To Speak of Nothing: Examining Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Evil

[This is an essay I submitted last semester for my apologetics class, in which I had to do a research paper on an apologetic topic. I chose the problem of evil and decided to look at Barth’s view. However, I did this paper before reading Darren M. Kennedy’s dissertation of Barth’s doctrine of providence, which is relevant for a few issues.]

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Exploring Nothing
    1. Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History
    2. Concluding Summary of the Doctrine
  3. Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine
  4. Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View
  5. Conclusion

Introduction

Evil is evil. This tautological statement might sound obvious and pointless but in fact, possesses much gravity. In the work of Christian theology, or more specifically in the work of defending the Christian faith through apologetics, many have undertaken the task of explaining how and why a good God with sufficient power to destroy evil can permit evil to exist and do as many horrors as the human race witnesses each day. Unfortunately, for many of these answers, evil is not truly evil. Instead, evil is part of a greater good, whether that good is free will, the glory of God, or something else. Karl Barth, however, offered in his Church Dogmatics his own answer (or non-answer) about evil, one in which evil is authentically evil. He named evil das Nichtige, and this doctrine has much to offer Christian theodical thought today. This doctrine is topic of my essay. Specifically, I would like to argue that Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige arises from a long history of Biblical, catholic thinking on evil, and though there are certainly notable weaknesses, the doctrine must be commended for being truly prophetic against evil, bound and determined by the Word, and characteristically Christocentric. My goal will be to show that Barth may not have the last word on the problem of evil, but his contribution will be valuable when fully understood.

To assess Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, first I will summarize the definition and explanation of the doctrine given in Church Dogmatics. Once they are presented clearly, I will compare and contrast Barth’s doctrine with various other views throughout Christian history to provide illumination and context. I will then work from this gathered clarity to address the weaknesses of das Nichtige, particularly charges of fantasy, tension with Providence, mythologizing, and dualism. They will be set against the doctrine’s strengths, and these last considerations will provide me sufficient material to perform a final analysis of the relevance and practical benefits which the Church might mine from Barth on this enduringly important issue. With this route prepared, then, the man himself may be allowed to speak. What exactly is Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, and what does the term even mean?

Exploring Nothing

“There is in world-occurrence an element, indeed an entire sinister system of elements, which is not…preserved, accompanied, nor ruled by the almighty action of God like creaturely occurrence.”1This shocking statement is how Barth introduced his doctrine of das Nichtige. The term itself comes from the German title of this chapter of the Church Dogmatics. Das Nichtige means in English “the Nothingness,” “the Null,” “the Negative,” or something else along those lines. The intention is to signify an absolute void, something which is not some thing but nothing(ness). Barth referred to evil in this way because he saw evil as fundamentally lacking in positive reality, but instead “existing” in antithesis to that which God wills to exist. For Barth, evil does not possess legitimate ontic ground. Evil belongs properly neither to the realm of Creator nor the realm of creature. Mark Lindsay summarized Barth’s unique ontology of evil this way: “Properly speaking, we cannot talk of Nothingness as something which ‘is’. In strictly ontological terms, ‘only God and His creature really and properly are.’ This cannot be taken to imply that Nothingness does not exist.”2 This paradox is essential to the doctrine of das Nichtige. Evil can only be categorized (if at all) as an “alien factor” in the world which seeks to corrupt and undo the creation, to drag the world back into the pure nothing from which God created.

For Barth, God willed and created for a good purpose of election, but das Nichtige can only be seen as that which God did not will or elect at all. Das Nichtige stands in opposition to both nature and grace, and thus is entirely unnatural and anti-grace. This anti-gracious character of das Nichtige, its non-willed “existence” under God’s opposition, is precisely what characterizes evil as evil, precisely why God must vehemently abhor and ruthlessly assault the whole system. For Barth, none of this is technically apologetics, either, or a systematic theological account of evil, but merely a dogmatic acknowledgment that true theodicy is basically impossible. In fact, Barth preferred to move past this question of evil’s nature (or lack thereof) to its solution in Christ, who suffered both the fullness of Nothingness and God’s wrath against Nothingness, surviving and doing away with both in His triumphant resurrection, thus finally and entirely eliminating even the not-existence which das Nichtige has, leaving only an echo or deceptive memory. What Barth distinctively means by all of this will be made clearer as historical development is traced and as other doctrines of evil in this tradition are juxtaposed with his view.

Das Nichtige in Light of Theological History

To anyone familiar with Augustine’s doctrine of evil, one of the earliest known views, Barth’s view may sound similar. This is somewhat justified and somewhat mistaken. Augustine’s well-known take on evil was privatio boni, the absence of good. His famous analogy was that of darkness to light. For Augustine, evil is not something in itself but merely the result of good not being there. Thus only good can be considered the creation of God, while evil is not. This is clearly similar to das Nichtige, but there are differences which bear noting. For Barth, evil has something of a rebellious malevolence. Without having true being, evil nonetheless is hostile to God and His creatures. On the other hand, Barth emphatically denies any reality or natural propriety whatsoever to evil’s “non-nature,” whereas Augustine’s view could be seen to allow a certain degree of “naturalness” to evil akin to way darkness is the nature state of the world without light. Both of them agree, however, that evil has no efficient cause.3

Barth considered the Reformed tradition his own home, and so traditional views of Reformed theology are also good for comparing his doctrine of evil. The classic Reformed position is that God sovereignly controls and ordains all things without exception, including evil. So says the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.4

This view appears quite clearly incompatible with Barth’s. The doctrine of das Nichtige absolutely refuses any notion that evil properly belongs to the will of God, whereas most Reformed thinkers have affirmed that God intentionally decrees every last occurrence, evil or otherwise. Representatives like Calvin would occasionally use the language of permission, but even this was rare and qualified. Yet for Barth and das Nichtige, the language of permission was essential and robust. Nonetheless, these drastically different views share the idea that evil has come into being alongside God’s act of sovereign election, even if the mechanism and divine intention are different for each.

