So, Do We Forgive Evil or Persons Who Perpetrate Evil?

Consider this quotation from the late great Dr. Lewis Smedes:

When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look the evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us, and only then do we forgive it.

I am sure that Dr. Smedes was being poetic to drive home a point about how we are to respond to evil. He was not being literal.

If this is the case, then we need to ask this: Why do we forgive persons and not evil per se? The answer lies in what the essence of forgiveness is. It is a moral virtue and all moral virtues flow out from us to others—to other people—for their good. We are just or fair so that people can live a good life of order rather than chaos. We are patient so that people can correct imperfections, as only one example of how patience is used for good.

When we forgive, it is directly for the other, for the one who was unjust. It gives him or her a chance to correct the evil, to reach for the higher aspects of what it means to be human. Evil is not an entity. It is not a thing. We cannot interact with it. We surely experience its effects, but there is no interaction with it. Instead, there is interaction with people who house the evil, who give it a chance to exist as a deprivation of the good.

Thank you, Dr. Smedes, for your poetic image. It has helped us deepen our understanding of forgiveness.


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Categories: Our Forgiveness Blog, What Forgiveness is


  1. Nancy says:

    This clears up a lot for me. Forgiving people and not “stuff” makes much sense. I was wondering how to forgive the things people do. Now I know to forgive the person.

  2. Tracy says:

    If we look at your earlier post on Personhood, we get a clue that all of the moral virtues are for persons and not things. Forgiveness then is for certain persons, those who have done us harm. We give such gifts to persons.

  3. Chris says:

    Evil as the absence of good means that evil is not a thing at all, as one of your earlier posts made clear. It is not a substance or a being and so evil cannot be forgiven.

  4. Beth says:

    It is hard enough to forgive people for injustices that are insensitive but not evil. Forgiving those who perpetrated the profound injustice of evil is even tougher. I admire those who do.

  5. Nathan says:

    As we forgive persons, we need to work hard not to sees these persons as evil. They are imperfect, yes, but not evil. Evil, as you say, is the absence of good. By definition, a person has goodness of some kind even if we have to look hard to find it.

  6. Janice Rossing says:

    Consider that forgiving a person, a corporation, a government, or a group who has done evil liberates US from the heavy, crippling burden of blame, hatred, and disgust. It may liberate the one who has done evil, if they choose. Forgiveness liberates US.

  7. Beth says:

    Yes, this is so important. We have a certain degree of control over our inner world. When a corporation or a government perpetrates evil, at the very least we can stay internally healthy as the chaos rages on.


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