Evil, Utopia and God’s Justice
by Herold Weiss | 12 August 2020 |
From the ancient past until now, cultures have recognized that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human condition in this world. We are not really free to act according to our better judgment. We seem compulsively inclined toward evil. How did this come to be? Does evil have total dominion over humans? How serious is the flaw in our nature? Why does it seem impossible for us consistently to do what is best on all occasions? Does our viciousness, our cruelty, our disregard of the needs of others have consequences? What kind of world is the one in which we live?
The existence of evil
Most ancient stories of creation include a plot that accounts for the existence of evil in the world. For example, according to the Enuma elish, the Babylonian story of creation, Marduk gave life to humans by killing Kingu, the god unanimously identified as the leader of the rebellion against the rule of Apsu, the father of the gods. This placed the origins of evil in the heavens. Besides, since humans received life from the blood of Kingu, the rebellious nature of human beings was inherited. Other stories tell that the head of the Pantheon assigned a lower god to bring about the world, and he botched the job. As a result, humans do not live in the best of all possible worlds.
In the ancient traditions of Greece, which included elements of Indian origin after the conquests of Alexander the Great, humans have an immortal soul, which existed in heaven, and a material body. The soul feels confined and desires to disentangle itself from its material prison and regain the freedom it enjoyed in heaven. Plato considered the world of matter as illusory and deceptive. Taking the material world as real causes humans to act blindly, immaturely, perversely.
According to the ancient Hebraic tradition, on the other hand, perverse actions are acts of rebellion against the will of the creator God who declared the material world he had created to be good. The problem is human disobedience to the commandment introduced by God at the Garden of Eden. The prophets of ancient Israel whose oracles have come down to us were puzzled by the rebellious conduct of the people of Israel and told them to turn from their evil ways and live according to God’s will, executing justice and mercy among themselves. They identified the problem in the conduct of those in power; the king, the courtiers, the nobles, the priests were acting unjustly, and the people in general were worshiping the gods of the Canaanites at the groves and the high places. If they did not desist from their cruel and idolatrous ways, God would send upon them drought, famine, pestilence and foreign armies to punish them. In other words, the justice of God would exercise its power over them. Whether the problem was guilt that was transferred through the blood, evil acts resulted from the misapprehension of the material world, or disobedience to the will of the Creator, the ancients understood that evil ways were punishable by divine power.
Misguided by their self-understanding as the elect of God, the ancient Hebrews thought that their lives in an evil world would find release on the Day of the Lord, when God would establish them, the worshipers of the Creator God, as the model for all nations. Jerusalem would then become the earth’s capital city. Amos warned the people that, instead, the Day of the Lord would bring about a most severe punishment for their evil ways (Am. 5:18-20). This was demonstrated when their king was dethroned, their temple was destroyed and the people became exiles in Babylon (605-586 B.C.E.).
The ancient Hebrews thought that God executes justice punishing the sins of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation. By the time of the exile, however, both Jeremiah and Ezekiel proclaimed that it was no longer the case that “the fathers ate sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29; Ez. 18:2). Within this new perspective, God’s involvement in the suffering of a righteous individual became a theological existential problem, as the book of Job amply demonstrated. Thus, Ezekiel insisted that the exiles were being punished by God for their own sins.
The author of the book of Daniel, writing three hundred and seventy years after the exile, wondered why Jeremiah’s prophecy that Jerusalem’s punishment would last seventy years (Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10) had not been fulfilled (Dan. 9:2). He pleads, “Open thine eyes and behold our desolations, . . . O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; . . . because thy city and thy people are called by thy name” (Dan. 9:18-19). As an answer, he was told that the prophecy did not mean seventy years, but seventy weeks of years. Only then would the holy hill be restored (Dan. 9:24). Daniel had no question about why punishment was due: “The Lord our God is righteous in all the works which he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice” (Dan. 9:14).
How to fix it?
