“The only question of ultimate significance is whether the individual soul will be
won to God or won to the devil.” – M. Scott Peck
People of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil is a dangerous book, so says author M. Scott Peck. Its contents “have the potential to harm, to cause pain, and the misuse of its information may harm others.” In offering a critical analysis I hope I will indeed handle the content of his book with care. Peck declares that “Jesus Christ is Lord and that his commitment to Christianity is the most important thing in his life and is, he hopes, pervasive and total.” Though he and I are in agreement about this commitment, I am not in agreement with all his viewpoints in the book.
Attempts to define evil will always be somewhat elusive at best, because it seems to evolve. Yet because it is ancient, and because all God’s created beings act with a certain degree of order, I think there are things we can say about evil with certainty. Peck identifies the first of these: Evil people are people of the lie. Thus the title of the book. What does he mean? He writes in his book of various encounters he has had with what he believes are evil people. Some are clients. Some are parent’s of clients. Some are exorcism’s that he has witnessed. Though he admits that very few evil people are willing to submit to psychotherapy, he writes of at least one evil woman he worked with at length. In his various encounters with evil people, one thing that often results is confusion. Why? Because lies confuse. And as he says so well, “evil people are people of the lie, deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception. He talks about if a therapist finds himself confused by a patient, one of the questions he needs do ask is “is the patient doing something to confuse me?”
I think Peck is very on the mark to call evil people, “people of the lie.” The devil is described as the Father of lies.
The nature of his activities are clarified: he comes to steal, kill and destroy, just like the proverbial fox in the hen house. Only the fox kills to sustain his life. Evil doesn’t kill of necessity. It kills out of many motives such as wrath, pride, vengeance, cruelty, malice, envy, or even pleasure, but it does not kill out of necessity.
If an individual soul is not won to God, by default he is won to the devil. So I think we can say with certainty that evil people will be liars, and their behavior will also exhibit the nature of stealing, killing and destroying. C. S. Lewis once remarked that “deceit is habit forming.”
Proverbs chapter six includes a list of seven things that are abominations to God and one of the seven is a lying tongue. People often think about the fact that lying to each other is wrong, but they rarely think about the fact that lying to themselves about their own behavior is equally wrong. God hates lying because it by very nature destroys community. You cannot at once love your neighbor while simultaneously deceiving him. In dealing with an evil person one is almost always at a disadvantage. When people set out to deceive you, as liars do, you are already behind the curve. It may take you months or even years to come out from under the deception to understand what you are dealing with. Such is the power of a lie.
Peck describes this well. He says “The feeling a healthy person often experiences in a relationship with an evil one is revulsion. The feeling of revulsion may be almost instant if the evil encountered is blatant. If the evil is more subtle, the revulsion may develop only gradually as the relationship with the evil one slowly deepens.” Revulsion, he notes, is a “powerful emotion that causes us to immediately want to avoid, to escape the revolting presence. And that is exactly the most appropriate thing for a healthy person to do under ordinary circumstances when confronted with an evil presence: to get away from it. Evil is revolting because it is dangerous. It will contaminate or otherwise destroy a person who remains too long in its presence. Unless you know very well what you are doing, the best thing you can do when faced with an evil is to run the other way. The revulsion counter transference is an instinctive or, if you will, God-given and saving early-warning radar system.”
I don’t know if I would call it “counter transference” or just God-given “intuition” that gives us warning that is beyond reason. The most evil person I have ever known has been a woman. What makes her the most evil person I have ever known is that she is evil that disguises herself behind good.
2 Corninthians 11:13 says “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their means.”
She is the only person I have ever known where I felt the revulsion Peck describes. The revulsion developed slowly the more I came to know her. It reached the point though where I was extremely uncomfortable whenever I was in her presence. When I am in her presence I can “sense” it even if I cannot visually see her. That is very eerie.
If the first characteristic of an evil person is that they are a liar, not only to others but also to themselves, then the second characteristic is that they are murderers.
