Thoughts on Evil: Part 13, Horrors & God’s Response

The word evil has become a little like the word love in our age.  It is overused and therefore robbed of its meaning.  We all know, and are probably immediately aware that the word love has lost its weight.  But take note of the frequency of the use of the word evil around you.  A good example of a context in which (in my opinion) the word evil is overused is in the arena of political posturing. It is not enough to simply disagree with our political opponent’s policies.  We need them to be evil.  So listen to Republicans posture and make their case for the ‘evils’ of the Obama Administration.  And listen to Democrats position the sentiments of the Right as maliciously intended – evil.   All the while I feel in my gut a certain voice, a cry.  I can picture the voice coming from a small Jewish boy in a concentration camp saying – “you know not what evil is…”

So what is evil?  And how do we name it?  And what do we call it?

Richard Beck has a great post on why we need the religious language of evil.  I agree.  But in an age when words lose their meaning, we need the creativity to discover new words where old ones are insufficient to jar our sensibilities or pierce our hearts.   I prefer the category and language of Horrors.  

I just read Marilyn McCord Adams’ book “Christ & Horrors”, a fantastic but very scholarly book, where the question is raised, “How is the problem of Horrors answered in the person of Jesus Christ?”

Horrors, Adams defines as “evils the participation in (both the doing or suffering of) which constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could have positive meaning for him/her on the whole.”  That is the emotional jar we need; the jolt of insight we must recover about evil.  We need the language of horrors.  Horrendous things happen in this world.  We cannot psychologize or moralize about them; try as we may, we fail.  Try, for instance to moralize or psychologize about these horrors that Adams presents to us:

the rape of a woman and axing off of her arms

extended and confined psychological torture whose goal is the disintegration of personality

extreme and degenerative schizophrenia

severe clinical depression and/or urges to suicide

cannibalizing one’s own offspring

parental incest

participation in Nazi death camps

explosion of Nuclear Bombs over civilian populated areas

being the accidental and/or unwitting agent in the disfigurement or death of those one loves best

Any attempt to provide a tidy theological answer to these problems feels at once as horrible as the event itself.   Any attempt to create psychological categories for victims or perpetrators feels normalizing.  Any attempt to moralize feels inept to solve the issue.  Any attempt at retributive justice on behalf of the victims feels incomplete and weak.

While there are not, and should not be, tidy theological categories for Horrors, it is possible and important for us to approach this reality theologically.  What does God say about Horrors?  Where is God when Horrors are being carried out?  To what degree is God responsible/culpable in Horrors and their irreparable effects?  What does the existence of Horrors say about the existence of God?  And, more importantly, if Jesus Christ is Lord, what does the Christ-event say about Horrors?

For Marilyn McCord Adams Job becomes the biblical figure for a theological starting point to deal with Horrors.  I have to be honest, I have never been comfortable with the book of Job.  While it seems to bring a certain sense of shalom to many readers and friends of mine, it does not do so for me.  I am not quite sure I sense that God has dealt sufficiently with the Horrors that Job endures, and furthermore, I am not happy about the cosmic scene in the beginning where God hands Job over to Satan.   The book of Job has, at times, made me quite angry and certainly frustrated with God.

I am not sure Adams helps me recover from this sketchy relationship with the God of Job, but she does help me map out three starting points for thinking about God and Horrors from the perspective of Job.

1. Restoration of Horror-stricken people and lands resides in Cosmological approaches to salvation.  If we endure Horrors, there is little hope of ever being fully restored.  We will likely bear the scars forever, as Christ does.  (If not literally, ‘forever’ can mean a sense that we cannot escape it.)  However, God is always at work waking the fawn, commanding the thunder, guiding the rain.  God’s project of salvation is to bring cosmological renewal and restoration to all things.  (Job 38).  When Job is finally answered by God, God frames his problem cosmologically.  Job has not considered such a salvation as this.  Something is broken in the cosmological scheme of Creation.  It is being made new – Horrors and all.

