The nature of evil: Reflections on an age-old question

Theologians have pondered the nature of evil for centuries. Why do men and women commit heinous crimes and acts of terror? Are they innately evil, or do they learn to be evil? Is evil the work of human beings or the work of the devil? And if there’s a God, where is God in the midst of the horror?

Psychiatrists have started ranking evil deeds according to degrees of heinousness. Psychiatrist Michael Stone of Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons developed a 22-level hierarchy of evil behavior based on detailed biographies of more than 500 violent criminals. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at New York University School of Medicine, has worked on a “depravity scale” to measure the heinousness of crimes – a scale he hopes will serve as a guideline for judges and juries at the sentencing phase of trial.

However one measures evil, it is a topic that challenges religion scholars, theologians and ordinary people of faith. Today many ask whether God is all-powerful, given that people manage to hurt each other and commit collective atrocities on a daily basis. 

These are not just lofty theological matters. Measuring evil has ramifications for psychological treatment; for criminal justice, including the death penalty; and for human rights policy, such as when it is imperative to intervene. Notions about evil shape sermons, Scripture study and Sunday school teaching.

Why it matters

Evil may have more news pegs than any other religion story, from genocide and terrorism to domestic violence or horrific crimes committed by people in positions of trust. The way scholars and religious leaders understand evil can help illuminate how people respond to it.

The idea of theodicy has been central to religious debate. Theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the idea of God as good and omnipotent with the existence of evil in the world. Theodicy has been prevalent in philosophical discussions for centuries. It became particularly prominent in religious discussion after the Holocaust.

Questions for reporters

  • How has thinking about the nature of evil changed in recent years among theologians and scholars of religion? How have religious leaders changed the way they preach and teach about evil over time?
  • How do ordinary people make sense of evil acts, and how do they reconcile evil with their religious beliefs?
  • Among Christians, some believe God is in full control of actions on Earth and believe that Satan lives among us. Others do not believe in a literal Satan character. How are the beliefs of these groups challenged by acts of evil? Are people in either group shifting their views?
  • How do different religions understand evil? What do nonbelievers say about evil? How do people’s ideas about evil affect how they respond to acts of evil they see in their daily life or through media reporting?
  • Does it make sense to rank acts of evil? Should prison sentences be based on such rankings?
  • What are children and teens – who see media coverage of crimes, war and terrorism – being taught about evil in houses of worship?

Background

  • Stanford Prison Experiment

    See the website for the Stanford Prison Experiment, a classic simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment conducted at Stanford University in 1971. Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo wanted to see under what conditions ordinary people — in this case, volunteers who agreed to play guards or prisoners — would perceive others as less than human and abuse them. The site includes a slide show.

  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Problem of Evil

    Read “The Problem of Evil” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Catholic Encyclopedia: Evil

    See the entry on evil in the Catholic Encyclopedia, posted at New Advent.

Articles

  • “Evildoers and Us”

    Read a September 11, 2011 essay on the problem of evil, written by Alan Wolfe and published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

  • “Simply Evil”

    Read “Simply Evil,” a Sept. 5, 2011, column by Christopher Hitchens at Slate.com written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

  • “Is Religion Evil?”

    Read a July 23, 2011, column by Ken Chitwood about evil in the aftermath of the July 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, posted on the website of the Houston Chronicle.

  • “From Hitler to Mother Teresa: 6 Degrees of Empathy”

    Read a June 13, 2011, New York Times review of British scholar Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. See also an excerpt of the book.

  • “The Problem of Evil”

    Listen to a 12-minute American Public Media audio segment on “The Problem of Evil” from Feb. 15, 2002.

  • “Nature of Evil”

    Listen to a National Public Radio segment on the nature of evil from April 8, 1999.

  • “For the Worst of Us, the Diagnosis May Be Evil”

    Read a Feb. 8, 2005, New York Times article posted by the web site s8int.com about how the scientific world approaches the concept of evil.

Books

National sources

  • Roy F. Baumeister

    Roy F. Baumeister is a professor and Francis Eppes Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He is the author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty.

  • Terry Eagleton

    Terry Eagleton, a noted British scholar and cultural theorist, is currently distinguished professor of english literature at Lancaster University. His books include On Evil (2010), which examines ideas about evil through the lenses of literature, religion and psychoanalysis.

  • Charles Kimball

    Charles Kimball is Presidential Professor and director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs, and his most recent book is When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (April 2011).

  • Elaine Pagels

    Elaine Pagels is the author of the best-selling Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003) and a professor of religion at Princeton University. She has written a number of well-received books on gnosticism, an early Christian movement considered heretical, and early Christianity. Additionally, she is the author of  The Origin of Satan (1996).

