Thinking Biblically About Cruelty And Evil

Jul 16th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

We are living in an age awash in cruelty—not only with abuse scandals, but also with political barbarism and the horrific atrocities in Ukraine.  But perhaps the most disheartening are the mass shootings we have witnessed these past few months:  The vicious, racially motivated slaughter in Buffalo (10 killed and 3 wounded by a white gunman, an adherent to the pernicious racist conspiracy theory) and the unimaginable heartbreak in Uvalde, Texas—19 Robb Elementary children and 2 teachers: “Children having their tomorrows taken away.”  The immensity of the Uvalde tragedy has reminded the nation of the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 20 children and 6 teachers dead.  Columnist Maureen Dowd hearkens back to the practice of child sacrifice in the ancient world:  In the Greek play by Aeschylus, Agamemnon lures his daughter Iphigenia, to a spot she thinks is for her wedding, where, to appease a goddess, he kills her.  In Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, to save his honor, kills his daughter, Lavinia, at the dinner table, after she was raped and maimed by attackers. One also thinks of Jephthah’s tragic vow in Judges 11:29-40, where in order to gain God’s favor, he vowed to sacrifice whatever came out of his door upon his victorious return: He sacrificed his only child, his daughter.  Our children are being sacrificed and we don’t know what to do!

Incapacitated by such evil, there is a profound sense of national exhaustion that comes when tragedy is layered upon tragedy.  Jay Caspian Kang writes: “We have created a museum of unbearable sorrow.  With each tragedy, it gets a bit denser with new names, new unsatisfying explanations and new photos of the deceased.”  There have been 213 mass shootings in the US in the first weeks of 2022. An average of 321 Americans are shot every single day.  Lance Morrow is certainly correct when he observes that “The death count from gun violence in Chicago doesn’t get measured on the same moral scale as mass shootings like the one in Uvalde . . . The death in Chicago, by contrast, become events of sociology.  No one describes those as evil.  The murderers are half-excused as being victims themselves—of poverty or racial injustice.”   Disgustingly, our political leaders fall back on their default responses:  Democrats for tighter gun controls; Republicans for greater security, stronger police responses, etc.  There is a total avoidance of the root cause of such monstrous evil.

Russell Moore has helped me with several poignant observations:  “After each of these horrors, people often ask, ‘How long until something is done?’ And yet, the sad truth in light of all these atrocities is the declining attention span of the American people.  Axios points to research on the sustained attention of the public—showing that horrors like the Sandy Creek shooting or the Parkland school shooting do not rally the nation’s attention beyond a matter of days. Some might suggest that the country is numb to such tragedies since they happen with such frequency compared to the rest of the world. But Axios argues that what we are seeing is a people not necessarily numb to horror but overwhelmed by it. The sheer weight of all these incidents can lead to a shutdown in many people, in which they simply give up trying to comprehend it all and move on to something else . . . Sustained attention is so difficult with trauma and tragedy because we don’t want to think about such darkness. There’s a reason why most people turn their heads away when they see a mangled body in a car accident along the highway. We would rather pretend that such horrors don’t, or can’t, happen. And we do this not just with the terrors in the world but with our own personal apocalypse—our impending death.  Blaise Pascal argued that we all know we are going to die, so we try everything we can to distract ourselves from that reality. This conclusion, of course, was anticipated by the writer of Ecclesiastes—who admitted his own search for fulfillment through work, wealth, pleasure, and wisdom, only to find these to be nothing more than vain pursuits.  The writer of Hebrews further revealed that this submerged fear of death is precisely the power that the devil has over us (Heb. 2:14–15). To keep from acknowledging that we are perishable flesh, we pursue fleshly desires with abandon—in a way that just leads to more death (Rom. 8:5–13) . . . Our tendency to become overwhelmed in the aftermath of so many horrors is heightened by our sense of powerlessness. Even when we identify actions that could curb the problem, we know that almost nothing is accomplished in a civic and political system as broken as ours. And so, many of us simply ‘move on.’”

