Light and Darkness, Good and Evil
Light and Darkness, Good and Evil
January 3, 2016
Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Darkness and then light. The darkness transformed by the light ever burning. Burning amidst the
darkness. Burning away the darkness.
This week begins a new series of sermons. I will be talking about things that we do not talk about.
Things that are important, at least in my opinion, but things that often get left out of day-to-day
discussion. Why? Because they are troublesome topics, touchy subjects perhaps. They are too
big, too hard, too difficult to grapple with in any one conversation. Some subjects are polarizing,
placing those conversing immediately at odds.
And so there are tender areas of life that are left alone, not to be poked or prodded. Not because
those subjects do not matter, mind you, but often because they matter so much. I wrote about all
this in my bulletin article this month, but I would once again ask your indulgence as I work
through a difficult list of ideas. I struggled with the list and I will struggle with the concepts. I do
not do so to change anyone’s mind, to bring them over to my way of thinking. That could
happen, I suppose, but that is by no means my goal. My goal is to give myself a chance to do this,
to explore territories unexplored or not explored in this manner. It will at least be therapeutic for
Take today’s topic for example: evil. Good and evil, actually, a pair of qualities rather familiar to
Sunday morning. Church is often about good and evil. Do this, not that. Good and evil as
behavior, good and evil as recipes for life. The endpoints on a moralistic spectrum. I must confess
that I could be described as a moralist, not meaning a person who lives a moral life – that might
be occasionally true on a good day. No, a moralist who is concerned with the morals of others.
The preachy, goody-goody sort of fellow that Jesus warned about in the Bible as often being too
full of himself – that might be occasionally true on a not so good day. My hope is not just to go
back over the usual terrain of evil but to examine what evil means, what does it imply for us in
The word evil appears in the Bible a lot. No surprise there. All the way back in the Book of
Genesis, we hear about the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge of What? Knowledge of Good and
Evil. The ability to distinguish good from evil was the reason Adam and Eve were cast out from
the Garden of Eden. That may seem unfair, that something so seemingly basic as an
understanding of what is good and what is evil would be the reason for being thrown out of
But in another way, it makes perfect sense. Knowing the difference between good and evil in
paradise is the one certain way of destroying paradise. Why? Because knowing the difference
between good and evil allows for someone to choose between good and evil. Paradise by
definition only contains what is good. That means that evil could never exist because it would be
impossible to choose anything but the good. Impossible to do or to be, to say or to feel, anything
but good. Evil came into the world not only as the first sin. Evil came into the world as the first
moment of choice. Adam and Eve may in hindsight have chosen badly but that is because choice
was suddenly a possibility. Choice was and is the gateway of evil.
That may seem rather dramatic, but what is evil? Evil is choosing. Choosing what is wrong over
what is right, choosing what is profane over what is sacred, choosing what is base over what is
pure. Evil has no meaning without choice and therefore knowledge of good and evil requires
In one sense, the description of good and evil in the Book of Genesis contradicts the description
set forth in the Gospel of John. John describes the darkness into which light was born, darkness
that could not overcome the light. Compare that to the light of paradise, light that gave way to
the darkness of knowledge, the dark knowledge of choice. Darkness then light, light and then
darkness. In Genesis, God creates light and considers it to be good, but before that moment there
was no light by definition. So prior to that moment there was only darkness – does that mean
that goodness was also created in that moment?
But darkness is often used as a substitute for evil. Darkness then light meaning evil then
goodness? That would make no sense. What existed before creation, beyond creation? God and
the Word according to John.
