,12). Accordingly, Proverbs teaches, "My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, 'Come with us, let us lie and wait for blood, let us ambush the innocent without cause; let us swallow them up alive like Sheol, even whole, as those who go down do the pit...My son, do not walk in the way with them. Keep your feet from their path, for their feet run to do evil, and they hasten to shed blood" (Pr. 1:10-12,15,16). One of the main reasons why the murder of a human being is evil is because such an act is an affront against the very image of God in which all people are made (Gn. 9:6).

A driving force behind evil actions

What drove Herod to commit this act of callous butchery? He was driven by sheer anger. The dastardly deed resulted because Herod had become 'enraged' with the actions of the magi. Anger or rage promotes and propels evil, especially the inner constraint to inflict pain on another. Now, Herod was enraged because he had been 'tricked.' The failure of the magi to report their discovery of the Child to him caused him personal humiliation. His pride was hurt. In considering the behaviour of Herod, we may conclude that self-centred pride may erupt into rage, and rage may explode into violence and destruction, particularly the evil of murder. Perhaps this was the process which characterized the behaviour of the child-killer Thomas Hamilton this past week. Apparently, he became tired of being called a pervert and charged with scandal. He apparently was quite upset. He resented the fact that there was a lack of respect shown toward him. Consequently, being preoccupied with firearms, he carried four guns to the neighbourhood school and murdered 16 children.

The power behind evil actions

What is the power behind evil? First, evil actions are the result of an evil heart (or mind) which, in turn, is simply the result and expression of sin. So, for instance, we read "The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil" (Lu. 6:45). People do bad things because they first think bad things; evil deeds flow from evil thoughts. Now, an evil heart is the fruit of sin. Thus, the apostle Paul teaches, "So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which indwells me...But if I am doing the very thing I do not wish, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good" (Rm. 7:17,20,21). So, sin is the mother of evil; evil is the fruit of human depravity.

Second, evil actions result from evil spirits that influence, and even control, the human spirit. For instance, Saul was jealous of David – Saul had killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands. In his jealousy, Saul ordered his son, Jonathan, and his servants to kill David. Jonathan, however, assumed a mediatory role and pled with his father to be understanding and to show compassion. Saul apparently complied with Jonathan's wishes, and David came out of hiding and resumed his place at Saul's table. Yet, we read, "When there was war again, David went out and fought with the Philistines, and defeated them with great slaughter, so that they fled before him. Now there was an evil spirit from the LORD on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand, and David was playing the harp with his hand. And Saul tried to pin David to the wall with the spear [attempted murder], but he slipped away out of Saul's presence, so that he stuck the spear in the wall. David fled and escaped that night" (1 Sam. 19:8-10). Saul, indeed, had a sinful heart, but he was also influenced by an evil spirit.

Sin and Satan help to explain the presence and power of evil. We think, for example, of Charles Manson and his gruesome murders; Jeffrey Dohmer and his heartless, gross human mutilations. Were not their sinful minds the play ground of the demonic? I think so.

God allows evil actions to occur

But where was God when Herod was perpetrating such ghastly carnage ? Where was God when these 16 children and their teacher were mercilessly gunned down this past week? How could a good God allow such evil? Though we may not be able to fully provide satisfactory answers to these questions, there is one basic fact that we must remember in trying to find answers. God is fully aware of the evil. God was not taken by surprise. In fact, God not only allows evil, He has also ordained it, for reasons often only known to Himself. We read, for instance, "The LORD has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil" (Pr. 16:4).

Accordingly, with the Herodian massacre, we read, "Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled" (Mt. 2:17). God had revealed through a prophet six hundred years previously that this tragedy would occur in the unassuming town of Bethlehem. It was obviously a part of God's plan and purpose, though it may defy human understanding, as well as test human faith.

So, why did God allow this evil? Why does He continue to allow it? I suppose that we could conjecture (although I do not know how helpful that will be) and offer, at least, two answers. First, perhaps God allows evil actions so that fallen humanity will see the horrific reality and the terrible consequences of sin. The outworking of human sin, against the backdrop of God's holy will, through vile and evil acts, reveals the true nature of sin, and so sin becomes "utterly sinful" (Rm. 7:13c). Through evil actions, people can understand the depth and the horror of the wickedness of sin and, hopefully, turn to Christ in feeling their spiritual poverty and need for salvation.

