Melvin Tinker is Vicar of St John's Newland in Hull and was previously Anglican chaplain at Keele University. He has previously written for Themelios on such subjects as Jesus in Christian Ethics; The Purpose of Pain; Last Supper/Lord's Supper: More than a Parable in Action.
A mother in South Carolina fastened her two children snugly into their safety belts, only to sink the car in the river in order to restore a romantic interest with a man who wanted her but not the kids. An upper-middle class college couple in New Jersey, Brian Peterson and Amy Grossberg, delivered a child in a motel room, then bashed its head and dropped it in a dumpster. Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer, submerging himself in cannibalism and necrophilia. The Milwaukee jury who tried him concluded that he was not insane - he was just evil.
What does the face of evil look like? A red-eyed Hannibal Lecter peering at us from the shadows? No. It looks like the young couple down the street, the old man next door, the girl on the checkout, the lecturer in the university; in other words, it looks like you and me.
The fact is, people in the West are in deep trouble. Not simply because such events which appal us are taking place with increasing frequency, such that in the USA from 1985-1991 the number of 16 year-olds arrested for murder rose 158%; the number of 15 year-olds rose 217% the number of thirteen and fourteen year-olds rose 140% and the number of 12 year-olds 100%. Rather, we are in trouble in that we have a crisis in finding a category by which to explain such things. What used to be described as evil is now not simply being explained, but is in danger of being explained away. can we honestly say evil exists as a moral category any more? Is it not it just something else like 'sickness'? Is there such a thing as pure evil?
As evangelical Christians we are being presented with an evangelistic opportunity to engage in a thoughtful apologetic in order to enable a secular society to recognise that it is intellectually bankrupt and has no substantial answer to the question of evil. What is proposed in this paper is an exposé of two of the most common attempts to deal with
the issue and then to turn to the book of Ecclesiastes and some related NT passages in order to provide a different framework within which to critically consider the matter of 'pure evil'.
This is the view that everything is to be understood in terms of material cause and effect. The whole of existence is a result of impersonal, blind chance - with a capital C. This is the working assumption of most TV programmes. Here the presupposition is that there is no great mind behind the universe and no ultimate purpose either - only mere mechanism. Whatever sense we have of 'right and wrong' does not reflect any objective universal moral standards - at best it is an evolutionary device to ensure the survival of the species. Putting it crudely, this means that a society which is well ordered and where people care for each other is more likely to produce the conditions conducive for survival - the passing on of our genetic material to the next generation - than one in which chaos and butchery reign.
Assume that this description of reality is correct, that as Jean Paul Sartre said - 'here we are all of us eating and drinking to preserve our precious existence, and there is nothing, no reason for existing'. Then what?
Then we are left living in a universe without morality. One person who saw the consequences of this with remarkable clarity and conveyed it through his writings was the Marquis de Sade. If nature is all there is, he argued, then whatever is, is right. There is no 'ought' - one cannot say one should or should not do certain things because they are right or wrong. The moral category simply collapses into the factual category - the 'ought' becomes the 'is'. For him the consequence was his cruelty from which he derived sexual pleasure. He wrote in La Nouvellelustine (1791-97): 'As nature has made us (the men) the strongest, we can do with her (the woman) whatever we please.' And he did, hence our term, sadism.
If one were to reply that 'society defines right and wrong, what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour', it would be possible to turn around and say 'So what?' But which society are we talking about? Nazi society? Marxist society? Headhunting society? Society itself is a product of blind, meaningless chance. Its so-called judgements are ultimately meaningless and are more often than not the imposition of the will of those who have power. Indeed after de Sade, the one philosopher who saw that power is all there is left if 'God is dead' was Nietzsche. In the 1880s he proclaimed himself the 'immoralist', 'the antichrist', the 'conqueror of God'. In his Will to Power he said: 'The world is the will to power - and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power - and nothing besides.' Despite protestations to the contrary, Nietzsche's influence on National Socialism is manifestly evident. Might is right.
