Powers and Principalities ..
the (partly solved) problem of evil
Gary D. Knight
A pro-family organization sent their begging letter with wise words on the problem of evil. Still, disappointing it was to see the claim that evil is a vacuum or absence of good: a claim that seems just a little too parroted down the ages. Saints and doctors of the Church have said it, but I can’t help thinking they were hyperbolic over the purposes of the devil: to usher souls into that emptiness, excised from the reach of God’s light. Emptiness may be the direst privation and frost-burning absence, but the drawing pull into it is not its own.
The letter does mention the culpability of malice, say to stone someone, even if every element involved: stone, hands, muscles and even brains (as organs) are morally ‘neutral’. But this reiterates that the fact of creation is good, and short of explaining malice fails to address the agency of evil within hearts: the ‘powers’ and dominions or principalities which St. Paul takes very seriously as the enemy.
O Ephesians .. “we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities .. working spiritual evil in high places” ! Or as Jesus put it, fear him that is able to cast your soul into Hell. A first rendition of the Our Father ends “deliver us from the evil one.”
This issue percolated forth as I read a passage in the memoirs of the late father Bob Bedard, founder of the Ottawa-based Companions of the Cross. Halfway in this compelling autobiography, Bob (as he liked to be called as a high school teacher) places the main event that set him on a drastically altered trajectory, at the time of exploring the charismatic renewal of the Church, its reply to Pentecostalism.
Already taking place among his students were remarkable things: physical and moral healing after intercessory prayer. But something began to take offence at the eagerness for prayer that was dawning on his protégées. A classmate who’d given himself to pornography made the vow that if he could have a girl he lusted for, he’d repay it by shaming father Bob’s class. Eighteen year old Robert Poulin enticed the classmate to his subterranean den, raped and killed her, set fire to the home and sauntered of to shotgun their class, killing one boy and wounding several before he shot himself. He had just timed the assault for their prayerful assembly.
The globe-circling shock and local mayhem were simply incalculable. It was the fall of 1975. I had heard of this tragedy at St. Pius, Ottawa, when I was suffering (perpetrating) a failed marriage far away from the light of faith: the greatest tragedy of my own young life. Now years later, coming to see the lurid class-front details in the ink of father Bob, it struck forcibly how he and his pupils were frontally assaulted with gruesome evil. Not just an absence of good, it was a miasma of destruction, with a very personal and lacerating bite.
Two and three years before, two hugely lucrative pornographic films by mafioso Louis ‘Butchie’ Peraino were foisted on leased public theatres. The second of his graphic films parodied Dante’s Purgatorio where Miss Jones, bored with purgatory, makes a pact to earn Hell rather than Heaven by becoming Lust itself. Peraino - bad theology aside - was thumbing it at the conversion effects on some audiences (in tension between lust and guilt) of the less ‘glamorous’ Exorcist (1973). [Exorcist was contracted soon after the 1971 novel].
Pity Rob Poulin! From the age of 15 he was caught in the explosion of the (self-styled) ’Golden Age of pornography’ inaugurated by Peraino, his elders in the dark. From 14 he’d have been taken with Alice Cooper’s driving lyrics “I’m eighteen, I don’t know what I want”, with enough plaintive boredom to disparage what life any pubescent boy might hope for on reaching adulthood. Innumerable addictions come from boredom, a sin against hope. Boredom was operative for Emmanuelle, the hedonist woman featured in the influential ‘soft-core’ erotic film (1974) of that name; and there were other ‘boring’ sequels.
I’m not proposing to lay much blame on Vincent Furnier (Mr. Alice), even if his getup and antics seemed designed to romance devils. After finding Jesus on his downward spiral with alcohol, Vincent felt persuaded that what he’d played at was campy theatre more than malicious moral anarchy, unlike the dark side of acts like Marilyn Manson. The ethos of truly satanic songs (‘satan’ means adversary) is recidivist opposition to Christ.
Many are lured to this mind. In an episode of Britain’s Midsomer Murders, a feud of writers has a foil sub-story: local youth plot the ruin of their oafish drama teacher. Seduced by their diva and the tryst filmed, his lurid photos are pinned on the village church notice-board. To character-maim their coach does not satisfy the conspirators: any hope for a path to moral repentance in the community is to be shattered. Their sheer glibness makes the murders in the foreground story blanche by comparison.
