Today, the Associated Press published a story about a six year old girl who was bitten by a swan. This will serve as a helpful introduction to a reflection on the nature of evil, Christianity, and two interviews on the topic.
LONDON — Elishia Stevenson wanted an apology when she was bitten by a swan. So she wrote to Queen Elizabeth II.
The 6-year-old girl from Cornwall, south west England, wrote to Buckingham Palace because her mother told her the queen owns all the swans in Britain. She decorated her letter with flowers and a picture of a swan with a sad face.
A lady-in-waiting responded, saying the queen was “sorry to hear about the swan.”
Though the queen doesn’t own every swan in Britain, she does own certain mute swans in the Thames. This tradition goes back to the 12th century, when roast swan was considered a delicious dish, and continues today with the annual “Swan Upping,” a census of swans on the Thames.
David Pogson, a Buckingham Palace spokesman, said the idea the queen owns all the swans is a myth.
Sometimes when things do bad, we want to draw a picture of ourselves in our situation and ask God to say he is sorry. The very fact that this story made the news speaks of the audacity of a child to ask for an apology from the queen for her bite. Now, maybe the letter was in a spirit of humor. If it was, I should have thought to do something like this myself. It is very funny. But we must admit, there is something familiar about this occasion of victimization.
When I visit a local restaurant and am delivered a cold burger, I complain. If that burger makes me throw up because it was undercooked, that might justify a request for an apology and a free meal. If I eat a burger and die because it was undercooked, my wife better take the company to court. We are creatures of justice and that’s a good thing. But when we translate the service we should expect at the local restaurant to the service we should expect from God, we have made a major category mistake. God was not made for our pleasure, we were made for his. God does not owe us anything, we owe him everything.
Queen Elizabeth II may not own all the swans, but God does. What can it mean that God in all his goodness, all his power and all his knowledge would allow one of his swans to bite a six year old girl? This is the question of the ages and every worldview system must provide an answer to why bad things happen to us. Naturalistic Atheism cannot explain why we are bothered by such things in the first place. How is bad actually worse than good, and not just different? What makes bad things bad and good things good and who decides? Monistic religions of the east which say that everything in the universe is really just one thing purport that evil is an illusion. That doesn’t seem to fit with my experience of the world. Deistic religions accept a Creator but believe he is removed from the people and the processes of the world. Evil, then is the determined consequence of God’s character. At the end of a long line of dominoes, this is the result of what he set in order.
But Christianity maintains the existence of a personal Creator, the one from whom all morally sentient creatures get their sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. We are offended by the way things are because we know things should be and not be a certain way. Christianity also maintains a distinction between the Creation and the creature. This blog post is not an illusion and neither is evil. Evil is real, both moral and natural evil. These are all departures from the way things are supposed to be. But they are the way things must be. When humankind, the crown of God’s creation, rebelled against the Sovereign of the universe, the created order was turned on its head. Now, instead of ruling the world under God’s authority, the world rules us. Adam did, after all, reject the authority of God for the word of a snake. This is what we asked for – life without the presence of God.
But if Christianity is right and the problems of this world come back to a problem with us, then this conception of the universe may explain the universe, but it leaves us in a difficult position. If God is to right the wrongs of the universe, does not this entail our own destruction? So impossible is this problem for any human person to overcome, we make up religions to work ourselves out of it. Every system of belief addresses the problem of personal culpability. Naturalistic Atheism writes off the personal God of the universe for the impersonal God who is the universe. Morality is just part of our evolutionary development but cannot be grounded in anything deeper than evolutionary processes. Naturalism gets us off the hook by ignoring the very ground of morality. But in the process this worldview takes the justice out of injustice.
Eastern religions have their own solution. Through a series of incarnations we receive in this life what we deserve from our last. Likewise, in the next life we will get what we earned in this life. But what of the child rapist? Even the chance to be a rock would be too lofty a reward for many of the crimes we witness in the world.
At the heart of Christianity is a cross with God in human-form suffering. Christianity takes our evil seriously enough to demand a hellish eternity for those who are a part of the problem – and that’s all of us. This is a perfect solution – that is, for God – in that it vindicates God’s righteous character. Now we can call evil for what it is – evil. But Christianity does not leave us with hell. The message of the gospel is that human beings may be rescued from the punishment they deserve by fleeing to the Christ, who accepted this infinite punishment in his own body. In the cross, God says to us that evil is much worse than we thought it was, for it demanded this great a solution. In the cross, God says that we are much worse than we thought we were. Jesus had to become a human, not an animal, but a human to pay for sin. But in the cross, God also says that he is more loving than we could ever imagine. It was to the cross that God sent his only Son and to the cross that his Son willingly went so so that God could accept into his presence forever evil people like you and people like me.
For as much as we are good at feeling and responding to an injustice, we are equally good at totally ignoring the injustice in ourselves. The six year old girl who was offended at a swan bite is probably a sweet girl, but her mother is not preparing her for the real world. I have yet to meet a person of any significant life experience who says that life is easy or that relationships are easy or that work is easy or that being themselves is easy. The world is a problem and we are that problem. A swan bite is a reminder of these things and a frowning providence of God to stimulate the repentance of a sinful heart. Swans bite humans because humans spite God.
In the next week, I will transcribe recent television interviews with pastors, Erwin Lutzer and Timothy Keller, on the question of moral and physical Evil.