Evil Shall Slay the Wicked. A Classic Sermon.
October 03, 2004
Come, ye children, hearken unto me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
What man is he that desireth life,
and loveth many days, that he may see good?
Keep thy tongue from evil,
and thy lips from speaking guile.
Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.
The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous,
and his ears are open unto their cry.
The face of the Lord is against them that do evil,
to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth,
and delivereth them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart;
and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous;
but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.
He keepeth all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Evil shall slay the wicked;
and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate.
The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants;
and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.
Reading from Swedenborg
In the other life, it is the order of all things that evil punishes itself, as does falsity. (Arcana Coelestia #1011)
The presence of evil in the world is one of the most persistent and perplexing problems confronting the Christian Church. If God is almighty and all-loving, why doesn't he annihilate the source of human misery and faithlessness? If God is a supreme being of perfect love, would he stand by and see crime, violence, and murder destroy the happiness of so many members of the human race? Why did God not design a world where sin, disease, misery, poverty, greed, and hate are unknown? If God made everything, he must have made evil. These are questions that torment the minds of many people. They are important and fundamental queries that cannot be dismissed with a few evasive replies.
I offer some thoughts on the subject, hoping they might be of help to you in working out your own solution to the problem.
In all quests for ultimate spiritual truth it may be well to begin with this premise: every single thing that the Lord creates and brings into being is orderly and good. Since he possesses divine wisdom and omnipotence, he could not do otherwise. How emphatically the stamp of goodness is placed on creation in the first chapter of Genesis! As each phase of creation was completed the Scripture declares, "And God saw that it was good."
Here I make an assertion that may surprise some of my hearers, and one they may not agree with: Hell is the creation of man and not of God. I do not imply by this that hell is imaginary-- that it has no reality or potency except as a mental concept. Not at all. Hell is real, and it is a powerfully destructive force that can hold a human soul in thralldom to eternity. We see evidences of its potency all over the world.
This throws out the age-old idea that hell was created by God for the purpose of having a place for the punishment and eternal damnation of the wicked. In my view, such a notion needs to be discarded or radically revised. The idea that at one time a certain number of angels under the leadership of Lucifer, or Satan, rebelled against God, and thus brought evil into the world, must also be questioned. Milton was a greater poet than he was a theologian. We can also dismiss as primitive and unfounded any belief in literal fire and brimstone. Such concepts have no rational grounds upon which to rest, and can have no validity if one accepts the Christian premise that God, the Creator, is a perfect divine being, possessing infinite love, wisdom and power.
The other day I was reading a well-conceived and excellently written essay that attempted to explain who made evil. Its approach was directed to young minds that were troubled about the preeminence of evil in a world created by a supposedly loving God. The gist of the author's argument was that evil is not a "thing," but rather the absence of good in human personality. A man is "bad" when he lacks certain characteristics that he should have. The development of this idea was skillfully carried out so far as it went, and there was much in it that could be helpful to most people. The author's case, however, would have been strengthened if he had added the idea that evil is actually a corrupted good. What I mean by this will become clear as we proceed.
It is generally acknowledged by enlightened Christian theologians that the beginnings of evil are in some way related to man's free will--in his God-given ability to choose courses of action. When the question is raised as to why God didn't create human beings who did not possess this potential for doing evil, the answer can be made by asking a question in return: Would you have man be merely a puppet, without the power of choice, as is the case in all lower forms of life? Does not the innate dignity and value of human life rest in this power of choice? In man's being able to do what he chooses? Anything less would make mankind no better than the beasts that inhabit the deepest jungles.
There is another, an even more important aspect to this question. Since God's love is perfect, man must necessarily have free will. Pure love does not in the slightest degree compel; it does not impose itself upon an unwilling recipient. To compel or impose would be contrary to the essential nature of love. Thus we can be eternally grateful for the wisdom of our gracious Creator, who loves us so much that he will not force us to accept his gifts, as precious and countless as they are.
This leaves man, and man alone, as the originator of all evil in the world. God is the sole source of all life. His love descending into the spirit of man gives reality and animation to the members of the human race. As this life-giving essence proceeds from the Lord, it is pure and undefiled. It is the effort of the Divine to share blessings with mankind, adapted to the limitations of the human and finite recipients. As this love from God enters into the spirit of man, it takes on the qualities of the receiver, just as a shaft of sunlight assumes the color of the glass through which it passes.
