belief … the problem of evil and forgiveness

Francis Collins, in the brief stretch between stints as head of the Human Genome Project at NIH and, now, Director of NIH, put together a book, Belief: Readings on the Reason for Faith, an anthology of readings he finds helpful in discussing rational reasons for belief in God. The anthology is, in some sense, a supplement to his book The Language of God. The essays  and excerpts in this book will not provide a proof for the existence of God – no such proof is possible. But they do provide arguments and reasons for belief.

Three of the excerpts or essays included in this book explore faith and the problem of evil and suffering with emphasis on ideas like Moral Law. We dealt with the excerpt from Art Lindsley exploring the concepts of good and evil in post modern thought last Tuesday. Today we turn to excerpts by Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel that put flesh on the abstract. We live in a world where evil – true evil exists. And yet both Tutu and Wiesel, especially Tutu, cast a vision of faith and hope.

As we look at these excerpts, especially that of Desmond Tutu, I would like to focus on restoration and forgiveness.

What are we called to and how are we called to live in the face of injustice? Is forgiveness the ideal or is it a miscarriage of justice?

What is the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ for those facing grave injustice?

How does this connect with our image of God and his justice, mercy, and holiness?

The Most Reverend Desmond Tutu was the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa before he retired (image above from wikipedia). He is best know for his role in reconciliation. The excerpt included is from God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time. He tells of once sitting in a garden in winter, at a time when apartheid was still the law of the land.

During the discussions I went into the priory garden for some quiet. There was a huge Calvary – a large wooden cross without corpus, but with protruding nails and a crown of thorns. It was a stark symbol of the Christian faith. It was winter, the grass was pale and dry, and nobody would have believed that in a few week’s time it would be lush and green and beautiful again. It would be transfigured.

As I sat quietly in the garden I realized the power of transfiguration – of God’s transformation – in our world. … The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is “untransfigurable,” that the whole of creation, nature, waits expectantly for its transfiguration, where it will be released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of all the children of God, when it will not be just dry inert matter but will be translucent with divine glory. (p. 150)

After the fall of apartheid Desmond Tutu served as the chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  About this he writes:

As we listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds of torture and cruelty, it would have been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters because their deeds were truly monstrous. But we are reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.

We cannot condemn anyone to be irredeemable, as Jesus reminded us on the Cross, crucified as he was between two thieves. (p. 152)

Hearing these stories from the era of apartheid in South Africa, and later being in Rwanda after the genocide that claimed some half a million lives, seeing skulls with machetes and daggers embedded, he wondered how there can be any hope for human kind.

Yes, each of us has the capacity for great evil. Not one of us can say with certainty that we would not become perpetrators if we were subject to the same conditioning as those in South Africa, Rawanda, or anywhere that hatred perverts the human spirit. (p. 153)

Here I think we can pause to consider the hatred that has at times invaded even the US – slavery, racism, antisemitism,the treatment and even massacre of native Americans. Would we, given the same conditioning, have behaved any better? For most of us the answer quite likely is no. We certainly behave no better confronted by the “little” things.

Rev. Tutu continues with an aura of hope though:

It is only because we believe that people should be good that we despair when they are not. Indeed if people condoned the evil, we would be justified in losing hope. But most of the world does not. We know that we are meant for better. (p. 153)

Although we lose sight, are swayed by conditioning and self-interest, yet there is something throughout humanity that yearns for better and knows better. There is a moral law written on our hearts, however much we push it away and deny it.

We are better when we justly condemn what is truly evil and yet respond with mercy and reconciliation moving forward for all humanity rather than looking back and bearing grudges.

In the reflection of another great atrocity – the holocaust – Elie Wiesel, in an interview published in Evil and Exile comments

In my view this is the only meaning: queri means chance. On another level, it also connotes chaos, which is the enemy of everything the Jewish religion holds dear. Chaos is worse than chance, worse than anything, because if there is chaos, then Good is not good and Evil is boundless. It is the original tohu va bohu. Queri is therefore chance and with chance anything is possible. Covenant, on the contrary, is a response to chance. (p. 160)


Hatred is Evil and Evil dwells in hatred. The two go hand in hand. They partake of the same phenomenon, the same source.  But that is not the problem. The problem is that evil is sometimes done not in its own name but in the name of love. How many massacres have been planned and committed in the name of love! Which brings us back to what we were discussing earlier today: chance and chaos.  … The first thing God did in Creation was to divide the higher from the lower waters. Let good be good and evil be evil; then we must know that we must serve one and combat the other. (p. 164)

… But I repeat, I must try to do good not simply because it is written, but also because it is human duty and we cannot shun that which is human. The Bible, in fact, only makes explicit what we must do. (p. 165)

Both of these men are honored for an approach to injustice that is rooted in mercy and humanness – the humanness of all including, at least on the part of Desmond Tutu, the humanity of the perpetrators and defenders of injustice and terror. Both Tutu and Wiesel see this in the Judeo-Christian view of God. It is written into our being. Elie Wiesel’s  understanding is not entirely consistent with God as he see revealed in Christ, but Desmond Tutu roots his understanding in the Christian story of God’s love in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. It seems right and honorable when forgiveness and mercy grow within us, even in the face of the sometimes unspeakable inhumanity of man. This provides a path for moving forward where revenge and rights simply propagate the cycle of violence and destruction.

But there is something more here. The moral law, which I believe was written by God into our being, tells us that we should love, and we should love sacrificially, preemptively, and reflexively. We don’t live up to this – but most of us instinctively we feel that it is good, something we should aspire to and honor when we hear of it. We don’t shake our heads at forgiveness, but wonder at it.

The teachings of Jesus in this respect are profound. Consider Matthew 5, after a number of “extreme” statements about relationships Jesus talks about love and concludes with a comparison to God, our heavenly Father.

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The end of this passage gets me every time – the love of enemy is connected with “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But this connection leads to a question.

Is this love and mercy we, most of us at least, feel intuitively as good and right, a dim reflection of the love, justice, and mercy of God?

Or is this love and mercy for us because we are not God? (We cannot judge, but God will judge – and we can turn to Romans 12:19-20 in support of this idea.)

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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