  • Samuel Newlands

    Samuel Newlands is assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and co-director of a four-year research initiative there titled “The Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought.” He teaches a graduate-level seminar at Notre Dame on evil and previously taught a class at Yale University on free will, God and evil..

  • Michael C. Rea

    Michael C. Rea is a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame and director of its Center for Philosophy of Religion. He co-directs “The Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought,” a four-year research initiative at the university, and is co-editor of a book of essays titled Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (2011).

  • Ervin Staub

    Ervin Staub is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and founding director emeritus of its doctoral program on the psychology of peace and the prevention of violence. He has written several books about evil, including The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Others and Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict and Terrorism (2010).

  • Michael Stone

    Dr. Michael Stone, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, has been called “the Einstein of Evil.” Stone developed a “Gradations of Evil Scale” for ranking homicides and was host of the Discovery Channel’s series Most Evil from 2006 to 2008. His books include The Anatomy of Evil (2009).

  • James E. Waller

    James E. Waller is the Cohen Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire and author of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing (Oxford University Press, 2002).

    Contact: 603-358-2490.
  • Brannon Wheeler

    Brannon Wheeler is director at the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He co-edited the Historical Dictionary of Prophets in Islam and Judaism. He has said that the Quran does not take a moral view of good and evil, but rather views the terms in relationship to people’s obedience to God’s commands.

  • Daryl Koehn

    Daryl Koehn is a professor of business ethics and director of the Center for Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic school in Houston. 

    Koehn is the author of The Nature of Evil. She has found that suffering, not malicious cruelty, lies at the heart of evil. Suffering results in lashing out at other people to shore up false identities. She expects to see less scholarship on the theological question of why God allows evil to exist and more interest in the philosophical question about whether evil has a nature or essence. She believes it’s dangerous to rank evil behavior.

International sources

  • Simon Baron-Cohen

    Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in Britain. His research interests include empathy, and he is the author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (May 2011).

  • John G. Stackhouse Jr.

    John G. Stackhouse Jr. is professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and the author of Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. His essay “Billy Graham and the Nature of Conversion: A Paradigm Case” is included in his book Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Richard Bernstein

    Richard Bernstein, philosophy professor at New School University in New York, is the author of Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation and The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11.

  • Andrew Delbanco

    Andrew Delbanco is director of American studies at Columbia University in New York City and the author of The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil.

     

  • Jack Levin

    Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology and co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflictat Northeastern University in Boston, has written about domestic terrorism, hate crimes, youth violence, ethnic conflict and mass and serial murder.

  • Jacob Neusner

    Jacob Neusner, professor of theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., co-edited Altruism in World Religions. He is the author of scores of books on Rabbinic Judaism and has encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Judaism and its texts. Neusner says altruism is best studied as a religious, not a secular, impulse. He is the editor of Evil and Suffering.

  • John E. Thiel

    John E. Thiel is a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., and the author of God, Evil and Innocent Suffering: A Theological Reflection.

  • Emilie M. Townes

    Emilie M. Townes is professor of womanist ethics and society at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. She is an ordained Baptist clergywoman. She is an expert on Christian ethics, womanist theology, health care and economic justice and is behind the divinity school’s Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative program.

  • Michael Welner

    Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist at New York University School of Medicine, is founder of the Forensic Panel, which is developing a standardized “depravity scale” to determine whether specific crimes reflect depraved intent, actions and/or attitudes.

In the South

  • Marilyn McCord Adams

    Marilyn McCord Adams is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has written extensively about the problem of evil, including two books on the topic: Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God and Christ and Horrors: the Coherence of Christology.

  • David Blumenthal

    David Blumenthal is a professor of Judaic studies at the Tam Institute of Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. He is the author of two seminal books on Jewish mysticism, God at the Center: Meditations on Jewish Spirituality and Understanding Jewish Mysticism. Additionally, he is the author of The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition. He notes that both perpetrators and rescuers often say they were just doing what was expected of them.

  • Hannah Decker

    Hannah Decker is a University of Houston history professor and a scholar of German history. She teaches graduate seminars on Nazi Germany and has co-taught a course on the history of evil.

  • John Donelson Ross Forsyth

    John Donelson Ross Forsyth holds the Colonel Leo K. and Gaylee Thorsness Chair in Ethical Leadership at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies of the University of Richmond and teaches a course in the psychology of good and evil.

