Coping with Evil Unbound
Either God cannot abolish evil or he will not; if he cannot then he is not all powerful; if he will not then he is not all-good. Thus philosopher Antony Flew opens his 1954 essay "Divine Omnipotence and Human Freedom " with a restatement of St. Augustine's dilemma from his Confessions.
For nonbelievers, this dilemma is the central intellectual roadblock. For believers, the defenses are many; yet none fully refute the skeptics' first and most vexing line of attack.
Evil as a moral construct has no universally recognized definition. Evil to many is a late-term abortion; to others abortion is a blessing. Evil to many is rape; to extremist Muslims, a rape victim should be condemned to beheading or stoning to death.
Evil as an absolute moral construct is a modern theological device. For those reared and who adhere to orthodox Christian values, reverence for human life, whatever its origin, station, age, gender, class, or race seems intrinsic, obvious to anyone, the antipode of evil. Yet this is a recently acquired trait of Western civilization, severely challenged as late as the 20th century by nation states whose culture was repelled by neither death camps nor the Gulag. And until the abolition of the slave trade and a U.S. Civil War, slavery was an evil only relative to who was enslaved. Yet human trafficking persists to this day.
Attempting to resolve the dilemma derived from the problem of evil, theologians lean on God's gift of free will to mankind, still a bitter fruit from man's fall in the Garden of Eden. But there is little solace in analyzing the causes of horrifying events when they seem to recur with alarming frequency. Despite their low frequency, random events seem preordained when randomness strikes nearby or our sensibilities are shattered by the horror of the outcome.
Perhaps healing arrives instead from forgiveness, and ultimately accepting the inexplicable variety of human behaviors -- often vulgar, monstrous and abominable -- finite in duration, mere temporary illusions within the infinite space-time of God's domain.
Is evil -- at least as defined by the Judeo-Christian Western canon -- just an illusion, a necessary contrast allowing us to comprehend good; or the problem thereof just the stuff of metaphysics, on par with logically vacant notions such as "Could a man through his own accord discover he did not exist? "
Surely Charles Manson, the face of evil incarnate, is no illusion. U.S. Marines rescuing over 100 children from a Baghdad prison in 2003 was no illusion. The firebombing of the Bath Consolidated School in Michigan in 1927 by school board treasurer Andrew Kehoe, murdering 38 children, was no illusion. Documented slave auctions from Savannah to Baltimore were no illusions. Twenty first-graders murdered inside the Sandy Hook, CT Elementary School was no illusion. Unspeakable horrors and unbearable pain are still unspeakable and unbearable.
Perhaps evil is the dominant overwhelming force; the good a rare blossom, a fleeting petal fall. Is evil so powerful, so pervasive that even God struggles with its subjugation? After all, in Christian doctrine, in order to offer salvation, God eschewed a sweeping triumph of deus ex machina, electing a tortuous and ambiguous complicated faith based phantasmagoria of incarnation and resurrection, through the perpetrator of evil, man, a defective species.
But if perpetrators of mass killings cannot evoke evil, how to explain the mind of one who would slaughter the innocents? Are we left descending into a soft, convenient, and unsatisfactory rationale that unfathomable human neuro-bio-chemical-electric phenomena are to blame? If God Himself struggles with evil manifest throughout His domain, here on earth, why do we persist with the hubris that mental health counseling and small arms training could disinfect the scourge of mass killings?
There is no making sense of these tragedies, no analytical deconstruction to lift the breathtakingly sorrowful burden. Evil is with us. As God is with us.
Perhaps the Amish community's reaction in the aftershock to the horror of ten girls taken hostage, and five of them executed in the one-room Nickel Mines Lancaster County schoolhouse in 2006, is lesson enough. Forgiveness and acceptance.
In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn't cast blame, they didn't point fingers, they didn't hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer's family.
The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts' funeral.
It's ironic that the killer was tormented for nine years by the premature death of his young daughter. He never forgave God for her death. Yet, after he cold-bloodedly shot 10 innocent Amish school girls, the Amish almost immediately forgave him and showed compassion toward his family.
Evil is with us. As God is with us.