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On the Origin of Evil
The following is an excerpt from the book I’m currently working on titled The End of Wisdom. This is the fourth part in a series of six parts (all comprising just a portion of the book) which together take you on a brief but colorful walk through Genesis 1–11 in search of this thing we call “truth.” It goes without saying that it’s missing a great deal of context, though I’m sharing it as I believe it can stand alone and still be of value to the reader. Feedback is welcomed and appreciated. Thanks for being here, and I hope you enjoy!
Another step, another page turned. What have we stumbled upon this time? We have stumbled upon the stumbling of humanity.
“If God is so good,” you say, “and if creation was made with such goodness, then why the evil, why the corruption, why the suffering, and why the death? What is good about any of that?” I would say that you are not the first to utter such a sentiment. I feel your confusion. I feel your pain. I feel your yearning for an answer—an answer not even to soothe the pain but just to have the pain make sense. You are right in saying that God is good, and you are right in saying that creation was made with goodness. But the “why” for such rampant evil and for its ugly children called corruption, suffering, and death, has less to do with God and more to do with you and me.
I’m often amused, though greatly troubled, when I hear people say that humans are inherently good. I’m amused by their eyes which are blind to the ugliness around them, though I’m troubled for their souls which are headed nowhere good. You need only open your eyes to see the evil around you—an evil which comes so naturally, so freely, so plentifully. You need not look to Nero of the Roman Empire or Hitler of the German Reich or Stalin of the Soviet Union or any other such extreme examples. Evil is found much closer to home. You need only look to your neighbor who cheated you. You need only look to your friend who betrayed you. You need only look to your father who abused you. You need only look to your mother who abandoned you. You need only look to your brother who hated you. You need only look to your sister who mistreated you. You need only look to your lover who broke you. You need only look to yourself who has done much of the same and more, for even the greatest victims have dealt their share of oppression. You need only open your eyes to see the evil around you; you need only open your eyes to see the evil in you. The only case study you need on human nature is yourself—humility is when you open that book and take an honest look.
“I’m no Stalin!” you exclaim, “Sure, I’m not perfect, but I’m no Stalin!” I’ve got news for you: Stalin was just the man at the top, who do you think did all his dirty work? The common man, that’s who. The common man who bears a striking resemblance to both you and me. Stalin was but the conductor of a grand orchestra of evil—just as one cannot play every instrument at once, one cannot break every bone and dispose of every murdered corpse with their own two hands at such a scale. “Be that as it may,” you reply, “A striking resemblance? Between Stalin’s minions and me? You must be mad. Did you see what they did to those poor people in those camps?” No, I didn’t. And neither did you. But I know of someone who did.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner for over a decade among that vast network of camps—stretching from the Black Sea in the Southwest, through the Siberian wilderness, to the Bering Sea in the Northeast—a network which he coined as the gulag archipelago. Solzhenitsyn rotted on the prison floor for years. But not only did he rot, he was tormented and tortured in a way where rotting alone would have been a welcome consolation. His tormentors and torturers dirtied their hands, no doubt, but were so skilled in their foul trade that they could break the prisoner without even touching them using “methods,” said Solzhenitsyn, “which break the will and the character of the prisoner without leaving marks on his body.”1 A method in particular which could be conveniently combined with all other methods, whether physical or psychological, was sleeplessness. “Sleeplessness,” said Solzhenitsyn, “which they quite failed to appreciate in medieval times. They did not understand how narrow are the limits within which a human being can preserve his personality intact. Sleeplessness befogs the reason, undermines the will, and the human being ceases to be himself, to be his own ‘I.’”2 I can only imagine how some prisoners hoped for a swift punch to the gut rather than to endure the crumbling of their very being.
After years of rotting on the prison floor, years of torment and torture, you would think that someone like Solzhenitsyn would be further convinced of the evil of his oppressors and his own innocence in the face of it. Yet Solzhenitsyn, more accustomed to evil than most could ever claim, came to quite a surprising and contrary conclusion that by the end of his imprisonment he exclaimed, “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”3 On the nature of humans, he concluded, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”4
Solzhenitsyn saw himself in his oppressors and came to learn that they were not much different than him. The same evil within him was within them; he had seen evidences of its rising in him over the course of his own life, but theirs just so happened, at that time and place in history, to encounter a fertile ground which allowed it to flourish remarkably. The chilling, widespread evil of the Soviet era was a phenomenon of evil unrestrained and even evil cheered. But those agents of evil, those who carried it out, were no phenomenon at all. No different than the Germans under Hitler, no different than the Romans under Nero. Those agents were not a different breed or a different species of human. They were once seemingly innocent children; they had ten fingers and toes, friends and families, hopes and dreams—all just like you and me. But given the right circumstances, the evil within them bubbled up to a point which every human is capable of from the depths of their heart.
