Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Something Evil This Way Comes"

My new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, will be published this August. During the third week of Lent I gave an address on the subject of evil which is, in part, drawn from a chapter in my book on the subject of  "The Descent into Hell." It took me two years to write that chapter and, of all the chapters in my book, it means the most to me. I therefore reproduce the address here. (The chapter in the book is ten times longer.)
This address was given at two churches, Trinity Episcopal in Columbus, Georgia and Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. Timing was a chief factor in my choice of this topic for Lent. We as a nation, and indeed most of the nations of the Western world, are conscious in our time of facing evils so strange and so unpredictable that we do not know what to make of them. This is an attempt at a response. F.R.

Trinity Church, Columbus, Georgia and Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina

 “Something Evil This Way Comes”

Address by Fleming Rutledge                                                                                                        Third Week in Lent 2015

Many people are raised to believe in innocence. Their parents or families of origin tend toward optimism and the bright side of things. They are devoted to “all things bright and beautiful.” They don’t have much experience with all things negative and nihilistic. In their families, they were taught to “keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life.”

The Bible, however, is not a sunny-sided book. It is full of “plague, pestilence, and famine; battle, murder and sudden death,” as the older version of the Litany says. Here’s what Jesus himself told his disciples:

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation…there will be earthquakes in various places, there will be famines…Take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; …brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by everyone for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. …Take heed; I have told you all things beforehand. (Mark 13:7-13, 23)

“I have told you all things beforehand.” The Master tells his disciples what they should expect from the world as they go out to preach the gospel. Here is something similar from the first Epistle of Peter:

Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. (I Peter 5:8-9)

And think of the Lord’s Prayer:

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Evil is everywhere present in the world of the Bible. In the New Testament, the devil is a leading character. The devil, of course, is not a man in a red suit with a pitchfork. We all understand that. What is he, then? We need to know.

People are—of course—different, and people are brought up differently. In any group, you will find some who are sunny-side people. Chances are they grew up in a family where negative thoughts and feelings were suppressed. Other families are willing to confront evil, but often without fully understanding what “evil” is. The natural human tendency is to project evil onto other people and other groups. I am focusing, today, not so much on “evil people” or even evil deeds, but on the theological discussion called “the problem of evil.” This arises from the perpetual question: How can there be an all-powerful and all-loving God when there is so much evil in the world? And why doesn’t God put a stop to it?

Let me say right here at the beginning: no one has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil. A lot of philosophers and theologians have tried, but none of the attempts have stood up to scrutiny. I’m going to give away my main points here, at the beginning: If you ask me how God can allow so much evil, here’s the answer: We don’t know. Nobody knows the answer to the problem of evil. And yet it is in a sense the most important of all theological problems, and we must never lose sight of it.[1]

The classic definition of evil is “the absence of good,” privatio boni in Latin. I never liked that definition, because it sounded weak to me, lacking purpose and agency.[2] The Bible personifies evil in the figure of Satan, which embodies purpose and agency. Jesus himself refers to this figure in several ways: Satan, the devil, “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31), Beelzebub the chief of the demons (Luke 11:15). Flannery O’Connor had a particularly sophisticated understanding of the devil, whom she depicted in various disguises in her stories. She wrote that

Our salvation is played out with the Devil, a Devil who is not simply generalized evil, but an evil intelligence determined on its own supremacy.[3]

Tolkien did a good job of depicting evil as an active agency in The Lord of the Rings (the book), and his friend C. S. Lewis wrote the best imaginative description of the devil that I have ever read, in Perelandra.[4] The main idea to hold on to is that there is an evil power loose in the world, independent of human beings, a power that has an agenda of its own, and this Power can only be defeated by another Power greater than itself. Unaided human beings can make no lasting headway against evil. Don’t you think this is obvious by now? We have an example right in front of us. In order to try to get ahead of the Islamic State (ISIS), which is Sunni, we have to do business in Iraq with the Shiite militias from—of all countries—Iran. It would be a joke if it weren’t so serious. All this is in the name of making a better world.

