I’ve been reflecting on evil a lot lately. Let me explain. A few weeks ago, our sermon text forced us to consider the death penalty. Without commenting here on what the Bible has to say about capital punishment, I recognize in myself some natural opposition to the death penalty. But as I think through this, I wonder how much of this natural opposition is due to how infrequently I encounter true evil.
Many of us are able to keep a distance from true evil. We don’t regularly encounter those who intentionally, repeatedly, and unapologetically hurt and destroy. We may occasionally read or hear about these things on the news, but it can seem far away. It’s other people’s lives; it’s people who seem very different from us.
This week, I began listening to a podcast called “Caliphate,” which focuses on New York Times’ reporter Rukmini Callimachi and her efforts to understand ISIS. She is able to secure an interview with a young Canadian Muslim who radicalized, joined ISIS, apparently committed some heinous crimes while in the group, but then changed his beliefs, defected, and returned to Canada. The interview is incredible, not just because of the evil that is described within ISIS, but because of the apparent normalcy and humanity of this young man and others who join ISIS.
For me, this just another wake-up call that evil is not only real, it’s also not that foreign or distant. Those we are tempted to put in a separate category because of their capacity for evil are much more like us than we realize. As a lyric from a Jars of Clay song says, “We all have a chance to murder.”
And the reason I bring this up is because I think our attempts to believe otherwise—to convince ourselves that humanity is mostly upright, the world is sanitized, and we don’t have to deal with the existence of evil–have some significant affects, especially if we call ourselves Christians. Three significant effects that are worth considering:
This affects our view of the world. We all agree that there are problems in the world. But as long as we keep ourselves a safe distance from true evil, there is no way we can accurately assess these problems or their solutions. We tend to think we can eradicate evil with education, philosophies, government, diplomacy, dialogue, money, etc.
Sometimes, it seems like we think simple slogans will do the trick: “Love trumps hate.” “Coexist.” “Imagine world peace” (or my favorite, “Imagine whirled peas”). It’s not that there’s no truth to these statements, but I find it hard to believe that the communication of these phrases has had one iota of success in combating the evil in the world.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do all we can to combat evil through these avenues; by all means let’s put our heads together and keep working at relieving the suffering and injustices in the world. I’m just saying the more I am faced with true evil, the less confident I am in any of these means to bring about the vision of peace, unity, love, and thriving that we are pursuing. I mean, the very means we use to combat evil—education, government, money—also contribute to that very evil!
This affects our view of ourselves. If we keep evil at a distance, it’s much easier to view evil people in a completely separate category, as less than human. To think that we are nothing like them. Surely “that” is not what humanity is like! Humanity is mostly good, rational, agreeable, right?
But when you actually look into the evils in the world and the people that commit them—ISIS, Nazi Germany, child abusers, womanizers—one of the things that often stands out is the humanity of these people. We may not be like them in every way, but we can see how we could become like them.
The reality of true evil should humble us all. This is what humanity—the group you and I belong to–is capable of. And it’s not just isolated cases, an individual here or there. I mean, if you were a German as the Nazi’s came to power, are you really so confident you’d land on the right side of history?
This affects our view of God. To combine the previous two points: if true evil is limited to isolated cases, and if we can eradicate it with better government, better education, or better economies, then we don’t need any help from God. Thanks for the help, God, but we got this. We’ll just keep wearing our “Life is good” stickers and believe it’s true, or at least will be true as soon as the Democrats take back congress. Or was it the Republicans?
If evil is just out there, and if we know how to manage it, we don’t need God. We don’t need people who are radically changed from the inside—new hearts, new creations, as God promises to do.
We don’t need the hope of God ultimately coming to judge all evil, making all wrongs right, and creating a world of perfect justice and peace. “We got this, God!”
Furthermore, the diminishing of the depth and breadth of evil diminishes our wonder at God’s love. The message of Christianity is that God loves evil people. The Bible uses the terms “ungodly,” “unrighteous,” “enemies” of God, and says that this is all of us. God’s love is called “mercy” and “grace” because it is surprising. These people should not be loved by their Creator.
It is readily apparent that many of us—including those who claim to be Christians–have lost our wonder at God’s love. Surely this is in large part because we don’t think of humanity, including ourselves, as evil. Of course God would love us! I mean look at us!
Finally, our blindness to true evil causes us to downplay or dismiss God’s justice and judgment. Our culture tends to struggle with the idea of God judging evil and evil doers in a way other cultures throughout history haven’t. Throughout the Bible, God’s right judgment of evil and evil people is something that is prayed and longed for with great expectancy. Some of the most heightened worship in the Bible comes as a response to God’s just judgment of evil. One side of salvation or rescue is the judging and eradicating of all evil.
If we were convinced that true evil exists and that the solution was greater than any mere-human means, would not our prayer and longing be that which God’s people cried at the end of Revelation: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Oh God, come into the here and now and help us. Have mercy on sinners like us. Show us the wonder of your love. Bring your kingdom and will on earth as it is in heaven.
And come finally in your time to bring perfect justice, peace, wholeness, and thriving. For your glory and our good.