Do we really believe in Evil?

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.”

That’s from a touching piece of prose called ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, written by Yale college student Marina Keegan shortly before her tragic death in a car accident. You can (and should!) read the whole thing here.

“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt.”

There’s a very simple beauty to Keegan’s reflection, the sort which only ever seems to accompany honest writing. There’s no pretension or showiness to her prose; she is simply relating her heartfelt admiration for the sense of community that universities and colleges foster. That’s a concept which Orthodox Christians in particular, find very familiar.

I couldn’t help but think a rather unkind thought as I read Keegan’s reflection though. When it formed in my head, it went something like this: “People who like to ascribe all events to the ‘irresistible will of God’ should think long and hard about tragedies like this.” The thought is unkind because many people (including myself) draw profound comfort from the sense that everything is ultimately in God’s hands. I don’t think that sense is necessarily misguided – there’s no denying that God’s plans for eternity, truth and love will ultimately be realised. He’s certainly ‘omnipotent’ in that sense; He cannot, ultimately, be defeated.

But surely, surely, Keegan’s tragic death, when she had just demonstrated such disarming and stunningly beautiful humanity, has to show that there is something profoundly wrong with this world. Marina Keegan was ripped suddenly and violently out of a world which she loved deeply, leaving her friends and family heartbroken. And of course, she is just one of billions of human beings who suffered similarly sudden and violent ends throughout history. The only honest response to that fact is to ask, “Why do things like this happen?”

I feel rather strongly that the answer cannot be, it simply cannot be, ‘because God wills it.’ That is not the God of Christ or the God of Scripture. If there is a sense in which God ‘wanted’ Keegan to die at this time and this place, then there has to be a deeper, truer sense in which He never wanted her to die. D.B. Hart puts this well:

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. […] And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

For me at least, that is one of the supreme truths revealed by Christ. The Gospel of John is particularly illuminating on this subject; in it, Christ says that ruler of the world ‘has nothing in Him’ (John 14:30), and that He has come to cast him out (John 12:31). The ruler of this world, according to Christ, is not God. He/she/it is a force entirely alien to God – John’s first epistle makes this even more explicit: “We know that we are of God, but the whole world is under the sway of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19).

The ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ contains a passage quoted frequently by the Church Fathers, including St. Basil in his liturgy: “For God created man for immortality, and made him an image of His own eternity. But death entered the world by the envy of the devil …” (Wis. of Sol. 2:23-24) (Also, see Wis. of Sol. 1:13-16 … “For God hath not made death …”)

The patristic consensus is extremely clear. Death is not a punishment or divinely ordained ‘teaching tool’, it is an evil corruption of goodness:

“Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” St. Athanasius the Great

“So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God.” St. Basil the Great

“Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves out of an evil disposition. Nevertheless, He did not hinder the dissolution on account of the aforementioned causes, so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 345).

“But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness, … It is not, however, that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” ~ St. Irenaeus

So yes, I wonder sometimes, whether we sometimes fail to remember that as Christians, we needn’t make ‘peace’ with tragedy. We needn’t bend over backwards to explain why the Rwandan Genocide or the Boxing Day tsunami or the Queensland floods were all somehow part of God’s ‘perfect plan’. God was certainly present in those events, and being God, He can and does use them to bring about good things. But ‘God hath not made death’. And the Gospel of Christ, literally His ‘good news’ is that Christ the conqueror over death and evil; the Coptic Church refers liturgically to the risen Christ as ‘the King of Glory’ (ep-ouro ente ep-o-ou). In the Prayer of Reconciliation, we pray:

“O God the great and the eternal, who formed man in incorruption. And Death, which entered in to the world by the envy of the Devil, you have destroyed through the life-giving manifestation of Your Only-Begotten Son, our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”

~ The Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil

My point is, I think we would do well to remember that while we are ultimately in God’s hands, for the moment, we are at war. There are human and inhuman forces at work in the world that hate life and love, and therefore hate Christ. We do not hate such forces in return, we simply pity them. They are perhaps the most confused of all of us. The only thing that can render this tortured world morally comprehensible is the Cross of Christ and His empty tomb. Without those, death would be the final word, and suffering would be an irredeemable evil. But thanks to Christ, the King of Glory, we know that no matter how many battles Death wins on Earth, it cannot win the war. We fight kingdom of death through charity, compassion and mercy, and when its evil soldiers come for us, we hold our heads high and go down without compromise. In the words of Minucius Felix, speaking of Christian martyrs:

“How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain; when he is drawn up against threats, and punishments, and tortures; when, mocking the noise of death, he treads under foot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone, whose he is; when, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced sentence against him! For he has conquered who has obtained that for which he contends.”

By Baptism into the Cross, we are all put in eternal enmity with Death. We will not justify it. We will not co-operate with it. We will only ever spit in its face, as all early Christians literally did at their baptism, and commit ourselves to Christ. In light of this radical Christian rebellion against death, perhaps we should be a little bit more comfortable calling events like Marina Keegan’s death what they truly are: hideous tragedies, which can only be redeemed by a total and complete reversal.

“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

~ The Nicene Creed

The anchor-cross was an early Christian symbol representing the promise of resurrection. Death cannot take us forever, for we are ‘anchored’ to eternal life by Christ.


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5 thoughts on “Do we really believe in Evil?

  1. A says:

    Beautiful Sam!

    He’s ‘in control’, yet not controlling.

