On Sunday afternoon, April 29th, 2007, my wife and I went to a mall in Kansas City to shop at the Target store. A few minutes later, we found ourselves running for our lives in terror, as semi-automatic gunfire echoed behind us. A man came into the mall with a rifle and began shooting people at random. At first, we didn't know what was happening. Crowds of people ran by us in silence, with stunned looks on their faces. Then we heard loud gun shots, and everyone panicked. People were screaming and falling over each other to escape. It felt like a scene from a movie. When it was all over, 4 people (including the gunman) were dead and several more injured. My wife and I made it out safely. But I suffered from insomnia, nightmares, and irrational paranoia for months after. I had an undeniable encounter with evil.
Some people think "evil" is too strong a word to describe certain acts of violence or injustice; that is until something like Newton, CT, or 9/11 happens to them. Then they know evil is real, because they've experienced it. But we can only rightly call something "evil," or "wrong," if we live in a particular type of universe — a universe in which God exists.
Around the same time as the mall shooting, I was studying Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality for one of my philosophy classes. In the book — which is considered by some scholars to be Nietzsche's masterpiece — he essentially argues that compassion is useless, and cruelty is natural and good. His argument is that humans originally evolved as brutally selfish animals — that is our natural state. Only later did religion — Christianity in particular — begin to artificially deem things like humility, compassion, and charity as "good," and selfishness, brutality, and indifference as "bad." Oppressed groups, such as the poor, sick, and enslaved, latched on to these religious ideas out of ressentiment toward their aristocratic oppressors, and as a survival tactic — a way to make the rich and powerful feel guilty and stop oppressing them. Nietzsche sees this religious reversal of values — of calling oppression "bad" and compassion "good" — as a corrupting poison that has overtaken civilization, and Christianity as its ultimate source. Says Nietzsche:
This Jesus of Nazareth, as the embodiment of the gospel of love, this ‘redeemer’ bringing salvation and victory to the poor, the sick, to sinners – was he not seduction in its most sinister and irresistible form...? ...The “salvation” of the human race (I mean, from “the Masters") [i.e. the powerful] is well on course; everything is being made appreciably...Christian or plebeian... The passage of this poison [of Christian values] through the whole body of mankind seems unstoppable.
According to Nietzsche, therefore, the values that many of us hold dear — values of human equality, compassion, and self-sacrifice — are nothing more than a pathetic attempt on the part of the weak to control the powerful. He thus deems values like compassion and charity as "slave morality," and values such as selfishness and brutality as noble "Master morality." In other words, for Nietzsche there is no such thing as "good" and "evil," only power and weakness. And it is only the powerful who have the right to decide what is "good."
Nietzsche is right........
......if there is no God.
After the mall shooting (which, incidentally, occurred only two weeks after the Virginia Tech massacre), my faith was shaken to the core. The random nature of the event absolutely eviscerated any false sense of security I had developed growing up as a Christian. I lied awake many nights after, questioning God's goodness, his power, even his existence. Nietzsche's words ran through my mind, and chilled me to the bone. "What if he's right?" I thought.
Then, one night, something frightening happened. Lying there in the dark, I suddenly felt a cold loneliness. Only this was not your typical loneliness. I felt as though I was completely alone in the universe. Then, a sudden falling, almost shrinking sensation of dreadful insignificance and fear; I felt like an ant crawling on some obscure rock floating through the ocean of space beyond my control, destined to perish in a relatively short time. It was a feeling that there is nothing more to reality than particles floating in a dark void. It was the overwhelming sensation that I was trapped in the gears of a dead and mechanical universe in which, as atheist Richard Dawkins has described, there is "no good and no evil, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." I felt that life was a cruel and nightmarish joke; that all the beauty and wonder of the world — love, freedom, music, hope — it was all an illusion, and in reality nothing more than the accidental by-product of mindless and purposeless processes of nature. I began to feel suffocated and uneasy, even panicky. What I was feeling, perhaps for the first time in my life, was total and absolute despair. I got a brief glimpse into the abyss, and I shuddered.
But there was one thing I could not deny, even amidst all my doubts, and it was this: the shooting was unquestionably, unequivocally wrong. It was not merely something I disliked, or that seemed unfitting in a free society, it was objectively wrong — cosmically wrong. It was something that ought never to happen; something that violently opposed the way things ought to be. This reality weighed on me in a more concrete and tangible way than even the existential dread I had been feeling. And it eventually lead me back to the conclusion that God must exist. C.S. Lewis explains the reasoning better than I could:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? ...If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.
