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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

To Define Evil: Nature and Origins

Here we must pause to consider the classic theological assertion that evil has its origin in the fall of Lucifer - known as the devil, Satan - and the subsequent fall of additional angels. To refute this, it must first be noted that the term 'Satan' is never once used in the Old Testament as a proper name, but in fact always appears with the definite article preceding it, so that it is always read as 'the satan.'30 Moreover, the word is never used as a title, but only as a description of function. Thus, the satan is not 'the devil,' but is merely an oppositional being, and is often used in regards to human antagonists.31 The Hebrew term used is stn, and is translated either as 'opponent,' 'to place in the way,' 'to obstruct,'32 or 'to act as adversary.'33 As a result, with this beginning introduction to the fallen angel, we already begin to have difficulty ascribing evil to some outside spiritual power. In the New Testament, Satan is often depicted as God's sifter and enforcer, who is sent to 'work us over' when more gentle methods don't succeed.34 The satan is in fact useful and not evil personified. He offers us choices to test and help us to develop a conscious obedience to God by refusing the possibilities to which he points. Thus the devil is not all that bad.

Secondly, one can follow Karl Barth's thought when he rejects the fall of angels as bad theology,36 writing it off as 'one of the bad dreams of the older dogmatics.'37 In fact, Barth dismisses such a notion as excessive, and an excuse to ground the knowledge of our fall in 'a metaphysical prelude' that was mistakenly believed to have begun in the heavenly realm.38 Indeed, such a concept arises from a misunderstanding of the kingdom of heaven and angels.39 Barth argues that all the passages throughout the Bible that seem to point to the idea that demons are fallen angels are too uncertain and obscure to build on.40 Angels, for Barth, do not and in fact cannot fall,41 and exist only insofar as they follow the Word of God.42 That is, angels are free from personal desires for power and lordship, and belong fully to God and in no sense to themselves.43 Therefore, angels cannot deviate.

Walter Wink contends that the principalities and powers present throughout the Bible are not disembodied spirits in the air, but are institutions, structures and systems.44 Yet, the powers are more than that, Wink continues, in that they are both visible and invisible, both earthly and heavenly, and both spiritual and institutional.45 Thus, the powers do not have a separate spiritual existence from their earthly reality,46 and they cannot be reduced to merely psychological or sociological entities, for this misses completely the spiritual dimension of reality.47 While the powers, Wink maintains, are the innermost essence of earthly realities, we only encounter them in reference to their material existence.48 Thus, the spiritual aspect of these powers is more than merely a personification of 'institutional qualities that would exist whether they were personified or not.'49 Wink goes on to use an example of an unruly crowd. He asserts that there is no 'mob spirit' that hovers in the sky waiting to leap down, but that the actual spirit comes into existence at the moment when the crowd reaches a certain point of excitement and frustration, and ceases to exist when the crowd disperses.50 Thus, Wink shows that the spiritual realities have no existence apart from their corresponding material entities - like an ideology that does not float in the air, but is anchored and brought into existence by the mind of an individual or a group.51 While one can agree with Wink's thought, placed within our particular discussion one cannot help but be lead to a different conclusion than he is. Wink believes that the debate whether the powers are human or divine can be ended, for he sees that the powers are demons who become manifest through concretion in material reality.52 However, Wink's argument looks suspiciously as though he is merely taking the sin of humanity and calling it a demonic power. If there is no demonic spirit that hovers prior to an evil act, but only comes into existence with the acting of the evil, this is simply the acting of an evil human being. That is, there is no manifestation of 'spiritual powers,' but only the performance of an evil human will.

  1. David J. A. Clines, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 17, Job 1-20 (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989), p.205.
  2. Jeffrey Burton Russell, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (London: Cornell University Press, 1977), p.189.
  3. Neil Forsyth, The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), p.113.
  4. Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1995), p.39.
  5. Wright, Dark Side, p.54.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, p.49.
  8. Barth, Dogmatics, p.531.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid, p.530.
  12. Wright, Dark Side, p.49.
  13. Barth, Dogmatics, p.450.
  14. Wright, Dark Side, p.49.
  15. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p.24.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, The Powers Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p.105.
  18. Wright, Dark Side, p.53.
  19. Wink, Naming, p.105.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid, p.106.