Continued from What about evil and suffering
No matter how many times you read the bible, the Bible never gives us an explanation to the origins of evil. Evil is introduced to us through the snake. There is no explanation as to where it came from or what its motivation was to tempt and seduce man. The bible compels us to accept the mystery of evil, but at the same time we are told to resist and reject evil.
Our concept of evil reveals itself as both a moral and natural one. Moral evil is caused by our on perpetration while natural evil is outside of our control.
By “moral” evil is meant the suffering and pain that we find in the world standing in some relation to the wickedness of human beings, directly or indirectly. To this we need to link spiritual evil and explore what the Bible has to say about “the evil one” – the reality of satanic, spiritual evil forces that invade, exploit, and amplify human wickedness.
By “natural” evil is meant suffering that appears to be part of life on earth for all of nature, including animal suffering caused by predation and the suffering caused to human beings by events in the natural world that seem (in general anyway) to be unrelated to any human moral cause – things like earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, tornadoes and hurricanes, floods, etc., that is, so-called natural disasters.
In the case of moral evil, sometimes there is a direct link between sin and suffering. For example, some people directly cause other people to suffer through violence, abuse, cruelty, or just sheer callousness and neglect. But there is also a vast amount of suffering caused indirectly by human wickedness. A railway maintenance crew goes home early and fails to complete inspection of the track; a train is derailed and people are killed and injured. Whole populations suffer for generations after negligent industrial contamination, and they all go back in some form or another to culpable actions or failures of human beings. Somehow, we manage to live with such facts, simply because they are so common and universal that we have “normalized” them, even if we regret or resent them and even if we grudgingly admit that humanity itself is largely to blame.
But whenever something terrible on a huge scale happens, like the 2004 tsunami, or the cyclone in Myanmar in 2008, or the earthquakes in Pakistan, Peru, and China, the cry goes up, “How can God allow such a thing? How can God allow such suffering?” “How can God allow such things?” we cry, with the built-in accusation that if he were any kind of good and loving God, he would not allow them. Our gut reaction is to accuse God of callousness or carelessness and to demand that he do something to stop such things.
Believer or unbeliever we like to task GOD with the ultimate responsibility for everything that goes bad. When the people voicing such accusations – especially those who don’t believe in God, but like to accuse the God they don’t believe in of his failure to do things he ought to do if he did exist. You don’t have to wait to hear what GOD has to say to address our question, but a voice of reason would suggest to us that our question is based on the premise that each of us in turn would do something to prevent evil if we had the capability to do so and there lies the problem.
Thousands of children are dying every minute in your world of preventable diseases that we have the means (but obviously not the will) to stop. How can we allow that?
Millions in our world are slowly dying of starvation while some of us are killing ourselves with gluttony. How can we allow such suffering to go on?
We are comfortable enough knowing that millions have less per day to live on than others that spend on a cup of coffee, while a few have more individual wealth than whole countries. How can we allow such obscene evil and call it an economic system?
“There are more people in slavery now than in the worst days of the pre-abolition slave trade. How can you allow that?
“There are millions upon millions of people living as refugees, on the knife-edge of human existence, because of interminable wars that you indulge in out of selfishness, greed, ambition, and lying hypocrisy. And you not only allow this, but collude in it, fuel it, and profit from it (including many of you who claim most loudly that you believe in me).
So it seems that there is no doubt at all, even if one could not put a percentage point on the matter, that the vast bulk of all the suffering and pain in our world is the result, direct or indirect, of human wickedness. Even where it is not caused directly by human sin, suffering can be greatly increased by it. What Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans was bad enough, but how much additional suffering was caused by everything from looters to bureaucratic incompetence? HIV-AIDS is bad enough, but how many millions suffer preventable illness and premature death because corporate and political greed and callousness put medicines that are affordable and available in the West totally out of their reach? What the cyclone did to Myanmar was horrendous, but its effects were multiplied by the characteristically brutal refusal of the government to allow international aid organizations into the country until weeks later. Human callousness undoubtedly precipitated the death of thousands and prolonged the misery of the survivors.
