The following essay was printed in the Allentown Morning Call on May 19. Following the essay, I’ve included my answer to an email I received after the article was published.
No animal kills as human beings do. Though he exhibited no prior mental instability, Sergeant Robert Bales is alleged to have entered two Afghan homes at night and killed 17 sleeping villagers, including women and children.
Marybeth Tinning, who initially confessed to killing three of her children, was eventually convicted of killing one daughter, and is strongly suspected of killing nine of her children between 1972 and 1985. Though perhaps the most notorious mother to murder her children, she is by no means alone, and every fresh instance shocks us.
Joseph Kony, who claims to be possessed by a spirit, has abducted tens of thousands of children to become sex slaves and child soldiers. He frequently kills the families of abducted children, leaving them no choice but to fight for him.
Modern, secular thought struggles to explain such horrendous examples of evil. Since its categories are inadequate, its explanations, though often insightful, fall short. Whenever someone “snaps,” the pundits begin to analyze the person’s family background, psychological profile, genetic predispositions, education and various stresses (including the economy, traumas of war, bullying and the like).
These analyses are often helpful, but they typically ignore the spiritual dimension of life. According to the Bible, two spiritual factors must also be considered. The first is human depravity. Though we are magnificent creatures, made in God’s image, we are fallen, twisted and broken. The wrong things we do may be stimulated by external factors, but the basic problem is inward: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own evil desire” (James 1:14).
This is contrary to the modern notion that human beings are highly evolved animals who are perfectible if they receive the right upbringing, a decent education, and maybe a bit of genetic tinkering.
The other spiritual factor ignored by modern analyses of horrendous evil is the influence of evil spirits. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
I think Joseph Kony’s claim to have a spirit ought to be taken seriously. He may say it is the Holy Spirit, but no one who knows his history ought to doubt it is a devil.
I certainly would not claim that Sergeant Bales was demon possessed, but as the Ephesians passage indicates, ordinary people may be influenced by spiritual forces of wickedness. Unless you are someone like Joseph Kony, it is probably not right to say, “The devil made me do it” (Flip Wilson’s famous line). However, the devil may prey on and magnify our natural weaknesses in order to encourage the worst in us.
When I consider the inhumanity of man to man in the last one hundred years, I think the evidence for vast spiritual forces of evil is incontrovertible. Consider Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, the Kim dynasty in North Korea, and more recently Charles Taylor—the list goes on and on. Brutal dictators have murdered their own people by the hundreds of thousands, sometimes by the tens of millions.
Whether one considers individual atrocities or state-sponsored genocides, we are not like the animal kingdom. A lion kills, eats its fill, and rests. Human beings can be vicious without reason, and apparently without limit. As St. Augustine put it, “There is nothing so social by nature, so anti-social by sin, as man.”
But if the devil is real, then our world is not a closed system. If the modern, naturalistic worldview is inadequate, then the Bible’s account of our world deserves renewed attention. I believe that nothing explains our human condition as well as the biblical picture: Human beings, created innocent by God, have listened to the devil, rebelled against their Maker and can only be redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
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The following is my response to an email from “a humanist” who acknowledged man’s inhumanity to man, but who believes that there is a scientific explanation for human evil.
Thank you for your note regarding my article in last Saturday’s Morning Call. I’m sorry to be so late in responding. I have been out of the office or out of town most of the week.
In my article, I certainly did not intend to minimize “brain function, psychology, genetics, evolution, chemistry or neurology.” I only wanted to indicate that I think them inadequate to explain the human condition. My understanding of the interplay between physical and spiritual factors is more complicated than I could explain in 650 words.
Suppose I walk into the kitchen and I see a kettle of water boiling on the stove. I ask, “Why is the water boiling?” My son, who is a physicist, gives me a detailed explanation of the transformation of electrical energy into heat, the transfer of heat by conduction to the water, and the water’s change of state from a liquid to a gas. Then my wife says, “The water is boiling because I want to make tea.”
Both explanations are entirely correct and complete in their own context, but both contexts need to be included for a more complete explanation of the event. Understanding our human condition requires both a naturalistic and a spiritual context for completeness.
Notice that this is different from a “god-of-the-gaps” explanation. The “god-of-the gaps” idea suggests that we plug God into all the gaps of our knowledge. For example, people used to think that God sent lightning and thunder. Then Benjamin Franklin discovered that lightning is just a big electrical spark, and thunder is the sound that the spark makes. Now that we don’t need God to explain lightning any more, His list of jobs has grown shorter.
A more biblically and theologically satisfying picture of the world is that scientific explanations of events in the world are complete and accurate in their context, but that another context is also needed to make sense of the world. For example, Psalm 104:21 says, “The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God.” Obviously, the psalmist knew that lions hunt for their prey, and that they sometimes go hungry, but he saw the balance of nature as an example of God’s superintending hand. In a more general sense, Colossians 1:17 says that in Christ “all things hold together.” God sustains the orderly and ordinary workings of nature so that we may investigate it with telescopes, microscopes or the Large Hadron Collider.
The need for a spiritual as well as a mechanistic explanation is less obvious in the natural world than it is in human relations, and it is most clear in the cases of extreme evil and exceptional virtue. That is the reason I wrote about the horrific evils of the past century.
I haven’t tried in this brief response to give you any defense of my position. If you are interested, perhaps I can. At any rate, perhaps you will find the foregoing interesting, and if not, thanks anyway for your note.