The Victory over Sin and Evil
The problem of evil has haunted humanity since its beginnings. Explanations and theological reasoning can get us only so far; evil vexes our hearts and minds regardless, for it still hurts. Worst of all, sin and evil seem to win over good with an alarming frequency. Things like acts of violence (everything from mass shootings to abortion), corruption, child abuse, and adultery tarnish our world. They infect the dignity of every human.
There is a modern tendency to play down sin, or to make light of it. Yet a morality based on sound biblical principles could never dismiss sin as meaningless. Sin has only one destination, St. James tells us. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (1:14-15). To put it another way, the consequences of our moral choices are real, even if we can’t see them. The enemy is real as well, as St. Paul taught the Ephesians. Our struggle is not against flesh and bone, “but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).
Thank God, the story does not end there. God became man and redeemed humanity from its fallen state. This is the good news, that Jesus forgives our sins! The victory was accomplished on Calvary. Evil had its way during the Passion of Jesus, but the infliction of tremendous cruelty and punishment ended in Christ’s eternal triumph over sin and death. Calvary is the perfect template for discussing the problem of evil. And, in such a discussion, it’s vital to stand on the right footing as not to slip into despair.
Look past the horror of the cross and into the eyes of our Savior. The most fruitful conversation we can have about the problem of evil paradoxically starts “by fixing the eyes of our faith on him who alone is its conqueror” (CCC #385). Once we get the foundation in place for the discussion, the best part is the end: how we are to share in Christ’s victory.
Free Will, Human Nature, & Concupiscence
An important first point is to take the problem of evil and look inward. We can’t look at sin as an exclusively external problem—something that happens in the world out ‘there.’ There’s a modern moral fallacy that the only sins are the drastic ones, and that the only person in hell is Adolf Hitler. And yet, for as easy as it is to point to problems in the world, the hardest fights are in our hearts. Given our free will, going to hell is possible for every human being. St. Paul had a vision of the Risen Christ and other mystical experiences (cf. 2 Cor 12:1-4). With such a resume, his ticket would be punched to heaven, wouldn’t it? In amazing humility, St. Paul lamented, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom 7:19). The master of the quip, G.K. Chesterton, was once asked to write a newspaper column on what’s wrong with the world. He responded with one line: “I am.”
Neither St. Paul nor G.K. Chesterton point toward a completely wicked humanity. Quite the contrary: God created man and woman as good. Each person bears the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and has an inherent dignity just by virtue of being a human. Yet through the sin of our first parents, Adam & Eve, humanity gained the stain of original sin (cf. Rom 5:12-21). Baptism removes the stain of original sin, opening up channels of grace. Concupiscence remains, however. We have an inclination toward sin, as St. Paul so bluntly remarked in Romans 7:19 (quoted above).
Any sin is the “abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another” (CCC #387). God has an absolute respect for our free will. Why? Love is impossible without freedom, and God wants nothing more than for us to love Him.
This is Victory?
This is a difficult aspect in looking at the problem of evil; as a visual, let’s draw our gaze back to Calvary, the template for approaching this problem. A cursory look at the state of the world makes it hard for many—and impossible for some—to believe that evil has been conquered. It’s a lot easier to look at a superhero movie: there are heroes and villains, and the heroes fight in order to prevent the villains from doing evil things. When we look at the spiritual battle between good and evil that St. Paul highlighted (Eph 6:12), there are abstract things that we usually can’t see.
If God is all good, all powerful, and all knowing, why does evil exist? That’s a blog post all on its own, but the short answer is: God permits evil in order that some good may come out of it, and that doesn’t contradict His omniscience or omnipotence. God’s infinite wisdom has a larger perspective than our finite minds can ascertain. That’s not an incredibly satisfying answer, unfortunately, but we can look back to our template for the problem of evil: Jesus on the cross. Somehow, the divine Son of God Who taught, healed, brought comfort, and ministered to others was brutally executed. And look at the immeasurable good that God brought out of that! As unsatisfying as it may be, we may never find out what good came out of particular trials or evils in our life until it’s over.
But what’s the alternative? If God doesn’t intend good to come out of evil, then His power gets reduced. His love gets reduced too, since it would end up being selectively applied. Then, God becomes capricious, one that plays favorites, aloof, and apathetic. That answer is even more unsatisfying, and that god is not worth believing in.
It strikes as very odd when St. Paul relates to the Corinthians about being tormented by a thorn in the flesh.
How to Share in the Victory: Foundational Principles
The first principle mirrors the first one in the discussion of the problem of evil. Turning inward, we first must look to Jesus to save the world, and not ourselves.
St. Paul gives us the logical extension of the first principle. In order to share in Christ’s victory over evil, St. Paul doesn’t dwell on the evil itself—
“And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, I am strong” (2 Cor 12:7, 9-10).
He sees past it and only looks at what Christ is doing in him. No matter the extent of the evil, grace is still stronger. Large or small, Jesus says to us the very same thing He told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you.” That must be some amazing grace, if it is stronger than the vilest evils we encounter.
How to Share in the Victory: Virtues to Employ
All virtues naturally play a part in this victory of Christ, with charity especially. But the two I’d like to highlight are trust and hope.
We can trust our Savior. The words are easy to say and hard to live. He implored us to come to Him, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. John 14:16). To assuage any fear we have, Jesus gave incredible messages to St. Faustina Kowalska to pass onto the world. They’re recorded in her Divine Mercy Diary. Jesus poured out His heart to St. Faustina, urging everyone to trust in His mercy:
“My Heart overflows with great mercy for souls, and especially for poor sinners. If only they could understand that I am the best of Fathers to them and that it is for them that the Blood and Water flowed from My Heart as from a fount overflowing with mercy.” Diary #367
“The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to my Mercy.” Diary #723
Those words apply to YOU. Trust in the love and mercy of Jesus! Those that repent from sin have a guarantee of mercy from Our Lord. Sin is powerless against His Divine Mercy!
St. Paul helps us again with the virtue of hope. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom 8:18)
I think one of the best ways to look at hope through a modern lens is through stubbornness. There are more theological and poetic ways to say it, but “stubbornness” gets to the heart of it. Many of us don’t have any problem being stubborn when it comes to other areas of or life—so extend that to hope. Even if the world devolves into chaos; even in the face of unspeakable evil; our Catholic faith says we still have good reason to hope.
St. Paul has been of great help in looking at the victory over sin and evil. He closes the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans with a flourish. He was a passionate man, who vigorously promoted and defended the faith to anyone who would listen. He sought to bring all he spoke with into a loving encounter with Jesus Christ. When reading these words of his, imagine Paul speaking in the public square. Imagine him on fire with the Holy Spirit, joyfully convinced of every word coming out of his mouth:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:35, 37-38)”
This post was inspired by Jeannie Ewing’s new book, A Time to Laugh and A Time to Weep, which offers reflections on Servant of God Cora Evans’ selected writings, Refugee from Heaven. To pre-order your copy click here.