Ontological Evil – Part IV: Evil Defeated?

God–an interpretation of God typically propagated within in the tradition of the church—is in meticulous control over all things. At the very least, He is a cosmic chess player, manipulating choices and events to carry out His will. Unfortunately, one would have to logically say if God does good, He has to do evil (or at least allow it for His divine purpose). People speak of how things can occur against God’s will but not outside it. However, most times that is as unsatisfying as the apology of God allowing evil to punish us for our sins, which has led to the mindset of people living and believing Got is practically hiding behind every bush waiting to smite us when we screw up (thanks Augustine).

This starts with a bad definition of sovereignty. The imperial language of the New Testament story, e.g. God’s Kingdom, no other sovereign ruler controls every aspect of their dominion, especially if you are trying to balance that with not denying our free will. Doing the casual math of scanning the day’s newspaper, there seems to be more pain, misery, injustice, and violence than love, prosperity, justice, and love in the world; either that or at least the bad stuff grabs the headlines.

We can point to the metaphor of life as a tapestry, tapestries being little more than a series of knots and stray strands on one side, metaphorically our human perspective of life; but a beautiful tableau when you flip it over, God’s perspective. However, we’re still left asking what kind of God inflicts or allows such barbarity and we’re left with the reality of still needing to be rescued from our present age and circumstance.

The claim of Christianity, the “foolishness” of the Christian story, is that through the life of Christ, evil can be conquered. One of the points of the temptation account of Christ illustrates that we can’t use evil to defeat evil. His was not a military solution, not a political solution, not a(an empty) religious solution. We could argue the philosophy of “the problem of evil”, but in the end, where does that get us? We could learn to accept that there is a mystery to creation; a complexity to reality. Some things simply can’t be explained from a human perspective. Frankly, we could just as easily ask considering the world around us, how can we believe in humanity?

Through the crucifixion of Christ, we see God’s goodness, His omnipotence, and the reality of evil could be found in one place, yet not be in conflict as at the cross evil was perpetrated, yet goodness came out of it.

Even if you de-mythologize the Bible, Christ, angels and demons, you’re (still) left with an unresolvable problem of evil. In our hubris, we fail to recognize the limits to rationality and naturalistic ways. We’ve become too smart to be aware of a non-ordinary aspect of reality and have excluded the spiritual and anything remotely mystical.

Greek/Enlightenment ideas of defining and categorizing everything in order to understand them crept into our ideas of God. Suddenly, His character and nature became about His timelessness, His immutability, His otherliness. Yet somehow this was to be reconciled with the fact that Christ learned, grew, and changed, knew some things and not others – and was certainly relateable. Maybe we, like the Orthodox view, would be better off defining God by what He’s not.

The heart of the problem of evil assumes an understanding of God and how he operates. The story of the Bible doesn’t address this issue (Job apologists aside, do you really find an answer for suffering beyond “I’m God, you’re not, shut up!’). This possibly points to a rather conspicuous elephant in the room: that the classically defined church tradition of God is not the one interpreted from the Scriptures (which doesn’t use words like omnipotent and all-controlling to describe His sovereignty).

For that matter, the Bible doesn’t give us a theory of evil. Instead, it tells a story about how it came about and what God is doing about it. It is a story, working towards a climax of a Messiah, a suffering servant, that somehow leads to redemption. The crucifixion was how God dealt with the problem of evil. Jesus took on the burden of evil, took on its full force and exhausted it, with the resurrection was the sign of evil and Death being defeated. He let the forces of evil and darkness do their worst to him and breaking their power over Him and humanity, transforming not only our lives, but our way of life. We live in the “already/not yet” tension, with evil having already been defeated, though it hasn’t yet reached its fruition. Violence and recrimination continue the cycle of evil, but the honesty of confession and forgiveness break the cycle.

The key to defeating evil is truth and reconciliation; the power of forgiveness and love.

Suggested Further Reading:

Wright, N.T., Evil and. the Justice of God (IVP Books, November 2006)

Boyd, Gregory A., Satan & the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (October 2001)

Boyd, Gregory A., God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict (September 1997)

Ontological Evil – Part I: Defining Evil
Ontological Evil – Part II: The Story of Evil
Ontological Evil – Part III: Spiritual and Natural Evil?
Ontological Evil – Part IV: Evil Defeated?

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Ontological Evil – Part III: Spiritual and Natural Evil?

