The Reality of Evil: What It Is and Why It Matters

From our service on October 3, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

In today’s sermon we begin a three-part series about evil. Evil is an important topic for any sincere spiritual seeker, or indeed any thoughtful human being to consider. Today we’ll discuss the question of what is evil? — and perhaps more importantly, why it matters that we discuss it. In fact, why is it so important that I’ve decided to do three sermons on evil instead of just one?

Evil is real, and it’s a major aspect of the human condition. It’s popular nowadays, especially among liberal-thinking people in relatively free, stable, and prosperous countries, to discount the power and pervasiveness of evil and the human tendency to fall prey to it. Many optimistic, I would say naïve people believe that evil is merely the absence of good, and that the average person is essentially good and does not naturally feel any evil impulses that exert a powerful pull on the psyche. I profoundly disagree.

To illustrate the point, I will mention just one example from my childhood. When I was a kid, I remember hanging out with a group of boys at a neighborhood swimming pool. We were all maybe 9, 10, 11 years old, and we all came from normal middle-class families. One day, while playing in the pool, we had a conversation about methods of torture, and how funny it would be to watch people have their skin peeled off with a vegetable peeler and then go down a water slide into the pool, which instead of water, would be filled with lemon juice. I also remember one of these boys joking around about how cool it would be to light a person on fire and watch him burn, writhing and twisting in agony. I will never forget the laughter that came out of his mouth as he was envisioning it — it was like something supernatural.

We were just kids. All of us, at that young age, in middle-class America, were fully capable of having evil thoughts and enjoying it. How many kids throughout history have grown up to put such thoughts into practice, such as in brutal military campaigns against perceived enemies of king and country, or in religious inquisitions, jihads and crusades against heretics and heathens, or perhaps something more prosaic such as becoming an excessively aggressive police officer, or a sadistic prison guard — or in a less physical way, but just as harshly, through the cutthroat practices of a fiercely competitive businessman?

The truth is, most people do not naturally tend toward goodness; they are constantly being pulled toward either good or evil, as both sides of the moral struggle all around us try to influence them, and they can go either way at any time depending on the prevailing material and social conditions and circumstances in their lives, as well as their spiritual beliefs and character. This is why it’s so important to understand the reality of evil. The world we live in is not good by default. Quite the contrary; it is an epic battlefield for the very soul of human beings, and more often than not, evil has the upper hand. Today, we begin by seeking a basic understanding of evil, its essence and its prevalence. In the next two sermons in the series, we’ll discuss how evil works, and how to overcome it.

Most people don’t like to think much about evil, instead preferring to focus on more pleasant topics, such as the love of God, eternal life in heaven, or positive things in this world such as pretty flowers and adorable pets. But is the average person really so immune to the reality of evil? Does it reach its tentacles into our souls, perhaps unwittingly, as we go about the business of life?

For example, when you hear about the latest bad thing that was done by the political faction you consider to be deplorable or profoundly misguided, do you feel hatred rise up within your heart, and an urge to lash out in anger? Do you wish that all liberals or all conservatives would, somehow, just die? — or at least be relegated to a subordinate position in society, being forced to acknowledge the dominance of what you consider to be good?

This is just one example of the subtle pervasiveness of evil. It’s all around us, and within us. And even when we try our best to be good, evil is trying just as hard to corrupt our best intentions. “If you only knew the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader in a famous line from Star Wars. Indeed, if only we knew! Most people have no idea how powerful evil really is, and how susceptible we all are to its machinations.

“If you only knew the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader… Most people have no idea how powerful evil really is, and how susceptible we all are to its machinations.

Back in Biblical times, they knew. As Paul wrote to the church of the Romans, describing the morally degenerate state of society, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful.” In fact, says Paul, “they invent ways of doing evil.” [Rom. 1:29-30].

Back then, in the Roman Empire, cruelty was rampant and extreme. That’s why Jesus was nailed to a cross — one of the most painful forms of death ever invented. Crucifixion, and other harsh forms of punishment, were common. And if you didn’t agree with the corrupt religious or political leaders, you couldn’t go on social media and argue for an alternative point of view, or cast a vote in a free and fair election; you had to keep your mouth shut or face a similar fate as the crucified Christ.

What we tend to forget today — at least those of us who are blessed to live in well-developed countries with freedom and democracy and basic human rights — is that evil has more often been the norm in human society. As Jacob F. Field writes in an eye-opening book, One Bloody Thing After Another: The World’s Gruesome History, “Violence, torture, massacre, tyranny and disaster litter the annals of world history. … Emperors and kings were often wholly unsuitable to rule their people — indeed, were even a danger to them. …” And “when revolts and rebellions did succeed, the new regimes were often more bloody than those they replaced.” Field’s book is a breathtaking catalogue of the pervasiveness and savagery of evil throughout human history, in every part of the world. War crimes, genocide, imaginative forms of torture and execution that boggle the mind — all of it has been the typical human condition.

