For an Answer Home Studies Index Bibliography Glossary
The Bible Gateway The Blue Letter Bible The Greek New Testament  Greek & Hebrew Lexicons

powered by FreeFind

Topical  Studies




Evil and the Justice of God

a series of lectures for 2003 by the Canon Theologian, Dr N. T. Wright

Lecture 4: Imagine There’s No Evil

God’s Promise of a World Set Free

May 6 2003


In the first lecture of this series I argued that, despite the beliefs of many over the last century, evil is real and powerful, and that by not recognising this we have got ourselves into a position where we react to the sudden re-appearance of massive evil in an immature and unwise fashion. In the second lecture I examined the classic biblical approach to evil, and pointed out that the Old Testament tells the story of Israel as the story of the deeply ambiguous proposal by the creator God himself to deal with evil, by getting involved in the world he has made, in calling a people through whom the problem will be addressed and dealt with. In the third lecture I argued that the four canonical evangelists wrote the story of Jesus and his death, in their various ways, in order to highlight that event as the climax of the story of Israel, and hence as the point where political and cosmic evil met together and burnt themselves out in killing the son of God. Thus, I argued, the gospels present us not simply with the historical framework for an essentially non-historical salvation, but the story of God’s action to deal with evil at every level by letting it do its worst to his own incarnate self. This understanding of the cross is only gained, of course, from the perspective of Easter, at which point the achievement of Jesus in his obedient death begins to be visible, like a great mountain looming up where before those in the valley had only seen a thick, dark cloud.

In these last two lectures I shall attempt to do what I had originally planned to do in six: to sketch out the ways in which this decisive achievement is meant to have its effect. According to the early Christians, what was accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection is the foundation, the model and the guarantee for God’s ultimate purpose, which is to rid the world of evil altogether and to establish his new creation of justice, beauty and peace. And it’s clear from the start that this was not intended simply as a distant goal for which one was compelled to wait in passive expectation. God’s future had already broken into the present in Jesus, and the church’s task consisted not least of implementing that achievement and thus anticipating that future. I have found in my own work over the last few years that this eschatological framing of the church’s task is the most helpful way I know of understanding both the challenges, the possibilities and the limits of what we are supposed to be doing here and now; and this evening I want to explore in particular some ways in which this double task of implementing the achievement of the cross and anticipating God’s promised future world might play out not so much in our personal lives – that will be the subject of the fifth and now final lecture – but more particularly in the wider world, the world where our politicians and media have suddenly rediscovered the fact of evil but don’t know what to do about it. As I suggested in the last two lectures, we have tended to see what we call ‘atonement-theology’ in one box, to do with personal salvation from personal sin, and ‘the problem of evil’, including so-called natural evil and the general wickedness of the world, in another box, as constituting a philosophical or logical problem for a good creator rather than having very much to do with the story the Bible actually tells. I intend by the order of these two final lectures to outflank that problem, painting the larger, global picture tonight and then turning to the much more personal question, of accepting God’s forgiveness and passing it on to others, in the final lecture in June. This dovetails with the present lecture in that part of the point of passing on God’s forgiveness is that this, as Desmond Tutu has shown so graphically, is the most hopeful sign of community restoration and healing known to the human race.[1]

I begin, then, with the larger global picture, in order to locate the question of personal reconciliation within that. One other point about where I’m starting and how I’m proceeding. As you may have guessed from the title of this lecture, I intend now to jump to the end, as it were, and work backwards from there. Up to this point we have worked forwards, tracking the story of the Old Testament and then bringing it to its climax in Jesus, and his death and resurrection. That remains the foundation for all Christian thinking about where we are now and what we should be doing now. But if we simply start from that point and try to grope our way forwards, asking how those foundational events set an agenda for Christian work in the world, we may find ourselves getting bogged down. What the New Testament does, in two or three key passages, is to point to the ultimate future, to the promise of a world set free from evil altogether, and invite us to hold that in our minds and hearts so that we know where we’re going. Once again, we are to implement the achievement of Jesus and so to anticipate God’s eventual world. We have already looked at the former; it’s time to look at the latter. Imagine there’s no evil . . .

