There’s a lot of evil in the world. (No kidding, you say.) But actually, when we say there’s a lot of evil in the world, what we really mean is that there’s a lot of suffering in the world. However, as good people, we can’t stand the idea of pointless suffering, so we observe the suffering and we try to find the point, or the meaning of it all. We then assume that suffering is caused by evil.
On the other hand, some are so averse to the idea of real suffering that they try to explain it as part of a bigger picture (I dealt with this in last week’s blog). But by doing this, they’re basically making God responsible for the suffering, justifying it by saying it’s part of some bigger, better plan. But that’s too easy, and in the end, it’s no comfort to say that suffering is God’s will.
All this leads us, of course, to the problem of evil. Simply put, if God is great and God is good, why is there evil in the world? Or more precisely, if God is both omnipotent and benevolent, why do people suffer? We assume that God could prevent suffering, and we wonder why God doesn’t prevent it. Some answer the question by saying God isn’t really omnipotent, implying that there are things over which even God has no control. Others answer the question by saying that God is really more ambivalent than benevolent. Or maybe indifferent is a better word, which I guess would be a variation on the “God as clockmaker who made the world, wound it up, and walked away” theme.
The philosophers said that evil is the absence of good, like cold is the absence of heat, or dark is the absence of light. Some ancient religions have historically described good and evil as equal opposites, holding the universe in balance, as if to imply that good could not exist without evil. But the Christian tradition is different. In our tradition, good is more powerful than evil, and evil is not necessary. From the beginning, Christians have affirmed that God is indeed omnipotent and benevolent, but that part of God’s benevolence is the gift of free will, a gift which many people abuse.
Without going into the Calvin/Arminius debate (which was, before that, the Luther/Erasmus debate, and before that, the Augustine/Pelagius debate), the early Christians knew that evil is really another name for sin. Suffering is caused by sin, which is to say that people suffer when others use their free will selfishly.
I know that doesn’t explain natural disasters, but apparently there are certain laws of physics, which sometimes come into conflict with each other, like when the plates of the earth’s crust release tension by adjusting themselves. Maybe those same laws of physics serve to limit the power of humanity by setting some boundaries around the extent to which free will can go. But I digress…
In my new book, The Wedding of the Lamb: A Historical Approach to the Book of Revelation, I connect Jesus’ comments about the binding of the “strong man” (Mark 3:27/Matthew 12:29) with Revelation’s image of the binding of Satan (Revelation 20:2). My interpretation is that the Church has the power to suppress evil. You may be familiar with the Edmund Burke quote: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good (people) do nothing. That’s what I’m talking about. And it implies that if good people do something, evil will not triumph.
Today I just happened to run across this line in Athanasius’ Life of Antony: Where the sign of the cross is, magic is weak and witchcraft has no strength (Life of Antony, 78, written about 360 CE). The Church has the potential to be (or at least represent) the best of what humanity has to offer. I believe that it is within and through the Church that we have opportunities to use our free will for good, which is to say, use our free will to suppress evil and relieve suffering.
In Spiritual Blueprint I talk about what I call the spiritual tripod. Just like a tripod needs all three legs to stand, one’s spiritual life need three “legs” on which to stand. Those “legs” are: corporate worship, personal devotion and social responsibility. I suppose for religious people, corporate worship is a given. If not, I go into that in the book. But it’s the other two legs I want to mention here.
For a balanced spirituality, we all need both personal devotion and social responsibility. In other words, we need a balance of both Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Too many faith groups emphasize the personal devotion piece so much that there’s no room (or time) left for an active faith. But on the other hand, there are just as many faith groups that emphasize the social gospel to the neglect of a faith that is contemplative and humble. But I think each one is fed and informed by the other. Social action must have the foundation of prayer, Scripture and the sacraments. But even the height of a devotional life, which for me is the Eucharist, doesn’t mean as much if we don’t push ourselves away from the table and take the presence of Christ out into the world. We know the quote from James 2:20 that faith without works is useless. But do we also remember that the favorite prooftext of the fans of sola fide, Ephesians 2:8-9, also goes on to say that we were created to do good works? (Ephesians 2:10).
So good and evil are in an inverse relationship. Where there is more good, there is less evil. Where there is less good, there is more room for evil. And to some extent, the amount of good in the world is up to us. As people of God, that’s how we participate in the benevolence of God.