This is the transcript of a talk I gave to our local Christian young adults group. The audio recording can be found here if you wish to listen to it instead.
The Iron Crown: Characterizing Evil in Theology and Fantasy
So I’m here today to talk about evil, or as I like to say it, EEEEEVIIIILLL. Not the cheap crap that you find in horror movies, but the characteristics of real evil in real life. I’m not Catholic, I’m not going to teach you how to bless holy water or forge silver bullets, but I will talk about some of the characteristics of evil in our world.
It’s been said that Einstein was once asked the same question, ‘What is evil?’ by a professor in a class at university. Instead of giving an answer, he instead asked the prof a question, “What is darkness?” The professor replied “Well, darkness is the absence of light,” so Einstein countered “Well, evil is the absence of God.”
I like this definition because it neatly solves a couple big theological difficulties. First of all, it solves the problem of where evil came from, since evil is no longer a thing, but instead an absence. Second, it solves the problem of how a loving God could create a hell for the eternal punishment of his creation. In Einstein’s view, hell is not a place where God actively tortures people, but simply a place where God’s presence cannot be found, filled with people who chose an existence without God.
By the terms of our theology, a place without God would be the most terrible place imaginable, because everything good in creation is a product of God.
I’m not sure if Einstein actually said that, but it’s a cool idea. The problem is that it makes evil into a passive absence, despite the fact that the Bible portrays evil as active and dangerous. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8 So as much as I like this anecdote about Einstein, I think there is more to the definition.
As my father explained a few weeks ago, there is no mention of Satan in the Old Testament. The serpent is never identified as Satan, and the few times, like in Job, that an adversary is mentioned, it is framed in ambiguous terms. Certainly there are evil spirits that, especially in places of chaos, like the sea or the wilderness, terrorize humanity, but there isn’t an identifiable Satan.
Sometimes, even the places where are English Bible uses the word ‘evil’ aren’t really about ‘evil’ in the traditional sense. The OT uses two versions of ‘evil,’ human evil and divine evil. Human evil includes things that are bad for people, like getting sick or having your camels and goats stolen, while divine evil is serious atrocity or injustice against creation itself. We read in 1 Samuel that God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul, but we shouldn’t take this to mean a ‘devil’ or agent of ‘Satan.’ It is evil in the first sense of the term, in that it is causing an ailment that is ‘evil’ for Saul, but could actually be good for him in the long term if it causes him to repent and obey God.
Cornelius Plantinga, a theologian who wrote the book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be about the nature of evil, defines evil as “A Vandalism of Shalom.” For those who weren’t here for my dad’s talk, ‘Shalom’ is a Hebrew concept of peace and relational community that encompasses perfect creation. Plantinga says “The webbing together of
God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom…In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
Shalom is the perfect relationship between you and yourself, you and your neighbor, you and your community, you and creation, and you and God. It is multifaceted, and it has no room for evil.
So evil can be defined as the absence of God, but there are very real agents that work to disrupt and destroy Shalom in our world and bring about more spaces in which God is absent.
The nature of these agents is ambiguous, because they are not the centre of the picture. Christianity is not Buddhism or Taoism. It does not include a version of the Yin-Yang symbol with equal roles for good and evil, order and chaos, light and darkness. Evil was not present in the beginning, and it will not be present at the end. Evil, you need to remember, is not an essential part of creation
People sometimes say that the “Shadow proves the sunshine,” or “you can only appreciate the good times because of the bad times.” This is crap. God is the source of goodness, the author of creation, according to the Christian worldview. Evil is unnecessary and damaging. Do not fall into the dualist trap of assuming that evil is essential to our world, and therefore our humanity.
Tonight I want to talk about what causes evil, and what the characteristic symptoms of evil usually are. I’m going to talk about these characteristics, as usual, using examples from both theology and fantasy (LOTR and other stories), as well as the lives of two of Israel’s kings: Saul and Solomon. Both of these kings started their reigns as God’s anointed leaders of Israel, but made choices that led to evil in their lives and the lives of their children.
So, in a reality where God is sovereign, God’s plans are sovereign, and Shalom is the perfect state of existence, how does one follow evil? I argue that evil is not simply a choice, it is an act of rebellion against God.
My father argues that proper Shalom is submitting to God with the phrase “not my will, but your’s be done,” and the beginning of evil is to reverse that phrase: “not your will, but mine be done.” The first example of this reversal is in the creation story in Genesis, when Adam and Eve rebel against God commands, and create a snowballing evil that quickly leads to atrocity. Creation is marred and cursed, perfection is broken, and Shalom destroyed, all by an act of rebellion against the authority of God.