In a sense, then, there is no mystery. We suffer because we sin. But not every person suffers directly or proportionately because of their own sin (the Bible denies that). It is simply to say that the suffering of the human race as a whole is to a large extent attributable to the sin of the human race as a whole.
Genesis 3 describes in a profoundly simple story the entry of sin into human life and experience. It came about because of our wilful rejection of God’s authority, distrust of God’s goodness, and disobedience of God’s commands. And the effect was brokenness in every relationship that God had created with such powerful goodness.
The world portrayed in Genesis 1 and 2 is like a huge triangle of God, the earth, and humanity. Every relationship portrayed was spoiled by the invasion of sin and evil: the relationship between us and God, the relationship between us and the earth, and the relationship between the earth and God.
Genesis 3 itself shows the escalation of sin. Even in this simple story, we can see sin moving from the heart (with its desire), to the head (with its rationalization), to the hand (with its forbidden action), to relationship (with the shared complicity of Adam and Eve). Then, from Genesis 4 – 11, the portrayal moves from the marriage relationship to envy and violence between brothers, to brutal vengeance within families, to corruption and violence in wider society and the permeation of the whole of human culture, infecting generation after generation with ever-increasing virulence.
The Bible’s diagnosis is radical and comprehensive.
- Sin has invaded every human person (everyone is a sinner).
- Sin distorts every dimension of the human personality (spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, social).
- Sin pervades the structures and conventions of human societies and cultures.
- Sin escalates from generation to generation within human history.
- Sin affects even creation itself.
We read a chapter like Job 24, and we know it speaks the truth about the appalling morass of human exploitation, poverty, oppression, brutality and cruelty. And, like Job, we wonder why God seems to do nothing, to hold nobody to account, and to bring nobody to instant justice.
Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment?
Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?
There are those who move boundary stones;
they pasture flocks they have stolen.
They drive away the orphan’s donkey
and take the widow’s ox in pledge.
They thrust the needy from the path
and force all the poor of the land into hiding.
Like wild donkeys in the desert,
the poor go about their labor of foraging food;
the wasteland provides food for their children.
They gather fodder in the fields
and glean in the vineyards of the wicked.
Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked;
they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold.
They are drenched by mountain rains
and hug the rocks for lack of shelter.
The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
Lacking clothes, they go about naked;
they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
They crush olives among the terraces;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
But God charges no one with wrongdoing.
— Job 24:1 – 12 (my emphasis)
And then we shudder because we know that if God were to do that right now and deal out instant justice, none of us would escape. For whatever grades and levels of evil there are among people in general, we know that it is something that lurks in our own heart. The evil we so much wish God would prevent or punish in others is right there inside ourselves. None of us needs to be scratched very deep to uncover the darker depths of our worst desires and the evil action any of us is capable of, if pushed. As we try to stand in judgment on God, we don’t really have a leg to stand on ourselves.
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
— Psalm 130:3
Answer: Not a single solitary one of us.
And even apart from such latent or overt evil within ourselves, there is also the fact that it is practically impossible to live in this world without some complicity in its evil or some benefit from evils done elsewhere. We have to get on with living, and as we do so, our lives touch hundreds of other human lives – all over the planet – for good or ill. We are connected to the vast net of human experience worldwide. We may not be directly to blame for the sufferings of others, but we cannot ignore the connections.
The shirt on my back was made in an Asian country. I have no way of knowing if the hands that stitched it belong to a child who hardly ever sees the light of day, never has a square meal, or knows what it is to be loved and to play, and who may by now be deformed or even dead by such cruelty. But it is likely too that such wickedness is woven into the fabric of more than my shirt. In the week I write this, several major international companies in the UK are under investigation for profiting from virtual slave labour (a few pence an hour) in the majority world. Doubtless I have bought goods from some of them. Injustice and suffering plagues the global food industry, such that it is probable that some of what I eat or drink today is likely to have reached my table tinged with exploitation and oppression somewhere in the chain. The hands that have contributed to my daily bread undoubtedly include hands stained by the blood of cruelty, injustice, and oppression – whether inflicted or suffered.