The last movie that the greatly beloved actor Philip Seymour Hoffman made before he died of a heroin overdose (speaking of evil) was A Most Wanted Man. I watched it last week on DVD. It takes place in the present time. Hoffman plays a German intelligence agent working to identify terrorist organizations. He is the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, disheveled, highly skilled leader of a team of operatives who have been recruiting young Muslims to penetrate the terrorist networks. Hoffmann’s character is decent but cynical. He wants to do the right thing but fully understands the nature of the compromises he must make (this is all based on a novel by John le Carré, and you know how his work exposes moral ambiguities). It’s been necessary for him to join forces with an American diplomatic attaché in Berlin (played by Robin Wright in her best House of Cards villainess mode). They have a conversation in a tavern. He asks her why she and he do what they do. She says (not without cynicism), “To make this a better world.” He looks at her with an expression that silently conveys a mixture of incredulity and contempt. At the end of the movie we learn what kind of supposedly better world she has made.

Quite a few thinkers have reflected on the fact that we are indeed unable to make a better world, because we cannot get a grip on evil. Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia University, wrote a book called The Death of Satan. He is an anti-religious unbeliever, and yet he writes this lament: “Our culture is now in crisis because evil remains an inescapable experience for all of us [and yet we have lost our] symbolic language for describing it.”[5] But, I’m arguing here, as Christians we do still have that symbolic language for evil, and it’s the best and most robust account of evil that there is. I’m just trying to sketch it out here.

The horrors of World War II forced many to reach back for a stronger symbolism. Robert Coles of Harvard, for instance, wrote this: “[The 20th] century has not treated [18th and 19th century optimism] kindly. The Devil, has, in a sense, returned—our struggle, these days, is to find a way of thinking about the radical evil that lives all too comfortably in our communities...our usual secular pieties don’t quite work in the face of our recent dark past.”[6]

Coles wrote that toward the end of the 20th century. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and more recent events have had a similar effect in the 21st century. These phenomena have pushed us beyond the familiar, manageable categories of right and wrong. The essayist Lance Morrow writes about the difference between “evil” and mere “wrong.” He would have trouble, he says, calling the Nazi Final Solution or the torture-murder of a child “wrong.”

A crucial difference between wrong and evil is that people are implicitly in charge of the universe in which rights and wrongs are discussed; people have systems of laws to right wrongs. But evil implies a different universe, controlled by extra-human forces. Wrong is a human offense that suggests [that] reparation is possible…Wrong is not mysterious. [But] Evil suggests a mysterious force that may be in business for itself and may exploit human agency as part of a larger cosmic conflict—between good and evil, God and Satan.[7]

That precisely describes the symbolic universe of the New Testament Gospels, and particularly in the letters of St. Paul. I think the best way to begin understanding this is to note that there are three actors, or forces, on the stage, not two. Most accounts of the Christian life refer to two actors: there’s God, and there’s the human being. The human being is pictured as making a journey to God. A great deal of what’s being taught in the Episcopal church and the other mainline churches is based on this idea of the spiritual journey that we are supposed to be making. And yet there is remarkably little of this in the New Testament. The New Testament is not about our journey toward God. It’s about what Karl Barth calls “the journey of the Son of God to the far country.” And when the incarnate Son arrives in this far country, what does he find? He finds that it is occupied by a great Power. So in the New Testament story, there are not two actors, but three: God, humanity, and the great Enemy—Satan, the devil, or what Paul calls the Power of Sin and Death.

Why is there evil in the world? We don’t know why, but we know that it is a terrible Power and that against it, unaided human beings are helpless. The Power of Sin and Death is external to the human being, working on us from outside, so that, in the words of last Sunday’s Collect, “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” We are in bondage to Sin and Death. As we used to say on Ash Wednesday, we are “tied and bound by the chain of our sins.” This is the subject of a good deal of the Epistle to the Romans: Paul writes that Sin is able to “work death in [us]” even “through what is good” (Romans 7:13). You know the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished.” That’s a pretty good way of understanding what Paul is getting at. Good intentions get twisted. Attempts to help often turn out badly, because Sin is able to “work death in [us]” even “through what is good.” We have no control over this in and of ourselves, any more than we can stave off the approach of Death when the hour comes. Only God has the power to overcome the evil working of the Enemy. This is the message that is foreseen in the great story of Joseph, in the book of Genesis. Many years after Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, he is reunited with them. When they fall on their knees to ask his forgiveness for what they did to him, he says to them,

It was not you who sent me here, but God (Genesis 45:7)…You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people would be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:20).

