Very few people – at least Westerners – would be unaware of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man just found guilty of kidnapping, rape, murder and a host of other atrocities committed against his own family. He is routinely called a monster, an ogre and an animal.
What he did simply raises once again the problem of evil. Why do such things happen? From whence comes such horrific evil? Why is evil such a perennial problem? What is the origin of evil? Such questions have been debated for millennia now.
Of course one’s worldview will greatly colour how one answers these questions. The Judeo-Christian worldview deals with these issues in ways that often radically differ from other worldviews. Yet most people seem to have a view on these matters. Even the secular press attempts to weigh into this topic on occasion.
There was an opinion piece in today’s Age, reprinted from the Telegraph in the UK. Entitled “Evil, but chillingly ordinary,” it was written by one George Pitcher. Since no description of him was given, a quick Google check reveals that he is the paper’s Religion Editor as well as an Anglican priest.
It is rare for a fully biblical presentation on such issues to appear in the MSM, so I had a read of his column to see what he had to say. It was a somewhat disappointing affair, remarkable as much for what it did not say as what it did.
As an Anglican priest, one would expect certain things to be discussed. But they were not. While God is mentioned a few times, Jesus is never mentioned. While evil is discussed frequently, the word ‘sin’ never appears. While several contemporary writers are cited, the Bible is never once invoked.
Of course one can only do so much in a 1000-word article, and a Christian writer needs to be somewhat cautious when writing for the secular press. Yet he is the religious affairs writer after all, and he is a priest, so one would expect him to present some biblical truths here. Yet that is mostly missing.
What he seemed to say was mainly true: we should not really be so surprised at evil. Evil runs throughout humanity. He rightly notes that it is unhelpful to make a false separation here: we normal people versus those evil people. Anyone can be capable of such great evil.
But he goes wrong in several key places. Consider this paragraph: “Another comforting, but ultimately unhelpful, explanation is to blame the devil; it’s the cloven-hooved Old Nick who came and claimed Fritzl. This is a different sort of beast, and he — and the fear of him — is as old as humankind. The Evil One really took hold of our civilised consciousness through the Greek world’s promotion of a dualism in human nature, the Hellenistic view that our spirit was separate from our worldly flesh. The idea of two competing deities, one evil and one infinitely good, is inadequate for a modern theological world view.”
It was C.S. Lewis who warned that we can commit two mistakes about the devil: one is to be obsessed with him, or caricature him as Pitcher has done. The other is to ignore him altogether, and deny his existence. The Bible does not allow these options. There is a very real agent of evil, who is personal and powerful.
However the devil is not co-equal and co-eternal with God. That belief, known as dualism, is not the biblical presentation. And we must not absolve ourselves of personal responsibility by merely claiming, “The devil made me do it”. But Satan is a reality we must not dismiss. Thus we have a quite unsatisfactory discussion of the issue here by George Pitcher.
Another unhelpful paragraph reads thus: “Man without God may look very much like Fritzl. Those of no faith, or with faith in humanism, secularists, agnostics and atheists will bridle at this thesis, to put it mildly, and rightly so. We don’t need some God, they will counter, to lead loving, fruitful and moral lives. And they are evidently right: lack of faith doesn’t make you a Fritzl. If it did, the world would harbour many more dark and secret cellars.”
Why as a Christian is he willing to concede so much ground to the secularists? Sure, a non-Christian may not end up acting out the evil of Fritzl. But that misses the point. The Bible makes it quite clear that we are all sinners, and we are all deeply contaminated by evil. It is only because objective morality exists – because a moral God exists – that we can even talk about good and evil.
God’s common grace, the institution of the state, and the moral influence of the church, are all means by which God keeps evil in check. But the doctrine of original sin must not be ignored here. This teaching does not say we are all as evil as we possibly can be – although someone like Fritzl moves us in that direction – but that sin has impacted every part of us.
To illustrate this, let me briefly mention another case of evil in the news – albeit of a lesser scale. Former Federal Court Judge Marcus Einfeld was found guilty of lying, and was recently sentenced for this crime. He has just come out with an apology, admitting he lied, but he also said, “I don’t think I’m the slightest bit dishonest”. The biblical picture says we sin because we are sinners, not that we are sinners because we sin. We all tend to have a much higher view of ourselves than Scripture allows.
The good news of the Gospel makes no sense unless first predicated upon the bad news of sin. It is exactly because we are all sinners and unable to help ourselves out of the mess that we are in that Jesus came. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And Jesus makes it clear that we are all sinners, we are all sick.
Pitcher is right to stress that human freedom makes the evil of Fritzl possible. But by not fully spelling out the biblical picture of man’s dilemma, he leaves us with a puzzling and incomplete picture. Indeed, plenty of non-Christians could make a similar sort of case. Even non-believers are happy to say, “There but for the grace of God go I”.
Since Pitcher was limited to 1000 words, I should be too. The biblical discussion of sin and evil is of course nuanced and complex. I cannot fully explicate it here. But being faithful to the biblical version of events means that we must not omit key components. And two of the biggest components which are unfortunately omitted in this article are that of sin, and a saviour.
These twin truths may not offer detailed answers to every specific case of evil, but they present the big picture as to why evil exists, and what God in Christ has done about it.