The Inexplicability of Evil

By Tim Winterstein

There are only so many explanations for evil. Think of every single thriller/murder/crime book, show, or film you’ve ever read or seen. I don’t care how long it takes to get to the answer or how many twists there are before the detective solves the crime; you can count the number of motives on one hand.

We tend to think sin is exotic and dangerous, walking the razor’s edge of excitement. In reality, sin is as banal as it gets. It’s murder, sexual immorality, or greed. Try to come up with something else. The entire breaking of the Law seems to hang on these three.

In order to tell a story that people will read or watch—that is, in order to make money—there has to be a solution. We don’t like leaving the theater or a book without having our questions answered. It’s easy in fiction to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion. And because we are so used to having neatly concluded stories in fiction, we can’t help but seek answers to our questions when evil confronts us in real life. We ask why, and we expect there to be an answer, even if it doesn’t seem apparent at the outset.

I think that desire for answers is what makes Them (Ils) so effective as a thriller. It’s a 2006 French/Romanian film that works on the suspense of an invisible threat rather than focusing on gore and visible monsters. Clémentine and Lucas, alone at a huge home in the country, are pursued by unknown and largely unseen (supernatural?) enemies. Who are they and what do they want?

I admit, I expected an answer at the end. I expected there to be an explanation for why these particular people were being terrorized. Maybe they had some terrible, hidden secret for which they were being punished. But there’s none of that. It’s a very simple and relatively short, high-tension film. And when the perpetrators are revealed at the end, there is no answer but the enigmatic, “They refused to play with us.” While the viewer is automatically led to think that the “them” of the title refers to those who are doing the terrorizing, ambiguity is introduced by the quote from the terrorizers. In French, the word “they” is the same as the word “them” in the title.

None of that, however, gives any answers for why four people are murdered. (The opening scene connects only incidentally with the rest of the film, acting as foreshadowing while Clémentine drives past the minivan being towed away.) Them certainly plays on fears raised by immature children acting out their horrific and psychotic desires, of which we’ve had too many real-life examples. There’s also a sense of blurred reality, as the perpetrators talk about playing, refusing (apparently) to take seriously what they’ve done. (Although, as a possible context for the Romanian setting, this article provides some real-life horror.)

But this is the banality of evil and, finally, its irrationality. Even if someone has a motive for something, does that really explain what they’ve done? All the way back in the Garden, is there an explanation for why Eve and Adam believe the word of the serpent rather than the word of their Creator? We can say that the serpent tempted them, but that doesn’t explain why they do what they do. It certainly doesn’t explain how sin enters into God’s good creation as a possibility. For that, you’d have to go into the untold black of pre-history, to whatever point at which the devil takes up his own cause against his Creator.

The Scriptures don’t give us an explanation for evil. They describe evil. They condemn evil. They proclaim to us the Creator’s own resolution of His creation’s evil. But they do not explain evil. It is, very literally, inexplicable. And while we want in our fiction resolutions that wrap up all the loose ends, the real world’s horror refuses to be so neatly concluded. There are answers we don’t have. Our theodicies never quite satisfy. And so we need something more than a one-to-one solution; we need an all-encompassing, more-than-enough, full restoration from all our inexplicable evil and destruction.

That’s the real claim of Christianity: that Christ is far bigger than the banality of our evil and that what He has prepared for those who love Him is beyond what any eye has seen or any ear heard. The super-rationality of Christ’s redemption is greater than the irrationality of evil. Evil has no explanation, only a source in the darkness of human hearts. The love of God has no explanation either, only the simple word that God is Love, made visible in the flesh and blood of Jesus. What cannot be put right in this creation will be put right forever in the resurrection. That is no explanation. It is simply a promise.