Evil is like a weed. No one plants a weed. They sprout up on their own and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. They are by nature so relentless and pervasive, refusing to die and overtaking everything in their path if left untended. You want a garden of weeds? You need only sit back and watch as they spread to every corner on their own! So it is with the human heart. You want a heart of stone? You need only sit back and watch as the evil within hardens it day by day until it’s cold and lifeless! But good, as opposed to evil, is like a flower. Flowers must be meticulously cared for, thoughtfully protected, and faithfully watched over. Just ask the modest gardener how they nurse their little plot of land which they take such great delight in. It did not happen on its own. It took work. It took a striving against the land’s penchant for disarray, similar to the heart’s propensity for evil. Therefore, it’s hard to be good, but it’s easy to be evil—there is perhaps nothing that comes more naturally to us.
We see it in the young child who was not taught to be selfish—who was not taught to hog their toys from others or to cry and scream when they do not get their way. Their parents try their best to nurture them to good behavior, but it is a constant struggle as the child continues to fall back into that behavior which required no lesson in the first place, to fall back into their nature. The selfishness—dare I say, the evil—of a young boy may seem harmless at first as they are small and weak, unable to deal much damage to the world; but that selfish young boy will grow up to be a man, and a selfish man is but the beginnings of a tyrant. While a young child’s evil (along with their frame) may be in its infancy, it is evil still, with room only to grow.
The nature of humans is more like a pane of glass than a scale which tips back and forth between good and evil. For who can truly discern how the scale is weighed? But anyone can discern if the glass is broken or not. “But glass is not either whole or shattered,” you say, “It can crack without falling into pieces.” Certainly, but the crack, unlike the scale which can readily recover when it tips too far one way, cannot be undone. And even the tiniest crack is a crack nonetheless, a crack which has brought that pane of glass into a state of imperfection—and it’s only a matter of time before it breaks entirely. Consider this: If an assassin puts just a few drops of poison in the king’s cup, will not the king still die?
We are not inherently good, as some like to claim. And it just so happens that the Garden of Wisdom5 contains a garden of its own—a garden which makes sense of this all, a garden which was planted by God in a land called Eden. This garden, the garden of Eden, housed that first human couple. It housed, also, one of two trees in its midst, a tree which was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And of this tree God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”6 Thus to shun the fruit of the tree was to know good in obedience to God, but to partake of it was to know evil in rebellion to God. Though tempted by the serpent, that first couple ultimately chose to partake of it, to do what was right in their own eyes—eyes which had already been graciously opened to good by God and only then opened to evil by their own sin. They were given every tree but one—even the tree of life!—yet the one is that which they chose to eat. Naked and unashamed they were, naked and ashamed they became.
After this, God said to the serpent:
Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.7
To Eve He said:
I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.8
And to Adam He said:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.9
Yet after this and in spite of their sin, “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”10 Garments of skins means the skin of an animal. And the skin of an animal means an animal was slain—the first blood sacrifice, with a greater sacrifice to come. The first to restore their bodily innocence among men and the last to restore, once and for all, their moral innocence to God.
Don’t you see? God created us good, and we chose to be evil. And the corruption, suffering, and death of the world is an outgrowth of that evil. I say again: The “why” for the pains of life has less to do with God and more to do with you and me. Does that offend you? Does it offend you that God created you with the will to do as you please? Does it offend you that God created you with the ability to obey or disobey Him, to love or hate Him? Does it offend you that, despite it all, He offers you the gift of salvation, painfully paid for by His own blood? Does that offend you?
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., Edward E. Ericson, and Jordan B. Peterson. “The Interrogation.” Chapter. In The Gulag Archipelago 1918–56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts. Page 44. Vintage Classics, 2018.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., Edward E. Ericson, and Jordan B. Peterson. “The Interrogation.” Chapter. In The Gulag Archipelago 1918–56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts. Page 51. Vintage Classics, 2018.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., Edward E. Ericson, and Jordan B. Peterson. “The Ascent.” Chapter. In The Gulag Archipelago 1918–56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts. Page 313. Vintage Classics, 2018.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I., Edward E. Ericson, and Jordan B. Peterson. “The Bluecaps.” Chapter. In The Gulag Archipelago 1918–56: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts. Page 75. Vintage Classics, 2018.
Wondering what this means? Like I said, it’s missing context. Long story short, “Garden of Wisdom” simply refers to the Bible.
Genesis 2:16–17 (ESV)
Genesis 3:14–15 (ESV)
Genesis 3:16 (ESV)
Genesis 3:17–19 (ESV)
Genesis 3:21 (ESV)