Evil has its tentacles through multi-layered systems that are part of globalized reality. We can, of course, (and we should) take steps to live as ethically as possible, to buy fair-traded food and clothes, and to avoid companies and products with shameful records in this area. But I doubt if we can escape complicity in the webs of evil, oppression, and suffering in the world entirely. I say that not to turn all our enjoyment of life into guilty depression. Rather, as we enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation, we must at the same time accept the Bible’s diagnosis of how radical, pervasive, and deeply ingrained sin has become in all human life and relationships.
Only God in his omniscience can unravel such inter-weavings of evil, but the point the Bible makes is that it puts the blame for suffering and evil where most of it primarily belongs, namely, on ourselves, the human race. The Bible makes it equally clear that we cannot just draw simple equations between what one person suffers and their own personal sinfulness. Often it is terribly wrong to do so (and makes the suffering even worse, as Job discovered). But in overall, collective human reality, the vast bulk of human suffering is the result of the overwhelming quantity and complexity of human sinning. There is no mystery, it seems to me, in this biblical diagnosis, which is so empirically verified in our own experience and observation.
Where Did Evil Come From?
It is when we ask this question that our problems begin.
It is important to see that Genesis 3 does not tell us about the origin of evil as such. Rather, it describes the entry of evil into human life and experience. Evil seems to explode into the Bible narrative, unannounced, already formed, without explanation or rationale. We are never told, for example, how or why “the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3:1). We are not told why it spoke as it did, though the very fact that it did should raise our suspicion that something is not right in God’s good creation. But why such “not-right-ness” was there, or where it had come from – these questions are not answered in the text.
What then can we say about this mysterious source of temptation that led Eve and Adam to choose to disobey? It was not God – evil is not part of the being of God. It was not another human being – evil is not an intrinsic part of what it means to be human either. We were human once without sin, so we can be so again. It was something from within creation – and yet it was not a “regular” animal, since it “talked”. And how could such evil thoughts and words come from within a creation that has seven times been declared “good” in chapters 1 – 2? Whatever the serpent in the narrative is, then, or whatever it represents, it is out of place, an intruder, unwelcome, incoherent, contrary to the story so far.
If evil, then, comes from within creation in some sense (according to the symbolism of the story in Genesis 3), but not from the human creation, the only other created beings capable of such thought and speech are angels. So, although the connection is not made in Genesis 3 itself, the serpent is elsewhere in the Bible symbolically linked to the evil one, the devil (e.g., Rev. 12:9; 20:2). And the devil is portrayed elsewhere as an angel, along with other hosts of angels who rebelled against God along with him (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; Rev. 12:7 – 9).
What, then, is the devil or Satan?
First of all, he (or it) is not God. Nor even just some other god. The Bible makes it very clear that we are not to fall into any kind of dualism – a good god (who made the world all nice and friendly), and an evil god (who messed it all up). Some kinds of popular folk Christianity do slide in that direction and give to Satan far more assumed power and far more obsessive attention than is warranted by the Bible. And such dualism is the meat and drink of a large amount of quasi-religious fiction, which sadly many Christians read with more frequency and more faith than their Bibles.
But Satan is not God, never has been and never will be. That means that, although the Bible clearly portrays Satan as powerful indeed, he is not omnipotent. Likewise, although Satan is said in the Bible to command hosts of other fallen angels (demons) who do his dirty work, he is not omnipresent. Satan cannot be everywhere at once (as only God can be and is). And although the Bible shows Satan to be very clever, subtle, and deceitful, he is not omniscient. He does not know everything and does not have sovereign knowledge of the future in the way God has in carrying forward his plans for creation and history.