But, unlike the song of which that is a parody, John Lennon’s famous hymn to secularism, it’s not that ‘easy if you try’. Precisely because of our muddled thinking about evil itself, we find it hard to imagine what a world would be like from which evil had been removed. It won’t do, of course, simply to imagine a world without terrorists and dictators, without communism and corruption. That would represent the kind of shallow dualistic thinking I tried to expose in the first lecture. Nor will it do to reverse the perspective, and imagine a world without capitalism and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, without B-52 bombers and land mines, without industrial pollution and third world debt – though there are millions of people in the world who, invited to imagine a world without evil, would certainly include all of the above on their wish list. In each case, there is the danger of dualism, of the us-and-them disjunction which says ‘Our way of life is Good while Theirs is Bad’. And this is ultimately not much more help than the ontological dualism which says that the world of space, time and matter is evil and only the world of pure spirit is good, so that a world without evil would be a world of disembodied spirits sitting on non-spatio-temporal clouds playing non-physical harps. Imagining that is certainly not easy, but fortunately I don’t think it’s what we ought to be trying to do.

In the same way, it won’t do to imagine that a world without evil is simply a world where a natural process has taken place through which the world has become gradually better and better. Imagining a world without evil is not simply imagining what things would be like if we could only work a bit harder and arrive at the Utopia that we all know is just around the corner. As I argued before, it’s remarkable that this myth of progress has persisted, and still persists, despite all the terrible things that have happened in the last century. But perhaps the important thing is to realise the way in which these false perceptions, the dualist account and the progressivist account, have played out in terms of the way people in our world actually behave and order their lives. If you’re a dualist, then there’s nothing much we can do to change the world at the moment; things are going to continue much as they are in this wicked, dark vale of tears until the Lord returns. So we shouldn’t even try to make things better; at best, we’d only be repairing a car which is in any case soon going to plunge over a precipice. Dualism of this sort then breeds paranoia, the sort that bishops run into a good deal: The System is rotten, and there’s a great conspiracy in Parliament, in the BBC, in the theatre, in Freemasonry, and so on and so on; it’s even got its tentacles into the church; our task is to fight and kick and scream, but ultimately what is needed is a showdown between God and evil. This easily plays into a certain view of the demonic, about which I shall speak presently.

The progressivist, though, takes a very different view. Things are getting better, but the means by which they’re getting better is through various kinds of evolution. The First World War was justified on this principle: if what matters is the survival of the fittest, then what we need is a good war to sort out who is better fitted to survive. The ethnic cleansing of Indian tribes in North America was routinely justified on similar lines at around the same time. And this in turn gives rise to a new kind of legitimation of empire. If the world is advancing, and if somehow God is at work through this advancing world, then the new empires which emerge must be the result of God’s work; so why don’t you get on board and support what God is obviously doing? That was the argument that convinced a great many Germans to join the Deutsche Christen party, the so-called ‘German Christians’, in the 1930s; God, so people said, has raised up the German nation to be the new world power. It was this that caused a huge reaction among people like Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Ernst Käsemann. But today we find a similar argument being advanced to legitimate the new kind of global empire, that of unfettered capitalist growth and the massive third world debt that it has produced. The ‘manifest destiny’ of the so-called free world to act in freedom vis-a-vis the rest of the world is a doctrine widely believed, and even preached from pulpits – I heard it eloquently articulated in Washington National Cathedral in September 2002 – in many parts of the United States. And this, too, has led all too easily to wars and rumours of wars.

I want to suggest in this lecture that the Christian vision of world history suggests a different way of addressing the problem of evil on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus; that implementing that achievement while anticipating the world in which evil has been done away with necessitates a different approach to both dualism and progressivism. But before we can get to that I must say a few words about the powers of evil, the hidden forces that many theologians have detected behind and within the structures of our world. This is a difficult topic, not to be lightly ventured upon, and yet I must try to summarize in a few words what should really be spelled out at more length.

Interlude: naming the powers

What I want to do is sketch briefly the hidden dimension of the problem of evil, the fact – as I take it to be – that there is more to evil than meets the eye, and that this extra element includes a force or forces which are no less real for being difficult to describe. This is, after all, an increasingly common feature of contemporary phsyics; why shouldn’t we theologians talk the same kind of language?

