June 28, 2020

The Origin of Evil 

Genesis 3:1-7; Isaiah 14:12-15; Revelation 12:7-9


This morning’s sermon comes from a request from someone in our congregation to address the problem of evil in the world. I’ll be doing a two-week series on this issue. What do you believe about evil? What do you believe about the capacity for evil? Does it come solely from human beings, or is there a personified evil, a power with its own forces that inflict pain and suffering upon people, or possibly a combination of both?


Does God cause evil things to happen? If not, then why does an all-powerful God allow such things to happen? For the next two Sundays, I will attempt to answer these and other questions. We will explore the Bible’s understanding of evil and its relationship to God. We will also explore the origins of evil from a biblical perspective, and examine some theologians over the centuries, as they tried to grapple with the problem of evil.


First, what do we know about a personified evil in other early societies?  Many of them had dualistic gods, one good and one evil opposing one another. Three early societies may have influenced the ideas of good and evil in scripture, all of whom were around at the same time as the Israelites.


First, EGYPT - There was the Evil god, Set, and his good brother, Osiris. Osiris made the earth fertile, brought life-giving water, and shed light upon the world. Set was the eternal adversary, bringer of darkness, and drought. Set tricked Osiris into a chest, and then cast it into the sea. It is possible that the Egyptian understanding of dualism - a good and evil god in position to one another may have influenced early Hebrew understanding of Good and evil.


Babylon, which certainly influenced the Hebrews as they spent nearly 3 generations in their captivity, had Marduk. Marduk was the primary and good god of the Babylonians and had Babylon as his main city. He was considered the supreme deity over all the other gods. He had as many as 50 different titles and was sometimes pictured with his pet dragon. In opposition was Nergal - god of the underworld, Nergal was an evil god who brought war and famine on the people. His city was Kuthu.


Finally, another superpower that likely influenced Hebrew culture was PERSIA. The Persians also believed in dualism - two gods in opposition to one another. Ahura-Mazda was the good god, who brought life light truth and blessing. The evil god was Ahriman, who brought death, darkness, lies, and sickness. Ahriman was the prince of demons and had forces at its disposal working to oppose Ahura-Mazda. Ahura-Mazda eventually defeated Ahriman in an epic battle.


It is very likely that these 3 cultures, as well as others in some form, helped shape the concepts of good and evil for the Hebrew people. What about the old testament, the Hebrew scriptures? Is there an understanding of two forces in opposition to one another, a good Yahweh versus an evil Satan? The answer is, it is complicated.  First, let us look at the 2 Hebrew words translated as “evil” in the Old Testament. The word “evil” appears over 150 times in 2 main forms in the Hebrew Scriptures. First, there is “ra”, also meaning, “adversity, affliction, calamity, grief.” This word comes from the other word translated as evil, word rawa’h, meaning, “to spoil by literally breaking to pieces.” (Both of these definitions come from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible)


Where does anything evil first appear in scripture? The story of the snake in Genesis 3:1-7 is where evil makes an entrance after God has created all things. This part of the creation story is where sin enters, where deceit enters, where death enters. Prior to the snake, there is no mention of any of this. From where does the snake come? Was it created somehow by God? We don’t know - it is just there, in the garden. This question is one theologians have wrestled over for centuries. How could a good and loving God also create something that is evil? 20th-century German theologian Karl Barth tried to explain the origin of evil in the following way. First, God created all things, and it all was good. There was nothing that was bad. There was something and then there was nothing. Barth gave the nothing a name, “Das Nichtige,” and argued that from God creating all of this good, there was, in the midst of the nothingness, the “Das Nichtige” the birth of an evil opposition, not birthed by God, but coming into its own existence somehow. This is only one of many ideas surrounding the origins of evil given by theologians throughout the centuries. As for scripture, after the story of Genesis, which dates back to at least the 12th century B.C., there isn’t much regarding evil for close to 600 years of scripture.


Then there are 4 PASSAGES which mention evil as some kind of supernatural, personified being, all which were written in the 7th - 6th century, B.C.


First, in chronological order, we have the Book of Job and the ancient story that many Biblical scholars date to around the 7th century. B.C., although the origins of the story may go back much further. A being named Satan, actually pronounced “sawtawn”) is one of the heavenly beings of God dwelling in God’s court. Satan, whose name in Hebrew means, “an opponent” appears to be a part of God’s inner family and not yet an adversary to God’s purposes. Satan is personified as a totally different being from God, who asks God to make Job suffer.


Next, Numbers 22:22, compiled in later 6th century B.C. – The word “sawtawn” is used describing an angel of God, standing in the way of Balaam who was on his way to the kingdom of Moab. At this point, the word is translated to mean - “an enemy against”.


