Can We Call People Evil?


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)

It seems to be getting more and more controversial in Christian circles to make judgments about the character of others. Now, on first blush, this might seem to be a good thing. Everyone loves to repeat the Solzhenitsyn quote above, and to quote the words of Jesus, against the idea of judging anybody. But I think there is something fundamentally warped about the unwillingness to recognize that not everyone is morally equal, and that moral differences between people are actually knowable by human beings (and not just God).

Firstly, I think it’s obvious the OT did not think this way. To prove this point, I could just say “flip to a random page of the book of Psalms”, and you will likely see a passage where the Psalmist talks about “the wicked”. Who are these people? Is the Psalmist talking about every human being, since he knows very well that every human being has sinned, and has struggled with sin? Obviously not, since, while the Psalmists often recognize their own sinfulness, they rarely (if ever?) put themselves into the category of the wicked. The wicked, rather, always tend to be described as people who deliberately act to harm other people, often with violence, sometimes with deception, and always without penitence. So, at least according to the OT, recognition that all people are sinful is not seen to imply that no moral judgments can be made about some individuals being morally worse than others, or that no human being can be called “evil” in a way that would contrast them with other human beings.

Of course, the most obvious objection to using the OT in this way is that the NT might seem to change this picture. This would, if we are being honest, imply that the OT was simply wrong, and if the NT is read the way this criticism suggests it should be, that the OT was wrong in a morally condemnable sort of way (in that it was simplistic, judgmental, and harmful). But, secondly, I think it’s demonstrable that, in fact, the NT continues to assume the same attitude toward these issues as the OT. I’ve already dealt with the mother-of-all-texts appealed to to oppose the OT’s attitude, so I won’t repeat myself here. Beyond this text, often appeal is made to texts like Romans 3, where Paul says “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” For some reason, this is usually taken to imply that, because all have sinned, therefore all people should be regarded as equally evil. But of course, it implies no such thing. If all people have money, does that necessitate that all people have the same amount of money? If all people are intelligent, does that imply that all people have the exact same amount and kind of knowledge? Obviously it doesn’t. Another text used to criticize the OT mentality is James’ statement of “mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:13). But one need not read very far to grasp that James cannot mean this in the sense that it is being taken, since he has incredibly harsh words for rich oppressors even within his own letter. Further, he obviously requires his readers to recognize the rich people he is talking about and the wicked nature of their behaviour, thus also requiring them to agree with his judgment about these people. In context, too, the statement about mercy and judgment is talking obviously about God’s judgment, thus suggesting that James means “merciful people will receive mercy on the last day, and not The Judgment”. But, of course, being merciful does not imply not making moral judgments about people; in fact, sometimes being truly merciful presupposes a recognition of the true depth of their vice. Finally, one other major text that is used to argue that the OT was somehow mistaken is Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5). But, again, in Jesus’ own activity it was obvious that obeying this command is consistent with making moral judgments about other people: in one case, Jesus called his opponents “sons of the devil” (John 8:44), and even went to so far as to divide the world up into two groups, those who do what is right and those who don’t (John 3, etc.).

Now, what application does this have to us today? It firstly, obviously, means that the church is free to cautiously make moral judgments about other people. Further, there seems to be no reason why this freedom should not also be granted to people in the world: often unbelievers can see character defects in others just as we can, simply because those defects are visible and obvious, and the light of reason has been preserved in many unbelievers.

This in turn has application to questions of politics. It cannot be right to criticize a political statement or position simply because it says sometimes that one group of people is better than another group of people, at least in a specific context, like that of war, where a matter of guilt or innocence is even easier to establish than when one is judging a person’s overall character. (That is, because war is justified on the basis of specific evil acts of aggression, not on more difficult judgments about patterns of behaviour.)

Of course, having said all this, there is something right about Solzhenitsyn’s immortal words. What is right about it, though, is that it implicitly recognizes the very distinctions that some use his words to overturn: that there is a difference between the kind of evil that dwells in all of us, and the kind of evil that would be worthy capital punishment. A purist, zealot mentality, when wedded to political judgment and violence, does indeed become demonic and inhuman, precisely because it makes insufficient or disproportionate distinctions between imperfect but good people, and people who are inveterately, or heinously, evil.