It is surprising to me when someone one asks me whether or not I believe in evil. I can see how someone can begin to learn about my theology and come to that question, but it surprises me every time. It is surprising to me because I know exactly how much evil I have seen in this world, and I know how much of my theology has been shaped by the depth and closeness of that evil. From my perspective, it was encountering evil that brought me to the theology I currently hold.
I grew up pretty sheltered, in a conservative family both politically and religiously. I grew up first in the controlled environment of a military base, and then in a somewhat controlled suburbia environment. While our parents gave us some latitude in discovering who we were, the view of the world with which we were raised was pretty simplistic, and rather dualistic. Good and evil existed, but they often seemed so far away, and they were personified by two deities, God and Satan. (One of the reasons I believe most non-Universalist Christians are not mono-theists… for Satan is treated as a deity).
I took that worldview of the Good vs. the Evil into Latin America as a young soldier, where I was on the side of the Good (being a counter-narcotics analyst) and the narco-traffickers and the guerillas were Evil. We were opposing evil, protecting our nation… and so almost anything we did in that cause would be justified. In my mind I found a human equivalent to Satan in the person of Pablo Escobar. When he was killed, I was both disappointed and elated. I was elated that good had triumphed over evil. I was disappointed that we had gotten no information from him, and that I was so far removed from his death.
What I did not realize consciously at the time was that I was encountering a broader spectrum of evil than just the narco-traffickers, and that broader spectrum was undermining my whole worldview. Living in Latin America, the evil of poverty is so rampant that it cannot be avoided (as it can be in the United States). I remember a conversation in a bar with a prostitute, who after she realized she was not going to pick me up, expressed a deep hatred for the United States and its economic oppression. I was the oppressor, because I was not willing to part with twenty dollars for her services. I just gave her the money and left, confused by becoming the oppressor by not being willing to go with a prostitute.
I remember looking at a hilltop covered in shanties made up of sections of roofing tin and scavenged cinderblock, thousands of people living in them, and counting themselves lucky to have this much shelter. I remember wondering how such evil could be allowed to exist.
I remember one evening, spent in a bar with former FMLN guerillas in El Salvador, singing songs from The Eagles and discussing Marxism, and realizing that these young men and women were just like me… had I been born in their circumstances, I would have become a Marxist guerilla too.
It was then that I began to face the evil within, and to realize that we all carry it with us. What Good and Evil exists in this world exists because we, we human beings, we create it. How we understand what Good and Evil exists in this world depends a lot upon the lenses we carry with us, the worldview we hold.
Now, some may try to interpret this as saying that I do not really believe in Evil, but they could not be further from the truth. I have seen Evil the likes of which I hope few ever have to see. I have seen slaughtered villages and I have seen shattered cities. I have seen hatred of the type that leads to genocide. But I have run into this confusion before, so let me be as clear as I can be.
The idea of Satan was invented so that we humans did not have to face the appalling truth that we and we alone are responsible for all of the evil that exists in this world. With the invention of Satan, we could look upon atrocity and attribute it to some Deity that is out of our control. Psychologists might call it “projection”, and it is one of the most self-serving ideas in all of history. The invention of Satan has created more evil in this world than anything else in our history, because it gave us an excuse.
The Good vs. Evil worldview that had been shaken up by my experiences in Latin America was completely shattered upon the rock of Bosnia y Herzegovina. I was faced with the aftermath of an Evil war in which there were no good guys, and it would have been easy to see nothing but Evil… but then I began talking with the people. In one particular Muslim grandmother I discovered a kind and sweet heart that was capable of such hatred that she wished to commit genocide.
What Evil exists in this world exists because we create it. What good exists in this world exists because we create it. God is beyond such concepts of good and evil… they rest within humanity. We cannot be allowed to escape our responsibility for either of them.
Yours in faith,