Misplaced Jesus, Theology — May 2, 2011 at 3:30 pm

Was Osama Bin Laden Evil?


The death of Osama Bin Laden offers an important opportunity to reflect on human nature, and more specifically, the problem of evil.

According to the Genesis creation narrative — rooted at the heart of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths — God created Adam and Eve and placed them in a garden free from many of the worries we face today. We don’t know much about this garden, except that it contained everything people needed to be fruitful and multiply.

Flash-back to the very beginning: God exists. God creates world. God creates Adam and Eve. They eat the forbidden fruit. Everything falls apart. Genesis offers this much of the story, but what it leaves out seems just as telling. It provides a context, a space to inhabit, a worlding-of-the-world. The creation narrative ventures to answer the question of how, but leaves out the question of why, and — perhaps a more glaring omission — why evil?

Flash-forward a few million years: As you pass the milestones of civilization, you will see many features, but most of them will look the same. Empires rise and crumble to ruin, consumed by the degenerative bile of their own hubris. Revolutions collide with institutions perpetuating the status-quo, sometimes succeeding, more often failing. Rivaling tribes set out to destroy one another, seeing evil in the face of the other and goodness in their own cause. Wars are fought. Battles are lost. Victories are won. The common denominators of human pain and suffering tie these stories together — common threads running throughout human history.

Notice how the questions remain the same. The world exists. Suffering exists. Sometimes goodness breaks through both. This much everyone seems to know, be they Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Macedonian, Roman, Jewish, Christian or Arab.

But why does the world exist? And more significantly, why suffering? The omissions of Genesis — the unanswered questions, unanswered from the beginning of time — leave gaping wounds on human hearts from generation to generation.

Enter the 21st century: two world wars, multiple genocides, the atomic bomb, many monsters, and few visible saints. When we look back over the past hundred years we see the face of the devil in Osama bin Laden. We witness a portrait of goodness in Mother Teresa.

Back to the Genesis story, the Garden of Eden existed in a state of completeness. Humankind knew its responsibilities, not asking the wrong questions or making the wrong accusations. Good and evil were not even on the collective radar screens of human consciousness. These binary ethical options would not have made sense to Adam. They would have made even less so to Eve. After all, she was not there when the Creator showed her husband the trees.

Even in its state of completeness, there seems to have been a tension in a system otherwise infused with goodness. This garden was familiar with the existence of evil.

The reality that Adam and Eve did not know good and evil should not be taken to mean that good was not present or that evil did not exist. Quite the opposite seems clear. At the very center of Eden were two trees, one bringing life and the other bringing death. The first entailed — in life — unity with the Creator. The second produced a curious side-effect, allowing one — in death — to know both good and evil.

But in its essence, in its core, what is evil? What is good?

First a clarification must be made about what exists within the human heart, my heart, other hearts, all hearts. I find it confusing to talk to many Christians who, when asked about human nature, immediately say something like, “Human beings are sinful by nature.” or “People are fundamentally evil (especially if they don’t know Jesus).” The creation account seems to make no such claim. In fact, it draws a distinction between human nature and the nature of evil.

Genesis identifies human nature at its very core with the words Imago Dei: the ‘Image of God’. These words unveil very the definition of what it means to be human. In essence, human beings are the image-bearers of the Creator. As for evil, Genesis offers no definition, no core description of evil in its purest form, save for — perhaps — Tovu Vavaohu: formless and void. The nature of evil remains unknown even to those who know it exists.

Most of the problem in needing to define evil — giving it a face and a name — lies in us. The greatest commandment is not to judge evil but to love others (Matthew 22:37-40). Having eaten the fruit that brings knowledge of the competing forces of good and evil, we still remain unable to rightly distinguish between the two. Only God truly knows what evil is. We just like to pretend we do. All too often we, like those who have come before us, see evil exclusively in the faces of our adversaries and good only in those who bless us. Additionally, we fail to see both at work in ourselves. The result: we commit evil in the eyes of God.