As the traditions regarding God’s justice developed in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, human disobedience was not only due to a rebellious human nature but also to the disobedience of celestial beings who lusted after human women and fathered a race of giants (Gen. 9:6). Satan, one of “the sons of God” in heaven (Job 1:6) who functioned as an accuser (Job 1:9; Zech. 3:1), was expelled from heaven and became a deceiver (Rev. 12:9; 13:14; 18:23; 19:20; 20:3, 8, 10). Acting through surrogates (Rev. 13:1-2), now “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5: 8).
Stories of congenital flaws, human disobedience or supernatural instigators, came down through the centuries with a kaleidoscope of adaptations, and their understanding of the problem conditioned the suggested solution. For some, the solution is for God to put an end to human history on this earth. The power of Evil within God’s creation is so great that for God’s justice to be operative the only solution is to scrap this creation. The present world can’t be repaired. What “is” will never become “what ought to be.” “What ought to be” is “what shall be” only after the destruction of “what is.”
This solution has been advanced by traditional apocalyptic enthusiasts from early Christianity to the present. The book of Revelation gave different trajectories to developments that terminated with the catastrophic “fall of Babylon” (Rev. 14:8; 18:1-3; 18:21-24). It described a vengeful god who finds delight in inviting the birds to a “great supper of God” where they will feast, gorging themselves with the carcasses of those he has defeated in imaginary battlefields (Rev. 19:17, 21). Since this was not enough punishment for those who failed to worship the Creator God, he then brings them up from “the pit” for them to show themselves to be true rebels and give God the opportunity to throw them where “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where . . . they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Rev. 20:10, 15). These descriptions of powerful demonstration of God’s justice at work may have been compelling to those who attended amphitheaters to watch human beings wrestling with, and getting dismembered by, wild animals from faraway lands.
In other traditions, the solution was to create a safe space apart from the evil world. With the rise of humanism under the new sensibilities of the Renaissance, Thomas More wrote Utopia, an ironic treatise giving advice to princes in need of economic and political guidance. The imaginary island More described is one in which there is no private property, war is unknown, different religions have freedom of worship, gold is used for chamber pots and is freely available, women do things that are culturally reserved for men, and slavery rather than death is the way to punish thieves. Living in utopia is totally voluntary; individuals are free to leave and live in the mainland under existing conditions, and to return to the island when they wish. More’s purpose in writing was not to enlist followers with whom such a place could be established, but to do social and political criticism by means of irony. Those who later actually tried to establish utopian communities in the United States, like the one in Oneida in upstate New York or New Harmony in SW Indiana, could not sustain their ideal society without recourse to authoritarian ways that disenchanted all utopian dreams.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and early Labor Zionists also imagined utopias. Jews who suffered shameful indignities from their fellow citizens began to dream of a land in which justice prevailed, and they could be themselves. Theirs was a dream of national restoration. When, with the help of the superpower nations, they were able to settle in Palestine after World War II, they found there 8,000 Jews who lived in untold poverty because they wished to be there when God would finally re-establish the kingdom of David. The utopian ideal of Labor Zionism seeking to escape the injustices of European and Slavic societies soon found itself defeated by an ultra-conservative religious nationalism that, like all nationalisms, was built on the exclusion of the Other. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, recently criticized the State of Israel for seeking to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians that would perpetuate “the unlawful and immoral practices in which it has been engaging since it seized the Territories.” In other words, the utopian dream for justice has become a tragic nightmare in the lives of those living in the Middle East, not just the Israelis.
