Good and Evil, Paradox and Contradiction
Sorry things are a little slow lately. I’ve been working on some big thoughts, trying to fit them together and make them dance.
But in the meantime, let me share a few thoughts about good and evil.
The New Testament habitually engages in the very confusing practice of both affirming something and disavowing it at the same time. This could be simple contradiction - but it’s not. It’s very clear that this is being done on purpose, and it’s very clear why.
The writers are faced with the very difficult task of putting forward entirely new categories of thought. Humans aren’t very good at dealing with new categories of thought, and so we have to use tricks to be able to handle them.
The first trick is simple disagreement. It was easy, for example, for Stephen to testify to Jerusalem’s leaders that God does not live in temples.
But for some purposes, that isn’t enough. Sometimes the concept you’re disagreeing with is so complex that it is necessary to affirm some parts of the concept, while denying others.
This leads to the second trick: re-interpretation. The author of Hebrews can then explain how there is a “spiritual temple”, which supersedes the physical one. On one level, Hebrews is doing the same thing as Stephen does. But Hebrews is also showing how to transfer all the good concepts about the temple onto something more productive (in this case, one’s direct relationship with God).
We do this all the time in our own conversations. It’s only when we are dealing with ancient texts and unfamiliar contexts that this seems so foreign. We look for simple agreement, and instead find seeming contradiction. But the contradictions only arise because the authors are trying hard to translate their ideas into concepts we can deal with. The clearest way they know how to do this is to use multiple conflicting metaphors.
The New Testament does the same thing with the concept of good and evil. Good and evil had previously been understood as defined by the Law. But Jesus had explained that the purpose of the Law was to create love in its hearers. So in Romans, Paul can say that love fulfills the Law, while in other places, he can suggest that the Law has been removed.
Both are, of course, true. In one respect, the Law was entirely gone. In a more complex sense, the Law had been transferred from an external system of regulation to an internal system of motivation.
A similar thing happens with the concept of sin. John can seemingly say that we do not sin, and yet also say that if we deny sinning, we are sinners for that very denial!
How do we understand this?
First, sin should be understood as a term for violence. The Law was about curtailing violence, and Jesus explained how violence has deep internal roots. Violence is present psychologically as hate, because hate wants to destroy, but also as covetousness, because covetousness drags us directly into conflict with others.
Second, sin should be understood as a term for entrapment. If we deny the effects of hatred and covetousness on ourselves, it is probably because we are so deeply controlled by them that we can longer see the difference. But if we acknowledge their effects, we loosen their grip.
Once we realize this, we can begin to see the traps surrounding us. To try to judge ourselves on the basis of Law is to blind ourselves to the real violence within us. To deny the violence within us is to lock ourselves into it. But to acknowledge our own internal violence (even when it is not manifested openly) is to free ourselves of its power.
Usually, we can only see our own violence when we are confronted with love. This is why Jesus provoked such a brutal reaction in the ancient world - his very existence exposed and challenged everything else.
When we encounter love, it exposes everything within us. It destroys our good and evil, and reveals the true good and evil. It illuminates the internal nature of violence, allowing us to see it in ourselves, and to begin to work free of it. And it empowers us with a source for action far beyond a set of external guidelines.