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The Biblical View of Evil
Gene Marshall, October 2001
Perhaps the most exaggerated statement I have heard all year is this one from the bully pulpit of the U.S. president, "We are going to rid the world of evil." In his more measured statement to congress some days later, he toned this down to "We are going to rid the world of terrorist networks of global scope." This pledge is still a tall order, but it is at least relatively doable. I can support an international coalition against terrorism if it is measured in scope, combined with compassion, and renounces indiscriminate bigotry and revenge.
Yet that earlier statement about ridding the world of evil still haunts me. That a leading citizen of my nation could even think such a thought, witnesses to how poorly a decent brand of Christian theology has permeated the land. The very idea that the word "evil" points to someone other than ourselves, and that we have the power to rid the world of this evil is about as far from the biblical view of evil as one can get.
And do we really believe that our safety can be achieved by merely crushing networks of people whom we perhaps correctly blame for acting out their livid hatred toward us? Do we think life is a superman comic strip? Do we see ourselves as the mild-mannered Clark Kent who dons his crime-fighting costume and with invincible cleverness wipes out the evil forces, thus restoring the world to safety and goodness? Is this the fiction we apply to the ambiguities of the real world?
I certainly agree that driving loaded airliners into buildings and killing thousands of innocent people is the sort of deed that needs to be discouraged and, if possible, prevented in the future. I support and I believe that a thoughtful biblical ethics also supports the effective cooperation among all the nations of the Earth in policing international terrorism. Yet demonizing particular terrorist groups as the scum of the Earth, as the quintessence of evil, is an overreaching of the truth. Let us examine this we-good/they-evil perspective in the light of the biblical view of evil.
Even the most patriotic, flagwaving citizens of the United States are surely a little bit aware that some evil still resides in the practices of this nation. If any of us are true descendants of the biblical heritage, we should know that combating evil begins with our own repentance.
About 740 years before the common era, a rural sheep herder named Amos appeared in the city streets of the northern kingdom of Israel. He rallied the attention of his listeners by listing the evils of other nations within his international scene, but at the end of his poem he turned the fire of his scathing poetry on Israel.
Let me illustrate what Amos might sound like addressing the United States within its international scene:
Until we have heard the poetry of Amos in this way, we have little understanding of the vision of evil contained in the biblical writings.
The above depiction of the U.S. is not a balanced picture, and it is not necessarily a correct forecast of the future. The prophetic preacher never presents a balanced picture. The words of the prophet are meant to sting listeners into a greater awareness of the full reality in which they are living. Of course, the U.S. has done some good things in its international relations. The Marshall Plan recovery program for European nations after World War II is a prime example. I favored defending the people of Haiti and Kosovo from their respective tyrannies. And this list could go on. But also extendible is a long list of extremely questionable actions. One example is the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile against the democratic government of Salvador Allende resulting in the murder of as many as 9,000 people. The U.S. CIA also trained in torture tactics the thug generals in Argentina who were responsible for the "disappearance" of tens of thousands. We could mention similar actions resulting in thousands of deaths in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Libya, Lamumba's Congo, Iran, Lebanon, and others. We currently support sanctions against Iraq that may have resulted in the deaths of as many as a million Iraqis, half of them children. Must we simply agree with our government propaganda that these deaths are worth the cost of carrying out the political objective of making ourselves more safe by supposedly restraining Saddam Hussein? Or is it perhaps true that by these sanctions we are creating the conditions of instability and rage in which a Saddam Hussein can thrive? Surely it is not realistic to let ourselves off so easily while harshly judging the actions of terror conducted against us.
The biblical view of evil is this: humanity, all of it not some of it, is under judgment. The Infinite Silence, the Ultimate Reality, the Final Source of all happenings is pictured in the biblical poetry as an all-powerful Judge who impartially judges all the nations of the Earth. No nation and no person escapes from the active dealings of this Infinite Judge.
With this poetry of "The Judge," the Bible is not talking about those culturally conditioned judgments of our superego which plague us with mostly irrelevant self-destructive guilt and shaming. We are talking about the fabrics of the cosmos itself--with the way everything actually works. Whatever you sow, that is what you reap. If you sow selfish, arrogant indifference toward the natural world and all the impoverished masses of the planet, then you reap the dreadful crops that grow from such seeds. This is the way life works.
When we say that the Infinite is forgiving, we mean that the Infinite is always ready to welcome us back to the realistic living of our lives. Forgiveness does not undo the judgment. Accepting forgiveness is our surrender to the judgment, our acknowledgement that the judgment is valid--that we, not the Infinite, are the ones in the wrong.
And what is wrong? What is evil? Evil is not the fact that all things pass into oblivion, including our own bodies, personalities, minds, feelings, and lives. Evil is a human invention. Evil is our unwillingness to be the finite persons that we are. Evil is not our ignorance of what is true and good; evil is our unwillingness to be the ignorant persons that we are. Compared to the wisdom of the Infinite Judge, we are all ignorant. We don't know entirely what is so and what is not so. We don't know entirely what is good and what is evil. We are ignorant, and we are constructed to be ignorant. As the Adam and Eve myth clarifies, only God is wise; humanity is constantly eating the illusion of having certainty about good and evil. We want to know what is good so that we can do good and be good and know that we are good. Then after we have eaten our various illusions about being in the right, we judge others from our falsifying perspectives. We notice that other people judge us falsely, but too often we fail to observe this same truth about ourselves.