In the modern era, there is certainly worth in comparing Barth’s doctrine with C. S. Lewis, despite the lack of any obvious connection. C. S. Lewis, as is well-known, relied heavily on the notion of free will. For Lewis, human freedom demanded the actual possibility of evil alongside that of good, for “all that is given to a creature with free will must be two-edged, not by the nature of the giver or of the gift, but by the nature of the recipient.”5 This kind of philosophical reasoning is hardly a part of Barth’s style, but he also used a kind of free will argument relocated, focused on maintaining the integrity of the Creator/creature distinction.6 In this case, the mysterious power of das Nichtige manifests itself by taking advantage of the space separating human will from divine will. So both of them seem to bind up the possibility of evil to the creation of the good, though this for Lewis is a symmetrical relationship, whereas Barth views the two as strongly asymmetrical, with evil more of an impossible possibility taking advantage of the real space of possibility generated by creaturely independence.

For a final comparison, this one both ancient and modern, das Nichtige may be compared to an Eastern Orthodox doctrine of sin. In an interview with The Christian Century, David Bentley Hart sketched a doctrine of evil which seems to parallel Barth’s at several points which representing historic Orthodoxy. The Orthodox view has historical roots similar to Augustine’s and Hart affirmed that evil is “a privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself.”7 This clearly echoes the kind of obscure, reserved language for evil’s ontology which Barth used. Hart also vehemently denied that, in Orthodoxy, there is any necessity or divine purpose behind the origins of evil. God can use and work past evil, but He fundamentally did not will or deliberately plan for evil to play a role in His purpose of divine-human communion. This strongly favors Barth’s contradiction to classic Reformed thought on evil (though which Hart detests as blasphemous). Thus, perhaps surprisingly, Barth’s post-Reformed, post-liberal account of evil is actually profoundly close to the ancient view of Orthodox theology, which seems a positive sign.

Concluding Summary of the Doctrine

With Barth’s doctrine of evil clarified by comparison to other historic attempts, the results are a doctrine of mystery and absolute affirmation of the goodness of both God and God’s creatures. Evil for Barth is not so much an apologetic issue which can be solved, but a disruption of theological thought which can only be described in awkward, negative terminology. Das Nichtige is not-being, but more than not-being functions as something of an anti-being, seeking to corrupt and de-create what God has willed, and is anti-grace, devoid of God’s grace and seeking to erase all its benefits. God has not chosen to create, ordain, or design any evil substances or mere happenings apart from evil’s prior historical appearance as opposition to His creative design. This is a fiercer doctrine of evil than Augustine’s privatio, a more uncompromising doctrine of God’s goodness vis-à-vis evil than most Reformed views, a more equivocal doctrine of human evil than Lewis’, and a surprising friend to Orthodoxy’s approach. With this fuller picture in place, Barth’s weaknesses on evil can be brought out with precision.

Worth Nothing? Criticism of Barth’s Doctrine

The first criticism which many have raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige is that an account of evil as both fundamentally characterized by not-being and truly and utterly defeated in Christ seems patently false, a form of denial about the clear reality of the visible world. Given that Barth specifically wrote during the time of Nazism and was well aware of the deep, inestimable darkness of the Holocaust, some like Lindsay have suggested that Barth’s doctrine, which takes no explicit account of such events, is necessarily an anemic account of evil.8 Is Nothingness a strong enough concept to explain the atrocities of the Second World War? Can Jesus’ once-for-all complete annihilation of das Nichtige really be considered realistic in light of the Auschwitz? Of course, there are potential responses to this, but the objection is understandable. This also seems to tie in with Barth’s unequivocal rejection of natural theology and general revelation; the Holocaust is not Christ, and so was never suitable material for doing theological work.

A second objection which might be raised against the doctrine of das Nichtige involves providence: if God truly does not will, cause, determine, or ordain evil, then how can His providence be authentically and robustly active over the dark forces of the world? This objection is stronger from Calvinists who might assert that such a doctrine completely dismantles God’s absolute sovereignty. While this second form of the objection is not especially compelling given the many weaknesses in a theory of divine determinism, the basic question stands and begs answering. This is compounded by the way in Scripture that God often overruled and guided evil, sending disaster this way and that, and even hardening people’s hearts. While there probably are possible ways to answer, not least from more carefully studying Barth’s account itself, that work remains to be done.

More serious an objection is the questionable, mythological or speculative nature of das Nichtige as an attempted account of evil. At one point Barth implied that the divine conflict against das Nichtige goes back in a certain sense (more in a logical than chronological sense, to be sure) behind the time of creation itself, with God’s act of creation being directed against the void which would have there be nothing else but Nothingness.9 In addition, the ontology of evil, the non-existing existence of das Nichtige as that which God rejected and did not create, seems simply outlandish. Certainly, this whole picture is a bit strange and calls to mind many of the pagan myths of a deity triumphing over a lesser deity in order to create the world mankind now inhabits.  This is odd for Barth more than others, given his resistance to all human projection and speculation. Any attempt to make das Nichtige into a workable Christian account of evil would have to address why and how such a bizarre account could be justified. This, again, can likely be done, and later a possible way will be suggested.

