Sermon Illustrations on evil
An Agnostic Psychologist (and Bestselling Author) Changes His Mind on the Existence of Evil
The famous American psychotherapist M. Scott Peck was for many years an agnostic. He learned his psychiatry according to the standard model in which there was no such thing as evil. But at around the same time as, to his own surprise, he came into the Christian faith, he came to recognize that in some cases at least it was not enough to regard certain patients, or in some cases the families of certain patients, as simply ill or muddled or misguided.
He was forced to come to terms with a larger, darker power, for which the only word was evil. He wrote his book People of the Lie to articulate this unpopular viewpoint… In People of the Lie Peck argues, against all his traditional liberal education and previous understanding, that there is such a thing as a force or forces of evil which are supra-personal, supra-human, which appear to take over humans as individuals or, in some cases, as entire societies.
Using the language of the demonic is so fraught with problems and so routinely sneered at within liberal modernism that it might seem dangerous even to mention it. Yet many of the most serious analysts of the last century have been forced to use this language as a way of getting at, and trying to account for, what happened.
Different Religions Attempt to Explain Evil
When we look for larger, broader, more sustainable analyses of evil, we find of course that the major worldviews have all had ways of addressing it. The Buddhist says that the present world is an illusion and that the aim of human life is to escape it. This has several affinities with classic Platonism, though Plato was concerned as well that actual justice and virtue should work their way out into the world of space, time and matter, even though reality lay elsewhere.
The Hindu says that evils that afflict people (and indeed animals) in the present life are to be explained in terms of wrongs committed in a previous life and expiated through an obedient following of one’s karma in the present—a worldview which attains a deeply satisfying solution at one level at the cost of enormous and counterintuitive problems at other levels.
The Marxist…some aspects of Hegel’s thought, says that the world is moving in a determined way toward the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the problems on the way, not least the absolute need for violent revolution, are the growing pains which will be justified by the final result. The glorious end will validate the messy means; when you taste the omelet, you will understand why the eggs needed breaking.
The Muslim, if I have understood Islam correctly, says that the world is in a state of wickedness because the message of Allah through Muhammad has not yet spread to all people; the solution is for Islam to be brought to the world, generating a sharp distinction between the great majority of Muslims who see this as a peaceful process and the small minority who want to achieve it through jihad.
Evil Has Become Difficult to Spot
While the language is a bit difficult, sociologist Lionel Tiger describes how different evil is interpreted in modern society. Evil used to be easily identifiable, now, it has “gone underground.” Modern cultural critics blame deviant behavior on “social forces” or “family dynamics.” Ultimately, the problem is, we have lost both the language and the ability to identify evil for what it is, and its ultimate source.
Once upon a time, evil was personified. Evil was Mephistopheles or the Devil. Colorfully costumed. Almost flavorful, altogether identifiable, a clarified being from another world But in the industrialized, multi nationalized, and especially in times of war and high zealotry, officially rhapsodized. Just as industrialism has radically altered the ways and means of making and distributing, it has also altered the moral structure within which we live. Yet malefactors are harder to spot. They no longer boast horns and wear suits with tails, but rather three-piece suits and sometimes turtleneck sweaters of cashmere wool or magenta blouses of tailored silk.
Fearing to Want
In her thought-provoking book, Teach us to Want, Jen Pollock Michel describes the tension in listening to our deepest desires: some of them these desires are integral to our identity, but they also can easily be marred by sin:
Brennan Manning was a man ordained into the Franciscan priesthood who struggled with a lifelong addiction to alcohol. He writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel, “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” Like Manning, every human is drunk on the wine of paradox and riddled with fear. We each have great capacity for evil and terrific incapacity for good.
These fears can obstruct our will to want. How can we allow ourselves to want, especially when we’re so infinitely adept at sin? How do we ever decide that our desires are anything other than sin-sick expression of our inner corruption? Can we trust our desires if we ourselves can be so untrustworthy?
Taken from Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel Copyright (c) 2014 by Jen Pollock Michel. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Modern World on Evil
The Western world has largely rejected this dimension of evil that the Bible gives us, and as a result, we, like Job’s friends, are always underestimating—and sometimes misdiagnosing—the power of evil in our lives. For example, deep down we cling to the simplistic idea that if we are good, life will go well.
