Why is there evil?

One might argue that evil is in the eye of the beholder. It is socially constructed. That is a singularly cruel interpretation, since it devalues and discounts the pain that a recipient of evil feels. When one has felt evil, it certainly feel real. Sandy Hook Elementary School feels real.

One can argue that there is no God, or how could He countenance such evil as a mad young man killing children and adults at a school. Yet that argument discounts the majority of people in the world who sense there is a higher power and ultimate meaning in life.

One might conversely argue that there is a God. He creates a world where there might be evil, depending on choices His children make. Because He is committed to individual agency, He may not intervene to eliminate evil, since then He’d allow a greater evil, that of making His children into mere automatons. I prefer that argument.

Opinions are not facts. We are left with one fact.

There is evil.

The appearance of evil calls us to do good.

Children are senselessly murdered. To whom might we do good? Might it not be to the surviving children?


There are three reactions to evil.

When evil appears, some people are damaged. They are set back on their heels, and they seem to never regain their balance. They suffer posttraumatic stress disorder.

Some people suffer from the evil, and then bounce back. They soon recover their balance. The symptoms of stress pass quickly. We might call that group resilient.

Some suffer from evil, bounce back, and then make a point of growing. A son disappears and the father creates a nationwide program for finding wanted criminals. An innocent young girl dies of a hit-and-run and the mother creates a national organization to fight drunk driving.

This third group we might call post-traumatic growth.

To eliminate evil is simply not possible. Some solutions to evil are worse than the disease. Arguably Prohibition was both a strong response to evil and the cure being worse than the disease.

So if we cannot eliminate evil, what must we do? Perhaps our duty is to support posttraumatic growth. I offer three verses.


One of my best supervisors was John Weakland. The model of family therapy at the Brief Therapy Institute in Palo Alto was live behind-the-mirror supervision. The team behind the mirror would call in suggestions to the therapist and the family being seen.

One day Dick Fisch, MD, got into an argument with a family. The mother complained about her son acting up at school. She said she could tell when he was getting into trouble at school. Dick, a materialist (“Fundamentalist materialist? Fundamaterialist?”) argued that she could not. Telepathy was impossible, he asserted. She said she could tell what her son was doing, although he was at school and she was at home. They squabbled back and forth. John Weakland behind the mirror was frustrated at Dick’s non-therapeutic behavior. He called Dick on the phone. The telephone rang, Dick picked it up and John made a few comments.

Dick looked at the phone and put it down. He hanged his head, as if ashamed.

He turned to the family, addressing the mother. “My colleagues behind the mirror have pointed out that I have overlooked something of great value. It is clear to them that you actually are able to receive signals from your son at school. Since you are a wonderful receiving station, why not turn it around? Can you become a transmitting station? Can you not send a powerful message back to your son at school, helping him regain his calmness and focus, and pay more attention?”

(Note how Dick doesn’t believe any of that. It is simply to change her “view” of the problem and therefore how she will “do” the problem. Strategic therapy tries to change the viewing, the doing, or the context of a problem and thus to disrupt the problem itself.)

The mother agreed that the supervisors behind the mirror were indeed far brighter and more insightful that Dr. Fisch, and thus agreed to do the homework. In the next session, she reported that she had felt her son begin to misbehave, and immediately sat down and concentrated on sending him messages of self-control. That afternoon when he returned from school, he reported he had behaved himself in class, much to everyone’s delight. He had received his mother’s comforting message, she concluded.

Now one way to look at PTSD and psychic damage is that it is, certainly in part, the way we socially define and construe the event. When we act as if the children are terribly damaged and scarred, we make that very scarring more likely. People are deeply influenced by how they think others see them.

Sandy Hook Elementary School was closed after the disastrous event, and has not been reopened. I view this not as a solution but as a problem. It is a problem that harms the people involved.


