One of the most startling insights into sin and the nature of this world comes from the French Jewish philosopher, Simone Weil, who died in 1943 but not before she was converted through reading George Herbert’s poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’. She observed: ‘Nothing is so beautiful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy as the good. No deserts are so dreary, monotonous and boring as evil. But with fantasy it is the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied, intriguing, attractive and full of charm.’
The first part of the observation is surely correct, in the long run at least: the good is fresh and beautiful, and evil quickly becomes boring. The second part of the observation is probably largely true, but more problematical. Dostoyevsky commented that it was virtually impossible for a novelist to portray perfection in a realistic way. Yet he tried hard in The Brothers Karamazov, with Alyosha and the Elder Zosima, and surely did not fail miserably. Fictional good can be captivating, but the media almost invariably go for the easier option of presenting evil or flawed good that is very compelling to fallen human beings.
The main point to be made here is that when the Bible lists sins that are worthy of denunciation (e.g. Rom.1:29-31; Gal.5:19-21), we ought not to think that they are so repellent that merely to name them turns people away from them. No, the Bible knows that our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick, and beyond our understanding (Jer.17:9) and that Satan is a crafty and wily foe, far beyond our capacity to resist (Gen.3:1; 2 Cor.2:11). We are rarely tempted to commit absolute evil in any bald sense. Rather, Satan comes to us as an angel of light (2 Cor.11:14).
Is that not true? In the entry of sin into the world of human beings, Eve disobeyed not by shaking her fist at God and openly rebelling against all that is good. That she did, but it came about because she convinced herself that the tree was good for food, that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it would make her wise (Gen.3:6). In doing evil, she believed that good would come. Even in the Satanic temptations of the Son of God Himself, the devil sought to present disobedience in attractive forms. ‘Better bread than stones, if one is hungry – surely that is true!’ ‘Do something spectacular, and claim Psalm 91 as today’s inspiring text for daily living.’ And ‘Claim the world by worshipping me’ (see Matt.4:1-11). Nowhere, does our adversary mention greed, pride, lust, or tyranny – sin can be dressed up to appear almost reasonable.
Even for us, as those who are naturally dead in sins, it seems that it is important to be seen to be right and good, even if we are not. Dr Willie Parker declared that it was Martin Luther King’s discussion of the parable of the good Samaritan that led him from 2009 to leave obstetrics to be a full-time provider of abortions for women living in the southern states of the USA. The seventeenth century French writer, François de La Rochefoucauld, noted that ‘Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.’ Killing babies sounds so awful; being a good Samaritan sounds so noble.
On 25 July 2018 news came through of the death at the age of 31 of Oksana Shachko. She was a founder of Femen, a group of feminists who in a debased way protested that they were against sexual exploitation. Ms Shacko apparently left the group in 2014, declaring that it had become empty. Yet she found no true solace, and her death seems to have been a suicide. This did not stop Femen from resorting to the usual rhetoric: ‘Oksama fought for justice, she fought for equality, she fought for herself and all women as a hero.’ One must suppose that the truth would be too much to face.
Sin dresses attractively, and this overcame Eve in her unfallen state. The devil thought that the same tactic was his only hope of undoing the Son of God. In our fallen state, we are easily deluded, and convince ourselves that evil is right and good, even noble and enhancing. No wonder we are told so often not just to be good, but to be strong, to beware, and to be armed against the wiles of the devil (Matt.10:16; 1 Cor.16:13; Eph.6:10-13).
Rev Dr Peter Barnes is currently the pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church and Church History lecturer at Christ College, Sydney.