Then, we have 1 Chronicles 21:1, written around 580 B.C. this is a retelling of a story of David from an earlier version in 2 Samuel (2 Samuel 24). The version in Chronicles says that Satan stood against Israel, and provoked David to number the people, which would be an affront to God. Why was this? There was an ancient belief among the Hebrews if you counted anything it laid one open to attack from evil spirits. So here in Chronicles, apparently Satan, as an evil spirit leads David to do something that opens the people of Israel to other evil spirits.

Finally, Zechariah 3:1. Zechariah was active as a prophet between 520 B.C. and 518 B.C. In this section of scripture, Joshua, the high priest appears with the angel of God and the name of evil is Satan, to the right of the angel of God, who stands as his accuser. Here Satan seeks to destroy Joshua’s soul. Yet he can only accuse Joshua before this angel of God. He has no autonomous power to destroy him.


From where did this evil come? The most popular origin story of a personified evil comes to us in the second passage read by Marcia this morning - Isaiah 14:12-15. This portion of Isaiah dates back to the 8th Century B.C. Let’s take a close look at this passage. Someone has fallen from heaven, The “morning star, son of the dawn.”  The original Hebrew in this phrase describes someone as - Ben-Shahar, meaning “son of the dawn, light-bearer, dawn bringer”. In the fourth century, when Jerome made his Latin translation of the Bible (Vulgate) he translated this phrase as “Lucifer” which is not a proper name, but a common noun, with a lower case L - meaning simply “light-bearer.” This then was translated into the original King James Bible in 1611 as, 12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”


Isaiah never identifies Lucifer as a sawtawn or adversary. Was he some angel who had rebelled against God and had been thrown out of heaven? Third-century theologian Origen believed this indeed was the origin story of the evil one. “We are taught as follows by the prophet Isaiah...How is Lucifer, who used to arise in the morning, fallen from heaven! Most evidently by these words is he shown to have fallen from heaven, who formerly was Lucifer, and used to arise in the morning...”


What is this passage in Isaiah referring to, if not the origin of evil? This section is actually part of an oracle or poem which predicts the fall of Babylon. Look at 14:3-4 labeled as a taunt against the king of Babylon - Lucifer is not a proper name, but rather just a metaphorical name for the Babylonian ruler. Yet in the New Testament, in Luke 10:18, Jesus quotes this passage, saying, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven above.” Perhaps this passage in Isaiah is similar to others, with at least two meanings?


Between the Old and New testaments, the writings from the Apocrypha 2nd-4th centuries B.C. - begin to define more of a dual spiritual realm, with good and bad angels, with Satan as head of the bad angels. Also in the apocryphal end of the world visions - was an understanding of good versus evil, with God as good force, and evil as opposing force. This idea of good and evil forces opposing one another likely came as they spent nearly three generations with the Babylonians in the 500's who also had that dualistic view of the world - opposing forces of good and evil...At any rate, by the time of Jesus and writing of the New Testament, Satan now plays a well-defined role as the source of evil, and adversary in opposition to God.


Next week, we’ll explore the struggle of good versus evil in the New Testament, which has its epic climax in the book of revelation. We’ll talk more about the personified evil in the New Testament, the devil. We will also look at our own role in bringing evil to the world through sinful acts of destruction and violence. For now, what can we say about the origin of evil? Evil’s origins are complicated and fuzzy. The biblical witness is unclear as to the origins of evil, and far more interested in the resistance to it in the confidence of the superiority and ultimate victory of the love of God. Scripture does remind us that, despite the reality of evil, “In everything, God works for good” (Romans 8:28) and that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39). For now, we must continue to work for God’s new heaven and a new earth, fight evil, pray and struggle in the company of all who are afflicted by evil - praying come Lord Jesus! Alleluia. Amen


In just a bit, we will be singing a hymn of the reformation written in 1529 by Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. The text is based loosely on Psalm 46 and became a rallying cry hymn of the Protestant reformation. Luther is said to have sung it daily. The melody was also composed by Luther. Can we learn anything from this hymn? Does it apply to us today as we continue the struggle against evil in the world?


The image of Satan from Luther’s hymn calls him the prince of the earth. On earth is not his equal, and the world is filled with devils trying to undo us. Evil is a powerful presence. Without Christ Jesus, our striving against evil would be losing, for we would be depending upon our own strength.


This hymn reminds us, First - God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Second - we are not alone in opposition to evil, Christ is fighting the battle as well, one little word - Jesus, the Word incarnate, is more powerful and can fell evil. And in a time not yet known, God’s truth will triumph through us, and evil will be no more.

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