Henri Blocher on evil, the cross, and hope

Recently, I’ve been posting on the mystery of suffering and evil (see here, here, here, here and here). And then Kim Fabricius reminded me of Henri Blocher’s Evil and the Cross, a book that I had placed on my bibliography but hadn’t read for many years. It was good to revisit it (thanks Kim!). Here’s a few snipperts:

“The agony of the Christian mind wrestling with the problem of evil seems at first sight a sign of weakness. Is it not an admission of its inability to resolve the principal objection, its powerlessness even to begin chipping away at the ‘rock of atheism’? On reflection, however, we would suggest that things appear differently.

If we bowed to the incomprehensible as a way out every time that we found ourselves in difficulties, there would be grounds for suspicion about such a procedure – it would be sheer irresponsibility, the abdication of reason. People are too ready to fall back on the action of ‘mystery’, and also to confuse mystery with the absurd – which Scripture never does. But we would argue that the mystery of evil is the one unique inscrutable mystery, as unique as evil itself, sui generis. Far from being absurd, it corresponds precisely with the experience of evil, with its two facets: unjustifiable–reality …

We may take these thoughts further. The sense of evil requires the God of the Bible. In a novel by Joseph Heller, ‘while rejecting belief in God, the characters in the story find themselves compelled to postulate his existence in order to have an adequate object for their moral indignation’. Moltmann too has perceived that you suppress all protest against suffering, if you suppress God: ‘Since that time no atheism can fall below Job’s level’. When you raise this standard objection against God, to whom do you say it, other than this God? Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?

We do not understand the why of evil. But we can understand that we cannot understand. Human reason is made to trace the connections in God’s created order, and to weave harmonious patterns from them; to understand means to integrate. A rational solution to the problem of evil would necessarily imply that evil was an integral part of the harmony that came forth from God! Similarly, to go back from sin to its ‘real possibility’, before it came into the world, means applying to it the logic of continuity which obtains in the processes of the creation. But evil is disruption, discontinuity, disorder, alienness, that which defies description in creational terms (except negatively!). Seeking its causal explanation, its ontological reason, its why, is tantamount to seeking, by the very nature of that seeking, to reconcile it with the rest, in other words to justify it. (The ‘rest’ is in fact what is ‘just’.) To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil. The French have a saying, that to understand all is to forgive all; here, understanding all would mean to excuse everything.

Evil is not there to be understood, but to be fought. The absence of any solution to the theoretical problem of the emergence of evil is one side of the coin; the other side, something still more precious than righteous indignation, is the solution to the practical problem of the suppression of evil. What you appear to lose on the speculative level you gain on the existential level. And we have in mind particularly the far horizon of the practical task, the end of evil, something of far greater interest than its origin. Then will end the cries of ‘How long?’ which express a far heavier burden than the cries of ‘Why?’ … If beneath the outward appearance of evil there were hidden something good, why would anyone want to see it disappear? If God were not sovereign, how would he bring under his control what is not dependent on him? If God concealed darkness within himself, how would it not be eternal, like him? But ‘God’s solid foundation stands firm’ (2 Tim. 2:19). When wild hopes disappear into thin air, the foundation of hope comes into view, the sovereignty of the God who fights against evil, and who invites us to join him in the battle.

God battles with evil, and will conquer it. Or rather, God has battled with it and he has conquered it. We have kept the supreme consideration to the end: that other ‘T’ formed by two small beams of wood on the hill called Golgotha, Skull Hill. There the darkness of the mystery deepened, from the sixth hour until the ninth, the place from which shines forth the light.

In the light of the cross, how could there be any doubt about the three propositions [the evil of evil, the lordship of the Lord, the goodness of God; see p. 100] at the heart of the Christian position? The sheer and utter evilness of evil is demonstrated there: as hatred in the mockery of the criminals who also hung there; as hateful in the weight of guilt which could be removed only by the sacrifice of the Lamb of God. Even if I think of the benefits for myself, when I see my Lord suffering there, I cannot say: Felix culpa. Rather, I feel shame and indignation, against evil and against myself. The complete sovereignty of God is demonstrated there: all this happened ‘by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’ (Acts 2:23), for it was necessary that the Scriptures be fulfilled, those which bore witness to the destiny that the Lord had assigned to his Servant. If there is a revolting ‘scandal’, it is unquestionably that of Judas’s betrayal, and like the squalid reconciliation of Herod and Pilate it accomplished ‘what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ (Acts 4:28). Of no other event is it attested so fully that God ‘willed’ it. The unadulterated goodness of God is demonstrated there. At the cross, who would dare entertain the blasphemy of imagining that God would, even to the slightest degree, comply with evil? It brought him death, in the person of his Son. Holiness stands revealed. Love stands revealed, a pure love; there is no love greater. Because of the cross we shall praise his goodness, the goodness of his justice, the goodness of his grace, through all eternity. At the cross, God turned evil against evil and brought about the practical solution to the problem. He has made atonement for sins, he has conquered death, he has triumphed over the devil. He has laid the foundation for hope.