Satanic acts can hardly be more corrosive than the presenting of love undone in glamour and comely dress or soft music, to lull the soul of Adonis into the claws of Moloch. Besmirched is the character of what is holy, as Kiss (even today obsessed-over by some) and others’ lyrics attest. That blot is not the mere absence of good or the negative pressure of vacuum .. it is intentional and cognizant.
However, I’d rather not think that erudite theologians were misled, as there is much truth in adages like “evil prevails where good folk do nothing”. Entropy (disorder) too is an impersonal force against the prevailing of life. But these privations are very far from the whole story. It is dulling to the conscience, say of king David, to dwell on a term like absence when he is so taken with things present. He may (briefly) wonder, ‘is this affection absent all good?’, and easily conclude ‘no: there’s beauty !’
Take entropy. I don’t pretend to know how biology was ordered before the fall, when life might ever have been able to prevail against entropy, but in the heat bath in which we now swim, life is surely not able to prevail against its unravelling fingers. Entropy can positively be seen as the cause of work to be done .. even the paradisal tending work of Adam. But if he and life before the fall could sustainably have prevailed against entropy (as we may believe), no amount of work now can keep something alive forever. Physical death, an ill effect of the fall, is described as an enemy to be overcome (tied to the ‘second death’ of the soul). But is it the radix of evil?
Cancer, ‘emperor of diseases’, is in the end a failure of genetic mechanisms to preserve parental cellular information noise-free. Nobel laureate John Polanyi, in a conference at Ordford Quebec, outlined that essential fact to a cadre of graduate biophysicists. Striking is its parallel with the fact that no technical copy of an object can retain all its information.
Contrarily, the entropic law stood aside when God made Eve. No diseased Adam, she is a ‘perfect other’, for nothing in her is less than the humanity, the imago Dei, of him. But nothing in her is greater either; so that when either was led to presume becoming ‘as God’, together they fell. They even did so before having blest ‘knowledge’ of each other .. so great was the draw of knowing good and evil. To know mere absence of good, a bleak blank, could hardly have been the appeal; so what really ‘beguiled’ them?
The devil, knowing that God knew him (better than himself actually), wanted to insinuate that God could ‘embrace’ evil as much as good .. a vain-hearted attempt to reduce God to what he was himself (‘God will be as me’). If this pose was deluded - and he tried it again with Jesus - nothing could more infuriate this enemy than hearing that said by a man. In that sense he took quite a risk of hearing Eve say it, or her husband - but then again he had nothing more to lose. He could not even go out of existence.
In describing the shootings that terrorized innumerable families, schools and father Bedard himself, the depraved moment is likened to that where “satan entered” Jesus’ betrayer. This hater of Jesus is no less vicious against prayer and the surrender of vices to Christ, so he avidly and aggressively seeks dupes from among those who might try.
The unnerving question is, how did he make a successful play for a dupe in a baptized soul at a Catholic pre-seminary school? It suggests the question of whether evil can be virtually incarnate. If it cannot really-and-truly mimic God’s hypostatic union with man, it can masquerade very closely. The Holy Spirit’s is the power to marry to or infuse as the soul of the son of Man; but power to infect the soul of a person with the venom of Shelob at Mordor, is the devil’s.
The beast of Apocalypse acts like a man, or mob, even with a human ‘number’, related maybe to human genetics. But it is an aberrant form of ‘carnum’ where evil is incarnate, or John would call it not beast but man. With human derivative genomics one shudders at how might a soul-less andromorph come to be, as without a soul it must lack conscience (that a message of the film Ex Machina). But the cringing really starts wherever men and women have participated in evil without having been eviscerated of soul: all they had to lose was their conscience, as Rob Poulin had done.
The question that lingers on is, what is the spirit by which bright minds working in labs such as at Cambridge, go so far as to extract ova from a fetus, inseminate and bring them to term in vitro as test-tube embryos whose mother never got to be born. Aside from the glib question “what is the point?”, the moral one is “what could possess bright young men and women to do a thing like that?”.
Jesus stated that the love of power (or money, which is ‘power’) lies at evil’s root. Love this more than truth, and evil follows. Find a noxious evil like pornography, dig and you find lying at its root like a noisome nodule, a mob’s love of money. It has infected the heart, displacing the love of truth, goodness or even beauty.
An irony lies in the word ‘power’. God’s power of love can make all real things from nothing. The love of power instead vitiates or makes unreal any potential good, for “without Me you can do nothing”. Absence of good is operating here in background, but love of power ties to love of self; and the real venom that gutted a self that would have gorged itself, is the disordered love. This distortion of love is no vacuum: its author’s real malice for the love that is true, seeks to cast all good into some place away from God, some outer walled darkness.