  • Charles Mathewes

    Charles Mathewes, University of Virginia associate professor of religious studies, has written about evil and the Augustinian tradition and on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hannah Arendt. He says that since 9/11, there has been a “rehabilitation” of the idea that evil is a workable part of a healthy moral and religious worldview. His publications include (as co-editor) Religion, Law and the Role of Force: A Study of Their Influence on Conflict and on Conflict Resolution.

  • Anthony B. Pinn

    Anthony B. Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. He has been critical of the prosperity gospel preached in some black megachurches for its lack of emphasis on community service and charity. He is the author of Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology and editor of Redemptive Suffering: a History of Theodicy in African-American Religious Thought. He also studies African-American religious humanism and is the author of African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod (2004) and By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (2001).

  • Jerome Rosenberg

    Jerome Rosenberg, University of Alabama psychology professor, teaches courses on the Holocaust that examine the dark side of human behavior and the nature of good and evil.

  • Jerry Walls

    Jerry Walls, philosophy of religion professor at Houston Baptist University, has written about making sense of evil and Christian conceptions of God. He is co-editor of The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy (Open Court Press) and co-author of C.S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer: Lessons for a New Century From the Most Influential Apologists (InterVarsity Press, 1998).

In the Midwest

  • Guy B. Adams

    Guy B. Adams is professor of public affairs in the Harry S Truman School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of the Center on Religion & the Professions at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He is co-author of the award-winning book Unmasking Administrative Evil.

  • Michael Bergmann

    Michael Bergmann is a philosophy professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., whose specializations include the philosophy of religion. He has written about evil and is co-editor of  Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham (2011).

  • Barry Bryant

    Barry Bryant is an associate professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He has written about John Wesley and the origins of evil.

  • Jamsheed K. Choksy

    Jamsheed K. Choksy, Indiana University professor of Central Eurasian studies, history and religious studies, has written about the dissemination of ideas about evil through Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Mithraism and Islam, and the development of moral codes based on good and evil. He sees more scholarship focusing on collective responses to evil and on societal inequities, the consequences of warfare, the rise of fundamentalist groups and the threat posed by terrorists – all shaped by competing claims of good and evil.

  • Wendy Doniger

    Wendy Doniger is a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. She is an expert on the mythology of Hinduism and has written about the origins of evil in Hindu mythology.

  • John S. Feinberg

    John S. Feinberg is chair of the department of biblical and systematic theology and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill. He wrote The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil.

  • Curtis Hancock

    Curtis Hancock, philosophy professor at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., lectures about the problem of evil.

  • R. William Hasker

    R. William Hasker is emeritus professor of philosophy at Huntington University in Huntington, Ind. He wrote The Triumph of God Over Evil: Theodicy for a World of Suffering (2008).

  • Christine Smith

    Christine Smith, professor of preaching at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minn., has written about sin and evil in feminist thought and about preaching as a radical response to evil.

  • Dale Stoffer

    Dale Stoffer is professor of historical theology and academic dean at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio. He says that because of increased interest in spiritual realities due to the growth of a postmodern worldview and charismatic Christianity, scholars are more open to viewing evil as a spiritual force in human affairs.

  • Eleonore Stump

    Eleonore Stump, professor of philosophy at St. Louis University, has written about narrative and the problem of evil, suffering and redemption.

In the West

  • Paul Crowley

    The Rev. Paul Crowley, professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University, has written about evil for the Encyclopedia of Catholicism. Crowley is primarily concerned with how the problem of evil intersects with the problem of suffering. He says today’s scholarship is much more concerned with social and historical forms of evil, such as genocide and AIDS.

  • Stephen T. Davis

    Stephen T. Davis is a professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. He contributed an essay titled “Crucifying Jesus: Antisemitism and the Passion Story” to the collection After ‘The Passion’ is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira, 2004). He is the editor of Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy.

  • Kathleen Sands

    Kathleen Sands, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is the author of Escape from Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology. She says that in the 1970s, with the onset of liberation theology, religious scholars moved from thinking of evil as an absence of the good to viewing sin as forces of oppression and cruelty in the world. Sin and salvation became less individualistic and more collective, and many theologians gave up traditional theistic claims that God is all-powerful.

  • Harold M. Schulweis

    Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis leads Congregation Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif. He is the founder of the Jewish World Watch project, which works to raise awareness in synagogues about the genocide in Darfur. Among the many books he has authored, Evil and the Morality of God is considered a classic.

  • Daniel Howard-Snyder

    Daniel Howard-Snyder is a professor of philosophy at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He wrote the article “Grounds for Belief in God Aside, Does Evil Make Atheism More Reasonable Than Theism?” in the journal Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (2003).

  • Philip Zimbardo

    Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University professor emeritus of psychology, is the author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. He was director of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

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