The Problem of Evil: When Evil Seems Unbeatable…

Have you noticed a strange thing about modern culture? People everywhere are complaining that the world is becoming a more evil place. Much of this is laid at the door of bad politics or religious fundamentalism or some other “great Satan.” But at the same time, if I were to mention that perhaps part of the problem is a blasé treatment of the problem of evil in popular culture, people would probably shush me. Or maybe just stare at me blankly.

What do I mean, exactly?

Several things, actually. In no particular order:

  • The rehabilitation of traditionally evil characters
  • The reduction of evil to a misunderstanding or a fluke
  • The glorification of the evil as more interesting than the good

The Devil’s Advocate

problem of evil

I think you may know what I mean. The first is evident in such television shows as “Lucifer” or in the “Hellboy” comics and movies (which, by the way, are a guilty pleasure of mine, so don’t just dismiss my comments off-hand). There’s long been an impulse by writers and screenwriters to be (sometimes literally) devil’s advocates. On the one hand, such an impulse is understandable. It is part of human nature to want to see the good in others, especially in the worst people. Because then there’s a chance for all of us, especially if we go spectacularly bad.

This phenomenon is especially interesting when it shows up as a core belief of such characters as Maxine Watters’ atheist social-justice-warrior-advocate (gosh, that’s a mouthful) in the British TV show “Silk.” She is faced with the worst of human nature constantly. What gets her through is her belief in the inherent goodness of people. It’s a strangely inconsistent position, because she literally has no reason to believe that. But she’s an atheist, so she has to believe in something. Inherent human goodness is the next best thing.

I think that’s the main reason for this desire to rehabilitate the devil. If you can’t believe in God, then you must believe in the goodness of people. Even if they keep giving you reasons not to.

Evil is really just a big misunderstanding

problem of evil

This is a more insidious one, I think, because it’s at least partly true. And it’s so appealing to the modern mind. If we could just explain to the Jihadis that their world view is wrong, they would simply abandon their ideology in favor of hot tubs and Marvel movies, right? Again, it’s appealing to think in this way. Because then you don’t need to worry about the existence of an actual devil (not the comic book version).

Although I liked Disney’s “Moana,” its treatment of the bad guy is symptomatic of this issue. (spoiler alert) The bad guy is not really a bad guy at all, but a put-upon and misunderstood force for good. The reason it became evil is someone else’s misdeed, and all it takes to fix is a bit of tolerance (and lazy writing, but that’s neither here nor there).

I hope you see where I’m going with this. People really like to complain about the evil in the world. But it’s convenient to see this evil as something outside of ourselves that can be fixed with a magic trick. That’s why so many people on Facebook get mad when Christians send “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of school shootings. Thoughts and prayers are not a magic solution, they opine. Gun control is!

Evil is more fun

problem of evil

I don’t want to run the risk of being simplistic here. Bad girls have more fun. Good girls actually prefer the bad boys. Loki is much more fun than Thor (except in “Infinity War”. Thor was hilarious there). Heath Ledger’s Joker is much more popular than Christian Bale’s Batman.

In literature, especially fantasy literature, this comes out in the massive popularity of gritty antiheroes (something I talk about in my writers’ manifesto). Just for example, on a very popular facebook group for fantasy fans, here’s one reader’s impression of a recent book titled Darkblade Assasin:

This is REALLY getting good!! It’s been keeping me awake–not just reading it well into the night, but thinking about it after I grudgingly head to bed!! A dark blade whispering into your ear, imprisonment, torture, assassins . . . ? My kind of adventure!!

Now, I haven’t read the book, and maybe there’s a wonderful redemption arc in there. (There certainly is a similar vibe in something like The Book of the New Sun, but that book is ALL about redemption of the dark.) But this sort of blasé attitude toward things that are objectively horrible is a bit alarming. Especially since it applies also to video game violence, depictions of sexual violence on the screen and in books, and even in real-life reactions to certain kinds of crime.

We know (with or without scientific confirmation) that what we read and watch stays with us on a very intrinsic level. Sometimes it can even change our behavior or our world view. So if we enjoy casual depictions of evil in our entertainment, it might mean that we’re more capable of performing such acts ourselves. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

So?

I’m talking about weighty matters on a blog. Not always a good idea. But I’d just like to suggest that this weird inconsistency is more pervasive than we realize. And the best way out of it is to recognize that evil exists, it’s not good for you, you should battle it and not sugar coat it. Nor should you pretend it doesn’t exist.

