(With thanks to C.S.Lewis for the loan of Screwtape and Wormwood)
It is nothing out of the ordinary, simply a Lent study group in a small parish church and the dozen or so participants are nearly all well over fifty.They are seated in a circle holding photocopies of some chapters of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book.They have just read Pasternak’s poem ‘Hamlet in Gethsemane’ and are faced with the proposition that evil can never really be incarnate. Some flick once more through the pages and shift uneasily as it waiting for the session to end so they can have dinner.Even the keen ones seem uneasy with the evening’s material and at least one looks as if he clearly expects the Vicar to sort the issue out and give a tidy resolution to the problem.
Finally he breaks out irritably, ‘Of course you realise that all this talk about evil and the devil is one of the reasons people don’t come to church any more.They just don’t believe this medieval rubbish.Evil is not out there.Evil is in ourselves.That’s what we have to deal with.’
‘Right’, says the Vicar equably, sensing a new current of disagreement running through others in the circle. ‘That points toward the limitations of language doesn’t it, Alan?I mean we tend to use the words evil and devil as a code of convenience, a sort of shorthand.It does not mean that we really want to signify a monster with horns and tail.’
(You see, said Screwtape from the shadows.You see what I meant Wormwood about such study groups being so helpful from our point of view.You have one of them doubting our existence. Now that’s always helpful for us: they don’t understand our influence and hate themselves – which is wonderfully productive to our cause.And look at that miserable Vicar.Trying to see all points of view and be nice.He sidelines it all with a reference to the problems of language and the caricature of Our Father Below.)
‘Um,... but because people don’t believe in a devil like in the pictures, surely that doesn’t mean evil doesn’t exist; anymore than God could not exist because we don’t believe in some heavenly figure with a beard.’The quiet tense woman with the bible had remained silent through most of the session, and she seemed to shrink back as the group turned to look at her.‘I, I mean, I might be wrong, but it seems logical doesn’t it,’ she appealed to the Vicar.
The Vicar beamed encouragingly. ‘Well, yes, I think it is Angela.That’s a very helpful point to make.I think we all need to make a note of that point - that although our image or language is too limited or even wrong, it does not mean that the concept we refer to does not exist.’
(‘You see’, muttered Screwtape. ‘That Vicar really is a gem.Things got a bit tricky with that schoolteacher woman, but he’s got it back on safer ground.Evil and God are just concepts for them now; oh there’s nothing to worry about here.’)
Eva, cut in sharply, ‘When I paint, when I lay the colours thick and textured and the form emerges, I know that something of God is there.Not the whole of course, but something, a fragment, a trace.And this is not just an idea at all, but a tangible real thing – it is there in the paint; tangible; real; oh, call it incarnate if you like.’
(‘Beelzebub,’ Screwtape snarled, and hooked himself up to the highest beam. ‘It’s getting stuffy down there.Watch that bloody artist; those creative types are always dangerous.It’s the act of making – that’s the shadow of the enemy. It’s what the enemy does – create, create, make, make, there’s no end to it.Watch down there! It might all hit the fan now!)
‘Well,let’s be consistent then, Alan sniped, ‘Eva is saying that something of God can be incarnate, so why not evil?That’s the question we were asked to talk about.’
‘Oh, that’s simple, Alan.’Eva smiled, ‘there is nothing evil in matter or in the things of creation.I am quite sure that in my way of describing the world of physics, I am simply saying that everything exists and is held together by love – and that is what creation is about.Evil cannot assume matter because it cannot assume the work and substance of God.For evil to be incarnate is to me simply an impossibility, a conceptual oxymoron – a contradiction.’
‘An oxymoron,...’ the Vicar paused, clearly feeling things were getting beyond him, ‘Now, I suppose that is an interesting way of looking at it..’ (‘Splendid fellow!’ hissed Screwtape.)
‘Now wait a moment.’ Alan put up his hand.‘Are you saying there is no such thing as evil?Say for instance, a child molester?’What I am saying is that matter, the creation is inherently of God and is not capable of being used to incarnate evil.The child molester is not evil: what he or she does is evil.’
‘Well,’ said Alan triumphantly, ‘that brings us back to what I said at the start. Evil is in us, it’s not something out there like the devil.’
‘Oh, I don’t think that follows.’Angela’s quiet voice cut in.‘I suspect there are more forms of being than physical existence.If God is not limited by matter, it seems quite possible, at least to me, that evil is not either.’
‘Hell’s bells, it looks to me as if God and evil are all mixed up together, if you go down that route!What do you reckon Vicar?’ Alan appealed.
Clearly gratified to have his authority recognised, the Vicar paused judiciously: ‘Well now, dualism is a bit of a problem here.If we assume an all powerful God and still accept the reality of suffering and evil ...’
‘Exactly my point’, Alan cut in.‘I mean look at that Gospel this morning.When the disciples ask why the man was blind, Jesus says he was blind so God could heal him!That makes God responsible for evil, for suffering.To put it bluntly, it makes God a monster!I’m not surprised people don’t want to come to church!’
(‘Oh very good.’Screwtape nearly slipped off his roost with glee.‘It’s always wonderful when they misread those stories about the Enemy, they get so messed up.’)
‘Yes, I’ve got that passage right in front of me,’ Angela ran her finger over the page. ‘My commentary notes point out that Jesus is not explaining why the man was blind, and was rejecting the old arguments that this was a punishment by God for sin.He says instead that this is an opportunity for the power of God to be revealed – which is what he is all about.’
‘So what about suffering?’Alan pointed at Angela’s bible. ‘How can a good God allow suffering?I would have thought that makes God either evil or inadequate.’
Eva leaned forward, ‘I doubt we’ll sort that tonight, but suffering and evil are not the same.Suffering is lousy, dreadful but not simply evil.I know what it is like to suffer with cancer, but I can’t say that the cancer is evil.I think suffering and life can’t be separated and I don’t understand it. Surely the fact that Jesus suffers too, shows us that in some way God is involved with us in suffering.’
‘Yes!Yes!’Angela nearly dropped her bible. ‘And isn’t that what Easter is about?That suffering and death are not the last word but only a stage in the journey?And that everything is being redeemed – and that in the end evil itself will be overwhelmed by the love of God?’
(‘It’s positively stifling here,’ rasped Screwtape. ‘We’re out of here.’)
Beyond the high windows of the foyer the evening sun shone more brightly and a beam struck across the circle to the cross on the far wall.In the silence, a thrush called from the garden.
‘Well’, said the Vicar, standing. ‘I think this is a good point to close, don’t you? Shall we say the grace together?’