Is Cancer Evil?

I asked myself this question in 2008 when diagnosed with the dreaded disease. I decided the answer was “no,” which earned me some irate email when I said so on my blog. Please hear me out.

Biologically speaking, cancer is self-sabotage, as Dr. David Agus points out:

The most insidious part of cancer is the very nature of the beast: it’s self-generated in the sense that it’s our own cells gone awry. There’s no outside invader. No foreign organism or contagion with a mind of its own and a cellular makeup unlike ours. Cancer is like a sleeping giant lying dormant in all of us.

Cancer is many terrible things but it is not evil in the classical sense of the word because it lacks moral premeditation. Evil is usually defined as “the quality of being morally bad or wrong.” Evil requires a moral agent behind the action. Most people would readily agree that evil exists. Its reality is underscored by its ubiquity, which extends from the narcissism of infants to the megalomania of dictators. But where does it come from?

According to a traditional reading of the Bible, it started as a rebellion in heaven and fell to Earth between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The initial impact was a single act of disobedience that became the source of all suffering and the cause of physical death in all humans. The Genesis account of the Garden is a simple tale told in a simpler time. The details aren’t as important as the message: Free will is the taproot of evil.

If this is so, the closest we can come to seeing cancer as evil is to see it as indirectly caused by original sin.

But where did original sin originate?

The Surrounding Darkness

We’ve all seen this famous optical illusion of the vase and the faces; only it isn’t really an illusion.

Vase and Faces

Optical Illusions are “visually perceived objects and images that differ from reality.” In this case both the vase and the faces are real. Neither exists without the other. Seeing just one aspect is a matter of perspective, not an intrinsic property of the image.

Free will and human suffering are also inseparable realities, or so contend theologian Dinah D’sousa and philosopher Alvin Plantinga in the book Godforsaken:

To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, he (God) must create creatures capable of moral evil, and he cannot leave these creatures free to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. God did in fact create significantly free creatures; but some of them went wrong in the exercise of their freedom: this is the source of moral evil. —Plantinga

Moral evil is not the only vehicle of suffering, but it is clearly one of the main forms of human suffering in the world. God permits such suffering because it is a worthwhile price to pay for a world in which there are conscious, rational, and free creatures called humans. —D’sousa

If free will is the white vase in the image above, moral evil is the surrounding darkness unavoidably created by its presence. Our ability to choose love and obedience comes with the possibility of apathy and rebellion, along with their consequences: pain and suffering.

The logic is sound but it still frustrates me. I wish God had made a different kind of moral universe—but he didn’t and I have to figure out how to live in this one, cancer and all.

 “God is the author of some storms directly;
but he is the author of the possibility
of all storms in giving us freedom.”
—John Eldridge


8 thoughts on “Is Cancer Evil?

  1. I would say Cancer is the ultimate symbol of evil. If you study the cell biology of a cancer tumor you will find that Cancer is simply normal cells deciding to behave really badly, without considering the wider repercussions. Ultimately, just like evil people, cancer ends up destroying itself by destroying everything else around it (the human body) so in its infinite greed for life and growth it ultimately perishes, yet it cannot see this or doesn’t act on it. Instead of these cells reforming or at least committing apoptosis (cell suicide), they just want to grow, behave badly and be around other cells that are just as bad and ugly as them. I am 100% certain that there is some correlation between the nature of evil and the nature of cancer. Obviously cancer is not a real sentient being so is not evil in the traditional sense, but I think the analogy is sound.

    1. Insightful. Cancer is a good analogy, or metaphor, for evil. They share much in common as you point out. What’s missing are the moral dimension and conscious choice

  2. But…look at the suffering, the pain, the anguish cancer brings to those around the suffering loved one. If cancer is not evil, what is? What other thing can be so pernicious and cause so much suffering? If cancer itself is not evil, it certainly looks like it.

    1. No question cancer and all the pain it causes is bad, but I don’t think it is evil in the moral sense of the word. I make the difference in the first part of the post. Evil is created by a moral being.

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