  2. […] for the spiritual person seeking truth. Check it here, you really must, and pay attention to this post, a […]

  3. Daniel Nour says:

    Nominated you for the Reader’s Appreciation award!

  4. John says:

    Good post. Sorry to push you on this, especially so late in the day, but could you perhaps give a more explicit account of all the ‘natural evil’ in the world? You reference the devil a little – are you actually saying that all the bad things which happen are so because a bunch of invisible demons are doing so? I have to say I find this a little implausible for two reasons 1)One – and this is probably the least important reason – there’s no actual evidence for such creatures. It seems absolutely bizarre that God would give such creatures a bunch of free will, let them do all kinds of miserable things to us, and not even give us the courtesy of knowing they exist. 2)Even if they do invisible exist, why on earth do they have so much power? Even if there’s a trillion of them, that doesn’t justify all the evil’s we’ve suffered in life, let alone somebody losing their daughter to cancer. I’ll you why I think this. Free will might be important, to an extent… but let’s take a 10 year old kid. They’re disabled, and die young. Whilst they’re alive they can’t make many serious decisions, but they still retain the gift of free will. They have the choice to say a kind word to their mum, or play up. That’s basically the extent of their moral freedom: they’re too disabled to kill anyone who cause any serious pain. And yet… surely you believe there free will is enough to give them the opportunity to enter heaven? i.e. they’ve lived as free creatures, with a small amount of free will for a small amount of time, and yet this must be enough for them to face the eschatological decision to be for or against God.

    So basically… if a kid’s free will is enough for them to have a chance to enter heaven, WHY ON EARTH would God randomly give some people so much more free will – let alone allow invisible angels to, well, torture animals for *millions* of years during the process of evolution, before moving on to torturing humans in the same way. Cause look around you, that’s what’s going on. Why would God give this kind of free will away, when clearly only a much smaller amount is needed?

    Or do you think something else? 🙂

    • Hey John!
      There are two big issues there I suppose:
      1) Do invisible demons cause natural evil?
      2) Why does free will have to entail such terrible consequences? Why couldn’t we all be like the wheel-chair bound kid who can’t do any damage to the world, but can still be good enough to make it to Heaven?

      As regards the first question, personally, I don’t think so. Maybe it’s a just a modern, naturalistic bias that I have, but I’m much more partial to the idea that natural evil is less a result of conscious, intentional attacks on humanity by God or some evil force, and more a result of humanity’s having lost control over nature. The idea is that theologically (but not physically or historically) speaking, fallen man ‘lost control’ of nature. Whereas the seas were supposed to stop at the coasts and never exceed their bounds, we now have tsunamis where the sea spills over and destroys our cities. This is a theological idea and not a historical story – it’s an explanation of ‘why bad things happen’, and not a claim that in the past, men were able to control the ocean with their minds or anything like that. So far as we can tell, the physical world has always been an inhospitable place to us historically – I’m a fan of David B. Hart’s model in ‘The Doors of the Sea’, where he claims (briefly) that humanity’s pre-fall existence took place on a different dimension of time as well as space, which is why we shouldn’t be surprised to find no trace of a reality without tsunamis or carnivores here. That’s a controversial view, but I think it has a lot of merit and is fairly ‘safe’. Either way, any opinion on the exact workings of such things must all be mostly speculative – I like these ideas but I’m definitely not SURE about them.

      The second question though, to me, is much more interesting! Whether or not it’s demons ‘picking up the slack’ or ourselves ‘letting go of nature’, God has given created beings an incredible amount of power! So much that we’re capable of doing hideous damage to ourselves and one another. In short, from what I’ve gleaned, the Orthodox opinion (or at least a very popular, well-respected Orthodox opinion) is that in order for man to truly be in the Image of God, man had to have real authority over something lesser than himself, just like God does. Man is an ‘icon’ of God on Earth because like God, we wield authority over nature. I think the idea is expressed quite well in St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Liturgy:

      “For my sake, You have manifested the nature of animals. You have subjected all things under my feet. You have not left me in need of any of the works of Your honor. You are He who formed me, and laid Your hand upon me. And inscribed in me the image of Your authority.”

      Arguably, that’s precisely what is being expressed in Genesis when God says: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the beasts of the earth, and the fowls of the heaven, and the cattle, and all the earth.”

      This would mean that part of what it IS to be human is to have authority (because being ‘human’, properly defined, is being ‘God-like’, or more specifically, ‘CHRIST-like’). So a necessary part of having free will is having dominion, and having actions which have consequences.

      Does that make the wheelchair child ‘less human’? Not at all. It simply makes them an unhealthy human; which is precisely why we have medicine and hospitals to free people from diseases which stifle their free agency. The only times we, as a society, attempt to remove the agency of a person is when they’ve committed a crime or gone insane – but in removing their agency, we are essentially ‘dehumanising them’, making them less than a properly functioning and fully healthy human being. There’s some sense in which freedom is just the ability to ‘choose’, without there necessarily being any consequences. But I think, on at least one very Orthodox school of thought, that’s a subordinate sense of freedom. True, complete freedom means being able to choose AND having the world respond to your choice. Anything less is not true freedom, and you simply cannot have a ‘Heaven’ where the inhabitants are not fully, truly free. On this view, it’s not that in Heaven, no-one CAN sin, it’s that no-one DOES sin. And that’s what makes it Heaven.

      Sorry for the long response! But these are complex issues. I hope that helps you see where I’m coming from a little better; disagreement is very welcome 🙂

      In Christ!

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