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Evil Deeds and Evil People: Some Theological Reflections

Sunday, 30 August 2015  | Douglas Hynd

Our esteemed Prime Minister has a habit of making sweeping statements, raising questions of philosophical and theological import. One notable instance recently was his observation to the affect that those who have gone to fight for ISIL are “evil people” and we are as a political community well rid of them. Critical thought about the philosophical and theological submissions may enable us clarify some important issues.

Did the Prime Minister mean to say that because the people concerned have committed evil deeds, acts of violence murder, rape and abuse we are well rid of them and we don’t want them to come back? By extension should we encourage the departure from Australia of all those who commit violent deeds within Australia? Or the alternative is that in the doing of those evil deeds that such people had become in some ontological and radical sense evil people and that we did not wish to see them return to Australia? The policy context of the recently introduced legislation to deprive people of citizenship if they have been associated with terrorist activity suggests that he probably has the latter interpretation in view.

The difficult connection between deeds and character comes to mind. What does it mean to say that people are ‘evil’? Does the doing of evil deeds mean that people are no longer really human, having by their actions placed themselves outside the scope of the human community? If they are does that mean that we owe them no further duty of care, respect or justice?

In the discussion about evil we are in deep philosophical waters in which figures as notable as Kant and Augustine have struggled to stay afloat in providing an account of the character of evil.  An assessment of people as being radically evil in their character is I would suggest for Christians problematic on theological grounds. Evil people would be beyond redemption, beyond the possibility of forgiveness. Such a judgment about the character of people has an ultimacy that belongs to God alone.

Our judgment as humans of people as evil should be limited to their actions. We should resist making ultimate moral judgments about them. To make such a judgment requires not only knowledge beyond the limits of human insight but a normative assessment of moral behavior and of what it is to be a human being in community. Are we going to leave such ultimate judgments of people to as implied by the Prime Minister?

For the state to right and responsibility to claim the ability to make the determination of evil as a category of judgment is to claim a specific theological stance and justification for making such a judgment. We move here into the state being given the status of the sacred, which is to say a status and authority that cannot be challenged.

We should limit judgments to deeds that are publicly tested in an open judicial process that acknowledges its limits and possible fallibility. Against a claim by the state to an absolute judgment about evil the Christian stance can only be one of witness to the possibility of forgiveness, the refusal to make an absolute judgment about whether or not a person has moved beyond the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. In thinking about this the church has a long scriptural tradition to draw on starting with a reflection upon the story of Cain and Abel, where God affirms Cain’s place within a community beyond being the subject of revenge. We have to consider too the stance of Jesus who was willing to accept the unjust judgment of the state but proclaimed to the revolutionary perhaps even a terrorist the forgiveness of God.


The difficulty of the drawing of the line between deed of evil and the evil character of the person is difficult, as any consideration of the Holocaust makes clear. Many evil deeds were done by people who did not consider themselves evil and saw themselves as simply doing their duty. To make sweeping declarations people and groups as evil can lead to occlusion of our own implication in evil done in ways that cannot be pinned down without remainder to an individual person. Our implication as both individuals and communities in bureaucratic and economic processes that contribute to evil experienced by vulnerable groups is an issue that presses on us with respect to issues of trade, war and climate change, not to mention the treatment by the Australian Government of asylum seekers.

In reflecting on these issues I am continually drawn back to the observation of Solzhenitsyn in his reflection on the difficulty of drawing the line between evil deeds and evil people in the context of Soviet Russia.


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?”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956



John Kidson
September 8, 2015, 11:26PM
On a different but related subject:

Fascinating that a marriage celebrant is gaoled for not marrying a same/sex couple ... Will a doctor be executed for not aborting an unborn baby?
Arthur Marriott
September 9, 2015, 1:47PM
Hello, I am a regular reader of these articles and find them quite challenging with relevant comments.

Your article on Evil Deeds does leave me with the problem of: do I acknowledge evil exists or wait for the legal decision on it to be made?

If, at the fall of Adam & Eve, all men become sinners, then evil can flourish by our very nature of sin. God himself punished evil with Noah & the flood, wiping out all but 8 of civilisation. God even punished Israel for their evil deeds, banishing them to Babylon.

In our modern times, we have seen evil apparent in Nazi philosophy and more recently in terroristic philosophy. I personally see a need to call evil 'evil' when it exists. Our TV screens are littered with evil in the form of the murder of children. Or have we become immune to the evil that exists around us?

I see a role for the church to make their communities aware that evil exists and, yes, to offer forgiveness to those caught up in it. The Nazis indoctrinated its people with their philosophy, while many sat and watched it happen until it turned into a World War. Sometimes, philosophical arguments can neutralise our power to determine right from evil.

Thanks for your article,
Arthur Marriott

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