I John 3:15 says that “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” The scripture describes Satan as a murderer and says he has been a “murderer from the beginning.” Peck says, “Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has in short to do with killing. Specifically, it has to do with murder – namely unnecessary killing. Killing that is not required for biological survival.”
We see that murder entered the world very quickly after the fall of Adam and Eve. Cain murdered his brother because he was of the evil one and because his brother’s actions were righteous. He murdered him out of wrath and envy. He cared not that he was his brother. He cared only for himself. Evil people not only commit physical murder they also try to kill the spirit, in fact this may be an even greater pleasure for the evil one. “Let’s let him live, but destroy his soul.”
One of the ways evil kills the spirit is by oppressively controlling and using another human being. By very definition evil is parasitic. It feeds off the life force of others and saps them of vitality. Peck notes: “it wants to quell independence, to discourage people’s capacity to think for themselves, to diminish originality, and to keep people in line.” In this way people’s very lives are stripped from them. This is murder.
Evil by very nature is a thief. No one likes to be ripped off. We feel very angry when we are cheated. We feel particularly devastated when the product we have been sold is a “person” and that person turns out to be deceiving us as to who they really are. That is one of the most bitter experiences on the planet.
Since evil people are very adept at making the victims of their evil look like the perpetrators, one is doubly punished. Not only has one been sold a lie, but then the liar turns around and makes you look like the bad guy.
That is the silencing effect of evil. Abuse is about silencing. So evil is not only a thief in personage, but evil also rips you off of individual goods. The most severe thing it can rip off from you is your life, as we have talked about in the above paragraph. It can rip you off of love, of passion, of a good reputation. It can rip you off of money, possessions and property. It can rip you off of vitality, truth, life. It can rip you off of your very soul, and this is its most deadly aim of all.
Peck is right when he says that the only question of ultimate significance is whether a soul is won to God or the devil. One can only be won to God by the truth. The devil tries to come and “steal” the truth from an individual who hears it, thus prohibiting him from finding Christ who is the “way, the truth and the life.” These purposes are the polar opposites of the purposes evil.
Peck makes some other distinguishing comments about evil people. He notes that evil people cannot necessarily be defined by the illegality of their deeds, nor even the magnitude of their sins. For example there may be a person in prison who has committed a crime. Their act was evil. Perhaps it was even a very great evil act.
For example, let’s say a mother has murdered the drunk driver who killed her son. Her act is evil, but she herself may not be an evil person. Peck makes the point that evil people are defined by the consistency of their sins. He says, “their destructiveness is remarkable consistent.. This is because those who have ‘crossed over the line’ are characterized by the absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness.” Not only that but as Peck also notes, evil people also exhibit extraordinary willfulness. This definitely rings true of my experience with evil people.
He says, “They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way. There is remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others.” They exhibit a “malignant narcissism” in which they and they alone count in the universe. Moral choice involves consideration of others. For the evil person, there is no choice. They simply exert their will. They want what they want, and it doesn’t matter the cost to others to get it. Others are merely extensions of their ego. They feel themselves to be “above the law.”They are entitled to have what they want.
King Ahab, one of the most notoriously wicked kings in the Bible, sulked because he could not have a man’s property. His wife, who was just as renowned for evil as he was, said, and I paraphrase: “Don’t sulk darling. I will just arrange to have the man murdered.” Problem solved.
Despite the fact that evil people display a malignant narcissism, the kind which we often display as infants, I am not sure if I would call evil a kind of immaturity as Peck does. If evil people are immature almost gives them an excuse for their behavior.
We often excuse children for what they do because “they do not know any better.” (Folly is bound up in the heart of a child). Children need to be trained. They need to be taught to make good moral choices. Yet even children who are taught right from wrong, can choose to be evil. Their choice is not out of immaturity, out of willfulness. They have become vengefully uncaring of anyone other than self. I see evil less as immaturity and more as sloth.