2. Christ cannot merely ‘deal with’ or ‘answer’ the problem of Horrors – he must defeat them once and for all.  I have long had questions about the full meaning and weight of biblical language about sacrifice.  I think using language for Christ as ‘Horror-defeater’ answers some of those questions for me.  Hebrews 10 has been the source of many of my questions.  If Christ is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, then why are we still being called by God and the World to sacrifice ourselves?  Those who carry out Horrors, often in the name of justice and/or God, are still under the sacrificial system.  Not in a Jewish or Religious sense, but in a very practical sense.  Christ endured Horror to end all Horrors.  The plea of the writer of Hebrews is this:  Stop making sacrifice of every kind – or, in the framework of Horrors – Stop making Horrors of every kind.

3. Horrors cannot be overcome by Horrors, rather we overcome in sharing them.  The one thing Job’s ministering friends failed to do – share the pain.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is known as Theotokos.  Theo = God, and Tokos = to bear or bring.  Thus, Mary becomes THE biblical prototype for ministry to the suffering world.  She is the bringer and bearer of God.  She ushers in the presence of God to a world in need of His presence.  Mary is the anti-type to Job’s friends.  Job’s friends bring reasoning, logic, theological equations (you sinned = God is making bad things happen to you), etc…  Mary, on the other hand, simply bears the presence of God, humbly and quietly.  The presence that bears with the world is one that has not come to condemn the world, but to share in its sufferings.  This is the high calling, and it is not only the calling of the one Theotokos bears, but of His followers as well (Mark 8).

Even after mapping these three theological starting points, I must confess, I cannot comprehend a world filled with Horrors, and often I have no answers to supply those who raise such questions.  Horrors, horrendous evils, must not be answered with tidy conclusions that slightly aim at God’s goodness.  I am not even confident that they must be answered at all.






  1. If the official support for abortion on demand is not evil then all of the evils that you suggest need to be reconsidered. It is however evil in the true sense. Far worse than the death camps of Nazi Germany based on the number of people executed, the innocence of those executed and their total inability to retaliate. This in no way lessens the evil of the camps but firmly places the Church in the position of crying evil for events past when the current situation is far more demanding of action.

    • Mr. Garrison. The list is obviously incomplete. Marilyn McCord Adams is the author of the list, not me. However by her definition abortion is only a horror in the general sense. In the particular sense meaningful life is possible afterwards. But I mostly agree with your sentiments. However I immensely disagree with the idea that you can compare horrors, and that experience of Nazi Germany was a lesser horror. Probably another conversation. I think part of the problem with the churches ineffectiveness regarding abortion has been its unwillingness to adopt a holistic pro-life agenda. Life continues after birth. And God cares deeply about the meaningfulness of such life.

      Thanks for the comment and for noticing the incompleteness of the list of horrors. Ceaseless war in civilian neighborhoods could also be on the list and, if prioritized by number of deaths would certainly top the list.

      • Thanks for your reply. I apologize for the “you” reference. I think the problem I am having is the difference between evil that is sponsored by the state compared to that which is condemned by the state. Somewhere in my mind there is a reversal of Paul’s words about being no law against those things. The list is pretty much against the law already. What makes evil even more evil is it being considered lawful. I would also just note that the survival rate of the camps was a good deal higher than from the womb on the abortion table.

      • Sure, licentious to horrendous things is awful. I am do share exactly those sentiments. I am not confident American Christians have either dealt with this in theologically faithful ways or been effective in the course of action they have chosen. I would be interested in seeing evangelicals come to table to hammer out the details of those two issues regarding abortion.

        I just had an interesting conversation with my wife about whether or not (according to Marilyn McCord Adams’ definition of horrors) one could expect a meaningful life after an abortion. She brought up 3 interesting points:

        1> It probably depends upon the circumstances. (which is where most political debate lands).

        2> The mother probably will never be the same – not sure if that equates to loss of meaningfulness or not, but it is definitely not “good”, and it certainly does not move the person forward in hopeful ways.

        3> The collective social effects are degenerative in nature.

        Again, I would love to see Christians (Evangelicals in particular) refuse to reduce this particular evil to the way we vote – that has proven horribly ineffective, and causes concessions on other important Pro-Life Issues.

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