The elimination of evil

An address given by Greg Clarke at the 'Trubar's Evil' series in Slovenia

Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak in the series celebrating the 500th anniversary of Trubar’s birth. He is not a figure well-known in Australia, but the events of the European Reformation are indeed significant for the shape of Australian culture. It was the post-Reformation Church of England that first brought Christianity to Australia, sending chaplains to teach and pastor the penal colony. We are a nation shaped by preaching to sinners—whether they be the poor souls of thieves deported from England, or the sometimes savage and self-serving colonials. Modern Australia is born out of trying to make good of a bad situation, trying to turn a prison into a paradise. Australia is a beautiful place to live, but nevertheless great corruption, selfishness, injustice and violence remain.

Which means that evil is a topic of enduring interest to us, as it is no doubt to you. Our contexts are different—Australia, a young nation; Slovenia a much older one; Australia an island continent, in some ways cut off from the wider world; Slovenia a significant part of Europe’s struggle with a violent past and violent ideologies. However, the idea that evil could be done away with, eradicated, finished and that we would never see suffering again—well, that is a most appealing hope to all nations. Surely, the elimination of evil is one of the underlying intentions of social policies in many of the world’s nations. We may not expect to see it, but we expect to pursue it as a goal.  

Tonight, I wish to speak with you about the idea that evil will be eliminated. Last night, Professor Blocher spoke about the entry of evil into this created world; I wish to speak about the exit of evil—the end of evil. To do so, I wish first to outline a contemporary way of categorising evil, using the recent work of Slavoj Zizek on violence as my reference point. I then wish to explore the means by which evil will be eliminated, according to Christian teaching, that is, the judgment of God through Jesus Christ. And finally, I want to consider what a world without evil might look like, naming it with biblical language as ‘the kingdom of God’.

Categorising evil

Evil occurs in many forms, and we shouldn’t be too quick to think of evil as merely one large moral category of event or person. It is more useful to us if we explore different kinds of evil.  I shall employ, especially for the sake of local connection, the three categories for evil that Slavoj Zizek uses for violence in his recent book called Violence. These categories are: the subjective (interpersonal assault in murder, war, physical pain), the symbolic (violence in the form of language, such as hate-speech or discourses of oppression), and systemic (the violent nature of the world itself, that is, the underlying violence in all institutions and relations). I don’t intend to give a detailed critique of Zizek’s book, but these categories concerning violence helpfully frame for us an understanding of evil. Subjective evil is recognisable wrong against another person or group of thing. If not everyone recognises its wrongness at the time, at least some do and over time more are convinced. Zizek says that this is the kind of violence that most people think about; I suggest it is also the category of evil that springs to mind for most people. Evil acts. Wicked deeds. Obvious assaults on another person or group.

Any discussion of the elimination of evil will need to deal with this symbolic evil as well as subjective evil

But the other two categories are very important for understanding evil, and ought not to be ignored. Symbolic evil might be summarised as ‘lying’—communication that does less than tell the truth, misusing and twisting the human capacity for language, abusing people by not being true to them. This is surely evil. Any discussion of the elimination of evil will need to deal with this symbolic evil as well as subjective evil.

And it seems to me that systemic evil is what Christians call ‘sin’, that is, a state of wrongness in the world whereby at every point something can be identified as violent, abusive, obscene or oppressive. This systemic wrongness often does a better job of explaining horrific events (for example, child sexual abuse or the Holocaust) than does any psychological, social or political theory. The evil seems very deep, very comprehensive and far-reaching, almost viral or ethereal. This condition of the world and its inhabitants is known to Christians as ‘sin’.

With our understanding of evil categorised in this way, it becomes clear that in order to deal with evil, we will need more than mere laws (which constrain behaviour). We will need more than control of the movements and freedoms of individuals or organizations. We will need more than a system of reward and/or punishment by which we can discourage subjective evil. To deal with evil, we will need to deal with the minds and the tongues of human beings (respectively, the source and the instrument of symbolic evil). To deal with evil we will need something that can address the condition of sin, in its complicated and entrenched systems, its ingrained and convoluted injustices, and its devious justifications for ongoing oppression towards others. We will need a complete—perhaps the best word for it is ‘spiritual’—solution.