A final objection, and quite possibly the most serious of them all, is the way that Barth’s view of das Nichtige seems to construct an uncomfortable and questionable partial dualism in the heart of Christian theology. If indeed the struggle with das Nichtige goes back to the beginning of the act of creation itself, and if evil’s paradoxical existence of not-being ultimately traces back to God’s election of creation and covenant as the rejected alternative of desolation and anti-grace, then one has to ask whether some principle indeed made evil inevitable and necessary after all. Has Barth bound even God’s creative power to some higher principle which requires evil, even if the dualism is asymmetrical (and thus partial) due to Christ’s final and decisive eradication of das Nichtige? Lindsay addressed the problem in this way:

Hick raises a similar point when he queries why God, in the positive act of creation had, in logical necessity, also to create the “third factor” of Nothingness. Why can we not conceive of a God who is able to create a good universe “that is not accompanied by the threatening shadow of rejected evil?” Why must God choose good and reject evil, as though these realities were existences “which already [stood] in some way before Him…?”10

This is perhaps the most difficult and problematic question for the whole doctrine, and unless a remedy can be proposed, the Church may one day simply need to plunder Barth’s view for its benefits and move on to something else. So just what are these benefits?

Nothing Good for Something: Insights from Barth’s View

Despite the various weaknesses of Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, there are several commendable features from which the Church catholic may greatly benefit. The first of these worth mentioning is the way das Nichtige can serve Bible reading. While at first glance this doctrine hardly seems much relevant to any specific statements in the Scriptures, there are a few places where its relevance appears. One of the more interesting applications is in the Old Testament passages which depict creation in terms of mythological conquest.11 Barth knew that the mythological-sounding language he used was not at all univocal, but such descriptions do correspond with something that Scripture says about God’s supremacy in creating and preserving the world. What if the Biblical reader thought of Rahab as das Nichtige? That may not be identical to the original intent but ironically may very well give the modern reader a similar impression to what the ancient reader heard.

Another strength of Barth’s doctrine is its prophetic character with respect to the absolute nature of evil as evil and not good. In too many other Christian accounts of evil, evil truly cannot but be part of the good, either the necessary possibility which makes free will and human love real or the darker half of God’s plan of self-glorification. The doctrine of das Nichtige neither requires not permits such a concept of evil’s existence as inherently justified by its role as means to any end. Instead, being neither proper to the good God nor His good creatures, evil is fully wicked, unjustified, and unacceptable, allowed to truly be evil without merely being the balance to the Force. Das Nichtige is not truly a theodicy, for as McDowell explained, Barth knew that any such project had to in some sense or way trivialize evil and offer cover for its sources and activities.12 Thus following Barth on this point gives the Church solid ground to call out evil in an entirely uncompromised and uncompromising way.

In response to the charge above that das Nichtige represents a theology of denial and insufficiency by claiming evil is truly a dead void post-Calvary, there is, in fact, the entirely reasonable defense that Barth may be simply following Luther in submitting to a theology of the Word and of faith. Never mind what the world may appear to be; what God has declared alone matters. The reality men think they perceive is not ultimate, but only the reality which God has spoken by His omnipotent Word. Barth would certainly agree with Luther when he said, “He who believes God, recognizes Him as true and faithful, and himself as a liar; for he mistrusts his own thinking as false, and trusts the Word of God as being true, though it absolutely contradicts his own reasoning,”13 and so ought the Church today. In the face of the whatever reality appears to contradict the Gospel of Christ, the Gospel must be allowed to take precedence and declare the truth. If therefore, Barth is right to say that Christ declares Himself the absolute and unqualified victor over das Nichtige, consigning the beast entirely to the empty past, the Church ought to learn to have faith in the Word and not doubt.

Finally, though, the most important strength of Barth’s doctrine is the way Christ stands central. The das Nichtige was exposed and climactically annihilated on the Cross in the flesh of Jesus. Jesus survived, along with His divine-human union, but das Nichtige has been banished forevermore, stripped of even its old quasi-reality. All that remains is but an echo of a shell of a memory, but the risen Christ stands triumphant. From the beginning to the end, in ways also unexplored here due to space constraints, Barth’s doctrine of evil is viewed through the lens of Christology, and even if the exact results are less than perfect, the focus and methodology must be commended. If Jesus really is the true center and subject of all the world and God’s activity in the world, then there is no excuse for even attempting to describe an account of evil which makes sense without reference to Him. Barth successfully avoided that error and knew nothing about evil except Christ crucified. If nothing else is worth following in Barth’s doctrine of das Nichtige, this theme is.

Conclusion

What, then, is the result of all this? Is the doctrine of das Nichtige of benefit? By all means, it is! Nothingness is definitely a productive angle for approaching the problem of evil, one which had precedent and support in the thought of the Church catholic well before Barth ever wrote a word. Augustine and the Orthodox are especially close to this view, but similarities may even be found in the Reformed tradition and C. S. Lewis. In all of these cases, Barth’s catholicity and uniqueness shine through his flawed but fundamentally helpful account of evil, an account which, like all of Barth’s theology, found a compass in the person of Jesus Christ. Any doctrine which exalts and serves Christ in this way deserves at least a seat at the discussion table. Indeed, this doctrine can serve Christ, and a few reasons on why and how are in order.

There are a few possible useful implications of Barth’s doctrine of evil. In Christian preaching, the preacher is freed to call out evil and unqualified evil without equivocating or fearing the question, “Why would a good God allow evil, and what if He uses evil?” No conflicts of conscience, questions about God’s purposes and character, are necessary since evil is assigned a role of pure and complete opposition to divine willing and creating. Those wrestling with the problem of evil, both within the Church and without Her, may be pointed not towards philosophers and constructed systems but to Christ and Him crucified. Regardless of how and why evil came to be in actual metaphysical detail, the minister may proclaim that God has used His omnipotent power to mortify the phenomenon. This can also be an impetus to evangelism, the Church thus energized to take on the world, the flesh, and the Devil with its witness, knowing the forces to have already been destroyed in Christ. Hope may be allowed full reign, even in the darkest of times, and the Gospel can be proclaimed in force to all people: Jesus is Lord, over and against the evil forces, even das Nichtige, which He has vanquished.

