Here in the early days of the 21st century it seems increasingly unpopular to put forth the idea that evil is real, or that Satan is nothing more than the anthropomorphizing of the human tendency to do bad things. Sort of like Santa Claus being our image of God. Evil, so both modern pundits and even some theologians say, is a result of chemical imbalances in the brain, or a bad upbringing, or too much time on Facebook. The idea of a real Satan that exists independent of humanity is therefore associated with mythology and Satan becomes merely a token of our worst tendencies. But the problem with this is the same as the problem of a self-created God, as we have discussed in one form or another in all the previous episodes. Remove a transcendent God from your worldview and all that’s left to take God’s place is you. If evil is caused merely by some combination of material and psychological misfires, then guess who has placed themselves in the driver’s seat of evil as well? If you guessed “you,” you win the prize.
Although the idea of transcendent evil may be difficult for the modern brain to embrace, the idea is completely consistent with the account of evil in the Bible. First of all, there is no creation story for Lucifer; no account of evil being snuck in after lunch on the fifth day or anything like that. Lucifer simply appears, in the form of a snake walking upright, in the garden, as if he had always been there. And he already knows everything, or at least everything important. Specifically, he knows what makes Adam and Eve tick – he knows how they are made – and so he can easily take advantage of their innocence and naivete to trick Eve into eating the apple, knowing she will take advantage of Adam’s trusting nature and induce him to eat as well. Lucifer knows that at the drop of a hat, the first humans will disobey God in order to . . . well, I don’t want to say in order to what quite yet – that’s what we’re working up to, isn’t it? At this point, suffice it to say that the transcendent origins of evil are apparent, if not explicitly spelled out, within the first few chapters of Genesis, and indeed throughout the Bible.
However, Lucifer can not override free will. He can’t force you to enact evil, he can only tempt you to do so. The idea that “the devil made me do it” has no biblical underpinnings: Satan tempts, some, like Adam and Eve, succumb, and some don’t, but everyone has a choice.
We tend to think of this temptation as the offering of wealth, or food, or sex, or even a dress, in exchange for the abandonment of God. In the book of Job Lucifer bets that Job is just a fair-weather friend of God. You might, I suppose, call it negative temptation, where all of God’s material blessings are taken away from Job to test his faithfulness. Job is presented with a stark choice: remain faithful to God in spite of hardship, or curse God because of the hardship. He chooses – and that, of course, is the key word here – to remain faithful, ultimately repenting in sackcloth and ashes before being restored. But had he chosen the other way you still could not say the Devil made him do it. Our power to choose good or evil is absolute.
This, in fact, seems to be interwoven in God’s plan for humanity. We are not powerless playthings of the gods. Adam and Eve’s choice in the garden has led not only to our ability to discern good from evil, but also our ability to choose good or evil. There is accountability built into every human action, every moral choice. However, if we do not believe in a transcendent source of good or evil, then there is no accountability to anything other than that which we arbitrarily may choose. Since self-interest is likely to be the most prominent of self-chosen bases for moral choice, and since self-interests from person to person are likely to be divergent, self-chosen morality must inevitably lead to interpersonal conflict, as the standard for moral choice devolves to the end justifying the means, and the self seeking dominance over the other.
This makes self-oriented moral systems the ideal playground for evil. Here’s a little scenario as an outline for us to ponder this:
- The self wants something – for example, a hard drug like heroin.
- There is no outer-imposed barrier – no transcendent guideline that says what the self wants is wrong.
- There is no restraint on temptation – Satan’s favorite tool.
- The self obtains the desired object and experiences the life-destroying consequences.
This is not to say that there is no such thing as redemption – it is one of God’s great gifts – but although it is offered to everyone, not everyone takes it. It’s hard to repent to a God you don’t believe in.
So we see that acts of evil, just like acts of good, are a two part process: the call to good (obedience to God) and the call to evil (temptation) joined with our free-will response to these calls. Perhaps we could say that good and evil are a bit like epoxy. You know, the glue you use to fix a broken coffee cup. Epoxy comes in two parts: the glue itself and the hardener, and they have to be mixed together before applying to the object to be fixed. Or, how about another silly metaphor: the invitation to good or evil is like an invitation to a party. The invitation is abstract, just a little gilded piece of paper with your name written on it. But you have to actually go to the party to realize the invitation. The promise of good or evil is implicit in the invitation, but if the invitation is thrown away and the party not attended, neither will actually happen.
Evil involves intent: the intent of the invitation to evil is to create evil. And intent is purely in the human purview. In a Biblical worldview, only humans can form evil intent since they are the only species subject to Satan’s temptations. If a jogger is attacked and killed by a cougar while jogging in the forest, this is tragic but not evil, since the cougar can only instinctively kill, not intentionally murder. The cougar does not have the facility to know right from wrong in a transcendent sense, but the human has inherited this ability from Adam and Eve who, after all, ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
The hubris that broke the world persists. For example, when we ascribe evil exclusively to chemical or sociological sources, we are succumbing to the idea that says we, by ourselves, can overcome evil and therefore there is no transcendent power at work. This is not to say that chemical or sociological influences do not exist or should not be addressed, but by the same token where human intent is involved we cannot take seriously the accountability denying idea that “the devil made me do it.” The devil can’t make you do anything; he can only tempt you to do that which will take you farther from God. So, if you don’t believe in God, what difference does it make to go farther from that which you think does not exist? It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy that creates the perfect platform for evil – Satan, Lucifer, the Devil, whatever name you want to give – to operate from.
So, why is there evil at all? This question, referred to by theologians as theodicy, has challenged those very same theologians for centuries. If God created a perfect world exemplified by Eden, then why did God introduce Lucifer into the mix and spoil everything? The temptation is to simply say, “I haven’t got a clue” then change the subject or run for the door. Or we could spend hours and hours on this question – and maybe we will someday – examining all of those theologian’s hard work. But wrestling with why evil exists doesn’t change the fact that it does exist, and perhaps we can leave off this question with the shallow but nevertheless pithy observation that without evil, how would we know what good is? Without evil, we would have no free will, since there would be nothing to choose from.
At first glance, you might think this to be unfair. After all, you deserve a life doing nothing but sitting on a beach sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it, or wandering around naked in a garden enjoying the cool breeze. But God, through free choice, gave us the means to break this idyllic existence, and by golly, with a little help from Lucifer, we did just that. We can speculate about why we did it all day long, but it is what it is. God also gave us the means, through God’s word, presence and grace, to resist evil, to keep it at bay, until we may once more return to the garden.
You might wonder why I say “resist” evil and not “defeat” evil. The transcendent nature of evil is apparent even when Jesus encounters Satan in the desert. Jesus resists all that Satan has to offer – all the worldly things that are of no interest – but Satan persists throughout Christ’s passion and crucifixion. It is not until Michael and his army of Angels arrive in Revelation that Satan is defeated. It is a transcendent army defeating transcendent evil. So again, we are tempted to ask what’s the point? If we can’t defeat evil, why keep resisting? The answer, of course, is found in resistance movements like those in France during World War II. They had no hope of defeating the Nazis by themselves, but they could deter the Nazis advances, weaken them, and aid in the ultimate Allied victory. So are we all called, even in our baptismal and confirmation vows, to resist evil and pave the way for Christ’s ultimate victory. The lie promulgated by Lucifer in the Garden, and the temptation that Eve and Adam could not resist as we teased at the beginning of the podcast, is the idea that they might move up and become like God. But in Christ we learn that the only way up that path is through obedience to God, not disobedience, and so we were set out of the garden to explore that path in a world broken by disobedience.