So then, absence of good would seem to misread the essence or at least the problem of ‘evil’. Saints wrestling with it acknowledged that being itself is good, for God is its cause. But by that, any state thought to be without all good vanishes as soon as someone goes there, even the devil. A better name for a notional power able to negate or overcome God is really ‘notGod’ which is vacuous, for God is “all in all” [1 Corinthians 15:28]. But there is certainly a mad power that attempts it, and that is evil.
The question “why does God permit evil” is misconstrued if asking ‘does He admit of anything with the power to exclude His presence and ground of being’, because He doesn’t. So to think that’s the problem is probably to have misread the fathers, who were seized of some other hypothetical problem, lost in modern translations.
It seems true that God opts not to be present to the damned, after leading captivity free, from the anteroom of Hell. But if we rephrase the question as “why does God have hell exist or, if it must house the rebel angels, why must they afflict the innocent?” it is no more a question about the absence of good. It is Augustinian to note the emptiness in every person’s soul that only God can fill: yet it creates tension that draws souls to God, so cannot be the essence of evil. A Cathar heresy would read into man’s proclivity to sin, that he is radically evil. No, but evil is a self-betrayer’s mad, mindless intention to be heedless of the inner pull to God, the conscience.
Madness has been cited now several times, with reason. To read father Bob is to conclude the murderer was criminally insane. Most literary depictions of radical evil use as type the psychopath. And still evil insinuates itself at a more subtle level of non-sanity. Paschal said whimsically that given the consequences of being wrong, the dare to deny God’s existence is insane. Self-satisfied scepticism is so out of proportion to the error that it is madness to obdurately embrace it.
Kids learn that a dare is to tempt God (or as some say, fate, which is just post-hoc ratio) and basically mad. I did not learn it till later, starting from daring myself into dangerous things and not ending even as a young adult when I found myself skiing towards imminent death, flying over a two-lane highway on the side of an Alp. I dared to read < ! > as ‘caution’ or ‘watch yourself’ - but it meant ‘Stop !’. To apply Pascal to ‘extreme sport’ mindedness, God is owed a huge debt if He arrests destiny, and we are owed due punishment if not.
Jesus advised most solemnly, ‘fear he who is able to cast your soul into Hell’. The Son of God’s reason for being born was so much more than the Christmassy gift to a devout, expectant and magnificent virgin: it would beget her dismay at his going subject to unjust malice, to save souls from the destiny meted to the betrayer.
The Hades of supernatural (perhaps infra natural) captivity after death was freed of justified souls by the descended Christ - its gates not prevailing. So we tremble at the bleak prospect of souls who will not be justified and for whose madness the gates and its keeper are permitted to prevail, just as entropy is permitted to master life.
A subtler malice that can masquerade under the guise of this or that system of ethics .. the utilitarian or the ‘greater good’ deontic or communitarian or nominalist among others .. is hard to detect even in oneself. Any evildoer believes that their choices are ‘good’ for them-self: what we disdain, we eschew. On what basis if not God, can constructive ‘ethics’ know real good? Saying none, if a sceptic must deny ever knowing good, then be scepticism ever shunned.
Passion may rear up as disdain bordering on hate for someone who has a good word, maybe a TV evangelist or a Bob Bedard calling the class to prayer. Most other times it is more nuanced. Take for instance this line, which could have come from the briefing book of a population-control lobby: “pro-lifers should be glad of late term abortion access, because removing it puts more women under the pressure of deciding earlier rather than later on the continuation of their pregnancy”. A pro-life ‘end’ - a mother’s continued pregnancy - is used to pull for late-term abortion as extending her decision time.
Such subtleness is the soul of evil. Against it, supposing evil to be an abstract absence of good is only a mental anaesthetic. It acts like the gall of a bed-bug’s proboscis, tipped in a narcoleptic venom: you won’t feel its bite. If there’s some recognizable ‘good’ present, like giving a panicked woman longer to decide, or helping to limit the population density of a village, you can play God on its value and use the idea that evil is its complete absence to go on thinking we’re not here dealing with the devil, not really. Well, Hello ! Yes we are.
There are scriptural ways to grasp this. Jesus said that some hearers ‘hated’ him, although they were just non-affectionate in their show of gratitude or readiness to imbibe his words (words like, ‘you have no life in you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man’). Those who had feelings may have thought, “who, me?” — and the answer would be Yes even you: you did not choose me, I chose you. Another time He said “not those who say Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom, but those who do the will of the Father”. Shame of the deeper and personal good can only mean shame at the end.
