I posted earlier about the Christian conviction that sin/evil is nothing, literally ‘no-thing.’ If you’re like me when I first heard this metaphysical perspective, then you’re head is hurting.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see how logic dictates the nothingness or unreality of evil. On the other hand, putting the matter into these philosophical categories doesn’t necessarily answer our felt questions about why bad things happen to good people (aside: if we’re sinners, then the adjective ‘good’ is an assumption isn’t it?) or why wholesale tragedies like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan occur.
A less philosophical, easier to understand, but only slightly more satisfying way to think about this comes from Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Its an answer rooted in God’s risk of love towards us.
For Augustine, the drama of the human story and the beauty of the Christ story is that God creates so that we can share life and love with God.
God didn’t create a mechanized universe in which we have no choice but to worship dutifully. God wasn’t creating automatons or servile followers. God was creating friends and lovers. Because God is in the Trinity loving relationship, God wants to share loving relationship with us.
Consider my wife.
What makes our relationship authentic, loving and beautiful is that both of us love one another freely. It’s a free exchange of love. It’s reciprocal. Nothing is forced. If it was, you’d call it abuse not love. You’d think it tragic.
As any friend or lover knows, loving relationship can’t be coerced. If it is then it’s only a pale imitation of the actual thing.
In creation, then, God risks that we might not reciprocate God’s love. God hardwires us for love. God calls us back to relationship through Abraham, Israel, the prophets and Christ but God never forces our hand.
The risk inherent in God’s love is our freedom.
And as we are free to love God we are free to love other ends.
What we call sin is disordered love: love of money, love of pleasure, love of an ideology etc.
And what we call evil is often the wreckage of our disordered loves. The fact remains evil is mysterious and, as the Book of Job (38) amply demonstrates, any theory or explanation of it ultimately proves unsatisfying. As vague and metaphysical as it can sound, I can’t help thinking our calling evil ‘a shadow, nothing, not God’ is as faithful a way of speaking as we can legitimately muster. In the face of suffering, what Christians should speak are not answers or theories but confessions and professions. We should affirm not God’s providence (‘there’s a plan for everything…’) but the scope of God’s love (‘Jesus wept…’).
After all, what is critical for Christians to remember in such discussions- and this is what Augustine was keen to secure- is that the Cross is the full measure of God’s love and character and that all of creation shimmers with that same perfect charity and love.
Explanations may prove elusive but this way of speaking of God forbids faithful Christians from ever consigning another’s suffering to God’s will, and in the face of natural evil Christians should only mourn, help redeem disaster and to keep looking for creation’s goodness that lies below tragedy’s surface.
Because if God is Trinity peace is always a more determinative, if at times hard to see, reality.