Evil people know the right course. They do not want to make the effort to be good. That takes too much work. They only want to “look good.” As Peck says, “They lack the motivation to be good. It’s even more serious than that. In a certain sense all people apart from God are bound over to sin and can only sin. Yet evil people have given into sin and do it habitually. However some evil people intensely desire to “appear good.” They are cognizant of social norms.
Thus it is that C.S. Lewis once said, “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” To be evil is to be by definition morally lazy and to be a coward. It must be noted however, that not all evil people care about their reputation. Some don’t give a rip that they are evil and even enjoy the reputation of being so.
As Peck points out, evil people are common. Not only are they common, but their evil actions are subtle.
This is a point I feel most people seem to be ignorant of. The average person thinks the evil people are in jail, and that the cops are chasing down the others who are yet to be put behind bars. Yet there are many, many evil people who exist who are not in jail. Many who have committed crimes and are so good at deceit, lies and manipulation that they have not been caught. This could be the little old lady down the street, the grocery store clerk, your business partner, the choir member, or your pizza delivery guy.
In 2007, Michael Devlin, who was an Imo’s Pizza manager, was arrested for the kidnapping and sexual abuse of two boys. He had held one of the boys hostage for four years. He lived in an apartment in a sought after suburb. He didn’t even try to hide his victim. He allowed the child to ride his bike in the apartment parking lot.
Most people seem “shocked” at these kinds of events, which tells me that they perceive evil as something that is far removed from them. Evil is not far removed. Evil is around us all the time and it is subtle, very subtle, in addition to being very disturbing and extremely dangerous. To not understand this truth is to be naïve. In kids videos, evil people always “look” evil. They dress in black and look menacing. In this world, evil people can be some of the most physically beautiful people you will ever meet, with impeccable manners. Why else have some of our poets described the devil as “a Gentleman?”
Let’s look now at what Peck describes as the “thesis” of his book. Peck, since he is a psychiatrist, is partly writing the book out of what he sees as a need for evil to be “studied.” He states clearly that the thesis of his book is: “That evil can be defined as a specific form of mental illness and should be subject to at least the same intensity of scientific investigation that we would devote to some other psychiatric disease.”
A part of the reason he feels that evil need to be “studied” is so that evil can be “healed.” He states: “The attempt to heal the evil should not be lightly undertaken. It must be done from a position of remarkable psychological and spiritual strength.”
He gives three reasons why he believes people struggle with the idea of evil as a mental illness.
First, we think of illness as suffering, and evil people often don’t seem to suffering. They in fact think that there is nothing wrong with them. Yet Peck points out, the absence of our knowing we are diseased, does not in fact mean that we are not. For example, we may have the condition of heart disease many years before we actually experience the symptoms of heart disease.
Second, we struggle to see evil as a mental illness because to us someone who is ill must be a victim. He says, “We tend to think of illness as something that befalls us, a circumstance over which we have not control…..a curse in the creation we did not anticipate.” He makes the point however that we often have an active hand in bringing on disease, such as the alcoholic who eventually succumbs to cirrhosis of the liver.” His point is that although they have a certain degree of responsibility for bringing on their illness, we still consider them ill.
The final argument against labeling evil an illness is “the belief that evil is a seemingly untreatable condition. Why designate as a disease a condition for which there is neither known treatment nor cure?” Peck says, “The fact that we currently do not know how to treat evil in the human individual is the best reason to designate it a disease. For the label of disease implies that the disorder is not inevitable, that healing should be possible, that it should be studied scientifically and methods of treatment should be sought. It is, he states, “the central proposition of this book that evil can and should be subjected to scientific scrutiny. We can and should move form our present state of ignorance and helplessness toward a true psychology of evil.” Peck says that “The designation of evil as a disease also obligates us to approach evil with compassion.”
