Wrestling with evil - Hebrews 2:5-18

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 15th June 2003.

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Two years ago this summer, in full daylight in Birmingham, a 44 year old man, knifed a young girl as she lay out in the park sunbathing with a friend. That was particularly poignant for us as a family since my son Christopher and his wife were in that very same park when it happened. In Jonesboro, Arkansas, an 11 year old and a 13 year old pulled the fire alarm, assumed sniper positions and shot their class mates. Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer, submerging himself in an orgy of cannibalism and necrophilia. The Milwaukee jury who tried him concluded that he was not insane, he was just -evil.

What does the face of evil look like? A red-eyed Hannibal Lecter peering at us from the shadows? No, not really. It looks like the child in the playground, the old man next door, the girl on the checkout, the lecturer in the university; in other words, it looks like you and me.

The fact is ,we are in deep trouble. Not simply because such events which appall us are taking place with increasing frequency, such that in the USA from 1985-1991 the number of 16 year olds arrested for murder rose 158% and 12 year olds by 100% No, we are in trouble in that we have a crisis in finding a category by which to explain such things. What used to be described as evil is now not simply being explained but is in danger of being explained away. Can we honestly say evil exists as a moral category anymore? Isn’t it just something else like ‘sickness’? In other words, can we say in the 21st century that evil exists?

It is interesting you know, that one of the main arguments against the Christian faith is that it is so difficult to believe in God because there is so much evil. This morning I want to argue that if you don’t believe in God you can’t believe in evil either, you can’t explain it at all. So first of all I want us to take a look at the two most common ways people try to understand evil today. They are there on our TV screens, in our schools and universities. Then we shall see what a tremendous difference the Bible’s explanation makes.

First of all, there is what can be called pure materialism. This is the view that the whole of existence is a result of impersonal, blind chance- and only what you can see and touch is all that there is. This is the working assumption of most TV programmes. There is no great mind behind the universe and there is no ultimate purpose either -only mere mechanism. Whatever sense we have of ‘right and wrong’ does not reflect any objective universal moral standards- at best they are an evolutionary device to ensure the survival of the species. So, putting it crudely, a society which is well ordered, where people care for each other, is more likely to produce the conditions conducive for survival-the passing on of our genetic material to the next generation- than one in which chaos and butchery reign.

Now let us assume for a moment that this description of reality is right. Then what?

1Well, then you are left living in a universe without morality. One person who saw with remarkable clarity and conveyed it through his writings was the Marquise de Sade. If nature is all there is, he argued, then whatever is ,is right. There is no ‘ought’- you cannot say you should or shouldn’t do certain things because they are right or wrong. For him the consequence was his cruelty from which he derived sexual pleasure. He wrote in La Nouvelle Justine (1791-97): 'As nature has made us (the men) the strongest, we can do with her (the woman) whatever we please.' And he did-hence our term sadism.

If you were to reply, well ‘society’ defines ‘right and wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour’, you can turn around and say ‘Which society are we talking about? Nazi society? Headhunting society? And if society itself is a product of blind meaningless chance, its so- called judgments are ultimately meaningless too, and are often more than not the imposition of the will of those who have power i.e. Might is right.

But this view that there is no external morality, and that nature is all there is ,has taken some in another direction, which is hard to argue with if we are going to be consistent. So Ingrid Newkirk, the President of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals compares meat eating to the Nazi holocaust. She says ‘Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion chickens will die here in slaughterhouses.’ And strictly speaking if we are nothing but the products of blind meaningless chance, who can argue with that? We may be more complex than chickens, but who decides that complexity is of a higher value than non-complexity? Evolution? Hardly, that is just an impersonal sifting mechanism and is incapable of making any moral pronouncements.

But some ,like the champion of atheism Richard Dawkins openly admits that the way to answer the problem of evil is to deny its existence outright. So he writes: ‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. And we dance to its music.’ In his thought, Dawkins is being consistent-that is all you are left with if there is no God- no purpose, no value and no evil.

But can you live with that? Can you imagine telling a raped woman that the rapist merely danced to his DNA? You tell the victims of Auschwitz that their tormentors merely danced to their DNA, tell the loved ones of those cannibalised by Jeffrey Dahmer that he merely danced to his DNA. Any belief can be argued, even the belief of atheism, but not every belief can be lived.