The idea that the beginning of evil is exchanging the pursuit of God’s will for your own will is played out throughout the Old Testament. Solomon is promised no less than three times that if he obeys the rules and regulations of the Lord, obeys the commandments, God will bless the Israelites and he will not fail to have a successor on the throne. These three promises come directly from God, and the Bible also records Solomon’s father David reiterating a similar promise to his son from his deathbed.
Of course, we know that Solomon doesn’t obey the Lord’s commands, and his son Rehaboam pays the price for his father’s sin. Solomon, who has been granted immense wisdom by God, eventually says ‘not your will, but my will be done’ a choice that brings immense evil upon Israel
Now this is a bit of a tangent here, but what exactly is Solomon’s sin? The Bible tells that his many wives eventually led Solomon’s heart away from God, but what does that actually mean? If you read the story of Solomon in 1 Kings, you read about his great wisdom, his dominion from the Euphrates down to Gaza, his many horses and chariots, his wealth, etc. He is a king who seems to have been greatly blessed by God, and he is. But there is a troubling reality we need to recognize.
The narrator is beating a couple big points home. First of all, Solomon is rich beyond belief. The narrator relates, “All of King Solomon’s cups were made of gold, and all the household items in the Palace of the Lebanon Forest were made of pure gold. There were no silver items, for silver was not considered very valuable in Solomon’s time.” He has endless talents of Gold in the temple, as well as in hammered shields around his personal palace. He has 700 wives and 300 concubines. Twice we’re told that he had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 Egyptian horses. Solomon is the defining power of the Middle East.
Yet this accumulation of stuff is actually in violation of God’s will. In Deuteronomy 17:14 God tells the Israelites,
“When you come to the land the Lord your God is giving you and take it over and live in it and then say, “I will select a king like all the nations surrounding me,” 15 you must select without fail a king whom the Lord your God chooses. From among your fellow citizens you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself or allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the Lord has said you must never again return that way. 17 Furthermore, he must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not accumulate much silver and gold.”
God doesn’t want his people becoming major powers and accumulating massive armies and massive wealth. In fact he forbids the Israelite kings to gather three things specifically: money (gold), sex (wives), and power (chariots). Money, sex, power. Now you could argue that all three of these things are actually about security, since money and chariots offer protection from foreign invasions, and wives represent diplomatic alliances with neighbouring kingdoms, but it is a security that is not rooted in the Lord. And Solomon has accumulated all of things, pursuing his own power and security, and chosen his own will over God’s.
Still, we don’t get a lot about Solomon personally, or his internal motivation. For that we turn to Saul, another king who is blessed by God and then turns to sin and evil.
Saul’s reign, as you know, starts off poorly. The Israelites want a king, and Samuel tells them that they’re idiots. A king will take your land and crops, conscript your sons and force your daughters to work, he says, why do you want a king? The Israelites tell him that everyone else has a king, so they want one too, so Samuel anoints Saul. Basically Saul is the tallest and the best looking, so he becomes king, which is not usually how God picks leaders, as you can imagine.
Saul wins a couple battles, so things start off on a positive note, but then he starts violating God’s will. He gives the burnt offerings at Gilgal without waiting for Samuel. He follows the people into sin and doesn’t stand up for righteousness. He does not follow God’s specific instructions in regards to the Amalekites, and incurs divine wrath. He lies to Samuel the prophet, he hides from Goliath, and he becomes a tyrant. Evil is an act of rebellion. God has predicted this. Samuel has predicted this, and Saul fulfills these predictions by substituting his own will for God’s.
Both these king illustrate the rebellion that is the basis of sin and therefore evil in the Bible.
I asked you at the beginning to define both ‘evil’ and ‘sin.’ So what’s the difference?
The words are used somewhat interchangeably, but I prefer to think of ‘sin’ as internal and ‘evil’ as external. Also, evil seems to include some level if intentionality. People sin all the time, but they only become evil when they deliberately choose to walk in that path—actively rebelling against the will of God on an on-going basis. We are all sinful, but only some of us actively choose evil.
Some of the best examples of what evil is and how evil operates are, in my opinion, given in fantasy literature. I think this is because fantasy is the only genre in which artists and writers try to portray absolute evil in its pure form. This evil can sometimes be silly and shallow, but it can also be a powerful representation of the spiritual forces that haunt all of us.
According to one of my favorite writers, Stephen Donaldson, fantasy stories are simply the externalization of our internal conflicts. Fantasy writers take their inner joy, fear, pain, and anger, and use them to paint a story in a fantastical setting. Donaldson writes,
“Fantasy is a form of fiction in which the internal crises or conflicts or processes of the characters are dramatized as if they were external individuals or events. Crudely stated, this means that in fantasy the characters meet themselves – or parts of themselves, their own needs/problems/exigencies – as actors on the stage of the story, and so the internal struggle to deal with those needs/problems/exigencies is played out as an external struggle in the action of the story.”
For example, Donaldson’s main character is named Thomas. Thomas has leprosy, and he finds the disease scary, and he is disgusted with himself for having leprosy. In Donaldson’s fantasy world, this disgust is personified as an evil character who Thomas has to defeat. This is also why in classic fantasy literature the struggle between good and evil is tied to the health of the fantasy world. If good is winning, the world is healthy, fruitful, green and vibrant. If evil is winning the land begins to sicken and die.
This makes sense if the fantasy world is meant to represent the internal health of one character. In reality, if you are at peace with yourself, happy with your life, your internal world is healthy, but if depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. are taking over, your internal world becomes dark and lifeless. Your spiritual world directly reflects who is winning the battle for control of your thoughts and actions: goodness or evil.
As Donaldson says, “in fantasy the entire out there, [all the elves and trolls and orcs and hobbits and dark lords and wizards] with all its levels and complexities and dimensions, is an externalization – for dramatic purposes – of what is in here. “
So I’m going to talk about some characteristics of evil that are clearly shown in fantasy, and then relate them back to the story of Saul and Solomon. These are characteristics that manifest after the initial rebellion against God, when an individual has decided to choose their will above God’s will.
In the beginning of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, when Melkor, the angel who will become the devil, first conceives the idea of rebelling against God, it is when he is walking alone in the void. The other angels are engaging and learning from each other, worshipping God together, but Melkor has isolated himself. He hatches a plan to increase the importance of his role in creation, and eventually draws a number of other angels into his rebellion. But, and this is important, none of these other angels are considered his equals or his friends, they are slaves to his will, tools he uses to accomplish his ends.
This is a running theme in fantasy. The hero or heroine makes friends and creates community, which helps him or her in the quest. Together they accomplish things that could not have been accomplished individually. The Dark Lord, whether Donaldson’s Lord Foul, or Tolkien’s Melkor, or Sauron, or Brooks’ Dagda Mor, or Voldemort, do not have friends or community. They dominate their servants, and they inflict cruelty upon everyone around them. The hero or heroine shares power, the Dark Lord cannot even dream of sharing power. He or she would rather face the world in isolation.
In 1 Samuel, Saul begins his kingship in community. He is anointed by Samuel, chosen by lot from among the Israelites, and then affirmed by the tribes. But the rest of his story tells of a continuing consolidation of power as he drives away those who have helped him. After the battle with the Amalekites, Saul never sees Samuel, God’s prophet, again. He tries to kill his servant David multiple times, and even tries to kill his son Jonathan. As his paranoia increases, so does the cruelty and violence of his reign. By the end, Saul falls on his own sword, alone except for his armor-bearer, in an isolation of his own making. He has turned from his friends, turned from his family, turned from God.
As my father talked about two weeks ago, God created humanity for community. “It is not good for the man to be alone,” God said in Eden. God, as Father, Spirit, Son, is himself in perpetual community. Shalom is an expression of community. Evil is often found in isolation.
I’m not attacking the introverts out there, but I do think it is important to remember that you were meant for community. Don’t become so enthralled in your own desires and importance in isolation that you become your own little Dark Lord.
I mentioned already that in fantasy, the Dark Lord is often the manifestation of an internal conflict. Sometimes it is partially manifestation of depression, abuse, anger, pain etc. One character trait that all these forms of darkness have, and one they try to spread, is a hatred of self.
Donaldson’s character Thomas has leprosy in the real world. His wife and child have left him because of his leprosy. His community has abandoned him because of his leprosy. He is an outcast because of his leprosy, and he is tempted to be kill himself because of his leprosy. Lord Foul, the Dark Lord of the fantasy world Thomas visits, is the manifestation of the part of Thomas who despises himself for his disease, and considers himself unloveable by God or by community. The struggle that Thomas undergoes against Lord Foul in the fantasy world, in journeys and battles with sword and magic, are an external manifestation of his internal battle against despair in the real world.
Saul’s insecurity about being king – remember that they found him hiding among the baggage when the time came to crown him – eventually turns to self-loathing. I think the key moment is when he hears his servants singing the rhyme “Saul has killed his thousands, David his tens of thousands.” In that moment Saul knows that he has failed God, and the kingship will be ripped away and given to another, and he begins to hate his own weakness.
When David refrains from killing Saul in the cave, the Bible records Saul as repenting. “Then Saul wept loudly. 17 He said to David, “You are more innocent than I, for you have treated me well, even though I have tried to harm you!… The Lord delivered me into your hand, but you did not kill me. 19 Now if a man finds his enemy, does he send him on his way in good shape? May the Lord repay you with good this day for what you have done to me. 20 Now look, I realize that you will in fact be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hand. 21 So now swear to me in the Lord’s name that you will not kill my descendants after me or destroy my name from the house of my father.”
Saul knows he has committed evil against David.
Yet this is not the last time Saul tries to kill David! Even though Saul understands he is fighting a losing battle, he cannot surrender to God’s will. He hates himself, and therefore his Shalom is broken, and in his own torment, he seeks to break the Shalom of others.
A man who is not at peace with himself, cannot be at peace with others. If you hate yourself, you will inevitably project that hatred upon those around you. After all, if you are not worthy of your own love, your own respect, your own community, how can anybody else be worthy?
Just like fantasy is a projection of inner struggle, evil is a projection of inner loathing. If you don’t believe that you are worthy of being loved by yourself, how can you believe that you are worthy of being loved by God, or that anyone else is worthy of your love?
In The Silmarillion Tolkien describes Melkor’s journey into evil like this: “From splendor he fell through arrogance to contempt for all things save himself, a spirit wasteful and pitiless. Understanding he turned to subtlety in perverting to his own will all that he would use, until he became a liar without shame. He began with the desire of Light, but when he could not possess it for himself alone, he descended through fire and wrath into a great burning, down into Darkness.”
Notice that evil is about falling. It is about becoming smaller, weaker, darker, about pushing others away, and hating them because you ultimately hate yourself.
Saruman, by the end of LOTR, is a malicious being who has lost all power save the ability to spread evil. Voldemort is a crying fetus in a spiritual train station. Denethor seeks to burn the body of his son Faramir in a pride-induced suicide ritual.
The invitation to self-loathing is one of the most powerful tools of evil. You can see it in yourself when you look at friends who are better than you, smarter than you, more attractive than you, and you pick its harvest when you seek to hurt them in small, seemingly insignificant ways. When you seek to find their small imperfections, or gossip behind their back to belittle them.
Some of you may remember the spider Shelob from LOTR. She attacks Sam in the pass of Cirith Ungol. Some of you may remember the spiders in Mirkwood from The Hobbit movies as well. Well let me tell you that Shelob and the Mirkwood spiders are like the wolf spiders you find in your garage compared to the great spider Ungoliant from The Silmarillion.
I’ve always found Ungoliant to be a good metaphor for evil. She helps Melkor steal the Silmarils, or jewels, from the gods of Middle Earth, but becomes so lost in her own hunger that she rebels against her master.
In a blog post I once wrote, I explained, “Ungoliant lives in the shadow of desolate mountains, sucking up light and spewing shadow. Yet with each web of “strangling gloom” she weaves, her world becomes darker and she becomes more famished. She is a parasite no more capable of sustaining herself than she is of controlling her hunger. Later Tolkien tells us “Of the fate of Ungoliant no tale tells. Yet some have said that she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last.””
Ungoliant is a parasite. She eats light and turns it into gloomy spiderweb. Yet the more she eats, the more web she creates, the hungrier she gets, because the webs prevent light from getting to her lair. And in the end, Tolkien implies that she becomes so hungry that she eats herself!
Ungoliant is a good example of the character of evil. First of all, it cannot exist by itself, it must feed off of creation. Ungoliant eats light, goodness, without light she cannot survive. Second of all, evil is self-destructive. As part of consuming light, Ungoliant creates webbing that actually strangles her food source. She is constantly in the process of starving herself.
Solomon’s pursuit of other gods, is a similarly self-destructive enterprise. Just as his 1000 wives and concubines cannot fulfill his desire for absolute intimacy, his pursuit of other Gods cannot fulfill his need for community with the true creator. By rejecting the one true God he starves himself of spiritual intimacy, starving even as he gorges himself on these pagan gods. In the end, his pursuit actually costs his son Reheboam the kingdom.
Saul’s rule is an even more obvious example of self-destruction. Saul is tormented by an evil spirit, by his own guilt, by his disobedience, and by his self-loathing. He drives away the prophet Samuel, his champion, David, and even his own son. He dies alone after having witnessed the death of all of his sons at the hands of the Philistines, knowing that his reign has been cut off. His lack of Shalom leads to his destruction.