To be blunt, I cannot agree with the very thesis of Peck’s book. First and foremost I do not believe that evil is a disease. Secondly, though I think certain truths can be said about evil, many of which I talked about above, comprehensively I don’t think evil can ever be fully “defined.” Finally, I do not think evil can be “cured” by psychotherapy.Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Although evil has some similarities to disease, it is not a disease. It can be similar to a disease in that when evil people practice and give in to evil, it corrupts that whole person. It is also “disease like” in that it is harmful and can destroy not only the host but others (disease spreads). Like a disease, the destructive nature of the person’s evil may not be transparent for a long time. Though he acknowledges that men can live in such a way as to bring on a disease in their body, I think too many times the “disease model” makes men think they are not responsible for their choices. “I can’t help that I am an alcoholic. It’s a disease.” Similarly one could say, “I can’t help it that I only think of myself, I have narcissistic personality disorder.” Too often men use the disease model to excuse themselves.
Since the advent of psychology, moral categories have gone out of vogue. We no longer talk about sin. We talk about “Borderline Personality disorder.” I for one get very sick and tired of hearing about “Borderline Personality Disorder.” Just once I would like someone to have the courage to say “what they did was evil.” Never have we looked so intensely into ourselves and yet seen ourselves with less clarity. Peck defines illness as “Any defect in the structure of our bodies or personalities that prevents us from fulfilling our potential as human beings.”
Evil is much more than a deformation of personality. Evil is much more than something that prevents us from fulfilling our potential as human beings. Evil is persistent, pernicious sinning. To sin is to violate God’s moral law. It is direct rebellion against one’s Creator. Sin destroys a man at his core. Sin also separates a man from God and from his fellow man.
Secondly, I don’t think evil can be “studied” like a scientific endeavor. This is not to say that certain things cannot be said definitively about evil. Yet evil manifests itself in so many ways and forms how could one ever define them all? Peck felt evil should be studied so that we could understand it and then humanely treat it. He says, “I do not think that we shall come any closer than we are today to understanding and, I hope, curing human evil until that healing professions name evil as an illness within the domain of their professional responsibility.”
I am not quite sure how Peck can reconcile this statement with the one he made earlier about “Jesus Christ is his Lord and that his commitment to Christianity is the most important thing in his life and is, he hopes, pervasive and total.” Nothing could be more antithetical to Christianity than to say evil is an illness that can be healed by psychotherapy. To think the healing of evil is within the reach and scope of man is not only arrogant and foolhardy, but nullifies the very need for a Savior. Why should Christ have to die on a cross if we had within our grasp the hope of healing ourselves of our own evil? The only hope now or ever for the healing of evil is the finished work of Christ on the cross.
The apostle Paul makes clear in the book of Ephesians that men without the spirit of God are dead men. Men only have the life changing, transforming power of the spirit if they have place their faith in Christ. Only God’s spirit can radically transform dead men to life again. Until a man is changed by the transforming power of God he is bound over to sin. Even if an evil person would submit themselves to therapy, which even Peck admits they rarely do, it would be futile to discuss their evil behavior with them.
Evil can only be curbed and contained and this with great force and consequence. This is why we have police officers surround a murderer with guns, handcuff him and then put him in a jail. This is why the angel grabbed Lot by the scruff of the neck and pulled him back inside. Lot was standing outside the door of his house trying to reason with the men of Sodom who were insisting on raping the visitors he had at his house. Evil people, by definition, are not reasonable. As was stated earlier, not every person in a jail cell has given themselves fully to evil, though every person in a jail cell has done an evil act.
Chuck Colson works with the prison population because he believes they can be redeemed. But the redemption he offers those in Prison Fellowship is the same redemption he discovered himself: the redemption of the cross. He even tells a story of visiting a jail where he asked the warden how many of the prisoners were “mental cases.” She replied, “all of them.”
He was appalled by this reply. Then he relates this story: All the prisoners were treated with “therapy.” “Therapy” for one of the prisoners included being escorted by a female guard to see a movie. On the way to “therapy”, he overpowered the guard, raped her, then murdered her. One only needs to hear this story to know the power to cure evil is, and has always been, only by the grace of God. Man’s only hope is to bow in humility before his creator and acknowledge there is nothing that can be done to cure his condition but to accept Christ’s death on the cross as payment for his sin. If Peck wants to work with an evil person in therapy, his work must begin there.