August 12, 2020

Riffs: 5:09:07: Apologetics and the Naming of Evil

0060833009t.jpgRavi Zacharias writes an outstanding response to the Virginia Tech killings, and uses the moral necessity of “naming” evil as a powerful apologetic.

Much of what Ravi is saying struck me when I wrote this piece on the abuse and murder of a child several years ago: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The response of the New Age minister doing the funeral left me feeling sick, because she didn’t have any way to “name” what was truly evil.

Os Guinness mounts a similar argument in his book The Long Journey Home and devotes an entire book to the question of evil in Unspeakable. Guinness has long stated that the failure to comes to terms with evil is a major weakness of the contemporary postmodern worldview and persuasive apologetic strength of Christianity.

I completely agree. When I share this sort of material in my preaching and teaching, my students resonate with it. They live in a time when, for example, it’s very politically incorrect to say there is such a thing as a “true” and “false” gospel (Gal 1:6-12), but ask any of my students about how they feel about having their personal belongings stolen or being denied a grade that they have earned. Some are convinced that you can exist without naming God, but no one wants to live calling theft, murder or abuse simply “things that happen.”

In his recent work on lament, musician and teacher Michael Card points out that the language of lamentation is important in the Bible because it allows us to function as persons made in God’s image. It is a fact that we “name” evil and complain to God about it. This marks us apart from the rest of creation. The feel-good fizz and froth theology of a Joel Osteen leaves us with nothing to say in the face of evil other than, “Smile….God is on your side.” Biblical lament understands the covenant promise of God to be with his people, but then points specifically to evil as evidence that God is not present in a way that prevents this evil from happening, or has chosen to relate to the world in a way that allows this sort of evil to occur in spite of his covenant promise.

Lament takes God seriously. Osteen’s warmed over positive thinking demeans God and cheapens human suffering. This is why there is so much lament in the Bible. Large sections of the Old Testament, in books like Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Jeremiah, complain to God about the specifics of evil and the scandal of God’s absence and inaction. The Bible believes the best place to see God’s faithfulness to his promise is often the place of lament, mourning, complaint and outrage. All but one of the complaint Psalms are resolved into worship. Job hears from God and shuts his mouth. After chapters of lament on the vanity of existence, Solomon concludes that the best way in this life is the way of fear, faith and obedience.

Zacharias is correct that atheists are making a strong play for the mind of the culture, but are desperately trying to overlook the clear existence of evil. The dozens of moral responsbility shortcuts and explanations that surround school shootings overlook the fact that if we take away the name of “evil” for such acts, then evil has triumphed and we have morally neutered ourselves at precisely the time in history when we most need to be able to think clearly. If we do not, those who embrace evil will surely destroy civilization and replace it with something most westerners cannot imagine.

Don’t be mistaken. Many will say that Christian moral categories are the root of the problem. They will insist that it is this “naming” of evil that creates evil, and that if we abandon such an approach we can deal rationally and definitively with evil as enlightened, not superstitious, persons. Religion, they will say, creates enemies and those whom we can hate with God’s approval.

Of course, moral categories do change the world. For Christians, they name all of us into the categories of God’s good creations and rebels against God and neighbor. Christianity commands us to love our enemies, but not at the expense of moral clarity. The Christian vision of the love of God does not make it a sin to say evil is evil. Christianity takes away from us the right of divine condemnation and judgment, but it does not take away God’s rights of justice, judgment and setting the world right.

The case for Christianity cannot be entirely built from the existence of moral evil, but in the times in which we live, we cannot neglect that case or the kind of world we forfeit if we abandon it.


  1. It is my opinion that the “knowledge of good and evil” that seperates us from God, is the ability for us to define our own morality.

    It is also this ability, I think, that is our destinctive differnece from other species. We have the ability to reason, emotionalise and redefine (or define) what things are. Animals don’t seem to have this capacity. They can make use of things (i.e. basic tools) but don’t have the linguistic capability to abtsraction to the point where they can define their own morality.

    I stand to be corrected if any animal behavioural/ cognitive scientists are out there and have reserached in this area.

    It is this ability to “name” or “define” evil and good that seperated/ seperates Human from God. It is also this ability that allows us to humble oursevles before him and accept His definitions about these things.

  2. Many thanks for the link to the Zacharias piece. Os, I know, from having worked in our community. He always has important apologetic insights. And thank you for your words concerning the danger of neglecting the problematic of moral evil in today’s world and in the times we live, which might we say, are often times when evil is what somebody else does to me. The life and times of the victim are very important, yet a very one-sided portrayal of truth and reality.

    I have posted over my way a review in 5 parts of NT Wright’s book, Evil and the Justice of God, that may interest you.

  3. I’ve always felt that people who believe in relativism (particularly as it pertains to ‘evil’) do so on paper, but never really LIVE their lives as such. I’ve yet to meet a person who does not appeal to a transcendant standard of behaviour in their everyday living.


  4. LaNeisa Jackson says

    Most fuzzy thinking in the folks I speak with about such issues as evil seems to have its root in basic doctrinal misunderstanding–again. How we understand the doctrine of original sin and its resulting depravity cannot help but affect such ideas as evil. This “basic good heart” generalization is destructive. When we really grasp and agree with our sinfullness we can call a thing evil without guilt. We will then simply, without apology, speak the truth in love.

    Thanks for this powerful blog.

  5. Unspeakable by Guiness is not a fun read by a longshot, but it is an important read. If anyone thinks wrestling with this problem of evil and suffering is minor, listen to this interview of Bart Ehrman on NPR (press the Listen button at the top of the page.)
    After a 30 or so minute dissertation on supposed mistakes by scribes (which are acknowledged in the footnotes of every contemporary bible, though he talks about them like they are his discoveries), he is finally asked about what led to his transformation from a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian to an agnostic. It is not all the supposed errors that he trumpets in bestselling books. It is that he couldn’t come to grips with the problem of suffering.