What further demonstration do we need? …

Just as evil still torments people, casting a dark cloud over their happiness, polluting and plaguing their mind and conscience, so too the problem of evil remains without any rational solution. It is stuck fast in their mind like a thorn, even when that mind has been renewed by grace and belongs to the most faithful disciple … If we look to remove the thorn completely, we simply drive it in deeper, and a poisonous abscess forms, that of some kind of deceitful Gnosticism. The explanations put forward by theologians with the very best of intentions simply amount to concealing the real evil of evil and titivating its ugly horror, even when they do not go so far as to insult the pain of the victims by providing the criminals with excuses. Holy Scripture alone completely resists this temptation. The Bible says nothing which might in the least measure diminish the offence of evil; it refuses any attenuation, whether optimistic or pessimistic. Such faultlessness … is nothing short of miraculous and deserves our notice; it indicates a source of inspiration which is of a different kind from human reflection. What have we discovered?

At the heart lies the inscrutable mystery of the first appearance of evil. Why? How? Where does it come from? It cannot be explained by being made an initial ingredient of existence, or the price that has to be paid, on our microscopic scale, for universal harmony. These so-called solutions, which cut the nerve of human indignation and give cheap relief to the sense of guilt, run straight into the testimony of Scripture. The Lord God is preparing to judge a world that is overflowing with all kinds of abomination – he does not underestimate the gravity of what is intolerable – but on the sixth day of the creation he had rejoiced to behold a created world which ‘was very good’. It contained not the slightest embryonic presence of evil, since it was in its entirety ‘from him and through him and to him’. From the source of goodness there could not flow anything that was bitter (cf. Jas. 3:12). Even less could it be conceived that God would become the accomplice of evil by raising it up for the purpose of acting as his instrument or as a convenient foil.

Then, if it is true that evil arises from the misuse of created freedom, that of the devil and then that of human beings, that does not give us any final explanation either. How was evil born of a freedom that was good? To argue that evil is there and therefore was possible, and that doing evil was a real possibility arising from that freedom, is to cover up the discontinuity of that singular fact – singularly singular. It is completely to pass over its monstrous unwarrantedness; evil is already interpreted as a natural ingredient of existence, if it is taken as something that is consistent with goodness. Scripture bears the opposite testimony, and denies that the human will may ever become independent of God. It is God who rules his creation as sovereign, in accordance with his own design, according to the revelation he has given us in his Word written, even the choices that are aimed against him. The sovereignty of God, which is affirmed times without number in his own revelation, makes his permission of evil an impenetrable mystery.

Divine sovereignty, however, is indispensable to the denunciation of evil, for it alone can guarantee the order with respect to which evil is denounced as disorder. It is short-sightedness together with an absent-minded dash of anthropomorphism which plays with the empty notion of a form of divine sovereignty to which God himself has set limits. It is better to observe that the three branches of the capital T of the biblical doctrine, i.e. the abhorrent nature of evil, the goodness of God, and his absolute sovereignty, assign to evil its position of utter loathsomeness, of being an unjustifiable reality, and ratifies our initial, wholesome reaction against it of shame and indignation.

