Who Knows What Evil?

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow
knows!” The old radio program suggested to us gathered around the
Philco console that our evil is our nasty secret, safely hidden away
in our hearts. The Shadow (in daily life, wealthy young man about
town, Lamont Cranston) knew what evil lurked in the human heart
because, years ago in the orient, he had mastered an ancient oriental
art of making himself invisible. The Shadow knew human evil because he
saw people when they thought they were alone, when they were not even
pretending to be good. He saw like Santa Claus, like God, like your

“Who knows what evil?”

What is evil? Here’s a working definition. Evil is the
destructive. Evil is what destroys. The destruction can be of
something material. It can be the destruction of life. Evil can also
be the destruction of potential, the diminishing of life, robbing
human lives of their fulfillment through abuse, defilement, starvation
or a hundred forms of life-denying oppression.

asked the members of the congregation on my email list what they
thought about evil. The responses I received were fairly consistent,
and they were consistent with responses one would expect to receive
from people whose religion is not orthodox or traditional. Just about
everyone, for example, said that evil doesn’t have anything to do
with nature. Evil is deliberate, conscious destructiveness.

Nature is often destructive. But nature is an equal opportunity
destroyer. Nature doesn’t make decisions about what to destroy,
nor does nature have any awareness of that which it destroys. As the
old proverb says, “The rain falls on the just and the
unjust.” A tornado does not pick out a town in north Georgia to
destroy. The flood does not choose to drown some and not others. The
fire does not burn the house of evildoers and leave the convent next
door untouched.

course, there are people, millions of people, whose theology, whose
ideas about God and nature, include the conviction that God uses
nature to reward or punish. The Biblical faith is replete with stories
in which God uses nature to work his wondrous ways, such as the great
flood which drowned every living thing except faithful Noah and his
family and the creatures they brought aboard the ark. The sea parted
for the Israelites and drowned the Egyptian army that pursued them.
And, in the Christian scriptures, Jesus’ Messiahship is proclaimed
by virtue of his miracle working, turning nature from its due
course–even conquering death that people might know he was no
ordinary mortal.

our time, one extension of this nature-as-the-hand-of-God theology is
the theologically and morally repugnant contention that God uses
disease, such as AIDS, as a means of punishment. If God is all
powerful, so the argument goes, then God must will the scourge of
AIDS; otherwise, it would be done away with. By my working definition
of evil as conscious destructiveness, this idea stamps God as evil. If
evil is destruction and God destroys, God must be evil.

This proposition has actually been given some consideration. The
Problem of Evil is one of the oldest philosophical/theological
conundrums to confound humankind. The problem is laid out in terms of,
“How can evil exist if God exists and if God is all powerful and
if God is wholly good?”

Rather than suggest that, since evil exists, God does not, or
explain evil by suggesting that God is not wholly good, most
contemporary theology suggests instead the more reasonable position
that God may exist, but God is not all-powerful. God does not send
AIDS to punish homosexuality; but neither is God able to prevent AIDS
from destroying human life. AIDS is an infectious disease, a natural
process. Contemporary liberal theology asserts that, whatever else God
my be, God is the upholder of the processes of nature and the upholder
of the natural laws of the universe and is therefore bound by natural
law. Some theologians, such as the late Unitarian, Henry Nelson
Wieman, asserted that God is the process of nature and natural

Some years ago, the son of the great preacher and social activist,
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was run down and killed by a truck.
Frustrated and angered by his parishioners constantly asking him how
God could have “taken his son,” Coffin finally said,
“God did not take my son. God was the chief mourner at his
funeral.” If there is to be gravity, there must always be
gravity, even when it means a child is killed by a hurtling truck, by
a drunken driver or a stockbroker on a car phone.

God exists and is not the author of evil, does not use evil to punish
but cannot eliminate it, what’s left? Ah–the possibility that
evil has another cosmic cause, another cosmic source. Satan. The
devil. The embodiment of evil. Lucifer, the fallen “Angel of
Light,” determined to win human souls to the dark side.

of the early Christian heresies was that of the group called the
Manicheans who asserted that there has been since the dawn of creation
a cosmic struggle between Satan and God, that Satan and God are
co-equals and that the outcome of that cosmic struggle is therefore by
no means pre-determined.