And it still is today, in large parts of the world. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a journalist named Jamal Khashoggi, who dared to criticize the ruling family, was murdered by government agents by cutting his body into pieces with a bone saw. In China, the most populous country in the world, millions of ethnic and religious minorities called Uighurs have been imprisoned in forced labor camps where they are indoctrinated with the official government ideology. Both of these examples of government-enforced evil have occurred in just the past few years — and they are representative of the generally oppressive situation faced by billions of people in the 21st century. Although human technology has advanced, not much has changed in the moral conditions of life, for the majority of human beings, compared to the evil that was common throughout history.

War crimes, genocide, imaginative forms of torture and execution… all of it has been the typical human condition. And it still is today, in large parts of the world.

We are fortunate that in recent history some countries have advanced morally as well as materially. However, according to Freedom House, an organization that studies the prevalence of human rights and freedoms, only 83 out of 210 countries in the world today are “free.” In most countries, people are still at least partly, and in many cases substantially oppressed by the evil impulses of authoritarian leaders, or non-state actors such as gangs and cartels that wield significant power.

It’s a common prejudice to think that such abuses only happen in comparatively “backward” or “underdeveloped” places, such as in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. But the truth is, it can happen anywhere. A century ago, when the Nazis rose to power, Germany was one of the most advanced countries in the world — and Nazi Germany became one of the most evil empires in history. The fact that most Germans at the time were well-educated people living in a relatively well-off industrial civilization didn’t prevent them from choosing — in a democratic election — the authoritarian militarist Adolf Hitler to become their leader, a choice that would result in the senseless deaths of tens of millions of people through world war and genocide.

Hitler and World War II is in fact an excellent illustration of the nature of evil. Hitler believed in a philosophy of relentless striving for supremacy. In his view, the world is divided into inherently competing tribes of people. Each nation must fight against the others, and there is only one “master race” which has the right to impose its will upon everyone else — whether by conquering them, subjugating them, or killing them. Constant fighting is what determines who wins and becomes the master, and who loses and becomes the slave, or the exterminated. This principle, in Hitler’s view, applies both in relations among individuals as well as groups of human beings. Therefore, Hitler ran Nazi Germany as a totalitarian dictatorship, in which his underlings were constantly, often fiercely jockeying for position and advantage in the hierarchy. His foreign policy was predicated on the drive for territorial expansion and mass slaughter or exploitation of any people who might get in the way of German racial and national ambitions.

The Nazi philosophy is, essentially, a logical extrapolation of the biological concept of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest.” Life is nothing more than a struggle for survival — an endless fight to the death — merciless, cruel, and unforgiving. In keeping with this philosophy, Hitler titled his autobiography and political manifesto Mein Kampf, meaning “my struggle,” and he envisioned a similar struggle for his country.

That is one logical way to see the world. It is the philosophy of pure evil, the philosophy of the flesh — humanity reduced to its animal nature alone. But there is another struggle, the struggle of the spirit to overcome the impulses of the flesh that are encoded within our brains, which drive us, like most animals, to pursue survival at any cost, without regard for moral considerations. The struggle of the spirit is to overcome this world, as Jesus did, and attain to the heavenly kingdom, rather than to succeed most prolifically according to the amoral rules of the animal kingdom.

The spirit and the flesh are constantly battling for dominance of the human self. The divine spirit within us seeks unity with God and harmony with other beings, but the animalistic flesh seeks individual autonomy and advantage. When the flesh is the dominant aspect of the human personality, it often leads to a life of vicious competition, based on psychobiological drives that are naturally aligned with the evolutionary imperative of survival of the fittest. In this sense, evil emerges naturally from the physical world and our participation in it.

The divine spirit within us seeks unity with God and harmony with other beings, but the animalistic flesh seeks individual autonomy and advantage.

The spiritual struggle is therefore a struggle against the evil of this world — for when humans live like animals, without regard for a higher morality, we become evil. As animals, humans are the apex predators of planet earth. But if the spiritual world is real, there may be powers far greater than human beings that prey on us, and corrupt us in the process, by turning us away from our spiritual nature as children of God and instead toward our material nature as children of the flesh, like the beasts. As Paul writes, it is not the flesh itself that is evil, but the perverted spirit: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” [Eph. 6:12].

