Evil and How the Cross of Christ Overcomes It: Thoughts about the One Perfect Simple Triune God rescuing the rebellious, foolish, and mostly immature lot of folks known as humankind. Or reflection on the cross. Or Soul Odyssey.

A former professor and dear friend often asked students who were not paying attention in his theology classes, “What are you going to say when some child asks you, ‘what was that snake doing in the garden?’” Not that he took a particularly literal view of Genesis; rather he was determined to demonstrate just how high and how low the stakes are when we do theology. The stakes for theology are never any higher or lower than when someone asks about the so-called problem of evil. The stakes are low when someone inquires theoretically about the problem of evil because an answer will involve philosophy and an entanglement of the doctrines of God, grace, theological anthropology, free-will, etc. so as to ensure that the inquirer will neither grasp nor reproduce the answer adequately apart from much reflection. Also, any good answer to
questions about the problem of evil will terminate in some discussion of evil as a surd, as no-thing, and with no actual cause per se. Consequently, a skillful presentation of the question of evil often ends with some amount of befuddlement. Alternatively, the stakes are high when someone asks, “whence and wither evil?” while experiencing it.

The low stakes conversation about the so-called problem of evil begins with some form of the question: How can God be good and omnipotent and evil exist? Then, someone will trot out some tired examples of natural and moral evil such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, or some other disaster, or the Holocaust, or the suffering of children. Then, the conversation might take one of several possible directions. Some folks will cry, “God is dead!” A few of these might take glee in a reductionistic fantasy wherein “good” and “evil” exist as mere constructs of language. But most people are happily inconsistent in navigating the tension between their beliefs and behavior. Others will attempt a theodicy, and concoct various unconvincing arguments about why the vindictive super powerful sky god can do whatever he wants. While kinder and wiser folks know better than to imagine evil is some thing. These folks will ponder classical ideas about the privation theory of evil, about what it means to be human, about consciousness, about what it means for a thing to be a thing, about what it means for God to be, and what to be even means. After this pondering comes a long, generally true, explanation totally lost on most people who want an answer better suited to common sense living. So, often the stakes remain low in any discussion of evil, and the best possible outcome will be to keep a vast majority of the professional theologians away from the people actually suffering.

Alternatively, evil can hurt us. I witnessed a real life instance of grappling with the problem of evil at the age of eleven. One year some time ago, simultaneously, or due to the convergence of my memories, I recall doctors diagnosing two of my cousins with terminal illnesses. One family received news that their son would be born with a hole in his heart and not likely survive birth. The other family observed their seemingly healthy one-year-old decline in mobility, for he had cancer. My cousin born with a hole in his heart defied the odds and lived for six months before dying. Whereas my cousin diagnosed with cancer lives even now. One family held a burial while the other raised their son. Such is life; inexplicable, mysterious, full of sorrow, full of joy, and from a Christian perspective permeated by God’s grace. But in these situations, we feel haunted as if by a forgotten memory that life is not as it should be. Anyone with a scrap of moral intelligence feels injustice when children suffer and die. We call this injustice evil, and to speak about evil in the context of particular suffering means a high stakes conversation whereby people may encounter grace or despair.

Suffering is not intrinsically salvific. The suffering and death of a child does not contribute anything to the meaning of the universe. God does not necessitate evil as a part of his grand plan for the cosmos. Where evil is concerned, everything does not happen for a reason. I would think all of this goes without saying, but when my cousin died several well-meaning and God-fearing Christians said something like, “I know it is hard to understand, but everything happens according to God’s plan.” When someone says something about evil happening according to God’s plan, I can only surmise that the Church has failed to teach and pass on the Christian faith. For the foundation of Christianity resides in the Church proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus, which is a story about God in Christ overcoming and putting an end to evil. Thus, Christian teaching does not explain evil but offers a solution to the problem of evil.

Evil constitutes a problem for humanity, for communities of people, and especially individual people but not for God. None of the authors of Holy Scripture seek to explain evil nor do they attempt to vindicate God from responsibility for evil. Instead, the Scriptures present the work of Christ as the resolution to evil as a human problem, as the problem of this cosmos, even as a
spiritual problem. St. Paul, for example, proclaims the work of Christ as freeing humanity, and all things really, from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). Thus, when the stakes are high, Christians ought to have something to offer those who experience the wound of evil. The Church ought to be a community that proclaims the cross of Christ as a healing salve and as liberation from sin and death. The Gospel, whether expressed in its distilled Pauline form wherein Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection frees humanity from bondage to sin (Rom. 6-8) or in its longer narrative forms recounted by the Evangelists, tells a compelling story about God rescuing the cosmos from evil.

