The nature, cause and consequence of evil.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
This is a passage which is helpful as we come to the first Sunday in Lent. It forces us to examine ourselves. It tells us about the nature of evil, the cause of evil and the consequence of evil.
1. The nature of evil.
We like to think of evil as something that is out there that happens to relatively good people like me. Evil is in those uncontrolled forces: natural disasters (floods), sickness, death. It is in those few people who do really appalling things – the Hitlers, Ceaucescus, Fred Wests of this world.
But the stark reality is that evil is not out there. It is in here.
I was struck by an illustration that I read. A man called Key Warren visited Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. He writes,
“The first time I visited Rwanda, I went looking for monsters, albeit a different category of monster—the kind that isn't relegated to B movies. I had heard about the 1994 genocide that had left one million people dead—tortured, raped, viciously murdered—and somehow I thought it would be easy to spot the perpetrators. I naïvely assumed I would be able to look men and women in the eyes and tell if they had been involved. I was full of self-righteous judgment.
What I found left me puzzled, confused, and ultimately frightened. Instead of finding leering, menacing creatures, I met men and women who looked and behaved a lot like me. They took care of their families, went to work, chatted with their neighbours, laughed, cried, prayed, and worshiped. Where were the monsters? Where were the evildoers capable of heinous acts? Slowly, with a deepening sense of dread, I understood the truth: There were no monsters in Rwanda, just people like you and me.”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
So what is this evil?
Simply - evil is the rejection of the command of God. It is rebellion against God.
God says to Adam and Eve, ‘Don’t eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. They eat it.
Evil happens when God says, ‘Don’t do it’ and we do it. It is when God says, ‘Do that’, and we don’t do that.
James writes, ‘If you know the good you ought to do and don’t do it, you sin’. (James 4:17)
There is a great deal of discussion about what the tree of the knowledge of the good and evil stands for.
Most commentators say that it represents knowledge of everything, the good and the bad. And it was a knowledge which could be obtained - albeit in a wrong way - by eating the fruit of the tree.
That is certainly how the serpent presented it to Adam and Eve. It said that if they ate of the fruit they would then know good and evil, and they would be like God.
However I would like to suggest an alternative reading. It is not an interpretation I found in any of the commentaries I read, so I offer it with extreme caution. I just wonder whether the tree is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because, by putting the tree in the garden, and giving them the command not to eat of the fruit of that tree, God has already given them the knowledge of good and evil. There is no difference between the fruit of this tree and the fruit of any of the other trees in the garden, of which they can eat. It is simply that with this tree, he gives them the freedom to decide to obey him or disobey him: the freedom to do good or to do evil.
So when the serpent tells them that if they eat the fruit of the tree they will know good and evil, it was a lie. It was not eating the fruit that would enable them to know good and evil. Because of the tree and because of the command, they already knew about the choice between good and evil.
To reject the command and eat the fruit – because it involved rejecting the command of God - was the evil.
To obey the command and not to eat the fruit was the good.
Evil occurs when we do not do what God wants us to do, or when we do what God does not want us to do. It is very simple.
2. The cause of evil
a) Evil happens when we stop trusting in the goodness of God.
If we trust that God is God, that he is on our side, that we are beloved adopted sons and daughters, and that God really wants the best – then even if we don’t understand a command, we will still do it.
When you go to the doctor and complain of a problem, and the doctor tells you to take some tablets, you take them. You take them even if they taste awful – because you trust that the doctor knows what she is saying. But if you begin to doubt her competency, or if you begin to doubt whether she does really want to see you get better, then you will probably stop taking them.
So the serpent questions the goodness of God.
It says to the woman: ‘You will certainly not die. .. God knows that when you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’.
In other words it is saying that the reason God gave you this mysterious command not to eat the fruit of this particular tree is because God doesn’t want you to become like him. He is jealous of you. There is something in that garden, says the serpent, that God is keeping from you.
Evil begins with a wrong view of God; it begins with a wrong theology.
That is why the Ten Commandments begin with a statement about God and the command to worship God. ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other Gods but me’. Do you see what he is saying? He is saying, ‘I’m the God who is on your side. I rescued you from slavery. I did amazing things for you. So you can trust me.’
It is why, for example, in most of Paul’s letters, the first half of the letter is about God, about who he is and what he has done – and what he has done for us. Paul then goes on to say, in the second half, ‘in the light of that, live like this’.
Romans 12:1 is the classic statement: ‘Therefore.. in view of God’s mercy [which is what he has spent the first 11 chapters writing about], offer your bodies as a living sacrifice’.
It is why theology matters. We need to get the mind – our thinking about God - right first. And when our knowledge of God gets twisted or perverted, then evil begins to take over.
When we doubt the goodness of God, we begin to doubt the goodness of what God says, especially if we don’t fully understand why God has given us certain commands:
[Why can’t I choose which God to worship? Isn’t it a human right?
Why is he so phased if I use his name as a swear word? Is God a bit sensitive? Can’t he chill out a bit? What about freedom of speech.
Why shouldn’t I work as many days as I like, when I want? The economy needs it, there are bills to pay, and we want to go on that holiday.
Why should I bother about my parents or their generation? Life is busy and they understand. And the previous generation got us in the mess that we are today.
