Defining Evil

Believers in Christianity are not like they were decades and centuries ago. When confronted with harsh biblical criticism, they will not tell you things like "just have faith because nobody really 'knows' anything", nor will they admit "I can't prove the Bible or Christianity, but I believe in them." No, those days of quaint and humble honesty are long gone.

What believers of today will tell you is a minimum of ten ways to explain the days of Genesis 1 and the snake of Genesis 3 as figurative rather than literal. On accepting Jesus, they will present the trillemma, "Lord, liar, or lunatic" and try to buff it up with skewed logic. They will refer to Blocher's Thesis time and again, and wax eloquent quoting Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig on issues of common dispute. Concerning the problem of evil, instead of admitting that the existence of evil troubles them, they shine on asking skeptics to "define evil," as though this somehow helps to alleviate the problem. Looking to score points in a debate, believers want a formal definition, which is fine, though it is unnecessary. I suppose, if someone wanted me to, I could give them a definition of sadness, though we all know what it is! Even so, there is no one alive who doesn't know what evil is. Well, I will accommodate them here anyway.

The definition of evil I formulated is as follows...

Evil is..."any action(s), of nature or mankind, or omission(s) of action(s) thereof, that work against the life, health, happiness, and well-being of a species, society, and/or individual."

Rather than break it down further, this sounds pretty self explanatory to me. I think one must have help to misunderstand it. As far as I can tell, this definition covers it all. And naturally, by reversing the definition, you have the definition of good.

In providing our definition, we have just formalized what is already common sense. It doesn't take a formal definition to see that evil can be something passive as is seen in nature...predator-prey relationships, a bear killing a man, a volcano erupting and destroying an entire village, a plaque spreading and wiping out thousands of inhabitants, or it can be something actively evil as committed by sentient, intelligent human animals, like the more obvious crimes...murder (the societally unjustified taking of life), rape, fraud, the torture of a human or lesser animal and gratification received therefrom, etc. It is also obvious that an omission of an action can be called evil. A governing body of people who refuse to deliver on their promises, that failure resulting in a breach of contract and/or misfortune, is evil. A person of leadership or of great financial means refusing to use their resources to feed and help his people could well be called evil. Even the Bible acknowledges this, "He that withholdeth corn, the people shall curse him: but blessing shall be upon the head of him that selleth it." (Proverbs 11:26). An omission of good resulting in evil might well be citizens of a country harboring terrorists, refusing to turn them in to the law, or an individual refusing to testify against a known murderer to put that person away. Even nature, you could say, can commit evil by omission of good; the village might not be destroyed by a flood, but by a lack of water, by drought. No one could deny any of these things as being categorically evil. Some might well contest my calling a natural disaster evil, but the same people readily contradict themselves as they'd have no problem understanding someone who came to them and told them, "something bad has happened to me! My house caught on fire!" We could replace bad with "evil" and the meaning is the same, quite obviously. We use this kind of language all the time, and the meaning is abundantly clear. No one has the slightest trouble understanding it...until God is attacked with the argument from evil, then suddenly we are taken to task on how to define evil!

Of course, the issue gets more complicated, but not much. Evil, as we have seen, is easy to define, and missing it is all but impossible. But applying it is somewhat more technical. Is it evil to inflict pain on a child by taking him/her to the doctor to get a shot if that shot will save the child's life and make the child healthier? Using common sense, that obviously isn't an evil thing to do even though some pain is inflicted, but there is still natural evil here. Where is it from and to whom lies the blame for this child having to be taken to the doctor? The blame lies on the theist's God. I may take a sick child to the doctor to save it's life because it's the only option I have, but an omnipotent God has infinite options and is the one bearing the blame of allowing the child to get sick in the first place. Through the same understanding, I am not to blame for killing a man who snook into my house at night to do me harm. In such a case, I would be just in preserving my own life by taking someone else's, but God would still bare the blame for allowing that to happen in the first place. We humans find ourselves stuck having to choose the least painful, least regrettable solution to a problem when a perfect one isn't to be found. Things like this we call "necessary evils", or "the lesser of evils" as we humans can often only choose from a small and disappointing array of options open to us. The same must be said of natural evils. When the sperm whale eats tons of fish a day, it is not "evil" as we commonly use the term. It is just feeding to sustain itself. The cheetah chasing down and killing the gazelle to survive is only taking the course nature plotted for it. But again, there is evil here, not by intent, but in result. Who is it that set up a system whereby a smaller, weaker animal is consumed by a stronger one? God created such a system and it is he who bares the blame every time a predator's jaws and claws inflict pain on the hide of a bison who struggles to escape it's killers. No intentional evil need be committed to see when "a great evil has befallen" a city. The volcano doesn't bear the blame for leveling a town, but the theists' God does for constructing a dangerously quirky planet that must relieve it's pressures in such a manner.

