Certainly that’s a naive perspective is it not? I need only travel a mile from my house to Route One to see contradictory evidence of infinite goodness. I need only look at the pictures of those soldiers serving overseas on the church wall to discover that all is not perfect in the world. Right?
Very often it feels easier to believe in Sin, Evil and Broken-ness than it does to believe in God’s goodness or our own. It’s cliche to hear theologians admit that Sin is the only objectively verifiable doctrine Christians espouse. Just think how most street-preacher’s tracts begin not with God’s infinite love expressed in Jesus but with Sin and the wages earned from Sin and only then wind their way to a God who loves me.
Our ‘faith’ in the reality of Evil and Sin is so unshakably strong Christians sometimes speak as though Evil were a Reality or Presence within our world in defiant opposition to God- as though Evil were the villain to God’s protagonist, paired equals squaring off with the fate of creation hanging in the balance.
This way of thinking about evil, though commonplace, was a heresy Augustine himself fought against his entire life. Here’s why:
If you take a logical step back from the passion we feel about a creation that seems always to be suffering, then you see that Evil cannot be its own Reality, Presence or Substance apart from or in opposition to God.
If it were then logically God would not be all-powerful, perfect love, and creation would no longer be the overflowing of an infinitely self-giving God. As David Hart notes, there is a sense in which Christians confess that this world is the only world God could’ve created, not by necessity or limitation but because God is perfect freedom and cannot but express himself perfectly and completely. This is the only world God could’ve created because this is God’s perfect expression of his love.
If David Hart is right about the goodness of creation, then what is evil?
What is sin?
In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, hell is envisioned as an existence where everything and every inhabitant exists only as a shadow with no solid reality. Lewis’ story is a narrative take on Augustine’s understanding of the sin and evil.
Simply put (okay, not so simple), evil- whether it is natural evil, such as a tsunami, or radical evil, a human act such as the Holocaust- is not a real thing in itself. It has no substance or existence of its own.
The early Church, following Augustine’s lead, referred to evil as a ‘privation of the good’ or the ‘absence of the good.’ John Wesley echoed this same understanding when he defined sin and salvation primarily in a medical sense; sin is a disease of our nature and salvation, as the Greek word for salvation itself means, is ‘healing. All this is to say that for the Church the most consistent way of thinking about evil is that its ‘nothing.’ Literally, it’s no-thing. This is why St. Paul can afford to sound so confident about the ‘principalities and powers’ exercising no more dominion in the world than we afford them.
Just as evil is thought to be nothing in the ancient church, hell then was thought to be not a place of eternal punishment so much as an existence- even in this world- of those who refuse God’s love and goodness; those who live outside of or independent from God, who encompasses all being, eventually and unavoidably whither away into nothingness. Shadow as Lewis describes it.