I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
(with 1 John 3:4, R.V.): — The proper order in which to investigate our experience of the subject is to begin with the existence of moral evil, and from that standing-ground look out upon the larger question of cosmical evil.
I. THE PRESENCE OF MORAL EVIL IN HUMAN NATURE — THE SENSE OF SIN. By far the greatest amount of the suffering of life is owing to the depravity of human nature. If men were good and kind there would be little left to mourn over. Speaking generally, we may say that human experience of this great fact runs from the crude and selfish perception of the faults of other people up to the self-humiliation of the saint in whom the sense of sin is strongly developed. To take the lower ground first — there are some who are smarting under a sense of injury. It may be that life is altogether sadder than it once was, because of the heart-breaking conduct of some from whom a very different course of action might have been expected. To such as these the fact that human nature is vitiated, and that the world is made wretched in consequence, needs no complete demonstration. Or again, there may be some who remember with pain and regret certain of their own mistakes which have brought evil results in their train. Self-reproach, however, does not put things right again. It is not only that the mistakes are beyond recall, but that the character itself is intractable. No man who is true to himself can escape the necessity of self-blame. This self-blame may be perfunctory and imperfect, or it may be radical and strong. It may be only a form of self-pity, or it may be a deep experience of guilt. Let me state a few things about this sense of guilt. In the first place, we may recognise that it is not universal, though in some form or other it is one of the most general of experiences. Some of the great religions in the world are deficient in it: Confucianism. Confucius, like so many of the world's prophets, died a disappointed man. He had aimed at something higher than the nature of his countrymen was prepared for. He had to put up with opposition, slander, persecution, and poverty. We might think that the problem of human sinfulness would have suggested itself to him, but we have no such indication in his teachings. In these there is an utter absence of any cognisance of sin as such. What is true of this religion is true of others. Their recognition of faultiness is not a recognition of sinfulness. Even in our own day, and amongst our circle of acquaintance, there are, no doubt, some who are without the sense of sin, and who evince no consciousness of the need of forgiveness. Men may be aware in a general way that things are not right in their own dispositions or in those of their fellows, and yet be strangers to the mood of contrition. Censoriousness and the sense of sin do not usually go together. We come to another and higher order of experience when we enter the ranks of those in whom perception of personal unworthiness is vivid. Especially has this been the case where the idea of a righteous God has been powerfully presented. It is within the circle of Christianity, however, that this conviction has been quickened and deepened to the greatest degree. It has been held that the sense of sin is a morbid development of religious life. We are not better, but worse, than we think we are. The mood of contrition is a note of awakening nobility. An accompaniment of the sense of sin is the depressing discovery of our helplessness to escape it. To conclude this first point, then, we may say that we are sadly aware of the presence of moral evil in human nature, and we are also aware that it "ought not to be."
II. ATTEMPTS TO ACCOUNT FOR THE ORIGIN OF MORAL EVIL. That men should have been exercised in their minds about the presence of moral evil in the world is not to be wondered at, and it is instructive to notice some of the attempts that have been made to account for it. In stating certain of the theories which have been projected to explain human depravity, we may take them in the order of their relative importance.
1. Let us note that sin has often been held to be a delusion, that it is simply a form of mental experience, and no more real than a torturing dream. Culpability is only a fancy; no one is to blame for anything; and if the soul is to persist, and self-consciousness be continued in a higher state, man will then discover that all his agony and tears and self-reproach had no sterner cause than a little child's dread of the dark. This explanation we can soon dismiss. Self-blame is no fancy. Sin is not something negative, it is positive — an enemy that we have to fight.
2. Further, right through human history a tendency is observable to account for the presence of moral evil by a dualistic theory of existence. Darkness has been represented as the foe of light, matter of spirit, and Satan of God. The variations of these dualistic theories are manifold. Platonists, Gnostics, Manichaeans are a great family who regarded matter as being in some degree independent of God, and imperfectly under His control. All these movements had something in common, and that something was the tendency to place matter in opposition to spirit, and regard evil as resident in matter. Thoroughgoing belief in such positions has, as a rule, run into the two extremes of asceticism and license. Although 's dualism was a very different thing from the Gnostic heresies, the latter really sprang from it. It has sometimes been thought that Scripture lends some countenance to the theory here indicated. "The world," for instance, is presented as antithetic to "the kingdom," and "the flesh" as antithetic to "the spirit." This is undoubtedly the case, but we must be warned against thinking that the New Testament writings should be construed to mean that evil has its seat in the flesh, and that the spirit only needs the liberation of death in order to be holy at a bound.
3. Positivism, and all allied modes of belief, effect a practical, though not theoretical, division of the universe. Humanity and the moral order are represented as an entity apart from the hard background of nature, and we are bidden to do our best to further the advance of everything that makes for human good without seeking sanctions in nature or the supernatural. It is curious to note that the advocates of this principle are usually the strongest in the assertion that the universe is one and indivisible. One power is observed to be at work within it, and not two powers pitted against each other.