However the view that there is no external morality, only what we construct ourselves and that nature is all there is, has taken some in another direction which is hard to refute if we are going to be consistent. Ingrid Newkirk, the President of People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals compares meat eating to the Nazi holocaust. She says, 'Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion chickens will die here in slaughterhouses.' She also says, 'a rat, is a pig, is a boy'. In other words we are all on the same ethical plane. Strictly speaking if we are nothing but the products of blind, meaningless chance, who can argue with that? We may be more complex than chickens, but who decides that complexity is of a higher value than non-complexity? Evolution? Hardly, that is just an impersonal sifting mechanism and is incapable of making any moral pronouncements.
Here, however we have a problem for this view forces us to raise the question: Where does our moral sense actually come from? One person who has tried to answer this question from within a purely materialistic paradigm is Michael Ruse, in his book, Taking Darwin Seriously. Here he says:
Ruse is saying that morality always carries a feeling of ought - that is where its power comes from. There is, however, no objective grounding for this 'ought' for there is no God or transcendent source of value. Our genes simply play a trick on us so as to ensure the survival of the species through what he calls 'reciprocal altruism' whereby the reproductive success of an individual is increased by helping others - for instance, I see someone drowning, I dive in to help them and one day someone might do the same for me. Or it works by what Ruse calls 'kin selection'. We feel a stronger sense of moral obligation to those of the same blood because this will ensure the passing on of our family genes.
Yet if morality is to be understood simply as a self-preserving device that evolution has thrown up, and therefore a trick to make us think that we are of value, when in fact we are not - after all a cold impersonal universe is valueless - then it only works if we do not recognise it is a trick, if we really do believe there is good and evil, right and wrong. But once we have seen through it, then we can discard it and say - 'If I get pleasure out of killing, I kill. Who cares about the survival of the species? We kill rats. Dinosaurs haven't survived and the universe does not weep. Why should I?' Indeed it works in the opposite direction and the evolutionary trick has over-reached itself, for now it makes sense to ignore its claims upon my conscience. If I realise someone is trying to con me, then I should ignore the con.
Some, like the champion of atheism Richard Dawkins openly admit that the way to answer the problem of evil is to deny its existence outright. So Dawkins writes:
In his thought, Dawkins is being consistent - that is all you are left with if there is no God, just no purpose, no value.
Are we able to live with that? Imagine telling a raped woman that the rapist merely danced to his DNA? Tell the victims of Auschwitz that their tormentors merely danced to their DNA. Explain to the loved ones of those cannibalised by Jeffrey Dahmer that he merely danced to his DNA. Any belief can be argued, even the belief of atheism, but not every belief can be lived. It is ironic that Dawkins added his name to a list of eminent scientists who wrote a letter to the 'Guardian' newspaper in 2002 calling upon the European Union to impose a grants embargo upon Israel because of her behaviour towards the Palestinians. If Dawkins were to be intellectually consistent he would simply have to say that the Israelis are dancing to their own DNA! He may not like the dance, but so what? Some like to tango, some like to waltz. Here determinism merges with relativism.
Sometimes atheists use the existence of evil as an argument against belief in God. One scholar for whom this was a problem was the one time atheist C.S. Lewis. He writes:
In other words, if believing in God causes us problems because of the existence of evil, not believing in God brings with it its own problems too; how do we explain the good and so by way of contrast - evil?
Which brings us to the next attempted explanation of 'evil'.
There is a very important scene in the film Pulp Fiction in which the two main characters Vincent and Jules are on their way to commit a multiple murder contract. As they cruise through Los Angeles, laughing and carefree, they indulge in what appears to be small talk, discussing what hamburgers and quarter-pounders are called in France. 'Royale with Cheese' they joke. 'Is it because they go by the metric system that they have different names?' asks one of them. The point being made is a clever and serious one - what we name things is relative to culture. Words are nothing more than cultural convention. An act or a thing has no intrinsic value. We decide what to call it - the metric system of one is irrelevant to the imperial system of the other. A quarter-pounder with cheese is to one that a royale with cheese is to another. Killing the undefended to one is 'affirming the superior race to another'. Everything is relative.