I wish to note at this point that I am offering a view that is in stark contrast to that of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and most of the New Atheists. It startled me to read Dawkins and Hitchens, and to find in them what seems to me a naïve optimism about human beings, about our capacity for goodness and the simplicity by which we might bring about a utopian society populated by wonderful, civilised human beings once we have rid the world of religion.

Dawkins’s view seems to be that outside of a theistic worldview, an obvious and generally agreed-upon set of human principles remains by which to live—a “consensual ethics” that “any ordinary, decent person today would come up with”.  Most theists would have some sympathy with the view that there is some kind of common human ethical dimension. However, it is quite another thing—a remarkably optimistic thing!—to suggest that humans have ‘evolved’ into a moral state where all civilised people are broadly in agreement about what is right and what is wrong. In fact, some of the principles suggested by Dawkins as ‘natural’ look much more like a set of beliefs manufactured for our times (he would call them, in the language of his book, ‘cultural memes’). For example, if we carried out a survey of this room, I wonder whether the majority of people would agree with Dawkins that we should not make moral discrimination on the basis of species?

To my mind, to suggest that humans and human society are ‘broadly good’ is a romantic notion of human capacity not borne out by human history

To my mind, to suggest that humans and human society are ‘broadly good’ is a romantic notion of human capacity not borne out by human history. Where is the evidence that human beings would behave well in an atheistic world? If anything, as Alister McGrath spells out in detail in his book The Twilight of Atheism, the social and moral record of atheism is far from clean. From the masochistic sexual abuses imagined and carried out by the Marquis de Sade to the oppressive politics of God-banning totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, atheistic beliefs have often been linked to personal and social evil. As the theologian N.T. Wright has said, “There is no observable reason, in science, philosophy, art or anywhere else to suppose that if we simply plough ahead with the Enlightenment dream these glitches will be ironed out and we’ll get to Utopia eventually.”

At the very least, we ought to be suspicious of the view that it is human nature to lean towards goodness rather then evil. I would suggest there is more evidence for the opposite view: that without belief in a superintending deity, human beings drift into all manner of evil.

So what then is the Christian response to evil, be it between persons, in language or institutionalised evil? The response begins with the idea that God will judge.

The Judgment of God

New York filmmaker, Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) is a contemporary reworking of Dostoevsky’s novel, Crime and Punishment, and both are concerned with the perennial question: can I get away with it, or will I be judged?

In the movie successful Jewish doctor, Judah Rosenthal has been enjoying his life to the full, including carrying on a long-term affair with a woman called Dolores. Unfortunately for Judah, Dolores has reached the end of her patience and unless he will leave his wife and marry her, she’s going to shout their affair to the world. Judah is faced with a dilemma—he doesn’t want to leave his wife and his life of comfort and prestige. Then a solution is suggested to him. No one would miss Dolores. No one would even know she is gone. It will only cost you a few thousand dollars. You won’t even have to see the body. You’ll get away with murder.

Horrified, Judah recoils from the idea, but only for a time. As the pressure of his situation mounts, he ponders the thought that, if there is no God to judge him, and if he’s careful, then he just might get away with it after all. If you have seen the film, you will know whether or not he does.

If there is no judgment of one’s life, then Judah is surely right. Nothing really matters, if our ‘sins’ can be kept secret from anyone who might care about it.

But very few people are happy with this conclusion. To start with, it just feels wrong to us. We know that our behaviour matters, and that injustice and evil ought to be corrected. In fact, we call out for justice to be done whenever we see horrible unfairness, such as in theft, rape or murder.

It seems that we human beings need to know that in the end, things will work out fairly

Deep down, we all long for judgment to take place and justice to be done. The idea that there might be no judgment—and that those who do evil might simply get away with it—leaves us sick in the stomach.

Most religions have some kind of teaching about judgment, be it karma (what you do will be done back to you), penitence (you’ll have to pay your dues), or some sort of weighing of the scales of right and wrong. It seems that we human beings need to know that in the end, things will work out fairly.