Most of us would like to hold onto the luxury of identifying good and evil in the other, while failing to search them out in the corners of our own hearts. As a result, we need archetypes to make us comfortable with good and evil as categories and to make us comfortable with ourselves.

We see evil in Osama Bin Laden and label him a monster. This plumbline becomes our paradigm for how evil operates in the world. On the other side we see goodness in Mother Teresa and call her a saint. This point-counterpoint, picture-counterpicture, of good and evil sets up caricatures of humanity that conceal more than they clarify. Our images make us less able to see the real ways good and evil really operate in the world.

Human beings are addicted to labels and stereotypes. These tools that allow us to put others in comfortable boxes that make sense. If we can peg a person down and place them in a category, they can no longer surprise us in ways that make us feel uncomfortable. When they do, we feel entitled to judge them. We can simply write off everything they say or do as, “typical”. In so doing, we define them. We attach a nature to them. Effectively we say to them, “you are good” or “you are evil” or some gradient in between.

Re-enter the Garden of Eden again for a perfect example. Adam and Eve lived, breathed and worked in the midst of two legitimate archetypes of good and evil (perhaps the only two truly legitimate ones ever to exist). God is goodness; the very epitome. The serpent represented the nearest possible embodiment of evil in a world brought into being by a benevolent creator.

Interestingly, neither Adam nor Eve could really tell the difference between the two until they ate what they were not supposed to, and acquired knowledge they were never supposed to have. Even more telling, after they ate the fruit, they immediately confused good and evil seeing the later everywhere except in their own choice to eat the fruit.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a dissident writer living in communist Russia at the height of Soviet power, spent many years in a concentration camp at the hands of his own government. During this time, he discovered something that few people truly realize or even want to understand. In The Gulag Archipeligo he writes:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it was 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?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

Evil happens when we deceive ourselves into thinking Jesus’ greatest commandment to ‘love your neighbor (and even your enemy) as you love yourself’ does not apply to those we see evil in. We, in turn, are off the hook for not fulfilling it. “After all, wicked people ought to be judged, not loved,” we tell ourselves. In this we miss what good God might be working in their lives and we miss the evil in our own moral judgments.

We also deceive ourselves into undo hero worship of those in whom we see the presence of good. In our minds, the righteous ones are those truly deserving of love. These are the people we want in our camp, on our side, fighting our battles. In this we miss the dark-side of even our brightest stars and the darkness of many of our own causes.


  • Thanks for this article Chris. One thing that keeps running through my mind is: Osama bin Laden – the very image of God. It changes things when we acknowledge this. Solzhenitsyn’s quote is especially cutting, considering what he endured. I’ll have to pick up that book again and give it a second try.

  • Chris,
    Couldn’t agree more. We are, each of us, capable of enormous good and unconscionable evil. Daily, really each moment, we must decide, and from such consequential choices God allows us to co-create with Him the “days of our lives”: the succession of “presents” that we call into existence via our choices from the chaos and infinite choices we call the “future”. Such is the crucible, the altar, on which our souls—and our destiny—are shaped.

  • Chris,
    Thanks for your thoughts, I have been enjoying your website, and your work.

    One thing that comes to mind when you mention the definition of the human condition or the nature of man, is that in addition to being created in the image of God, and therefore capable of doing great good. I see that humanity is also profoundly broken. Unable to do good when it wants to, or uncapable of stopping the bad. The wickedness of every human heart needs to be redeemed. I await the day with eagerness when the Great Judge will judge all of us rightly, and then though we deserve death, are granted an unmerited pardon, and my wickedness condition is completely sanctified. To not want this for the whole of humanity is evil and selfish. Yet, we do.

    With our evil archetypes, I love and dread the call of Christ to pray for our enemies, because it releases control of hate, and can genuinely free our hearts from the poisionousness of our own falleness .

    God bless brother.

    p.s. I think the “why” of Creation, goes back to the fact that He can, was able, and deserved something to proclaim the Trinitarian glory. What better reason to create than that. We are the result of Glory of God.