Another view – the one I grew up with alongside my Jehovah’s
Witness grandmother – is that Satan is the author of evil, contends
with God for the loyalty of humankind, but is not co-equal in power
with God. In this view, the basis of many so-called “millennial
religions,” God has limited the time in which Satan can do his
worst. At the end of that time, in the battle called Armageddon,
Archangel Michael will utterly defeat Satan, destroy him once and for
all, and Christ will reign over an earthly paradise in which no spark
of evil remains.

This explains the existence of evil satisfactorily to a lot of
people. It maintains God as superior in power to Satan. God could have
flicked Satan away at any time, but, not wanting to seem to take
unfair advantage, gives him his run for awhile. Of course, if one is
among the billions who have suffered vile and unspeakable evils since
the advent of humankind, it is of little comfort to contemplate that
it will all be over in a millennium or so.

religious liberals will have none of the above and seem to be in
agreement that evil has nothing to do with nature. Natural events
often do things which are, to us, terrible, but they are not evil. And
we Unitarian Universalists are in agreement that evil is not
supernatural. There is no Evil One walking to and fro in the earth
doing his worst in the waning of his time. We agree, we
non-traditional folk, that evil is awesome in its destructiveness. But
its origins and sustenance, we insist, are human.

And, most liberals maintain that evil is individual. Evil, they
say, is in the individual heart or, more intellectually, psychological
or psycho-social. Most people responding to my survey said, in various
ways, that they don’t believe that evil is something “out
there.” That’s an idea too “supernatural” for

Here’s an interesting comment on that, written by Lance Morrow
in Time magazine several years ago: “Is it possible,” Morrow
asks, “that evil is a problem that is more intelligently
addressed outside the religious context of God and Satan?”
“Perhaps,” Morrow says. “For some [though] that takes
the drama out of the discussion and dims it down to a paler shade of

liberals do prefer to keep everything safely inside our heads, even
evil. Better that than for evil to be something out there, something
that can get us, that can drag us in, overwhelm us. We want no truck
with gods and devils. We want to be able to control our lives and the
lives of others.

Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s Prime Minister as the nightmare
of World War Two began to form, came from a long line of British
Unitarians. He inhabited an age bristling with pride in all things
human. Nature was going to be controlled by human engineers, including
human nature. Reason, once laid out richly and beautifully in the
presence of our enemies, would bring even the most brutish to the
table, finding their place, minding their manners. Chamberlain went to
Germany and sat down with the devil. “Look here old man,” he
said, and proceeded to sweet reason with Adolf Hitler. Then back he
went back to England and announced to cheering crowds that he had
achieved an agreement with Hitler that guaranteed “Peace in our

Poor Mr. Chamberlain. He didn’t have a clue about evil.
England would have been better off sending a Lutheran. Chamberlain
could not penetrate the depth of the evil. All smiles, polite, with
proper demeanor the devil danced him about and led him into eternal

Unitarians and Universalists have never had an adequate theology
of evil. The Unitarians have thought it something individual, amenable
to reason, to “doctoring,” to social engineering. Good
people do bad things, we thought, because they are hungry, angry,
sick, ignorant, or stupid. Feed them, soothe them, teach them and cure
them, and evil will disappear from society. It’s as if we never
saw all the over-fed, happy, brilliant people who spread evil over
human beings like a pall over coffins.

Universalists lived in the care of an eternally-loving God. They have
believed that, since God is good, God will not forever allow humankind
to suffer evil. Evil does exist, they admitted, but God uses evil to
teach us and the more we learn, the more we will be free of it. The
soul-splitting denouement of all this miscalculation and denial of
evil was, of course, the Holocaust. The Holocaust turned the
naïveté? of liberal theology and of early 20th century
social optimism on its ear. Such evil as this could not be absorbed as
if it were another heaven-sanctioned learning experience. So foul, so
thick and bottomless, was this evil as to suck forever beneath the
surface any notion of the natural progression of goodness.

Holocaust put to rest the faintest of progressive hopes that evil is
merely personal, merely individual, mere aberration. Evil swept human
beings up like pebbles and poured them into the torchlight square at
Nuremberg. From there they marched out to slaughter millions and to
begin a “Thousand year Reich.”

To deny that evil is–that evil is “out there–” is to
suppose that anyone could have been born into that time and not have
been tainted by it, somehow damned by it; to deny that we are born
into evil is to suppose that one can be born into a dominant race and
not be infected by racism, or born into a dominant gender and not be
corrupted by patriarchy.

