05/02/2011 02:29 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

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 ties 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.