Another film which spells out the problem of relativism, what is right for you is not necessarily right for me - so don't judge, is a film called The Quarrel. The main characters, Hersh and Chiam grew up together but separated because of a dispute about God and evil. Then came the holocaust and each had thought the other had perished. Reunited by chance after the war, they become embroiled once again in their boyhood quarrel. Hersh, now a Rabbi offers this challenge to his atheist friend Chiam.
And that is correct. If there are no absolutes, then one morality cannot be said to be better or worse than any other - they are just different. Some may prefer say, democratic morality, but then a fascist might prefer Nazi morality and unless there is something beyond them to which they can point and which will adjudicate between them, they cannot even say that Hitler was evil - he was just different, that is all.
Following the pure materialist or the pure relativist, why not abandon any meaningful talk of 'evil' altogether and just speak about sickness, a deviation from the norm? In other words, why not claim that there isn't morality, only therapy?
Thomas Harris posed the question of genuine evil with brutal honesty in his book, Silence of the Lambs. In it the imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter, who cannibalises his victims, is approached by a young FBI agent, Clarice Starling who hopes to draw upon his insight to catch another serial killer who skins his victims called 'Buffalo Bill'.
And part of the conversation goes like this:
In 1973 US psychologist Karl Menninger wrote a book with the intriguing title, Whatever Became of Sin? The notion of evil, argued Menninger, has slid from being 'sin' defined theologically, to being 'crime' defined legally, to being 'sickness' defined only in psychological categories.
However if bad behaviour is reduced to nothing but genetic and environmental forces - 'It's not my fault, judge, it's my glands' - then the idea of blame disappears altogether too. I cannot be blamed for having a limp, so I cannot be blamed for being predisposed towards cannibalism - and we are back to de Sade again who was a determinist. - 'Nature has made me bigger than women, I like to inflict pain on women, I can and so I shall.' But what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, because the notion of 'praise' also vanishes. If the bad things I do - the evil - are due to forces beyond my control, then why not the good? To psychologise everything away is to make us less than human - mere biological machines. (This psychologising away of everything is not the same as saying that there is no such thing as diminished responsibility. For instance being compelled to do something by the use of drugs or hypnotism but even diminished responsibility assumes real responsibility.) We cannot blame a machine for malfunctioning - nor then can we blame humans. When we start thinking of ourselves as machines we will soon treat each other like machines. If a machine is broken and cannot be fixed then we simply get rid of it. So why not people? The door is left wide open for involuntary euthanasia.
Nonetheless, deep down we know that evil exists, that we are responsible for our actions and that it is not simply a matter of whether something has an unpleasant effect on us that we deem it either wrong or evil. If someone accidentally trips us up and we fall down the stairs and are hurt, we may not like it and may think the other person clumsy, but we do not feel anger towards him - as sense of moral indignation, If, however, someone intentionally tries to trip us up and does not succeed, we do feel angry. Why? After all, we are not hurt? The answer is that we believe that people
shouldn't behave like that, it is not fair or right, they should behave differently.
If pure materialism on the one hand and pure relativism on the other do not explain evil, but explain it away, what does provide an explanation? We might say, pure Christianity The account we have of God and reality as we find it in the Bible. We may not have an exhaustive explanation of why things are as they are, but we do have a sufficient explanation, an explanation which rings true.
The question was raised at the beginning of this paper as to whether pure evil exists. Let us consider why it does not.
Evil cannot exist purely for its own sake. It is always parasitic on the good. Take cruelty for example. Why are people cruel? Usually for two reasons: either because they are sadists, that is there is a derived sexual pleasure from inflicting cruelty; or else because of something else they are going to get out of it, power, money, the fulfilment of an ideology (which is often power dressed up).