If you believe that there is anything that "ought not to be," if you believe, for example, that the Holocaust was evil, no matter what the Nazis thought; or that slavery is wrong, despite what slave traders and their "customers" might say; or that Joseph Kony's crimes against children are a moral abomination, even if everyone else in the world were to approve of it; if you believe anything like that, then you should conclude that God exists. To say something "ought not to be" implies there is a way things ought to be. But, if there is no God, then there is no "way things ought to be" — there is only the way things are. And you may like or dislike the way things are, but you cannot say they ought to be different. In a purposeless universe, you can never get the ought from the is. If there is no God, then the universe has no objective purpose; it's ultimately just particles floating in a dark void. If that is true, then there can never be such thing as objective "evil" or "good." There is only power and weakness, as Nietzsche argued; and the word "evil" really has no meaning.
Here's a summary of the argument:
- If the universe has no objective purpose, then objective evil does not exist.
- The universe has objective purpose, only if God exists.
- Therefore, if God does not exist, then objective evil does not exist.
- But objective evil exists.
- Therefore, God exists.
Keep in mind, the argument I'm offering here only shows that, logically speaking, evil is evidence for God's existence, rather than evidence against it. But that does nothing to mollify the existential problem of evil — the emotional issue of how a good God could allow evil and suffering. That is a legitimate problem that took me several more years to work out (and I'm still working it out). I will share that part of my journey toward the end of this blog series. So, stay tuned.
1. One can believe in good and evil without believing in God. Of course you can believe in evil and God's non-existence. The question is whether or not that is a rationally coherent belief. I don't think it is, and I've provided an argument showing how: in a purposeless universe, there is no "way things ought to be," there is only the way things are. "Ought" implies purpose — without objective purpose, you can have no "ought." It would be like saying "A rock ought to be used as a paper weight." Because a rock has no objective purpose, we cannot say it ought to be used in any particular way. We can use it however we want. There is no misuse of a rock. But a hammer, on the other hand, in fact ought to be used a certain way, because it has an objective purpose that was bestowed on it by its creator. It's possible to misuse a hammer, by violating its purpose. If the universe is like the rock, with no objective purpose, then we can never get an objective ought. The is-ought problem is well known (and broadly accepted) among philosophers. I'm simply repeating (and agreeing with) what Hume, Nietzsche, Russell, Camus, Sartre and many other great atheist philosophers have already said. If you think evil can exist in a purposeless universe, then you need to provide an argument showing how. Good luck.
2. Nietzsche was right, there is no evil. So your whole argument is irrelevant. While it is at least rationally consistent to admit that if there is no God, then there is no such thing as good or evil, no one actually lives that way. Everyone acts as though there is a real right and wrong, no matter what they say they believe. Even Hitler, someone who seemed to embody Nietzsche's philosophy more than anyone, was at least partially motivated out of a (warped) sense of justice. Hitler and the Nazis thought the Treaty of Versailles imposed unjust restrictions on Germany after World War I. This fueled their sense of revenge and self-righteousness. So, even the Nazis were not acting solely out of "blind pitiless indifference." To say there is no such thing as evil is to live without integrity, because everyone acts as though there is such a thing as evil. Those that claim there isn't will inevitably experience dissonance, self-conflict, and frustration. They will not be whole; they will be at war with themselves (hence, without integrity), because what they say they believe will be in conflict with how they live.
3. If evil exists, then it is either part of God, or he must have created it. Therefore, God is evil. This objection stems from a misunderstanding of the Christian concept of evil. Evil is not something that exists in itself, like an atom, or gravity — it is not a created thing, nor is it an original thing. Rather, evil is the absence, or aberration of good; similar to how darkness is the absence of light, and cancer is the aberration of functioning cells. According to the biblical narrative, God created the physical universe and everything in it (including us) to work together with interconnected harmony (shalom) — what we recognize as "the way things ought to be." Evil is the disruption of that harmony. It is neither a part of God, nor a creation of God's. So, this objection might hold true for dualistic religions, but not for biblical Christianity.
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Note: This article was updated on June 6, 2013 to clarify and elaborate certain points, and to address some good questions I received privately from friends.
*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the Introduction, if you haven't already. Thanks!
1. Keith Ansell-Pearson (ed.) and Carol Diethe (trans.), On the Genealogy of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 18-19.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 1952), pp. 38-39.