But we cannot move on.  We are Christians; we believe that God is good, but we also believe that human beings are fallen creatures capable of monstrous evil.  [I include here some reflections from previous editions of Issues in Perspective.]  Of all the challenges Christians face in defending their faith, the existence of evil is one of the most formidable.  We claim that God is good, yet there is suffering, pain and outrageous acts of barbarity (e.g., the Holocaust, the butchery of Joseph Stalin and the horrific persecutions in Communist China).  Add to that the existence of mass murderers, serial killers and the monotonous regularity of murder in our cities.  Evil has a deep, penetrating darkness to it and, when it comes to personal motivation of those who do evil, there is an almost impenetrable wall that defies investigation.  Perhaps that is why we use terms such as “irrational, indescribable and unspeakable” when we discuss it.  Philosophers and ethicists often divide evil into categories: There is “moral evil,” which focuses on human acts of evil.  There is “natural evil,” by which we mean horrible events associated with nature—tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.  Finally, there is “metaphysical evil,” which includes the mortality of humans, as well as their finiteness and limited power to control things.  It seems that the more we study and think about evil, the more perplexing it becomes.  Quite frankly, there are no easy answers; there are no silver bullets.  It seems to be a significant vulnerability for Christianity, especially biblical Christianity.  Indeed, the “Four Horseman of the New Atheism”—Christopher Hitchens [now deceased], Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett—among their many arguments, raise the issue of evil quite powerfully and centrally in their critiques of religious belief.

So, all of this begs a question:  Where is God in all this?  Such a question is rather central to the Old Testament book of Job.  The emotion and apparent hopelessness evil produces are evident in many of the Psalms.  And one cannot ignore the issue of evil in many of the narrative portions of both the Old and New Testaments (e.g., Joseph, Daniel, and Judas).  During the European Enlightenment, the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, focused on the problem of evil in his philosophical classic of 1779, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:  “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.  Is he able, but not willing?  Then he is malevolent.  Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”  As Clare Carlisle of The Guardian comments, “For many critics of theistic religion—and Hume can be included among them—this is not a problem to be solved, but a basic and definitive objection to belief in a creator God.”  But even those who embrace a secular/atheistic worldview must still explain evil.  If evolution has as its core the belief that survival drives natural selection, then evil seems to be self-destructive, not self-protecting and self- preserving.  In addition, the matter of evil is inextricably linked to other critical ethical issues—e.g., the meaning, purpose and value of life.  Further, if there is no God, then what is the basis for ethical decision-making?  If there are no absolute, transcendent standards for defining good, then perhaps defining evil is also thoroughly subjective.  On what basis do we actually reach the conclusion that something is evil?  The early church theologian Augustine argued that we know something is evil because we have come to know the good, which is God.  Evil, he suggested, is the gross distortion of that which is good.  That would certainly apply to pornography, to bestiality, to pre- and extra-marital sexual activity.  Each is a gross distortion of the beautiful and good, which God defines in marriage.

Nonetheless, I believe we must go back to the Creation Ordinance of God, recorded for us in the early chapters of Genesis.  In doing so, permit me to propose a framework for thinking biblically about evil.  It is just that, a framework.  But I believe that it is a valid starting point for thinking about evil, its origin and its resolution in Jesus Christ.


  • PROPOSITION #1:  EVIL, SUFFERING AND PAIN RESULTED FROM HUMANTY’S REJECTION OF GOD.  One of the primary themes of Scripture is that we live in a fallen world.  What exactly does that mean?  The Bible makes it clear that God is trinity and theologians define God as trinity in this manner:  God is one essence of three persons who differ relationally (Father, Son and Spirit) and functionally (e.g., see Ephesians 1:4-14).  According to 1 John 4, “God is love.”  Since this is a predicate nominative, this declaration says something about the character and nature of God.  For all eternity, the Father has loved the Son, the Son the Father and so on (see the Gospel of John, especially 5:19-24 and chapters 14-17).  Within the godhead there has always been eternal love and communion.  According to Genesis 1, God made the decision to create and the crown of His creation was the creation of humanity, created in His image (see Genesis 1:26ff.)  At the least, bearing His image means that human beings have the capacity to not only express love and communion with one another, but more importantly with God.  So, what the godhead has enjoyed for all eternity is now possible for the image-bearers of God.  But are humans robots or automatons that bow down and love God at His command?  Or did God create His world to be populated with image-bearers who would voluntarily love Him?  For that to occur, He needed to take the risk that those humans would reject Him, which is exactly what they did (see Genesis 3 and the rest of Scripture).  According to Romans 1:18-3:20, that rejection is total and complete, for it involves the rejection of  His revelation in creation, conscience and moral law.  And, Romans 1:18-32 details the natural results of this rejection.  There we see recorded the downward spiral of self-destructive choices that result from that rejection.  Evil, then, has its origins in humanity, not God.  Since God created a universe with His moral law as its foundation, there are natural consequences in rejecting that moral law.  But God did not abandon His creation nor His image-bearers.  He began a plan, first mentioned in Genesis 3:15, to win them back—to reconcile them to Himself. 