Christianity is very clear that a judgment of human beings will take place. From the early stories of Genesis, explored by Professor Blocher last night, we know that it matters to God how we act. God is so grieved with human wickedness that he condemns it in the flood of Genesis 6, rescuing only the household of the righteous man, Noah. This act of judgment weighs heavily on God, because his creation is so precious to him. Yet, he could not stand corruption and violence.
It seems that God’s own heart demands justice, even at a very high price.

This leaves human beings in a dreadful situation, since we are all guilty in many ways. We don’t even live up to our own standards of right and wrong, let alone those of a holy God. In the words of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil”.

The clear Christian understanding is that God will judge. This is the essential step to take in order to deal with evil, to move towards a world in which evil is eliminated. The evil of the past must be dealt with; it cannot be ignored, for that is ignoring justice. So how can that be done in a way that is not catastrophic for the world, in a way that does not make the flood of Noah look like waves in a paddle pool?

The first part of the Christian answer is that God will not only judge, but has already paid the price for justice himself. He looked at evil, assessed what was involved in ‘neutralising’ it, and dealt with it himself. This is strikingly different to the majority of religions that teach karma, where your deeds return to you in judgment and your punishment befits your crime. There is no hope in such a view for human beings, only condemnation. Bono, the singer from the Irish band U2 makes this point very clearly and simply, and then clarifies the distinctive Christian teaching about judgment:

  …the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma…I really believe we've moved out of the realm of Karma into one of Grace… You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It's clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I'm absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you reap, so you will sow” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I've done a lot of stupid stuff.     

The first part of the Christian teaching is that the judgment of God is not one of returning to you punishment for your actions, but rather the concept of Grace. Let me explain a little about how this grace operates in the Christian view.

The grace of which Bono is speaking is the entry into the world of God in the person of Jesus Christ. The way in which God paid the price to deal with sin was by taking on flesh, and by making the sacrifice of love that was Jesus’ crucifixion. This real death, in real history, had a spiritual purpose—to satisfy God’s wrath and condemnation of sin, but at the same time to make it possible for sinners to be released themselves from the consequences of evil. Only God could do such a thing, or it would be incredibly unfair to the sacrificed one. But by taking on flesh, God identified with the human race, entered into the evil world without being stained by it, and effected a sufficient sacrifice to eradicate the condemnation of the sinful world and its inhabitants.

Christian faith says that God himself absorbed the price of justice; God himself paid the penalty; God himself, in the crucifixion of Jesus, spilt blood for sins

This gracious act of Jesus, as God incarnate, is an entirely different kind of act to what people expect of a perfect God who is judging evil. It is almost the opposite of what Zizek (following Walter Benjamin) calls ‘divine violence’. Divine violence in these writers is something like ‘justified killing’, where someone gets their just desserts at the hand, direct or indirect, of a Holy God. For Zizek, this is a gleeful divine punishment, pleasurably handing out what the evil creatures deserve. But the message of Christianity is vastly different. The Christian faith says that God himself absorbed the price of justice; God himself paid the penalty; God himself, in the crucifixion of Jesus, spilt blood for sins. “God was in Christ”, writes the Apostle Paul, “reconciling the world to himself”.

Jesus’ death for the sins of the world is the first part of the Christian gospel—the ‘good news’ of Christianity. It does away with the consequences of sin for individuals, and it takes the world on a path towards the elimination of evil altogether. We need to look now at this second aspect of judgment.

Christianity teaches that the future of the world includes a general judgment. This is best understood by focusing not on the images of judgment we have in our heads, but on the targets of judgment that the Bible presents.

For many of us our images of judgment are drawn primarily from the movies, art and stories that have filled our imaginations since childhood. Throughout history, there have been particular dominating stories or artworks of judgment that have often distorted Christian understanding. How many of us have a dominating image of Judgment Day which involves a muscular, noble-looking ruler on a throne suspended in mid-air, with trumpet-blowing angels flying around his head, singing figures lined up in neat rows in the clouds alongside him, and pestilent, tortured half-human figures in mangled naked wrecks lying below his dangling feet?