In the Old Testament, we meet from time to time a figure called ‘the satan’, in Hebrew HaSatan. The word means ‘the accuser’, and in the opening chapters of Job this figure appears as a kind of junior minister in God’s heavenly court. He is, as it were, the director of public prosecutions, whose job it is to sniff out offenders and bring them to trial; and, in the case of Job, he asks permission to put Job into a position where he is almost bound to offend. Job does many things in the book, but he doesn’t offend in the way the satan was hoping he would (by cursing God), and significantly at the end of the book, though various other people have spoken, the satan is heard from no more. We meet him again in the Chronicler’s account of David’s census, and as the accusing figure in the book of Zechariah; and we smell his breath not only in the narrative of Genesis 3 but also in the apocalyptic visions of Daniel’s monsters coming up out of the sea. The satan, it seems, is a non-human being, a type of angel, perhaps in some accounts an ex-angel or fallen angel, and he or it (somehow the feminists never campaign that the satan should be referred to as ‘she’) comes to be opposed to humankind, and thence to Israel, and hence, not surprisingly, to Jesus. The best-known satanic scene in the Bible is surely the temptation story in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, where Jesus recapitulates the testing of Israel in the wilderness, as well as that of Adam and Eve in the garden, and this time succeeds where Israel (and humankind) failed.

The satan, it seems, is not only opposed to humankind, to Israel, and to Jesus, but to creation itself. It is constantly pressing to undo the project of God, the world of which God said it was very good, when what that world needs, according to the biblical authors, is remaking. The height of the satan’s aim, in other words, is death, the death of humans and the death of creation itself; and the means the satan chooses by which to bring the world and humans to death is of course sin, which is what happens when human beings turn away from their vocation to reflect God’s image into the world and start to behave according to different agendas, worshipping parts of the created order which are not themselves life-bearing, and which therefore plunge them into destruction of themselves and others. Death is not an arbitrary punishment for sin; it is its necessary consequence, since the turning away from the living God which constitutes idolatry is the spiritual equivalent of cutting off one’s own lifeline. The biblical picture of the satan is thus of a non-human and non-divine quasi-personal force which seems bent on attacking and destroying creation in general, humankind in particular, and above all God’s project of remaking the world and human beings in and through Jesus Christ.

When C. S. Lewis wrote his famous Screwtape Letters, he suggested that there were two equal and opposite errors into which people could fall when they thought about the devil. On the one hand, they might take him or it too seriously, imagining the satan as a being equal and opposite to God, or to Jesus, and to see direct satanic influence and activity behind every problem, behind all suffering, disease and misfortune. That danger is still with us. Some today see much pastoral work, and indeed much practical work for the healing of nations and societies, in terms, more or less, of exorcism. Now I am quite sure there is a place for exorcism, and most pastors are at least aware of situations where that is appropriate. But I am equally sure that Lewis was right to warn against an excessive, morbid interest in the workings of the demonic, an expectation that one will encounter demons behind every tree in the garden.

The opposite error Lewis imagined was that people might sneer or mock the very idea of the demonic. Suggest to their minds a figure in red tights, with horns and hooves and a tail, and in sniggering at that they will think they have dismissed the devil’s very existence. That, I suspect, is behind the downplaying of references to the devil in some of our modern liturgies. Many theologians of the last century have been simply embarrassed by talk of the demonic – until, that is, some political theologians who were too left-wing to be ignored began to use that language to speak of the problems they were addressing. More of that anon.

But I want to suggest that there is a further error into which people can fall when thinking about ‘the satan’. There is a danger that we suppose all such language to be merely the projection onto a fictitious, maybe ‘mythological’, screen of those aspects of our own personalities, our own psyches, that we are uncomfortable with or want to pretend don’t exist. Some of those who cherish the insights of Carl Jung have tried to urge that we should learn to befriend our ‘shadow side’, and to see what we presently call ‘evil’, or what we presently shun as satanic, as simply another aspect, perhaps a very creative and hence threatening one, of our full-orbed personality. That has an attractive and wholistic ring to it, and of course there may well be truth in the proposal that at least some language about the demonic is simply a projection of that kind. But both the Bible and massive Christian experience over the centuries suggests otherwise.

