Causes of Evil

And Three Ways Grace Frees us

By Christopher Schwinger

Our philosophy of evil matters to how we live our lives. Is evil real or an illusion which scares us into thinking it's real? Are there traceable causes or is it a spontaneous and irrational thing? Is evil allowed by God or caused by God? The answers to these questions aren't always simple, nor entirely satisfactory. In the simple Biblical promises which we're taught to memorize, these questions aren't supposed to matter, because we are supposed to trump our feelings with our mind and just give mental reinforcement to our faith in God's written promises. The main promise is that He won't abandon us, but it often feels like He is abandoning us when we are facing a recalcitrant situation which will not bend to our desires. Even though we put forth all our effort to turn those bad situations into good ones, they frequently don't change. Natural disasters and accidents can be simply attributed to a sinful, death-ridden world where even God's beautiful creatures and natural forces are capable of great destruction. It takes faith, but it's theologically possible to believe God made the world good but sin from Adam and Eve made it imperfect. It's human evil which is more complicated, as we see great complexity in ourselves and other people. If so-and-so is good in this way, how can he have done this cruel thing? Why doesn't this friend listen to me on this subject matter, just on every other subject matter? How do I know God is better than these other people, and how do I make a difference in other people when they close off their hearts? These are important questions, and I think it's helpful to group evil into three categories: selfishness/the sin nature, ignorance, and pain.

Evil and the Sin Nature
The sin nature aspect of human evil is the one which is most often talked about. The lust of the eyes, flesh, and boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16) are about the desire to possess, indulge, and impress. Desires for autonomy, prestige, money, and power all are part of our "sin nature." The basic sin nature in people is why they have to be taught manners instead of being automatically courteous. It's why King Jong-un became psychotic when he was surrounded by sycophants. John Regier, founder of a counseling ministry called Caring for the Heart based in Colorado Springs, classified sin issues into 10: 1) Bitterness, 2) Temporal values (success as more important than relationships), 3) Rebellion, 4) Pride, 5) Pain from physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse, 6) Moral failure (sexual), 7) Ground given to the enemy (occult), 8) Hypocrisy, 9) Negative thought patterns, and 10) Evil for evil relationship (vengeance). I think that is an effective way to get specific about what sin issues are going on. All except for pain (#5) are attitudes which start from within us. They, and the trio in 1 John 2:16, fall under the bracket of "selfishness/sin nature," which I think is just one of three factors in understanding evil and how to respond to it. The two others are pain (which is in Regier's list) and ignorance.

Evil and Ignorance
Ignorance is not itself sin, but it leaves us susceptible to sin. I saw the loss of innocence in my classmates as they moved into high school, and it seemed to happen very quickly. It is probably because of the entertainment influences of music, television, the internet, and movies. They weren't morally equipped to discern the danger of those cultural influences. Ignorance left them weak, like having a weak immune system which makes you susceptible to disease. You could say they were sick already because they didn't have spiritual defenses, but you could also say sin doesn't become a full reality until it is borne out in actions, like Judas Iscariot and the Jewish leaders whose judgment by God was consummated after they put Him to death. Jesus says in John 9:41, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." If you admit your ignorance, there's hope for you and God doesn't count it as sin. Paul shares this view in Romans 4:15 and 5:13 by saying God's law exists to show people right and wrong, but also makes them more accountable after it's revealed. Jesus said so in John 15:22-25 as well. The greater the revelation, the greater the judgment, in general, just as Jesus had said about "to whom much is given, much will be required" (Luke 12:48). This naturally makes us want answers for who's to blame if God didn't provide a way for someone to hear the Gospel in a way that made sense to them, but I believe God has no better option if He is going to give us the privilege of having moral responsibility. If He consistently supernaturally involved Himself in affairs when the people who could do something about them did not, then we'd believe in Him just out of fear and would also be less inclined to take those risks which make our spiritual journeys meaningful.

Evil and Pain
Pain is a much bigger reason for people being opposed to God than ignorance. It also was the great test which Jesus passed in His Passion. Selfishness (the sin nature we're born with) is the reason many people ignore the Gospel when it's presented to them when they feel satisfied already without it. Ignorance is something even Jesus had until He was taught the Old Testament as He grew up, but He didn't have the ability to sin, so it was a non-issue. But He did have the ability to suffer, and pain was the most meaningful challenge He overcame. God created the world, foreknowing what He'd later endure in His Passion. He gave mankind a special kind of individuality and choice which would make relationships meaningful, even though He knew only a small percentage of people would have that relationship. The pain which Jesus endured in Gethsemane was, in my opinion, the hardest part, emotionally speaking (not physically, which came at the scourging and crucifixion), because He kept resisting the urge to escape before the events would unfold. The discipline He showed has been an inspiration to me no matter how tough my own emotional struggles with God's silence are.

None of these three causes of evil are "easy" to overcome, because it takes discipline to become proactively educated, to start thinking like Jesus did about spiritual values (instead of selfishly), and to overcome doubts about God in the midst of pain. I think pain is the hardest to overcome, though, based on personal experience. It is also the one Jesus faced which makes it more meaningful to me. A combination of these three factors (selfishness, ignorance, and pain) is behind any faith struggle. Christian apologists such as Gary Habermas, who are frequently debating skeptics, have concluded that it's mainly emotional factors which keep those skeptics from believing. A lot of the famous atheist skeptics had struggles with personal pain relating to parents, and C. S. Lewis became an atheist more because of his mom dying and dad responding angrily to it than even because of the carnage of WWI. As I learned on a fantastic PBS documentary called The Question of God, which compares Lewis to Freud, Lewis's father threatened to close house and send the kids to America after his wife died. C. S. Lewis would wake up in the night and fear that his dad and brother had gone off to America without him. It was that fear of abandonment which made it incredibly hard for Lewis to find faith later.

The next time you, or I, are involved in a conversation with someone about faith, be sure to remember these factors. Sometimes the logically-minded people who specialize in apologetics think it's about dismantling Darwin and proving the infallibility of the Bible, and that's probably the best way to deal with large groups. Personal pain is frequently concealed when a person gives reasons for why he/she doesn't believe in God, but it's often a factor still. The reason people call themselves "spiritual" but "lapsed churchgoers" is often personal pain with the church in the past. Not that this is always a legitimate excuse, since no one is perfect, including themselves or other churchgoers, but it needs to be considered when we talk to them.

Evangelism requires a lot of thoughtfulness and patience. Over time, I've become more sympathetic than I even already was (and I always have been) to those people who try to live decent lives but don't know about the amazing grace of God. It's not something we have to beat ourselves up about when we don't talk about it frequently, but it's something we should feel a longing to share about, and a readiness to open up about. And we should never assume that it's just because the person willfully rejects God until we get to know that person in depth. Sometimes people who have anti-God sentiments, like some of the things Ted Turner has said, are speaking about God as if He's like their human authorities who hurt them. We define God by how our human authorities were until His Spirit helps supersede that in our hearts, which can take a long time. Just as the journey away from selfishness, ignorance, or pain is never entirely complete, we will continue to struggle until we meet Him in heaven with our perception of God. But the beauty of it is that as ignorance gives way to knowledge, selfishness gives way to kindness, and pain gives way to freedom, we become literally unshackled and don't have to define ourselves by our struggles. We instead look for the meaning God has already given us, the truth of God which is outside of us but perceptible to us, rather than seeking to redefine ourselves to escape from agony. This is what makes grace amazing.

Published 4-24-17