Making Sense of Evil

by | Aug 23, 2012 | Uncategorized

Evil by L. Marie on Flickr.

In a world full of perplexing questions, one is still pretty simple. Ask someone “does evil exist?” and you can usually expect a pretty rapid answer. Often data from one’s own life experience–betrayal by a friend or loved one, witnessing an act of violence, etc.–will suffice to trigger an affirmative reply. If not, a quick glance at a major news source these days should do the trick to elicit a resounding yes, especially in the days following the recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin.

Evil by L. Marie on Flickr.

The most common four letter word?

Historically, the conceptual apparatus for thinking about evil in the world involved a personal agent: Satan, doing business as “the Devil,” “Beelzebub,” or “Lucifer” (to name a few). But ask someone today “does the Devil exist?”, and the answer is likely to be … well … squishier than whether evil exists in the first place.

The New York Review of Books blog has a recent post by Francine Prose that raises two related, unasked, and perhaps unanswerable questions behind these awful events: how do we make sense of evil? How do we make sense of evil without the Devil?

Reflecting on our cultural discourse around recent (and not-so-recent) shootings, Prose identifies a common tendency:

[W]e continue to believe, or to hope, that every problem has a solution, every disease a cure waiting to be discovered. We advocate better treatment for the mentally ill, a more effective way to keep guns out of the hands of the violent and the mad. We’d like to think we can protect ourselves with social reform, or that another meaningful essay on gun control or cinematic gore may somehow help.

All of these are noble aims, of course. But at the end of the day,

[T]he unfortunate truth is that…there will always be some tormented individual compelled by a chemical imbalance, inner demons (but not the devil!), soulless capitalism, or some private compulsion to act out the most painful, destructive, violent impulses of the culture. We can’t blame it on Hollywood, the NRA, the government, or the media.

In the wake of these all-too-frequent outbursts of violence, we move in a blink from expressions of grief to laying blame and devising quick fixes. These ‘solutions’ may make us feel better for a time, but we play the blame game at the risk of ignoring (and thus failing to respond to) the elephant in the room: the persistence of evil in ourselves and the world we share.


Timothy O'Brien, SJ   /   @tob_sj   /   All posts by Timothy