Yet if there are demonic forces, it stands to reason that true goodness and godliness would actually attract and stir up those powers to attack. And that is just what we see here in the baptism and temptation account…What the Bible says is that evil is both natural and supernatural, that evil is both inside of us and outside of us, that evil is both individual and socially systemic. There’s no human way to get fully away from it or even get to the bottom of it in our understanding.
Surprised by Evil
We are surprised by evil when it hits us in the face. We think of small towns as pleasant, safe places and are shocked to the core when two little girls are murdered by someone they obviously knew and trusted. We have no categories to cope with that; but neither do we have categories to cope with the larger renewed evils, with renewed tribalism and genocide in Africa or the renewed “Balkanization” of the Balkans themselves.
We like to fool ourselves that the world is basically all right, now that so many countries are either democratic or moving that way and now that globalization has in theory enabled us to do so much, to profit so much, to know so much. Then we are puzzled as well as shocked by the human tidal wave that crashes on our shore, the seemingly endless tragic wall of humanity that comes to Western countries seeking asylum, bringing with it several (though not, we may suppose, more than a small fraction) who are looking not for safety from persecution or tyranny but rather for the secrecy necessary to further their terrorist intentions.
Villains Over Heroes
In imaginary works it is difficult to make virtuous characters as believable and attractive as bad characters. The villains of literature and screen–Captain Ahab, the boys who go bad in Lord of the Flies, Darth Vader, Norman Bates, Hannibal the Cannibal—all are, as a rule, larger figures, more gripping and more memorable, than are the heroes and heroines of even the same authors and producers.
This is as true of religious literature as it is of secular literature. In Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan has all the good lines, but who remembers a word of his Christ? Dante’s The Divine Comedy is one of the great masterpieces of world literature, yet literary critics as well as college freshmen rarely read The Paradiso, and those who do usually judge its virtue and bliss flat and insipid compared to the gargoyled vices of The Inferno.
There is a good reason why this is so. Human nature stands closer to evil than to good. Intrigue, scheming, and deception are more instinctual to us than love, goodness, and forgiveness. The vices are “first nature,” so to speak, whereas virtue is “second nature,” either a learned response or no response at all.
It is easier to figure out ways to cheat the IRS than to solve the problems of hunger or violence. When we are wronged, we can hatch ten brilliant schemes of revenge; but try to devise even a paltry plan for redeeming a bad situation. Dostoevsky thus had an easier task in creating Raskolnikov, the brooding ax-killer of Crime and Punishment, than he did in creating Alyosha, the only virtuous figure in a family of miscreants in The Brothers Karamazov. This is not to diminish Raskolnikov, he is a powerful figure of darkness and depravity. It is simply to say that it is harder to make Alyosha as scintillatingly good as Raskolnikov is bad. And it is nearly impossible to conceive of a world in which the reverse would be true.
Somehow, strangely (and to us sometimes even annoyingly), the Creator God will not simply abolish evil from his world. The question that swirls around these discussions is, Why not? We are not given an answer; we are instead informed in no uncertain terms that God will contain evil, that he will restrain it, that he will prevent it from doing its worst, and that he will even on occasion use the malice of human beings to further his own strange purposes.
While the illustration is somewhat dated, it brings up some of the crucial issues related to a modern approach to the subject of evil:
Several television specials have been broadcast [on the subject of evil] including an interesting HBO program, Confronting Evil, which takes the viewer into prison visiting rooms to witness confrontations between victims of violent crime and the criminals who attacked them. The question that motivates the victim, as he sits across from the man who has mutilated his life, is always the same: “Why did you do this?” The answer is invariably a version of “I don’t know.”
This question is also taken up in Thomas Harris’ famous novel, The Silence of the Lambs -in an exchange between an imprisoned madman, a psychiatrist who bites his victims to death and subsequently cannibalizes them, and a young female FBI agent who seeks his help in pursuing another serial killer. The mad doctor stands, straitjacketed, inside his plexiglass cage and addresses the young woman outside it, who is soft-spoken, methodical, and named for a small bird:
“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants-nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say “I’m evil?”
