The Instructive Power of Evil

Or

“Life in the Furnace”

It’s not every day that you get it to read a blog post that reflects thoughts that you have been having about a subject and articulate them in a manner that is both simple and profound.

Let me first say that if you do not follow J. Warner Wallace on either Twitter or on Facebook, you are missing content that is both informative and insightful because almost every hour on the hour there’s something that he shares that can make you think. Lest I forget to mention that his Instagram is chock full of beautiful pictures from his daily runs if you want to follow him there too. But it was a post that he shared yesterday (12Nov2019) that caught my attention and deserves to be shared, along with some additional commentary. The article that Wallace shared that caught my attention is one from the blog Involuted Speculations titled “EVIL AS A TEACHING TOOL: REFUTING THE MYTH OF GRATUITOUS EVIL”.

First, the blog describes itself as something of a therapeutic outlet, as the founder writes on the “about” page,

“I started the blog basically to kill time, as I had moved to Idaho from NYC and found it to be too slow-paced for me. I was in school studying literary theory, poststructuralism, postmodernism, and philosophy proper, and this blog was meant to be a place where my complicated and inwardly directed (i.e. involuted) theories about epistemology, aesthetics, and ontology (i.e. speculations) could be posted in an environmentally friendly manner. As one who suffers from OCD, I now know that without medication I exhibit the symptoms of what is called hypergraphia, i.e. a compulsive desire to write. My hypergraphia manifested itself in the many journals I had begun to collect, all of which were saturated with philosophical rants, speculative considerations on poetic meter, aesthetic theorizing, poems, short fiction, and whatever else I felt compelled to write about. So having a blog was a great way to eliminate the growing fire hazard in my home!

I sort of chuckled at this having raised a child who suffered with autism-induced OCD and knowing how difficult it can be to keep those impulses in check, or to direct them into useful, rather than destructive ends. I can also sympathize because I started this blog as an outlet for the thoughts and questions that I had. I have much in common with this writer and plan to follow along.

Anyway…

Getting into the substance of the piece, “H”, as the author identifies himself, begins by writing about the Amazon series Undone, which I am not familiar with simply because I’m not a subscriber, however, H uses the show’s premise and the experience of its main character as a wedge, writing,

“…[The main character] Alma’s education via the experience of moral and natural evil is universally relatable. The evil Alma experiences is not purposeless, it has a very specific function in her life. For Alma, and for all of us, evil teaches profound lessons. Our experience of evil reveals things to us about ourselves, about the world we live in, about others, and about our moral duties and our failure to perform them.

Specifically, the issue of gratuitous evil is one that the world is left with trying to answer. I went deep into this subject in my response to philosopher Stephen Maitzen, namely that when unbelievers—specifically atheists—raise the issue of evil, that such arguments have tremendous emotional power, but lack any meaningful philosophical grounds for being able to call anything “evil”. Indeed there is often a conflation of categories when speaking of evil in that there is natural evil (eg fires, floods, illness) and moral evil (eg lying, theft, murder) and even intersections where a person can use a natural evil for a morally evil end (eg arson).

Unbelievers often use the adjective “gratuitous” to describe evil, because the term carries with it a sense of being unwarranted, unjustified, and excessive. Of course, the problem is that if we truly live in a merely material world beset by random forces, upon what basis can anyone call anything “evil” much less complain about whether it’s “gratuitous” or not? I’m not saying that atheists don’t have an answer to the question it’s just that when they do attempt to answer it they do so in a manner and with assumptions that fit more with a Christian worldview than their own professed worldview. H picks up on this fact and runs with it,

“In Undone, and really in all sophisticated narratives, the viewer/reader is shown that evil, as an integral part of the story, is not purposeless.Human authors create characters who use evil for evil ends, but whose evil is overcome by the good it produces for the protagonist, as well as in the mind and emotions of the reader. And this is, again, a universal reality. The hero must undergo adversity in order to become “a better person” (e.g. a more attentive father, a more nurturing mother, a less self-absorbed husband, etc).

The struggle over the problem of evil only exists in a purposeless and random world, not in a world packed with telos. The struggle really lies in interpreting exactly what we are to take away from our interaction with evil in the world, be it moral or natural.

In my own life I have faced both. I have had friends and family murdered, raped, and robbed. I lost my maternal grandfather and my own father to cancer. Evil is both pervasive and invasive, in that it is seen outside and seems to come out of nowhere to disrupt our comfort and security. We can read stories and see movies and see evil perpetrated and survived and dealt with, but our own experience of it catches us off guard and leaves us in confusion, as H notes,

“We universally and intuitively understand that evil can, and does, have two entirely different end results depending on whose perspective evil is being analyzed from (e.g. whether from the perspective of the one experiencing evil or from the perspective of the author whose intention is to bring about good by that very evil).

In Ezekiel 18, the prophet launches into an excursus on the relationship between God and Israel and the false assumption that the righteous were being punished along with the wicked in the destruction of the nation of Judah. The complaint is that they aren’t being treated fairly. God rebukes them through the message given to the prophet that they are seeing matters wrongly. God’s actions in removing his people from the land were applied fairly to all, and that he alone judges the people: saving the righteous and punishing the wicked. The same act serves to sort the two from one another. As H rightly points out,

“….the moral and natural evil that surrounds us reveals that men are under the wrath of God, are enemies of God, and have no hope for salvation in the modification of their behavior. It isn’t God’s existence that is being problematized by the reality of moral and natural evil, it’s man’s falsely assumed righteousness, deity, and control that are being directly assaulted by God through moral and natural evil.

Jesus directly addressed the matter of moral and natural evil when he is questioned about the murder of a number of Galilean Jews by Pilate in response to an attack on his cohort, as well as a number of people killed when a tower collapsed, saying,

“[Do] you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The point is that evil appears to the self-righteous to be “gratuitous” because it seemingly comes out of nowhere and attacks those who are often seen as undeserving of it, when the fact is that the experience of evil in a fallen world is supposed to be a check on our pride and humble us toward God.

Now, someone might argue that the fact that it can actually harden a person away from that truth proves that God doesn’t know what he’s doing. Alas, the person misses the point because the same fire that softens the metal to make it pliable so that it can be shaped, is the same fire that hardens the metal. God knows what he’s doing.

Anywho…be sure to check out the rest of H’s post and the insights that he offers.