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‘Evil, be thou my good’

Evil has a long history

The Christian tradition holds that evil, though not eternal, pre-exists humans. Its origin is in the world of angels, personal and immaterial beings with free will. One of these, Lucifer, rebelled against God’s order. In Milton’s words in Paradise Lost, Lucifer pledged, “Evil, be thou my good.” In the Old Testament this fall is described as a result of vanity: “Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor. So I threw you to earth; I made a spectacle of you before kings” (Ezekiel 28: 16-17).

In the Christian view, evil is not a creation of God but a perversion of that creation, a result of using free will against the very purpose for which it was created. Evil is a parasite of good, a diminishment. Having acquired this diminished nature, Satan and the other dark angels actively try to thwart God’s plan with humankind. Their existence is that of spiritual death, irrevocable alienation from good (hell). God has limited Satan’s power and only allows evil to manifest itself in order to awaken humans from spiritual lethargy. And, if humans can misuse God’s creation, why wouldn’t God be able to use for good those who perform evil? Augustine argued that even Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, as evil as that was, produced a far greater good. Christians believe the evil that is part and parcel of the world is redeemable.

A good part of church history, however, is a recounting of the struggle against various incarnations of the Gnostic heresy, the religious notion that matter is intrinsically evil and cannot be redeemed. The early church fathers, men like Irenaeus and Tertullian, made their reputations by writing treatises against the Gnostics. Some of them, like Augustine, were reformed Gnostics themselves. In the Middle Ages, these ideas again emerged and swept through southern Europe in the form of the Albigensian and Cathar heresies. The crusades against these heretics began the Inquisition, which lasted another 300 to 400 years and provided the impetus for the rise of the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans.

In more recent times, the thinkers of the Enlightenment were convinced that human reason could discover the natural laws of the universe, determine the rights of humankind and thereby ensure unending progress in knowledge and moral values, eventually vanquishing evil. Following the onset of the industrial revolution, Karl Marx asserted that evil was embedded in social structures and institutions. In the 20th century, sin was defused by Sigmund Freud’s assertion that we are at the mercy of unconscious impulses. His colleague, Carl Jung, pointed out that every good has a shadow. Einstein’s theory of relativity was misinterpreted and applied to ethics, and became moral relativism, the belief that our judgment of good and evil are derived from our point of view.

Lucifer himself and his spirit minions, who had somewhat fallen off the radar after the Enlightenment, made a comeback. In the winter of 1973 the film The Exorcist brought the Evil One back into pop culture. Ex-Jesuit Malachi Martin kept the notion that the demonic was yet in the possession business alive with his popular book, Hostage to the Devil. In 1983, best-selling author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck published a book titled People of the Lie in which he claimed that evil was real and palpable in human lives, and that he had met people who were truly evil. The medical establishment ignored him. In the same decade, an epidemic of stories swept the country, alleging that Satan’s human followers were torturing toddlers in daycare centers, brainwashing teens through heavy metal lyrics and even abducting and sacrificing infants in Black Masses. In a 1989 report, however, FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, who specialized in investigating alleged “satanic murders,” stated he had yet to identify a single case in the United States.

All of this 20th-century speculation about sin and evil took place in the midst of humankind’s largest advances in the art and science of killing. It is estimated that a handful of individuals -- Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet and a few others -- alone were responsible for the deaths of over 100 million. War technology advanced to the point where hundreds of millions could be incinerated in a few hours in a nuclear exchange.

Many say that what is needed now more than ever are great leaps forward in the study of peace. Path-breaking peace and conflict resolution research could find ways to defuse and rechannel the evil impulses of humans.

-- Rich Heffern

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2002