Love is above all else unselfish. But when love enters the heart of a corrupt mortal, it is transformed into greed, hate, envy, and all of the other detestable traits associated with evil men. What had been pure is now contaminated; what began as something transcendentally good has become corrupted; what was radiantly beautiful has become degraded and ugly. Take any human emotion that is ungodly, examine it with some degree of spiritual insight, and you will find that its origin was in a pure affection that had been converted by its receiver into a malignant desire.
How radically this truth can change our whole thinking about disease and disorder! No longer can we believe that sickness and accident are visitations of divine wrath to punish man for sins committed. Instead of bringing pain and misery into the world, the Lord is doing his utmost to stem their progress and to alleviate the sufferings of mankind. The spirit of man, unwilling to live in obedience to spiritual laws, has blighted the world with war, poverty, intolerance, and disease. We can go even further and declare that even the great so-called "acts of God," such as earthquakes, tidal waves, avalanches, and other forms of massive destruction have their origin in the hells. Everything in this vast and varied world of ours is a reflection of the human spirit--an effect of a cause springing forth from the spirit of man. Thus great earthly tremors and mighty upheavals of mountaintops would be unheard of if those evil passions to which they correspond were to be completely rooted out of man's nature. So let us exonerate the Lord as the source of evil and its consequences, and let mankind stand forth alone as the responsible one. Our loving Lord could no more have created evil than light could create darkness.
The words of the Psalmist now become clearer: "Evil shall slay the wicked; and they that hate righteousness shall be desolate." This Hebrew poet of Old Testament days was not thinking of physical death when he spoke. When in the Garden of Eden story the Lord warned Adam in these solemn words, "for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Genesis 2:17), he was speaking solely of spiritual death. Adam and Eve did eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, yet it is clear in the Scripture that their life was not ended as a consequence. The baneful effects of evil in the world are not necessarily on the body, but always on the spirit of man. Virtue here on earth does not insure one against suffering, either of body or mind; but goodness of character does effectively insulate the soul from the destructive corrosion of evil.
This belief that evil finds its origin in the mind of man is cause for much hope, and at the same time a source of discouragement. Gone is the expectation that evil will suddenly be destroyed by the vengeful hand of God. Gone is the dream of many that a millennium will all at once emerge out of the present-day morass of greed, materialism, hate, and war. The reason we cannot expect such an immediate and drastic transformation of our social order is that the Lord fulfills his purposes according to fixed, unyielding laws. Thus he cannot, or rather, for good and sufficient reasons pertaining to the preservation of human personality, he will not in the twinkling of an eye annihilate evil in this tormented world. This realization can bring on a deep depression of the spirit--a sense of hopelessness that has stubborn roots in human nature.
But then we remember that if man will repel the evil desires and false thoughts that push their way rudely and ruthlessly into his consciousness, order will come to the soul, and soon the outer world will reflect the peace and prosperity of the spirit. If all men could achieve this, no longer would dreaded disease shorten life on earth; no longer would drought and famine be the scourge of so many members of the human race; no longer would man recoil from vicious animals and poisonous reptiles; no longer would noxious weeds choke gardens and vineyards; and no longer would undeveloped personalities have to remain in custodial care for a long lifetime. If man's spirit became regenerated, the life it receives from the Lord would remain pure and undefiled. This God-given influx would be used unsparingly by each man to help his fellow travelers who are also on this long and winding pilgrimage to the heavenly life. The hells would have no foothold on earth, and therefore would be rendered impotent. Indeed if this did come to pass, the future generations of mankind would be living in a veritable paradise on earth.
All this is well within the power of the people of the world to bring about. But alas, we must sadly confess that more likely than not we shall continue to see "evil slay the wicked," and the haters of righteousness desolate. As individuals, we can help to make a beginning of this bright new world by the proper and constructive use of the power and talent the Lord has given to us.
Dear Lord, as we look around this world of ours with all its evil and corruption, we pray that you will make us instruments of your will in bringing about a rebirth of the human race. Amen.
Rev. Clayton Priestnal