One of the difficulties with this imagery of darkness and light standing in for evil and goodness is
that darkness is not the same as evil and light is not the same as goodness. Try standing out all
day under the sun in the Mojave Desert and ponder the situational qualities of light and
darkness. The darkness that preceded creation is better thought of as nothingness, or at least “no-
thing-ness” meaning no-thing that we could understand. For any of you leery of the historical
accuracy of the Adam and Eve story, the basic creation story in the Book of Genesis overall does
not present too much difficulty from a scientific point of view. Darkness then light, nothingness
and then something-ness. Non-being and then being. That aspect of Genesis is Big Bang
Getting beyond the metaphors, evil has been a frequent subject of concern, Biblically,
theologically, and philosophically. The word evil appears hundreds of times in the Bible, but its
meaning varies from place to place. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil compares two
Hebrew ideas: tove for that which is good, pleasant, or agreeable. And then rah, meaning evil,
bad or disagreeable. There are many shades of meaning about the concept of evil. Thomas
Aquinas described evil as a privation of the good, or something lacking goodness, like darkness
minus even a glimmer of light. Another way of describing evil is a state of unjustified reality, that
which literally speaking is not straight with God, that which ought not to be but somehow is.
The idea of evil is common in the Bible but it seems to change over the course of the book. At
first, evil is a matter of choice, of making decisions that place a person further and further away
from God. Think back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden who suggested to Eve that the fruit
of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would be good to eat – underline “good.” So that
relative and momentary good gave way to a longer term consequence, an evil one.
The serpent is often considered the devil in this story, but the shape of that idea, that of the devil,
also changes. Think of the Book of Job. There the Adversary meets with God to discuss the fate
of Job. God sees Job as a righteous man, but the Adversary suggests that Job would be like
anyone else if he were to be tested. The Adversary seems to be part of the plan, an employee of
God tasked with tasking the people of the world. In some translations, the word “Adversary” is
left untranslated. In Hebrew it is sah-tan, which is read in English as “Satan.” The Adversary,
meaning that which is adverse or opposed to God, was somehow meant to be there.
Why build that into the system? In a system in which there is choice, any choice at all, then there
has to be things from which to choose. One will be different from another. Without left there is
no right, without up there is no down, and without evil there is no good. If there is to be a choice,
there may in fact be a wrong choice.
Eventually the idea of evil becomes personified in the figure of Satan. All that which is adverse to
God becomes represented in this one being. That shorthand representation created a simple
duality like good and evil, darkness and light, now represented in the form of God and Satan.
Take for example the scriptural account of the temptation of Jesus by Satan, out in the desert for
40 days and 40 nights. I have always found the idea of tempting Jesus Christ to be a bit weird.
Satan tested Jesus in various ways, asking the Son of God to do parlor tricks like throwing himself
off the top of the temple or offering Jesus the throne of the world if only he might bow down
before Satan. Why would Jesus choose to become less that he was, a follower of Satan, a king yes
but far less than someone of God, the very Word of God? Why would Jesus even briefly consider
these mediocre bargains, these paltry temptations? He would not, and he did not, as we know
from the scriptures.
But there was another moment. Another moment later on in the life of Jesus as his ministry in the
world came to a close. Do any of you remember that one? In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said,
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” The
cup, meaning the cup filled with suffering that awaited Jesus upon the cross. Remove this cup
from me, Yet, not my will but your be done. The entirety of Christianity turns on that sentence.
For was that not the greatest moment of temptation of all? Not to be a king on earth. Not to
make bread from stones. Not to fly from the pinnacle of the temple, safely to land like a bird. No,
the greatest moment of temptation for Jesus as represented in the Gospels was the fleeting hope
that he did not need to die. That the suffering that he knew was coming could be avoided. Placed
aside like a cup.
There is even a sentence thought to have been added by some later author, meaning someone
who decided to add to the Gospel of Luke from which this account comes. The additional text
reads, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. In his anguish he
prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the
ground.” This sentence was not found in the oldest manuscripts – what would it have meant if
Jesus needed this sort of help?
Suffering is for some the definition of evil. The terrible things that happen to us are a form of evil
inflicted upon the world, or upon each of us, for whatever reasons. Random or planned, divinely
planned or diabolically guided. And yet, in the story of Jesus, it is not suffering is that is presented
as evil. Not evil in and of itself. Recall that evil begins with a choice. The choice to avoid
suffering in this case was the temptation, the evil. The choice to avoid that which was necessary.
