John Hervé preaches on the evil that besets us

IT IS AMAZING how many Clergy begin sermons with “Now I am no Theologian” – and then proceed for fifteen minutes to demonstrate the fact! But when we are faced with great evil, and in the depths of despair we use all of our theological resources to search for explanations.

From Plato to Thomas Aquinas, evil was regarded as non-being. God is “ens realissimum” – the source of all perfection. Thus he is absolute reality and absolute perfection (one end of the spectrum) and evil, absolute imperfection and non-existence – absence of good (at the other). Similarly idealistic philosophy regards evil as necessary for the perfection of the whole (as various colours are required in a picture for contrast). This view brings little comfort to the bereaved or victim of injustice.

Dualism or pluralistic philosophies on the other hand, hold evil as an objective, organised force opposed to God; Christ has battled with and overcome this (God is “pro nobis” – for us, and “cum nobis” – with us against disorders in the universe). This “Christus Victor” approach is rooted in the New Testament and early Fathers. It is problematical in that it not only reflects an ancient world view and begs the question about origins of such a state; more importantly, it limits the omnipotence of God -God cannot be almighty if this objective reality is over against him.

Of course there is always the despotic view. Evil, pain and suffering are present in the world because God wills it to be so. It is “the will of Allah”. This is the theology of despair.

Over against all of the above is a theological view which occupies the consensual “high ground” at present. This is the moral theory. It holds that God’s power is not limited by anything external to himself (as in dualism or pluralism) nor is it absolute, decreeing right and wrong. Rather, it is limited by his own nature – his own character of righteousness, truth and love. As he is God, he cannot will two and two to be five. He wills life not death, justice not injustice, peace not violence; thus he cannot create beings who are instantly good. For good to have value it has to be freely chosen; humanity was created to freely return the love lavished upon it. In order for this to be so, the world must contain pain, evil and suffering and this must be unrestrained and unconditional.

Starkly presented thus, the moral perspective of Theodicy (problem of evil) has one major disadvantage. It would seem to sanitise or dilute the significance and effects of evil; for we know evil is incredibly potent; it is life-threatening and soul-destroying. Make no mistake – EVIL IS NOT BENIGN!

Why, then are we often surprised when we discover this to be so? Have we not been warned in the “user manual” (“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” [Luke 12:4]; ” I come not to bring peace but a sword… a man’s enemies will be of his own household” [Matt 10:36]; “If the world hates you, remember it hated me before you” [Jn 15:18]). If the world hates you, that is the clue! We have not merely been warned. God appears unambiguously only in Jesus Christ. He alone gives us a standard by which to judge history and life. He faced head on that which is against his very nature – Sin, Evil and Death. He wills life not death, yet he subjected himself to death that we may have life! He wills justice not injustice, yet he subjected himself to injustice so that justice might triumph! He wills peace not violence, yet he subjected himself to violence so that peace may reign! That was the way he trod. Why should we expect any different? Indeed, we can expect to be magnets for the activity of evil. Wherever the spirit is active, the turbulence will attract evil. But surely it is a privilege to tread this way of Christ. Martyrdom is the seeds of the church. Martyrdom is the crown of life.

Evil is not benign. Why should we expect to be any different to the one in whom we have faith – CHRIST?

He suffered and died in great agony. He endured all this and look at him now! You see, he was victorious. So when we suffer, we win. Even death has no victory over us. Martyrdom is the crown of life. More, every battle with evil is a battle honour in the history of salvation. Every battle with evil we have is a little “local action” in that great scheme of things. As Bishop John Richards says, the great campaigns have been won, we are merely engaged in “mopping up” operations. So we indeed triumph in every grubby, sordid, unjust, despairing encounter with evil “through Jesus Christ Our Lord, who lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen! ”

Make no mistake, evil is not benign. We should not be surprised at this. We have been warned. More, Christ is our model. It is a privilege to follow. Follow him where? Follow him in facing evil. Follow him to resurrection. Follow him to victory; and follow him to glory!

John Hervé is Vicar of St Agnes, Sparkbrook in the diocese of Birmingham. This sermon was preached at St Mark’s, Washwood Heath on November 8, 2000.