There is however nothing intrinsically wrong with pleasure, power, or money. In as far as they go we might call them good things. The badness comes in by pursuing them the wrong way or too much. You can be good for the sake of goodness, even when it is of no benefit to yourself, for example laying down your life to save someone else. Though no one ever engaged in cruelty because it is wrong, it was in order to achieve something else - pleasure or power. Goodness is itself, badness is spoilt goodness. We might call sadism sexual perversion, but that presumes normal sex which can be perverted. Greed is the good appetite instinct gone wrong. Laziness is the good rest instinct gone wrong and so on. Now we can see why good and evil are not equal and opposite, the good is primary and superior, the bad is parasitic and derived, evil cannot exist without the good, but good can exist without the evil.
Ecclesiastes - a Different Perspective
The problem with most theodicies (attempts to deal with the problem of evil) both secular and Christian, is that there is a tendency to assume that we have access to all the facts, or enough of the facts so that to allow for an element of mystery and untidiness somehow seems intellectually dishonest or at least deficient. So the name of the game each time is reductionism - pure materialism, pure relativism or some Christianised equivalent. One dominant discordant note in the book of Job is to rebel against the strand of Jewish wisdom which attempted to do the same by seeing all suffering as simply punitive - you suffer because you have sinned. We still have some Christian leaders who in effect operate on the same basis today, 'You suffer because you do not have enough faith.' What Ecclesiastes does is strike out in a slightly different direction at the folly that life 'under the sun' can be fully 'taped' leaving no loose ends. It does this by propounding the view that even wisdom has its limits, that so-called 'keys
to success' are notoriously ill-fitting. There is an underlying thought, sometimes made explicit, that we would be wise to accept the unease that life is messy and has an irreducibly mysterious element at its core. The case is presented that by pursuing a realistic question, against the backdrop of a realistic assessment of life and a realistic understanding of God, we are at a given framework whereby we can grasp a sufficient understanding of the problem of evil and hope for its resolution in the future.
The realistic question we are called to ask, especially in the light of so much trouble and misery in the world, is found in 1:3: 'What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?' What profit is there to life? The word profit (yithron) is found nowhere in biblical Hebrew, in later Hebrew it is used of commercial transactions. It is as we might say the question of what is the 'bottom line?' Is it possible to make life successful (even with wisdom) and make a profit out of it? The answer to that question depends upon the nature of life and how it is to be viewed.
One of the main literary features of Ecclesiastes is the repetition of the key word 'vanity' or 'meaningless'. We need to be careful that we do not impose 21st century existential ideas onto the text. This book is not written by Sartre but by a descendant of David, the Qoheleth, the Preacher. The term 'vanity' appears 38 times. Looking at 1:2 and 12:8 it also constitutes an 'inclusio' - a literary envelope, framing the book. What is life under the sun? It is 'vanity' hebhel, meaning breath or vapour or, as it has been suggested, bubbles! It is the conclusion based upon thoughtful observation by a man whose theology is embedded in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. This is the view that we live in a world that is transitory, elusive and fallen and leaves us feeling dissatisfied. It may not be insignificant that the same word is given to the tragic figure of Abel in Genesis 4.
In other words, there is a moral fault-line running throughout the created world in which we live. Life under the sun is characterised by tragedy, irony, sorrow, evils which do not seem to meet with any tidy resolution in this life. In chapter 3:16 and 17 we read that there is injustice.
And I saw something else under the sun:
It is, however, clear that such judgement does not always come in this life, as those who would hold the view that God blesses the righteous and deals harshly with the
wicked would have us believe: 'There is something else meaningless on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve' (8:14). Evil seems to be pretty undiscriminating - but that is what life in this fallen world under the sun is like. We don't have to apologise for that - like the Qoheleth we had better acknowledge it and face up to it. This does not mean we exchange one false worldview for another: a worldview of endless optimism for a worldview of deep despair. What is recognised instead is that there is still profit, albeit limited and qualified, in wisdom: 'Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun' (7:11).