In fact, each of the false impressions has a grain of truth. The satan, as portrayed in scripture and as experienced and taught about by many spiritual guides, is flatly opposed to God, supremely to God incarnate in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The claim made by the satan in Luke 4.6, that to him/it has been given dominion over the kingdoms of the world, is directly challenged by the claim of Jesus in Matthew 28.18, that to him has now been given all authority in heaven and earth. But it is wrong to think of the satan as ‘personal’ in the same way that God, or Jesus, is ‘personal’. That’s not to say that the satan is a vague or nebulous force; quite the reverse. I prefer to use the term ‘sub-personal’, or ‘quasi-personal’, as a way of refusing to accord the satan the full dignity of personhood while recognising that the concentration of activity can and does strike us as very much like that which we associate with personhood.

Again, there are undoubtedly foolish and unhelpful ways of portraying the satan, not least in the popular imagination, and we are right to avoid them. But we shouldn’t think that by doing so we have eliminated the reality to which these trivializing images point.

Finally, the idea of projection does help us to understand something about what evil is. When we humans commit idolatry, worshipping that which is not God as if it were, we thereby give to other creatures and beings in the cosmos a power, a prestige, an authority over us which we, under God, were supposed to have over them. When you worship an idol, whatever it is, you abdicate something of your own proper human authority over the world, and give it instead to that thing, whatever it is, calling into being a negative force, an anti-God force, a force which is opposed to creation because, being itself part of the transient world, it is bound to decay and die and will, if we’re not careful, drag us down with it. This is why I think there is at least a grain of truth in the theory made famous by Walter Wink, that the inner or hidden forces latent within organisations, companies, societies, legislative bodies, and even churches are the sum total of the spiritual energies which humans have put into them, abdicating their own responsibility and allowing the organisation, whatever it is, to have it instead. I believe there is more to it than that, but not less.

We see this, I think, in the otherwise puzzling passage in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, where Paul is discussing food offered to idols. He insists in chapter 8 that idols don’t really have any existence, since there is no God but one. So, you might think, it really doesn’t matter whether you go into a pagan temple or not; there is, quite literally, nothing to it. Not at all, says Paul two chapters later. When pagans offer sacrifice, they do so to demons; and Paul doesn’t want you to share in the demonic festivals. Well, we say to Paul, are they nothing, or are they demons? And I think Paul really wants to say, Both.

But in different senses. This goes with the account of evil offered by many great theologians, such as Aquinas, that evil is really the absence or deprivation of good – and yet this doesn’t mean that it’s in any way nebulous or vague or not to be worried about. If there is a hole in the road where I expected solid stone, the fact that there is nothing there is very dangerous whether I’m walking, cycling or driving a car. The fact that a rung is missing half way down the ladder into the basement is neither nebulous nor vague when I’m feeling my way in the dark. And I think the point is that idolatry, and sin in all its forms, causes potholes in the road, causes rungs to drop out of ladders, where we and others need them to be. Evil is then the moral and spiritual equivalent of a black hole. I told you we were running in parallel to some contemporary physics.

All this is no doubt mysterious, but necessary to factor in to our thinking, even if only (to continue with physics for a moment) in a Heisenbergian sense, reckoning that in all our moral and spiritual equations there will be an uncertainty factor, a je ne sais quoi, so that however well we organise, however much we pray, however sound our theology and however energetically we go to work, there will be negative forces, perhaps we should say a Negative Force, which will be working against us and for which we must allow. The good news, according to the whole New Testament, is that this negative force, this quasi-personal, shadowy being or beings, has or have been defeated on the cross of Jesus Christ. This is part of the full exploration and outworking of what I was talking about last time. As I said then, I am inclined to see the theme of Christus Victor, the victory of Jesus Christ over all the powers of evil and darkness, as the central strand in atonement-theology, around which all the other varied meanings of the cross find their particular niche.

That victory of Christ, and the promise of the final overthrow of evil, thus forms the final element of preparation, in this lecture, for what I really want to say, and I must apologise that in putting together several themes I have thus taken longer than I otherwise might have done to get to the point. How, granted all this, do we imagine God’s new world, the world in which there is no evil at all, and how do we then live appropriately between the past victory of Christ over evil and the future world in which that victory will be completed?

