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.