July 5, 2020

The Problem of Evil, Part II

Matthew 13:24-30; Mark 1:12-13; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12

 

Last week, we spent quite a bit of time looking into ancient cultures and the Hebrew Scriptures for answers as to the origins of evil in the world. My guess is, if you were looking for solid answers in last week’s sermon as to the exact moment evil entered into the created order of things, you may have been disappointed. As I said last week, it is complicated.

This week, we will look at how evil is portrayed in the New Testament, and pick through some theologians and their understanding of evil in relation to God and to good. Then, in the end, my plan is to arrive at hope, so that we have the hope, strength, and faith we need to be an opposing force to evil in the world.

By the beginning of the first century, evil is personified as Satan and has power in the world. The use of word Satan, meaning “an opponent” occurs 35 times in Gospels, and the word diabolos - A Greek word that means the same as Satan, is used 37 times. In addition, the word – Beelzebub, - meaning Lord of the flies which refers to the bad Persian deity Ahriman, is used 7 times in the New Testament.

The evil one, the opponent of God is a force in the universe. There are a few views as to Satan’s role, all of which are supported by New Testament scripture.

The Matthew passage (Matthew 13:24-30), a parable of Jesus, tells us that both good and evil are here for now, as both wheat and weeds, sown secretly by a farmer’s enemy (God being the farmer and Satan in opposition) grow together until the harvest.  The overall message I receive from this passage is that evil has been part of the world from the beginning of creation, and will not be wiped from the earth until Christ’s return.

Furthermore, the evil one does his job, is somewhat tolerated by God for now, apparently because it is linked to some of God’s own divine purposes. Consider the passage read this morning in Mark, Mark 1:12-13. In this earliest version of the gospels, written around 60 A.D., Jesus is literally thrown out into the wilderness by God’s Spirit for forty days. Why did this happen? So that Jesus could be tested and tempted by Satan. No longer is evil an understudy, as in the Book of Job. Now Satan has his own power to tempt the son of God, thereby strengthening Jesus’ faith, and in some way a role to play in God’s purposes.

In the gospel of Luke, (Luke 22:3) it is Satan who caused Judas to turn away from Jesus and in time betray him. This brings us to the very difficult question - Was Judas’ betrayal part of God’s purpose so that Christ would die upon the cross, destroying death and the power of sin? Whether Judas turned or not, classic theology of the atonement tells us this was part of God’s plan for saving humankind.

There is an inherent danger in this understanding. This can make us somewhat complacent towards evil, for when we see evil occur, we may think God has something in store to bring good from an evil event, or that it is somehow part of God’s overall plan. As a result, we may not take a stand against injustice, hatred, etc. Scripture reminds us, we are to be salt and light to others, (Matthew 5:13-16) to show God’s love and work for God’s justice while we still have breath. There is no place for complacency in faith. As James said, Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17)

What else does the New Testament tell us about the evil one? He is responsible for a multitude of human ills and physical ailments. In Luke 13:16, Jesus speaks of a woman who has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, whom he has just healed. In Luke 8:24-34, in the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, it appears that the minions of evil have caused mental anguish and suffering for an outcast wandering the tombs outside of the city.

The evil one has further activity among humanity. In the Parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20) we see that Satan takes the word of God which is sown into humanity that lives on rocky ground and snatches it away, causing weak faith among some of Jesus’ followers. Paul mentions how the evil one causes us to stumble, using the vehicle of sin as well. In Romans 7:14-19, Paul speaks of his struggle with sin and evil, saying, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good that I want…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do something that is good, evil lies close at hand. (Romans 7:14, 19,21)

There is an inherent danger in the idea that Satan alone causes us to stumble. We take no responsibility for the sin we inflict upon ourselves, others, and the world. I call it the Flip Wilson theology- “The Devil made me do it!”  Although the evil one may tempt us, we have the ability to turn from those temptations, those sinful acts against others, always. We cannot simply blame the power of evil for the suffering, violence, and darkness we see in today’s world. Our own actions contribute to those things as well. Proverbs 28:13 reminds us, “No one who conceals their transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.

Another view of evil supported by scripture is one of a more outright dualism of a good God opposing an evil force, much like some of the gods we spoke about from Egypt, Babylon, and Persia last Sunday.  Our passage from 2nd Thessalonians maps this out a bit. In 2:3-4 we hear of the lawless one- who opposes God, yet according to verse 6-is restrained by God, and in time, according to verse 8-will be defeated by God by the manifestation of Christ’s coming. This idea is further fleshed out in the book of Revelation. The passage we read last Sunday, 12:7-9 speaks of an angel of God in opposition to Satan, who is the form of a dragon. Satan suffers the first defeat, and then in chapter 20:7-10 after the 1000 year reign of peace on earth, experiences a final defeat, as Satan and his minions are thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, tormented day and night forever.

Another idea also supported by scripture suggests evil comes from within. Mark 7:20-23 says, “20 Jesus went on: What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person. This is the only passage in scripture where Jesus speaks of evil in such a way. Various theologians in recent years have sought to suggest that this passage backs up the belief there is no personified evil presence, for it keeps us from understanding God in a monotheistic sense. Therefore, the evils of humanity are brought on by humanity itself. Author and theologian Burton Cooper, who wrote the book, Why God? writes, “Evil comes through powers of nature or natural evil and evil which human beings inflict on each other and evil comes as apathy toward others, a lack of caring. Evil is the absence of good. The danger in this understanding ignores the personified presence that fights to trip us up on a regular basis. Not being aware of this force can lead us to complacency, or to become easy prey.  1 Peter 5: 8 reminds us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

So what then can we say about evil as portrayed in the New Testament? Satan has evolved from what we read last week in the Hebrew Scriptures. No longer a passive observer, as in Job, nor an obstacle blocking the way as with Balaam, he is seen now as a spirit who is opposed to God, who throws every obstacle he can at God, who challenges and tempts Jesus, who inflicts pain upon humanity, and who causes human beings to be tempted by sin.