World Without Evil

The trouble with imagining the future world is that we’ve all been given the wrong impression. I said in my lectures a couple of years ago, and wrote in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, that we should imagine, not ‘heaven’ as popularly conceived, but the new heavens and new earth of which both Isaiah and Revelation speak. The Bible doesn’t give us a picture of the ultimate future as a world of disembodied spirits, or of cherubs on clouds, or of a Platonic ‘Isles of the Blessed’ where the righteous get to talk philosophy all day. It’s all much more solid, much more real, than that. Revelation 21 and 22, for all its language is of course full of symbol and imagery, clearly envisages that the reality to which these symbols and images point will be a new creation, an actual world which will resemble our world of space, time and matter in all sorts of ways, even as it will be far more glorious, full of new possibilities, new healing, new growth, new beauty.

Sticking with those last two chapters of Revelation for the moment, we find that we are invited to imagine a community, a great multitude of people constituting a city, the city which is the new Jerusalem, the Bride of the Lamb. This is a community from which every type of sub-humanity, every sort of diminished and dehumanized behaviour, has been excluded (21.8; 22.15, 27; the question of how this squares with the judgment scene at the end of chapter 20 need not concern us here). This community is a place of dazzling beauty, as the jewels and the gold and the perfectly proportioned buildings all indicate. It is a place of healing, both in the present (21.4) and, in a move full of mystery and promise, in the future (22.2, where the leaves on the tree of life, growing by the river which flows out of the city, are ‘for the healing of the nations’). To imagine a community of beauty and healing is to take a large step towards seeing, in our mind’s eye, the world which God intends to bring about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world towards which we are to direct our Spirit-given energies.

When we come to the Pauline pictures of the same ultimate reality, we first meet 1 Corinthians 15, where the great emphasis is on a future world without death. Death – the corruption and decay of the good creation, and of humans who bear God’s image – is the ultimate blasphemy, the great intruder, the final satanic weapon; and it will itself be defeated. That is the point of the resurrection, which is of course the main theme of the chapter. Mere ‘life after death’ in some spiritualized sense is not the point; by itself, it would actually collude with death rather than overcoming it. When we think of a world unreachable by death, we tend in western culture to think of a non-physical world, but the truly remarkable thing Paul is talking about here is an incorruptible, unkillable physical world. New creation is what matters, a new kind of world with a new kind of physicality, which will not need to decay and die, which will not be subject to the seasons, and to the (to us) apparently endless sequence of deaths and births within the natural order. God’s new world will be the reality towards which all the beauty and power in the present world are mere signposts; but they are true signposts, not (as in Platonic schemes) because they point to abstractions, non-physical realities but because they point to a world which will be more physical, more solid, more utterly real, a world in which the physical reality will wear its deepest meanings on its face, a world filled with the knowledge of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11; Habakkuk 2).

The greatest Pauline picture of the future world is of course that in Romans 8.19–25. Creation, writes Paul, has been subjected to futility (8.20); and don’t we know it. The tree reaches its full fruitfulness and then becomes bleak and bare. Summer reaches its height and at once the days start to shorten. Human lives, full of promise and beauty, laughter and love, are cut short by illness and death. Creation as we know it bears witness to God’s power and glory (1.19–20) but also to the present state of futility to which it has been subjected as to a form of slavery. But this slavery, like all slaveries in the Bible, is then given its Exodus, its moment of release, when God does for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter. This is the vision which is so big, so dazzling, that many even devout readers of Paul have blinked, rubbed their eyes, and ignored it, hurrying on to the more ‘personal’ application in the following paragraph. But this is where Paul’s whole argument has been going. This is where his great theme, of the justice of God – even, we might say, of the justification of God! – comes to one of its greatest climaxes. The theme of God’s justice has for so long been subsumed in popular readings of Paul under the theme of human salvation that we need to remind ourselves, as a matter of strict exegesis, that the theme stated in Romans 1.16f. comes to its full expression not simply in 3.21—4.25, not simply in 5.1–11 or 8.1–11, but here in 8.19–27. The problem is the same, mutatis mutandis, as that addressed in 4 Ezra: that unless creation as a whole is put to rights it might look as though God the creator had blundered, or was weak and incapable, or was actually unjust. No, declares Paul: the renewal of creation, the birth of the new world from the labouring womb of the old, will demonstrate that God is in the right. Romans 8 is the deepest New Testament answer to the ‘problem of evil’, to the question of God’s justice; and it is all accomplished according to the pattern of the Exodus, of the freeing of the slaves, of the cross and the resurrection, of the powerful new life of the Spirit.

