Charles Manson and the Problem of Evil

Charles Manson is dead. On August 9, 1969, actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends were brutally murdered in a home in the hills above Hollywood. The following evening, a seemingly unrelated double murder took place. A Los Angeles supermarket owner and his wife, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, were killed. The two-night crime spree has come to be known as the “Tate-LaBianca Murders.” Manson and members of his “family” were convicted of the murders in a sensational trial. The jubilant 1960s, with its free love, “do-your-own-thing,” and transcending good and evil philosophy, had shown its dark side. America would never be the same as it feared for its sons and daughters. How could Manson, a misfit if there ever was one, compel all-American types to kill for him in some elaborate scheme to bring about a race war, “Helter Skelter,” as Manson called it?

Humanism on Trial

The Manson trial went on for nearly ten months. The case caught the attention of the international press, radio, and television outlets for more than a year. The only case to surpass Manson’s in international scope has been the O.J. Simpson trial. We’ll never know how the Manson trial would have turned out if cameras had been permitted in the courtroom and an immediate satellite feed had been available through CNN. In both trials, celebrities were at the heart of the proceedings. Sharon Tate was an actress with a famous director husband, Roman Polanski. These were Hollywood murders. For this, America pays attention.

The prosecuting attorney for the city of Los Angeles during the Manson trial was Vincent Bugliosi. He was also a professor of criminal law at the Beverly School of Law in Los Angeles. Bugliosi was something of a prosecuting phenomenon during his tenure, “in a class by himself: 105 convictions out of 106 felony jury trials; . . . 21 murder convictions without a single loss.”1

In a recorded interview about Manson, Bugliosi described him as “evil.” He said the following in 2009:

His moral values were completely twisted and warped, but let’s not confuse that with insanity. He was crazy in the way that Hitler was crazy. In fact, Hitler was Manson’s greatest hero — he spoke about Hitler all the time. He said that Hitler had the right answer for everything, that he was a tuned-in guy. So he’s not crazy — he’s an evil, sophisticated con man. We’re talking about evil here, as opposed to mental illness. Manson wanted to kill as many people as he could. (TIME)

By what standard? The ambiguity of right and wrong became a reality for Manson and his “family” like it has for so many today. In Manson’s words, borrowing from Eastern thought that was the going thing in the 1960s, “If God is One, what is bad?” This has led to, “If there is no God, what is good or bad?”

Helter Skelter

Seven Million Copies Sold

Bugliosi wrote Helter Skelter in 1974, a disturbing chronicle of events leading up to the Tate-LaBianca murders and the subsequent trial. The book digs deeper by uncovering the bizarre motive behind the murders: Charles Manson saw himself as the prophetic voice of the Beatles as he deciphered their cryptic messages embedded in songs like “Revolution 1,” “Revolution 9,” “Piggies,” “Blackbird,” and, of course, “Helter Skelter.” Manson believed that the Beatles were calling for a revolution, “an imminent black-white war.”2 Manson family member Gregg Jakobson explained it this way:

It would begin with the black man going into white people’s homes and ripping off the white people, physically destroying them, until there was open revolution in the streets, until they finally won and took over. Then black man would assume white man’s karma. He would then be the establishment.3

After the mass killings and eventual black ascendancy, the blacks in charge would turn to Charles Manson for help. Manson reasoned that blacks had been under “whitey’s” influence for so long that they would not be able to rule effectively. He would then put the black man back in his subservient position, and he would then rule the world.4 Manson, standing only five feet two, was convincing enough in his peculiar scheme that he got a group of teenagers and twenty-somethings to kill for him.

“God, where are you?”

While Bugliosi had no official role in the O.J. Simpson trial, he followed the case with a prosecutor’s eye and wrote Outrage in response to the not-guilty verdict and what he believes was gross incompetence on the part of the prosecution. Unlike the Manson case, Bugliosi believes that justice was not served. In the Epilogue to Outrage, Bugliosi bears his soul and the struggle he has had with justifying God’s goodness with the presence of evil in the world and God’s seeming inaction in the trial in allowing a murderer to escape the death penalty. Manson ended up serving a life sentence because California’s Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty:

When tragedies like the murders of Nicole and Ron occur, they get one to thinking about the notion of God. Nicole was only thirty-five, Ron just twenty-five, both outgoing, friendly, well-liked young people who had a zest for life. How does God, if there is a God, permit such a horrendous and terrible act to occur, along with countless other unspeakable atrocities committed by man against his fellow man throughout history. And how could God—all-good and all-just, according to Christian theology—permit the person who murdered Ron and Nicole to go free, holding up a Bible in his hand at that? When Judge Ito’s clerk, Deidre Robertson, read the jury’s not-guilty verdict, Nicole’s mother whispered, “God, where are you?”5

Mr. Bugliosi’s honesty is refreshing and encouraging. He is not an atheist. He simply finds it hard to believe in God under the circumstances. How many Christians have wondered why a child is struck down in the prime of life or is paralyzed after a car accident on the way to church? I can recall the cancer deaths of three of my young cousins and wonder why they died so young. We’ve all asked similar questions.

