September 4th, 2012That Question of Evil—Againby Dena Hunt

A friend (I’ll call him John) weeps over the human trafficking of children, sold for sexual use. In some parts of the world, they are even bred now for that market. He rages and demands to know how we’re supposed to deal with the reality of evil. That may the oldest question in the world. Explaining evil is a topic that’s been done to death. Literally. The responses have become stock. Here are the three most common.


1. The most popular response these days is that God “allows” evil so that he may bring good out of it. But if you’ve ever watched in helplessness as an innocent child suffers, you know how insultingly facile this response can seem. It sounds good only for some abstract scenario—something remote, historical, perhaps—never in concrete immediate reality, where evil actually is. 

2. It’s the “tapestry of life.” Sure. Right. Just accept it as part of life. Very philosophical and totally worthless. If the questioner could “just accept it,” he wouldn’t be asking the question. If he can swallow this response, perhaps with a large dose of faith, it wasn’t really evil in the first place, more likely, only some disappointment, taken personally.

3. Read the Book of Job. Through no fault of his own, Job suffered unbelievably, but God rewarded his patient endurance. Does anyone seriously think it’s all okay to have your entire family wiped out if you can be be “rewarded” for your endurance by getting a new one?


I’ve written the responses in such pejorative terms because, while I’m sure that the responder is sincerely trying his best to help in some way, none of these answers really works anywhere except on paper. In the actual presence of “the reality of evil,” all such answers are facile at best, disingenuous at worst. The truth is that there is no answer. Some people are able to offer up their own emotional or physical sufferings in reparation for their sins or those of others and thereby achieve some amelioration of their suffering, but how does one offer up the evil that happens to someone else?  If evil had within itself any salvific effect, it would not be truly evil.


To ask for a reason, a purpose, is to demand a justification, but if there were a justification, it would not be evil. The problem here is in the asking: The question itself is an attempt to escape. Evil has no reason, no excuse, no justification. To question it is only an attempt to deny its evilness by stripping it of its reality. That’s understandable; it certainly does not imply a weakness of any kind—what sane person wouldn’t go to any lengths to avoid evil? 


After the encounter has (only seemingly) passed, we try to find whatever peace we can, often in the form of “encouraging” testimonials, which we always say we offer for the sake of others, but it’s really for our own sake; we are actually still in denial, still trying to avoid the reality of it by trying to endow it with some false purpose.


In the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo tells his story in the Big Red Book. He writes his testimonial because it’s all he can do. But when he’s finished, it does not ease his pain any more than his homecoming did. It doesn’t change anything, doesn’t un-do anything. Why? Because Tolkien knew well that nothing—nothing—can mitigate evil. The intrinsic nature of evil is that there is no real survival, and so the tale has the bittersweet ending of Frodo’s finally reaching that knowledge, the real conclusion of his story—which is always silence. The aching shoulder may write with difficulty, but the missing finger can write nothing. And his devoted friend Sam must finally acknowledge that he could not save him, no matter how strong his grasp. No mere human love can save us, no matter its strength, because the encounter does not happen on Mount Doom, but within it, where we are alone, and where there is nothing, no one, to stand between evil and us. 


And so it is. For my friend John, for anyone who rails against heaven and demands accountability from mortal or immortal forces, there is empathy, but no answer. All there is to know about evil is that it is real, there is no escape, and no, we do not survive. At least, not in our present form.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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  • September 5 2012 | by Recent Convert


    I don't really know how to respond to this, but I'm sure many times the question is asked, it's asked specifically to find a way to escape. So I think you were right there.

    But I do want to make one comment here, about something that caught my eye. When you wrote "The most popular response these days is that God “allows” evil so that he may bring good out of it", my first thought was of Tolkien. Or rather Tolkien's "Silmarillion". In the creation story of the world, Eru Illuvatar (God) tells the rebellious vala Melkor (essentially the Satan figure), that while Melkor would sow discord and chaos in the world, that Eru would use it to bring about a greater good.
    You went on to dismiss that answer, then later you used Tolkien as the rebuttal to the whole question. I'm not saying using Tolkien to sum up your point was wrong, but just pointing out that Tolkien, in another work of his (in fact in the very work that sets the entire mythos for LOTR and the world it takes place in) used one of the very same arguments that you dismissed so readily, and even put it at the core of his middle-earth mythos.

