Good Questions: Is there Evil? What is sin?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

As we head toward Good Questions like Who’s Saved? or What happens when we die? we need to recall What is God like? – and reckon with Who’s saved – but from what? What is sin? Is there evil? Is there a devil? Is Hell real?

I think I grew up thinking of sin as a willful, bad choice in violation of what I know is God’s law and will – and I can and should do better. Of course, we may not know all that much about God’s will; maybe we aren’t zealous students of the Bible for fear we might expose more in ourselves that’s out of sync! God doesn’t ask us merely to be nice or avoid breaking the law. God invites us into a radical life, zealous in sacrificial action, and vigilant over inner attitudes.

Sins easy to avoid are hardly a problem. The sin that undoes us feels like being shackled; “Just say no” just doesn’t work. James Alison suggested that “sin is the addiction to being less than ourselves.” Paul in exasperation cried out “I can’t do the good I want, and the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19). It’s humbling! – but in a hopeful way. Sin is something only God can cure. When God notices sin, God isn’t angry; like a loving parent, God is puzzled, whispering to us “Is this who you are? Is this who you really want to be?” Mercy – a brilliant Methodist insight! – not only loves despite sin, but actually heals, like medicine.

Isn’t sin whatever separates us from God? Isn’t sin when we judge or harm others inead of lifting them up? Sin is trying to be God instead of letting God be God. Sin may be taking yourself too seriously, fixating on yourself, living as if It’s all up to me. Sin is stuff we do or think or feel, and sin is what we fail to do, think or feel. Sin hurts others, and fails to help others.

Sin treats what isn’t God as if it is. Idolatry: we worship money, career, pleasure, and most commonly nowadays, political ideology – whatever we thank can deliver the goods, but only disappoints. The cultural air we breathe is out of kilter with God. Bible and Church have warned us against the “7 deadly sins,” greed, envy, pride, gluttony, sloth, lust, and wrath – which, oddly enough, portray the good life in America. God’s not rooting for you to succeed in those 7. God is eager to liberate us from getting drawn into their vortex.

Sin involves blind spots – which we all have. Many slaveholders prayed devoutly, asking God to show them how to punish their slaves or whether to purchase more – clueless to their whole life being horribly out of sync with God. We all have something, and it’s part of our brokenness that needs healing.

If sin involves the culture, and if we have blind spots, we begin to understand that we are enmeshed in a fallen world. It’s not that I sin, but I’m sinful – or rather, we are sinful. The world is out of sync with God. So: is “evil” a thing?

Clearly. Evil isn’t just the sum of all the individual bad actions out there. Sin infiltrates societies, countries, corporations, political parties – and it then takes on an ominous specter of massive evil not easily resisted. Just consider the way the Holocaust was conducted by tens of thousands of churchgoing Christians, or the popularity of rampant, sophomoric garbage on TV, or racism, or irresolvable conflicts among nations and people.

Is evil personal? You bet. That’s why it’s so alluring. As soon as humans began to relate to God and one another (we can think of them – and us! – as Adam and Eve), there has always been a liar, a deceiver, a voice luring them from goodness toward darkness, from innocence toward shame. That talking serpent in the Garden of Eden, ruining everything: is the way evil gets personal actually a person, the Devil? Satan? The French poet Charles Baudelaire suggested that “the Devil’s greatest wile is to convince us he does not exist.” But is there a terrible, lethal creature, Satan? And is his supposed abode, Hell, real? Stay tuned for our next email!