So in the very first book of the Bible, we learn that God is able to overturn the forces of evil and bring good into being. In New Testament terms, Satan is a great Enemy agent, but God is a greater agent for good. This is striking, since it’s the book of Genesis that tells us how evil came to rule over the creation in the first place. Or, rather, how evil arrived in the second place, a far distant second place. The first place is always God’s. In Genesis 1, we read that when God finished his work of creation, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Evil, therefore, is not part of the creation. That’s why the definition privatio boni is so important, in spite of its apparent blandness. Although evil made its appearance in the creation, it possesses no existence or being of its own, but is rather a negation, or corruption, of being. Only God has Being and only God can create Being. Evil therefore is a great nullity, an x-factor, a parasite on the good.

Having said all this, we are still faced with the difficulty of describing evil as nonbeing; it seems to lack force and malignity. And, if evil was not created by God, how did the serpent get into the Garden of Eden? Again, we don’t know; and the book of Genesis does not tell us. My grandmother read me the story of the Creation when I was not yet seven years old, and now, after all these years, it seems to me deeper and wiser and more miraculous than ever. St Paul makes a great deal of the Adam and Eve story in Romans, but you don’t get the feeling that he’s talking about historical people. He’s talking in mythic terms about a great primordial catastrophe, whatever it was, which admitted evil and godlessness into God’s good creation. The story of the disobedience of Eve and Adam has never been fully plumbed; that is part of its surpassing greatness. It tells us what we need to know about ourselves, that we are “bent” (C. S. Lewis) out of shape from our conception because “in sin hath my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) As I mentioned in the sermon earlier today, this has nothing to do with sex being sinful. It’s about the fact that Sin is, as W. H. Auden wrote, “bred in the bone,” or, as we would say less poetically today, it’s in the DNA.[8]

The occasion for this presentation right now is the fact that I think most of us realize that in our time we have crossed some sort of boundary into new territory. The sunny-siders have been dragged willy-nilly out of their safe places. We are beginning to see more clearly now that no school or church is truly safe, that the Internet has greatly increased our capacity to share lethal information, that terror is only a click away. Moreover, too many clergy have been arrested for child molestation, too many teachers have been caught sexually abusing students, too many supposedly upstanding citizens have downloaded too much child pornography. There is something ugly lurking in human nature.

Holy Week is not far away. It’s time to put away sentimentality and face up to the Enemy. And as Ash Wednesday always reminds us, that means looking first into our own hearts. No one is free from the Power of Sin and Death. No one has power in himself to help himself. No one can say to herself, well, I’m not a murderer, so I’m not so bad. The widely admired writer, Primo Levi, was a survivor of Auschwitz. He wrote that the Holocaust showed us that

Man, the human species—we, in short—[have] the potential to construct an infinite enormity of pain, and that pain is the only force created from nothing, without cost and without effort. It is enough not to see, not to listen, not to act.[9]

There is no one in this room—including the speaker—who is not guilty of failing to see, failing to listen, failing to act. If there was no insatiable appetite for narcotics in America, there would be no murderous drug cartels in Mexico. If pornography was not a multi-billion dollar industry, young people’s minds would not be full of distortion. If we did not put our prisons out of sight, out of mind, there would not be so much potential for inmates coming out worse than they went in. And so on and so forth. Americans are complicit in many evils.

Just preparing this talk has convinced me once again that the Christian account of evil is unlike any other. We do not and cannot know how and why evil happened, and why God lets it continue. None of the attempts to explain this have ever worked. But at every point along the way in the biblical story, evil is faced for what it is, taken with the utmost seriousness, identified as the ultimate Enemy not only of God but especially of humanity, bent on destruction, malevolent and determined. At every point in the New Testament, this Power is present and active and named: the Power of Sin and Death, Satan, the devil, “the ruler of this world” (John 12:21, 14:30, 16:11), “the prince of the power of the air who is at work in those who are disobedient” toward God (Ephesians 2:2). The calling of the Christian is to resist this evil. To repeat what Peter says: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”

