“Axis of evil.”
“That person is evil incarnate!”
“There’s so much evil in our world…”
We flippantly toss that word around, but I’d venture to say that many people don’t stop, for long anyway, to consider where evil comes from. What is the origin of evil? What’s the source? With all the beauty and goodness in the world, how did things go so terribly wrong?
The Judeo-Christian tradition gives us, in the Genesis creation account, a story of the emergence of evil in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2-3). In Christian tradition specifically, that story has come down to us with an appended title, “The Fall of Adam and Eve,” or ‘The Story of Original Sin,” (or some variation thereof).
One traditional interpretation is that God’s pristine, perfect creation was fundamentally disrupted when Adam and Eve chose to disobey and rebel against God. The creature asserted itself against the Creator, disrupted the natural, intended structure, tarnishing creation and humanity. Their sin resulted in the consequence of death (physical and spiritual) as well in the perpetual transmission of sin and its consequences to all subsequent human beings (thus, “original sin,” or “inherited sin”).
This interpretation explains the origin of sin, but not necessarily of evil. It doesn’t answer the question, “But where did the serpent come from?” Wasn’t the serpent part of God’s creation?
To find the origin of evil we would need to look back to the very beginning of disrupted relationship. Evil springs from a disordering of creation.
To draw from Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, this disordering can be described as a “mis-relation”: a three-fold broken relationship of (1) a person to oneself, (2) a person to others, and (3) a person to God.
(Note: Kierkegaard uses a more specific term, “self,” rather than person).
The Genesis creation-fall myth tells us a story about the disordering or disruption of relationship. This disruption effects human psychology and emotional wholeness or lack thereof (the person to oneself), human relationships and sociality (the person to others), and spirituality and the relation of the finite creation to the Creator (“self to God”).
Now let’s add another piece to the puzzle: Ernest Becker’s thesis that at the root of human evil lies the problem of death. Or, more adequately, the problem of the human awareness of death, or our mortality.
Our evolutionary development, impressive as it is, has instilled in us the capacity for awareness not just of the present moment, not just of a present threat to our survival (survival instinct), but also of the consciousness of the inevitability of death. We are acutely aware of the brevity of life and of our precariousness in the face of unforeseen threats. We are painfully aware of our mortality. One pervasive response to this awareness is to erect defenses against those threats: psychological defenses (repression) and physical, tangible defenses–e.g. violence. Our species has a long history of extensive attempts to eliminate or fend off threats (whether actual threats or merely potential threats) around us. We do this in big, newsworthy ways and we do it in subtle ways. But we do it. And in doing it, we participate in evil.
Death-anxiety is a great equalizer in the sense that the evil that springs from it takes many forms–some sadistic and blatantly evil (rape, murder, genocide, etc.), others subtle and sophisticated (the innumerable forms of racial prejudice and economic injustice today), others sanitized and legitimized by the backing of power and privilege (the many devastating effects of the “military industrial complex” of modern democratic nations).
Evil springs forth from the condition most natural to our humanity: death.
But death itself isn’t evil. Evil comes from how we respond to death. Evil happens when we try to overcome death, master it, control it, subdue it, even prevent it. In that attempt to overcome death all by ourselves, we end up with all sorts of disordered relationships: between ourselves and ourselves, ourselves and others, ourselves and God.
There is not obvious easy solution. But the resources of the Christian tradition which describe the root of the problem also offer answers to our problem.
When Jesus was on his way to his own death on the cross, he explained his intentions to his disciples. But Peter couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t accept that the Messiah was going to die. As Matthew tells it,
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” .
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matt. 16:22-23)
Jesus taught his disciples that death is not something to control, not something to manipulate, not even something to avoid at all costs. To think you can control death is to exhibit “merely human concerns.” But Peter had also missed that little important insight in Jesus’ teachings: that after his death, he would be resurrected. Death would ultimately have no hold on him.
In Christian theology, the clue to the overcoming of evil lies in the passion narrative. That Jesus accepted his own death on the cross, but also overcame death through God’s power, offers us hope that our mortality (true though it is) doesn’t mean the end of life. But it’s not up to us to control; that’s up to God.
So we leave it in God’s hands, and focus on the things we can control: the first of which is to love ourselves, love others, and love God.