Christmas, gifts and the problem of evil

I have been promising (some of) my congregation that I will deal squarely with the problem of evil from the pulpit for quite some time. When I put together my preaching plan I hesitated about what to do during Advent. Should I continue with the programme agreed (with coincidentally would mean preaching for two successive Sundays on evil) or should I abandon it and fall back on the Church calendar/lectionary themes and passages?

I was conflicted about this. I am personally deeply ambivalent about Christmas and Advent. I see the Puritans point about them quite clearly. They are part of a culture of Christendom with little connection with the Biblical or Apostolic faith. While there is continuing scholarly debate and disagreement about the origins of the midwinter festival of the birth of Christ nobody seems to think that its origins are less than 200 years after the foundation of the Church.

I am sufficiently marked by the Calvinist tradition that the Church should do only what is in the Bible (and not do things that are neither enjoined nor forbidden) to have some sympathy with the Puritans who forbade the celebration of Christmas).

At the same time I recognise that this festival is now a deeply settled and highly valued part of the Church’s tradition and recognise that the ideal of a “purely Biblical” Christianity is deluded and incoherent. The Bible was, after all, itself deposited by the Apostolic tradition and we access it only in and through the continuing Church tradition. Bible and tradition are in dialogue and partnership and it makes no sense to try to put them in opposition or to separate one from the other.

To that extent I have come to accept and value Christmas, despite my residual Puritanism.

In deciding to stick with my original plan to preach on the role of Satan in our explanation of evil on Advent 2, which is also the toy and gift service, I have therefore left myself with something of a problem. How to manage these two quite disparate elements, the accepting of gifts from the congregation to be distributed to those in need and an engagement with texts dealing with the devil, alongside the lighting of Advent candles?

This is requiring of me and new king of engagement with the problem of evil and especially with the role of Satan in our accounting for it, one that will take proper note of the incarnation and of our eschatological expectation.

Briefly:

  • I can find three distinct accounts of the origins and meaning of evil at work in the Bible and in our traditions
    1. God is completely sovereign so that what appears evil to us must accord with God’s will and ultimately be part of the good creation
    2. evil is entirely down to the misuse of human freedom in sin and God cannot prevent it without curtailing that freedom which would be a worse thing than allowing the evil – this can be seen as simply a variant of 1
    3. there is a force in the universe that resists and opposes God’s will as God’s opponent and which God has not yet been able to defeat – this force is personified as the devil – clearly this line can overlap with 2
  • none of these three seems entirely satisfactory to me as an account either of our experience or of the Biblical witness but I can’t see any more options
  • this inclines me to believe that evil is no more comprehensible to us than is our salvation through Christ, of which there is also a set of distinct but overlapping accounts
  • the problem of evil and our faith in a good God and in our redemption are related, without faith evil is not really a problem since it can be seen as just the way the world is – it is the dissonance between a good God and actual evil that is difficult

ChristmasMy approach then is likely to be to say that the idea that there is an opponent working against God’s plan for our salvation is one that is clearly supported in the Bible. Evil is a force to be reckoned with and one of which we have to be aware and alert to. At the same time this account of the origins and nature of evil can’t be allowed to stand alone since it is in tension with two other very important ideas: first that God rules and Christ is King and that the world we inhabit has in fact been made new by Jesus’ salvific work; second that we are responsible for our own sin, we are not helpless in face of a fallen world or the wiles of evil.

This means that in thinking about the force of evil as an independent and active agent we have to remember that we have the offer of Christ’s gracious redemption, that the gift of new life is offered to us and that we are responsible before God for our response, since the call to repentance would make no sense without the possibility of our answering that call.

This means that the way back to Christmas and to gift is opened through a discussion of the reality that Satan is referenced in the Bible and that at least some of us experience evil as a force in our lives against which we must struggle.

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