Which brings us to the next attempted explanation of ‘evil’ -pure relativism.

Let me tell you of a film which spells out the problem of relativism, what is right for you isn’t necessarily right for me-so don’t judge, it is a film called The Quarrel. The main characters, Hersh and Chiam grew up together but separated because of a dispute about God and evil. Then came the holocaust and each had thought the other had perished. Reunited by chance after the war, they become embroiled once again in their boyhood quarrel. Hersh, now a Rabbi offers this challenge to his atheist friend Chiam. 'If there’s nothing in the universe which is higher than human beings, then what’s morality? Well, its a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better? 'Do you begin to see the horror of this? If there is no master of the Universe, then whose to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God, then the people who murdered your wife and kids did nothing wrong.' And that’s correct. If there are no absolutes, then one morality cannot be said to be better or worse than any other. They are just -different. We may prefer say, democratic morality, but then a fascist might prefer Nazi morality and unless there is something beyond them to which we can point and adjudicate between them, we cannot even say that Hitler was evil-he was just different, that’s all.

So following the pure materialist or the pure relativist, why not abandon any meaningful talk of ‘evil’ altogether and just speak about sickness, a deviation from the norm? In other words there isn’t morality, only therapy.

But if our bad behaviour is reduced to nothing but genetic and environmental forces- ‘Its not my fault judge, its me glands’ - then the idea of blame disappears altogether. I cannot be blamed for having a limp, so I cannot be blamed for being predisposed towards cannibalism-we are back to de Sade again who was a determinist- ‘Nature has made me bigger than women, I like to inflict pain on women, I can and so I shall.’ But what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, because the notion of ‘praise’ disappears too. If the evil things I do are due to forces beyond my control, then why not the good? To psychologise everything away is to make us less than human-mere biological machines. We cannot blame a machine for malfunctioning-neither can we blame humans either. And when we start thinking of ourselves as machines we will soon treat each other like machines .If a machine is broke and you can’t fix it-get rid of it. So why not people? And so the door is open for euthanasia.

But deep down, intuitively we know that evil exists and we are responsible for our actions. Look at it this way: if someone accidentally trips us up, and we fall down the stairs and we are hurt, we may not like it, and we may think the other person clumsy, but we do not feel anger towards him- as sense of moral indignation. But if someone intentionally tries to trip us up and fails, we do feel angry. Why? After all, we are not hurt? Well, it is because we believe that people shouldn’t behave like that, its not fair or right, they should behave differently. Now where does this idea come from?

Well, if pure materialism on the one hand and pure relativism on the other doesn’t explain evil, -but explains it away - what does explain it? Well, pure Christianity -the account we find it in the Bible which ‘rings true’.

The reason why we cannot shake off our feelings of justice- right and wrong- is because a good and just God originally made the world good.- ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth- begins the Bible- Gen 1:1. He made creatures capable of making real moral choices which have consequences ‘God said ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness ,and let them rule’ Gen 1:17. Now you cannot blame a stone for being ‘the wrong shape’ as it lies on a hillside, but we do feel we can blame human being for being in the wrong shape when they act in a way which is inconsistent with what can only be called ‘natural law’. So we know mass murder and rape are wrong- not just sick. They contravene and offend against a standard which is beyond us, which we haven’t made up but which we simply recognise. Just as we recognise law of gravity we recognise the law of God. And God has woven that ‘law’ into the fabric of the universe and embedded it into our own hearts attested to by our consciences-which accuse us when we do wrong. This is not an evolutionary freak, making us think we are significant when we are not, it is a mark of the Maker.

You see, our real problem isn’t particularly behavioural or psychological, it is spiritual. As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 1:32, having reeled off a catalogue of depravity- envy, murder, deceit, malice, he writes : Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve those who practice them.’ - in other words our sense of right and wrong testifies to our dignity and our depravity- unlike other animals we have a sense of morality, but we delight to go against it. You see, my real problem isn’t the ‘evil out there’, it is the evil in here, what I am capable of doing if only I had the chance.