The problem of evil used to be a major theme of literature. How to deal with the evil you see around you. How to battle the ever-possible evil inside you. All the greatest novels treat it in some way. When people stop believing in that evil and stop battling it inside themselves, is it surprising if it increases everywhere around them?

When evil seems unbeatable…

problem of evil

This is why my own novels can be a bit dark. Or rather, they are honest about the human condition and the possibility of anyone, not matter how good, doing terrible things in certain circumstances. It’s important for literature to reflect the world around us, which is in the throes of something very dark and confusing.

But this is also why my novels are ultimately hopeful. Not about establishing utopias on earth. That’s pointless. Rather, I’m hopeful about the possibility of anyone defeating the evil in their own hearts. Even in the most depressing circumstances, when everything, even fate, seems to be against you.

This is a central theme of a new book that I just finished this past week, titled The Rusted Blade. It’s a prequel novella to my Raven Son series, and it encapsulates in short form many of the themes that I wrestle with in my longer books. This is also why I’m not attempting definitive answers to the questions I raised above. I think suggesting possibilities through the medium of fiction is much more interesting and effective.

Therefore, I’m offeringThe Rusted Bladefor free to anyone who signs up to my Readers’ Group. If what I wrote here resonates with you, just click the link below, which will take you to a sign-up page from where you can get your free copy.

Download a free copy of The Rusted Blade

About Nicholas Kotar

Hi! I'm Nicholas Kotar, and I write epic fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales. As I've been doing research for my novels, I've found a lot of edifying and interesting articles in Russian about Russian history, culture, fairy tales, and traditions. None of them are available in English. What astounded me was how applicable so much of it was to our own day. The stories I found illuminate a lost past where Orthodoxy, history, and culture were all one and the same. In our own time of inner and outer fracturing, these people, events, and stories inspire us to think, act, and live differently--more in tune with our age-old faith, and less pandering to the demands of the fickle world. Plus, a lot of the stories I find are just plain fun and entertaining.

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4 comments:

  1. I’d also kick in something I’ve seen growing over the years, to the point it seems to be the universal and unquestioned stance: that anything or anyone good is actually evil, whether because they are deliberately hiding something, or because of unintended consequences of their actions, or simply because they have done some just plain bad things. While there is a valuable point to examining institutions, heroes, or ‘good guys’ carefully, it seems there is no room allowed to appreciate the good that some people and some groups have brought. Mention a community as ‘a good place,’ and the immediate reaction is criticism for some social ill that exists in that community; describe someone as a ‘hero,’ and the response is to tear down that person because of a real or perceived flaw. This seems to be the default, almost ironclad stance nowadays, whether discussing real life or fiction (as just one example, I can’t count how many times I’ve read “Jedi are evil and Sith are good” arguments which, as far as I can tell, are sincere). It’s not enough that evil is celebrated; whatever is good must be torn down.

    1. You make an interesting point. I’ll have to think about it some more, but I ‘m not sure I completely agree with you. I think that a person is allowed to be good as long as he is a lone wolf. Look at Captain America. He really comes into his own only when he goes against his handlers. It’s organizations or religion or big groups that can’t be good, more than the individual. But like I said, I’ll have to think about this some more.

  2. People have always complained that the world is becoming a more evil place, but they are wrong. By any objective measure – war, violence, crime, the treatment of the poor and sick – it is far, far less evil than it was even a century or so ago. (Albeit this is perhaps because we are starting from a really low base.) If we see more evil in the world, is it because we will no longer turn a blind eye to it and the suffering it causes?
    That we now instinctively want to reconcile with our enemies instead of annihilating them and rehabilitate lost souls as neighbours needing help not demons to be crushed: how is this a bad thing?
    I agree there is often a worrying glamour to evil in stories and fiction, but wonder to what extent it has always been there. People perhaps feel safe to glamourise it because it is not real. I worry more, really, when I see fiction that calls evil good: the series 24 endorsing torture, or films that glamourise war and violence and glorify them as good things in themselves.

    1. It’s nice that you see the sunny side of things. But I simply can’t agree that “we instinctively want to reconcile with our enemies instead of annihilating them.” I see the same war-mongering attitude and lack of understanding between old enemies. The fact of the two world wars is holding everyone back, but historical memory is famously short-sighted. Thank God we haven’t started world war III. But there’s no objective measure that can convince me that it can’t happen. i hope it won’t, but it certainly can.

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