The Author of Evil

Consider these passages from the New Testament:

“And behold, there was a woman who for eighteen years had had a sickness caused by a spirit; and she was bent double, and could not straighten up at all” (Lk 13:11).  After healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Lk 13:16).  Jesus ascribes this woman’s illness to Satan himself.

“And they came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.  And when Jesus had come out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an evil spirit met Him, and he had his dwelling among the tombs.  And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain; because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him.  And constantly night and day, among the tombs and in the mountains, he was crying out and gashing himself with stones” (Mk 5:1-6).  Jesus healed the man by driving out what turned out to be a multitude of evil spirits.  When the townspeople came to see what had happened they were stunned to “observe the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the ‘legion’ [of evil spirits]” (Mk 5:15).  Mark ascribes this man’s insanity to Satan’s minions.

“But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land?” (Acts 5:3).  Peter ascribes Ananias’ lie to the influence of Satan himself.

“For we wanted to come to you – I, Paul, more than once – and yet Satan thwarted us” (I Thess 2:18).  Paul was thwarted by Satan himself.

“Be sober of spirit, be on the alert.  Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  But resist him firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (I Pet 5:8-9).  Given the context and sentence structure, could the exhortation to “resist Satan” be directly tied to Satan, the roaring lion, being responsible for their suffering?

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:…’Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days’ ” (Rev 2:8,10).  The trip to prison and the suffering that goes with it is directly controlled by Satan himself.

Paul referred to his “thorn in the flesh” – thought to be an illness or malady – as “a messenger of Satan” (II Cor 12:7).

Did God prescribe eighteen years of sickness for the Jewish woman?  No, Satan did.  Did God prescribe insanity for the Gerasene demoniac?  No, Satan did.  Did God thwart Paul’s plans to take the gospel message to Thessalonica.  No, Satan did.  Did God throw his followers in the Smyrna church in jail as some kind of a test?  No, Satan did.

Do you see the pattern?  In each case, evil and suffering are the handiwork of Satan.  His fingerprints are all over it.  So where is the God we worship in all of this?  Where is the God of love, goodness, and omnipotence?  The short answer:  God is not the author of evil, but is moving out in front of Satan’s evil intentions, and is actively, powerfully, and passionately turning what Satan meant for evil into good.  We will take up this topic next post.

The Dark Power

C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked about a Dark Power in the universe – a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease and sin.”  Where did Mr. Lewis get this impression, and does it fit the message of the New Testament?  I believe it does, but it does involve some piecing the puzzle together.

Most passages in the New Testament that reference Satan describe his evil moral character or his powerful influence in the world.  Regarding Satan’s nature, Jesus simply called him “the evil one” (Mt 13:19).  Evil is Satan’s most basic attribute.  Jesus amplifies this description of Satan’s nature in John 8:44, “[Satan] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies.”  Deception as in “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9) is Satan’s standard operating procedure.

Concerning Satan’s influence, Paul calls him “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2).  Additional titles for Satan that imply influence are, “god of this world” (II Cor 4:4) and “ruler of this world” (Jn 16:11).  In Ephesians 6, Paul explains that our fight is not “against flesh and blood,” but against Satan and his intermediaries whom he calls, “rulers, powers, world forces of darkness, and spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).  And finally, according to I John 5:19, “The whole world lies in the power, or grip, of the evil one.”

Now lest we imply that God has somehow left the scene and Satan is running the show unfettered, we need to balance all the New Testament teaches regarding the work of God as well as His arch-enemy.  The parable of the wheat and the weeds, along with Jesus’ interpretation (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43), give an excellent picture of the parallel growth of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (called “the enemy of God” in the parable).  For a thorough explanation of this parable and its implications for Satan’s influence click here.  Rest assured, despite his current power, Satan is a defeated enemy and his ultimate destruction is foretold in the last verses of this passage.

Returning to our question at hand, what does this mean for the world we live in today?  I think it means that evil, violence, disease, and corruption will continue to flourish under Satan’s rule.  And while we understand that in the big picture view, what does it look like on a more personal and practical level?  We will take up that question next time.

The Problem of Evil

Point three in Dr. Ruth Tucker’s categories related to walking away from faith is “disappointment with God regarding personal and widespread suffering.”  This is not surprising as the problem of suffering and evil has challenged our view of God and His revelation for a long time.  The prevalence of evil in our world from “why do bad things happen to good people” to the devastation wrought by natural disaster is an oft-mentioned stumbling block to belief.

At the risk of sounding trite or thinking that I have a novel, five-second answer to this age-old question, I do believe the biblical answer to this dilemma is straightforward.  Let’s start with what the answer is not.

Evil is not part of God’s plan for us personally or for the world in general.  In our dogmatism regarding the sovereign plan of God, we have either inadvertently or deliberately, painted God as the author of evil.  With this foundational error, it comes as no surprise that we blame God for evil and suffering on both a personal and worldwide scale.  Young, inquiring minds soon see a contradiction between our teaching on God’s love and goodness, and the evil He supposedly prescribes which, to them, becomes untenable and they abandon the faith.  Let me say again, God is not the author of evil.

I believe the Bible teaches that God has a dark, intelligent, evil, supernatural enemy.  He is not God’s equal by any means, but he is an opposing power to the goodness of God, God’s activity, and God’s creation.  In short, the author of evil and suffering in this world at both a personal and worldwide scale is Satan himself, and the best thing we can do for our young people and ourselves in this area is to have a proper understanding of demonology.  Haven’t heard the term demonology before?  I am not surprised.  As pastor Gordon Kirk of Pasadena California has observed, “Satan’s greatest achievement has been to cover his tracks.”

