Day Eight of An Advent Calendar: Good and Evil

Sunday, December 4, 2016     Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 5.1–7
2 Peter 3.11–18
Luke 7.28–35
The text of the readings follows after the comments.


The Red Vineyard at Arles, by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Why do people do the wrong thing? Why is there evil?

I’ve been mulling this over for many years. As some of you know, I’ve been working on a PhD through Heythrop College, the Jesuit college in the University of London. The topic of the dissertation is the theological legacy of the Indian Residential Schools (“IRS”) which were operated by the churches in Canada on behalf of the federal government from the 1880s until the 1970s. It was described in the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report as “cultural genocide” and I would argue that the modifying term “cultural” can be left off, given the number of deaths and the fact that the  IRS was set up to assimilate the indigenous population (also, see the definition in the Genocide Convention). And yet the churches were enthusiastic supporters of the schools despite the evidence of their detrimental effect on the students and families. Most of the staff (with the exception of a small number of sexual predators) were what we would have called “good people”. In the dissertation I critique the theologies that informed the mission that justified the IRS, and then examine a type of theology that might not lead us down such paths again in other circumstances.

The study of evil in a theological or philosophical context is called a “theodicy”. One of the authors I am using as a critical tool, the French and Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), claims that after the Holocaust it is no longer possible to construct a theodicy on a rational basis. Christians have typically tended to not go so far.

Some would follow St Augustine in seeing evil as simply the privation of good. The evil we see in the world is real, but it is the result of ignorance or error. Everything that is created by God is created with the possibility of being good. This is, of course, a pre-modern perspective, and assumes that one sees the Creator as the Good to which all creation naturally aspires. A modern perspective suspends the question of belief in God and sees good and evil as a matter of human choice, and sometimes the difference between the two is impossible to discern. Goods such as family, nation, pleasure, security, the environment, privacy, other people, and so forth jostle for our attention, along with fears about our economic stability, threats to our lives, corruption, physical and sexual violence, bigotry, and competition. As the philosopher Isaiah Berlin pointed out these values (or rights) are incommensurable – they will conflict with each other and they are only resolved (if at all) after discussion and compromise. The good becomes more relative, as does evil.

An old way of understanding evil in the world is to see it as a force, driven by spirits or the devil. This sees the world as a battlefield of binary forces, good and evil. Some of this is present in the Scriptures, but it is in tension with another understanding, which is that God is in charge of everything. Isaiah 45.6-7 in the translation of the  Authorised Version/King James Version says: “I am the Lord, and there is none else.I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” Thus when bad things happen to people some of them blame God, and question God’s world and the justice of it – and on the basis of this passage, they do seem to know who is responsible. Today’s reading from Isaiah describes a God who is punishing Israel and Judah for producing bloodshed instead of justice and righteousness. And the parable of God as the owner and builder of the vineyard, would suggest that God has every right to do what God wants with his own property. This is the theology of Isaiah – that God will chasten Israel and Judah in the hope that they will repent and return, that they will be purified and become holy (as yesterday’s reading suggests).

In contrast to this we have the Book of Job, which might be described as a dissenting  opinion. Job experiences great woes for no discernible (to him) reason at all, and four friends come to him to try and convince him that there is a good rational reason. He rejects them all, and demands his day in the court of the Lord. Then, miraculously, God does appear from the whirlwind – but does not justify the divine to humanity, but simply argues that the question is unanswerable.

My reading of the new testament is that it doesn’t really answer the question of evil either. Yes, God is just and will bring justice, but the cause of evil itself is not all clear (despite later theologians attempts to blame Adam and Eve). As the author of 2 Peter suggests, it is due to ignorance, error, and instability. Knowledge, truth, and stability is not just a matter of having the right opinions and propositions, it is more the relation of the faithful with God in Christ, as manifested in prayer and love. In the Gospel reading for today the Pharisees and Scribes, despite their great learning, are in error because they cannot see the justice of God at work in either John the Baptist and Jesus as the Son of Man. Whereas in love Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners, their systems of knowledge and thought holds them aloof and condemning – cut off from opportunities of being with people, instead of their own self-satisfaction.

From my reading of history most people who do evil do not think they are doing bad things, but rather they think that, on balance, they are doing good things (although that good may be limited to themselves or to a group). They still aim at the good, although they miss the mark. I do not know the origin of evil in this world – I read Genesis 2-3 as a description of the way things are, broken and fallen, and not so much as an origin story. The Good News of Jesus Christ does not explain everything, but what it does tell me is that God is with us, in the flesh in Jesus suffering alongside humanity, and that God is in me by the Holy Spirit, and that however much I fall short of what it is that I have been created to be, God forgives me and seeks to transform me ever more into the divine likeness. So I worry less about why there is evil, and more about following Jesus, seeking to bring relief and do good.

Isaiah 5.1–7
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes.

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

2 Peter 3.11–18
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Luke 7.28–35
[Jesus said] “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”(And all the people who heard this, including the tax-collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)
“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the market-place and calling to one another,
We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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