Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

On the Origin and Nature of Evil

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,


6 Thoughts on “On the Origin and Nature of Evil

  1. Great post, David! Are you going to unpack it into a sermon?

  2. Thank you very much… I forget that this idea is so deeply rooted in my theology that it is sometimes hard for others to unpack…

    I was challenged to preach a sermon on the Origin and Nature of Good and evil during my ministerial internship. I have yet to preach it again, but it is online…


    There are some other sermons that unpack some of the Latin America and Bosnia experience… in specific, this one…titled “Embedded War”


    Once again, thank you. A “Good Post” comment from you is worth several from many others… (’cause I’m a fan).

    Yours in Faith,


  3. It is indeed a very good post David but I believe a somewhat flawed one when you try to distance God from the origin and nature of evil and lay the full blame for evil on human beings. The fact of the matter is that what we human beings call evil would exist even if human beings became extinct.

    You assert that – 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.

    What if the idea of Satan was invented so that we humans did not have to face the appalling truth that God and God alone is ultimately responsible for all of the evil that exists in this world?

    I am not trying to absolve human beings from their own personal responsibilities in making this point, and agree very much with most of what you have said here, but I believe that you are making a mistake in effectively absolving God from any responsibility for the origin and nature of evil.

  4. Good response Robin! I was hoping someone would bring up this issue.

    You present a non-dualistic understanding of God on the issue of Good and Evil, and I agree with the intent. My difference from it stems from a non-personal understanding of the nature of God.

    Within the theological framework with which I am working, God does not have the kind of personal relationship with the universe that I believe is required to attribute either Good or Evil to a deity. In one sense, the is nothing that is not God, and so both Good and Evil are indeed a part of God. But attributing the intent and discretion necessary to identify things or actions as being good or being evil is, I beleive, attempting to anthropomorphize God. It is attempting to make God in our image, to impute human characteristics to God.

    Let me see if I can put it this way… I do not beleive God is “responsible” for either good or evil. Good and Evil are a part of the human attempt to find or create meaning from the totality (eternity inclusive of time and space) that is God. Good and Evil are human attempts to make sense of certain aspects of totality, in specific to make meaning of some of the aspects of that totality which we play a direct role in.

    Attempts to assign “responsiblity” for the meaning we find upon God are attempts to anthropomorphize a God which is, at its fullest, beyond the capability of humanity to grasp in specific detail. And so, we seek to make meaning the best we can. My point is, in its broader sense, that we are responsible for the meaning that we create.

    Thank you for the engagement!

    Yours in Faith,


  5. Patrick McLaughlin on Monday February 9, 2009 at 14:15 +0000 said:

    David, you have a firm grip on something that we–as a movement–need to hear more and hear more about. The “Problem of Evil” is a real one and a big deal for most people who grapple with theology out of traditional western religious perspectives… while many UUs have simply avoided it (and, as a generally middle to upper-middle class faith in a very wealthy country, been able to not see much evil… and thus delude themselves into not facing the problem(s)).

    I believe that what you’re doing in the chaplaincy is very important (and in fact, may have a potential candidate to pass along–we’ll see). But I suspect that what you’re kicking around here may be–in the long run, the large perspective–more important work.

  6. Thank you, Patrick … it is good to know that over the years there might be somehting I can contribute to our liberal faith movement.

    As I thought about it, I thought that I might want to provide a scriptural base for some of my more Christian readers (It is wonderful writing for such a diverse audience). So, I will call you to Mark 7: 14-22, and Jesus will back me up.

    Yours in faith,


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