Karl Marx was born a Jew in Trier in 1818. In 1815, after the Napoleonic wars, the Rhineland had become part of the Kingdom of Prussia, and the Jews living there found themselves no longer enjoying the favorable conditions provided by the French Enlightenment. To be able to continue at his job as a civil servant, Marx’s father was required, like all Jews in Prussia, to convert to Christianity. Heinrich Marx converted in 1819. His wife, Jenny, the daughter of a prominent liberal member of the Prussian nobility, together with Karl and his siblings, was baptized in 1825. Survival depended on assimilation. Even though born while his parents were still Jews, Marx never quite identified himself as a Jew. Thus, while throughout his life he maintained close friendships with Jews who were leaders in the nascent Labor Zionism who sought to find a solution to the Jewish problem, Marx could not join their project because of its nationalistic premise. He considered the problem of injustice to be ingrained in the human universal condition. He was interested in solving “the problem of history.”
Marx found the solution in his studies at the University of Berlin in the late 1830s under the guidance of Eduard Gans, a Jew who in order to keep his university professorship had also converted to Christianity. Gans was the main exponent of the teaching of Hegel, who had died in 1831. Hegel saw history determined by a dialectical tension between “what is” and attempts to bring about “what ought to be.” History progresses toward ever more perfect stages by constantly aiming at what reason determines to be “what ought to be.” Marx took from Hegel the notion that a true grasp of the present must be tied to a political imperative to change it. The change, of course, must be for the benefit of all, more specifically for those suffering injustices, those being oppressed by the powerful with control of the sources of capital. For him evil was found in the economic system that benefits only a few. Like Labor Zionism, Marxism suffered major compromises when applied in the real world. Soviet communism and national liberation movements did not bring about a promised land from which no one suffered exclusion and all citizens enjoyed the good of the earth equally. Marx’s idea that nationalism was only a temporary stage in the path toward a world that was peaceful, prosperous and just was soon abandoned by those who gained power. Communism floundered under the weight of those who could not resist the temptation of privileges. Still, as communism has become discarded, the Marxist identification of evil in historically systemic economic abuses has not lost its appeal.
With the tools developed by Karl Marx for the study of history, Liberation Theology characterized its task to bring about a utopian society. It sought to transfer the subject of theology from an otherworldly universe to the concreteness of historical human life. To achieve its task, Liberation Theology identified itself with the politics of the left. While some Liberation theologians keep their distance from political parties, many have committed themselves to a political party, whether aiming to achieve power or already in power, thus losing their prophetic voice. As the prophets of ancient Israel had amply demonstrated, the prophet must be the conscience of those in power. They cannot become acolytes in the exercise of power.
Ultra-right Christianity in the United States is the latest example of a nationalistic vision with manuals for ending evil in the world. It idealizes the origins of the nation as a white, Protestant, patriarchal utopia. In order to bring back the American Promised Land, these Christian movements seeks to climb the “seven molders” – or “mountains” – of influence. They seek to have controlling influence in government, business, education, the media, the arts and entertainment, family and religion. According to the voter guides these Christians distribute in churches, the Bible is opposed to gun regulations, the Affordable Care Act, tax increases, public assistance and climate change. It supports patriarchy, sex within heterosexual marriage and assistance to the poor only through church channels. According to the Christian Reconstructionist movement, the United States is a Redeemer Nation, chosen by God to be an orthodox Christian republic where women are subordinate to men, education is in the hands of orthodox Christians and no one pays taxes to support the poor. It is difficult to understand how in a world engulfed in natural, economic and political crises, nationalistic chauvinism is on the ascendancy both on the left and on the right.
The past, the future, or among you?
Since its very beginnings, Christianity has been divided. There are those who, like Peter and the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem, see Christianity as a purified Judaism, and look at the past in material terms. From that perspective, they envision a future that would be the perfect re-installment of the Garden of Eden. Their future is one which places a premium on their ideological commitments and promises a rich enjoyment of the good of the land. Then, there are those Christians who, like Paul, look at the past very differently. They don’t see themselves as the biological descendants of Abraham who, to establish their identity and belong to the elect, must be “circumcised.” They see themselves as the spiritual descendants of Abraham, the father of all those who have faith in the power and the justice of God.