  • If you guys haven’t read the recent best seller ‘Unbroken’ by Laura Hillenbrand it’s a must read and a perfect comparison on an individual level for this issue. In the book Olympic runner and WWII POW Louie Zamperini has to wrestle with the issue of whether or not he is going to forgive his captor that tortured him mercilessly or continue to live a disintegrating life of hate and vengeance. He not only was able to forgive the man, but cried genuine tears of sorrow when he heard of his recent death. It gives me hope amid all the jubilation of Osama’s death that this book of forgiveness and redemption is such a huge seller.

  • Chris–

    Great thoughts!  I too appreciate your site.

    I have some apprehension that by simply deconstructing the good/evil archetypes we set ourselves up for having no say at all when faced with genuine moral failings.  Even though I agree that there is no objective, all-encompassing definition of evil, there still seems to be a directionality that is genuinely ascertainable.

    I think one marker of evil is the lack of correlation between a person’s belief structure and reality–where deception rules and real people become a threat to the self-imposed illusion.  None of us has everything figured out, and we are all prone to delude ourselves from time to time, but some of us are more teachable than others. 

    Another marker of evil is a growing indifference to the well-being of others, where people become reduced to little more than a means to an end.  While none of us exude a genuine interest in the truest well-being of every individual with whom we cross paths, the lack of such an interest characterizes the lives of some more than others.

    A third marker of evil, I think, is the lack of reflective decision-making that is increasingly informed by a broadening interest in others.   We are all born into our own skin, just as Adam and Eve were created in theirs.  Evil seems to be the retarding of the spiritual branching out for which we were created.  Thought patterns resemble mammalistic impulsivity more than inter-human creativity.  I believe that is what Paul describes as “the flesh,” a stimulus-response existence.  Biologically-rooted dominance fails to transform into leadership.  Territoriality fails to transform into home-building.  Sex fails to transform into intimacy and vulnerability.  Such an existence is centered on repelling threats and satisfying appetites, with little energy left over for the informed pursuit of the interests of a broader Us.

    The trouble with latching on to bin Laden as the face of evil is that the image is conveniently foreign to us.  I think it’s a fair observation to say he more prominently displays the markers of evil than most.  I think his deliberate elimination probably is compatible with the pursuit of the world community’s greater good. But I also think that assessment needs to be transient, made with fear and trembling. The psalmist, David said in Ps. 139, “I hate [the wicked] with a perfect hatred!  They are become my enemies!” Only to follow that up immediately with, “Search me, oh God.  Try me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any hurtful way in me and lead me in the everlasting way.”

  • As we all know Osama was considered a good humble kind man in his circles, his circles being large portions of this planet. He gave to the poor needy and widows as did mother Teresa. It was the cultural definitions as you point out that define him as good or evil. Even his murderous acts against others was applauded by many as a ‘good’ act. The question I think is even deeper, as what do you allow to define your good and evil. Which book do you use to define? Koran? NT? OT? the list goes on. Which part or verses do you use? -or not- Did you pick those because you were brought up with them (most likely) or because you like them (just as likely) or because of empirical evidence…? For the most part no matter how you cut it one will nearly always have the subjectivity (futility) of creed, unless they are brutally honest with themselves and agree to be told or shown or search things that really doesn’t want to be seen, from forgiveness to punishment and yes even judgment. Because even judgment is needed to be honest with oneself.
    The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the word ‘Knowledge’ there is the noun form of “Adam knew his wife Eve..” 4:1. This word is not talking about a simple knowledge of facts. We all ‘know’ that Adam ‘knew’ his wife Eve long before he “knew” her. This word in Hebrew conveys a the idea of practical experience and intimacy. So before the ‘apple’ was crispy and ripe there was the ‘knowledge’ of “-don’t-” It was the doing of the don’t that made it intimate, personal. Ignorance of and intimacy with need not be confused as the same thing. Just because she had not rebelled before doesn’t mean she didn’t know what rebellion was, what the word meant.
    You know all what you say is really good and generally everyone knows this, but how many ‘know’ it?

    Matt 7:22-23
    many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
    Fear and trembling indeed.

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