As an angel among other fallen angels, even as their prince, the devil is a created being. That means that he is subject to God’s authority and ultimate control. Like everything else in creation, Satan is limited, dependent, contingent – and ultimately destructible. We should take Satan seriously, but we should not dignify him with greater reality and power than is proper for a creature.
But is the devil personal ? Is Satan a person like us? Is he a person like God?
We must be careful in answering this question. It seems to me that there are dangers in either a simple yes or no. On the one hand, the Bible clearly speaks about the devil in many ways that we normally associate with persons. He is an active agent, with powers of intelligence, intentionality, and communication. That is, the Bible portrays the devil as acting, thinking, and speaking in ways that are just like the way we do such things and are certainly greater than any ordinary animal does. When the devil is around in the Bible, it is clear that the Bible is talking about more than just some abstract evil atmosphere or tendency or a merely metaphorical personification of evil desires within ourselves – individually or collectively. The Bible warns us that, in the devil, we confront an objective intelligent reality with relentless evil intent. And the Gospels reinforce this assessment in their description of the battle Jesus had with the devil throughout his ministry. The devil, says the Bible, is very real, very powerful, and acts in many ways just like the persons we know ourselves to be.
But on the other hand, there is one thing that the Bible says about us as human persons that it never says about the devil, or about angels in general, at all. God made us human beings in God’s own image. Indeed, this is what constitutes our personhood. What makes human beings uniquely to be persons, in distinction from the rest of the nonhuman animal world, is not the possession of a soul, but that human beings are created in the image of God. The human species is the only species of which this is true. We were created to be like God, to reflect God and his character, and to exercise God’s authority within creation.
Even as sinners, human beings are still created in God’s image. Though it is spoiled and defaced, it cannot be eradicated altogether, for to be human is to be the image of God. So even among unregenerate sinners there are God-like qualities, such as loving relationships, appreciation of goodness and beauty, fundamental awareness of justice, respect for life, and feelings of compassion and gentleness. All these are dimensions of human personhood, for all of them reflect the transcendent person of God.
Now we are not told in the Bible that God created angels in his own image. Angels are created spirits. They are described as servants of God who simply do his bidding. They worship God and carry out God’s errands. The common words for them (mal’ak in the Old Testament and angelos in the New Testament) simply mean “messenger” in everyday language. Don’t misunderstand: this is not meant in anyway to diminish the exalted status and function that angels have in the Bible. It is simply to note that they are distinguished from human persons. And ultimately it is the human, in and through the man Christ Jesus, who will take the supreme place in the redeemed created order (Heb. 2). Personal qualities are the unique possession of human beings because, as God’s image, we are the only beings in creation who were uniquely created to reflect God’s own divine personhood.
So, among the fallen angels, especially the devil himself, there is no trace of that image of God which is still evident even in sinful human beings. And this is most easily explained if we assume it was never there in the first place. In Satan there is no residual loving relationship, no appreciation of goodness or beauty, no mercy, no honour, no “better side”, no “redeeming features”. And most of all, whereas no human person, however evil and degraded, is ever in this life beyond our loving compassion and our prayers that they might repent and be saved, there is no hint whatsoever in the Bible that Satan is a person to be loved, pitied, prayed for, or redeemed. On the contrary, Satan is portrayed as totally malevolent, relentlessly hostile to all that God is and does, a liar and a murderer through and through, implacably violent, mercilessly cruel, perpetually deceptive, distorting, destructive, deadly – and doomed.
“So, Do You Believe in the Devil?”
Faced with this question I feel the need to make a qualified “yes and no” answer. Yes, I believe in the existence of the devil as an objective, intelligent and “quasi-personal” power, utterly opposed to God, creation, ourselves, and life itself. But no, I do not “believe in the devil” in any way that would concede to him power and authority beyond the limits God has set. The Bible calls us not so much to believe in the devil as to believe against the devil. We are to put all our faith in God through Christ and to exercise that faith against all that the devil is and does – whatever he may be. Nigel Wright makes this point very well:
To believe in somebody or something implies that we believe in their existence. But it also carries overtones of an investment of faith or trust. . . . To believe in Jesus means, or should mean, more than believing in his existence. It involves personal trust and faith by virtue of which the power of Christ is magnified in the life of the believer. The access of Christ to an individual’s life, his power or influence within them, is in proportion to their faith. The same use of language applies in the wider world. To believe in a political leader implies more than believing in their existence; it implies faith in the system of values for which they stand and confidence in their ability to carry it through.