I wish I had another hour to talk about resistance. Resistance to the power of evil and Sin is central to Christian identity. It is crucial to discern those times when it is sinful “not to see, not to listen, not to act.” Alas, however, we so often cannot even agree on what to resist, because we find ourselves on opposite sides of so many issues. Abraham Lincoln found himself in that situation at the end of the Civil War. His famous Second Inaugural address is widely recognized today as one of the greatest of all theological reflections on the mystery of evil and the universality of human failure. Lincoln knew that neither the South nor the North were free from blame for the terrible war, so that he was able to summon both sides to the work of reconciliation. The American civil rights movement is another case in point. Part of the greatness of Martin Luther King was that he recognized Sin in himself. That enabled him, like Lincoln, to be nonpartisan in his cause. He had a deep sense of the suffering love of Jesus for all sinful human beings.[10]

On Good Friday, ask yourself this question: What does it mean that the Son of God died by such a horrific, spectacularly cruel method of public execution? Why was his death by crucifixion instead of something a little less prolonged and agonizing? The reason is that all the evil in the world came to focus upon him. Jesus voluntarily laid himself open to it. On the cross, we see Satan unleashed upon the tortured body of the Son of God. The Power of Sin and Death had its victory that day. He absorbed it into himself.

And what does the resurrection tell us? It tells us that God is Victor over Sin and Death. It tells us that evil is vanquished now, in suffering love, and will be vanquished forever in the triumph of God. I cannot tell you why God delays that Day, and neither can anyone else. I can only tell you that in the resistance of Christians, when we see it, we see living witness to the hope that is in our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who believe in God hold to the biblical promise that some day we will know the answers in the Kingdom of God, and at that point it won’t make any difference, because there will no longer be even a memory of evil.[11]

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)


[1] Many have praised David B. Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) as the best treatment of the problem of evil that we have. It takes essentially the same position stated here.
[2] Among the Greek Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa makes the point well: “All wickedness is marked by the absence of good [steresis agathou in Greek]. It does not exist in its own right, nor is it observed to have subsistence…Nonbeing has no subsistence; and the Creator of what exists is not the Creator of what has no subsistence. The God, therefore, of what exists is not responsible for evil, since he is not the author of what has no existence.” (Address on Religious Instruction, p. 282) Gregory compares evil to blindness, which is a privation of light
[3] Flannery O’Connor, letter to John Hawkes, 11/20/59, in The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979).
[4] “Some critics have suggested that Dante failed to produce as impressive a Devil as Milton later did, but this explanation misses his point. Dante specifically intended Lucifer to be empty, foolish, and contemptible, a futile contrast to God’s energy. Dante viewed evil as negation and would have thought Milton’s Devil much too active and effective…[Dante agrees with] scholastic theology in limiting the Devil’s role…The lack of dramatic action on the part of Dante’s Lucifer is a deliberate statement about his essential lack of being. Satan’s true being is his lack of being, his futility and nothingness. There he is in the dark at the very dead center of the earth, where sins have sunk to their proper place.” Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer, 225. Emphasis added. In Perelandra, the second novel in his space trilogy, C. S. Lewis comes close to success in portraying the obscene, vulgar stupidity of evil. There is nothing magnetic or attractive in his devil; indeed, the reader experiences magnetic repulsion. Lewis’ descriptions of the devil are memorable in this regard.
[5] Delbanco, The Death of Satan, 223.
[6] Robert Coles, “Eternally Evil and Never Out of Work,” review of Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles, New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1987.
[7] Lance Morrow, Evil. New York: Basic Books, 2003, 51 (emphasis added).
[8] Auden wrote that in September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. In doing so, he did not divide the good English people from the wicked German people. He identified the evil as the condition of all humanity.
[9] Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, 86 (emphasis added). Only God can create something good ex nihilo, out of nothing.
[10] It is well known that Martin Luther King continually referred to the liberation of whites as well as blacks.
The civil rights movement will always be known as one of the few moments in history when there was absolute clarity in a resistance movement. Most such movements are smaller, more conflicted, less world-historical; but each of us in our own lives need to discern those moments when being a Christian requires us to identify Sin when we see it, especially when it is within ourselves.
[11] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory.