Arts and Culture

The Power and Mystery of Evil

by Father Robert Lauder

Eighth in a series

Anyone who has been reading this series based on Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011, pp. 362) probably has noticed that I find the Holy Father’s book filled with wonderful insights. Re-reading parts of the book recently, I was struck by the pope’s comments on the mystery of evil in relation to Christ.

When we come upon the term “the mystery of evil” perhaps similar images come to mind. We might think of the terrorist attack on our country 11 years ago. I know I think almost immediately of the Holocaust. Though I have seen a number of films about the Holocaust such as The Pawnbroker, Schindler’s List, Sophie Scholl and The Diary of Anne Frank, and read books such as Eli Wiesel’s Night and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I still find the evil of the Holocaust almost overwhelming.

How could human beings systematically kill other human beings? Those who actively engaged in the murders must have descended almost to the level of animals. How did their consciences ever become so warped? How could they ever believe that what they were doing was good?

When I think about the mystery of evil I also am amazed that two-thirds of the human race is starving, that every 15 seconds in this country a woman is raped, that drugs are rampant perhaps especially in the vicinity of schools, that there is prejudice against racial minorities, against Catholics, against women and against gays. Unfortunately, images of evil are not only varied; they seem unlimited.

Pope Benedict links all the evil in history to Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. He mentions that St. John expresses what might be called the primordial fear of created nature in the face of death but goes on to say that Jesus, who is Life itself, must face the full power of evil and destruction and take them upon Himself. The Holy Father writes the following:

“Because he is the Son, He sees with total clarity the whole foul flood of evil, all the power of lies and pride, all the wiles and cruelty of the evil that masks itself as life yet constantly serves to destroy, debase, and crush life. Because he is the Son, he experiences deeply all the horror, filth, and baseness that he must drink from the ‘chalice’ prepared for him: the vast power of sin and death. All this he must take into himself, so that it can be disarmed and defeated in him.” (p.155)

Referring to the Scripture scholar Rudolf Bultmann, the pope notes:

“As Bultmann rightly observes: Jesus here is ‘not simply the prototype, in whom the behavior demanded of man becomes visible in an exemplary manner … he is also and above all the Revealer, whose decision alone makes possible in such an hour the human decision for God.’ (The Gospel of John, p. 428). Jesus’ fear is far more radical than the fear that everyone experiences in the face of death: it is the collision between light and darkness, between life and death itself – the critical moment of decision in human history. With this understanding, following Pascal, we may see ourselves drawn quite personally into the episode on the Mount of Olives; my own sin was present in that terrifying chalice.” (pp. 155-156)

The Holy Father is echoing the philosopher Blaise Pascal’s thought that Jesus’ blood was shed for each of our sins.

Free Act of Love

Not long ago, I was having a discussion with an atheist about Jesus. The person saw Jesus as a victim, which of course, He was. But what the atheist missed about Christian doctrine was that we believe that Jesus freely chose to die for us. It is Jesus’ free choice, not the amount of His suffering, that redeems us. One problem I had with Mel Gibson’s powerful film, The Passion of the Christ, was that it gave the impression that it was the amount of pain and suffering that Jesus endured that saved us. No, it was Jesus’ free act of love that saved us.

One statement of the Holy Father that stands out for me: “It is the collision between light and darkness, between life and death itself – whose decision alone makes possible in such an hour the human decision for God.”

We are saved by Jesus and only by Jesus. His death and resurrection are the heart of our faith. Every page of the pope’s book says this at least implicitly. There are many great events in human history, and many of them not only can instruct us about the right way to live but can even inspire us. However, there is no historical event more central to what our lives mean and how God’s love for us is revealed than Jesus’ death.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.