The reply to the question should Christians believe in the devil must therefore be a resounding ‘No!’ When we believe in something we have a positive relationship to that in which we believe but for the Christian a positive relationship to the devil and demons is not possible. We believe in God and on the basis of this faith we disbelieve in the devil . . . Satan is not the object of Christian belief but of Christian disbelief. We believe against the devil. We resolutely refuse the devil place.
. . . The power of darkness against which we believe has its own reality. Even though it has a reality it lacks a validity – it ought not to exist because it is the contradiction of all existence. Its existence is unthinkable even as it is undeniable. It exists, but for the Christian it exists as something to be rejected and denied.
That is why Paul urges us to “put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11, my emphasis). That is why Peter, as soon as he has warned his readers about the devil’s predatory prowling, urges them to resist him – not pay him the compliment of any form of “believing”: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith” (1 Peter 5:8 – 9).
That is why one of the most ancient formulas of the church, in the baptism liturgy, calls upon Christians undergoing baptism to “renounce the devil and all his works”. That is probably also why, when a popular series of books on Christian doctrines, the “I Believe” series of Hodder and Stoughton, came to the doctrine of Satan, it did not follow the simple formula of other volumes (e.g. I Believe in the Historical Jesus; I Believe in the Resurrection). There is no book in the series with the title, I Believe in Satan, but rather and quite rightly, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall.
The Fall of Angels?
So the Bible tells us that the devil and his hosts are rebel angels. But what does the Bible teach us about this so-called fall of the angels? Well, actually, it doesn’t really “teach” anything clearly or systematically, though we do get a number of hints that point in that direction.
Isaiah 14:4 – 21 and Ezekiel 28:1 – 17 are poems that “celebrate” the fall of the kings of Babylon and Tyre respectively. They are typical of the taunting songs of lament that were used when great imperial tyrants were brought low and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Some Christians see in these two songs a kind of symbolic portrayal of the fall of Satan. However, we do need to remind ourselves that they were written originally to describe the defeat and death of historical human kings, and so it is a dubious exercise to try to build detailed doctrinal statements about the devil or the “underworld” upon them. Nevertheless, we may discern the fingerprints of Satan in what is described in these poems, since it is clear that these arrogant human beings were brought low because of their blasphemous pride and boasting against God. Indeed, they are portrayed as wanting to usurp God’s throne. In the poem, such claims are probably metaphorical for the human kings’ hybris, but they have a spiritual counterpart that is recognizably satanic.
Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation give us some clearer affirmations of the fall of Satan and his rebel angels:
And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.
— Jude 6
God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into chains of darkness to be held for judgment.
— 2 Peter 2:4
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
— Revelation 12:7 – 9
That seems to be it, as far as direct Bible references to this matter are concerned. In our curiosity, we ask for more information, such as:
- When did this happen?
- Why did created angels turn to become rebellious?
- Were the angels themselves tempted by something evil, as the serpent tempted Eve?
- If so, how did such evil come into existence?
- Where did the evil come from that led created angels to fall, who then led humans to fall?
But for such questions, we get no answer from the Bible. We are simply never told. Silence confronts all our questions. The mystery remains unrevealed.
Now God has revealed to us vast amounts of truth in the Bible – about God himself, about creation, about ourselves, our sin, God’s plan of salvation, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the future destiny of the world, and so on. Thus, in light of all this abundant revelation, the Bible’s silence at this point on the ultimate origin of evil seems all the more significant, and not merely accidental. It’s not as if God were now saying, “Oops, I forgot to mention that point, but never mind, they can figure it out for themselves.” No, the truth is that God has chosen in his wisdom not to give us an answer to our questions about the ultimate origin of evil within creation. It is simply not for us to know – and that is God’s sovereign decision, the prerogative of the one who is the source of all truth and revelation in the universe.