But the Bible also tells us that there is a supernatural malevolent power at work in our world-a personal spiritual being who is not a second god, but who nonetheless has remarkable powers, often working behind the scenes and through human agents who in surrendering to the Lie, promote wickedness. The Bible has a number of names for this being-Satan, the devil , the father of lies. Jesus says he is a murderer from the beginning. In other words, we live in enemy occupied territory. And this enemy of God loves the stench of death and destruction. And just in case you think this is the stuff for children, let me say that after the Second World War two of the greatest skeptics of Christianity became Christians because they could not explain what happened on any other terms-the first was the atheist philosopher C.M. Joad- who had spent most of his life ridiculing Christianity, the other was writer W.H.Auden. It is patently obvious to any but the most dewy eyed romantic that evil exists, that humans are not getting better with the passage of time, that we are fundamentally flawed and that dark forces are at work in our world.

But the Bible’s story contains not only the bad news of the problem, but the good news of the solution, which is this: That the infinite-personal God who made the world in which his creatures have voluntarily turned their backs on him and so have introduced the dis-ease -the wars, the deceit, the hatred and has taken steps to combat evil and rescue us from our mess. You see, God is not indifferent to evil, he is implacably opposed to it. God’s response to evil is not to ignore it and say, ‘Oh well it doesn’t really matter.’ Neither is it to deny it and say it doesn’t exist. No he faced it head on by becoming one of us, some 2000 years ago-as Jesus of Nazareth. Do you want to know what the face of pure goodness looks like? Then look at him. He spoke some of the most beautiful words ever uttered. Where there was sickness and suffering brought to him, he met it-healing the sick, raising the dead. Where there was evil, he confronted it, not just the demon possessed, but the evil and corruption ensconced in religion and politics. And it is there that perhaps we see the greatest evil of all, religion which speaks in the name of God, but which keeps people away from the true and living God. Politics which claims for itself the prerogative and allegiance belonging to God alone - so we have 6 million Jews killed under Hitler, 20 million Russians under Stalin, a third of Cambodia under Po Pot. Well, in his own day Jesus challenged that- hypocrites he called the Pharisees, a fox , he called Herod. The outcast and fearful he took in and gave hope. He spoke of a time when there would be a new heaven and new earth, a kingdom, he called it, in which justice and peace would reign and death would be no more. A time when the prince of this world-the devil- would be cast out-and any who turn to him-Jesus- would receive the gift of eternal life.

And then came the darkest moment the universe had ever known-evil unleashed in all its fury and perversity, when people like you and me-good people in many ways- took their Maker and simply murdered him. Hammering his hands and feet to a tree, stringing him up like a lump of raw meat on a butchers hook. And as he lay dying, they taunted him, jeered at him. And had you and I been there, we would have done it too .Because many of us are still doing it. I spent 17 years of my life doing it. And then one day I turned to the Bible for myself and discovered what else was happening on that evil day. That God was actually working his greatest good. In a way only known to God, the innocent one-Jesus- was suffering for all the crimes committed by a guilty humanity. The judgment we deserve he willingly received. That is why he cried out ‘Father forgive them.’ The price has been paid, our moral debt is cleared- ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ says the prophet Isaiah. And proof of this came three days later when Jesus was raised from the dead-showing that the devil’s trump card-death -had been defeated. Evil does not have the last say in this world-a good God does. So all those who turn from going their own way, and trusting in Jesus Christ discover that they are set free from slavery to evil and have reasons to fight against it. Why else do you think that the schools, the hospitals, the freeing of slaves, the major factory reforms in this country were all promoted under the influence of Christians? God is against evil and so are his people. They are not perfect, they know that, that is why they need a Saviour. They also know they still have wicked inclinations, that is why they need a special power and person called the Holy Spirit to live in them. But at least they are on the side of the forces of liberation. And if you are not a Christian here this morning, why not join us? This world is not the be all and end all. There is a transcendent invisible reality which God calls us to tap into by coming to his Son. There is a world to come, and a judgment with it, and God calls us to get ready for it. The true God is not stuck on mount Olympus, secluded from evil ,he came down from heaven and absorbed evil on a cross ,so that we might know and taste his goodness. One NT writer puts it like this, speaking of Jesus (Hebrews 2:14-15;17-18). ‘Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death... For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.’ Do you know that freedom? Are you serving the cause of freedom. Why not come to him who is the great Liberator?


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