The New Testament invites us, then, to imagine a new world as a beautiful, healing community; to envisage it as a world vibrant with life and energy, incorruptible, beyond the reach of death and decay; to hold it in our mind’s eye as a world reborn, set free from the slavery of corruption, free to be truly what it was made to be. This is the pole by which we must set our compasses so that we may find our way along the intermediate paths that lie before us. The question of how we can imagine such a world is itself challenging, and I shall return to it presently. But, before then, let us explore what it might look like if, with such a picture before us, we begin to anticipate this new world in the present time. As Paul insists in Romans 8, all our present life, in anticipation of this future one, is a matter of groaning in the Spirit as we wait for the final gift – even as we are also rejoicing because the victory is already won (Romans 5.1–5; 8.31–39).

The Intermediate Tasks

There are five quite disparate ways in which, I suggest, we should be working in the present time to put into practice, on the basis of the victory of Jesus Christ in his death, the beginnings, the advance signs, of that new world which we are called to imagine. There is no space to do more here than simply name them and indicate in a few sentences the much fuller treatment that each properly deserves.

(i) Prayer

As Paul indicates in the same passage in Romans 8 that we were examining a moment ago, prayer is a key, central anticipation of the eventual redeemed world order, the world in which redeemed humanity will take its place worshipping the creator and set in stewardship over the world, sharing God’s sovereign rule (5.17; Revelation 5.10). The new life of the Spirit, to which Christians are called in the present age, is not a matter of sitting back and enjoying spiritual comforts in a private, relaxed, easygoing spirituality, but consists rather of the unending struggle in the mystery of prayer, the struggle to bring God’s wise, healing order into the world now, in implementation of the victory of the cross and anticipation of the final redemption. In prayer, we are invited, summoned, to become more truly human, to worship the God in whose image we are made and so to find ourselves interceding for the world he loves. The start of God’s address to the world, following the death and resurrection of his son, is the creation and vocation, by the Spirit, of a people drawn from every family who will live consciously out of tune with the world as it presently is and in tune with the way God intends it to be (Romans 12.1–2: do not be conformed to this present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds – a statement that might serve as a title for this whole lecture), and who by bearing that tension in themselves, and turning it into prayer, become agents of that new world beginning to break in to the present one in healing and hope. Prayer thus lies at the heart of the task of the people of God, their glorious, strange, puzzling and ennobling vocation.

(ii) Holiness

The Christian calling to radical holiness of life is likewise a matter of inaugurated eschatology. Christian ethics does not consist of a list of ‘what we’re allowed to do’ and ‘what we’re not allowed to do’, but rather of the summons to live in God’s new world, on the basis that idolatry and sin has been defeated at the cross and that new creation has begun at Easter – and that the entire new world based on this achievement is guaranteed by the power of the Spirit. Romans 8.12–17 thus invites Christians to live as Exodus people, not to dream of going back to the slavery in Egypt but to work hard at putting to death all that is in fact deadly and at coming to the renewed life which the Spirit creates in and for those who are led by that Spirit. Among the clearest statements of this theme is Colossians 3.1–11: if you are risen with the Messiah, seek the things that are above, where he is – which means, in very practical terms, that all the things which deface human life here and now, particularly anger and bitterness on the one hand and sexual immorality on the other, must be done away with.

So far, we have not strayed much beyond what one might expect as a standard ‘application’ of the message of the cross. Prayer and holiness, for all I have expounded them briefly from an unfamiliar angle (that of inaugurated eschatology), are after all well known as themes of the Christian life. But supposing we were to look more widely? Supposing that, if God’s justice is after all the main theme of Romans, we might follow through that theme to questions of justice in the twenty-first century? How might this same approach work its way into some of the issues in our wider world where the ‘problem of evil’ makes itself particularly felt, where our failure to analyse evil properly on the one hand and thus our failure to respond to it in mature and wise fashion on the other has made our world even more of a mess than it was in the first place?