Bibliography

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. Vol. 3.3, The Doctrine of Creation. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Translated by G. W. Bromiley, G. T. Thomson, and Harold Knight. London: T&T Clark, 2009.

Hart, David Bentley. “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart.” The Christian Century, January 10, 2006. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001. PDF.

Lindsay, Mark R. “‘Nothingness’ Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust.” Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): 3-19. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

Luther, Martin, and John Theodore Mueller. Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954.

McDowell, John C. “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, no. 3 (November 2002): 319. Accessed November 18, 2016. Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

Vorster, Nicolaas. “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?” Journal of Reformed Theology 5, no. 1 (2011): 26-48. Accessed November 18, 2016. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

The Westminster Confession of Faith. Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Accessed November 18, 2016. http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

Wikisource Contributors. “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6.” In Wikisource. 2010. Accessed November 18, 2016. https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.


1 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, §50, 289.

2 Mark R. Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust,” Colloquium 34, no. 1 (May 1, 2002): pg. 7, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

3 Wikisource Contributors, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book XII/Chapter 6,” in Wikisource (2010), accessed November 18, 2016, https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_I/Volume_II/City_of_God/Book_XII/Chapter_6&oldid=2228839.

4 The Westminster Confession of Faith (Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics), ch. III, sec. 1, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html.

5 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), PDF, pg. 60.

6 Nicolaas Vorster, “The Augustinian Type of Theodicy: Is It Outdated?,” Journal of Reformed Theology 5, no. 1 (2011): pg. 37, accessed November 18, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials [EBSCO].

7 David Bentley Hart, “Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart,” The Christian Century, January 10, 2006, accessed November 18, 2016, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2006-01/where-was-god.

8 Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited,” 16.

9 Barth, CD III/3, §50, 290.

10 Lindsay, “‘Nothingness’ Revisited,” 13.

11 E.g. Job 26:12.

12 John C. McDowell, “Much Ado about Nothing: Karl Barth’s Being Unable to Do Nothing about Nothingness,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 4, no. 3 (November 2002): pg. 324, accessed November 18, 2016, Academic Search Premier [EBSCO].

13 Martin Luther and John Theodore Mueller, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1954), pg. 87.

Reflections on Depravity (With Patrick Bowers)

I recently finished up the chess series of the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James (The Pawn through Checkmate; I’m not counting Opening Moves, which I’m still reading). For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a series of crime thrillers which tends to focus both on serial killers and on terrorist plots. That’s enough reason for it to occasionally be a bit outlandish, and too often you find yourself having to choke down some pretty horrific images (human depravity stands out, for sure), but there is gold as well. The relationship between the main character, an FBI agent named Patrick Bowers, and his stepdaughter Tessa Ellis is an interesting one, with plenty of stereotypes but also plenty to appreciate as they grow closer and mature following the death of their wife/mother (not a spoiler: she died before the first book). But even better, they and some other characters get into wonderfully interesting and somewhat deep conversations (both with each other and themselves) about theological and philosophical issues. These alone are worth the read if you can stomach the graphic content.

The theological question I found most engaging is the depravity of man (no, this isn’t a post about total depravity in TULIP). In a series like this, it’s hard to avoid if you think much at all, and Steven James doesn’t avoid it. Instead, he tackles head-on one of the most serious issues about evil: just who is capable of what? What makes serial killers, assassins, and terrorists different from the rest of it.

In the Patrick Bowers series, the only clear answer is, “Very little.”

The prime example of this is how the series frequently calls back a case in which, upon arresting and handcuffing a serial killer, the killer said something that set Bowers off, and he responded by breaking his jaw and preparing to cut him apart with a scalpel before stopping. He recounts over and over in the narration how it felt kind of good, how it frightened him, and how it plagued him with the thought that maybe he and the killers he tracks aren’t so different after all. Indeed, he couldn’t shake the idea that we’re really all this way.

Of course, as Christians we rightly ought to understand from our faith that this is a realistic issue. We are corrupt in our flesh, and easily corrupted even further. As Batman and the Joker have noticed, no one is really more than one bad day away from becoming something which would have horrified them the day before, from actualizing depravity. If you doubt this, consider the Holocaust. Most of the people who participated in the crimes that tortured and killed millions of people were not previously obvious monsters. Before World War II started, you would not have thought anything was wrong with them. In fact, it would be quite absurd and offensive to suggest that Germans were simply more evil than the other peoples at the time. They simply were given the right nudges and conditions to bring out the darkest depths of who they really are. One example of a conversation that highlights this:

“But serial killers always look like the rest of us. They never really look like what they are.”

“Or maybe they always do.”

That was a troubling thought.

She looked at me intently. “I’ve been thinking about it since we talked about how clever criminals can be in prison—how they could ever act so inhuman to each other. Do you know how to turn someone into a monster?”

“I’m not sure. No.”

“Let him be himself without restraint.”

Then she went to her room and left me to sort through what she’d just said.

We’d had discussions on this subject before, and she’d quoted to me the words of Dr. Werjonic: “The road to the unthinkable is not paved by slight departures from your heart, but by tentative forays into it.”

Being yourself without restraint.

Taking deeper forays into your own heart.

Two ways of saying the same thing.

The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.

The King, The Patrick Bowers Series, loc. 241-242 in EPUB version

If there is any moral to take from the Patrick Bowers books, it’s this: No one is more than a few steps away from becoming a killer. And no killer is more than a few steps away from becoming a serial killer. That’s how deep and pervasive human depravity is. It’s in us all, coloring everything we are and do.