Simply because I cannot sense something does not mean is cannot exist. To think otherwise is to fall into the worst kind of egotism. Thanks to qualifying with the M-14 7.62 mm rifle in my Army days, I am pretty much deaf above 4,000 cycles per second. My daughter has tested her hearing and can discern tones almost to 20,000 cycles per second. She literally has the ears of a fox.

In societies I am familiar with, there is a “sacred vs. profane” dichotomy when it comes to locations. Among near-death experiencers there are those who can hold an object and tell us details about the person who owns the object. There are such people in every culture. The universal construct is that objects can carry a kind of information imprint of events. That is, when we enter a holy site, whether a mountaintop or a cathedral, if we are spiritually in tune, we feel the holiness of the place. You may not feel it. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Think of how you feel in the presence of great art or beautiful music. Do you not feel that you are in a sacred place? Think of a time you saw someone do something kind and loving. Did you not feel that you were on holy ground?

Do you have ears to hear?

At the same time, Auschwitz and other locations are carriers of evil. Again, the spiritually attuned (those on the far end of the normal distribution in terms of spiritual sensitivity, as William James suggested) report that they are able to feel that evil. They sense it as a tangible thing, attached to the walls and ground. They know for a certainty that something horrible happened there.

(No one needs to believe this spiritual conceptualization, simply to respect it as a common experience among all people. The concept / emotional experience of AWE is universal. So is the emotion of disgust, something most people can feel, and dogs apparently cannot.)

Sandy Hook Elementary School was closed. Now one can argue that by closing the school where the shootings took place, the local authorities are actually practicing a kind of religious observance, setting the location of a locus of evil. They superstitiously or intuitively feel that such evil is to be avoided.

But avoiding evil is in itself a kind of facilitating of evil. Stay away from an evil place? This empowers the evil, reifies it. Rather, should not the evil be diminished or exorcised? One way to do that is to invite the children who feel ready to visit the school and celebrate the lives of those who died. Local spiritual leaders can and should be invited to visit the school, from American Indian shamans to Catholic Priests. They should be encouraged to cleanse the site of evil, releasing, and even offering forgiveness for the terrible suffering that led the perpetrator to commit his evil act.

Avoid the location? Close it forever? It is wrong, and it conveys to the children that they are not resilient. It tells the children that they are weak and small and helpless and must cultivate fear and avoidance.

Rather, the call to the community is to redeem. Revenge says, “You are irredeemable and deserve destruction.” Victimhood says, “I must stay away; evil is strong, and good is weak.”

There is a better way. Compassion says to the evil place, “You are capable of redemption and we offer it to you. It is not yet too late.” The community should cleanse and sanctify the unholy location, and it should be dedicated to be of use. The location can and should be redeemed. Invite children to participate. They are intriniscally holy. They may not feel strong. If the children participate in that redemption, is it possible that they themselves are redeemed? No force or coercion, but invitation. Every culture has a ritual of cleansing. What would the children wish to do? Do they wish to burn sage, or light candles, or fast and pray? Do they wish to cleanse the building and by so doing, cleanse themselves of the indwelling results of evil?

Aren’t we disempowering those children to close their school without redeeming it?


A family therapist was contacted by a family whose young son was so terrified of dogs that he could practically not leave his house. In family therapy the counselor directed the family to find some puppies (changing the context from dogs to puppies) and to adopt one, but only one that ran away. By finding and healing a puppy afraid of people, the boy could heal himself of being afraid of dogs.

An alcoholic active in recovery once told me that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W, experienced a redemptive spiritual event, a feeling of light and love. But in spite of that, so I was told, Bill W relapsed. He was distraught, wondering what value the spiritual event had if he had not been healed by it. The thought came to him that he should find another alcoholic and help him. Redemption begets redemption; healing promotes healing. Where there is hate and pain, let there be love and peace.

(I don’t know about the accuracy of this. The story may not be true, but is should be.)