Let’s return to our definition of evil to see if it can be further fleshed out. There are three dimensions to this thing called evil: moral, spiritual, and natural. Moral evil would be the evil done by human actions. As physical, free moral agents, we make choices and our actions have consequences on one another. No one need expound on “the evil that men do.” It’s the spiritual dimension that doesn’t get enough discussion.

Horror as a genre is rife with the language and imagery of there being a spiritual aspect to our reality. This spiritual other intrudes upon the ordinary of our lives. In fact, this is pretty much the outline for the typical horror story. As if the writers and their readers sense a truth behind those sort of monsters from beyond.

Gregory A. Boyd, in his books God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, lays out a case for the impact of spiritual forces within the problem of evil. The Christian story already asserts a spiritual aspect to reality, yet the impact of this spiritual world on our physical one is rarely discussed, probably for fear of sounding ignorant against the backdrop of our modern age, our theology suddenly the equivalent of some backwards people. A benevolent Creator beyond our ken and understanding we could believe in; however, angels and demons, well, that’s myth-talk.

Boyd’s contention is that angels/demons, as spiritual, free moral agents, also make choices and have actions which have consequences in our world. This spiritual aspect to evil takes on a personal dimension in the form of Satan.

“The adversary” is a force not equal to God, not God’s shadow self, nor the demonic-in-Yahweh as some people try to explain him. He would be a created being, the most powerful of the spiritual “principalities and powers,” the highest of what some cultures would call a god. Boyd then takes it one step further: what we see as evil is the collateral damage of humanity and creation being caught in a cosmological battle of spiritual forces.

The last category of evil would be those things considered natural evil: disease, tornadoes, earthquakes – the things that occur in Nature independent of human actions. Nature isn’t morally responsible, not capable of love or freedom, and operates outside of our definitions of good and evil. Except, like when faced with tragedies like Hurricane Katrina, we experience natural disasters as good or evil. It is almost as if entropy is inherent within the system, another manifestation of this primordial chaos. However, if this chaos is inherent to the system, why design Creation that way? Some would say that Nature designed this way somehow fulfills a higher purpose, with nature serving as a sort of refining fire for humanity (rather than our suffering breeding bitterness or otherwise degrading us) – punishing us or building our character.

Unless it really is as simple as nature being “fallen” as a consequence of humanity’s sin.

Yet, what if the world was a created system with a kind of “freedom” also built in? With spontaneity, accidents/chaos, entropy/discreativity to the creation process, all also not under God’s meticulous control. For that matter, free moral agents could also impact nature. If humanity can be the cause of global warming, couldn’t spirits also influence the environment?

Ontological Evil – Part I: Defining Evil
Ontological Evil – Part II: The Story of Evil
Ontological Evil – Part III: Spiritual and Natural Evil?
Ontological Evil – Part IV: Evil Defeated?

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Ontological Evil – Part II: The Story of Evil

Taking the beginnings of a definition of evil, we’re still left contemplating the origins of ontological evil. It isn’t co-eternal alongside God, God didn’t create it; or did He? (since it must come from somewhere). The Scriptures don’t lay out a tidy theory of evil and its origins, instead the Bible tells a story:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

” ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

” ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Actually, it’s a story that harkens back to the Genesis account.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

Matt Cardin, in the preface of his horror collection Divinations of the Deep, posits that “the deep”, the primordial chaos, can reveal much about God, ourselves, and the true nature of our reality:

We encounter the deep, so they say, in the dark mysteries of life: in horror, pain, nightmare, disillusionment, and death, in places where light and reason seem to be absent, or to have only a precarious foothold; at the seams of the universe where sometimes a thread comes unraveled and a ray of darkness shines through, and the light does not overcome it.

One can’t argue on the one hand that God is omniscient, seeing all that will occur, but on the other hand Adam and Eve sinning right off the bat, sin entering the world at all, slipped right by Him. I proposed this series of questions on my message board: let’s say you are the sole of existence and have omnipotence and omniscience, what do you do with it? If you were moved to create, what would you create? If you were to create life, what would be your goal of it? If you were to create people, what would be your vision for them, and what kind of enviroment would you create to move them from where they are to where they ought to be? My contention is that if love is the goal, for it to be real, it must be freely chosen. Not coerced. Therefore, it would stand to reason that we would have to be created as self-determined, free will possessing, free moral agents. It would mean creating with the possibility of those agents saying “no” and going their own way. Creation would be an inherently risky proposition, knowing all things in advance, and accepting the consequences of free will.