Alas, even though the books do in fact touch on Jesus, God, and prayer on many occasions, the fact of Christ as the solution to the depravity in our flesh never really comes out (albeit in one or two places it is implied; e.g. a character notes that we can’t rise above who we are, to which Tessa responds, “Can someone else lift us?”). Instead, by the last book you are left with the vague impression that all we can do is try harder to combat the darkness, and if we’re lucky we might just keep it at bay.

Obviously, such a conclusion would be insufficient hope for anyone who is truly confronted with their own radical evil, the evil James makes so big a theme in his series. Maybe he didn’t intend it to end on that note, but in any case Paul has a better conclusion, the one for which the experiences of Patrick Bowers cry out, in Romans 7:24-8:2.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 

Amen! In a world of darkness, especially in our own hearts, may we look to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit for the only light.

Stop Hating on Worship

Theologically-minded people get cynical.

This is to our shame.

One of the worst places that this cynicism shows up is in corporate worship as we sing songs to God. I know because I experience this personally on a weekly basis. I get critical about what we sing, and I hear my friends talk about it, too.

But really, we need to stop.

Yes, there are reasons to dislike certain worship songs.

Yes, it is true that many songs are less than 100% theologically precise.

Yes, some songs even use apparently incorrect theology.

Despite all this, rarely does a song pop up with is legitimately dangerous or so wrong that it cannot be sung by a godly heart. The songs which make rounds in our average evangelical Protestant churches may not always be of the highest musical and theological quality, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to cringe at lyrics when we could be worshipping the Almighty God.

And honestly, I’m rarely convinced that the problems identified with certain songs actually have to be problems. More often than not, we let our idiosyncrasies distort the reality. We’re so smug and proud of our theological purity that we are immediately suspicious of wording that we might not have chosen, even if the actual meaning is perfectly innocuous. We would be better off suspending our judgment and trying to figure out if a line is really flirting with heresy or if maybe we’re reading it wrong.

Take a couple of examples.

In “Holy Spirit” by Kari Jobe, I’ve heard people take issue with the line, “Holy Spirit, You are welcome here.” The usual response is, “Who do we think we are to tell the Holy Spirit where He is welcome? He can come and go wherever He wants!” But this is a silly objection. No one singing this line means to say, “Alright, Holy Spirit, in my personal sovereignty I give You, my humble Servant, permission to enter this room.” The real meaning is clear to anyone who is willing to give the benefit of the doubt: we are eager and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. We are praying for Him to act, saying that we are willing to listen and not resist.

“Good, Good Father” also gets a lot of flack, not just among theological types but even many others. I’ve seen some serious hate directed its way, such as here and here. And I’ll admit quickly that it’s a bit silly, certainly not quality music, especially in the first verse. But even so, I think the criticisms are mostly off-base. People complain about “You tell me that You’re pleased” as though the Father does not declare us pleasing to Him in the Son. One Calvinist complained about “I’m loved by You” as though Christians should remain skeptical about God’s love for them while worshipping Him. They hate on the mindless repetition, vague sentimentality, and lack of any distinctively Christian language. But really, really, what can you actually find in this song that explicitly contradicts Scripture and would be sung by your average worshipper in a way that turns them away from their heavenly Father? I find no such thing.

I won’t bother with any more examples for now. The point is clear enough. We need to quit with the snobbery, the arrogance, the hyper-particularity that distract our minds from the divine glory. Every once in a while we might stumble upon a song that is legitimately unacceptable, but most of the time we’re being picky, failing to apply the benefit of the doubt, and asserting our superiority over people who write and sing these songs. That’s not worship. So let’s leave this all behind and just focus on God. (And if the lyrics trip you up, be creative. I’m sure you can find an interpretative way to sing them with a meaning that fits your theology, unless your theology is a jerk.)

Love Is War

I was reading 1 Corinthians 13 the other day and learned something which I did not know. Apparently, all (or most?) of the descriptions of love are verbs in the Greek. Phrases rendered like “Love is kind” could be rendered ultra-literally as “Love kinds” or more dynamically as “Love acts kindly.” Love is active throughout the passage.

Moreover, the actions ascribed to love in this passage are entirely contrary to the flesh, our natural way of living based on our merely animal aspects. We act in one way by default, by instinct, and that way is entirely opposed to the way of love. They cannot abide one another. They are antithetical at their very core. There is one way of acting characterized by love and another way of acting characterized by the self-being of the flesh, and one cannot act in both ways with creating inner conflict.

This brings me to another thought, namely the way that Christianity is often portrayed as a soft, feminine religion with no room for toughness, conflict, strenuous self-discipline, or heroic efforts. It seems unmanly by any of the traditional traits associated with masculinity. Christianity often appears to be an issue of “love, not war.”

But what I would like to point out here is that, in a very important way, love is war. It is strenuous conflict, the fight against natural instincts of self-service in order to do what is right for God and others. It involves determined efforts to kill the old man. We fight and struggle against not humans, but spiritual forces and powers and the corruptions in nature.

This is a Biblical theme. Paul speaks in Romans 9 to us about killing sin, putting it to violent death in our bodies because we have been hung on a bloody cross to die with Christ. We direct strenuous energy and training into fighting the war of love, which means following our Captain Jesus to fight the way He fought, not against humans but against sin, self-love, and the effects of death and Hell. Jesus fought by resisting all of His natural impulses to save or avenge Himself and instead suffering nobly to complete the mission of God. This is our call as well, and it is a hard one which requires an almost military discipline, or even more than that.