Let us listen more carefully to Jesus when he says these words to a goodness-seeking lawyer, "Why do you call me good? God alone is good."
If the qualities of some nation or of some heroic human being is what we mean by "good," then we are eating off the tree from which Adam and Eve ate. We are assuming that we know what is good and whether or not we are doing good. But we don't. We only know good and evil in terms of our own limited and changing human standards. We don't have an absolute standard of good and evil, and we never will have. The "absolute standard" is mysterious and humanly unknown, this standard is known only to the Infinite. The very word "standard" is misleading when applied to the wisdom of the Infinite Judge. What the Bible means in its statements about a wise and Infinite Judge is that all human wisdom is far less than complete. Even our most exalted wisdom is a partial truth at best.
On the other hand, it is not true that any human standard is as good as any other. Rather, the Infinite Judge judges all standards. Some human standards are better than others. These judgments of the Infinite Judge take place in our daily lives. This Infinite judgment is an experience that we are having whenever the ignorance of our limited standards is being revealed to us. We often speak of this experience as having our illusions punctured, having our justifications evaporate, or simply noticing how stupidly we have been responding in our actual lives.
When we choose to obey the judgment of the Infinite Judge, we are simply choosing to be honest about what we know and don't know. Obedience to the Infinite means knowing that in our actual lives we have only limited and ever-improving standards of good and evil. And we never know whether or not we are applying our ever-improving standards appropriately to our ever-changing situation. We can, however, be certain about this: we are surely evil when we assume that we know for sure that we are good.
In the biblical perspective, this human presumption of illusory goodness is called "sin" or "evil." Such evil, according to the biblical perspective, is widespread. In fact, the evil of illusory goodness is seen as the common condition of all human beings.
Nevertheless, in this same biblical perspective we hear that each and every human being is good in his or her essential being. In the very first chapter of the Bible, we see the Infinite Source of all things pictured as surveying all that has been brought forth and pronouncing it good. So humanity is good, insofar as we are talking about the actual essential being of our humanity rather than the mess we have made of ourselves. Humanity is good in the same sense that cats are good or trees are good or mosquitoes are good. "All that is is good," as Augustine put it. Humanity and humanity alone brings evil into our lives by perverting the good, by ignoring the good, by twisting the good, by adding to the good an artificial goodness of our own invention.
The full depths of this biblical perspective on evil is faced head-on in the book of Job. Job is suffering the most extreme experiences of human finitude and he is asking, "Why? Why has God picked me as a target for his most painful arrows?" The author of Job has intensified this question by portraying Job as a person who has done everything he knows to do according to the laws of Israel. His friends insist that he must be overlooking something he is doing wrong because God would not treat a good man in the fashion that Job is being treated. Job knows that his friends are off the mark and chastises them for being so lacking in help. But not until the very end of the book does Job get clear that he is indeed the evil one and God is the one who is beyond reproach. Job gets clear that his evil has nothing to do with obeying or not obeying the standards of righteousness that he and his friends are familiar with. Job's evil is his presumption to judge God.
And after listening to the Infinite Silence rehearse the awesome evidence for the limitless power of this all powerful Source, Job says,
What would it mean for us to join Job in repentance rather than riding off on a silver stallion with the U.S. president to rid the world of evil?
Could we not, at least, admit the crimes of our own nation? Could we not join Job in acknowledging our own ignorance and presumptions? Have we not all presumed to ascribe something other than goodness to the Infinite Power that we confront? Indeed, let us acknowledge our inability to even know the extent to which we have been and still are rebelling against the Way-Life-Is.
Then after a few hours or days in heartfelt repentance, let us rise up in the context of the goodness of the Infinite Judge and our own goodness as bits of freedom sustained by this Infinite Source. Let us do the best we can with the ambiguous choices that loom before us. Let us bring whatever restraint we can to terrorism. Let us also deal with the conditions that foster despair and suicidal hatred toward the ruling nations. Let us deal with the ecological crises mounting in the wake of this runaway industrial system. Let us deal with the appalling inequities being created and widened by this same indifferent system. Let us dismantle, piece by piece, this obsolete system of human living and replace it with a system that works.
Let each of us figure out our own role in this vast task of compassion for humanity and for all the beings of the Earth. Let us move into our essential life of abundant freedom and boundless compassion with the full assurance that we are welcome home to this glorious life in spite of the fact that we have failed and will continue to fail to remember that we don't know what is good or evil. Let us move into this life of abundant freedom and boundless compassion with the full assurance that we are welcome home to this glorious life in spite of the fact that we have failed and will continue to fail to appropriately perform even the fragmentary good we do know. Let us never presume to be righteous, but instead let us honestly confess that we are entirely limited beings as well as wretchedly rebellious beings who are nevertheless welcomed home to our true reality (our essential holiness) by the ever present Infinite Silence who also judges our every breath and audits our every deed with a Truth that is finally beyond our comprehension.
Such is the biblical perspective on evil. To admit that all this evil is created by ourselves and to receive our goodness as a gift from the Infinite Source are both parts of a profound humility. May such humility govern the lives of each of us. And may all the politicians and other leaders in this and other nations join us in this realistic humility before the Infinite Wisdom.