(iii) Politics and Empire

The most obvious place to begin – especially in view of the previous lecture, and its exposition of Mark 10.35–45 – is with the way human governments, authorities and empires behave. If it is true, as Jesus said after his resurrection, that all authority in heaven and on earth had been entrusted to him, the Christian view of all human authorities is that they are at most penultimate, to be held responsible before the Jesus who died and was raised and now calls the whole world to account. In particular, human authorities, whether at the most local level or the most globalized, are constantly to be reminded of, and encouraged in, their primary task, which is to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are weak and vulnerable are properly looked after. Medical care (one of the great early Christian innovations was taking care of the sick, including those who were neither themselves Christians nor family members), education, work on behalf of the poor – all these are signs that Jesus is Lord and that the powers of the world are his servants. This will, of course, challenge all the vested interests that at the moment rule the world, and that speak grandly of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in reference simply to those things which serve, or as it may be opposed, their own ends. This is as true of those whose financial systems keep whole countries in unpayable debt as it is of those whose caste systems keep tens of thousands of lower-caste peoples in squalor and penury. And we should note carefully, as a call to readjust our priorities and our rhetoric as we in the west talk grandly about the rest of the world, that the early Christians, like the Jewish cousins, were not particularly worried in the means by which rulers and authorities came to power. They were far more concerned about what they did once they had obtained power. The idea that once some kind of election has been held the government that results has carte blanche legitimacy to do whatever it wants for the next few years is a travesty of the freedom and wisdom which the biblical writers seek and urge.

(iv) Penal Codes

The language of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is also regularly employed by those who organise systems of criminal justice. Again and again one hears it said or implied that some people are simply ‘evil’ and must therefore be locked up for a long time. Over against this, an older generation of liberal thinkers, alarmed at the thought that there might actually be such a thing as ‘evil’, which they thought had been banished by Act of Parliament and better drains, tried to insist that nobody was evil at all, merely misguided, and that the misguiding had been done by society as a whole, so that all of us were and are equally guilty. The political pendulum has swung between these two extremes, the one side seeking to lock up more and more of the population without realising that they were thereby creating universities of crime, and the other side trying to look the other way and pretend, with a fine suburban detachment, that everything is really all right after all. But neither of these embodies the imperative of the gospel. What we urgently need, and what, thank God, is coming to be in some wiser corners of the western world (like New Zealand: I know it is paradoxical to describe the most easterly land-mass as part of the western world, but such paradoxes are characteristic of that wonderful country), is an embracing of restorative justice, a commitment on the part of the whole community to name evil for what it is and to address and deal with it, not by shutting people away from the embarrassed eyes all around, but by bringing together offender and victim, with their families and friends, to look hard and openly at what had happened and to agree a way forward. That is a hard but healthy model, corresponding to what happens in healthy marriages and healthy individuals; and it has about it both the mark of the cross and the hope of a world in which all is known and all is put to rights.

(v) International Disputes

The same polarization of opinion is clearly visible when things go wrong, as they always have and, it seems, always will, in international relations. On the one hand we have those who claim, in effect, that might is right, and that might therefore constitutes a divine vocation to go anywhere in the world, to intervene in other countries, and to enforce one’s will wherever and whenever one wishes. On the other hand we have those who, faced with any radical evil in the world, will back off and say that it’s only a little local difficulty and that we must allow it to be sorted out locally, if at all: the politics of appeasement, in other words. Each side accuses the other of the obvious excesses to which the different policies lead. What we urgently need, I believe, is the extension into the international sphere of that concept of legitimate authority which is underlined in Romans 13 – remembering what we said above, that all authority is from God and comes below the universal sovereignty of Jesus Christ. The United Nations, and the International Criminal Court, are the only bodies we currently have which even approximate to this. The enormous resistance to both, ideologically and practically, and the blatant disregard for international treaties such as the Geneva Convention, which we have witnessed in the last few years are worrying signs that we need good international structures more than ever. There is such a thing as evil, and it is to be addressed and defeated not by ignoring it on the one hand or by blasting it with heavy artillery on the other (even with all the smart bombs currently available, when the shooting starts there are still hundreds of thousands of civilians who get killed), but by addressing it with the message, and the methods, of the cross.

