December 10th 2017
The problem of evil is still alive and well. People may not want to talk about it, or they may deny its existence, as some modernists and postmodernists do, but in reality, evil is clearly around.
I find it somewhat amazing that, after the terrible world wars of the 20th century (not to mention other more localised wars that had their own horror) people still believe that we are on a march of progress towards freedom and justice, a march that is often conceived of as being led by the West. Behind this idea is the belief that all our problems will eventually be solved through better technology and education. There also seems to be a belief that things will improve dramatically through the application of Western social-democratic ideals throughout the world.
Karl Barth, one of the greatest theological thinkers of the twentieth century, warned against this kind of thinking as far back as the 1930s, during the rise of Nazism. Spiritual progress cannot be advanced through our own human efforts. Barth wrote that what is needed is for the church and the world to hear the word of God afresh, from outside, and not just rely on the gradual advance of the kingdom of God from within the processes of history.
There have been various reactions to the terrible evils of the 20th century. The first is to ignore it or deny its existence, or, as we have noted, argue that it will all go away eventually when we educate people enough and get the right technology.
One can also go the way of Nietzsche, whose philosophy of power held that evil is the shadow side of good, and is therefore a balancing reality in the world. Ultimately, in this scheme of thinking, might is right. In Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, the old order of morality either ceases to exist naturally or it must be destroyed.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous ways of thinking about evil today lies in dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys, where the West are the good guys and others are the bad guys. The naming of other countries or nations as the “axis of evil” is a term that arises from this kind of thinking. By naming others as the “axis of evil,” for example, one locates the problem of evil somewhere else, but certainly not in the backyard of us who are the good guys. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent about 11 years in prison or exile, dealt well with this kind of thinking in his book The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn wrote the following:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
It is necessary, of course, to distinguish between small and low-grade evils and large and terrible versions of evil. Clearly having one too many drinks is not as terrible as genocide. The point, however, is that we do not deal properly and well with evil by laying it all on someone else. In fact, it is dangerous to do this.
Indeed, the whole world continues to need a messiah, one who will lift us out of the evil of this world. We are in the season of Advent, celebrating the coming of the messiah, Jesus, and looking forward to his coming again. Last Sunday we celebrated the first Sunday of Advent with the theme of hope. This coming Sunday is the day of peace, God’s peace. On the last two Sundays of Advent we celebrate joy and love. All these, hope, peace, joy and love, are God’s gifts to us. Let us be intentional about reaching out with these gifts to others, and continue to pray that many will receive these gifts, so that they too can pass these gifts on.