By Sharon DelVento
By Sharon DelVento

    I have, on occasion, tried to puzzle out the nature of evil and whether we’re stuck with it or capable of evolving beyond it.

St. Augustine said something along these lines: “Evil is nothing but the corrupted seed of good.” Aquinas said that “a thing essentially evil cannot exist,” because when you get to the heart of evil, there’s nothing there.

If that’s true, why have Hell? Pleasant though it may be to imagine Hitler doing a slow roast on a hellion spit for ages unending, why have eternal damnation and torment for a soul saddled with something that, unlike the soul itself, has no permanent existence? 

If Hell exists at all, it would make more sense for it to be temporary. I think the only reason that the idea of an eternal Hell exists is because we like it. It is our own thirst for revenge that is eternal and unquenchable, not God’s. Episcopal priest Tilden Edwards said, “Everything ultimately is redeemable.” Would that include Satan and Hell? I’m definitely going to have to check this out after I check out.

 Aside: Of course, the Buddhists think that everything is temporary. Being/non-being. Off/on. Naughty/nice. Heaven/Hell. Up/down. And up again. They think we’re crazy for getting all hung up on either pole of the duality. “All is vanity,” saith the Preacher, but “All is insanity” might be more accurate. Their goal is to get beyond the whole duality thing altogether. What a great idea. It would certainly cut back on the whiplash. End of aside.

Can we evolve beyond evil?

Speaking for myself, I’d say we’re screwed, and I’ll tell you why. We all seem to gravitate toward what is, by all appearances, essentially bad either for us or for others. Potato chips. Books that you’re embarrassed to admit having read, much less liked. Surfing the Web. Drugs. Booze. Smoking. Tax loop-holes. Driving over the speed limit. Rolling stops. Stealing. Homicide. Genocide. 

I’ll grant you, snarfing down an entire economy-size bag of Ruffles is a far cry from massacring people with AK-47s, but they do have one thing in common: both do harm.

On an evilosity scale of one to ten, “one” being over-indulgence in salt/sugar/fat and “ten” being Armageddon, I’m definitely on the Twinkie end of the scale. But we are all on that sliding scale somewhere. That is why I am not a big fan of the death penalty or the concept of an eternal Hell.

There is something in human nature that wants to do what it is not supposed to do, from your average squirrelly ten-year-old kid’s doing something you told him not to do, on back to Eve’s taking a bite out of the apple in the Garden of Eden. The serpent didn’t have to work hard on Eve. It was not a hard sell. It’s like we were made to be tempted. Albert Einstein said that it is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil from the spirit of man.

Why does evil exist? Because good does. Trying to get the one without the other, to quote a wiser person than I, is like trying to get the inside of a pot without the outside. Thoreau said in his Journal (February 8, 1841): “I was never so rapid in my virtue but my vice kept up with me.”

Opposition. That’s my theory, anyway. Someone told me that some scientists tried to grow trees in a windless biosphere, and the trees all died. They needed something to push against them. Opposition. Satan was called only “the Adversary” in the Book of Job. I read once that our walking upright is a series of imbalances, so alternating good and bad is like walking on two legs. We are binary and bipedal. Maybe we need evil to keep our goodness moving forward.

To quote Dom John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, retired abbot of the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee: “The powers of darkness and the powers of light are too close to each other to offer the occasion for vain-glory.”

As Lady Windermere says, in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, “There is the same world for all of us, and good and evil, sin and innocence, go through it hand in hand.”

And from Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB:  “If we look for [God] only in the saints we shall miss Him ... If we look for Him in ourselves, in what we imagine to be the good in us, we shall begin in presumption and end in despair.”

But it was the great 18th-century rabbi, Baal Shem Tov, who made what I consider to be the best and most profound statement in all literature regarding evil in all literature:

“If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.”