But if we ask, “Where did that preexisting evil presence come from?” – we are simply not told. God has given us the Bible, but the Bible doesn’t tell us.
So then, to return to the title of this chapter, the Bible compels us to accept the mystery of evil. But here’s the key point: we can recognize this negative fact. We know what we don’t know. We do understand that we cannot understand. And that in itself is a positive thing.
Why is that?
Evil Makes “No Sense”
It is a fundamental human drive to understand things. The creation narrative shows that we have been put into our created environment to master and subdue it, which implies gaining understanding of it. To be human is to be charged with ruling creation, and that demands ever-growing breadth and depth of understanding the created reality that surrounds us. The simple picture in Genesis 2 of the primal human naming the rest of the animals is an indication of this exercise of rational recognition and classification. Our rationality is in itself a dimension of being made in the image of God. We were created to think! We just have to investigate, understand, explain; it is a quintessentially human trait that manifests itself from our earliest months of life.
So then, to understand things means to integrate them into their proper place in the universe, to provide a justified, legitimate, and truthful place within creation for everything we encounter. We instinctively seek to establish order, to make sense, to find reasons and purposes, to validate things and thus explain them. As human beings made in God’s image for this very purpose, we have an innate drive, an insatiable desire, and an almost infinite ability to organize and order the world in the process of understanding it.
Thus, true to form, when we encounter this phenomenon of evil, we struggle to apply to it all the rational skill – philosophical, practical, and problem-solving – that we so profusely and successfully deploy on everything else. We are driven to try to understand and explain evil. But it doesn’t work. Why not?
God with his infinite perspective, and for reasons known only to himself, knows that we finite human beings cannot, indeed must not, “make sense” of evil. For the final truth is that evil doesnotmake sense. “Sense” is part of our rationality that in itself is part of God’s good creation and God’s image in us. So evil can have no sense, since sense itself is a good thing.
Evil has no proper place within creation. It has no validity, no truth, no integrity. It does not intrinsically belong to the creation as God originally made it nor will it belong to creation as God will ultimately redeem it. It cannot and must not be integrated into the universe as a rational, legitimated, justified part of reality. Evil is not there to be understood, but to be resisted and ultimately expelled. Evil was and remains an intruder, an alien presence that has made itself almost (but not finally) inextricably “at home”. Evil is beyond our understanding because it is not part of the ultimate reality that God in his perfect wisdom and utter truthfulness intends us to understand. So God has withheld its secrets from his own revelation and our research.
Personally, I have come to accept this as a providentially good thing. Indeed, as I have wrestled with this thought about evil, it brings a certain degree of relief. And I think it carries the implication that whenever we are confronted with something utterly and dreadfully evil, appallingly wicked, or just plain tragic, we should resist the temptation that is wrapped up in the cry, “Where’s the sense in that?” It’s not that we get no answer. We get silence. And that silence is the answer to our question. There is no sense. And that is a good thing too.
Can I understand that? No.
Do I want to understand that? Probably not, if God has decided it is better that I don’t.
So I am willing to live with the understanding that the God I don’t understand has chosen not to explain the origin of evil, but rather wants to concentrate my attention on what he has done to defeat and destroy it.
Now this may seem a lame response to evil. Are we merely to gag our desperate questions, accept that it’s a mystery, and shut up? Surely we do far more than that? Yes indeed.
We grieve. We weep. We lament. We protest. We scream in pain and anger. We cry out, “How long must this kind of thing go on?”
And that brings us to our second major biblical response. For when we do such things, the Bible says to us, “That’s OK. Go right ahead. And here are some words that you may like to use when you feel that way.” But for that, we must understand The Offence Of Evil