Friends, clients, and loved ones were wrestling with their experiences of evil this week. One was attacked at work and felt guilty, but then realized the accusations were so irrational, they might be evil.
Another watched The Comey Rule series on Netflix and was reintroduced to the evil ways of Donald Trump. Another was overwhelmed by the sheer extent of evil that has gone into the production of climate change. Another was disheartened because the church is not better than the world and seems as subject to the aforementioned evils as anyone else.
Have I already used the word “evil” too much for you? Or is it still OK to name it where you come from? Last week, Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbot, both claiming to be practicing Catholics, used immigrating Venezuelans to own the libs in Barack Obama’s playground. Did you call that evil? Name it a political stunt? Call it illegal human trafficking? Consider it an appropriate response to an onslaught of border crossers? Did you sink into confusion? Stay uncommitted? Remain avoidant? Evil is harder to identify than one might think and even harder to deal with, especially in an environment in which it is often a word you’d be embarrassed to say. Maybe you haven’t said “Jesus” in polite company in a while, either.
I was companioning someone in their spiritual growth not long ago and they broke into tears because of the evil done to them. They were “triggered” by their church’s feckless response to the present evils that threatened them. They asked, “Why does God allow evil to flourish if he loves us?”
Why is there evil?
Brilliant people have been answering that question for centuries, ever since European Christians wanted their theology to compete with every philosopher that popped up. Why is there evil and why doesn’t God save me from it all if Jesus saves? That’s the perennial question. I still like N.T. Wright’s stab at dealing with it in his book Evil and the Justice of God. I rarely think his applications have as much genius as his theologizing, but I think he was mainly gifted to think well for us, so that’s OK. Here is a summary of the book, if you like.
Spoiler alert. People criticize Wright for answering the perennial question by not answering it. He says the Bible doesn’t answer it, which leads him to believe he doesn’t need to either — what is beyond us is beyond us. He is much more interested in talking about what God is doing about evil than what, exactly, and why it is. God’s action in response to evil is a topic the Bible exhaustively explores. Likewise, the Bible leads us to learn what we should do about it, since “the line between good and evil runs through each one of us” [video including Jesus, Solzhenitsyn, and many others].
I thought about Wright when my comrades were lamenting and I was confronted with the question again, which usually feels like a temptation to me – “Why is there evil and why didn’t Jesus fix it for me?” Wright does a better job at what I am about to try, when he tries to get behind what we feel about facing evil in us and around us. But here is a small bit of thinking to keep evil in your sights before it overwhelms you.
Back to Adam and Eve
Demanding an answer to the questions “Why is there evil if the creator is good?” and “Why am I experiencing evil if our loving Savior has already defeated it?” is a lot like the dialogue between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden.
God: Why did you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
Adam: The woman gave me the fruit. It’s her fault.
Somehow the dialogue about good and evil usually ends with shame and blame.
The argument goes on, something like this. We would know; we’re often replicating it.:
God: Why did you choose evil?
Adam: I wouldn’t have had the choice if you had not offered it. You’re God, after all. Why did you supply it? Besides, I didn’t choose it. It happened to me. It is happening everywhere.
God: But aren’t your questions more important to you than my love? Didn’t you choose the question?
The deepest expression of the image of God in us is love. God is love. God is not you or your knowledge or your control or your safety. The power of the knowledge of good and evil will not protect you from others, yourself, or God.
Roku has been playing a film of a live performance of the musical Heathers in which a high school couple sings “Our Love Is God.” The thought of it was creepy when I first heard it sung and keeps getting moreso as the play goes on. The power struggle in us destroys and destroys.
The Garden dialogue went on, and goes on in us, something like this:
God: As my friend who I gave this garden, as my loved one, you greeted my question with skepticism and reproach. You set yourself up as my judge, and your own. You ate the fruit.
You prefer the control you gain by staying ignorant and miserable instead of being receptive and humble before the unknown. You don’t trust me.
Wright works with this in his great chapter on forgiveness:
It will [always] be possible for people to refuse forgiveness–both to give it and to receive it–but [in the end] they will no longer have the right or the opportunity thereby to hold God and God’s future world to ransom, to make the moral universe rotate around the fulcrum of their own sulk.
I have often said to myself, and to others, in the middle of these questions and answers, “If evil were not happening around you, you would invent it. You are just like Adam and Eve. If we dare to look, we can see how we perpetuate the loveless habits of our childhood self-protection schemes. We can’t part with the patterns because we think we’ll lose ourself without them. Every day we get mad at people we can’t control and keep protecting against the terrible feelings of need we have and rebel against the demand to trust, hope and care.
If you want more on the themes of political and corporate aspects of evil, Wright might suggest Engaging the Powers, by Walter Wink. For thoughts on forgiveness, see Exclusion and Embrace, by Miroslav Volf. For answers to the problem of evil in modern thought, see Evil in Modern Thought, by Sue Neiman or The Crucified God, by Jurgen Moltmann.
If you want to follow Wright into what God is ultimately going to do about evil, you could check out his most accessible book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. In it, he does a final takedown on Greek philosophy and offers a vision of eternal life that matches the Bible better than what most of us have been taught. If you are tired of thinking about how terrible the world is, how evil is at the door, this book might encourage you by opening up a good thinker’s vision of the future. Spoiler alert: It is better.