What Is Evil?

When I was at Covenant Seminary, everyone’s favorite professor was Jerram Barrs. His classes were always the furthest thing from boring and your head hurt from thinking by the time you left. The idea of having to sit through other thoughtful lectures after his was painful. I remember one class in particular – mainly because of one small discussion.

The context escapes me. But we were talking about ‘evil.’ He told us that most people could no longer recognize it any longer because we associate it with the extreme forms. He gave the example of Hannibal Lecter. He said that evil must now be so extreme for us to name it that we can no longer see it in ourselves or others.

He’s right, of course. It must now be murderous and bizarrely so. And adultery must now be coupled with something akin to insanity to be even considered cruel. Insanity. Maybe that;s the problem. We have now let the idea of evil drift into the realm of psychotherapists and now it is out of the arena of the pastors.

The Scriptures no longer give us the picture, instead it is drawn in hues of psychosis and abhorrent physical violence. If those two are absent, evil is not really identifiable any longer. Our problem is not that we call what is evil ‘good’. Our problem is that we call so few things ‘evil.’

It is really no kindness to ourselves or others. Though it does feel kind in some touchy-feely, super-spiritual, grace-misunderstanding way.

My wife and I like to watch Sherlock Holmes mysteries. One we watched last week involved a man who was blackmailing wealthy men and women with sins to hide. My first thought was to think it was not such a big deal to do such a thing. But Holmes thought it was detestable. And then it hit me. I was so conditioned to see the affair and the homosexuality as the height of evil that blackmail almost looked harmless when compared with it. But the blackmailer’s evil – though not as easy to see – was very horrific. He was using the sins of others as gain – preying off their fears and foibles. When justice was served in the end, it felt very satisfying from my couch even though I had not seen the extent of the evil in the beginning.

The problem with this ultimately is not just the blindness but the now almost imperceptible inability to now say, “This is evil.” If evil is only the extreme sins of our culture as defined by the cop and lawyer shows on network TV, then we will have a hard time convincing the good people of our culture of their need for Christ’s work. If the evil we must deal with is defined by what is on our list of wrongs, it will be hard for us to see our own need for Christ. I guess that is especially true if we wrote the list. If deception for the sake of pride is not ‘damnable’ in the eyes of our people, it will not seem to those having it, there is a need to rejoice that it is covered…or for others, that it needs to be covered.

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