The story of our rescue begins with our present situation. Whence and wither evil? Scripture only hints at how our current predicament came to be in the language of myth. Myth, in this case, means a form of language that references and makes sense of some otherwise incomprehensible realm. Just because a story is a myth does not mean it cannot be true. In fact, some of the deepest truths can only be communicated indirectly by mythic narrative. Thus begins the book of Genesis describing human existence in this present age. Genesis 1-11, does not record the history of man’s fall but describes the reality of the fallen world. Accordingly, the fall does not reference some event in time, but the only Christian way of making sense of humanity’s alienation from God, a universe defined by predation, and ultimately sin, death, and evil.1 Perhaps, David Bentley Hart describes this ahistorical fall best as “an ancient alienation from God that has wounded creation in its uttermost depths and reduced cosmic time to a shadowy vestige of the world God truly intends.”2 Fallenness, then, describes our present situation as one of distorted understanding about ourselves, the world, and God’s purpose in creation.

Yet, because of Jesus Christ, fallenness cannot wholly describe our present situation. Fallenness remains an apt description of the only cosmos we know, but the work of Christ provides a larger narrative context for this fallen world. As Christ reveals the truth about us and the world, we recognize evil as the perversion and privation of the fullness of God revealed in Jesus. He defines what is most true, most real, and essentially durable about God’s creation. Evil does not have the last say about us; God in Jesus ultimately defines us. God reveals authentic creation in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, the cross especially marks the event in which the distorted values of this present age unmask themselves as the fallen demonic powers and principalities. Simultaneously the cross reveals the glory of God. The distorted values of this present age consist in the illicit desire for control at whatever cost. The cost usually manifests itself in murderous violence. The ethic of this present age can be summed up: return evil unto evil, hate your enemy, and secure your life in this world no matter what it takes. In stark contrast, God reveals his glory in an ethic that can be summed up: love your enemy (Mt. 5:43-4); Lk. 6:27) and do not repay evil for evil (Rom. 12:17-21).3 We might expect the Lord to annihilate this present evil age, the world, and all of us with it, but whatever vengeance he reserves for himself he expresses as the suffering servant casting out evil and healing us by his own woundedness (Isa. 53:5). Thus, we cannot make sense of our fallenness by measuring how far we have fallen, evil has no explanation, so we must make sense of our present state in terms of redemption.

In his death and resurrection, Christ overcomes evil, this evil age, and the evil within us. We do not need a theodicy. We do not need an argument to vindicate God of evildoing. We need salvation. We all must traverse this fallen world engulfed by darkness, and we only do so safely according to the Light that has come into the world, Jesus Christ. Truly each of us has already embarked upon an odyssey toward our true home. But I do not mean Heaven. Rather God beckons us from the cross of Christ to be made fully human, which is to say divinized made in the image and likeness of himself. Thus, Christ both saves us from this present evil age and makes us the place of his salvation in the world, specifically as the community of the church. Salvation from evil occurs within us when our lives become transformed by the ethic of the cross. Our odyssey in this life, then, means understanding ourselves according to our true creation revealed in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Indeed, God saves us, and all things, by forming us into a people and a community who live according to the ethic of the cross. Therefore, when the stakes are high and evil confronts us in the particulars of everyday life, we must respond by embodying Jesus’ ethic of the cross. We must do good rather than evil. We must bless rather than curse. We must respond in love. Evil is not a thing to be destroyed but an affliction to be healed. The answer to the question of evil, then, is not an explanation but the cruciform life of Christ’s followers.

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

1Jordan Daniel Wood in The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor, pp. 155-169, argues some patristic theologians such as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximos the Confessor taught a “prehistorical” fall.

2David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami, p. 22. For further reading about the Fall as ahistorical, see Jesse Hake’s article shared by Aiden Kimel, at Eclectic Orthodoxy, and Kimel’s response.

3 Robert Doran develops Bernard Lonergan’s notion that the “Law of the Cross” transforms evil into the “supreme good.” in The Trinity in History: A Theology of the Divine Missions (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2012), 227-258. Doran’s insights have heavily influenced my own thought about how the cross of Christ constitutes authentic human subjectivity and ultimately authentic communities.

The Satanic Scandal Versus the Scandal of the Cross

In the Bible, both Jesus and Satan are skandalon, or stumbling stones. The scandal or offense, entraps, snares, obstructs, and causes a fall. It is translated as “cause for stumbling,” “cause of sin,” “difficulty,” “hindrance,” “hindrance in the way,” “make fall,” “pitfall,” “stumbling block,” “temptation,” or “temptation to sin.” The Psalms often revolve around those who would kill by laying their snares (Ps. 38:12), setting a hidden trap (Ps. 140:5), and the trap setters imagine they are hidden (“Who can see us?” (Ps. 64:5)), and this is equated with being an evildoer (Ps. 141:9). Intermixed with all this trap setting is the fact of human desire acting to lure one into the trap, thus Saul uses his daughter Michal as a lure for David (1 Sam. 18:21), Joshua warns that the Canaanites, their idols and presumably intermarrying with them, will be a snare (Josh. 23:13), and so too God warns “their gods shall be a snare” and they shall “become adversaries to you” (Judg. 2:3).[1]

Idolatry is equated with a form of prostitution, and the idols play the role of harlots entrapping worshippers in a deadly embrace (e.g., Ez. 16). The obstacle cause of desire, whether idols, gold, golden idols, sex objects, or golden-phallic-idols, consist of giving a divine like status to an obstacle (the obstacle to true divinity). The idol is a scandal, because it simultaneously takes on a divine role and becomes an obstacle to God. The false transcendence gives rise to an exponential desire, which makes the idol “the quintessential scandal, in the Old Testament,” according to René Girard.[2] Entrapment due to desire, whether unleashed by idols or sex objects – which are often equated by the prophets, indicates that human lust plays a deadly role, creating the skandolon.