Acts is also portrayed as a conquest narrative. It has numerous parallels with Joshua, showing Canaan and then the world being conquered by the preaching of the Gospel through Christ’s elite warriors. These warriors suffer just as other warriors do, more literally than in most of these other parallels as they experienced flogging, beating, and all kinds of torture or harsh conditions.

This is all specific to love, not just a conception of Christianity in general. We do and must do all of these things for  the sake of love, love for God and for people. It is love which must be the force here, and yet it is also through these fights and struggles that we actually love. There is circularity here: love compels us to fight the war that enables us to love.

I also do not say this merely to point out an interesting idea in thinking about love. I’m pointing this out because this realization has two possible benefits. On the one hand, it is a reminder to men that Christianity is serious conflict, that it is not simply sitting around singing mushy songs and feeling fluttery feelings about God and others. Rather, it is a fight. In Christianity we are called to act like heroes who love by taking down sin and self-centeredness like Liam Neeson takes down Eastern European criminals in order to serve the ones we love. We are like the troops who lay down their lives to protect their families and honor their king.

On the other hand, I say this to remind us that love is effort, serious effort in which we will have to suffer. Like in war, we must discipline ourselves and be consciously vigilant against all threats. Love and our loved ones are located in a battle zone, and we must behave in a way that makes sense in such high stakes. It takes diligence, self-control, attention, and obedience to orders if we want our love, our mission to put God and others first, to succeed.

Onward, then, Christian soldiers. Let us march on to the war that is love.

Wanting to Justify Himself

The statement that prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan struck me recently. Here’s the account:

Just then an expert in the law stood up to test Him, saying, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the law?” He asked him. “How do you read it?”

He answered:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.

“You’ve answered correctly,” He told him. “Do this and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Luke 10:25-29

That last little line gave me pause. “Wanting to justify himself,” it says. This seems to be a constant, universal human urge. Our response to our sin, or even imagined sin, is almost always, “Let me justify myself. Let me defend my actions.” We are desperate to avoid accusation and condemnation. Our conscience’s jump in fright at any such happening, and we immediately pull up the defenses.

I know I am very guilty of this. Whenever I do wrong, or even if I haven’t done wrong but an accused of it, I drive into overdrive self-defense mode. I try to get myself off the hook with, if necessary, nothing more than a technicality. I’ll debate over semantics to avoid the greater judgment associated with certain labels for my actions. This is what the scribe did, nitpicking on the definition of “neighbor.” It’s what Bill Clinton did that put him at the butt of many jokes which continue today and annihilated any respect that some people had for him.

Of course, this is not acceptable. We have no right to justify ourselves. Most of the time we actually are in the wrong, and even when we are not we will usually end up there in the course of pursuing our justification. In fact, even when we are not in the wrong on the surface we often are still influenced by sin somewhere further down, behind the scenes. There is no justification for us, at least on our own terms or by our own efforts. 

In the end, we must look to Christ to handle this issue. In our lives, we must emulate Him. Though He was truly innocent and just, He did not attempt to justify Himself when accused of all kinds of crimes. He instead sat silent, content to await His justification from God which came at His resurrection. When we are truly innocent, we can and must rely on God to provide our justification, our vindication before those who accuse us. When we are not innocent, we also must rely on God in Christ. We must find our justification in the one who justifies the ungodly through Christ, and the only way to find justification in Christ is to confess that we are unjustified in ourselves.

So do not be like the scribe. Do not seek to justify yourself. Instead, entrust yourself to God, confessing your faults and waiting patiently in your righteousness. He will take care of your justification.

Hate the World, Or Burn with It

Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.

1 John 2:15-17

This world will burn. I don’t mean that the physical, spacetime universe will be permanently destroyed, of course.1 I mean the rulers and systems of this age, the present cultures, structures, and institutions which are beholden to the flesh and the devil, which foster sin and exacerbate suffering. These are what John and Paul often refer to in Scripture as the “world” or “this age.” And as John said just above, they are passing away. The world will be condemned and toppled when Christ returns to judge and recreate.

But it is easy to talk about this stuff in general, abstract terms. What is this condemned world in real, actual life? What does it mean to love it and the things in it, as John warned us against? I’ve been giving this some thought lately, and it is not too hard to see how it works. The world offers its own vision for life in direct opposition to the call of Jesus. Naturally, this vision takes different forms in different cultures, and I do not know much about the way of worldly life presented to people in most cultures, but what I am familiar with is the American one. So what is the world in America?

One easily identifiable component of the world system in America is its relentless pursuit of personal wealth and “success.” Our society is powerfully shaped by this idol. Ideally, we go to school to get qualifications that land us in decent jobs from which we can work our way up to riches. Few make it all the way through this journey to the top, but its role as the standard goal is unquestionable. The life of corporate advancement, complete with expensive clothing, status watches, luxury cars, and all the rest, is taken for granted as an ideal, part of the good life for which we Americans strive.

Yet, while diligently working in a profitable job is by no means an evil or a sin, the system behind this success culture is clearly and certainly corrupt to the core. Quite frequently, it demands that you offer in sacrifice your integrity, your spouse, your children, your commitment to your church, and by all means your sacrificial giving on its pagan altar. It breaks apart families and in fact even individuals under stress and the pursuit of the wind. You are not permitted to give with unlimited generosity, sacrificing wealth and status too thoroughly to help the least of these, but must spend freely and extensively on certain restaurants, gizmos, and fashions with symbolic functions in order to climb the ladder. This system is greed and pride incarnate, the actual reality of the “pride of life.” It may be true that it is entirely possible to have one of these jobs while not participating in these corruptions, but it remains a frightening world, and one which demands intentional, diligent Gospel devotion for a follower of Christ to spiritually survive.