Second, perhaps God allows evil actions so that the evil of the world may serve as the judgement against an evil world. God, in His righteous judgement, is pleased to judge this fallen world by allowing it to receive the fruit of its own evil, even though innocent people suffer. The human condition is indeed a sad one. Further, we must remember that absolutely everyone is born in sin in Adam, and thus is subject to, and deserving of, the wrath of God. God would be just if He allowed the whole of humanity, adults and children, to go to hell. His glory would be vindicated and His name would still be worthy of praise. It is only by His mercy that anyone is saved at all. The tragedy of a massacre is sad and grave, but is, in some respects, a just dessert for an evil world. All stand guilty and condemned outside of Jesus Christ.

Evil actions will eventually be judged

The presence of evil is ultimately a mystery. God created the world 'very good.' Yet, one thing is certain concerning evil – God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world for its evil. Though there is delay in His righteous judgement (again, for reasons known only to Himself), God's plan and God's purposes will be fulfilled, culminating in the complete judgement of an evil world and the total eradication of sin. Hence, we read that God says, "Thus I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud, and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless" (Is. 13:11). What we need to remember, during this interim in which we continue to witness evil atrocities, is the poignant words of one author, "Whatever the answer to why there is evil and suffering in the world, this much is true: God took His own medicine." God was pleased not to stop the innocent murder of His Son, and the result is salvation. God's ways are unsearchable; He has a mind of His own, and He does what He wills; and we cannot call Him to give an account for Himself. God declares, "I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these...Woe to the one who quarrels with His Maker – an earthenware vessel of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, 'What are you doing?' Or the thing you are making say, 'He has no hands'?" (Is. 45:6b,7,9). Now, I would not minimize the horror of the Dunblane tragedy of this past week, but in the wisdom and goodness of God, He will bring good out of evil. The point is this: God has a wise and glorious plan for His creation. One author writes, "The composer of a musical score sometimes includes some discords to create an overall pleasing effect. In a similar manner, God's ultimate purpose for the world was best served by a plan that allowed for the presence and activity of evil."

Now, in our possible confusion, as we are confronted with the appalling and senseless evil, we should realize and affirm, even as Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Gn. 18:25). When we do not know, He does know; and we must bow to His sovereignty, and place our hands over our mouth, and acknowledge Him as Lord. He is of purer eyes than "to approve evil," and cannot "look on wickedness with favor" (Hab. 1:13a). One day, the Lord of glory, who is the epitome and embodiment of holiness, shall come forth from heaven and shall gather all the nations before Him. Then the judgement books will be opened – that day will be 'pay day.' He is coming to judge the world, and in that day we shall marvel and glorify His holy name.

At present we must accept the fact that evil is with us; and evil will continue with us, in various forms and in different ways; and I suspect that as we move closer to the end of history, evil will multiply and increase. Yet, our confidence now is that one day good will triumph over evil. God's righteousness will prevail. His holiness will be established. Divine judgement will be carried out; and we shall praise His name. This is the hope that we, as Christians, have as we live in an evil world. As Christians, according to God's promise, "we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pe. 3:13).

Is that your hope my non-Christian friend, as you think about what is happening in the world today, and as various situations are deteriorating and getting worse? What do you have to turn to? What are you resting in? Do you have any answers? What do you have to look forward to tomorrow? Are you disillusioned? Do you feel defeated? Does life look absolutely hopeless? I offer you the gospel of salvation; it is the gospel of hope. It is the gospel about God's righteousness, which reminds us that He has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness, having given us the assurance by raising His Son, Jesus Christ, from the dead. God now commands all people, everywhere, to repent, and to believe in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. There is no answer to the world's ills in politics and economics; there are no solutions to life's most pressing needs in science and technology. The answer and solutions to the human condition, and the pains of life, is in heaven; and He sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high, even Jesus. One day He is coming back, and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the praise of God the Father. Won't you believe in Him now?