This logical dilemma is called theodicy. The term theodicy is a Greek-derived word coined by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646B1716). The theodicy issue is stated as follows: “If God is all-powerful, he must be able to prevent evil. If he is all good, he must want to prevent evil. But evil exists. Therefore, God is either not all-powerful or not all-good. A theodicy (from theos, god, and dikē, justice) is accordingly an attempt to reconcile the unlimited goodness of an all-powerful God with the reality of evil.”6 Attempts to solve the problem of evil have been made by some of the best philosophical and theological minds in history.7 Most of the “solutions” to “justify God” are not very satisfying. When tragedy strikes close to home, logical analysis and well thought out syllogisms do little to relieve the grief that parents feel when they lower their child’s small coffin in the ground. The effect of tragedy is on the heart (Prov. 12:25; 14:13), and it is the heart, as well as the mind, where people seek a satisfying answer. Can man, apart from God, console the heart and satisfy the questioning mind? These are the questions that must be answered.

The Atheist’s Problem

Given an atheistic or even an agnostic starting point, how can someone be outraged by evil? Without God, being outraged over the presence of evil is a subjective notion borrowed from the Christian worldview. If God does not exist, according to Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky (1821B1881), “everything is permitted; if God is nothing, everything is a matter of indifference.”8 Greg Bahnsen stated it this way: “The question, logically speaking, is how the unbeliever can make sense of taking evil seriously—not simply as something inconvenient, or unpleasant, or contrary to his desires…. On the unbeliever’s worldview, there is no good reason for saying that anything is evil in nature, but only by personal choice or feeling.”9 What philosophy of value or morality can the atheist offer which will render it meaningful to condemn some atrocity as objectively evil? Who are we to object or be outraged when accidents of nature (what we call human beings) maim and kill other accidents of nature in a world governed (if such a word can be used) by chance?10 “If we are all biological accidents, why shouldn’t the white accidents own and sell the black accidents?”11 Why object to the worldview of Charles Manson, as expressed by one of his followers, if God does not exist?

Whatever is necessary, you do it. When somebody needs to be killed, there’s no wrong. You do it, and then you move on. And you pick up a child and you move him to the desert. You pick up as many children as you can and you kill whoever gets in your way. That is us.12

On what grounds can the atheist object? Mr. Bugliosi assumes the existence of God and the ethical system espoused by Christianity to make his case against God in light of the existence of evil. “The unbeliever,” Bahnsen writes, “must secretly rely upon the Christian worldview in order to make sense of his argument from the existence of evil which is urged against the Christian worldview!”13 In the end, the unbeliever uses stolen credentials (Christian presuppositions), establishes himself as the defense attorney, prosecutor, and judge, and then takes his seat in the jury box to render a verdict against God.

None of this is designed to demean Mr. Bugliosi. But we are justified in putting his arguments on trial since he has seen fit to put God’s existence on trial. In an interview, when he was asked whether he believed in God, he stated, “If we were in court I’d object on the ground that the question assumes a fact, not in evidence.”14 The evidence is there, but Mr. Bugliosi has set the ground rules for what he will enter into evidence. If the evidence does not fit his operating presuppositions, then for him it is not evidence. John Frame answers such flirtations with wholesale autonomy in an unbending manner:

Unbelievers must surely not be allowed to take their own autonomy for granted in defining moral concepts. They must not be allowed to assume that they are the ultimate judges of what is right and wrong. Indeed, they should be warned that that sort of assumption rules out the biblical God from the outset and thus allows its character as a faith-presupposition. The unbeliever must know that we reject his presupposition altogether and insist upon subjecting our moral standards to God’s. And if the unbeliever insists on his autonomy, we may get nasty and require him to show how an autonomous self can come to moral conclusions in a godless universe.15

Mr. Bugliosi consistently criticizes the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson trial for not raising crucial points of evidence. One wonders why he nowhere deals with the argument that if there is no God then there is no morality or a call for outrage when personal sentiments (like his own) are offended.

Like a good prosecutor, after reading the above line of argument, Mr. Bugliosi “might well reply, ‘Well, I grant that atheism has its share of problems, but for now let us talk about yours. I am pointing to what looks like a contradiction in your system. Whether or not my system is an adequate alternative is quite irrelevant to the question. Even if I were a Christian, I would still have the same question, and I would like to have an answer to it.’”16

Borrowed Parameters

Few people live consistently with the operating presuppositions of evolution. Even atheists borrow moral parameters from the Christian worldview to make sense of the world. Humans almost never talk about “animal evil.” Mr. Bugliosi has not put a lion on trial for eating an antelope or killing lion cubs. A moral distinction is made for humans even though, according to evolutionists, we are only highly evolved animals. More is expected of humans than animals. This cannot be the case if God does not exist. So then, within a worldview without God, there is no problem of evil, only a dissatisfaction with the way things are and no solution to remove the dissatisfaction.