Our society is compromised by hate and revenge, by pain and casting out of evil. Jesus was criticized for eating with sinners. He replied they needed redemption. He drew them in. The Sandy Hook school needs redemption. Should the old school be a monument to evil? No! It does need redemption. It is us, the living, who must do that redemption. Would that redemption be spiritually efficacious? I don’t feel the things more spiritually attuned feel. But I know the redemption will help the living. By that redemption, perhaps many of the victims of the horrible event of that day might find their own redemption.

We are called to create a society of the redeemed. Let’s get to it.

By |2016-11-26T09:14:26+00:00January 7th, 2013|Articles|22 Comments

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  1. Cindy W January 7, 2013 at 7:25 am - Reply

    Lynn, this is a lovely and deep reflection. Thanks so much.

  2. Courtney Armstrong January 7, 2013 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Nice piece, Lynn. I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestions. Doing something redemptive as you are suggesting both validates the pain of traumatic loss as it moves us toward healing and reclaiming the lives of those who’ve passed. Taking action to affirm that there is more love, support and resilience in the world than hate, fear and destruction is the best way to respond.

  3. Paul Budin January 7, 2013 at 11:40 am - Reply

    Excellent piece,Lynn. Children do need to see, feel and experience the power of redemptive acts, especially in a case as repulsive and garish as this. I hope the community will come to that realization at some point and involve the children in the process of spiritually and materially reclaiming their school.

  4. Don Morgan January 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm - Reply


    You shared a valuable perspective on evil and violence. I liked the way you described individual agency. I suspect that we have the ability to shape our beliefs, but I don’t understand how I can change my beliefs, even though I would like to change some of them. What is the basis for believing something is true?

    • Dr.J January 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm - Reply

      I find that I simply pretend it is true and note the effect it has on my life. When I do that, I can tell if it is a belief based on truth or on falsehood.

      That implies that truth always leads us toward light and kindness and reconciliation. Try it out for yourself.

      For example, I subscribed to a stock service. The stocks they recommended went down. I lost money.

      That is an infantile example, but at a deep, spiritual level, it works. Get my book, Enjoy Life: Healing with Happiness, where I talk more about that.

  5. George Mims January 7, 2013 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    Seldom do I find time to read what you write. Let me say the article on Sandy Hook is excellent and filled with wisdom. When one of our daughters was eleven years old she fell off a horse and her mom put her right back on! Our daughter never attained an unholy fear of horses. Thank you for the article you’ve written.

  6. Sharon January 7, 2013 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks so much for your work and the article, for the past few days have been listening to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr…and his work, life investment in redemptive suffering. Trying to find more articles on the topic, I think so many have a desire to find ways to create good from what appears to be “bad”, Victor Frankl added so much with the reminder to us that we can control our thoughts and we can make a choice as to what we will do with crises, tragedy, disappointment so that it does not becomeour identity. Those in Newtown made a decision to not be “victims”, but to choose overcoming, and be known as a community that pulled through together, Thanks again, I am learning to shift the perspective, and opt for peace, love and lessen my contribution to the effects of fear based living. Blessings, Sharon

  7. Cliff Grady January 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    We experienced a mass shooting about a year ago at a local restaurant. There was much discussion about whether to reopen it or tear it down. I was glad to see it reopen as a statement about not giving into the evil that was committed. Unfortunately they have not done anything to commemorate the lives lost in that terrible act. I will pass you article onto them. Thank you, Cliff

  8. Mimi L. January 7, 2013 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    This was a very thoughtful beautiful piece and a perspective that all those who live in Newtown should consider. I have lived outside the U.S. where the ritual of cleansing was a deeply healing part of life for many members of that society and transforms the lives of those who partake in this tradition. Thanks for reminding us that redemption is not only possible but an important part of living our lives with resilience and peace.

