A Spiritual Black Hole: What Is Evil?

by Derrick G. Jeter

In 1964, Supreme Court Associate Justice Potter Stewart was struggling to define obscenity in his concurrent opinion that “obscenity”—with the expect of “hard-core pornography”—was protected by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. He wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that short-hand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”1

Trying to define evil, particularly in our day and age, is a kin to Justice Stewart trying to define obscenity—its more difficult than it seems. But unlike Justice Stewart, many of our leaders and neighbors don’t even know evil when they see it, much less call it what it is or condemn it when they do. The reason for this commitment to non-condemnation is chilling: We live in a culture where judging evil is a greater evil than actually doing evil. The watchword for our time? “Thou shalt not judge.”

Somewhere in the course of human history a drastic shift has taken place, where the line between good and evil has become blurred, and in some cases erased all together, making it difficult for us to both recognize and to judge evil. Of course, recognizing and judging evil requires us first to define evil. So why is that so difficult to do today?

The short answer to this question is quite simple: In our relativistic, individualistic, and multicultural society we no longer have an agreed upon opinion of good and evil. Ethicists and Princeton professor, Peter Singer offers a stark illustration of our current cultural confusion about evil. On his website Singer answers some questions regarding his utilitarian approach to ethics.

Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?

A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a matter of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn’t morally significant [which he calls speciesism]. . . . The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something—that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That’s really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand[ing] this. Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human being than the death of a mouse is to the mouse. . . . That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has, if, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.2

It was answers like the one Singer gave that prompted H. L. Mencken, skeptic extraordinaire, to write: “Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.”3 Singer would have been better off if he as stopped after the first word of his answer—“Yes,” it’s better to save a human being from a burning building than to save a mouse.

Answering another question on his website, Singer wrote, “I use the term ‘person’ to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. . . . I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.” He’s quick to affirm, however, “That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do [—to kill a newborn]. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.”4 Is it any wonder then he entered the healthcare debate and wrote in The New York Times Magazine “that saving one teenager is equivalent to saving 14 85-year-olds”?5 To Singer, human life has no intrinsic value because he doesn’t believe that humans posses the imgo Dei—the image of God; their humanity is only based on their usefulness. In Singer’s philosophy human beings are mere machines—composites of chemicals, tissues, and bone—whose only purpose is to produce. If the machine proves useless, either through defective or worn out parts, then to discard the machine is in no way evil; it is a positive good for the society.

But such gerrymandering with the idea of evil hasn’t always been true. Traditionally, classically, and biblically evil was seen as active in the world and intended to cause suffering, and should be fought on every front. Suffering was considered passive, the consequence of evil, which might result in some good or beneficial end. Joseph declared to his brothers that what he suffered from their hands may have been intended for evil, but God intended it for good, resulting in the salvation of many (Genesis 50:20).

Unfortunately, the culture in which we live, by and large, has abandoned the traditional view of evil and suffering. Our contemporary, postmodern, and sophisticated view denies that evil has any objective reality as a source of suffering. But in a kind of schizophrenic twist of irony, suffering itself is now considered evil. This idea makes us victims of some non-reality, of fate. And if by some law we could stretch such an illogical conclusion into logic, where does that leave us? The only answer is hopelessness, because suffering is beyond having a redeemable purpose because it is evil. Shakespeare may have affirmed that “There is some soul of goodness in things evil,”6 but evil itself is unredeemable, as is sin. “Sin is an evil force in the world today; and a holy God must hate [it]. God can transform suffering into glory, but He cannot transform sin. He must judge it, and that is what He did on the cross.”7

No wonder we cannot agree on what evil is, even if we were to see it with our own eyes. But unlike Singer and others who struggle with nailing down evil, defining it is not at all difficult. Henry David Thoreau understood something of evil when he wrote, “There is no odour so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.”8 That is about the best definition of evil I’ve read. Simply put, evil is the absence of goodness. Evil is blindness, goodness is sight; evil is darkness, goodness is light; evil is hunger; goodness is plenty; evil is death, goodness is life. Evil is a parasite needing a host upon which to feed—and the host is goodness. God doesn’t need evil, but evil needs God; God can do without Satan, but Satan can’t do without God.

Others have defined evil as “steresis agathou or privatio boni, a privation of the good, a purely parasitic corruption of created reality, possessing no essence or nature of its own.”9 “Evil is the force of anti-creation, anti-life,” N. T. Wright wrote, “the force which opposes and seeks to deface and destroy God’s good world of space, time and matter, and above all God’s image-bearing human creatures. . . . Evil is then the moral and spiritual equivalent of a black hole.”10

On January 30, 1933, Adolph Hitler became the German Chancellor. Shortly after his rise to power, pastor Martin Niemöller sent a telegram congratulating Hitler. Within a year, however, Niemöller became an outspoken opponent of Hitler’s Nazi party, until he was finally arrested in 1937 and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and then, eventually, to Dachau, where he survived the war.

In what has become Niemöller’s most famous saying, he justified his early cowardice in remaining silent to the rounding up of Germany’s undesirables by Hitler’s jack-booted thugs: “In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionists. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”11

Until the day comes when Christ will set all things right and establish His goodness on earth, evil will continue to permeate our society. So, what will we do until that glorious day comes? Will we speak out against the evil we see in our day? Or are we so callous to the atrocities that bombard us through our television screens or the allurements that tempt us through our computer screens that we shrug our shoulders and blithely go about our business?

It has been said that “He is already half false who speculates on truth and does not do it. Truth is given, not to be contemplated, but to be done. Life is in action—not in thought.”12 Mere knowledge is never enough to face down evil and champion goodness; what is required is action—the courage and passion to unmuzzle your mouth and expose evil for what it is, the foul stench of goodness gone rancid.

  1. Associate Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U. S. 184, 197 (1964).
  2. Peter Singer, “FAQ,” www.princeton.edu/~psinger/faq.html (accessed August 20, 2009).
  3. H. L. Mencken, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks, #57 (New York: Knopf, 1956), 48.
  4. Singer, “FAQ.”
  5. Singer, “Why We Must Ration Health Care,” The New York Times Magazine, July 19, 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/07/19/magazine/19healthcare-t.html?_r=1&sq=peter%20singer&st=cse&scp=2&pagewanted (accessed August 16, 2009).
  6. William Shakespeare, King Henry the Fifth, 4.1.4, in Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1994), 503.
  7. Warren W. Wiersbe, Why Us? When Bad Things Happen to God’s People (Old Tappen, NJ: Revell, 1984), 94.
  8. Henry David Thoreau, Walden or, Life in the Woods (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 65.
  9. David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 73.
  10. N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 89, 113.
  11. Martin Niemöller, quoted in Os Guinness, “This Too Shall Pass,” Unriddling Out Times: Reflections on the Gathering Cultural Crisis, ed. Os Guinness (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 114.
  12. F. W. Robertson, quoted in Wiersbe, Why Us?, 15.