Educating the Imagination

In order to come anywhere near these goals, we need, as I have said all along, to learn to imagine a world without evil and then to think through the steps by which we might approach that goal, recognising that we shall never attain it fully during the present age but that we must not, for that reason, acquiesce meekly in the present state of the present world. Once again Romans 12.1–2 comes to mind.

But the Christian imagination – shrunken and starved through the long winter of secularism – needs to be awakened, enlivened, and pointed in the right direction. Each of these is important. Christians need to sense permission – from God, and from one another – to exercise their imagination in thinking ahead into God’s new world and into such fresh forms of worship and service as will model and embody aspects of it. We need to have this imagination energised, fed and nourished, so that it is lively and inventive, not sluggishly going round the small circles of a few ideas learned long ago. And the Christian imagination must be disciplined, focussed and directed, as with conscience itself, so that it doesn’t simply rush madly about in all directions, supposing any old imaginative world to be automatically good (think of Philip Pullman’s brilliant and solidly anti-Christian imaginative fiction).

How can this be achieved? It is I believe part of being made in God’s image that we are ourselves creators, or at least procreators. The extraordinary ability to bring forth new life, supremely of course through begetting children but in millions of other ways as well, is central to the mandate the human race receives in Genesis 1 and 2. To make sense of and celebrate a beautiful world through the production of artefacts which are themselves beautiful is part of the call to  be stewards of creation, as was Adam’s naming of the animals. Genuine art is thus itself a response to the beauty of creation, which itself is a pointer to the beauty of God. But we don’t live in the garden of Eden, and art which attempts to do so quickly becomes flaccid and trivial. We live in a fallen world, and any attempt to plug in to some kind of pantheism, worshipping the creation as if it were itself divine, always runs up against the problem of evil. At that point, art, like philosophy and politics, often swings round the other way, and determinedly responds to ugliness with more ugliness. We have a rash of this in the British arts world at the moment, a kind of brutalism that, under the guise of realism, simply expresses futility and boredom. Surely there is here a wonderful opportunity for Christians with an integrated worldview, and with the longing to love God with heart, mind and soul, to find the way forwards, perhaps to lead the way forwards, beyond this sterile impasse. When we read Romans 8 we find Paul affirming that the whole of creation is groaning in travail as it longs for its redemption. Creation is good, but it is not God. It is beautiful, but its beauty is at present transient. It is in pain, but that pain is taken into the very heart of God and becomes part of the pain of new birth. The beauty of creation, to which art responds and which it tries to express, imitate and highlight, is not simply beauty which it possesses in itself, but the beauty which it possesses in view of what is promised to it, as an engagement ring is beautiful not least because of the promise it symbolizes, and as a chalice is beautiful because we know what it is meant to be filled with. If Christian artists can glimpse this truth, there is a way forwards to celebrating beauty, to loving God with all the soul, without lapsing into pantheism on the one hand or harsh realism on the other. Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are but to the way things are meant to be, and by God’s grace one day will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. And when Christian artists go to that task they will be contributing to the integration of heart, mind and soul which we seek, to which we are called. They will be pointing forwards to the new world God intends to make, the world already seen in advance in the resurrection of Jesus, the world whose charter of freedom was won when he died on the cross. It is by such means as this that we may learn again to imagine a world without evil, and to work for that to become, in whatever measure we can, a reality even in the midst of the present evil age.


I am aware that this has been a somewhat rambling, many-sided lecture. That may reflect not only my own situation right now but also the nature of the subject-matter. But I hope I have said enough to stimulate you to reflect on the enormous and exciting task which lies before us: that we are called not just to understand the problem of evil and the justice of God but also to be part of the solution to it. We are called to live between the cross and resurrection on the one hand and the new world on the other; and, in believing in the achievement of the former and learning how to imagine the latter, we are called to bring the two together in prayer, holiness and action within the wider world. Next time we shall consider more closely how this relates to our learning to live with evil within our own selves and within those around, as we explore the theme of forgiveness, which has a claim to be at the very centre of the Christian gospel. But for now, let us encourage one another to work towards that new world we are promised, in which the earth shall be filled with the knowledge and glory of God as the waters cover the sea – and to encourage in particularly those who have the God-given gifts to show us that world, to inspire our imaginations, so that we may the more readily and gladly believe in and work for all that God wants us to attempt and accomplish.


[1]Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness.