Newtown, CT and the Problem of Evil

Last Friday the world changed. When twenty children and six adults were murdered in a shockingly brutal massacre, not only did the lives of their loved ones alter irrevocably and tragically, but all of America has been jarred. In a way, I hesitate to write anything about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School because I fear contributing to what has become an acrimonious conversation about how and why Adam Lanza did what he did and what we should do about it. But on the other hand, how can I write about anything else when something so terrible is so fresh?

My wife and I tried not to watch too much of the media coverage, partly to shield our young children—one of whom is six years old—but also to shield ourselves. We’ve watched and read enough to stay apprised of the situation but otherwise we’ve tried to limit our exposure to coverage of the massacre because contemplation of such evil is soul-scarring. When we did watch media coverage, however, I noticed that neither reporters nor commentators ever used the word “evil” to describe the mass murder or Lanza’s motives. I’ve frequently heard him described as “mentally ill” even as I’ve heard suggestions that he entertained and rehearsed it all beforehand. But “mental illness” refers to a physical problem—something amiss with brain chemistry—that must be addressed with physical solutions, such as medication, behavior modification, or legislation and prosecution. While he certainly may have been mentally ill, Lanza also acted out evil, which is an abuse of the will. I think it’s important to recognize this because a large part of our reaction as a country can be summed up with the question, “How can we ensure that this does not happen again?” In order to answer that question, many assume that the causes of the massacre could have been (and can be) prevented and, believing in the superiority of science, assume that the causes are material. By “material,” I mean that a physical account of the events offers the best and perhaps only explanation. Such an explanation gives the illusion of control—that we might finally rid the human race of “abnormal” behavior.

Whether the omission of the term “evil” is intentional or not, the inability (or choice) not to use that word is symptomatic of such materialist presuppositions. To acknowledge evil, applied to either the event or the motives, is to presuppose a real spiritual order that is true, good, and beautiful. It is also to presuppose that a rejection of that order leads to ugliness and violence, even violence against the innocent. This spiritual order cannot be reduced to science or physical description but neither is it irrational or beyond human comprehension. It cannot be beyond our comprehension (at least not entirely) because we are given the ability to choose the good, the true, and the beautiful. And by “choice” here, I mean the decision to love and submit to what we love. Obviously, we all at least occasionally reject God’s order, and the small pains and great tragedies of our lives sometimes reflect these choices. Choosing itself is a powerful, terrifying, and yet glorious gift to mankind.

Sometimes we wish humans did not have the ability to choose between good and evil because there is no simple solution, then, to evil. There is no way to make sure that nothing like the Sandy Hook murders ever happen again. Gun laws might curb such violence but laws only constrain the will rather than train it. While Adam Lanza may have suffered from mental illness, and there may be some treatment that would have helped him or at least contained him, I also believe that he never learned to love what is true, good, and beautiful. Regardless of what our nation decides about gun laws and mental health interventions, we cannot make sure than nothing like this ever happens again. It breaks my heart to admit this, but there is no way to make sure that my three little girls will not be the victims of evil and violence.

From one perspective, it would be easier for me to go with the materialists here and assign purely material causes to Adam Lanza’s acts. I could find comfort in action; I could start calling for changes that I believed would keep such a thing from ever happening again. Then again, I am not left without comfort. Admitting that such evil cannot be prevented by laws or treatment is not to give up hope—as Christians we never abandon the hope that hearts can be transformed. That transformation involves training the will to choose rightly, and the only way we can train our children and young people to choose rightly is by teaching them to love the right things. As a parent and educator, I take this task seriously, for souls must be led in the right paths and taught to love what is true, good, and beautiful.

When we consider what to do after Sandy Hook, let us all take a few moments and consider, carefully consider, what we are teaching the young people in our lives to love. And may we consistently pray for grace, guidance, and strength to love the right things ourselves as we train our children.

One response

  1. Thank you for writing this article, Evan. Following the events at Sandy Hook, Tim and I talked a great deal about the lack of the use of the word”evil” in the media and instead the phrase “mental illness.” As a elementary teacher and (almost) parent, it is unsettling knowing that a tragedy like this could happen again because evil exists. I am thankful for a Savior who has the power to transform hearts and lives.

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