When we join the book of Job and the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans by forgoing the rational explanation of the origin of evil, we find ourselves moving on to the answer to the question, ‘What is evil?’ It is, of course, formally defined as something that is contrary to the will of God and yet permitted by him; but if we ask what is its ‘essence’, its ‘nature’, the elucidation runs up against the impenetrability of the mystery. The phenomenon does not belong to the order of the creation; neither is it an independent principle, for it draws its force from the created realm that it corrupts. It is neither really ‘something’ (for it is not from God, from whom all things come forth), nor really ‘nothing’. It is neither a metaphysical datum nor a surface effect that can be easily dispersed. Georges Florovsky commented on this radically disturbing alienness in these terms:

Evil is divided within itself; it is a discord and a disharmony, inordinatio. Evil is ambiguous, unstable, variable. It has no character of its own … Nature itself is affected, nature itself is no longer pure. It is a dynamic disorder, a dynamic or functional perversion which is not yet consolidated in a metaphysical transformation … The existence of evil is a parasitic existence, evil lives by means of good, ex ratione boni. The elements are the same in the original world and the fallen world. But the organizing principle has changed. And although it is dynamic, the perversion is irreversible. Whoever has gone down into the abyss of evil, of his own will, is unable to climb back out.

Here again, theological analysis agrees with the simple experience of ordinary people.

The absence of any theoretical solution … opens the way for the practical answer to the question: ‘Lord, how long? The three inseparable biblical truths form the springboard of hope. They alone authorize us to expect the suppression of evil. But the inscrutable enigma puts forth a horrifying new shoot, which lengthens into the persistence of evil, even its revival, after the death and resurrection of Christ. If the Messiah has come, the Saviour, if he has won the victory over evil, if he has set up his kingdom, how are we to account for the succeeding nineteen centuries? Could the kingdom not have reached us, in spite of Matthew 12:28?

A ray of light pierces the gloom. It comes from the cross. The impenetrable mystery of evil meets the paradoxical mystery of the cross. The mystery of Golgotha is that of the darkness which turns to light, as the Psalmist said, for God and for us – for us by God (Ps. 139:11f.). We understand that we cannot understand, and even a little more. At the cross we find the verification of God’s mastery over evil, of his incorporating it within his plan, of his using evil men, and of his freedom from all suspicion of complicity in it. The mere mention of this last hypothesis, even though it is made in order to brush it aside, is profoundly disturbing, as if we were on the verge of blaspheming. At the cross we find confirmation that evil does not belong metaphysically to the condition of the human race; to a catastrophe in history, God reacts in human history. At the cross is revealed how his kingdom comes about: not by might (of weaponry), or by power (of worldly means), but by the Spirit of sacrifice (Zc. 4:6); not by the subjection of multitudes to slavery, in the manner of the great rulers of this world, but by the service of the Son of Man (Mt. 20:25–28); for the kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:36). The way of the kingdom requires that it spread most unobtrusively, by spiritual influence. It conquers people’s hearts, by their unconstrained acceptance of, and adherence to, the Word, its preaching and its call. Hence the stay of execution for the old world, the permission of continuing evil, and the margin of freedom left to the devil who is giving vent to his great fury, for he is aware how little time he has left (Rev. 12:12). Hence the association of the kingdom with the suffering and the patient endurance in Jesus (Rev. 1:9).

But why is the kingdom set up in such a way, if another way could have spared so much weeping, so much bloodshed? We have come to the threshold of the secret and hidden wisdom, revealed by the Spirit, in words taught by the Spirit, and that none of the rulers of this age understood, what has not been conceived by any human mind (1 Cor. 2:7ff.). We have a special wisdom to seek out in the mystery of the cross. Not that this mystery gives us leave to overturn the concepts of orthodox Christian doctrine, such as downplaying the omnipotence of God as stated in Holy Scripture (after the death of Christ, as well as before it), and promoting a ‘powerless God’; that is the kind of ‘wisdom’ that the rulers of this age endorse. The Pied Piper philosophers of our world will gladly take that path, reflecting as it does the vagaries of their humanism, their ideological manoeuvres and their all too human resentment. The wisdom of God in the event of the cross maintains its unique, concrete character, spelt out with total clarity by what the cross achieved: perfect redemption and propitiation. In short, at the cross evil is conquered as evil.

The wisdom of the way of the cross is that it attacks evil according to the ambiguity of its unique nature, and its illegitimate status. If evil simply boiled down to the ‘local’ imperfection of every finite being, exaggerated by an optical illusion, Christ would have had to do no more than teach, or else initiate his disciples into the liberating vision, like a Zen master; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner. If evil were a substance, an entity, comparable to some great power in the created order, it would have been sufficient to deploy a superior force against it, assuming that the opposing parties had enough in common for such a meeting to be conceivable; but evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered, in quite another manner.

