In the early 15th century, there lived a man by the name of Baron Gilles de Montmorency-Laval de Rais… but he’s generally just referred to as Gilles de Rais. He was one of the noble leaders who fought alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. But the thing that makes Gilles de Rais a truly noteworthy historical figure is the crime (or rather crimes) that he was convicted of.1 You see, as virtuous as de Rais appeared, what with helping someone as saintly as Joan of Arc and building the Chapel of the Holy Innocents,2 he harbored a deep and very dark secret. He killed children… for fun. Not only did he kill them, he abused and tortured them in the most atrocious way imaginable.3
First he would kidnap a child of lower class, generally a boy, and entreat them to fine clothes and a large meal, the sort of luxuries that these children had never known. He would then take the child to an upper room where he would tell them what was about to happen to them, taking gruesome delight in their horrified reaction. Stringing up the child with ropes from a hook, he would proceed to masturbate onto their stomachs or thighs and/or rape and abuse them. After this, he would bring the crying child down and comfort them, telling them that he was only playing with them. Once the child had stopped sobbing and began to show trust in de Rais again, he would then kill them either by decapitation, cutting their throat, dismemberment, or breaking their necks. Very often, de Rais would sit on the dying child’s chest and laugh as he watched the life drain from their eyes. Showing no real interest in the child’s genitalia, de Rais would often commit unspeakable acts of debauchery using the new openings made by decapitation or the slashed throats. He would then hold up the severed limbs and heads of the children to the light and examine them with admiration. While historians are uncertain as to the exact number of children who fell victim to de Rais in this way, realistic estimates range anywhere from dozens to hundreds.4 The victims, both boys and girls, were as old as eighteen and as young as six years old.5
Why bring all this up? Why focus on such an evil person? Why go into so much gut-wrenching detail? Because I want us to take an honest look at evil. You see, within the academic halls and tomes of philosophy, theology, ethics, and apologetics, there is this thing called the Problem of Evil. This is probably the most controversial and difficult to answer issue in all of theoretical thought, and the question goes something like this – If God is both all-powerful and all-good, how can there be evil in the world? As far back as the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), the general idea has been that…
Now, Christian theologians and philosophers have a number of ways that they answer this apparent conundrum, which they call theodicies. There are good theodicies and there are bad theodicies, and one of the things that I think eventually makes for a very bad theodicy is a refusal to look genuinely at the subject matter – evil.
I’ve talked to a good many Christians about this issue. And when I ask why God would allow or make evil things happen, I usually hear something about how God is trying to teach someone a lesson, or how people are sinful and deserve it, or how it is all part of His great, divine, and elaborate plan to reconcile fallen creation back to Himself.6 And I think that this line of thinking works, just so long as you don’t consider real evil. If when I say evil, you think of a bad grade on an exam, or losing a job, or people saying and thinking mean things about you, or people who hold different political opinions than you, then you aren’t really considering evil in its most raw and untamed state. Often when theologians get into discussing the problem of evil, what they are really discussing is the problem of inconvenience.
But when I talk about evil, true evil, I am talking about the sadistic actions of Gilles de Rais. I am talking about when Japanese forces took the Chinese city of Nanking in the 1930s, when officers made a game of killing people with a sword, when families were bayonetted to death, a thousand women were raped every night, and girls had canes and coke bottles rammed into their vaginas. I’m talking about when Nazi soldiers systematically killed hundreds of thousands… no millions(!) of victims in their campaign against the Jewish people. I’m talking about the scratch marks made by human fingernails left in the walls of gas chambers in concentration camps, and the women and infants that died when soldiers would rape and impregnate Jewish girls and then tie their legs together when they went into labor. I’m talking about little boys in Africa7 who were given the option to either have their hands cut off or to shoot their families, and those who are brainwashed to become the very killers that destroyed homes like theirs. I’m talking about little girls who were promised work in the cities to help support their families, but end up finding themselves living on a stained mattress where they are raped by one man after another all day long, sometimes dozens of times in a single day.
This is what I’m talking about when I talk about real evil. And this is very much the sort of evil we need to bear in mind when we have conversations about why God would allow bad things to happen.
And it matters.
It matters because there are some very well-respected, very well listened-to evangelical leaders and teachers who claim that everything happens because God wants it to happen. They teach that all things — good, bad, ugly, and horrific — are ordained, guided, and governed by the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. And when you have a view of God’s sovereignty that insists that everything happens for a divine reason, what other logical conclusion can you come to? When your theology is one in which every molecule of the universe acts exactly as God wants it to,8 what other choice do you have?
And it is for this reason (but not just this reason) that I can’t help but reject that view of God with everything that I have. I simply cannot bring myself to accept that God would make these things happen. What a terribly unintelligent, uncreative, and unimaginative God He must be if He has to cause the death and torment of so many people in order to pull of His grand scheme. What a devilish monster He must be if such things really do bring Him glory. Such a deity would be unworthy of our worship, and certainly of our love. If I am going to believe that God truly is all-loving, that God looks anything like Jesus, I cannot believe that He is the driving force behind everything that happens.
As long as we’re talking about real evil, I just can’t.
1: More recently there has been a debate over whether or not de Rais was actually guilty of these crimes. From what I can tell, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of his guilt.
2: Dedicated to the children slaughtered by king Herod, an ironic and telling choice by de Rais.
3: Throughout this account, I will say “he” instead of “they,” but to be sure de Rais had a number of accomplices, many of whom testified against him in his trial. It is from their accounts, as well as his own confession, that we have all these grizzly details.
4: At a bare minimum, at least 40 bodies were found at one of de Rais’ homes, with estimates of the body count being as high as 600 victims.
5: For more on Gilles de Rais and his subsequent trial, listen to this podcast from How Stuff Works.
6: Usually this bears the unmentioned assumptions that (a) God only truly intends to reconcile an elect few back to Himself, and (b) that it was God’s intention for mankind to fall in the first place.
7: And all around the world
8: see R. C. Sproul, Now, That’s a Good Question! (Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 26.