4. This brings us to the consideration of the theory, which is Christian as well as non-Christian, that in the universe we have a personal dualism represented in the familiar names, God and Satan. We need not deny the existence of a personal captain of the host of evil, but we are not prepared to admit that there is room in the universe for a power whom God cannot overthrow. This is a cursory summary of theories which have occupied the attention of men from age to age. We may say of them all —
(1) They fail in that they limit the omnipotence of Deity.
(2) They fail in that they deny human responsibility.
(3) The truth common to all these theories appears to be, that good is only known by the background of evil, righteousness only achieved in opposition to unrighteousness.
5. Allied with, but independent of, the foregoing, is the Christian doctrine of the fall. It is remarkable that this doctrine is also extra-Christian. It has a place, for instance, in the old Teutonic mythology. The doctrine is also pre-Christian. It has a place in the Old Testament, though not a large place. It is within the field of Christianity, however, that the theory of a fall of the race from original purity has had its greatest vogue. About this Prof. Orr says: "I do not enter into the question of how we are to interpret Genesis 3. — whether as history or allegory or myth, or, most probable of all, as old tradition clothed in Oriental allegorical dress; but the truth embodied in that narrative, namely, the fall of man from an original state of purity, I take to be vital to the Christian view." Upon this point, however, science is in direct conflict with received theology, and in recent years the attempt to reconcile the doctrine of the fall with the accepted theory of evolution has been felt as a considerable difficulty. The way in which it has been sought to solve that difficulty may be illustrated from a sermon preached by a friend of my own. "The fact of the fall is simply in effect the statement of these biological facts in the spiritual region. It is that there came, at the beginning of human history, when man was physically complete, and had reached a stable equilibrium, where his moral and spiritual development was to begin, — there came, how we do not know, a backward step, and that backward step has been perpetuated in the history of the race because of the scientific fact of the solidarity of the race. What St. Paul would call the fall of man is simply the statement of a spiritual fact which has its precise analogy in the very doctrine of evolution that is supposed to contradict it." The same preacher goes on to say that through the entrance of sin into the world, by man's fault and in opposition to the purpose of God, there has come into the world, not the fact of death, for death was here before, but the horror of it of which humanity is conscious, and that the misery of humanity has only been alleviated by second creation, as it were — the entrance of Christ into the world and the proclamation of the good news of redemption. To these statements the one sweeping objection may be taken that if they presume the historicity of the story of Genesis and the theory of a fall in time, through man's own fault and against the intention of God, they are in direct contradiction to the judgings of modern science, and no hypothesis about "a backward step" or "a new creation" can get over the difficulty. Our theology must be in harmony with the rest of our knowledge. We are on safer ground if we appeal once more to experience, and say that the fall ought not to be regarded as an historical event, but a psychological fact. In this connection we may observe that Jesus never says a word about an historical fall of the race. The parable of the Prodigal Son has been quoted as the analogue of the story in Genesis, but, on the face of it, it is meant to be interpreted psychologically rather than historically. In addition to this we must say that the theory of a fall in time is surrounded by other and graver difficulties, which lead us to a view of the character of God inconsistent with our Lord's revelation of the nature of the Father. That God should have made man so that he was not only liable but certain to fall, and should then have visited the whole race with disastrous consequences, is altogether incomprehensible. But, further, it is unthinkable that unbiassed human nature would ever voluntarily choose evil. Speaking in all reverence, we may say that as it is unthinkable that God should fall, so is it unthinkable that man should fall, unless he were so made as to desire evil without knowing good. To sum up this point, therefore, we may say that the presence of moral evil cannot be accounted for either as a delusion, or by a dualistic theory of the universe, or even by a fall in time. The explanation must be sought elsewhere.
III. THE HYPOTHESIS THAT THE ORIGIN OF MORAL EVIL IS IN GOD. We come, then, to the consideration of a theory which, like the foregoing, is both Christian and non-Christian, namely, that moral evil has its origin in the good purpose of God. This has been held by some of the greatest of the teachers of the Christian Church, from to the Reformation Fathers. Even later Roman Catholic theology has lingered around it in the song, "O felix culpa which by so great a fall has secured, a greater, redemption. Evil is an experience necessary for the sake of good, and it must disappear when its work is done. For what is good? No man knows save by the struggle to realise it. Every man is conscious not only of the desire to choose evil, but of the obligation to choose good. To sin is to follow the lower in presence of the higher; it is yielding to that which is easy in opposition to that which is right. If evil within the disposition supplies the tendency, sin is in yielding to that tendency. This relieves no man of moral responsibility. Sin is real, and we are to blame for it, but we are not qualified to judge one another. God, and God only, can disentangle the threads of human motive, and estimate the amount of individual culpability. Without Christ there would be but a feeble light on this world problem. From what we know of Him we can look forward and upward. Primordial evil is the appointment of our God and Father, who shares in every experience of His children. Salvation is escape from sin; atonement escape from guilt; God provides both. There is no longer room for despair, but only for solemn gladness. "Let the wicked forsake his way," &c.
(R. J. Campbell, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
WEB: I form the light, and create darkness. I make peace, and create calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things.