Evil happens, but that doesn’t mean that God is happy about it nor does it mean He would necessarily wave a magic wand to wipe away the evil. Again, the way I read the story, He chose to involve Himself in history, first by working through a people – a people, as brutal as any other culture, meeting them where they were, though seeming to privilege them. All the while, despite the evil around them, they are told to cling to the elements of faith and hope that He will bring good out of the evil as He works towards a climax to that story, even if it is more behind the scenes than we may be comfortable with admitting.

Ontological Evil – Part I: Defining Evil
Ontological Evil – Part II: The Story of Evil
Ontological Evil – Part III: Spiritual and Natural Evil?
Ontological Evil – Part IV: Evil Defeated?

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.

Ontological Evil* – Part I: Defining Evil

At Mo*Con II, our spiritual panel was asked a question by writer, Sara Larson: “how would you define evil?” It’s one of those questions that seems pretty obvious to answer (at least until you’re called upon to answer it and you want to say something more than “evil is like porn: you know it when you see it”). The way I think about it, evil is failing to live up to what we were created to be, eikons/image bearers of God. To not live up to that or, more on point, to turn your back to that is evil. In short, evil is that which dehumanizes us and in so doing, allows us to dehumanize others.

But that “answer” still leaves many things undealt with. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is the age-old question we all find ourselves asking, often overshadowing the fact that even posing the questions reflects our innate understanding of justice: that bad things are supposed to happen to bad people. The fuller question that theologians and philosophers have been arguing over for years is the “problem of evil.”

The story is old as Creation itself. In fact, the first mystery might be “why did God choose to create in the first place?” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – a triune God, co-eternal and co-existing in perfect love and community chose to create from an overflow of that wanting a creation that would participate and reflect that same sense of love and communion. So the creation poem in Genesis paints a picture of Creation with God, His creation declared good. Yet evil exists. Evil shatters our illusion of safety, those things that are so heinous we can all agree that it’s name is evil. Denying the humanity of others, rape, murder, torture, racism, pedophilia – using free will to make bad choices.

Creation is under siege by hostile, evil forces seeking to thwart God’s plan for the cosmos and we long for a rescue from the chaos. So we can’t help but ask “how can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent, all-loving God allow evil into a world He created and thus responsible for?” “The Problem of Evil” argument to deny the existence of God doesn’t work much better if you remove God from the equation and talk about the goodness of man, placing the burden of our free will choices (preventable evil) on us. We look at the world around us and see it in our social conditions, in drugs, in crime. If humanity is basically good then our solutions aren’t working. Our progress and democracy, our education and technology, we’re still left with the problem of evil.

Not that any answers will be found here for a conversation that has been going on for as long, but the occasion does mark an opportunity to examine the origins and ontology of evil from a Christian worldview. Those same theologians and philosophers argue how to define “evil,” the crux of the problem being who defines, who sets the standards for, goodness and beauty. So we have to move beyond Augustine’s “absence of goodness” as we begin to flesh out a fuller definition of the nature of evil.

Societies tend to agree that certain things are badBinjustice, oppression, greed, apathy, murder, theftBand keep the group from co-existing peacefully. These sort of notions begin to shape the idea of a working definition of evil. I like what Greg Boyd said in his book, God at War:

Evil cannot be adequately grasped in a detached, neutral, abstract way. It cannot be known through faceless, nameless statistics or abstract theorems. All approaches to the problem of evil that do not go beyond this will be in danger of offering cheap and trite solutions. Radical evil can be known only when incarnated and experienced concretely. (Boyd, pg 34)

We have no trouble recognizing radical evil when we see it: the African slave trade, the Holocaust, the genocide of Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur, as well as the all too everyday evil of child abuse, molesting, and murder. We don’t ask “by whose standards are these things evil?” We know them to be evil. We know the darkness, the shadows of humanity not living up to their full potential; those things that oppose the ideas of truth and light, peace and unity. We know that there are daily horrors in life, the unending waking nightmare of pain; the meaningless, irrational, senseless acts and attitudes that fragments us.

Evil can be seen as a process, a corruption, a force with its own energy, in all of us and all around us. Moral blind spots that allows us to treat each other badly and drive us to become more confident in our ability to dehumanize one another. But does any of this help us figure out anything about where evil comes from? Or why it is?

*Yeah, I pretty much just like to use the word “ontological” whenever I can.

Ontological Evil – Part I: Defining Evil
Ontological Evil – Part II: The Story of Evil
Ontological Evil – Part III: Spiritual and Natural Evil?
Ontological Evil – Part IV: Evil Defeated?

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If you want to make sure that I see your comment or just want to stop by and say hi, feel free to do so on my message board. I apologize in advance for some of my regulars.