The world also manifests itself in the reigning sexual ethos, where the only thing that matters is personal sexual expression and unrestrained choice. The union of easy divorce, endlessly accessible birth control, affordable abortion options, casual hookups, proliferating online porn, and the de-shaming of adultery brings forth a sexual culture of death. It creates emotional distress, insecure men, unfulfilled women, rapidly spreading diseases, fuel for sex trafficking, and broken homes (the last of which tends to bring with it a host of other problems, such as generational poverty, drug abuse, gang crime, and school violence). What is hailed as “liberation” is actually slavery to the flesh. The culture which asks “What’s wrong with consenting adults doing what they want in the bedroom?” is the very same culture which robs millions of people of their consenting freedom to slavishly serve (in many cases quite literally) the god Sexual Pleasure.

I could go on exposing the systems and structures which make up the world, but I want to move on to make a more important point. We must hate the world. These systems are evil, pure evil, ruining God’s creation and the humans He loves so much, and they will be damned to Hell when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. We are not allowed to flirt and compromise with the enemy of God’s create humanity, even if this enemy is made up in large part of those same humans. Whoever may make up many of the ground troops, the rulers and powers behind the world are Satan and his hordes. To participate in the systems they have set up on earth in their time of power is to participate in cosmic, demonic rebellion against God. The force that might tempt you to a “harmless” casual hookup is the same one that turned a mere man into a naked, superstrength, chain-breaking monster before driving a horde of pigs to cast themselves off a cliff to their deaths.2

This brings me to a related point about human accountability. We often wonder how God could really be justified in condemning so many normal, seemingly decent people. Would it really be right for God to punish polite Jim Bob down the road just because he’s not sure Jesus rose from the dead? Yet I want to say on this that the majority of people are not as innocent as they look. No, Jim would never buy a sex slave, but he does give his money to a porn website that acquires much of its “talent” from trafficking organizations. Yes, Jim pays for welfare with his taxes, but despite his ability to afford a BMW he has politely ignored every email, telephone, and visitation campaign asking for his support for starving orphans in Afghanistan for 15 years. And of course, Jim would never expand his company with a sweatshop filled with impoverished children, but he has no problem making major business deals giving money to companies that do just that. He might be innocent of thousands of awful crimes, but in the end God sees how he is aiding and abetting tens of thousands.

The world is an omnipresent web of wickedness, and to avoid getting caught in it takes great care. But as Christians we must take that care, because to do otherwise is to entangle Christ with Satan. Nothing can result from such a union but pain, suffering, and judgment. As John said above, “the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.” If we do not want to pass away with the world, we will have to cling to Christ, but to cling to Christ is to hate the world which opposes Him and His reign of grace.  There is no other option. Hate the world or burn with it.

This will lead us to some tough questions about the lines and connections in participation with the evils of the world. We know it would be sinful for us to submit children to labor in rough conditions with pitiful pay just because they can’t survive otherwise, but is it wrong to give our money to companies that do so in exchange for affordable shoes? All evangelical Christians would agree that homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we shouldn’t come to our gay non-Christian friend’s wedding? And while I may just need a job, is there something inappropriate in trying to sell services for a company that I’m convinced is seriously (though legally) ripping people off?

These questions all need to be addressed, but in addressing them all we must remember the enemy. The world is the devil’s kingdom. Let us not get drawn in, but draw our swords and fight to stand for the kingdom of God instead.

Pizza Hut, Suffering, Resurrection, Fasting, and the Flesh

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

Philippians 3:10-11

Suffering and Resurrection

In my studies recently, I have come more and more to see suffering as key to the broad concept of salvation. Don’t get me wrong; right off the bat I want to point out that I don’t think suffering is some kind of requirement to be saved, or believe in something like “justification by suffering” rather than by Christ. But what I have seen is a basic order and connection being a major theme: suffering and vindication, death and resurrection.

What do I mean? Throughout Scripture, one of the ongoing realities is the suffering of God’s people at the hands of enemies, and His promise to both save them and vindicate them, prove that they were in the right, against their enemies. This can be mostly clearly seen first in the Exodus. God sees His people suffering under Egyptian oppression, declares that He is their God and they are His people, and proceeds to rescue and vindicate them. This continues to be the pattern as Israel faces many other enemies, especially those who taunt them and boast. In the Psalms there are repeated prayers for God to alleviate suffering and prove the righteousness of His people or His chosen king. This theme is also present very much in the prophets, especially Isaiah, though certainly in all the rest as well.

In between the Old and New Testaments, the theme of martyrdom in this regard grew especially strong. The Maccabean revolt etched into the Jewish worldview the importance of individuals who heroically suffered for God, even unto death, in the hope of future vindication and even resurrection. This set the context well for Jesus, who completely fulfilled this ideal of suffering and vindication in His own personal, physical death and resurrection, as the Scripture says:

He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death —
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name.

Philippians 2:8-9

And as well:

Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels. 

Isaiah 53:12

I could produce a host of other texts, but that shouldn’t really be necessary. God has always saved His people as they patiently endure suffering, and ultimately proves them right over and against their enemies. The final climax of this is resurrection to undo the suffering and shame of death, a fate which so far only Christ has experienced in fullness.

This last part is the key. Jesus in His own self summed up the redemptive motion that God had been up to with His people since the beginning: He suffered, He died, and He rose to new life. We have been saved by Christ’s fulfillment of this dynamic between God, His people, and the world.

The significance of that for our own lives in particular is the realization of how Scripture connects these things to Christians. Just as Christ suffered, those who are in Christ are expected to suffer1. Yet this suffering is not seen as simply an isolated kind of event, a problem that will happen to us with no inherent meaning or significance. Our sufferings are directly connected to the suffering Christ experienced. His death is our death, and our sufferings are His. This means that the same end that Jesus experienced after His suffering—public vindication and physical resurrection—will also be applied to us through the Holy Spirit2.