At this point a misunderstanding arises for some people. They imagine Christ overcoming the devil at the end of a spiritual duel by his superior strength; or they speak of the elimination of evil, swallowed up by love, as if it were some kind of chemical operation of absorption and dissolution. Scripture is careful to avoid these misleading images. It speaks of the evil one being disarmed by the expiatory blood which alone washes away sins. The power of the devil over human beings is that of accusation, as his name, Satan, the accuser, indicates (Rev. 12:10ff; Col. 2:14f.).

Lastly, if evil corresponded to a necessary moment in the forward movement of a dialectical sequence of events, it would be left behind by its own progression to a higher synthesis. But evil is something other, and it is at the cross that it is conquered. Good Friday is anything but speculative. The free sacrifice, unique and once for all, is the reverse of the illustration of the fruitfulness of the Negation in a universal chain of logic. At the cross evil is conquered as evil: corruption, perversion, disorder, a parasite, and yet also weighed down with the load of the people it has led astray and deep in debt from the responsibility incurred.

Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The manoeuvre is utterly unprecedented. No more complete victory could be imagined. God responds in the indirect way that is perfectly suited to the ambiguity of evil. He entraps the deceiver in his own wiles. Evil, like a judoist, takes advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent. So is fulfilled the surprising verse: ‘With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse’ (Ps. 18:26, NRSV).

It is exactly this, the sin of sins, the murder of the Son, which accomplishes this work in a double manner. It provides the opportunity for love to be carried to its very peak, for there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends (Jn. 15:13). And as this gift contains no element of a romantic suicide (like Tristan or Romeo), the death unjustly inflicted becomes the ‘wages’ earned by the sin of the world, borne by the Lamb of God. It constitutes the ransom paid to liberate sinners, for they are prisoners of the law of God, the One who is Son of God and Son of Man, the head of the new humanity taking upon himself the debt of his own people (Mt. 20:28; Gal. 3:13, 21; Col: 2.14, etc.). It is in this way that he triumphs over sin, guilt and death. It involves a double coincidence. Evil culminates in murder; by taking away the life of the other person, sin brings about the successful conclusion of its essential intention, the rejection of the Lord and of whoever bears his image. By contrast love, which is ‘being for the other person’, culminates in the gift of one’s own life in favour of someone else. Furthermore, the requirement of right order, which is the order of love according to God, is that evil be punished by death, but it permits the brother and head to intervene in love and take over the debt in place of the guilty party. Here lies the mystery of the victory:

I see the depths of my pride, curiosity, concupiscence. There is no link between me and God or Jesus Christ the righteous. But I he was made sin for me. All your scourges fell upon him. He is more abominable than I, and, far from loathing me, feels honoured that I go to him and help him. But he healed himself and will heal me all the more surely [Pascal].

The secret and hidden wisdom of the Lord has caused to coincide the ignoble murder and the act of supreme love of the righteous for the unrighteous, the expiation, by his death in their place, of their sins. At the cross, evil is conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

A more elaborate treatment of evil would expose, in addition to its reversal (the suppression of the other person), the twisted leer of counterfeit love, false love, love in which the warped outlines are still recognizable. It would also show how death, the secret goal of sin from the very beginning (Jn. 8:44; Rom. 8:6), is of necessity the retribution that befalls it, rather than any other punishment; and also how the primacy of love, which is the foundation of humanness, permits the transfer of responsibility. It would thus further elucidate the connection between Calvary and the problem of evil. But we have seen enough to recognize in the mystery of the cross the divine answer to the unanswerable question of evil: de profundis, ‘out of the depths’ (Ps. 130:1), springs light, despite the impenetrability of the enigma.

Such is the glory of the cross that one would be tempted to explain the permission of evil by this end, that love, put to the test, reveals itself in its ultimate intensity. One last time, we must resist the attraction of this thought, for it would cause us to fall back into a pseudo-rational Gnosticism; it would attribute to a holy God a calculating mind which would utterly appal him. We have no other position than at the foot of the cross. After we have been there we are given the answer of the wisdom of God, which incenses the advocates of optimistic theodicies or of tragic philosophies. God’s answer is evil turned back upon itself, conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.

This answer consoles us and summons us. It allows us to wait for the coming of the crucified conqueror. He will wipe away the tears from every face, soon“.

– Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross: An Analytical Look at the Problem of Pain (trans. David G. Preston; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 102–4, 128–33.

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