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On Evil as Objective Reality
by Daryl E. Witmer, with Brandon Pustejovsky
One year ago this month – on February 18, 1999 – in the Davies Auditorium at Yale University, the subject “Does God Exist?” was debated by two members of Campus Crusade for Christ and two members of the Yale Society for Atheists, Agnostics, and Humanists. One key element of the debate dealt with the nature, reality, and definition of evil.
Three months following the Yale event, during the Q&A period of a speaking engagement that I had in Branford CT, Brandon Pustejovsky, a Yale grad (and Christian) who had attended and recorded the original debate live, raised the same subject.
Based on Brandon’s careful notes of the original exchange, his own very thoughtful reflection on the matter (presented in a 16-page follow up paper), and a variety of other helpful resources, what follows here, in mock debate format, is our response to the sort of issues that were raised during that original Yale debate, and that are typical of the thinking of contemporary postmodernists.
So… we’d like to begin here by considering the subject of evil.
Uh, excuse me, but actually, in my opinion, there is really nothing for us to consider, since there is no such thing as evil. That is, there is no objective reality to which we can point and say, “Hey – that’s evil.”
Well, what about Columbine High School? What about the Holocaust?
From the viewpoint of Hitler and his fellow Nazis, ridding Germany of Jews was a good thing, wasn’t it? Well, who are we among the inhabitants of the eternal cosmos to question their view of the matter? Even headhunting may have served to maintain an important ecological balance among certain early tribes. And while many would agree that things can get pretty messy at times (i.e. Columbine High), perhaps in the grand scheme of things it’s all working for the good – world population is being controlled, the fittest are surviving, etc.
Are you defining good as merely that which preserves the human race? And if so, how is the preservation of humanity – or even the quality of human life on this planet – ultimately significant apart from God and an afterlife?
The principle of “the selfish gene” is predicated on the notion that all morality is ultimately genetic in nature. No human action is truly free. The real distinction between good and evil is determined by society. That is, the concept of evil itself is a social construct, birthed by biological instinct and molded by environmental conditioning. Contrary to the opinion of many, evil is not some sort of objective, transcendent reality.
Are you then saying that the definition of evil can vary from culture to culture and time to time?
Yes – evil is what a society says it is. History has repeatedly shown that to be the case.
But what if you personally don’t happen to agree with the social consensus on a particular matter?
Well, I may not always agree with good and evil as they are determined by the society of which I am a member. But since a society, codifying behavior on the pragmatic basis of what promises to improve the quality of life, seems to be the most expedient arrangement going, I’ll probably try to abide by my society’s contract. I may also, though, simultaneously try to influence majority opinion when I deem that appropriate.
All right, I understand and may even tend to agree with you that, apart from a Divine source of morality, evil would amount to nothing more than social construct and/or a reflexive genetic response. But totally aside from solid evidence for the existence of God, let me suggest to you that there are at least three factors which point toward evil as objective reality:
1. The deeply innate, generally unavoidable, historically uniform accord about that which constitutes evil. Certainly there have been aberrations along the way – even by entire cultures over many years. But the jury of time and prevailing sensibility has eventually judged them all to be just that – aberrations from an historically fixed standard.
2. The impossibility of living consistently with the view that evil is only a subjective and relative concept. C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, refers to the man who says that he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, but effectively goes back on that premise a moment later when someone breaks a promise to him. Paul Copan in True for You, But Not for Me (recommended for further reading, especially chapter 10), seriously challenges the evolutionary psychologist’s whatever-promotes-the-race argument by asking what would happen if a more evolutionarily advanced alien race were to invade our planet and propose eating humans just as humans now eat cattle?
3. The existence of a Book which claims to be authored by a God who insists that His self-revelation will be significantly (but not exhaustively) manifest through human agency, and which validates its claims by numerous fulfilled prophecies – including one that foretold of a time when men would actually: “…call evil good, and good evil,” and would “substitute darkness for light and light for darkness.” (Isaiah 5:20)