Less than seventy-two hours have passed since the shootings that killed thirty-two innocent people and injured another thirty at Virginia Tech. Americans can relate to what Virginia Tech President William Steger said immediately after the killings: "I'm really at a loss for words to explain or to understand the carnage that has visited our campus..."
This is especially true as a frightening picture of the killer emerges: a young man, by all accounts a loner, who, according to the Washington Post, wrote poetry about death and "expletive-filled rants against the rich and privileged." Clearly, on the dark side.
As we seek to understand what happened and why he did this, it is vital that we not exclude an important part of the equation: evil.
Faced with this kind of horror, we automatically assume that we are dealing with a madman—a word the media has already used to describe the killer. That's because we can't imagine ourselves or anyone we know doing anything remotely like this. Therefore, we conclude that something must have been "wrong" with the perpetrator.
And, since our culture is defined by what sociologist Philip Rieff called the "therapeutic ethos," the "something" that's "wrong" must be a psychological defect. Mental illness, not human evil, is our preferred explanation for what happened in places like Blacksburg or Columbine.
I witnessed an extreme example of this therapeutic thinking during a visit to a Norwegian prison years ago. Throughout the tour, officials bragged about employing the most humane and progressive treatment methods anywhere in the world. I met several doctors in white coats.
That prompted me to ask how many of the inmates, who were all there for serious crimes, were mentally ill. The warden replied, "Oh, all of them." I must have looked surprised, because she said, "Well, of course, anyone who commits a crime this serious is obviously mentally unbalanced."
Stated differently, there is no such thing as sin and evil, and the only reason why people might commit serious crimes is that they are mentally ill. Thus, the best—and perhaps, only—response to crime is behavior modification and all of those other up-to-date psychological techniques.
While the Norwegian approach would strike most Americans as very naive, the difference between them and us is one of degree not kind. We also blame crime on external factors, like mental illness, culture, dysfunctional childhood, and the like.
We are uncomfortable attributing events like this to human evil, much less to a kind of evil that seeks to undo God's creation—what Christians call the demonic.
Yet without this idea, events like this massacre can never be understood. We might learn that the killer was "mentally unbalanced" or on anti-depressants. But, absent evidence that he was clinically delusional, this knowledge will not explain why he walked onto a college campus, locked people in a lecture hall, and killed them.
Events like this not only horrify us—they unsettle us. We think of sin and the demonic as not-so-quaint relics from a superstitious age. And even more destructive, random events like this remind us how little we know about ourselves and what we are capable of, as well. But failing to call evil evil misleads us about the world we live in and our need for God's grace, the only real answer and hope for any of us.
Today's BreakPoint offer:
Evil and the Justice of God Evil and the Justice of God by N. T. Wright.
For further reading and information:
BreakPoint Commentary No. 070418, "Death, Where Is Thy Sting?: The Virginia Tech Massacre "Death, Where Is Thy Sting?: The Virginia Tech Massacre."
"How Does Your Faith Tradition Explain (and Respond to) Senseless Tragedies Such as the Virginia Tech Shootings?" —responses from Chuck Colson, N. T. Wright, Cal Thomas, and others at the On Faith Newsweek/Washington Post blog.
Ian Shapira and Michael E. Ruane, “Student Wrote about Death and Spoke in Whispers, But No One Imagined What Cho Seung Hui Would Do," Washington Post, 18 April 2007, A01.
Regis Nicoll, "Where Was God on Monday" The Point, 18 April 2007.
Travis McSherley, "Hope amidst Anger, Hate, Suffering," The Point, 18 April 2007.
Diane Singer, "Rush to Heal," The Point, 18 April 2007.
"Compassion: Students Forgive Virginia Tech Killer," WCBS TV, 18 April 2007.
David Kuo, "Tune Out," Beliefnet, 18 April 2007.
Mark Galli, “Peace in a World of Massacre," Christianity Today, 17 April 2007.
Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Zondervan, 2000).
Peter Kreeft, Making Sense out of Suffering (Servant Ministries, 1986).
Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, The Problem of Evil (Tyndale, 1999).