Such an image comes from incredible artworks by famous artists such as Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder, or Michelangelo, whose painting of such a scene on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is one of the world’s most famous works. Such works often do draw on all of the metaphors and images of the Bible. But by painting these images, they become concrete, as if they are showing us precisely what God will do, where everyone will sit, and how few clothes they will be wearing!

These images of judgment are helpful to our reflection and reaction to the seriousness of God’s judgment, but they can also cause people today to recoil from the idea of judgment or dismiss it altogether. It is important that we think about the direction of God’s judgement—where it is targeted—and not become obsessed with metaphors and elaborate pictorial expressions of Judgement Day.

Judgment is both a fearful thing  and something to look forward to, because God will do what is right and all the world will know it to be justice

While the death of Jesus has helped us see how sin can be paid for, the final judgement of the world will help us to see how justice can be done on a cosmic scale. God’s judgement of the world is really about putting things right, overthrowing evil and establishing what is good. God is not to be thought of as the strict schoolmaster ensuring we all keep his rules. He is more like the heroic Justice Commissioner who vows to root out systemic corruption and expose all abuses of power. He is not only interested in personal evil, but in symbolic and systemic evil, too.

Overthrowing evil and establishing justice and peace is the main business of the divinely appointed judge, the Messiah. Judgment is both a fearful thing  and something to look forward to, because God will do what is right and all the world will know it to be justice.

So, what are the things God intends to put right on the Day of Judgment, his Day of Justice? We can group an answer into three categories of ‘corruptions’ with which God will deal.

Objects of Judgement

First, he will deal with corrupted worship. By this it is meant that God will overthrow every human attempt to replace the Creator with things. This is what the Bible calls idolatry, and it is a perversion of our calling as human beings. It is a corruption of God’s creatures that we are so obsessed with the creation (the material world and all of its glories and attractions), rather than the source of goodness, the Creator himself. To raise the things of creation to the status of an object of worship is, in biblical thought, a kind of high treason. It is an unnatural and inexcusable suppression of the most obvious truth of all—that behind the beauty and complexity of the created order is a Creative Mind worthy of our praise.

Second, God will pass judgement on corrupt religion. This may sound strange—surely God is a fan of religion? However, there is true faith and then there is manipulative, hypocritical, hard-hearted religion. The two are very different. If you are a reader of the Gospels, you may have observed that the main targets of Jesus’ ‘fire and brimstone’ preaching are not the obvious ‘sinners’, to whom Jesus usually extends the hand of mercy, but the religious hypocrites, those who name God as Lord but live as if he is not. The religious hypocrite is a two-faced person who puts on a show of piety but who refuses to be humble before God. It’s the minister who continues in blatant sin while preaching about holiness. Or the bishop who doesn’t believe Jesus is the Son of God. Or the respected church treasurer who steals from the weekly offering. Such people can look godly without being godly. In fact, this judgment falls upon symbolic evil, to use our earlier categories—language and practices that deliver evil rather than good. In this context we can be sure that the evils perpetrated by hypocritical religious people throughout the centuries—the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, child sexual abuse and so on—will be dealt with by God in a most severe manner. Those of us who consider ourselves religious, must take heed!

Third, God will address the corruptions of society—what our earlier categories described as systemic evil. Few things in the Bible receive more sustained criticism and serious threat of judgment than the treading down of the needy by the rich and powerful. The judgment of oppressors is a golden thread woven through the entire Bible, from the law given to Moses, through the prophets of Israel, and through the teachings of Jesus and his followers. Listen to the words of the early Christian leader, James:

  Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.   

This cosmic vision of overthrowing evil and establishing justice expands our notion of what God’s judgement looks like. It is no mere theological scare tactic designed to keep people in line; it is a kind of pledge to oppressed humanity that the Creator hears their cries for justice and will one day bring his justice to bear on every act of oppression.