Why can’t I get rid of those people who stand in my way – especially if nobody else sees or I can get away with it?
Why shouldn’t I have sex with who I want, whenever I want, in whatever way I want? It’s my body. I can do what I like with it. And if they’re up for it ..
Yes, I agree that stealing is not great, but what is the harm in taking stuff from the big boys, from people like Tesco or the Inland Revenue? They won’t miss it, and they’re making big enough profits from screwing little people like me.
Why shouldn’t I say something that isn’t completely true about someone? What’s wrong with a bit of exaggeration? They said stuff about me which was much worse.
Why shouldn’t I want what my colleague’s got? It’s a free world. And anyway I know that their partner fancies me – and if they’d be happier with me... It’s a free world.]
There are two ways of looking at the commands of God.
The first way is to look at them and to say, ‘The God who made us and loves us gave us these commands. I can begin to see the wisdom behind them, but even if I don’t fully understand why, he is still God and I trust him that they are for good. So I will obey him’.
The second way is to look at them through serpent shaped spectacles. God? Does he exist? Does he care? How do you know what he thinks? These aren’t his commands; they were written by prejudiced men from a long gone past. They are a challenge to my freedom to be whoever I want to be, and to do whatever I want to do.
So the first cause of evil is when we question the goodness and the love of God.
But there is a second cause of evil:
b) Our wrongly directed desires cause us to commit evil
The devil questions the goodness of God. He then lets human desires take over.
'When Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate'.
All three things are good. They are about the physical needs of the body, the longing for beauty and the pursuit of knowledge.
But when we let our desires rule our head and our wills we are in trouble.
We allow the things that we crave, the things that give us physical satisfaction, to shape and direct our lives – whether that is food or alcohol, drugs, the pursuit of money or stuff, pornography or sex. And they will destroy our relationship; and they will destroy us.
James writes again: 'What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight' (James 4:4)
And the desire for beauty - whether in art, music, things or people - can also end up controlling our lives. It is a precious servant but a tyrannical lord. If we put that desire first, before what God has said, it will lead to evil, to our own destruction, and the destruction of others.
And the desire for the pursuit of knowledge can again become something so destructive, if it is not brought under the authority of God. we have seen how destructive a headlong pursuit of knowledge can be. We see it in a Hiroshima or Nagasaki; in the use of chemical weapons on the Kurds or Syrian opposition; we see it in the proliferation of some GM crops when we simply can’t know what the long term consequences are going to be.
We’re like 7 year old kids who have been told that we can’t watch a particular film. ‘You’re not old enough’. But someone at school tells us it is really great, that it has got some really good stuff in it, and that they don’t want you to watch it because they’re really mean.
And so we secretly watch it – and for weeks afterwards we have nightmares. We’ve got the knowledge, but we don’t have the maturity to handle it.
So the root of evil begins to get a deep grip on our lives as we doubt the goodness of God and as we let our desires control us.
That is why Lent, as a time for self-examination, can be so helpful. We consciously use this time to look again at our desires, to prayerfully thinking through whether we are in control of our desires, or whether our desires are in control of us. And the simplest way to discover that is to see whether, for the sake of God for a period, we are able to give something up.
3. The consequence of evil
Everything that the serpent says is shown to be a lie.
'You will not die'. They do not die physically there and then. But that which was life in them does die. They will be cast out of the garden, and they will know death.
'You will be like God knowing good and evil'. Well they do experience first-hand knowledge of the consequence of evil. But they certainly do not become like God.
'Your eyes will be opened'. Their eyes are opened: not because they discover the secret of the knowledge of good and evil. As we’ve said, God had already given them that.
Instead they see themselves and they see the other in a new way. They discover shame: the shame of having believed a serpent (a wild animal); the shame of having listened to the lies about God; the shame of having been led astray by their desires; and the shame of having been caught out.
And they cover up.
This is not some ancient storyteller trying to explain the origin of clothes. This is about something much more significant, much deeper.
Before, they were known in their nakedness to each other.
Now there is something between them.
Before they knew each other completely – they knew each other’s thoughts and motives. They knew the other’s heart. Now they don’t.
Before they had been led by trust in God and obedience to him. Now they are led by the unpredictability of their desires.
Before they were two as one. Now they begin to blame the other: ‘She made me do it’. And Mars and Venus declared war on each other.
And we are told in the next few verses that they even hide from God. Having deliberately disobeyed him, they cannot face him. And because they, because we, can’t face him – we believe the other lies about him: that he has no power – he does not act, that he doesn’t speak, and that he doesn’t exist. And that sounds good to us, at least for a while, because if the God out there does not exist, then we are ultimately answerable to nobody and we can do exactly as our desires, the god in here, guides us.
Evil is a denial of life and a denial of reality. It is the greatest ostrich act of all time. It is when we LIVE backwards. You will realise that EVIL is LIVE the wrong way round.
It happens when we direct our life away from God rather than toward God. When we believe the lies rather than the truth about God. When we think it is all about my freedom to do what I want.
This is the root of the human problem. We’re all part of it. This is the beginning of the stuff that lead to the genocide in Rwanda. And this is the problem that the rest of the bible, and ultimately Good Friday and Easter, sets out to solve.