I couldn’t agree more.  As modern man has relegated Satan to the world of fairies and elves, we have become clueless to his devastating activity.  But Jesus and the New Testament writers, over and over again, acknowledge Satan’s existence, his presence, and his influence in the world.  We will look at their warnings in coming posts.

Biblical Perplexities and the New Covenant

Another challenge in the area of biblical perplexities is how we handle the time gap, the language gap, and the culture gap between the New Testament and our present experience.  This is where our theological humility comes into the picture.  Our western and modern mindset wants to put everything about God and His communication with man into neat, logical pigeonholes.  Insisting on a specific theological bent forces us into apparent contradictions and complicated efforts to explain them away rather than just accepting and celebrating the mystery.  There will always be a certain amount of mystery in Scripture.  That is just the way God is.

So while the Bible includes plenty of chronological detail, it is not a western-style history book.  And in our efforts to understand it as one, we are frustrated by what appear to be significant events with little mention (maybe one verse), important events that seem left out altogether, other events repeated (often from a new angle), and all kinds of things foreign to our western mindset.  But not all of Scripture is that way.  Romans chapters 1 through 8, for example, is one of the most compelling arguments of western style logic explaining in a linear method man’s need for salvation, God’s solution in Christ, and how we are to live in light of all Christ accomplished on our behalf.  Again, the overall approach is varied as we must assume God intended.

So if the Bible is not a western-style history book or a western-style science book or a geometry book with theorems and their proofs, what is it?  The Bible is a book of theology that describes the actions and attributes of the One True God and His interaction with man.  It culminates in God’s most specific interaction in the coming to earth of His Son, the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth as set forth in the writings of the New Testament.  In fact, Jesus’ arrival, earthly ministry, death, and resurrection was such a dramatic intervention by God that our entire arrangement with the Sovereign of the Universe was changed.  In Christ, a term used over and over in the New Testament, everything changed in our relationship with God.  A change we do not understand and emphasize and preach nearly enough.

The Old Testament is God-breathed.  The Old Testament is inspired Scripture.  But the operative word in that endorsement is the word “Old.”  We need to help our young people understand that the Old Covenant has ended (see II Cor 3:11 where the Old Covenant is described as katargeo [Greek], literally “brought to an end”).  The law’s requirements, punishments, complications, and expectations are gone with no application to the New Covenant believer which we are.  Of course, most Christians would argue that they are not following the Old Testament law.  But what I observe in practice is the heart is still referred to as “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (even though it has been replaced in the believer by a new heart that is soft toward God), sin is our default mode (even though our sin nature died with Christ and holiness is now our default mode), and we expect God’s material blessing for obedience (a message not found in the New Testament where challenges and adversity are more likely the outcome of devoted obedience).

If you have followed this blog for some time, you recognize I am back on my New Covenant soapbox.  If you are new to these posts and interested in just a taste of what the New Covenant has to offer the believer may I refer you to some of our earlier thoughts such as “Something New”, “A New Heart”, and “The Sin Cow” as a good place to start.

The Distorted Message

Comedian Ricky Gervais, a professed atheist, famously wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that he is a better Christian than many Christians because he does a better job of keeping the Ten Commandments.  My first response to Mr. Gervais would be, “Wrong religion!”  He is talking about Judaism, not Christianity.  But I am inclined to give the British comic a pass because it is a common mistake made by religious and irreligious alike.  And it gets to the root of our young people’s problem with biblical perplexities and higher criticism.

The message of the Bible that our young people think is fraught with contradictions, overseen by an angry God, and disconnected from reality is NOT the true message of Scripture, but a caricature of the Bible that we have allowed into our churches and homes by our sloppy interpretation of God’s Word.  By taking verses out-of-context, worshiping the English words rather than the original meaning, and failing to fit Scripture into the big picture, we have created a distorted imitation of the true message of the Bible.  This distortion is what our young people are rejecting and rightfully so.  But without the true message in front of them, they have nowhere to turn and in sad numbers are abandoning the faith.

What do I mean by distortion?  Let’s start with a simple one related to our introduction to this post.  Christianity starts with the Ten Commandments.  True or False?  Of course, the answer is false.  Christianity begins with Christ.  It not only begins; it lives, dies, and finds its full expression in Christ alone.  Everyone generally agrees with this last statement on an intellectual level, but in practice, not understanding all that changed between the Jewish religion of the Old Covenant and the Christian message of the New Covenant, and elevating the Old Testament to a prominent place in the Christian message is all around us.  And it distorts our message into the consequence model of the Old Testament where…Christianity is about following the rules.  Christianity is about God rewarding those who follow the rules.  Christianity is about God punishing those who do not follow the rules.  The highest goal of the Christian life is to attain God’s blessing – material wealth, happiness, etc. – that is promised in the Old Testament.

In short, this kind of teaching and belief lead to what sociologist Christian Smith discovered in his extensive research into the spiritual lives of American teenagers.  He found most teens “practicing a religion best described as ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are ‘good, nice, and fair.’  Its central goal is to help believers ‘be happy and feel good about oneself.’ ”

Author Drew Dyck asks and answers the question, “Where did teenagers learn this brand of faith?” in an article in Christianity Today magazine.  He writes, “Unfortunately, it [Moral Therapeutic Deism] is taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches.  It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups.  When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.”

In other words, what God are we describing to our young people?  The God of the Bible with all His glory, mystery, and off-the-charts-ness intact, or a God we can tame to do our bidding?  Let’s deliver a true message, including the fantastic new arrangement He offers to each of us in the availability, newness, and power of the New Covenant.