Over the next 20 centuries, theologians, authors, and artists have all influenced our thoughts about how evil exists in the world. One of the more profound early theologians was Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430) In 421 A.D., he wrote the work, The Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love.  In this work, Augustine laid out his belief that because human beings were created by God, they are good. “All things that exist, therefore, seeing that the Creator of them all is good, are themselves good. But because they are not like their Creator, supremely and unchangeably good, their good may be diminished or increased. Augustine also believed human beings have an inherent sinful nature, which can cause us to embrace evil.

He defined Evil as follows. “And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it to evil. For the almighty God, who…has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among his works, if God were not so omnipotent and good that he can bring good out of evil. For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?” This was a similar understanding to Karl Barth’s Das Nichtige from the 1930s, which we spoke about last Sunday.

Augustine believed evil was dependent upon good for its existence. “… evil cannot exist without good, or in anything that is not good. Good, however, can exist without evil...because corruption could not have either a place to dwell in or a source to spring from if there were nothing that could be corrupted; and nothing can be corrupted except what is good.” Evil, therefore, according to Augustine was not as powerful as good. He also believed evil came in part from human sinfulness. “From these fountains of evil, which spring out of sinful defect rather than superfluity, flows every form of misery that besets a rational nature.

Augustine, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Benedict were all early theologians who shaped an early understanding of a good God and less powerful evil opposition. Their influence lasts well into the Middle ages (500-1500 A.D.) and certainly influenced Italian writer DANTE (1265-1321).  Dante’s most famous work, The Divine Comedy, begun in 1308 and completed in 1321, was a long narrative poem about life after death. The narrative takes as its literal subject the state of souls after death and presents an image of divine justice meted out as due punishment or reward and describes Dante's travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Hell and the devil himself are well described in this poem, which widely influenced the Christian faithful of the time.

Moving into the 1500s and the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, as a good Presbyterian, I am compelled to mention theologian and protestant reformer John Calvin’s views on evil. John Calvin (1509-1564), gave Satan the moniker “The minister of Divine Vengeance, writing, “For he opposes the truth of God with falsehoods, he obscures light with darkness, he entangles our minds in errors, stirs up hatred, kindles contentions and combats everything to the end that he himself may overturn God’s kingdom and plunge us with himself into eternal death.”

Calvin Believed Satan was a creation of God, albeit a lower creation. Yet, since the devil was created by God, let us remember that this malice, which we attribute to his nature, came not from God’s creation, but from Satan’s perversion. The perversion of Satan Has no power, can do nothing unless God wills and agrees to it. For we read in the book of Job that he presented himself before God to receive his commands, and did not dare undertake any evil act without first having obtained permission.

Theologians today continue to wrestle with the problem of evil. I will briefly highlight 2. Perhaps one of the more famous theologians to wrestle with the problem of evil is Rabbi Harold Kushner and his best selling book, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good people? Kushner writes, “Sometimes, in our cleverness, we try to persuade ourselves that what we call evil is not real, does not really exist, but is only a condition of not enough goodness, even as cold means, not enough heat, or darkness is a name we give to the absence of light. We may thus prove that there is no such thing as darkness or cold, but people do stumble and hurt themselves because of the dark, and people do die of exposure to cold. Their deaths and injuries are no less real because of our verbal cleverness.” Kushner’s overall message from the book is that he believes God does not send us evil, but rather gives us the strength to cope with it.

Finally, Theologian Daniel Migliore, whose recent work, Faith Seeking Understanding says the following regarding the goodness of God in opposition to evil:

1) The love of God the Creator and Provider is at work not only where life is sustained and enhanced but also where all that jeopardizes life and its fulfillment is resisted and set under judgment.

 2) The love of God the redeemer is at work both in the heights and in the depths of creaturely experience, both when the creature is strong and active and when it is weak and passive.

3) The love of God the sanctifier is at work everywhere, preparing for the reign of God, planting seeds of hope, renewing and transforming all things.

In closing, I have experienced a real personified evil in my own life at least once in my life, and have seen repeatedly the evil we humans do to one another through the power of sin as well. I hope if nothing else this brief sermon series has caused you to grapple with the problem of evil in all of its forms and to trust in the goodness and love of our Creator in opposition to a lesser evil enemy. I fully believe and proclaim as the hymn we are about to sing so strongly proclaims in a text written by Bishop Desmond Tutu in the struggle against evil apartheid, “Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death. Victory is ours. Victory is ours, through God who loves us.” In whatever evils you may face, may you remember the hope of that promise and victory. Alleluia. Amen.

 

I have some questions for you to ponder regarding the sermons over the last couple of weeks. Perhaps we can discuss some of them during our fellowship time. These are also attached to my copy of today’s sermon, which will be up on the web site by Monday.

1) Do you believe in a personified evil, that is, a being which is working against God and creation? Or do you have a different understanding of evil which is brought upon by human beings solely themselves?

2) Which one of the views of evil in the New Testament makes more sense to you; Satan being allowed to bring about evil as part of God’s overall plan, or a fight that ends with Jesus return?

3) What have you struggled with most with this sermon series? What has helped you in your understanding of evil?

 

Ephesians 6:11-12. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

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