I confess, I’m a typical older guy who enjoys watching the evening news. Often I find myself holding one-way conversations with the broadcast. This usually happens after the requisite report on the latest shooting, drunken car crash, or child abuse episode. I’ll shout something like, “How can people be so evil?”
The evening news certainly highlights the evil of humanity. Yet, many people deny the existence of evil even in the face of daily, graphic evidence to the contrary.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Niebhur was convinced that the evidence of ingrained sinfulness is apparent everywhere. He cited violence, the mistreatment of the vulnerable, and the greed built into economic systems as proof of original sin and pandemic evil.
Most of us, when honest, live in two minds about the presence of evil in human nature. Humans can be incredibly loving. They can be horribly cruel and nasty. Our tendency is either to deny evil all together, or, lump all the “evil people” into a separate category from the rest of us “good people.” Of course, we are the good people. “Those” other people are the bad people who cause all the world’s troubles. The Spirit of Phariseeism is strong in us all.
Fleming Rutledge warns against such demarcations that arise from denial of our personal complicity with evil. She wrote, “There is nothing more characteristic of humanity than the universal tendency of one portion of that humanity to justify itself as deserving and some other portion as undeserving…To speak of ‘deserving’ is to divide up the world in a fashion that is utterly alien to the gospel (Rom. 5:6).”In other words, we are all participants in evil at some level. Yet, we are all in the habit of imagining ourselves as innocents.
When a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:
G. K. Chesterton.’
Thank God, and I mean this literally, there is a residual goodness in people, although it’s a tainted goodness. There are untold instances of God’s love and grace shining through people in our fallen world. The world hasn’t totally descended into darkness, thanks in part to the leavening salt of God’s people and the Holy Spirit at work in the world.
However, let’s not fool ourselves. Our world IS fallen. Evil IS pandemic. Those who believe in “humanity’s progressive self-liberation” are self-deceived.
Evil is strong and infects us all. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We are all complicit, to some degree, with the world and the evil in it. “All of us in one way or another are either potential perpetrators, potential participants, or (most likely) passive enablers of horrors”, writes Rutledge.
In the face of Evil the Lenten season calls us to contemplate deeply what Christ accomplished at the Cross to dismantle the Evil Powers. Such a recovery project summons us to get real and face the devil in you and the devil in me.
In facing the evil in our world we as Christ-followers would do well to wrestle with this question: Why would Jesus go to the cross on His own initiative if each of us are essentially good?
If people just needed a little enlightenment to release the “good within” Jesus should have launched a world-wide education project, or social re-engineering effort. Easy peasy compared to dying on a cross.
Instead, Jesus moved into the epic center of Evil to defeat the Devil on his own turf. By submitting to the cross Jesus stepped as deep into Evil as a Savior could do. And in that place He allowed Evil to have its ultimate way with both God and humanity as it snuffed out His life. Evil working through Death won a penultimate victory on Good Friday. If Jesus remained in the grave, Satan would have achieved his final, permanent victory over God.
We know, however, that the ultimate word was shouted in Victory over death through the Resurrection on Easter morning. But first Jesus had to descend into evil to defeat it. And in His kenotic act of dying on our behalf we discover that the grip of Evil and Death on humanity was broken. We are set free to live in the life-giving power of Christ’s resurrection. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey~ 1 Peter 3:18-20a
In order to embrace fully the Good News of Christ’s death on our behalf we have to own Peter’s brutal description of us. Individually and collectively we are “the unrighteous.” In doing so we can now receive the Good News that the Righteous One has set us free through His death.
The great exchange of the Righteous Man dying for the Unrighteous brings us to God, makes us alive in the Spirit, and gives us the ability to resist sin and evil. This is why we glory in the cross and its power. Satan’s hold over us is broken, and the righteousness of Christ takes over, to the glory of God.
Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Was it for sins that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut His glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man, His creature’s sin.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears.
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes to tears.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
’Tis all that I can do.
At the cross, at the cross where
I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
~ Isaac Watts