Daniel Harrell is Christianity Today’s editor in chief.
Author Katherine Stewart let Christians have it last Friday, at the least the “ultraconservative” ones, the science-deniers, and the uncritical thinkers. Laying the blame for the pandemic in part at our feet, she cites as an example the pastor who hosted the president last month at his church in Miami. “Do you believe God would bring his people to his house to be contagious with the virus?” he asked his full house. “Of course not.” Such conviction led many churches to gather together last Sunday for worship, a defiance defended as faithfulness, though as it turned out the virus indeed infects the righteous and unrighteous alike.
I’m sympathetic to Stewart’s concern that Christians are not listening to medical science, and I’m sympathetic to the pastor’s sentiment too. One year ago this week I stood in Capernaum, reading from Luke 4 about Jesus exorcising demons while in the very synagogue where he did it. I stood there with my late wife who was dying of pancreas cancer, its own kind of demon. Our tour guide, a non-religious Jew, suggested we pray for healing, given all the healing that happened here. As a pastor, I felt embarrassed—why hadn’t I thought of that? Where was my faith? Did I believe God would bring his people to his house and let cancer win? Of course not. But my wife did die.
Such questions haunt Christians, a chronic thorn in our theological flesh. We crave simple answers, the sort Stewart describes in political arenas as “a battle between absolute evil and absolute good” (which she resorts to herself, with her overly simplistic characterizations). We live in a day when everything gets reduced down into binary, either/or simplicity for the sake of a Twitter fight. Good versus evil. Light versus darkness. Left versus right. Red versus blue. Law versus grace. Faith versus works. Justice versus love.
St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) lived during a time of severe political and theological unrest, as well as pandemic and plague. Barbarians pressed in upon the Roman Empire as schism and dissension threatened the church. Augustine dove head first into the theological fray, battling the binaries of his day, which, similar to ours, pit the powers of goodness and light against the equal powers of darkness and evil. For Christians, there is no fair fight because God is almighty. So how then is it that evil exists?
St. Augustine proposed the notion of evil as essentially nothing (no thing), a basic nonentity all its own. By this he did not mean evil is not real; he meant only that its power is wholly derivative. Like a parasite or a virus, it extracts its life from the goodness it perverts. Thus evil often gets spoken in terms of what it is not: injustice or iniquity or ingratitude, disorder, disobedience, faithlessness, lawlessness, godlessness. Augustine wrote, “evil has no existence except as a privation of good, down to that level which is altogether without being.”
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Source: Christianity Today