Through a Lens Darkly
Hell on Wheels: The Grand Dangers of Tiny Sins
Rather than rejecting the notions of good and evil altogether, we are making quantitative judgments about the "sum value" of a pair of conflicting actions: "Telling this lie to my boss is 41 percent Evil, but the ability to support my family that results from concealing my incompetence is 59 percent Good. That's a net gain of 18 percent GOOD!" That sort of judgment—the weighing of good and evil as if on opposite sides of a scale—ignores a fundamental truth: the gravity of a sin does not change the fact of its sinfulness.
Clearly, grave sin damages our relationship with God more deeply than "lesser" sin. Why else would the Church distinguish between mortally and venially sinful? But that distinction must not be seen as an authorization to commit venial sins, nor does it render the need to avoid any and all sin obsolete (1 John 3:1-10). While the gravity of an action might be quantitative, its intrinsic goodness or evilness is not. And if something is qualitatively evil, we must not do it, no matter what quantitative good depends on it.
We humans excel at convincing ourselves that intrinsically evil actions are either not truly evil or somehow do not apply to us. But only slightly less destructive is the ability to assure ourselves that "smallish" evil is acceptable if committed for the sake of some "larger" good. To build upon the paraphrased wisdom of Keyser Söze, while the Devil's greatest trick may be to persuade us that he does not exist, his greatest subversion is to convince us that he just wants to help.
Note: Season Two of "Hell on Wheels" is currently airing on AMC, and Season One is streaming on Netflix. Additionally, Seraphim Falls, the 2006 feature from David Von Ancken can be found on both Crackle and Amazon Prime. As one of "HoW's" executive producers and the director of half a dozen of its episodes, Von Ancken is responsible for many of the show's aesthetic and thematic material. Unsurprisingly, Seraphim Falls and "Hell on Wheels" explore strikingly similar themes.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.