The Alabama shooting, like the Virginia Tech massacre before it, is sure to unleash a wave of speculation about what drove the troubled young Michael McLendon to do what he did. Even this morning on my commute, I overheard a discussion of the killing spree in which one fellow conceded, “Since he killed that many people, it just can’t be evil — he must have been insane.”
That insanity can and should be a legal defense I do not dispute. It is, of course, too often misapplied and abused to let murderers off the hook, but the insanity defense should not be discarded. A person lacking control of his sense of reality should not be held to the same legal culpability as someone who possesses his full mental faculties. The problem with my fellow commuter’s view is that while sanity may have much to do with a legal defense, it has little to do with whether or not an act is evil.
Evil is often irrespective of its object. The Hebrews knew this concept well. The predominant Hebrew term for evil in the Old Testament (raa) has a range of meaning from everything to natural disasters and calamity, to human acts of violence. The word is introduced in Genesis 2:9 with respect to the tree from which the man and the woman were not to eat. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph speaks of adultery with Potiphar’s wife as a “great evil.” The narrator of Job even tells us that Yahweh himself had brought evil upon Job [Job 42:11], and 1 Samuel 16:14 speaks of an “evil spirit” sent from Yahweh. God is of course not himself evil, but in these instances he providentially wields evil for his purposes.
It follows that evil does not equal sin, but it does, however, have a strong relationship with sin. Sin is always an evil action, but all evil forces, though always unpleasant, are not necessarily sinful. Evil existed on the tree and with the serpent before Adam and Eve premiered the first sin. Sin lives, thrives, and is born where evil meets humanity.
Whether or not Michael McLendon was legally insane, we may never know. What we do know is that insane or not, his actions were indeed evil, and evil is at work in the world. The Apostle John reminded us long ago that “whole world lies in the power of the evil one” — a fact that should make us all tremble, since we are all just as prone to be caught up and turned by evil.
Thankfully John also reminds us that if we are born of God, we have a Protector who can keep us from evil. Without Him, nothing stands between us and evil. God help us all.