According to Paul, the problem of history is not to be resolved in a future utopia. Unlike other apocalypticists, he did not envision the future as the time when God would finally reveal his justice and intervene in human affairs. According to him, God has already revealed his justice (Rom. 3:21) in the death and the resurrection of Christ. The Gospel gives to those who have faith in God power to live demonstrating God’s power and justice in the Christ Event (Rom. 1:16). This power allows them to live faithfully in an imperfect world.
Paul believed God created the world with perfect freedom. His creation, however, has fallen under the power of sin and death. As a result, Satan is now “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). Still, God has been revealing both his wrath (Rom. 1:18-32) and his righteousness (Rom. 3:21-26). Four times Paul affirms that even in this fallen world, God’s justice is at work so that the purpose for which he created the world is being accomplished (Rom. 3:3; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:18; 1 Th. 5:24). He states this declaring that “God is faithful” to his promise. The flourishing of human life can only be accomplished on the basis of faith in the faithfulness of the God who promised life not just to the biological descendants of Abraham, but to all the descendants of Adam who exercise faith. The normal divisions established within the fallen world on the basis of ethnicity (Jew/Greek), economic status (slave/free) or gender (male/female, Gal. 3:28) do not apply in the New Creation brought about by the Spirit at the resurrection of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6; 5:17). The power of the Gospel aims to combat all the artificial divisions humans have instituted in their cultures. Our inhumanity towards each other is the cosmic problem of history. Unfortunately, quite often religious people support their ideologies by excluding and dehumanizing fellow humans.
Paul affirms that in God’s view humanity has no divisions. God “shows no partiality” (Rom. 2:11). Utopia is not an earthly safe place disconnected from the world. God’s justice is not to be revealed in a Jerusalem with streets of gold and pearly gates. It is already being revealed in the communities of those who live as members of the body of Christ, having participated in his death under the powers of sin and death (1 Cor. 2:8), and having been raised to life “in Christ” by the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead (Rom. 6:8-11). The blessing God gave Abraham had all nations in view (Gen. 12:3; Rom. 4:16). The children of Abraham are those from all nations who, like Abraham, believe in the power and the faithfulness of God (Gen. 15:6). As a result, they also view an undivided humanity.
According to Paul, the trinity of God, the Son and the Spirit is matched by the trinity of faith, hope and love (Rom. 5:1-5). With faith in God, his actions in the death and resurrection are appropriated. With hope the future with Christ is actualized. Faith and hope, however, need to be transposed from the realm of the mind to the realm of the body. The Spirit provides the power to realize the work of God by living as expressions of God’s love, performing God’s justice by loving not only neighbors but also enemies. By the power of the Spirit who raised them to life “in the Spirit,” and guides them in a life empowered by the Gospel, the children of Abraham live in eschatological communities where no one is an “Other.” No doubt, Paul thought the future was an imminent Parousia, but he does not envision it as the arrival of utopia. The life of those who die and live “in Christ” is life “in the Spirit.” Its future is the fullness of life in a “spirit body” (1 Cor. 15:44), with “no place” references needed. The Parousia makes it possible for humans “to be always with the Lord” (1 Th. 4:17). That is all.
The author of the gospel according to Luke, who rescued Paul from obscurity in his Acts of the Apostles, reported a saying of Jesus: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk. 17:20-21). The ultimate demonstration of the justice of God is not to be a future utopia. It is already occurring as a powerful force in the lives of communities that, being the earthly body of Christ, make the Risen Christ present and active in the midst of societies even now. The Gospel, Paul makes clear, does not function in the realm of knowledge. Its power operates in the realm of being. Those who have faith in God are known for how they express their being as agents of the love of God for his world (Jn. 3:16).
- I owe my descriptions to Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Bloomsbury Publishers, 2020. ↑
Dr. Herold Weiss is a scholar and author living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. His latest book is The End of the Scroll: Biblical Apocalyptic Trajectories.