The principal moral question of our era is not "what is evil" but rather whether or not such a thing as evil exists. Modern moral philosophers have worked for centuries to untether morality from church and religion, leading at last to the Post-Modern (or Late Modern) insistence that morality has no foundation at all. Our eagerness to outrun the myth of Europe's religious wars and to hand power over to the secular state has delivered ethics squarely into the hands of governments and princes, amateurs and hacks. Consequently, in the midst of this failure to secure a bedrock upon which to build a moral platform, most of Western civilization has continued to abide by semi-Christian ethics out of habit. Until we didn't.
The twentieth century was a bloodbath of wars, fascism, wars, totalitarianism, wars, genocide, and did I mention wars? The failure of the new model of morality became reasonably evident. The Nazis made it clear to us that not every government (perhaps not any government) was up to the task of self-governing the morality of a nation. As history careened toward a moral cliff, the latest solution was to jettison these ideas of morality altogether and at last shake off the old overcoat of religion and piety. If Modernism drove us off a cliff, Post-Modernism encouraged us to enjoy the fall. And here we are.
The notions of good and evil now compete with more popular concepts like perspective, bias, and power. Ironically, the status of the debate reveals evil's insidious influence in our culture to be as great as ever. Nothing testifies more fully to evil's sway than humanity's nearly limitless capacity for ignoring evil's existence altogether.
A Similar Situation
Jesus' era was not traveling down a Post-Modern trail, but it did suffer from similar confusion. When Jesus spoke, his family determined him to be suffering from madness, messianic schizophrenia perhaps (Mark 3:20-21). Like the biblical ethics Christians espouse in our age, the sensible teachings of our Lord sounded like insanity to ears tuned to the key of this world's discordant melody. Jesus often comes across like a man trying to retell details from last night's dream, telling a story which seems to operate with alternate rules and fictional physics. Madness to be sure.
Likewise, when he cast out demons, his rivals determined him to be a lieutenant of Beelzebub (v. 22). After all, if the demons obeyed Jesus, clearly he outranked them! The scribes from Jerusalem knew they were on the side of the angels, so this troublemaker had to be in league with demons. Never mind of course that their disciples attempted with less success to do precisely what Jesus was effortlessly accomplishing (Matthew 12:27).
The premises underlying the conflict differ from our age, but the confusion is much the same. Ill-defining evil masks the enemy almost as well as denying his existence.
Jesus claims instead that evil is both real and discernible. Earning exhausted eye-rolls from modern interpreters, Jesus considers evil to be both absolute and personal, Satan the adversary and his house of influence (v. 23-25). He does not chide his audience for believing in the Boogie Man, but rather Jesus claims to know and understand him better than they do. He thinks their appreciation of evil to be too little, not too great. They imagine evil as a dainty demon occasionally pestering the righteous. Jesus sees evil as a kingdom, an empire setting the agenda of the world in which his audience lived each day.
Additionally, Jesus insists that the enemy of all that is good and fair is not likely to begin undermining his own carefully orchestrated campaign. If you see someone fiercely opposing evil, the natural assumption should not be that the worker of good is in cooperation with demons. Alternatively, if you determine that evil is inexplicably opposing evil, then don't fret ... rather cheer! This would surely be the end of evil itself (v. 26).
A Better Explanation
The better explanation of the moral universe we experience is found in an alternative parable. In an unlikely comparison, Jesus depicts Satan as a homeowner protecting his goods, and Jesus enters as the bandit come to steal his X-Box.
"But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house" (Mark 3:27).
Jesus neither denies the existence of evil nor concedes imposing power to it. Evil exists, it is more in control of our lives than we would ever admit, and still, Jesus has come to defeat it entirely.
The challenge for us, then, is to manage to live in the world Jesus describes rather than dreamily napping in the strong man's house.
Be Aware. While we could all better appreciate the Post-Modern concerns of perspective, bias, and power in social debates, Christians must not lose sight of the reality of evil as personal, willful, and absolute. "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).
Be Not Afraid. While noticing evil's prevalence, Christian's must not forget that the dominion of Satan is already conquered and therefore ultimately powerless. It is not incidental that one of Jesus' most common commands is "be not afraid." Or as his brother would later put it, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (James 4:7b).
Be Not Distracted. Just as we never forget that real evil exists in the world, we must also not allow ourselves to be distracted by mere cosmetic skirmishes over tertiary nonsense, whether it be the Pharisees crying out over Sabbath healing or Facebook's latest moral-outrage boycott (Mark 3:23-27). Real evil demands real vigilance and real goodness in response. We don't have time for games.
We must strive to live in a world where Jesus is actually Lord, and evil - though real - is not.
Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.
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