Wrestling with Meaning in the Face of Evil

Bad theology leads to terrible conclusions when trying to deal with evil.

We Americans are grieving again over another mass shooting. A few weeks ago it was a shooting in Las Vegas into a crowd of concert-goers, for which we still have very few answers. Last weekend it was a man who killed 26 worshippers on a Sunday morning, including children and a pregnant woman. Amidst the scramble for facts – who, how, when, etc. – is the scramble for “why?” We inevitably and quickly search for some kind of reason or meaning for these acts of evil, and very rarely do talking-heads provide any real guidance in the hours following a mass kill event like these. Social media even less.

Searching for reasons and meaning in the face of real evil is hard to do, and if your theology is bad to begin with, your job is harder than it needs to be.

By in large our culture is pushing itself away from the Judeo-Christian tradition that formed it, thus losing much of its inherited theology. And before you dismiss “theology” as just church-talk about God, theology has always included the study of human nature and human behavior. An experienced theologian can tell you a lot about the workings of human behavior.

Good theology helps us interpret several realities that seem clear on the face of things, beginning with the corruption that rests inside of every human heart. Christian theologians call it something like “total depravity” or “original sin”, but those terms stand in for a fact we all personally experience – we are all capable of rotten things, some of us of profoundly destructive things. The denial of the doctrine of original sin has led to some of history’s greatest mental gymnastics, and even some of history’s greatest evils. When pundits and social media rants scurry for meaning when evil occurs, it turns out the theologian has been standing in the room for 2 millennia saying, “It is the human heart.” Take away the guns and they will rent trucks. Take away the trucks and they will use pressure-cookers and nails. Take those away and they will use kitchen knives and hammers. Take the latest tool of mass destruction out of a human’s hand, and evil will still well up from within their hearts. Talking about sin is not a cop-out, it is an explanation.

John Cassian wrote in his Institutes about 1600 years ago, “Hence it is very clear that disturbing urges are not always aroused in us by other people’s faults. Rather, we are to blame – we who have stored up within ourselves the causes of our offenses and the seeds of our vices that, when the rain shower of temptation drenches our mind, at once break forth into buds and fruits.” This is significant psychological insight we are losing as a culture because we seem to be no longer capable of talking about how sin works.

The cop-out begins when people whose worldviews can’t understand evil, begin to pray to gods who cannot deal well with evil. One of the recent trends in the last three or four mass shootings has been the public mockery of those who pray in the face of evil. It is an ironic mockery, given that those same people often link to their latest political policy punditry with the declaration, “if you don’t support this legislation, you are on the side of the killers!” It is irony because it is prayer – prayer to multi-headed hydra in Washington D.C. utterly incapable of dealing with the human heart.

Our politics, policies, and (God knows) our politicians need to be better. But it should be obvious to people of reason that just because something is illegal does not mean it will never happen again, so it is fool’s gold to assume that new illegalities will magically stop all our new evils. Laws declare things evil, or wrong, or harmful, or against a culture’s intended behaviors. A just society has good laws. But laws don’t change the nature of even a single human heart. Good laws are a necessary condition for a just society, but not a sufficient condition. Good people make up the fabric of a just society; laws don’t make people just.

Only God does that.

So the church will continue to pray no matter how much mockery it brings from the worshipers of other idols. The church will continue to meet openly with their doors open to all comers, proclaiming the gospel. In turn, the gospel will continue to make a deep and lasting difference in the hearts and lives of those who encounter it.

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