In LOTR, we understand that the ring has to be destroyed in order to end Sauron’s threat to Middle Earth, but we rarely ask ourselves why the ring is so important. The truth is that Sauron created the ring to help him dominate creation, to feed off of its suffering, but in doing so he made himself vulnerable. Sauron poured the greater part of his power into that ring, harming himself, sacrificing his wholeness to enhance his power. It was only because of this self-maiming that Frodo was able to defeat him by destroying the ring.
Voldemort creates seven horcruxes which each store a piece of his soul. Yes they make him immortal, but they also make him something less than human. The violence Voldemort did to himself to achieve his power is obviously not worth the price, but he pays it anyway because evil is ultimately self-destructive.
People who are not in Shalom with themselves, inflict damage upon themselves, intentionally or otherwise. Job’s wife tells him, at the end of his strength, to “Curse God and die,” which is of course an act of self-destruction.
When I was in high school, I remember joking around with my friend about something. He mentioned he was upset about it, and I used a classic high school line. I said, “Well why don’t you just go cut yourself?”
My friend looked at me with a sick little smile, and then pulled up the sleeve on his left arm to reveal a dozen lateral scars across the inside of his forearm. The evil he was fighting, in this case I think it was depression, was urging him to self-destruction.
Depression was his Melkor, his Sauron, his Voldemort.
Do you know where Lord of the Rings’ orcs come from? Tolkien writes that in the beginning of time, Melkor captured some of the elves, and began to change them. He took God’s creation, elves, and tortured them and twisted them into a perversion of their former selves. This is part of the reason that orcs and elves hate each other so much, because both see in the other a warped image of themselves.
I said that the first thing the spider Ungoliant can teach us is that evil cannot exist by itself, but feeds off of creation. This is because, unlike in Taoism or eastern dualist traditions, evil and chaos are nowhere near as powerful as God. Evil can pervert and twist and contort, but it cannot create. Only God can create.
I see this in Solomon’s polygamy, which is a perversion of God’s idea of marital covenant. I see it in Israel asking for a human king, when humanity is meant to serve God alone. I see it in Saul’s decision to consult the witch of endor because the true God has abandoned him. In desperation he perverts justice and the nature of life. He has a medium resurrect the spirit of Samuel in a twisted mockery of the resurrection God will accomplish at the end of time.
When sin enters the world in Genesis, it is a curse that vandalizes Shalom and mars creation. Death enters the world, pain enters the world. domination and jealousy enter the world. Compared to the beauty of paradise it is like, in the words of Paul, looking through a mirror darkly. Evil is a stain on the holiness of creation.
Christianity is not a religion that understands good and evil as equal and opposite forces. Evil is an absence, a void, a darkness that consumes. God is a presence, a source, a light that creates. God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Evil is a blip in the middle.
Fundamentally, evil is a rebellion against God’s divine order. It is a reversal of humanity’s proper response to God: “not my will but yours be done.” Both Saul and Solomon are an example of OT kings who decided to tell God “not your will, but mine be done,” and suffered the consequences of their actions.
Solomon turned away from God to establish the foundations of temporal security so his rule would no longer have to depend on God. He hoarded gold, wives, and horses/chariots. Money, Sex, Power.
Saul looked like a leader on the outside, but he wasn’t a king on the inside. In order to please his people, by hoarding plunder, he disobeyed God’s explicit command to destroy the Amalekites. Even though he was told God would wrest the kingship from him, he insisted on clinging to power. At one point he killed 85 priests for aiding David’s escape. His will turned to murder and cruelty when he chose evil over holiness.
I have tried tonight to point out some characteristics of evil, not so that we can be scared and see evil in every corner, but so that we can recognize where in our lives we need to establish Shalom. I have argued that Evil is isolating, Evil is Self-Loathing, Evil is Self-Destructive, and Evil is Perverse. When our sin leads to evil, it often bears these fruit.
There is a line from Tolkien’s poem Mythopoeia, which describes the conflict between the brute destructive power of evil in the physical world, and the delicate yet transcendent structure of Shalom. Tolkien writes:
“I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.”
It is hard to remember that we were made in the image of God when faced with the destructive power of evil. It is hard to remember that God creates us as royalty, the stewards of creation, with the nobility of free will, a ‘golden sceptre’. It is hard to resist the seduction of the Iron Crown, but we must.
Remember that, based upon the characteristics I have mentioned tonight, the best way to resist evil is obedience to God, participation in community, a healthy self-love, and a commitment to healing both creation and other people.
I want to end by asking you to think about whether you have seen these characteristics of evil in your own lives or the lives of those around in the last week. How have you seen Shalom being destroyed, and how can you use your own “golden sceptre” to fight back against the Iron Crown?