What I am needlessly laboring to prove here is one simple fact -- that defining evil in it's many forms was never a problem. It is impossible to turn away from even by the most staunch standards of optimistically warped theists who refuse to see reason on the issue. Evil is all around us, and regardless of which side of the debate on the existence of God our convictions may fall, we cannot help but recognize it when we see it. Yet Christians, in the spirit of trying to blend in with the academic mainstream of western thought, have resorted to making silly formalized arguments against the problem of evil and asininely quibbling over definitions of the word itself! An entire world is losing faith in God over the abundance of evils, and all the while, we are being told by Christian philosophers that we can't even define the term! I can, and just did, but don't have to. I see it every time I see a hospital, a police car, an ambulance, or when I turn on the local 6'o clock news. I see it every time I see a pair of reading glasses, a walking cane, or a sign on the highway that says "Buckle Up for Safety." I see evil, and everyone around me sees it too, even those who swear up and down that it doesn't shake their faith.

The buck of the existence of evil cannot be passed from God. He will never escape his appointment to stand forever convicted in the court of human reason as the most evil and fiendish being ever conceived. The standard by which we convict is that of the senses, the same senses with which we judge all of reality, and who could ask for a more objective standard than that? Explaining something can only be so difficult, but eventually we are bound to get it. The only exception is when we don't want to get it! Good old fashioned stubbornness will thwart any effort to learn, particularly on the part of blind god-believers who refuse to see the obligation to hold their higher power responsible for the woes of humanity instead of issuing him a get-out-of-jail-free card.

(JH)

3 comments:

Mojoey said...

Interesting article – I had a conversation with a Christian pastor friend last Friday along the same lines. I had referred to James Dobson as evil for his over the top efforts to legislate morality and his hate filled attack on gays. My friend said Dobson was just a nice old man who really cares about kids. My definition of evil in Dobson’s case was defined along the lines of a person who is damaging our country or way of life based on moral constructs unique to his own belief system. In Dobson world view, an atheist like me would not be considered a citizen. It’s not too hard to move from this to limiting rights and much worse. We can already see evidence of this with regard to his actions toward the gay community. I think evil fits.

Evil is..."any action(s), of nature or mankind, or omission(s) of action(s) thereof, that work against the life, health, happiness, and well-being of a species, society, and/or individual."

Hiraeth said...

Be careful, moe, we all want to legislate morality. The question is how far and what morality.

I would not criminalise adultery although I do not approve of it and it is specifically prohibited by the Ten Commandments, for example.

But right now, here in Britain, if a Bishop states that he does not approve of homosexuality, the police investigate him to see if he's committed a hate crime. Is that evil, too?

Me, I'm for free speech up to, but not including incitement to violnce. Like Gloriana, I have no wish to make a window into men's souls.

I'm afraid, Moe, your definition could be used by anyone to restrict anyone else. It is too broad. When it comes to the law, we need more than that. But I'm an old fashioned Tory who believes in a lightly regulated state and a strong society.

KMO said...

I think your definition says too much, also. Your definition would include a lot things that people typically don't count as evil. For example, there are a lot of things that negatively affect my happiness and health that I would never consider evil. Maybe a baby's crying, hot wings, pain, sadness.

You considered the shot the child received not-evil because it would accomplish good; however, simply because he needs the shot God is guilty. You consider God guilty but what would life look like if you removed everything that could possibly apply to your definition of evil. What is your favorite hobby, food, music? They probably could all in some way fit into your definition of evil. Say you like to fly model airplanes. Well, that has the possibility of crashing and making you sad, or hitting a bug and killing it, or see where I'm going?

If God did not create the world with a possibility of evil the world would surely not include you or I. What would it include? You hate evil, we all hate evil. But blaming God for all the evil in the world and not recognizing that God is not the problem--we are and we do live in a fallen world.

I would say God has already been punished for the evil in the world, that you condemn Him for, but not because He was guilty--but because we were. God is good and in Him there is no darkness at all. Blame Satan, blame me, blame yourself but don't blame God. He loves you and paid the price evil demanded, for you. He is not guilty. Of course, you do have the freedom to continue to blame Him but both He and I know, as long as you can genuinely recognize that good and evil are real--you are the guilty one. God has given you an awareness to distinguish between the two, so that, 1) you would know your need for a Savior and not reject the pain He would suffer for you and, 2) that you would do the good you know you should do and avoid the evil you know you should avoid. Your conscience may not tell you that Jesus is the Son of God that died for your sins but it will definitely continue to let you know you need Him.