Many visitors of the sick, feeders of the hungry, helpers of the poor, will complain “when did we see you and not serve you?”, answered by “when you didn’t do it to the least”. The curse “depart from me, I do not know you” is the Lord saying we cannot conceal a hard heart. “You, who are evil [inclined], know how to give good things”. So then it is not unawareness and absence of good; it is a case of neglect despite what a lively conscience might have been heard to say, with no-one paying attention.
Evil is a self-justifying spirit of shrugging off and even mugging one’s conscience about neglect of others or indulgence of self. A man might suffer a wrong from a business; for him to move into hate of the shop-owner or prejudice of his race would be the evil of Adolph. What else could Jesus have meant in the Our Father, when we say “forgive me my trespasses as I forgive who has offended me: and lead us from temptation and the evil one”? With emphasis on ‘us’ - both the offended and the offender - the plea of the prayer is that neither of us fall further into temptation and the power of the evil one, by rehearsing past insults on our prideful self.
In some sense evil is a lightless black hole outside the cosmic vacuum and shunned by the all-present Spirit of the Lord (as Hell appears to be, by God’s election after having led captivity free). But it is mirrored by the bottomless gulf into which we let the conscience fall. After the fall, with ugly proclivities, wills weak for the good, and intellects dull of truth, we don’t naturally embrace conscience. It strikes us as a goad, and the Spirit’s aid of convincing grace is needed even to begin to become grace-filled.
This dilemma exposes a subtle distinction about natural law. What comes naturally to the fallen nature is not its salvation, but its demise; whereas what lies in the natural law is what’s left of the just man that is able to trouble the heart and mind into right action. The war that Paul spoke of is an innate war between the fallen ‘natural man’ and the vivifying hope quiescently vested in the conscience.
As prevenient grace can lead a sinner home, or let him be found, it can act only if there’s a conscience. Replacing conscience with a claimed ‘right to sin’ (mistaking free will), or with a public ethic such as duty to a party, is to block grace. It’s why pope John Paul named it unpardonable [Domininum et Vivificantem 46]. Silencing the conscience is to ensconce the soul in the cocoon that enwraps a spider’s prey: Shelob then has her way.
The hope of Christians is the closeness of Christ, ever knocking on the door of conscience. Cardinal Newman called conscience the unbidden voice of God. “I am closer to you than hands or feet”, and “behold I am with you even to the end of time”. Saint Paul counsels against craven fear of evil because He that is far greater is with us: “If God is with us, who can be against?”. Surely to resist the devil is to see him flee; but that requires resisting something we know is there.
A constant Christian prayer is for deliverance and conversion (through enlivening of conscience) of leaders in society, people of power and influence in high places as well as menial clerical offices, whose decisions affect the freedom of conscience of all. The cry ‘give me liberty or give me death’ was an expression of conscience, and still more, ‘without conscience no-one is free’. John Paul II named conscience the essential human thing.
At present, in the malaise of ‘sophistication’, influential people suppose that concern for environments, global warming, mass emigration, world health and overpopulation automatically show an enlightened conscience. Inattention to personal conscience for the sanctity of one’s life or of a neighbour, shows how big ideas are ready to delude. When a Governor General inveighs with scientists that no self-respecting Christian can question the predicates of human evolution from primates, or that population is the evil behind global warming, there is an elephant in the room. The pachyderm’s feet are battering the heads of conscience.
We’ve moved from the manifest evil of a boy possessed of hate and lust, to the ideological evil of an assembly of humanists. The pitiably driven youth killed three: a girl and a boy, and himself, and traumatized many. But now a coterie of population controllers who never killed or lusted for anyone, or were other than empathic at the privations of refugee camps, are being chastened as dupes of the duplicitous devil. Why? Because a slippery slope of self-justification juts between a present state of unawareness to the final state of horrid surprise. It is a needed wake-up call.
When my own marriage ended I rationalized, as we were exceedingly young and immature, unready, improvident, beset with jealousies. Thus far the ‘higher critique’ of philosophical enlightenment. A presumed superiority of deciding the right (a moral nominalism underlying social constructivism) led more quickly than you’d guess to realms of self abuse able to attack other people’s marriages. After merciful deliverance from that terminus, my conscience began to show how the target of marauding Mephistopheles is marriage itself.