Idols are a scandal for the Jews but so are Yahweh (e.g., Is. 8:14-15) and Jesus (Matt. 21:42-43). Falling over either sort of scandal causes an exposure, a failure, or a point of shame. The scandal exposed in idolatry concerns the exponential nature of human desire – it is beyond being satisfied and is inherently deceived. That is, there is no end of this pursuit and no gaining what is sought (Ezekiel 23); thus, it is portrayed as deadly in a three-fold sense: it leads to child sacrifice; it imagines death or the grave (what has no life) can give life; it is connected to shame (a living death). Paul equates works of the law, love of money, or simply greed, with idolatrous desire (Col. 3:5-11; Eph. 5:5; Gal. 4:9) and the Christian who would do such things is annulling the scandal of the cross: “Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished” (Gal. 5:11). Every phase of the life and death of Jesus might be equated with a form of scandal: his encounters with the scribes and Pharisees, his teachings and parables, but most significantly the cross is a scandal (I Cor. 1:23). To miss the key role of the skandalon is to miss the significance of Christ.

The competition between the one whose head is crushed and the one whose heel is bruised (Gen. 3:15) involves all of human history and all humanity. That is, the satanic scandal is not nonhuman but, as in the story in Genesis 3, it is the offense of the autonomous human world, presumed as sufficient (the knowledge of good and evil, the idol, the law, etc.). The provenance of this mysterious serpent, linked to satan (perhaps not Satan, but the satan(s)), is of the earth, and the poison he imparts, John sums up as a singular deadly presumption: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16-17). The term “cosmos,” which depicts a closed world, is John’s word for capturing this world of lust or desire, which prides itself on the presumption of life. This is of the world – it is earthly and human in its origins and end. This pride of life describes the original temptation, but is the ongoing presumption that life is “my” possession, while simultaneously in the “lust of the eyes” and the “lust of the flesh” the object of desire (life, being, substance) is lacking.

The role of the serpent is not mentioned by either John or Paul, and yet both seem to be referring directly to the Genesis account. In Romans (7:7), the law models desire or plays the serpents role, in giving rise to desire. For John, love of the cosmos gives rise to the lust of the eyes. Like the serpent which appears from the earth and disappears into dust, this desire is earth bound in its instigation and pursuit. To assign a metaphysical reality to this serpent may be to miss the nature of the scandal. Lust and desire arise around the illusion that the object of desire, be it the idol, money, or some desirous other, can impart substance (life, wisdom, being). The turn to violence to extract this substance from the blood of Abel, the blood of Joseph, or the blood of Christ, is the end point of this obsessive desire.

The scandalous lie, in Isaiah and which Paul takes up in Romans, depicts the rulers of Jerusalem entering into a pact with Sheol (the place of the dead) or a “covenant with death.” This is to make “falsehood” a refuge and it is to attempt to hide behind a deception (Is. 28:14-15). Paul repeats this accusation when comparing faith and works pitting faith (the true refuge) against the law (a lying refuge): “but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law.  Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” The human race, in the image of Isaiah (repeated by Peter and Paul) have entered a covenant with death, and Christ has annulled the covenant and its effects: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be put to shame” (Rom. 9:31-33; Is. 28:16). The Romans, like the Galatians, are being lured by a false teacher to trust in the law; to locate life in their doing of the law, rather than in Christ.  Paul fuses two passages from Isaiah, to picture the singular stone as both tripping up those who are “missing the law,” bringing them to shame, while those who have faith (trust in this scandalous stone), will not be put to shame.

The cross is a scandal, in light of the presumed self-sufficiency (of the Genesis lie, of the covenant with death, or the doing of the law), as it exposes the scandalous lie denying the reality of death and desire. This spiritual battle is not devoid of flesh and blood, but culminates when the one who is lifted up casts out the prince of this world, and as a result all of humanity is drawn to the crucified (John 12:32). It is the “lifting up” which reveals Jesus’ identity as the “I am” (YHWH): “So Jesus said, ‘When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He’” (John 8:28). Here is the realization of Isaiah, that through the “lifted up” servant “you may know and believe that I AM” (Isa. 43:10; 52:13). This lifting up is a saving revelation, applied from “In the beginning” of John: “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5). The darkness of the cross is the end point of the satanic scandal, as the cross reverses and exposes the scandal. The stone of stumbling has become the corner stone of a new living temple (I Peter 2:4-8).

The interplay is between the scandalous lie and the scandalous truth in regard to death, with the stone of stumbling or the scandal serving as either headstone or cornerstone.

[1] The list is from David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, Story, and Offense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) 8.

[2] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978), 421.