  • PROPOSITION #2:  GOD’S SOLUTION IS THE CROSS.  God’s plan was to have the second person of the Trinity, the Son, add to His deity humanity and die for the rebellious image-bearers.  According to the prophecies detailed in Isaiah 52 and 53, He would die for His people and God the Father would pour out His wrath upon Him.  The Gospels detail the execution of God’s plan, its completion at the cross and the resurrection.   God paid the price of the rebellion, death, and thereby defeated the chief rebel, Satan.  Christ became a victim of monstrous, horrific evil to eradicate evil from this world.  In short, God’s justice and His grace met at the cross.  That is how God has defeated evil and how He will vanquish evil from this planet.  And He will populate the new heaven and the new earth with His image bearers who choose to place their faith in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  In other words, God has chosen to eliminate evil by becoming its victim and thereby, in what seemed like a defeat, was actually an astounding triumph of His grace and His compassion.  Jesus did indeed “pay it all.”  The cross, then, is the vital center of genuine, biblical Christianity, for through it God has reconciled humanity to Himself.  Those who choose to love Him do so in faith.  As John says, “we love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).



  1. PROPOSITION #3:  Christ’s return and eternity will restore what was lost in the Fall. Isaiah 65 and Revelation 21 and 22 speak of the new heaven and new earth, the destiny of those who love God.  What was lost by the human choice of rebellion will be restored when Christ returns for those who have chosen to love Him.  The love and communion that the godhead has enjoyed for all eternity will now be enjoyed by all humans, created in His image and now redeemed by His grace, who choose to love Him.  The fellowship and communion that the first humans knew in their walk with God will be restored.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the series of books on Sherlock Holmes, a series which I love to read.  In his “The Adventures of the Cardboard Box,” Doyle has Holmes grappling with the question of evil:  “’What is the meaning of it Watson?’ said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper.  ‘What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?  It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.  But what end?  There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.’”  Holmes is correct, for without God’s written revelation, we have no answer to evil.  But through it, we understand its origin and we understand its resolution—in Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection are the means by which God is destroying evil.  Each human being must appropriate that finished work by faith.  Once we do that, eternity and an eternal fellowship and love with the godhead and with one another constitute our destiny.

As we mourn the senseless loss of so many lives, let us also reflect on the manger and the cross and how they intersect.  The columnist Ross Douthat perceptively writes:  “. . . the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.  The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave.  The cross looms behind the stable—the shadow of violence, agony and death.  [Even in July we can declare] this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.”

See Maureen Dowd in the New York Times (29 May 2022); New York Times editorial (29 May 2022); Jay Caspian Kang in the New York Times (29 May 2022); Lance Morrow in the New York Times (26 May 2022); Russell Moore at “Moore to the Point” (2 June 2022); Clare Carlisle in The Guardian (16 October 2012); Randy Alcorn, If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, pp. 47-94; and Ross Douthat in the New York Times (16 December 2012).

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One Comment to “Thinking Biblically About Cruelty And Evil”

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    This article addresses points to a very serious dilemma wherein America finds itself. So the important question then becomes, how can we resolve this? The Democrats blame the problem on guns. Their next big concern, maybe even bigger concern is how to overcome the Supreme Court decision regarding Roe v. Wade. We cannot solve this problem but God can if we commit ourselves to read His Word and obey it.
    The coach who knew the Robb Elementary School shooter describes his family atmosphere as hostile the boy was hated by his parents. The other shooters were all raised in a fatherless environment. Why don’t we, as a society recognize that God had a perfect design where children are raised in a loving, God-fearing environment? Why don’t we require our legislators to enact laws that are for us by God for our benefit? The Woke movement is driving us away from this and we, Christians, follow along too easily. If we would put forward God’s example for traditional family life, for moral lifestyles, for honesty and integrity, loving our fellow sojourners with half the energy that the Woke people do in pushing for abortion rights and fighting climate change, we could receive God’s blessings and we could be effective positive witnesses. However, no matter what our strategies are, if we doing in without God, our efforts are in vain. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and this is where we need to come back to. He has the answers that we need to seek for and then to obey.