Talking about evil always goes out of fashion until something really bad happens. Usually death, multiple death, a Hitler moment. 9/11. Child abduction. Civil war. Paedophilia. Whatever the trigger, our thoroughly sheltered and risk-averse lives run in fear shouting EVIL EVIL and pointing at him, her, them. The media love a new Face of Evil.
The fact is, ‘they’ are usually over there. So our dealings with evil get relegated to dealing with a mythical person or persons who are so removed from you and I that we might as well be talking about Darth Vader or Voldemort. We struggle to have a language to describe evil let alone a method for engaging with it. So we banish it to a world of semi-comedic archetypes as if there’s normal muggle-world and then a world where baddies live who occasionally invade like Death Eaters.
Trouble is, that’s a kop-out. Jesus taught us to pray ‘deliver us from evil’, and he did so for a reason. The ancient writers of Judaism and Christianity believed in evil, that nameless capacity there is, this strange power, that stands against all that God stands for. Sometimes they gave a name to it, calling it the satan, which literally means the deceiver. And like our views of hell, our views of the satan have been hugely influenced by pretty unbiblical art and film. If a parody of God is the old man in white playing a harp on a cloud, how many times has the deceiver been a more interesting man dressed in black holding a pitchfork to a backdrop of dramatic fire.
The writers of the Bible are clear that there there is evil, and it can be concentrated in a form which appears personal, like in Job, or the temptations of Jesus – but the satan is not personal like Jesus is personal; is not an equal divine being; but is also not just a vague sense of badness. Knowing that, we can respond to evil and the satan either by ignoring it, or focusing on it too much. As Verbal said (or was it Keyser Soze? Ok, Charles Baudelaire), the greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Jesus was clear evil exists and that he was here to defeat it. Evil has its tentacles in all aspects of life, each of which Jesus challenged: political evil, financial evil, religious evil, moral evil. What God didn’t do is see evil, knowing that he was holy, and run the other way because he couldn’t be near it. In Jesus he dwelled among it. That’s the shock of incarnation. And death. Onto himself – the holy – he took all evil – the anti-holy. Political evil in Rome; the corruption within Israel who were meant to be the light in the world; and the darker forces behind who accuse and possess.
But here’s the deeply practical nub of all this complicated theology which takes us back to the beginning when we talked about evil always being ‘over there’, disconnected, from another place. The line between good and evil runs right through me, through you. The battle between good and evil isn’t an abstract philosophical problem, or one that only involves really bad people. It affects you and me and the choices we make. But not choices we make in our own strength. Jesus took upon himself all evil. He was not delivered from evil. He took all evil had to throw at him and for a moment, a day, it seemed to have worked.
But the resurrection is new life, new creation, is evil defeated and cowering in a corner. When we allow Jesus’ new life to flow through us we discover the power that raised Jesus from death-by-evil is at work in us, enabling us to stand against evil, not to be consumed by it. Enabling us to be people who forgive, who love, who are not held captive by its weight and power but are released, released from death and all things that bring death.
The very unpopular truth is that but for the grace of God I am no different from whoever the current Face of Evil is. And even that face is not beyond redemption. That must change how we see and actually treat in real life those the world calls evil. ‘They’ are ‘we’, actually. We might see evil and feel overwhelmed, but if we are able to see it and know hope – hope of the kingdom, release from temptation, deliverance from it’s power – then we can be confident evil will not win, neither abstractly, nor globally, nor personally.
Apologies that this is a slightly longer than normal. It’s a big subject. If you got to the end, well done. Many of these ideas can be found in Evil and the Justice of God by NT Wright. And it’s old school but The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis is worth a read. I wrote previously about when I was asked to pray in a potentially haunted house.