It was Bertrand Russell who made the statement, “‘Dachau is wrong’ is not a fact.” In other words, while he was appalled by the Nazi Concentration Camp he nonetheless struggled to see an objective basis for calling it ‘wrong’. Russell of course, was simply being consistent in applying his atheistic world view – in a meaningless universe where everything is ultimately arbitrary what basis can there be for such moral absolutes?
Today’s news of the death of Ian Brady the notorious ‘Moors Murderer’ seems to be causing some people a similar quandary. One contributor to Radio 4’s Today programme was reluctant to call Brady ‘evil’ as it was a term that had ‘religious connotations’. Instead he seemed more comfortable in seeing Brady’s crimes as the escalation of earlier sadistic and violent behaviour (which they undoubtedly were).
Well, as others have pointed out, if your world view isn’t able to look at someone torturing and murdering five children and call them ‘evil’ – then perhaps there is something deeply flawed about your world view.
Blinding or illuminating
Psychology and social sciences have contributed hugely to our understanding of human behaviour - but all such enquiry, if detached from the notion of a moral universe, is in danger of blinding rather than illuminating us. To see Dachau or Brady as just being dysfunctional behaviour or simply sitting on an amoral continuum of possible human activity, is to reduce ourselves to little more than mechanistic animals. It strips us of ultimate moral responsibility and indeed of ultimate moral accountability.
The rejection of ‘evil’ as an objective moral category is in part driven by the hubris that humanity can explain itself and thus fix itself. So by turning the actions of Brady into observable processes we are able to rationalise them, and if we can rationalise them we can rectify them. But as most of us know from personal experience human behaviour is frequently irrational and defies mechanistic explanations.
It is only the recognition that there is a spiritual/Godward dimension to our lives that can allow us to truly comprehend ourselves, never mind Ian Brady.
The reality of evil
So far from being a product of religious imagination ‘evil’ is a reality – a reality that affects and infects every person. At its deepest level evil is not simply behaviour that we find distasteful or upsetting – it is a condition. Biblically it is the dislocation of men and women from the source of their life and purpose. It is the rejection of God and thus the rejection of objective morality. A rejection that inevitably leads to conflict, self-assertion and the manipulation of others. It is why Jesus was clear that even the best of humanity is ‘evil’ in God’s sight and that apart from God Himself there is no-one ‘good’ (Luke 11:12, Mark 10:18)
So Ian Brady was evil and that’s a fact. But, in the eyes of God, you and I are also evil and that’s also a fact. Our offences might not be grizzly and tabloid (thank God), but we have each stood apart from God, made up our own rules, violated our consciences and pursued self-gratification at the expense of others.
Inexcusable but not unforgivable
We cannot simply explain ourselves as corks powerlessly thrown about on a sea of haphazard materialism or victims of circumstance – we are responsible moral beings because there does exist a supreme moral standard. We are evil and we are culpable – no more excuses.
Yet the staggering message of the Gospel is that even though we are inexcusable we are not unforgiveable. The Gospel is painfully blunt about our evil and its consequences, it offers us no ‘get outs’ but amazingly holds out the prospect of forgiveness. It points us to a place where evil was laid bare and its horrors exhausted so that guilty people could be forgiven and go free. Because we can no more fix ourselves without God than we can truly understand ourselves.
Ian Brady will now give an account of himself to God and face the consequences of his evil. The call of the Gospel is to take responsibility for our own evil, to look to the Cross of Jesus Christ and ask for mercy in the here and now.
Jesus Christ came to save you, me and the worst of sinners. And that’s a fact.