There is therefore no proper understanding of reality. One which sees the world flawed but still full of goods (like the goods of work, laughter and friendships, cf. ch. 9) and this, in part, is the source of the tension we feel living in this world. One of the other sources of our problem in facing evil and trying to make sense of it is an inadequate understanding of God. As Luther once complained to Erasmus, 'Your thoughts of God are only too human'. Ecclesiastes provides a corrective to that:
Again, against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11, we are presented with a God who is transcendent, yet personal and imminent, sovereign, good and all powerful. This means that there is an inscrutability regarding his ways and purposes and so we must be very careful in our claims that we can read God's providences:
It would appear that much of the motivation and weakness of the 'Openness of God' project can be traced back to precisely this point. In an attempt to defend God of the charge of being bad, he has been reduced to the point of being incompetent. One finds the same in Process Theology, the former being an evangelicalised form of the latter. God might want to make things better, but he really can't. He too has his limits, even limitations in knowledge about the future. For the proponents of the 'Openness of God' project, the tensions within orthodox biblical theology are too difficult to live with and so are relieved at the expense of the 'Goodness' of God.
The existential reality Ecclesiastes points to is the invariable tension which exists between faith and sight in this world and the call for us to acknowledge the evil which exists but without compromising our faith in either God's omnipotence or divine goodness.
What Ecclesiastes does which many theodicies do not do - secular or religious - is to call us to humbly recognise that there is more to reality than that which we experience 'under the sun'. There is the transcendent. This is what will ultimately give life purpose and direction; as we recognise that we are accountable to the One who has made us and sustains us and who will do what is right:
We do not have access to all the facts - many of them are hidden from us, but not to God and his judgement will be made. Everything then is not relative for there is an absolute point of reference. Neither is the material all there is to reality, there are, as Peter Berger would put it, 'signals of transcendence' all around us and one day we shall have to give an account to our Maker who has littered our world with such signals.
We would argue that part of these signals of transcendence is the reality of evil itself. John Chapman, the Australian evangelist, makes the important apologetic point that this is a world suitable for sinners. The discordant nature of reality, its frustrations, its agonies and endless disappointments - the very stuff of Ecclesiastes - reminds us that all is not well between ourselves and our Maker. That is why the Qoheleth ends with the words concerning the importance of fearing God which is the beginning of Wisdom, and obeying the commandments which embody his wisdom. Therefore that which was overthrown and led to evil being introduced into the world, the Word of God, is the only hope we have that evil will be countered and finally destroyed, although that resolution is not found in Ecclesiastes. We are pointed beyond that, within the grand sweep of Scripture to the One in whom we do find some sort of resolution, the Qoheleth par excellence, the one who is greater than Solomon.
Qoheleth, translated teacher, or preacher, has the same root as qahal - assembly or the church, ecclesia, in the Greek, hence our title 'Ecclesiastes'. In Jesus we see the one who is not only known as the teacher, rabbi, but also the one who assembles around himself his own little group, his 'church'. He is also the personification of Wisdom, Jesus Christ is 'our wisdom from God - that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption', says Paul (1 Cor. 1:30). What is more, when we look at the life of this Qoheleth we see and hear pretty much the same frustrations and disappointments as the writer of Ecclesiastes.
In Mark 7:31-37 we have the incident of the healing of the deaf mute by Jesus. What is striking is what we read in verse 34, 'He [Jesus] looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh, said to him, "Ephphatha". The word used for sigh is anastenazo. Why the deep sigh or the groan? Could it not be the audible expression of the deep sense of frustration at the results of sin, decay and misery which is in his Father's creation? In Mark 8 we come across the same verb in response to the evil of unbelief of the Pharisees - verse 12, 'He sighed deeply and said, "Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign?" To make the connection complete, it is the same verb used by Paul in Romans 8:18-25, with its allusion to the vanity of Ecclesiastes, verse 20, 'For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope' and then verse 22, 'We know that the whole creation has been groaning (sunstenaxei) as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.' Does this mean that all we can do is share the frustration of living in a fallen world with everyone else? Not at all, we can be far more positive because of what the Qoheleth par excellence has achieved to defeat evil.