Ethical Indifference

Mr. Bugliosi’s objections to the goodness of God in the light of evil are standard. His solution is equally standard and lacking in offering a gauge by which he or anyone else could ever be outraged by what some consider to be evil behavior:

When it comes to theology, I am too confused to be anything but an agnostic. But if there is a God, as there may very well be, the deist philosophy, which holds that after creating the universe, God bailed out, indifferent to that which he created, would seem to do less violence to the accepted principles of logic and common sense. At least the deist philosophy is free of inherent contradictions.17

The deist philosophy offers no real solution; it lacks justification for a needed standard to define the parameters of what constitutes evil. R. J. Rushdoony writes: “To a great measure the crisis of modern man, as well as the crisis of theology, can be traced to a lack of an adequate standard.”18 Deism offers no standard, the very thing Mr. Bugliosi insists on in evaluating O. J. Simpson’s guilt, those who praised God for his release, and the competency of the prosecuting team. If God is “indifferent,” as Mr. Bugliosi suggests, then we are back where we started: There is no reason for us to be outraged by things over which God is not outraged.

On God’s Terms

If Mr. Bugliosi wants an answer to the problem of evil, he will have to function within the theistic worldview of biblical Christianity and accept its operating presuppositions. One of the first places to start is to recognize that God did not create “the world specifically to bring about the best state for man.”19 Those who spar with God over the theodicy question invariably assume that man is the center of all that is right and good. The preeminent good is man’s good, and the ultimate glory is that man would be highly exalted. In the final analysis, man must be satisfied. Sorry, but God does not work this way. “Scripture never assumes that God owes us an explanation for what he does.”20 Job certainly learned that this is true (Job 38-42).

God Feels Our Pain

Keep in mind that God is not indifferent to pain and suffering. The Son of God went through an excruciating death at the hands of prosecutors who used their own standard of judgment. God the Father stood by as He watched His innocent Son, the Lord of glory, “nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men” (Acts 2:22). If anyone has the right to complain, it’s God! There’s more to this picture than most are willing to see. The Bible tells us that Jesus was “delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). God is not some indifferent bystander.

Suppressed Testimony?

Such a standard is hard for many to take. We insist on satisfaction and are angry when God does not meet our demands. God has his own agenda:

By his failure to defend himself, God is claiming his sovereign right to be trusted and believed, whatever suspicions his actions may provoke in human minds. In the final analysis, he is sovereign in the granting and withholding of mercy. He makes that clear in Exodus 33:19, which is, in context, an exposition of his very name: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” In his decisions, he will not submit to man’s judgment. He reserves the right to behave in a way that may offend human values, that may even appear, from a human viewpoint, to contradict his own values. And when that happens, he is not under man’s judgment. He is not obligated to explain.21

I’m surprised that Mr. Bugliosi makes no mention of the book of Job in his prosecution of God. He must have been familiar with it. So then, why does he refuse to comment on it? It is written testimony that bears directly on the case that Mr. Bugliosi has brought before the bar of his sense of justice. It is not enough to say that he does not agree with the book’s conclusion. As a prosecutor, Mr. Bugliosi is required to look at all the evidence, especially direct testimony by the One who has been put on trial.

Job believes he is suffering unjustly. Like Mr. Bugliosi, he demands an interview with God in hopes of cross-examining Him to justify his own righteous indignation over the presence of evil and God’s seeming indifference (Job 23:1B7; 31:35ff.). God does take the stand but on His own terms. Job is the one put on trial. In the end, it is Job’s ignorance that is judged, a firm reminder that God is God, and we are but dust.

  1. Starling Lawrence, “Editor’s Note” in Vincent Bugliosi, Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 11. []
  2. Vincent Bugliosi, with Curt Gentry, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (New York: W.W. Norton, 1974), 244. []
  3. Quoted in Bugliosi, Helter Skelter, 245. []
  4. Bugliosi, Helter Skelter, 246B47. []
  5. Bugliosi, Outrage, 247. []
  6. John Hick, “The Problem of Evil,” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, 8 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1967) 1972), 3:136. []
  7. For a survey of some of the attempted solutions, see John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), 155B68. []
  8. Feodor Dostoyevsky, The Devils (The Possessed), trans. David Magarshark (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953), 126. Quoted in Vincent P. Miceli, The God’s of Atheism (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1971), 141. []
  9. Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1996), 169-170. []
  10. See Barbara Reynolds, “If your kids go ape in school, you’ll know why,” USA Today (August 27, 1993), 11A. []
  11. James Scott Bell, The Darwin Conspiracy (Gresham, OR: Vision House, 1995), 64. []
  12. Sandra Good quoted in Bugliosi, Helter Skelter, 462. []
  13. Bahnsen, Always Ready, 170. []
  14. Quoted in Bugliosi, Outrage, 247. []
  15. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169. []
  16. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169. []
  17. Bugliosi, Outrage, 252. []
  18. Rousas J. Rushdoony, By What Standard: An Analysis of the Philosophy of Cornelius Van Til (Tyler, TX: Thoburn Press, [1958] 1983), 188. []
  19. Doug Erlandson, “New Perspective on the Problem of Evil,” Antithesis 2:2 (March/April 1991), 15. []
  20. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), 171. []
  21. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 172. []
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