I’ll step back and sum up the idea. We are saved through Christ’s suffering and vindication, His death and resurrection. We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore our sufferings as Christians assure us that we are involved in His life, His saving life, and so our story will end in the same way as His: new life and eternal glory. Moreover, our sufferings can produce fruit in us of Christ’s resurrection life here and now, not just on the last Day.

Suffering and the Flesh

I want to look at that last statement a bit more. First Peter 4:1-2 say this of suffering:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.

What does this mean? Does suffering sanctify, and if so how? Why does it say that the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin? The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in a proper understanding of the “flesh.” Contra the NIV, “flesh” should not simply be taken as “sinful nature.” The flesh appears to be, Biblically speaking, a reference to the merely natural aspect of human nature and existence, the part of human life which is not truly distinguishable from animal life. The one who lives according to the flesh lets natural desires run his life: the drives for sex, food, survival, security, etc. None of these things are evil things, but when the desires for them are unchecked by anything higher than mere man, they run rampant and destroy. Yet “flesh” in this sense can also be used more neutrally. Jesus being descended from David according to the flesh merely means that David is His ancestor from a natural, physical point of view.

I think that it should not take much detailed explanation and defense to show how this makes sense of the use of “flesh” in Scripture. So if we tie that the concept of suffering for Christ, it is not difficult to see how suffering kills sins. When we share in Christ’s sufferings, we learn from experience to deny the desires of the flesh, and indeed the more you actually suffer and deny the flesh, the more you become able to do so, just as is the case with all learned behaviors. When we learn to deny the flesh by our sufferings for Christ, we find that we are more inclined to seek satisfaction in Him than to fulfill our natural desires. We become liberated from the constant compulsions to satisfy our desires for food, sex, security, and survival which so inhibit our abandoned pursuit of Christ as we continue to deny these desires in suffering for His sake.

Suffering and Fasting

This brings me to the most recent realization in conjunction with these themes. See, not all of us experience Christian suffering. Most of us do suffer at some time or another, death or sickness or poverty or broken hearts. Yet few of us suffer for Christ, voluntarily accepting suffering precisely because of our commitment to Him. Instead of by choice for God, we suffer by external factors which we try to escape or mitigate. This kind of suffering, while empathetic and in need of grace, is not the suffering that trains us to kill sin. But this is something of a blessing. We do not suffer for Christ because we have a degree of religious liberty, and are allowed to worship as we please. So we are free to pursue holiness and share the Gospel. On the other hand, we miss out on something, because God gives His people blessings through suffering3.

So what? Are we forced to miss out on these blessings as long as live in a safe place for Christians? By no means! For if indeed suffering for Christ sanctifies us by training us to deny the desires of the flesh, there is another way to experience these same benefits. This can be done by a discipline taught and practiced by Christ, used widely in the Church’s past, but mostly neglected today. What is this? Why, fasting, of course. 

See, fasting makes it possible to deny the flesh and seek Christ in a very tangible, voluntary, and powerful way. When we fast, we make a commitment that binds us for a time, pressing us to neglect our natural desires (particularly food, which is easily the most powerful) so that we might instead devote ourselves to prayer, Scripture, and love. When we do this regularly, we develop the habit, enriched and sanctified by the Spirit through these devotions, of denying self for Christ’s sake. This is, in fact, what Christ Himself did to prepare for His ministry. In order to maintain His strength, resist all distracting temptations, and train for the hardships of His ministry which would climax in death on a cross, He spent 40 entire days fasting. No food for over a month, denying His natural desires, His flesh, for the sake strengthening His resolve in the Spirit. This was the very first thing the Spirit led Him to do after His baptism, and the foundation of all He would do later. If He could actually dedicate Himself to God for 40 days without food—if He could push through that kind of intense hunger and desire—then He could withstand anything else He would need to do, even be crucified.

Following this pattern that Jesus Himself set down is exactly what we need. When we fast, we participate in Jesus’ life and death, His saving sufferings, and by this we kill the power of sin in our lives by the Holy Spirit. When we fast, we experience in part the benefits of godly, Christian suffering. Fasting is a powerful and necessary part of our spiritual disciplines by which we grow in Christ through the Spirit, alongside prayer and Scripture.

Oh, and Pizza Hut

I should add one more thought to this before I finish. See, while fasting is criminally neglected among modern church practice, it’s not altogether absent. It still does happen. Yet even when it does, I’ve noticed that it is rarely the traditional practice of abstaining from eating, or even any other basic human desire. I see people fast Facebook, sweets, sodas, Twitter, or sometimes even the entire Internet. These are useful and sometimes necessary fasts which can benefit our spiritual health. But I get the uneasy feeling from the sheer flood of these kinds of fasts that the full fasting of food has become a rarity, and that this is because in the American church we, well, have an idolatrous love of food. We are widely and deeply guilty of the sin of gluttony.

I believe this applies to most of you reading this, along with myself. We love food too much. We let it drive and control us. There’s a reason I often crave a Pizza Hut buffet, and every time I go I eat more by myself than many families get for a whole day around the world. There’s a reason that I cringe, fear, and delay when I think about fasting food. I am an idolatrous glutton, and for that I repent and impose upon myself a fast that I might learn to deny the flesh for Christ. Yet I am not alone, and I can only pray that more of us will gather the conviction to crucify our natural desires, even the desire for food, that we may be freed for holiness.

In fact, that last sentence is pretty much the whole point of this post. So with that I’ll end with a good quote:

Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.

St. Basil the Great