Indeed, the dual nature of humans as both spirit and flesh makes us both powerful and vulnerable, and demands of us the constant responsible exercise of our free will to choose between good and evil. The world of flesh, in its fallen state of the merciless struggle for survival, predisposes us toward evil, but it is only a manifestation of the spirit in rebellion against God. Evil originates as a spiritual condition; the physical universe is not, in and of itself, evil.

To understand the deeper, spiritual origin of evil, we need to consider how evil actually emerges into existence, and once existing, how it can corrupt the soul of any being, and indeed, whole worlds. The Bible teaches that in the beginning, God created the world and it was good [Gen. 1:31]. The world became corrupted because of the choice to turn away from God, as symbolized by the temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, resulting in what is known as “the Fall.” The serpent represents Satan, meaning the “Adversary” in Hebrew.

The original state of being is unity with God; evil arises from separation. It may be argued — and I would agree with this — that once God created anything with an existence outside of Godself, such as other beings with free will — the emergence of evil was inevitable, because some beings choose disunity and separation; otherwise freedom wouldn’t be real.

In the Christian tradition, the first being to rebel against God was the greatest of the angels, named Lucifer, meaning “Light-bearer,” who tragically became the bringer of darkness called Satan. Lucifer’s original sin was pride, admiring his own glory rather than understanding that it had come from God, the Creator.

As Satan, the Adversary of God, this glorious being introduced evil into the spiritual and physical worlds by turning first a portion of the angels, and later human beings, against God’s plan. Separation led to discord. The original divine harmony among all beings in creation was disturbed by conflict.

Classic fantasy author and scholar of mythology J.R.R. Tolkien explored the theme of harmony vs. discord as a metaphor for good vs. evil in The Silmarillion, the prologue to the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, a devout Christian, identified the ultimate source of evil in his legendarium as a Satan-like figure named Melkor, the greatest of the created beings, who pridefully introduced discordant sounds into the musical symphony of God’s creation and inspired other evil beings such as Sauron. Instead of singing the music written by God, Melkor thought his own music was superior, but it clashed with the divine score and produced a cacophonous disharmony. Although God was able to redeem the music, the redemption is not immediately apparent in its unpleasant sound.

What this story insightfully reveals is that diverse beings may combine their music harmoniously with one another — each one having different notes to contribute to the music — as long as they each play the part assigned to them by God, the Great Composer and Conductor. Uniformity is not demanded to be part of the divine symphony of creation, but harmony is called for. Disharmony arises when musicians decide to play their own notes that clash with the whole and spoil the sound of the music. That’s how evil — which initially emerges as an impulse toward disunity and separation — begins to manifest itself and do real harm.

Diverse beings may combine their music harmoniously with one another — each one having different notes to contribute to the music — as long as they each play the part assigned to them by God.

As evil progresses, it replaces cooperation with exploitation, seeking to take away the freedom of some beings by manipulating them and stealing their energy and creative power. From there, evil can descend to its ultimate nadir — the greatest possible distance from God and the divine plan — by replacing the coexistence of all beings in God’s creation with a drive toward uniformity and destruction. Those beings and their creations which do not serve evil ends are targeted to be destroyed, in a perverted attempt to recreate the perfect unity that is found only in submission to the will of God. By destroying anything that stands in its way, the ultimate expression of evil’s self-guided will is the creation of a counterfeit unity, a diabolical perfection that is not of God.

This ultimate plan of evil may sometimes be mistaken for good, but in fact is its very antithesis. For example, imagine if Satan happens to like a beautiful, golf-course-style lawn. So Satan inspires people to destroy all the other plants in the world, and construct tremendously costly irrigation technology, industrial chemical factories, and robotic lawnmowers to enable the planting, watering, fertilizing, and continual maintenance of a monoculture of perfectly manicured grass in every biome on the face of the earth. Then the human beings and all the other animals are burned up and scattered as fertilizer. Satan might enjoy this — his selfish will has prevailed — but not so for most of the other living beings God has created, whose music of creation is drowned out, coopted, or extinguished.

A more realistic example of ultimate evil would be the attempts by power-mad dictators, such as Hitler, to try to take over the world. But the global lawn analogy makes the point that terrible evil can emerge in ways that don’t obviously seem repugnant — at least not in the early stages. There are many examples of this kind of thing in real life, involving various attempts at “total domination” by a particular religion, political faction, business monopoly, or cultural mindset. Instead of respecting the freedom of living souls, evil is about taking it away, to serve the preference of some powerful actor who is not God — sometimes even an actor with seemingly good intentions.

That’s why we must understand evil and learn to recognize it, as well as its clever disguises. In my next sermon, I’ll delve into the mechanism of evil: how evil works, turning people away from goodness and bending their will, often unwittingly, through specific strategies and methods. Only by understanding the mechanism of evil can we have any hope to defeat it.

Watch on video (starting at 3:03):