On reading the incident in Mark 7 we see a miracle that is shot through with significance. Mark uses a very rare word in verse 32 to describe the man's speech impediment, mogilalos, which the NIV renders 'Could hardly talk'. It is in fact a word that is taken directly from the Greek translation of Isaiah 35:6 which looks forward to the breaking in of God's reign when everything will be different. It states: 'Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue [mogilalos] shout for joy.'
What is more striking is the response of this non-Jewish pagan crowd when the man goes back to them: 'He has done everything well', they say to each other in utter astonishment. What they didn't realise was that they were claiming more than they knew, for this is the Greek translation of Genesis 1:31: 'God saw all that he had made and it was very good'. The lesson is clear, the very same God who made the world and pronounced it good is the same God who in Jesus is redeeming the world and that too is good. The one who was promised in Isaiah and longed for by the Jews is the very same one who is performing Messianic miracles in the middle of this Gentile crowd. Far from God being indifferent to evil and the suffering it occasions, in his Son he opposes it. This of course is the basis for Christian involvement in medicine and the caring professions, providing the rationale as to why one can fight against sickness and not fight against God.
In his novel, The Plague, Albert Camus confronts the reader with a dilemma. The town of Oran is infested with a plague of rats. It is the doctor who fights against the plague and so, it is viewed, against God, whereas it is the priest who does not take action and so is forced to take an anti-humanitarian stance. The Christian cuts through the dilemma. God is sovereign, but he is also against evil. In Jesus he taken steps to redeem that which is fallen - that is what the miracles point to and what the cross and resurrection achieve (Heb. 2:10-1 5).
Romans 8 follows on from Romans 1-7 and the programmatic presentation of the gospel in which the righteousness of God is displayed in the cross where God did what man could not do. He dealt with the root cause of moral evil in the world - sin; and the ultimate source of frustration - death. 'Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus' (8:1). There is also a future glory to be revealed, marking the removal of all frustration and evil. That is why Paul can write: 'I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed' (8:18). In the meantime God's Spirit has been given to God's people, so that they can be empowered to fight against sin and the sinful nature (8:9-16).
We do not have access to the complete picture and one reason for that, apart from our finitude, is that the drama is not yet complete. All the main events of the drama, bar one - the Lord's return - have already taken place. And that one event is literally going to make all the difference in the world. It is then that the final resolution will take place.
In the meantime our calling is to combat evil in whatever forms we find it. Supremely this is to be through the proclamation of the gospel, which alone has power to redeem. Also through social action, for we have a reason to engage in good works (Eph. 2:10). While in this world Christians will feel the full weight of living in a world subject to vanity. Students of theology, if they are wise, will admit gaps in their knowledge but will also look forward to a world to come. A world in which all such transience and moral corruption will be a thing of the past and evil will be banished forever.
Let us end with that magnificent vision of John in Revelation 21 as a counterpoint to and fulfilment of much of the angst and hope of Ecclesiastes:
 See Charles Colson, 'The Face of Evil', in How Shall We Now Live? (Marshall Pickering, 1999), 184-202.
 M. Ruse, Taking Darwin Seriously, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).
 Richard Dawkins, Out of Eden, (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 133.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Fount, 1978), 41-42
 See Ravi Zacharias, Deliver Us From Evil, (Word, 1996), 200-202.
 Thomas Harris, Silence of the Lambs, (London: Mandarin, 1989) 20.
 Karl Meninger, Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973).
 See C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity This is an expression of St Augustine's principle of evil being privatio boni - the deprivation of the good.
 See Melvin Tinker, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? (Christian Focus, 1997).
 See John Kendall, Ecclesiastes and the Subversion of Success, L'Abri Lecture No 7.
 See Melvin Tinker, Wisdom to Live By (Christian Focus, 1998) ch. 1.