In the media coverage of the recent “movie massacre” in Colorado we have continually heard analysts try to “make sense” of this atrocity.  The same language that has been used to describe pedophile Jerry Sandusky and mass murderer Anders Brevik is now being applied to James Holmes as well.  He is “sick” or “insane” or “delusional” or otherwise psychologically twisted.  But I still have yet to hear anyone call him “evil” or “wicked.”  Evidently, reporters and commentators are reluctant to use moral terminology to assess pedophilia, rape and murder, which is unfortunate because to call these acts evil is to call them what they are and is the best way to “make sense” of them.

Why are we so quick to psychologize brazen killers and rapists rather than to simply identify their acts as extreme wickedness?  I suppose this comes from two impulses.  For one thing, we simply want to understand how someone could commit such horrific acts.  In the age of science we look for causes or sufficient conditions for everything, and this includes human behaviors.  Secondly, we naturally desire to distance ourselves from extreme evil.  If Holmes, Sandusky, and Brevik (or Adolf Hitler, for that matter) are just “mentally sick” or otherwise extremely irrational, then I can comfort myself with the thought that their actions are well beyond what I am capable of.  Psychologizing the wicked in this way reassures me that, for all my faults, I would never do that.

But such thinking is problematic for many reasons.  While it’s certainly appropriate to analyze the human mind in order to identify causal influences on our choices, the danger is that this may undermine a proper sense of freedom and moral responsibility.  If we are truly free, if we are genuinely moral beings with the capacity to make autonomous choices, then shouldn’t we grant a bit of mystery about why we do the things we do at times?  Or shouldn’t we at least admit that any one of us might have done what these wicked men have done?

These leads us to the second problem, which is the fact that psychologizing the wicked suggests a false view of human nature.  According to scripture, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  But more than this, we all suffer from an innate inclination toward immorality, a moral fact known as “original sin.”  To suggest that one must be especially mentally warped to do extreme evil fails to recognize this natural moral corruption from which we all suffer.  Now Holmes, Sandusky, and Brevik might in fact be mentally ill as well, but the point is that this is not a necessary condition for wicked behavior.  All of us in our natural state satisfy the most basic conditions for evil, even of the most extreme kind.

And this points to yet another problem with the psychologizing of wickedness, which is the way it breeds pride and false security regarding one’s moral condition.  Again, if it takes extreme mental “sickness” to do what these wicked men have done, then I can be secure in the thought that I am not so wicked as they are.  But if I really am an autonomous being with the freedom to misuse my freedom, along with a fallen nature that predisposes me toward selfishness and immorality, then, well, I really am potentially as wicked as any mass murderer or pedophile.  So what keeps me from engaging in such radical acts of wickedness?  The old cliché applies: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

4 Responses to “Psychologizing Wickedness”

  1. Inchristus


    Your reflections here are worthy to consider and similar to my own. I, too, have not heard much about the sheer fact of this evil act from media reporting.

    Too often we come to moral evil as if it were a psychological (on naturalistic grounds) or philosophical (on academic grounds) equation to solve. For some this may be just another way of diverting the sheer pain and sadness that we all experience when tragedy strikes like the Aurora, Colorado shootings. At the end of the day, moral evil is not a problem to solve but a fact of our fallenness. It is an anthropological problem that finds its footing in Scripture.

    Ironically, our belief in God sometimes raises more questions than it provides answers. It’s easy to view evil from a distance and abstractly offer analysis that makes sense to those of us untouched by it. But for those directly affected, evil defies all analysis. It shakes us to the core and from it. Perhaps that’s why philosophers readily admit that evil is the most difficult of all topics for any kind of theism.

    When evil is incarnate and people are at their moral worst, we must remember that “when we would not come to God, he came to us, not to rule and command, but to be despised and rejected, to bear our griefs and sorrows, to be stricken for our sake, so that we might be healed by his suffering” (Eleonore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil”. It is Love Incarnate that triumphs.

    The cross of Christ sets everything right side up and deals once and for all a death blow to evil. Though the sentence upon evil has been declared by Calvary, it continues to be gradually discharged in time and in space until such day that “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

  2. Ben Taylor


    I’m late to this conversation, but…

    I think that Sufjan Stevens nails this idea in his song about the serial killer “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

    In it, he attempts to humanize Gacy, describing his childhood, reminding us that all such Hitlers/Sanduskys/etc. begin as children too. But he also pulls no punches in a gruesome, yet tactful, description of some of the details of Gacy’s heinous (i.e. evil) acts: Gacy dressed as a clown and killed young boys and teenagers, hiding them beneath the floorboards of his house. Sufjan doesn’t let us forget this either.

    The song is dark, yes. But then there is a moment when Stevens shifts gears and drops what Stephen Colbert might call a “truth-bomb”…

    And in my best behavior
    I am really just like him
    Look beneath the floorboards
    For the secrets I have hid

    Perhaps what we so detest in these “sociopaths” – what we want to so distance ourselves from – is that same deep sin that has its roots in all of us. I don’t want to believe that I am capable of such things as shooting innocent people in a dark movie theater, but as a believer in Christ, I know that I am. I know that I have a wicked streak. I know that I, too, stand among the crowd who yelled, “crucify him!” And because I know all that, I know that this same man’s blood is my only hope.


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