Evil and Theodicy

re: claiming the Old Testament — part three

The first point I made about the slaughter of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15 concerned its rationale. I argued that it wasn’t so much a case of ethnic cleansing to ensure the Israelites were a racially pure people as a case of divine judgement (or ‘theological cleansing’) in the service of God’s intention to renew creation, clearing a space in which human beings can dwell with him.

My second point develops this: God’s chief problem in employing Israel — and Israel’s anointed king (Messiah) — as the instrument of his judgement (dealing with sin by punishing sinners) is not that this wholesale slaughter goes too far but that it doesn’t go far enough.

Strap in. I’m going to try to defend this claim…  Continue reading

re: claiming the Old Testament — part two

As I mentioned previously, I’m exploring how we might reclaim some of the more troubling parts of the Old Testament like 1 Samuel 15 that speak of holy war and genocide.

Although we haven’t always known how to do it, Christians have long recognised that we must hang onto the Old Testament. Not simply because much of it is beautiful and insightful. But also because — strange and savage as it often is — the story it tells of God and his world is part of our story (at least if we take Jesus and the apostles seriously). There’s simply no option to cut it loose — despite the best efforts of some early Christian heretics and modern atheists!

I’ve sat with this problem over the weekend. And while I’m sure I’m nowhere near solving it, three things have crystallised for me.

First, the slaughter of the Amalekites commissioned in verses 2 and 3 has a surprising rationale:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

The phrase to focus on is ‘utterly destroy’. The underlying word in the original language speaks of enforcing ‘the ban’ — the devotion of the Promised Land and everything in it to Israel’s God. Now, there’s no getting around the fact that the prescribed method for achieving this is extermination. But this mention of the ban does forge a link with the Deuteronomic vision of the land as a ‘sacred space’ in which God will dwell with his people without distraction or competition.

It’s worth noticing that this means we’re not strictly dealing with an ethnic cleansing in the sense of an attempt to remove an entire group perceived to pose what Terry Eagleton calls an ‘ontological threat’.

Rather, what unfolds in passages like this is a matter of divine judgement or ‘theological cleansing’. As such, it’s inescapably retrospective — it has a view to something a previous generation of Amalekites did (I’ll say more about this in the next post). And yet it’s far more than merely retributive. Ultimately, it’s about God’s gracious intention to deal with sin and clear a space for human fellowship with him. In this we catch a fleeting glimpse of the biblical hope of new creation.

What is more, because this is about God’s recreative judgement, it’s a long way from simply legitimating Israel’s conquest. In fact, it proves profoundly unsettling for Israel. For it points towards the exile with which the narrative of Joshua-2 Kings concludes. The tragedy of Israel’s history is that it fails to heed Samuel’s warning — that ‘rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry’ (verse 23) — and so is vomited forth from a land devoted to God…

re: claiming the Old Testament

Our church Bible study group has been reading 1 Samuel. I’ve also been dipping my toes in the water at the start of 1 Kings on my own time.

I have to say, I find the stories of Israel’s history more than a tad unsettling. The section we read last night included the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Amalekites — gruesomely capped off by an elderly Samuel hacking their king to pieces!

Even though I’ve read passages like this hundreds of times, I’ve never more acutely felt the difficulty of claiming the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

Of course, I get all the biblical theology stuff about God’s progressive revelation of his character and purposes. I get that it’s a closed chapter in the larger story of God and his world. And, given that the so-called Deuteronomistic history — comprising the books of Joshua to 2 Kings — was probably compiled during the Babylonian exile (or shortly afterwards) to explain the trainwreck of Israel’s history, I also get the refusal of the narrative to tidy up the messiness of people’s behaviour or attempt to definitively untangle their motives.

And yet I still struggle with the portrait of God painted by passages like this. This is the God I claim to love and worship, right? But here he is, issuing summary instructions to engage in genocide.

There’s next to no wiggle room here. Any other possible inducement for Israel to wage war against the Amalekites is systematically ruled out. They’re to wipe out the entire nation. Not taking any of the usual spoils of war. It’s a clear-cut case of divine vengeance. All because of something done by a past generation.


I don’t claim to have this all sorted. But I do hope to say something useful over the next two or three posts. Ultimately, though, my gut tells me that Oliver O’Donovan is probably on the right track when he suggests that the only thing capable of turning ‘these fragmentary utterances of God’s voice, in warrior triumphs and legislative order, into a history which culminates in the divine manifestation and vindication of created order’ is grasping how the story of Jesus sums up the story of God and his world (Resurrection and Moral Order, p 159)…

I promise this isn’t a Morbid Fascination With Death thing…

…but you have to check out this quote. It’s Colin Gunton commenting on how the goodness of our given/natural mortal constitution becomes that menacing predator, Death:

There is … a distinction to be drawn between death as the proper limit of our days on earth, and the death that breaks in to make them deadly; that which is the creator’s gift of limits to our days on earth, and that which turns that finitude into a threat of nothingness. Sin is that which causes the one to be the other, so that without Christ’s bearing of death upon the cross and the promise of resurrection, death as the cessation of all relationships, above all that with God, would be the final fact narrated of us, and so the final nullifying of God’s purposes in creation. (The Triune Creator, p 173)

There’s gold buried in them there sub-clauses!

some biblical ‘angles’ on suffering

I’ve been pondering the problem of suffering as I prepare workshops for our mid-year Summit (our theme is In His Image’ on Genesis 1-3).

I find I’ve got lots to say. Far too much! Although, I’m convinced that information transfer is a lower priority than carving out the emotional space to wrestle honestly with the problem of suffering — a problem the Bible affirms rather than solves (or dissolves), pointing to God’s victory over it in Jesus rather than explaining it (e.g., as some sort of cosmic necessity).

The opening chapters Genesis are our key texts for the week. So I’m entertaining the idea of highlighting three intersecting biblical ‘angles’ on suffering that emerge from the pages of Genesis 3:

  1. Idolatry — The story of the first temptation sets the pattern we all follow: doubt God’s goodness and pin our hopes for fulfilment, satisfaction, and autonomy on created things rather than the Creator. This is the root of so much suffering because not only do created things inevitably fail to deliver (an ‘idol is nothing in all the world’, 1 Cor 8.4) but they also unleash powerful toxic — even demonic (see 1 Cor 10.19-20) — forces.
  2. Exile — The Genesis story suggests that lots of the suffering we experience is bound up with the fact that ever since our first parents were expelled from the Garden we’ve been in ‘exile’ — cut off from the source of life, estranged from one another, and blocked from enjoying the God-given order and harmony represented by the Garden.
  3. Salvation-through-Judgement — There are clear hints in Genesis 3 of God’s grace — not only in the midst of the judgement (e.g., providing Adam and Eve clothing, indicating the painful but still open possibility of ‘filling’ and ‘subduing’ creation, and promising that one born of the woman will eventually crush the serpent) but also in the form of judgement (e.g., limiting the potential for human sin to wreak havoc by ruling out access to the tree of life).

What I’d love from you is what your gut says about whether these ‘angles’ will help or hinder honest personal wrestling with the problem of suffering in light of God’s victory.

‘the sting of death’

A couple of weeks ago I posted a pair of ruminations on death — insisting, in the first, that we should never make peace with death or otherwise imply it somehow belongs within God’s intention for human life; and, counterbalancing this in the second, by exploring some of the ways in which we refuse to confront the reality of death (and our own mortality) to our detriment.

Alongside this, I feel there’s a need to uphold the Bible’s teaching about how God (positively?) uses death as a good and just judgement upon human sin.

John Martin, 'The Seventh Plague'

I take it that Paul means something like this when he says that ‘the sting of death is sin‘, reflecting much wider biblical testimony to the deep connection between sin and death. Although we may not be able to draw direct lines in every instance, death is God’s punishment for sin.

But we need to be careful here too. We shouldn’t let this clear sense of death being an instrument which God uses to judge obscure the fact that it’s fundamentally an enemy he longs to defeat. For, in an important (and I think theologically primary sense), God does not desire the death of the wicked.

The way I think I want to do that at the moment is to remember that with God judgement is always the flip-side — or the means — of redemption. This is certainly the case in the Exodus: judgement upon the Egyptians is just part and parcel of how God redeems Abraham’s family. And this I think is part of Isaiah’s overall emphasis. Indeed, some have spoken of the writing prophets as all proclaiming a message of ‘the death and resurrection of Israel’ — judgement (death) in the service of redemption (renewed life for his people).

Perhaps a helpful way to hold all this together is to consider God’s judgements — especially death — as advanced tremors anticipating (or even helping to bring about) the final redemption, the renewal of all things.

What do you reckon?

refusing to come to grips with death

If there are illegitimate ways of coming to grips with death, there are equally pathological ways of refusing to come to grips with death or face up to our powerlessness before it:

  • We can attempt to bury the recognition of our powerlessness by proving our potency — e.g., by relentlessly pursuing achievement so we can churn through that list of necessary successes: university degree (or two), travel abroad, career, spouse, mortgage, etc. All the while measuring ourselves against others. Congratulating ourselves when we’re out in front (because we’ve risen above our circumstances) and mentally qualifying the achievements of others out of existence (because they had an unfair social, financial or genetic advantage).

    It's just a bit empty...

  • Or we can do it in search of security — finding that ideal person or job, the respectable equivalent of an underground concrete bunker kitted out so we can survive the harshest nuclear winter. If not that, then perhaps we cling to being free from attachment, risk, commitment. Never opening ourselves up, making ourselves vulnerable, or trying something at which we might fail. Impoverishing ourselves, for sure. But never getting hurt in the process.
  • Or we can try to cheat death in pursuit of pleasure — throwing ourselves out of aeroplanes or into anonymous sex or into a never-ending parade of experiences (food or wine or whatever). Grasping at every passing scrap of enjoyment in an otherwise nasty, brutish and short life. And certainly not trading it in for more long-term things like character, integrity or investing in people.

Not that achievement, security or pleasure are necessarily bad things. Far from it. They’re good gifts from God. Rather, it’s the sheer desperation with which we tend to pursue them that’s the problem.

This desperation speaks of our headlong flight from our powerlessness before death, our failure to own our creatureliness and limitation — the fact that we’re dust and destined to return to dust — and our refusal to join the Psalmist in asking God to ‘teach us to number our days aright’ (Psalm 90.12). And its consequences are just toxic as too readily coming to grips with death.

coming to grips with death

That’s what I was trying to do for most of last week. I gave a talk about our powerlessness before death (launching from Mark 5.21-42) for the La Trobe Uni Christian Union on Wednesday. And I’m in the thick of drafting two seminars for this year’s mid year Summit, ‘In His Image’ (on Genesis 1-3) — one on creation, evolution and all that; the other on suffering.

And it’s quite current, I guess. Hard core fans and curious onlookers learned last week that coming to grips with death — or failing to come to grips with it — was what the TV series Lost has been about all these years. Which, while probably not as cutting-edge and postmodern as some might hope, makes for interesting territory to explore.

Because there are all sorts of illegitimate ways to come to grips with death. Ways that short-circuit things. Like refusing to permit yourself to grieve. Or simply writing death off as natural — one more link in the endless chain of causes and effects, something that may hurt if you’ve got too involved or lost touch with reality, but nothing unusual or tragic.

But I for one don’t want to let go of the tragic ‘wrongness’ of death (as much as it’s a pretty much a universal constant, affecting us all eventually). There must be a sense in which it’s right to ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’ with Dylan Thomas — especially when the living God makes promises like this:

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25.7-8)

No. Coming to grips too readily with death doesn’t quite make sense for those who trust in a risen Saviour!

who’s afraid of redemption?

The other day I spoke about ‘Evil’ at La Trobe. I anchored my wrestling with this big topic in Jesus’ encounter with the man possessed by a legion of demons (using Mark’s version).

For my money, it’s the puzzling little details of this encounter that yield the most insight when pressed. Things like the strange fact that Jesus permits the unclean spirits to destroy the herd of pigs (I’ve blogged about this before).

And as I read it this time, it was one of the details I hadn’t really noticed before brought me up short (vv. 14-15):

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.

Why are the locals afraid I wonder? What about this man’s redemption freaks them out?

Maybe this is too postmodern, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact this man’s redemption ‘rehumanises’ someone who’s been systematically marginalised and dehumanised — by the locals.

No doubt there were only a few individuals who had actually wrestled the man to the ground or handled the chains used to restrain him (vv 3-4). Yet weren’t they all complicit in the fact that this was very probably the closest thing to human contact the man had experienced in years?

And no doubt they probably had their reasons — compelling, thoroughly comprehensible reasons. Like: ‘That guy’s going to hurt someone unless we restrain him’. Or: ‘Can’t someone put a stop to that endless howling so I can get at least one good night’s sleep this week?’ Solid, respectable, self-preserving reasons.

But it all adds up. As ordinary and recognisable as it may seem. As much as it unfolds one sensible, insignificant step after another. The outcome is … well, evil. As evil (in its way) as the legion of demons who’d got their hooks into the man.

Which means that if Jesus is in the business of defeating evil — and redeeming human life — then maybe it makes sense for those who’ve become complicit in it to be afraid…

excuses, excuses

I spent a chunk of the weekend getting back into P. T. Forsyth as I started working on the next post in my Christology series — dealing with the Judge’s cross. I’m desperately trying to resist throwing up a patchwork of quotes from The Justification of God.

But I won’t be able to get to it until after I speak at the La Trobe Uni Christian Union lunchtime ‘open talk’ tomorrow. I’m speaking about evil.

And I’ve found Terry Eagleton’s new book, On Evil, really stimulating as I’ve got stuck into preparation. Take this cracker, for instance (p 123):

Traditionally, evil is seen not as sexy but as mind-numbingly monotonous. Kierkegaard speaks of the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety as “the contentless, the boring”. Like some modernist art, it is all form and no substance. Hannah Arendt, writing of the petit-bourgeois banality of Adolf Eichmann, sees him as having neither nor any demonic dimension. But what if this depthlessness is exactly what the demonic was like? What if it is more like a minor official than a flamboyant tyrant?

When it comes to my talk, this is my rough plan at the moment (I’m launching out of Mark 5):

  1. Incomprehensible? Evil events (like 9/11) are greeted with cries of ‘incomprehensible’. And we’re right to resist attempts to explain them away with excuses drawn from extenuating circumstances, etc…
  2. The evil reality of evil. Yet we can drive the incomprehensibility thing so far that we end up with no way to condemn evil. If evil just happens — mysteriously, inexplicably — then its evil reality is undermined.
  3. God’s response to evil. In Jesus God doesn’t so much resolve the riddle of evil as confront it, plumbing its evil depths and overcoming it, signing its death warrant (for it has no ultimate future in the world Jesus has reclaimed).

What do you reckon?