Evil As Nothing At All

As I write this, several islands in the Caribbean and many cities across the breadth of central Florida are struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian; the coastal towns of South Carolina are in the crosshairs. War continues in Ukraine and the economic fallout from that localized conflict threatens global economies, supply chains, and energy and food resources. The global pandemic has loosened its stranglehold a bit recently, but its memory is fresh, and winter in the northern hemisphere may herald its resurgence there. I haven’t heard much about “murder hornets” lately; probably some more virulent pest ate them — something the media can use to terrify us once again. These seem to be “evil” days. We are, after all, in the last days — not in the “Left Behind” sense, but in the last days nonetheless — as St. Paul reminded Timothy:

2 Timothy 3:1 (RSVCE): 1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress.

Times of stress, hard days, difficult days — evil days. St. Paul was speaking mainly of human evil, as he details:

2 Timothy 3:2–5 (ESV): 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

But, it is not only human evil. Both Romans 8 and nearly the whole of Revelation portray the last days as a time when creation is and will be out-of-joint, groaning in the throes of labor as something new is being born.

The great theologians — St. Thomas Aquinas, for example — tell us that evil is nothing at all. By that they mean that evil is not a created thing, that it has no substantive or essential existence of its own; rather, evil is simply a privation of the good just as darkness is a privation of light, or cold a privation of heat. Evil is an existential vacuum, the lack of anything substantive. Theologically this is a crucial distinction. If we say evil is a thing with its own existence, then we must also say that God created evil, since, in the words of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, visible and invisible (BCP 2019, p. 109).

To avoid casting God as the creator and author of evil, we must say that good “is” and evil “is not.”

While this is true, it is a bit difficult to imagine. A lie, for example, seems to be more substantial than just the absence of truth. The falsely substantive illusion of evil may simply be due to the tangible existence of agents of evil. Humans create an absence of truth; humans lie. Rains and tides flood towns and winds destroy dwellings; hurricanes rage. A virus decimates the global populace; Covid rampages. It is not that these agents are doing nothing; it is rather that, in the end, what they do contributes to nothingness, to the vacuum of “is not.”

Scripture offers another, perhaps less philosophical but more intuitive, way to think about the nothingness of evil. Evil ultimately stems from man’s worship of that which is not, specifically of that which is not God. It started in the Garden when our first parents chose the lie — the privation of truth — over the word and promise and warning of God. It continues in our own lives when we do the same. St. Paul paints the picture of the human downward spiral into nothingness in Romans 1:18ff. The praiseworthy or damnable truth is that we become like that which we worship. Worship the nothingness of evil and become insubstantial, ephemeral, nothing at all — ones given up to their own inherent nothingness by the God who called them into being ex nihilo.

This worship of the void distorts all relationships: creature to creation, person to person, man to God. Relationships intended by God to be life-giving and nourishing become death-dealing and void. These relationships become existential black holes, devouring all that is until only that which is not remains: the stress and trouble of the evil days.

There is great good news in all this, though one has to plumb the Gospel to find it. The good news starts here: God is and, even more, God is love. That means that love is substantial, weighty because it is the being of God himself. That love, that essential “is-ness,” was made manifest to us in the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, the absolute fullness of being. In his life, ministry, and most profoundly in his death, he took upon himself all the non-being that threatened to reduce creation and man to nothing-at-all, and he filled it so full to overflowing with Being that the void could not contain it and life burst forth from the great nothing, trampling down the “is not” forever. Oh, it is still around; it is not yet destroyed, though on the last great day it will be. People still lie. Hurricanes still rage. Viruses still decimate. But, we know the truth now; we know that they are nothing at all, that they do not have real power to do the one deadly thing — to separate us from the love of God. And, in ways we cannot quite perceive, we know, too, that God uses even this nothingness to his glory and to the welfare of his people. He creates good ex nihilo as he always has.

In these last days, it falls to God’s people to worship the One Who Is (“I AM”) and to be his dual agents of creation: to contribute to that which is by telling the truth, by rescuing those suffering under the burden of creation gone awry, by practicing a host of healing arts, and most of all by worshiping the God who is: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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