Good and Evil Runs Through Each One of Us
In this stirring and thoughtful argument, N.T. Wright illustrates the complexity of evil by telling the story of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his return to his home country of Russia after many years in exile
[Solzhenitsyn] greeted all the people he met on his journey across Russia, including those local bureaucrats who had tyrannized their fellow citizens under the Communist system but who had stayed on in office after 1989. Some objected: what was Solzhenitsyn doing fraternizing with these people who had been part of the evil system?
No, he responded, the line between good and evil is never simply between “us” and “them.” The line between good and evil runs through each one of us. There is such a thing as wickedness, and we must distinguish between small and low-grade versions of it and large and terrible versions of it. We must not make the trivial mistake of supposing that a one-off petty thief and a Hitler are exactly alike, that the same level of evil is attained by someone who cheats in an exam and by a Bin Laden. But nor must we suppose that the problem of evil can be either addressed or solved if we trivialize it in the other way, of labeling some people “good” and other people “bad.”
Is there no Evil?
At the end of the first Harry Potter book, J. K. Rowling has a puppet of the Dark Lord Voldemort say, “Lord Voldemort showed me . . . there is no good and evil, there is only power.” I think Rowling is saying there may be few things more evil than denying that there’s evil. That’s what Satan wants.
Persuading Ourselves of the Truth
When we observe evil, sinful behavior from a distance, the inclination is simply to see people as acting with malicious intent. We assume they are “bad people.” But often the motivations that lead to significant lapses in moral behavior are quite different. Because most people want to see themselves generally as “good,” they engage in a complex game of rationalizing and self-deception that enables them to perform these sinful acts. Over time, what starts as a set of questionable lies we tell ourselves becomes capital T “Truth.” An excellent example of this from history took place during the Watergate scandal. In an interview from 1975, the whistleblower of Watergate, John Dean, explains just how this worked with those involved in the scandal:
INTERVIEWER: You mean those who made up the stories were believing their own lies?
DEAN: That’s right. If you said it often enough, it would become true. When the press learned of the wire taps on newsmen and White House staffers, for example, and flat denials failed, it was claimed that this was a national-security matter. I’m sure many people believed that the taps were for national security; they weren’t. That was concocted as a justification after the fact. But when they said it, you understand, they really believed it.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Lyndon Johnson was known as a master at the game of self-justification. His biographer, Robert Caro, described what would happen when Johnson came to believe something to be true, he would believe in it “totally, with absolute conviction, regardless of previous beliefs, or of the facts in the matter.”
George Reedy, an aide who witnessed the same behavior, described LBJ as having “had a remarkable capacity to convince himself that he held the principles he should hold at any given time, and there was something charming about the air of injured innocence with which he would treat anyone who brought forth evidence that he had held other views in the past. It was not an act … He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the ‘truth’ which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.”
Stuart Strachan Jr, with Source Material from John Dean, interview by Barbara Cady, January 1975; Robert A. Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Knopf, 2002), p.886.
You No Longer Belong to Evil
One of the most powerful illustrations of grace and mercy in all of western literature has to be the great scene between Monseigneur Bienvenu and Jean Valjean in the stirring epic Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.
Jean Valjean, having recently finished serving a long prison sentence for stealing bread (for his starving family), once again finds himself in desperate straits.
With nowhere to go on a rainy evening, he is offered shelter by the Monseigneur Bienvenu. With no money or work prospects, Valjean steals some silver from the parsonage, only to be caught by the local authorities.
Valjean is dragged back to the Monseigneur’s residence to be confronted for his wrongdoing. But instead of confirming the crime, Bienvenu sees the unfortunate event as an opportunity.
It is, with no exaggeration necessary, the opportunity to either condemn a life or to save one.
Employing distinctly atonement language, Bienvenue chooses the latter, and says to the stunned Valjean,
“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man….Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf.
The Solution to the Problem of Evil Must be Experiential
This is in fact one of the many sharp edges of “the problem of evil.” Evil isn’t simply a philosophers’ puzzle but a reality which stalks our streets and damages people’s lives, homes and property. The quest for a solution is not a quest for an intellectually satisfying answer to the problem of why evil is there in the first place.
Rather, the quest for a solution to the problem of evil is a search for ways in which the healing, restorative justice of the Creator God himself—a justice which will one day suffuse the whole creation—can be brought to bear, in advance of that ultimate reality, within the present world of space, time, matter and messy realities in human lives and societies.