Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “Jeroboam Sacrificing to the Golden Calf” (1752), École des Beaux-Arts, Paris

What if the intractable problem of evil, in which evil and suffering make the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God extremely dubious, isn’t a problem after all? What if, counterintuitively, evil is a proof for the existence of God?

British literary critic Terry Eagleton is onto something very promising in his new book, On Evil, when he writes:

Evil is a form of transcendence, even if from the point of view of good it is a transcendence gone awry. Perhaps it is the only form of transcendence left in a postreligious world. We know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz. Maybe all that now survives of God is this negative trace of him known as wickedness, rather as all that may survive of some great symphony is the silence which it imprints on the air like an inaudible sound as it shimmers to a close. Perhaps evil is all that now keeps warm the space where God used to be.

This passage has been lurking in the back of mind as I’ve been reading 1 and 2 Kings, in which “all the kings are placed within the story by means of a common regnal formula,” according to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible Book by Book. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann adds:
The most important detail in the formula is that a verdict is rendered on each king, a verdict according to the theological passions of the “historian.” All northern kings are in principal reckoned to be bad kings because they, of necessity, violate commitment to the central shine in Jerusalem. In the southern Davidic line, most kings are bad, six are qualifiedly approved, and only two (Hezekiah and Josiah) are fully approved. This verdict is rendered in terms of the several kings and their unqualified loyalty to YHWH, to YHWH’s commands, and to YHWH’s temple (qtd. from An Introduction to the Old Testament).

The verdict either says the king did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” or he did “what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” Don’t miss the important point here: if evil happens within the eyesight of God, then God is not absent.

What Eagleton observes in our postreligious context, the historian of 1 and 2 Kings observed in his pagan context: “evil is a form of transcendence, even if from the point of view it is a transcendence gone awry.” Just as “we know nothing any more of choirs of heavenly hosts, but we know about Auschwitz,” so too, Israelites in the northern kingdom knew little or nothing about covenant loyalty and temple worship, but they knew about Jeroboam’s golden calves (1 Kings 12:25-33). All that survived of YHWH was “this negative trace of him known as wickedness,” which was made known to the bad kings and their subjects by the prophets who cried against the apostate altars using the word of the Lord (1 Kings 13:1-3).

When you’re watching a news broadcast, horrified by Joran van der Sloot’s killings or BP’s record of malfeasance, remember what Eagleton writes: “If there is no saintliness around to remind you of God, there is at least a negative image of him available, known as sheer unadulterated wickedness.” The depressing headlines are not an occasion to thank God for evil, but rather an occasion to recognize, paradoxically, that God is present when he’s absent.

Cross-posted at Mere Orthodoxy

More on: Theology

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles