When I put dates against the preaching plan agreed with the Worship Committee I hesitated about what to do during Advent but in the end I decided to stick with the programme rather than to go back to the Lectionary. When I came to this week and realised that this meant that I had to preach on the role of Satan in the second week of Advent and during the toy and gift service I felt that perhaps this was a less than sensible decision.
However a couple of things made me think that I should go with it after all. First of all I looked at some well-loved advent hymns. The second verse of O Come, Come, Emmanuel starts, “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny, from depths of hell thy people save”. The second verse of Hark the Glad Sound begins with “He comes the prisoners to release, in Satan’s bondage held.” Christ’s victory over Satan has traditionally been one of the things the Church celebrates during this season.
Also, of course, I have recently been confronted with the reality of evil in a particularly stark and powerful way, during my week at the Holocaust education centre in Jerusalem. In spending time learning to understand the reality of the Nazi campaign of genocide against the Jewish people I had to think long and hard about the evil people are capable of.
One of the most challenging aspects of what we heard was how widespread participation and complicity with the murder of millions of people was. We heard about groups of people, men, women and children, being taken through the centre of German towns for transportation to death camps. We saw photographs of acts of murder that had been sent home by German soldiers from the Eastern Front. Slaughter on that scale could not be kept secret. Many, probably most, people would have known, or had to try not to know, what was going on.
How was it possible? How could such a thing have happened? How can human being behave so abominably.
There are a number of ways in which religious people can respond to the undeniable reality of evil. One is to think of the world as being the stage for a cosmic struggle between good and evil, with God being the leader of the forces of good and the devil the leader of the forces of evil, rather like Gandalf and Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.
A second is to say that all that is wrong with the world, all the evil in it, comes from human beings misusing the freedom they have been given, that there is no independent evil power and that imagining there to be is a projection of the real problem, which is our failure to use our freedom properly.
The third is a sort of middle way between the two, which says that our bad choices and misdeeds are part of a larger problem of rebellion against God, where some part of creation resists its proper relationship to its creator, expressed in the stories about angels who turn against him.
There are some very basic Christian beliefs that we should remember when we think about these accounts of evil, God and human being.
First of all we say that God is good. The God we worship is wholly and entirely good, with no taint of evil. This is absolutely fundamental to our faith, inherited from our Jewish roots.
Secondly we say that everything in the world we inhabit was created by this good God and created good.
Thirdly we say that God remains sovereign over this good creation.
All of this is summarised in the Nicene Creed which says “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible … whose kingdom will have no end”.
This means that our experience of evil is a real problem for us, is bound to cause us difficulty. How can a creation make and ruled over by a good God include Hitler, the death camps, or for that matter child murderers, slavery, torture and genocide. How can the appalling things that are happening today, in Syria, in the Central African Republic, or indeed in homes all over Britain where children are being subject to cruelty and abuse, be possible?
Some feel sure they know that malign and powerful supernatural forces are to blame, that somehow some powerful beings have asserted themselves against God and are working to make these terrible things come about. Other are equally sure that this is an evasion of our responsibility, that the story of the fall is about the ways in which human freedom carries inherent dangers of rebellion and negativity and that blaming it on a being who can’t be seen or held to account is like saying “a big boy made me do it then ran away”.
Over the last week I’ve read a lot of books about this and came to the conclusion that we just don’t know. There are plenty of reasons to accept and plenty of reasons to reject both these views. There really is evil in the world and it really is powerful. Acknowledging the reality of an active force who is working against the good faces truth and alerts us to the necessity of being on our watch and of struggling with temptation, which wouldn’t be so dangerous if it were easy to recognise as temptation. On the other hand it can lead us into thinking we are mere puppets in a big drama that is beyond and above us and cut us off from our own responsibility to take ownership of our lives and our actions.
I think, myself, that both approaches almost certainly express part of a truth we can’t grasp whole, that will only be clear to us in the day to come when we see face to face rather than in a glass darkly.
The good news, though, is that Christ is victorious over evil. The story in Revelation says that the war is already won, however little it might sometimes feel like it. Good will triumph and we are to hold firm and rely on Jesus.
We don’t need to understand this great mystery, since our salvation and our redemption come to us as a gift from God. That’s why a gift service may well be the best setting to talk about this difficult and troubling topic. The nature and origin of evil are too much for us to grasp properly but that doesn’t mean that evil can’t be, hasn’t been, conquered. In Christ’s life, death and resurrection evil, Satan, have already been vanquished. We just need to have the grace to accept this as his work, not ours, and to let ourselves be saved.