The Kingdom of God

I have come to the final aspect of Christian teaching about the elimination of evil that I wish to address. Having provided the means of paying the price of evil through the death of Jesus, and promising to bring about justice on a cosmic scale, what positive contribution to the world here and now does the Christian faith offer? Is it “pie in the sky when you die”, as critics suggest?

The answer is found in the concept of ‘the kingdom of God’, the very words used by Jesus to describe what his earthly mission was all about. Jesus taught that his appearance in the world marked the beginning of God’s plan to bring about cosmic justice and freedom from sin. It is not merely something that we wait for, but something that has begun. And it’s beginnings are found in the very simple act of turning back to God and away from sin and the sinful world. Such a turn is known, in biblical language, as ‘repentance’. To turn to God, to receive forgiveness for sins, to admit that you have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator, and you have been hypocritical, and you have not loved your neighbour well—these acts mark the beginning of a new life for the individual, and a new kind of world (or kingdom) in which to live.

In this new kingdom, Christian believers start (only start) to live in a manner that looks like the kingdom that is to come when evil is finally eliminated. The famous prayer of Jesus is that “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. This is the basic prayer of Christian living, and it is not just about the future but also about the present.

the direction of Christian living is meant to be away from subjective evil, symbolic evil and systemic evil, and towards the future kingdom of God

For Christians, the elimination of evil is part of every day living. Since God’s future judgement will open the gate to a world of peace, justice, love, purity and beauty, Christians are to seek to live by these values already. They are to practise the kingdom, pre-empt the kingdom, and be a sign of the kingdom. They are to do so in ways that are interpersonal and subjective (such as treating others with kindness, and abhorring violence and bloodshed), symbolic (such as telling the truth, not gossiping and denigrating others, and speaking the good news of grace to other people), and systemic (opposing and correcting injustice when it is found, and making special efforts on behalf of the poor, lonely and oppressed). The early Christian Peter, described this dynamic combination of hope for the future and action in the present: “[W]e are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”  In other words, live now in the way of the future.

Of course, it must immediately be said that Christians have often done an awful job of this, and throughout the history of the Christian Church we find multiple instances of decisions that would seem to be a long way from the kingdom of God, be they wars, abuses or follies. Nevertheless, the direction of Christian living is meant to be away from subjective evil, symbolic evil and systemic evil, and towards the future kingdom of God. We should expect, in the history of Christianity, to find much evidence that evil is being suppressed and overcome—and indeed we do, in areas such as medical aid, poverty relief, education, fairer legal systems, care for children and even the liberation of slaves. Christian involvement in these areas has been by no means faultless, but has served to eliminate a good deal of evil. In fact, there is a strong argument (made now even by secular intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas) that without the influence of Christianity, the West in particular would not have been able to thrive as it has. Christianity, it cannot be denied, has done a great deal of good.
I return finally to Zizek, who ends his book on violence with a strange suggestion: human quietism. The human response to violence and evil, he writes, is nothing. We can do nothing, for every action we make is itself a form of violence. The best objection to violence is quietism. In a sense he is right. There is no adequate human means of opposing, eliminating and making justice out of the evil of the world all by ourselves. The problems are too vast, too deep-rooted, too spiritual in nature. We are in that state of sin that means all our thoughts, words and deeds are in some sense tainted by evil. Zizek is in some sense correct to imagine that we need a divine ‘violence’ that would forcibly eliminate all other violence. However, he is also, in my view, profoundly wrong. The Christian vision is that every act done in faith to serve God and God’s world, is itself an alternative to violence. Every kind word, every generous gift, every selfless decision, every righting of a wrong, done because of Christ-centred love for God and neighbour, is the act of someone who is already living out the values of the kingdom. It is the act of someone who has embraced the great reversal of the curse of evil and is, by the power of God’s spirit, persistently seeking goodness.

The response to the grace that God has shown us in forgiving our sins through Jesus, and promising the judgement that is to come, ought to be active pursuit of the kingdom of God, not through grand imperialistic schemes or governments or even more powerful churches, but by the simple actions of Christian people who are bearing the fruit of God’s spirit in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and other wonderful, evil-destroying qualities which no power can destroy.

Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity