The news of the horrific massacre in Aurora, Colorado, at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises spread quickly, and just as quickly the talking heads on radio and TV began engaging in wild speculation. What had made James Holmes do what he did? Is he mentally ill? Was it because he had dropped out of his graduate studies? Or had he had trouble finding a job because he was a white male? Had he spent too much time playing video games? Were drugs—legal or illegal—involved? Was this the logical outcome of the life of someone who had recently become obsessed with guns? Did the violence of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy leave Holmes unbalanced? Was he imitating Heath Ledger's Joker? Jack Nicholson's? Had he read too many comic books? Was Batman himself to blame?
It is natural for us to try to make sense of seemingly senseless acts. When confronted with violence on this scale, we often say, "No one in his right mind would do something like that," "He must have been crazy," "Something snapped." But what if James Holmes was in his right mind? What if he isn't crazy? What if nothing snapped? What if he simply decided a few months ago that he wanted to kill a whole bunch of people, and he started assembling the means, and looking for the opportunity, to do so?
What if, in other words, James Holmes is simply evil?
We shy away from such thoughts; we assume that there must be some other cause, something external. The closest Christians get today is to suggest that a person who could so brutally murder people he doesn't even know might have been possessed. Yet while possession is a reality, it is another external cause, even if it came about because of internal faults and failings. We don't want to believe that anyone could simply choose to do evil of his own free will.
And yet the recognition of that fact lies at the heart of the Christian understanding of sin. To the extent that we act in ways contrary to morality because of forces somewhat or wholly outside of our control, we are less culpable for our actions. The worst sins—mortal sins—require the full consent of our will. And that means that they are not caused by things external to us, but arise from who we are, and from whom we have made ourselves to be:
That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man. [Mark 7:20-23]
Batman, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Christopher Nolan, even Pfizer and Smith & Wesson—none of these made James Holmes murder 12 people and shoot 58 others. James Holmes pulled the trigger, over and over and over again, and each of the bullets that pierced the heart of another man, woman, or child came straight from the heart of James Holmes.
Refusing to acknowledge this reality, ignoring the words of our Lord, at best leads us to search for answers where they are unlikely to be found. At worst, it becomes an implicit denial of the God Who so loved us that He gave us free will in order to allow us to love Him fully in return. The possibility that we can commit sins—even the most heinous of sins—is necessary, if we are truly to be able to love God as He ought to be loved: with our whole heart, and mind, and soul, and strength.