Exploring Evil

I've been moved to explore Evil in the context of our Sunday services because recent events have brought it into the forefront of many of our minds. The atrocities in Kosovo and Yugoslavia, the brutal deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, the massacre at Columbine High School, and other human failings too numerous to mention have set many of us wondering how such things could be. How are we to understand these events? What on earth is wrong with these people anyway? In what direction can we turn for some answers, comfort, or even security?

Traditionally, historically, and perhaps even naturally, people have turned to religion when confronting issues such as Evil and how to cope with it. Religions, despite what some philosophers maintain, are made up of stories, interpretations about those stories, and beliefs about those interpretations; but mainly just stories. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the first story is Genesis, but there were earlier creation stories from ancient civilizations like Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Canaan, each of which influenced the story of Genesis as we know it. You can actually trace the evolution of the symbols and images.

I'm going to touch on a few of these other stories before coming back to Genesis as interpreted in Christianity, and especially as interpreted in Judaism. Since the holocaust, no religious system has dealt more thoroughly or more deeply with the subject of evil than Judaism.

One of the common themes around evil in these ancient stories is of Good and Evil being locked in a cosmic battle. Another is the association of evil with chaos, and the association of chaos with water.

Let's look briefly at some of these early stories.

In the Enuma Elish, the creation myth from ancient Babylonia, there is war among the gods in the formless waters before the creation of the world. Tiamat [the primordial dragon] rules the watery depths with petty cruelty and an iron will. Some of the gods get together to create Marduk.  Marduk will be the greatest god ever, and when he grows up, he takes on Tiamat and wins. Out of her body he makes the earth and sky, separates land from the sea and gives order to the universe. The interesting thing is that although Tiamat is subdued and divided, she can't be entirely vanquished or destroyed. Marduk must set bars and doors, and post a guard to keep her in place. The other interesting thing is that although Marduk is the good guy, he controls the Evil Wind that blows amid the formless waters. In fact, this is how he manages to kill Tiamat. When she opens her mouth to consume him, he lets the wind loose in her face, filling up her mouth, lungs and belly until her heart becomes vulnerable to one of his arrows.

Now if we don't get too literal about this, this story says something very important about how evil works in the human heart. I'll say more about this in a minute, but listen for the similarities of images and themes in Genesis.

"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Notice the formless waters and the presence of the windů) Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." And so onů

God, like Marduk, creates order out of chaos but this time in a monotheistic system. In other words, God doesn't have to slay anyone to accomplish God's ends in Genesis. But notice that here again, the waters of chaos are not completely erased. In fact, in a few hundred generations, God purposefully lets the waters loose again in the great flood when God didn't like the way people were acting.

This sets up a very interesting tension between evil, chaos, God, and humankind. In the first five books of the Old Testament, what is known as the Torah, the same word for evil is used to describe natural catastrophes like storms, floods, droughts and such, and for when human beings behave in unnecessarily cruel and punishing ways, and for when God acts to punish Israel for bad behavior. In other words, the ancients understood that evil was not only in the world, but of the world. Built into the very fabric of creation.

Historically, it is centuries later when we begin to see references to evil as a more or less independent force, personified in Satan or some other misbehaving spirit. I'm not going to try to unpack the reasons for this much, but it seems to me a subtle avoidance of responsibility, and a failure to observe human nature, when religious systems make evil personified in some external, supernatural being instead of present in each and every human heart.

In Islam, Satan works in much the same way as in Christianity. Satan is a tempter given permission (and sometimes instruction!) by God to test the morality and faith of we mere humans. Free will still operates, we choose whether to be tempted or faithful, but the location of evil is outside of us, independent, and not resident in our own hearts. Interestingly, in Islam it is considered sinful not to intervene when we see evil acts being committed. On the other hand, if evil is happening to you, it is thought to be either a direct test of your faith, or a temptation to respond in kind.

In Buddhism, evil is not an external force but the result of ignorance (a willing or un-willing ignore-ance) of the deeper truths behind reality. Buddhism affirms reality as characterized by the interdependence of all things. Evil acts would only be done by someone who is ignorant of the larger ramifications; unaware of the way in which an unwholesome act can have nothing other than unwholesome results, blind to the way in which any act of evil, no matter how small, affects the whole of creation.

In Judaism, the question and the problem of evil has gotten immense attention, particularly since the holocaust. And as I'd indicated a minute ago, Judaism generally does not consider evil to be an external force or being, but a possibility and a reality built into the very structure of existence. In mainstream Judaism, rabbis talk and write, not of evil per se, but of the evil Inclination in the heart of humankind, and I think there is great wisdom in this. Although it's true that there is an inherent tension in the idea of a loving and just creator on the one hand, and the existence of evil on the other, this model of the evil at least has some consistency to it. Consider the parallels between a God who appears to only barely have control over the waters of chaos in the world, to most of us mere humans who wrestle with the exact same predicament in our own souls. In this way the underlying themes of the Old Testament become not a static dogma but a vital and living metaphor for the existential struggles of a people trying to do the right thing.

I think there is wisdom in this view for another reason as well. In Islam and much of traditional Christianity, much of the reason and justification for resisting evil and doing good is based on fear of punishment for doing otherwise. But in a system where evil is understood to be inherent in creation, when evil is something we have to deal with in the same way that God has to deal with it, we become not mere subjects of God but partners with God!

Source: Sermon for High Plains Church by Mike Morran, July 11, 1999