Part 1 of this post proved very popular on Facebook. If you haven’t read it yet, head on over to get caught up. Lots of good questions and discussion. In light of that I thought it might be a good idea to flesh out some of the ideas in that post and try to answer any questions that arose.
What should be obvious from part 1 is that evil is a complex subject. For sake of clarity I am using evil as a catch all for everything bad that is in the world. I base this on the statement God repeatedly makes in Genesis after creating stuff: “Everything is very good.” For me that means that if something is bad then it isn’t a part of the original creation. Jumping off on this, I think that our theologising is misguided when we start from the concept of original sin since Adam and Eve were created with original righteousness. So my conceptualisation of evil includes death, sin, suffering, sickness, injustice, rebellion, and self-righteousness/self-trust and anything that causes these things.
I actually expected most of the comments to be about structural evil since that is a huge topic in the church today. However, as it turned out, most comments related to personal evil and natural evil.
Any discussion of evil has to start with Genesis 3 where we see the story of Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden of Eden. It’s interesting to look at the three types of sin that are talked about in this passage.
Personal Evil. We begin with the curses that are placed upon Adam, Eve, and the serpent for their personal sins. It is important to point out however, that even though Adam, Eve, and the serpent sinned personally, the bible treats their personal sin differently that our personal sin because their personal sins had an effect on everyone else.
As Saul Samante asks, “Is it safe to conjecture that these three evils are not really separate entities but deeply connected with each other? Let me put it this way: Personal evil (Adamic sin), gave rise to cosmic and systemic evils. Prior to the fall, everything was perfect and harmonious. After the fall, cosmic harmony disintegrated and human structures or systems became oppressive.”
Romans says that death entered through Adam’s sin. This is significant for the rest of our conversation because a large part of our understanding of natural evil is connected to death. We will expand on this below.
Structural Evil. We also see Adam’s sin as it affects his family namely Eve and their unborn children. So here we see that Adam’s personal sin has an effect upon the structures of the day, in this case family but of course eventually expand on to become greater structures in society. As Mike Swalm points out,
“Your examples of systemic evil, for instance, could they stem from some of the systemic curse language (your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you/enmity between woman and serpent etc)?”
Mike is on the right track. The language used in these two phrases is significant in that we see linguistic parallels between this passage and the account of Cain’s sin a few chapters later. Take a look:
In Genesis 3:16 God says to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
In Genesis 4:6, God says to Cain, “But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”
These simple words set the stage for the battle of the sexes. They set up a struggle of evil desires that each party will have as a result of sin. The woman will desire to control her husband in the same way that Cain’s sin desired to rule over him. On the other hand, the husband response is to rule over his wife.
Of course God had already told us what the relationships should be: a “helper who is right for him,”taken not from his head nor from his feet but from his side. It is a statement of equality, of companionship, of working together, of partnership.
Natural Evil. We also see in the in the curse on Adam that his curse will impact the ground or the environment around him and this is a curse as it exists upon the natural world. Whereas prior to this the ground would give up its riches willingly to him, after the sin he would have to work for these riches with the sweat of his brow and his work would be less than productive.
Lex Ely Aspiras asks, “In natural evil, what makes natural phenomena evil? It is easy to understand that when people suffer because of typhoon Ondoy, this indeed is evil. Somewhere in the world, a storm is raging without affecting any human being, is this also evil? An earth-size storm is raging in Jupiter for centuries, is that evil? Sunspots adversely affect life on earth, are sunspots evil? Beyond earth’s atmosphere up to the edge of the observable universe, everything appears anathema to life as we know it, is this “everything” evil?”
We saw above that Romans says that death entered through Adam’s sin. This is significant because a large part of our understanding of natural evil is connected to death. It seems that prior to Adam’s sin, there was no death. That means that because death is a direct result of sin that things that cause death are also a part of the evil that pervaded the universe after Adam. Following this along further, events that seem normal in today’s world — typhoons, earthquakes, floods, pandemics — may have existed in the past but they certainly didn’t cause death.
One question we need to ask is, “What is the cause of these weather patterns?” Certainly they are natural but are there also other causes for them? The Bible pretty explicitly says that some weather patterns such as storms, pandemics, and famines can be caused by sin. I have written about that here.
There is actually some evidence that weather patterns prior to the flood were different that the weather patterns we have now. Genesis 2:5-6 says there wasn’t any rain but that a mist or underground water watered the earth. This seems to imply that the rains that came before the flood were something unique and unknown during those days. All that to say that storms may not have existed prior to Adam’s sin.
Where do the Spiritual Powers fit into all of this? Another aspect of evil emerged from the online discussion, particularly by Rei Lemuel Crizaldo and Rene del Barrio. “What about,” some asked, “The evil associated with spiritual powers?” We do see within the story the reality of spiritual powers because the serpent, who we later discover is the Satan, is in fact a spiritual power. Because of the curse we see that his power is limited through this encounter because he can no longer walk upright but must crawl on the ground dragging his belly. The question remains as to where these spiritual powers fit into today’s world.
Ultimately the question associated with this is, “Is Satan responsible for causing some of the evil in the world, too?” Many stories of people’s encounters with spiritual evil exist. I have heard stories of people being freed from spiritual oppressions that have caused mental illness and even death. The Bible also has countless examples of Jesus freeing people from unclean spirits. It cannot be denied that spiritual powers exist and are active in the world.
One thing the Bible does say about spiritual powers, however, is that their power is limited. Statements like “Don’t give the devil any opportunity to work,” “Resist the devil and he will run away from you,” and “Put on all the armor that God supplies” mean that it is within human power to not be overcome by Satan.
Jesus, in the direct context of a discussion of whose power he is using — Satan’s or God’s — says that he needs to “tie up the strong man.” The strong man in this case is the devil.
The Book of Revelation speaks of the end of all kinds of evil, including the end of rebellious spiritual powers — Satan ends up cast into the bottomless pit and the lake of fire. Evil is eventually eliminated from creation and we get a glimpse of what life will be like without any evil.
So it seems that if we give permission or opportunity for these powers to exert themselves then they will. And it appears that if we do not give permission or opportunity then these powers cannot act.
So what then of Job? While it is true that God and Satan do have a conversation or two about Job it’s also important to note that it is in fact God who brings up the subject, not Satan. God clearly lays out the rules of engagement for how Satan is to tempt Job and in the end it is God who is glorified, and Job who is vindicated. Satan is by no means the hero of the story. Also note that Job’s trials were implemented through structural evil (bandits & enemies attack on his flocks), natural evil (a windstorm destroys his kids’ house, fire falls from heaven and consumes his flocks, and boils cover his body), and personal evil (Job prayed for them that God would forgive any sins his kids may have committed). So the tripartite theology of evil is even seen here.
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Image by Joao Tzanno on Unsplash.