    And actually I think the reasons why those three answers are so common is that there is some validity (at least) to them.
    Answer 1 does make sense on a philosophical level.
    Answer 2 is right in pointing out that evil is, whether we like it or not, a part of this earthly life.
    Answer 3 is harder, but I don't think it's about being rewarded. Doesn't the book of Job deal with the problem of evil and suffering in the world? Why not point to it?
  • September 6 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    Dear R.C.,
    I love Tolkien's explication of the Satanic figure of Melkor in The Silmarillion. It's God's (Eru's) use of our own sin to make his "composition" even more beautiful, by making it holier. But that's Satan's/Melkor's foiled attempts to destroy Eru's creation. It isn't the fatal confrontation with evil that Frodo experiences--and that Tolkien deals with quite differently.

    To say that evil is "part of life" does not give a reason for it. And the evil in the Book of Job is not due to a "reason"; i.e., it has no cause. The conclusion does not impute a cause that human beings (Job) can grasp. On the contrary, it explicitly does the opposite.

    And that's the point. Evil has no reason, no cause, no order. It is disorder. The absence of reason makes evil--evil. Like darkness is the absence of light. Darkness is what it is due to what it is not. To try to give evil a reason is to try to make it something other than what it is.

    Not many people experience a direct confrontation with evil. Most of us deny it, usually with "reason" 1, 2, or 3.
  • September 6 2012 | by Recent Convert

    Actually Dena, everything you wrote in your response I totally agree with, I think I just misunderstood your original premise! My apologies for the mistake!
  • September 6 2012 | by Abigail C. Reimel

    Honestly, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around some of what was said here, much like the hobbits trying to decide whether or not Bilbo's famous line at his party amounted to a compliment or not...

    Though the three above-stated reasons may not answer the question of evil perfectly, I- like Recent Convert- think there is a little truth in all of them, and that another reason they are so common is because they bring comfort to those in pain. Human beings like answers, and if they must endure some kind of hardship, they like a reason to do so and to understand why they are doing it.

    Answer number one provides them that reason for facing the evil; knowing that in some way their pain will bring about a better end for their soul or someone else's helps them to face the hardships bravely and with less complaint.

    Answer number two reminds them that the pain that comes with facing evil is something everyone must endure, and thus keeps them humble and helps them remember that it isn't as if they're being mistreated or targeted by God by being chosen to face evil so directly. And, honestly, since the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, evil has been "a part of life" for men.

    Answer number three provides them with comfort and inspiration. I have read parts of Job, and never came up with the end thought that you mention, that it was all okay because he received everything back in the end. The point is that he faced the evil and stood strong by his God, before he knew he would earn an earthly reward.

    Of course, this does not mean that those three points are perfect. Pain and evil are two things that (as you point out) will never be understood fully on this Earth, as the human mind is just too small to comprehend them entirely, just like everything supernatural.

    Overall, I thank you for writing this, as this question is an important one for all people to ponder. I think you made some valid points, or at least introduced some wonderful food for thought, and I always love a Tolkien-tie-in! smile

    Recent Convert, I enjoyed your comment and your Tolkien reference as well. The story of creation in the Silmarillion is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read, and it was wonderful to reflect upon it again.

    God bless!
  • September 7 2012 | by Dena Hunt

    R.C., Abigail,
    Yes, we're so reflexively accustomed to the reasons we've given ourselves it's hard to remember that we made them up ourselves. We're kind of like Sam who keeps giving encouragement to Frodo when Frodo feels weak--of course, it's not Sam who's carrying the ring, as Frodo well knows, though he doesn't mention it. We keep using Tolkien as references to this fundamental question. It proves that what he wrote is genuine myth (it was NOT fantasy.)
    True evil is not mitigated; it's chaos, disorder; it's a cosmos without God. If we ever wonder what hell is like--that, I think, is it.
    I think, finally, that the only real answer to my friend's question--how are we supposed to deal with evil--is simply, the best way you can. I further think you'll do a better job of that if you remember what it really is.
  • September 8 2012 | by Recent Convert

    Thanks Abigail! smile

    I like the points you made in your response, well said!

    I think Dena's point was just that evil is by it's nature is unreasonable, and thus explanations for it are found wanting.