Religion, evil and forgiveness: some thoughts off air

Sunflower. Photograph (c) Marcin Szala, used under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sunflower. Photograph (c) Marcin Szala, used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Twice in as many weeks, I’ve provided an expert voice to aid discussion on local radio. The first invitation was to talk about Martin Luther and “what he’d ever done for us”. The most recent, to discuss religious notions of evil and forgiveness following the death of an unrepentant serial killer.

Now I’m naturally more owl than lark, so giving my considered opinion (or even imparting expertise effectively) on a breakfast show is a challenge. If I’m asked back (and having struggled to verbalise an answer to how religious texts define evil on this morning’s show, I’d understand if I wasn’t) I will be carrying through a little more preparatory discussion with a friend or colleague to oil the wheels. But here, off the cuff, is some of what I could have said in answer to that question had my brain not frozen—beginning as one always should, by reframing the question a little:

What do religious texts say about evil?

If God is good and God creates, why is there evil? The mere existence of evil presents a logical problem for those whose faith teaches belief in a God who is at once all-powerful and good. Among the philosophical answers available is the notion that evil is “nothing”, the absence of good.

The problem of the human ability to “do evil” is more directly approached in religious texts. In Genesis, a book rich in narratives about human origins (and the origins of “creation”), the first mention of evil comes in the context of gan eden, the Garden of Eden where eating the forbidden fruit leads to knowledge of tov (good) and ra (bad, evil).

In Jewish thought, this discovery reflects the presence in all humans of two inclinations: toward evil and toward good. In adulthood, the evil inclination can be moderated by the good inclination. To this end, knowledge of and desire for evil is understood as identified as the pursuit of (selfish) pleasure. That may ultimately end in ‘absolute evil’, but the temptation to pursue personal pleasure at the cost of others is something we can all recognise.

In the garden of Eden, the serpent prompts humans to eat the forbidden fruit. In postbiblical writings, the role of a figure leading humans astray evolves substantially. By creating a personification of evil (Satan, something I’ve written on elsewhere) and an accompanying narrative about having “fallen” from God’s favour / heaven, some religious texts give personal power to ‘anti-God’. Worshipping, giving authority to, something other than God (idols, pleasure) becomes a service to this figure.

As literature about evil, and notions of heaven and hell evolve, we gain a wide vocabulary and a picture of spiritual realms in which good and evil do battle. Much of this is extra-biblical, i.e. its development occurs outside the Bible. And I find it less helpful in reflecting on human evil.

Where does evil come from? If answering for the bad done to humans by humans, then being aware that we each have the potential to put selfish pleasure before what we know to be good provides the beginning of an effective answer. It is the awareness that I, too, am capable of and culpable for following the evil inclination that provides my ability to be compassionate toward evil-doers. It is a recognition of common humanity that allows a criminal court to hear and take into account factors leading up to any crime. (And this compassion is distinct from offering forgiveness.)

There is a secondary question here, because of the context in which I’d been asked to speak: Can we forgive a remorseful murderer who does all that is possible to atone for their deeds? (Noting that the recently deceased serial killer was not remorseful, and therefore the question is most certainly not applicable there.) A question like this underlies Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower and to absorb its complexities I recommend reading that book.* But there are a couple of remarks I can comfortably make here:

1) Punishment is still necessary, and a responsible society punishes with compassion (without torture).
2) Given that the murdered victims cannot agree to forgiveness in this life, what is asked is beyond what the living can offer. It would be unmerciful to the victim to decide otherwise, and—if we operate with the picture of Matthew 18—God weighs the mercy of all parties.

If we return to the area of logical debates, we may also ask something like “why does an all-powerful God make humans capable of evil?” But I’ll leave that for another occasion.

* NB. I make no profit from recommending books and have deliberately linked to Hive (supporting independent booksellers). I first read Wiesenthal’s book in 2001, in the context of a course on Jewish and Christian responses to the Holocaust. For me, the narrative and the ‘symposium’ of responses remain a powerful antidote to easy notions of forgiveness. 

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