First Mennonite Church
October 15, 2017
The Problem with Evil
Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17; 3:1-7; 21-24
The problem with “evil.” In theology, the attempt to the existence of evil in light of an all-loving God is called “theodicy.” Theodicy is a compound word from two Greek words: Theos—God and Diké—trial or judgment. Therefore, theodicy is the theological attempt to justify God from all evil. David Hume, an 18th-century neoskeptic, wrote, “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X, 1779).
It is not uncommon to hear people question the existence of God when something terrible happens. How can someone explain the Holocaust of the Nazis under Hitler? What explanation can be given to the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda? What could have motivated Dylann Roof to enter the historically Black AME Church in Charleston, NC with the purpose of killing? What about the more recent massacre in Las Vegas? I must say that these are not the only examples of evil. These are examples of individuals who have committed very terrible acts, but there are corporate acts of evil. There are institutional acts of evil too.
Did evil come into existence when Adam and Eve disobeyed God? Or, was evil a human potential, even before Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit? Reading Genesis, chapters two and three can illuminate our understanding of the origin of evil.
Genesis 2:8-9; 15-17
8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
Genesis 3:1-7; 21-24
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Genesis tells us that God planted two kinds of trees in the center of the Garden of Eden. These are the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). God gave Adam and Eve to eat of every tree, but commanded them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Proverbs 11, verse 30, says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives.”
Righteousness is the character of God. The way of righteousness leads to godly living. The tree of life would have empowered our first parents to fulfill their God-given potential not only for their own wellbeing, but also of the world they were given to cultivate and protect. The way of righteousness is God’s revealed will for harmonious, peaceful, equitable human life. A righteous life displays the character of God. If the result of Adam and Eve’s eating the forbidden fruit brought disruption, enmity, and death literally, fullness of life would have also come, literally, had they eaten from the tree of life.
But what triggered Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit? We are not told she was overly obsessed with the fruit. From among the animals Adam had just given names to, was the serpent. The serpent aroused awareness of self-enhancing potentials if Eve only ate the forbidden fruit. The craftiness of the serpent becomes evident in the way it begins its interaction with the woman. “Did God really say you must not eat of any of the tree . . .?” The question seems innocent, yet for the reader it is an obvious distortion of the words of God to Adam and Eve. The craftiness turns more sinister when the serpent accuses God of not wanting to share with Adam and Eve something he has. “God (Elohim, not Yahweh Elohim as in the rest of the creation narrative) knows that if you eat . . . you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” the serpent hissed. The serpent becomes the embodiment of God’s archenemy, first by portraying the Lord as a tyrant deity, who does not provide sustenance to Adam and Eve, then by grossly distorting his words: “you will not die” as he said you will, and finally by deliberately portraying the Lord God as a selfish God: “He knows that if you eat you will become like him.” So why is the serpent portrayed as the archenemy of God, even when Genesis says the serpent is one of the created creatures? Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians have tried to answer this question throughout the ages. The question is especially difficult to answer with Scripture because there is no trace of a personal devil in the early parts of the Old Testament. We should be mindful that in other ancient cultures the serpent is also portrayed as the embodiment of evil. In Canaanite religion, the snake is the symbol of fertility cults. The serpent in the Babylonian myth is what took away from man the possibility of immortality (The Gilgamesh Epic). Interestingly, when God declares what are clean and unclean animals and birds, which Israel could eat or not eat, serpents and snakes were listed in a different category. Serpents and snakes were “detestable” animals, not only unclean. Therefore, for an Israelite familiar with the symbolic value of animals, there would not be a creature imaginable than the serpent to lead man away from his Creator. In the Biblical story of Creation, the serpent is the embodiment of cosmic evil. From the beginning the devil is the enemy of God, and his good work of creation, including humanity.
Once the serpent planted doubt in the heart of Eve and assured her the promise of becoming like God, the choice was made. And Adam and Eve refused to obey God and thus rejected the way of righteousness. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose to eat from the forbidden tree. They chose for themselves not only the prerogative belonging to God, that is to fully know what is good and evil and to handle these perfectly, but also chose to make those decisions independently from God. That is, by eating of the forbidden fruit, they took into their own hands the freedom to decide and do what is good and what is evil in their own eyes. Thus, evil in the world is the result of two main streams: man’s power to choose, away from the explicit will of God, and the deceitfulness of self-grandeur. When humans take in their own hands the power to decide apart from the righteousness of God, evil is born and evil flourishes.
When we analyze the intent behind Hitler’s desire to annihilate the Jews in Germany and Europe we will see that the combination of power and self-grandeur was behind it. When we look closer at why someone would want to exterminate or oppress another group of people, we see the same intentions played out in the Garden of Eden by our first parents. When someone realizes he or she has power over the workers, abuse, violence, harassment, etc. are likely to flourish in the workplace. When a husband believes he is the owner of his wife and children, humiliation and pain become the daily bread for his family.
When the bully thinks he is popular and immune from punishment, other kids live in fear.
I am fully aware that human pain is not only due to evil humans’ actions. There is profound pain in those who have lost their loved ones to the fires in northern California right now. There is pain and suffering going on in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria barreled through the island. That kind of pain and suffering will require another sermon. For now, let me close with the words of the Apostle Peter.
6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. 8 Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
Jude, verse 6, reads: And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day.
Humility before God is to acknowledge our divine placement in God’s order of creation. We are not God. We are God’s creation. The problem with Adam and Eve was that they wanted to become like God. They were tempted to breach their boundary. This is also what Isaiah says about the Day Star, son of Dawn, that is Lucifer.
Isaiah 14, verses 12 to 15 reads:
12 How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13 You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; 14 I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.” 15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit.
Peter urges us, like he did his Christian community, to walk humbly before the Lord. Exaltation will come at God’s own timing. For now it is our task and privilege to cast on the Lord our anxieties and burdens, because he cares for us. Peter also calls us to be vigilant because the adversary, the devil, prowls around seeking whom he might devour. We are to resist the devil by being steadfast in the Lord. But even while we abide in the Lord, suffering is a possibility. We must remember that Peter’s community suffered at the hands of those who persecuted them. The Christian community Peter served suffered the persecution, dispossession, defamation, and death at the hands of those who were in power and their allies. They suffered at the hands of evil people. They did not fight back or align themselves with those who had power to defend them. They commended themselves to the Lord for their comfort, strength, and restoration. This is the message and example we should heed today. Amen!