What child in this era, born into television violence, the
glorification of abuse rapped into so-called music, arcade, and
computer so-called “games,” born into a paranoid populace
with a gun-toting culture– what child born into all that is not born
into original sin, into evil–and is just as likely as not to take a
rifle and slaughter his schoolmates?

said that Unitarian Universalists have not had an adequate theology of
evil until this morning. Do I have a solution to the problem of evil?
Of course not. But I do have a version of original sin that takes evil
seriously without forcing us to entertain gods and angels. Evil, I
insist, is not something merely individual to be evolved, socialized,
or psychologized out of us. And yes, I say yes, we are born into

forebears knew that experientially and told the story of Adam and Eve,
in whose fall “we sinned all,” as a metaphor to explain the
evil they knew they contended with. And I suggest that there is a
sense in which we inherit the sins of our forebears. Every destructive
act of every human being remains fixed in the world justified,
institutionalized, weighting down our predilection to good and giving
help and ease to every impulse to destroy.

Apostle Paul summed it up when he wrote, “The evil that I would
not do, that I do; the good that I would do, that I do not.” And
Shakespeare, that poetic parent of social psychology, wrote in Julius
Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft
interred in their bones.”

I think of one of my favorite old science fiction movies. I believe
it’s called “Forbidden Planet.” An expedition from earth
is being decimated by an invisible force. It turns out that the race
that inhabited this planet had so perfected their technology that they
had evolved away the necessity for bodies, for material form. What
they had not counted on was the lingering persistence of their violent
psyches, long after their bodies were gone. The evil they did lived
after them and continued to destroy what came within its

Surely it is foolhardy to deny the reality of evil and to insist
upon some pure freedom to decide when we know that each of us is born
into a society and culture built thought by thought, deed by deed,
sense by sense with every foul thought, deceit and deed of every
equally hapless being who preceded us.

Can we think those two children who shot down their teacher and their
classmates had nothing standing between them and their deeds than
their own sweet reason and freedom of choice? That all they had to do
was decide between right and wrong?

By no means.

Each thought, each step, each act to the finish was encouraged as
if by a demon at their elbows by the culture of violence into which
they were born and by which they were nurtured. So, then, was it not
their fault? The devil made them do it? Are they not responsible? No,
the devil didn’t make them do it. Their acts were their fault,
their own doing. They are responsible. But when we recognize the
reality of evil, the evil that we do that lives after us, then we
recognize that none of us is innocent. Each of us participates in evil
and perpetuates it as surely as we breathe the air we are born

What difference is made by accepting this doctrine of evil?

has the advantage of allowing us to take evil seriously–as a force to
be contended with that exists in the world–without having to admit of
Satan and a horde of devils. That recognition may strip us of that
liberal naïveté? that eagerly and hopefully turns a blind
eye and sends an ambassador to appease evil in the silly conviction
that it will not now harm our children.

cannot save ourselves or our children from destroying or being
destroyed by thinking good thoughts, living by the golden rule, saying
please and thank you and being all that we mean by being good. We live
immersed in evil, the power of the destructive, and unless we struggle
against it, unless we do what lies within our power to do to bring
about change and make a difference we will, inevitably, fall victim to

It’s not enough to teach children that guns are dangerous when
we allow our representatives to play politics with gun laws. It is not
enough to teach our children conflict management and allow them to sit
transfixed before hour after hour of literally mind-numbing violence.
It is not enough to teach our children honesty when dishonesty is a
way of life in just about every adult endeavor.

We know as much in our time as the Shadow knew about the evil that
lurks in the human heart. Invisibility is not required. It’s right
out in the open. The great 16th century Protestant Reformationist,
Martin Luther, was a tad too crass for some people’s liking. His
Table Talk writings were spattered with scatology and body-part
language. But he took evil seriously and dealt with it

one story, Satan in all his smelly horned and web-footed ugliness came
one night crawling through Luther’s study window. Luther showed
him his “hind parts”–that is, he “mooned” the
devil–and threw an inkpot at him. The evil in which we must live our
lives must come to be as familiar to us as Old Stinky was to Luther,
and our dealing with it must be as direct.

do not struggle helplessly. Just as every destructive act from the
dawn of our time has contributed to the evil in which we live, so has
every act of goodness, every selfless act, and the teaching and
example of every ordinary and extraordinary saint, contributed to the
existence of that in the world which we call The Good. Recognizing
that both good and evil exist, both good and evil mixed exceeding fine
in our world, our way must be to discern the evil and the good and to
ally ourselves with that which creates, saves, and nurtures.

the Spirit spoke into the human heart, “This day have I set
before you life and death. Therefore, choose life.”