I was shocked (yes, I was naive) the first time I ever heard a colleague sneer at the notion of personified evil, that the Devil really exists. I’ve since learned that for many of my mainline, highly educated pastor comrades not only is the concept of the Devil problematic, the very idea of evil itself, a force in direct conflict with God, is uncomfortable. Granted, in terms of Western logic evil is a tough nut to handle. However, the relatively recent notion of moral relativism conveniently helps to make the traditional concept of evil a non-issue. As a result, I believe many mainline Protestants fail to recognize and identify what evil really is. Let’s face it. Having a more literal view of evil could get one labeled as a religious whacko, with a pre-enlightenment world view.
But how about you – could you recognize evil? Do you even believe it exists?
I have read too many stories, heard too many stories, to think that evil is a fuzzy, relative notion. There are places in our world right now where the gloves are off between God and Evil, and people see and experience the kind of physical manifestations written about in the Bible. While rare, occasionally those kinds of things happen in North America; I’ve heard the stories from rational Presbyterians.
Evil exists. Evil has grabbed a gear and is accelerating in this world. The luxury of being able to discuss evil as an abstract concept is over. God’s people of every brand need to recognize evil for what it is and strap up to face it. Let me suggest some identifying marks to help you identify evil. Hold these up next to your news as you listen, watch and read. Keep them in mind as you talk to others. Pay attention to the patterns that begin to emerge.
Characteristics of Evil
Hate: At its bedrock foundation, Evil hates. Don’t be confused because of our culture’s poisonous form of discourse. A person is not a hater just because they criticize someone’s point of view. Hate, according to the old Webster’s dictionary, means, “To have a great aversion to, with a strong desire that evil should befall the person toward whom the feeling is directed.” Hate means the desire to see someone, or a group of someones, destroyed, outlawed, rotting in prison, in a labor camp, or lying dead in the streets.
Deception: This is one of Evil’s signature modes of operation. Evil lies. It says one thing while at the same time doing the exact opposite. Evil blurs and twists the truth because it is trying to “pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith (see subversion).” Evil wears a mask of doing good; it disguises its coercion and domination in the guise of doing what’s best for the people to protect them, and make their lives safer from perceived threats. In Psalm 5 David describes the Opposition this way:
My enemies cannot speak a truthful word.
Their deepest desire is to destroy others.
Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave.
Their tongues are filled with flattery.
In other words, evil uses nice sounding lies to disguise destruction and death. In John 8 Jesus is explicitly tells us that evil lies when he says that the Devil:
…has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.
Consequently, In Matthew 7 Jesus advises his followers to discern who is against God by looking at their actions, not what they say:
You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. … A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit.
Evil uses words to misdirect and hide what it’s really doing. To recognize evil it is necessary to focus on what it does, instead of what it says.
Evil will twist everything so you have no idea about right and wrong, love or hate, truth or bare-faced falsehood. When you observe people with power using deception as a pattern, as a strategy, an alarm should go off. You have recognized Evil at work. If you are not deceived, you can help others identify what is going on, and one of Evil’s primary strategies has been neutralized.
Coercion (coerce): Evil seeks to restrain or dominate, to compel others to an act or choice, to achieve by force or threat.
Subversion (subvert): this is a favorite tactic of Evil, to overturn or overthrow from the foundation, to ruin, to pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith.
Domination: This is one of Evil’s primary goals. Domination is the supremacy or preeminence over others, it is mastery and ruling power, having superior weight, force, and controlling influence.
Devalues life/Takes pleasure in pain: Evil results in things like
“medical experiments” on living subjects.
Creates: a landscape of fear, poverty, hunger, and whispered conversations.
Power: Evil worships power, and it does not tolerant any challenges to its power; which means Evil especially hates God and God’s people. Psalm 2 puts it so well, when it describes the powers that be plotting
against the Lord and against his anointed one, “Let us break their chains,” they cry,
“and free ourselves from slavery to God.”
Evil fears God, and therefore hates God and by extension, God’s people, because God stands between Evil and the absolute power of domination. In the effort to be free from “slavery to God” it throws pastors and rabbis in prison, burns churches and synagogues, and seeks control over pulpits, and the work of synagogue and church; Bibles and Torahs are burned and banned, worship is prohibited, believers are driven from their homes or simply murdered. And much, much worse. Evil has never shown mercy to Jews and Christians.
Ephesians 6 is quite clear,
we are not fighting against flesh- and- blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
The Message Version of this verse communicates it’s urgent warning so well:
This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life- or- death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.
Feeling troubled about the economic, political, or cultural direction of your country and its leadership? How about the unprecedented toxic mix of disaster facing the whole world right now? Did you ever think it were possible to see what now passes as entertainment on TV, or hear political leaders say and do what they say and do, or imagine the colossal incivilities that now occur every day, and are even applauded? There is a conflict raging right now that at its heart is spiritual – a life-or-death fight to the finish against Evil.
According to Ephesians 6 how are God’s people supposed to respond? The answer is simply, “take a stand”: stand firm (v.12), resist (v. 13), remain standing (v. 13), stand your ground (v. 14). So strap up; you aren’t a poor civilian waving a puny pitch fork against overwhelmingly superior forces:
So take everything the Master has set out for you, well- made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. (6:11, The Message)
The image this passage paints for me is of a military unit in the field, or perhaps in some distant outpost. Contact with the enemy hasn’t been made yet, but is out there somewhere. The danger is that the enemy will seek to catch them by surprise, overrun their position and annihilate them. But if they are keeping watch and know the signs of the imminent attack, if they stay strapped up and ready, they will be able to resist the attack and stand their ground. It will be chaotic, confusing, perhaps terrifying and horrific, but at the end they will still be standing and the enemy beaten back.
Evil exists. It is out there, gathering strength and momentum. Can you recognize it? Are you prepared to take a stand? Don’t be caught by surprise.