Jesus could have escaped capture. Jesus could have allowed Peter and the disciples to attack the
high priest’s men. Jesus could have renounced what he had said and taught. Jesus could have
taken up Pontius Pilate’s offer to go free just by placing aside everything that Jesus had tried to
convey to the world. The choice to avoid suffering is not always the good one.
When I decided to undertake a series of sermons about difficult subjects, I did so out of choice. I
could have done a different series, I realize. I actually posted on Facebook that I was going to be
preaching on Evil and Grief and Divorce and Failure. One of my colleagues joked, “Oh, fun
topics to brighten an otherwise cold and dreary January!”
They are not fun topics. They are not light or easy or comfortable topics depending on whether
you have ever had to go through grief or divorce or failure. The choice between good and evil is
not a choice between happy and sad. The choice between what ought to be done and what ought
not to be done is not a choice between easy and difficult. It is most frequently the reverse.
Why would that be the case? Because wouldn’t it be more fun to be a king than walking around
not knowing from where your next meal will come? Wouldn’t it be easier to choose to do
whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, rather than listen to what you are
supposed to do and when you are supposed to do it? Wouldn’t it be easier not to suffer, not to
struggle, not to press onward against adversity? It would be easier. God is rarely to be found in
the easy choice.
Think of some of the choices you have had to make. The call that you dreaded making. The
decision that you put off for a long time. The apology that has been long overdue. Even with
these steps not taken there is a risk, a risk that too much time has passed between mistake and
remedy, the sin and the efforts at repentance. I do not mean between God and each of us, by the
way. I believe in a forgiving God. I have less confidence in our readiness to forgive one another.
Evil is often portrayed as a disembodied force, a dark shadow that can arise from nowhere and
impose itself unavoidably. There are of course people who choose wrongly so frequently that they
seem to be imbued with evil. Who are so violent and selfish and uncaring that they seem to be
filled with the Devil itself. That is one way of looking at the world. Another way is to consider the
choices people make. To imagine each choice as a possibility, a new moment of choice and
therefore of potential change. I do not mean to suggest that we should be foolish in our decisions
about the world, but there is more than enough precedent in the Bible for doing just that sort of
foolish thing. Turning the other cheek. Forgive our brothers and sisters 70 times 7 times. That is
a lot of foolishness depending on your definition.
Again and again, the Bible makes these outlandish suggestions. But we are worldly folks, familiar
with the rough and tumble ways of life. Forgiveness is a sucker’s bet on the future, one by no
means supported by the past. That is all true. And that is also a choice. A choice between doing
what one ought to do and what one ought not to do. A choice made with knowledge of good and
evil. That is the world in which we find ourselves, a world of choices both good and bad.
It is the rare person who would say to him or herself, you know what? I will make the evil choice.
Who does that? And yet there is evil in the world. It may be easier to chalk that up to a guy with
horns and a tail “going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” That is
easier to accept than imagining that our acts and omissions might be bad, let alone evil. But the
convergence of our many choices make evil possible, as does our divergence from what we
should be doing. Our justifications for what we do and do not do open the door to many forms of
Aquinas wrote that evil is a privation of the good, meaning that a lack of goodness looks a lot like
evil. Not the horns and pointy tail sort of evil. The evil that allows hunger. The evil that leads to
war. The evil that justifies violence as necessary, cruelty as expedient, and the suffering of others
as the price to be paid for success. Evil is indeed the vacuum where goodness should be. Evil is
the darkness that has not been interrupted by the light. The darkness cannot overcome the light,
but the light needs to be there, somewhere to dispel the darkness. And the darkness is always
there, always there even if no one is talking about it.
In fact, the darkness only grows stronger when it is paired with silence.
And so this winter we will spend a few weekends together hopefully speaking of difficult things,
things we do not always talk about. Rest assured that in time the spring will come. In time the
flowers will bloom, the trees will again be green. And in time the new dawn will shine once again
upon an empty tomb.
All in good time.