  9. Rebecca McKeogh January 7, 2013 at 9:30 pm - Reply


  10. Joni January 7, 2013 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    I am Lutheran, but love this prayer-
    the prayer of St. Francis-one’s energy must be focused
    on the positive outcomes you want. For example,
    we should focus our thoughts and prayers on love, peace, etc vs thoughts of
    “ending the war” then the energy going out is focused on
    the positive not the negative. This prayer sums it up beautifully. I hope that all of you “get” this concept…not everyone will.

    “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
    Where there is hatred,let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    And where there is sadness, JOY!

    Blessings to all~

  11. Deborah January 8, 2013 at 7:27 am - Reply

    Wise words. Thanks for sharing Lynn. I pray that Sandy Hook will be redeemed.

  12. Patricia Gage January 8, 2013 at 8:26 am - Reply

    I always enjoy your articles and have benefited tremendously from your books, but this is a life transforming and a highly valuable and empowering perspective. We can be sad and cry over such tragic event, but can’t live our lives as victims to evil and we certainly can’t model or validate fear based living for our children. Redemption is the only way to move forward and continue our work in living our lives and helping others to achieve inner peace. Thanks for your wisdom and thoughtfulness at this difficult time. Pat

  13. Rachel Gandy January 8, 2013 at 8:27 am - Reply

    My mother, a much loved teacher for over thirty years in our small rural community, died on the same day of the Sandy Hook shooting. Many people have comforted our family by their belief that God chose Mama on that day to gather those little children around her and read to them. As a Christian, I am not sure that’s the way God works, but it is a tender thought. Thank you, Dr. Johnson, for allowing us to benefit from your knowledge and experience.

  14. Dr. Rusty Winchester January 8, 2013 at 8:45 am - Reply

    I knew that I had a feeling of something being “off” when I heard about the plans to close the school and, perhaps, bulldoze it. What you’ve written, Lynn, clarifies why that approach didn’t feel right–it was giving the evil actions the last word on the use of that building–giving too much power to the evil. Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions. Your blending of a secular knowledge base with a spiritual mindset and approach really resonates with me. Thank you.

  15. Debra Cook January 8, 2013 at 9:05 am - Reply

    I am so heartened to read your posts. It is thrilling to know that someone in the therepeutic community can coherently meld the clinical and the spiritual. I have long felt its importance (much to the chagrin of past supervisors). Please pass this very wise piece on to people in Newtown who can make a difference. I will pass it on to many. Thank You for your healing love which flows through your writing.

  16. Mary Ballard January 8, 2013 at 9:13 am - Reply

    Thank you, Dr. Lynn. You are so right. I once saw in counseling a family who was convinced they had a poltergeist and wanted an exorcism. After consulting with their pastor–and mine–we had a “Blessing of the House” ceremony, which restored peace and sound thinking. A blessing of this school as you suggest would be healing for everyone.

  17. Paul January 8, 2013 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Thanks, Lynn. Decades ago Erik Erikson wrote that children in play therapy heal by experiencing symbolic mastery of events and circumstances that they initially experienced in a passive manner. I’ve believed since then that the same is true for adults as well. The combination of redemptive action (at Sandy Hook and in our individual lives) and reaching out in compassion to others and to ourselves is both healthy and transformative.

  18. Patricia Jackson January 8, 2013 at 11:57 am - Reply

    We are surrounded by ignorance, which is the worst evil. Judgment, fear, reliance on truths not based our own, will only keep us in a state of victimhood.
    Resiliance and persistence in doing right as we see it is our only redemption.
    Thank you so much for you insightful blog. It encourages me.

  19. Susan Savage January 8, 2013 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    I loved your article and I loved each of the comments about it.

  20. Joni January 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    How powerful it would be if after the children and adults
    who were killed are honored by the school
    and community to then have the school blessed as a
    previous blogger suggested.
    The community needs to “take back” the school
    and not let evil win-instead let “goodness” and “healing” win.

  21. Patricia Pencil February 8, 2013 at 10:47 am - Reply

    Dr. Johnson
    You always manage to enrich and inspire. Such a good article about redemption and dealing with evil head on. Thank you for this.

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