Recently on ABC, I watched the 20/20 interview conducted by Diane Sawyers as she interviewed Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold—one of the teenage shooters in Columbine High School. The interview was interesting, heart wrenching, and disturbing at the same time. It was interesting as one was able to peer into the life of Dylan Klebold; heart wrenching as one could sense the pain of the mother; and disturbing to witness how a normal teenager’s heart could turn so cold.
Of particular interest was a conversation that Sawyer had with Klebold and Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole, former FBI profiler. Sawyer asked Klebold, “Do you believe in evil?” Klebold responded, “I don’t think so. I don’t think I do.” The documentary then shifts to O’Toole who states, “Evil is a spiritual term. And it doesn’t have any legal or behavioral meaning. So I stay away from it.” Now earlier Sawyer asked Dr. O’Toole, “Did Dylan know right from wrong?” She replied, “Yes, but it did not preclude him from planning and going through with [the shooting.”
My heart breaks for those involved in this tragedy. Yet I found myself pondering this question: in the face of such evil, how can one deny evil’s existence? Perhaps to accept the presence of evil, Klebold would have to accept that her son had been influenced by evil. Is evil only a spiritual term as O’Toole suggests? What exactly is evil anyway?
The term “evil” defined.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines evil as “1. morally reprehensible, arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct; 2. Causing discomfort or repulsion; 3. Causing harm, marked by misfortune.” Augustine offers a good definition of evil in that “evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains.” Thomas Aquinas adds that
“since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature is good. Hence it cannot be that evil signifies being, or any form of nature. Therefore it must be said that by the name of evil is signified by the absence of good. And this is what is meant by saying that ‘evil is never a being nor a good.’ For since being, as such, is good, the absence of one implies the absence of the other.”
Thus we find that evil has two constituent parts. First, it is the absence of good. In addition, one progressively finds that the more evil one accepts, the more evil one will become.
Evil is the absence of good.
I think Augustine and Aquinas do well in defining evil as the absence of good. The Bible demonstrates in several places the absolute goodness (or holiness) of God (Isaiah 6:3; Rev. 4:1-8). However, humanity has fallen into sin (or activities that oppose the holiness of God, which actions would inherently would be evil). Thus, human beings find one of two options: salvation in Christ (forgiveness so that one can live righteously) or rebellion (living and relishing in sin). Therefore, individuals have only one of two lifestyle choices that leads to one of two options: living a life of righteousness (choosing the good) or a lifestyle of rebellion (choosing the evil). The psalmist notes that “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). Therefore, good is the absolute rule. Evil is a deviation from the good. Therefore Augustine and Aquinas are correct in asserting that evil is the absence of good.
Evil is progressive in its hold.
Aquinas adds that “Good and evil are not constitutive differences except in morals, which receive their species from the end, which is the object of the will, the source of all morality.” In other words, a person is not born evil. Yes it is true that all of us are born into sin and that “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). However, every person stands guilty before God meaning that people are responsible for choosing the evil over the good. Paul notes that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Yet, evil is also progressive in its hold. This is the reason that many in the New Testament use the metaphor of light (representing good) and dark (representing evil). Paul notes that people who continue down the path of evil will become more and more depraved. Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28). I heard once from a person who stole that the first time a person steals, it is very difficult. But the more times a person steals and gets away with the theft, the easier it becomes. Evil is like a cancer that overtakes a person the more the person walks in darkness.
Sue Klebold, undoubtedly, carries an enormous weight upon her shoulders. However, she must realize that the evil that transpired in Columbine was not her doing. It was not her fault. She did everything in her power to raise her son right. While I am tremendously sympathetic to Sue Klebold and greatly appreciative to the work of Dr. O’Toole, I must respectfully, however, disagree with their take on evil. Good and evil are very much real. While goodness is an attribute of God (since he is the essence of goodness) and evil is the absence of good, it must be understood that good and evil stem from the actions and choices that one makes. If one is genuine in their faith and seeks the sovereignly good God, then a person has started down the path of goodness. But if one forgets the two great commandments (love God and love others) then one may very well traverse down the path of evil. Unfortunately, Dylan Klebold is an example of one who journeyed down the path of evil. The results of such evil speaks for itself.
© February 29, 2016. Brian Chilton.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica: The Complete Edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014. Kindle.
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. New York; London: Penguin, 1961.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Accessed February 29, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evil.
 St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions III.7, R. S. Pine-Coffin, trans (New York; London: Penguin, 1961), 63.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.48-49, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans (New York: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014), Kindle.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).
 Aquinas, Summa Theologica I.48-49, Kindle.