Fighting Evil with Good
Scriptures: Matthew 5:43-48, Romans 12:9-21
Christian faith is a way of fighting evil with good. Faith is trust, and trusting in the God we know in Jesus Christ means having faith in the power of good over evil. Ours is an Easter faith. The triumph of evil in the crucifixion of Jesus was short-lived, which is why that day is remembered as Good Friday. The resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday marks the victory of good over evil. This is our faith and the witness the church offers to the world.
But what good is this faith when we face evil in our lives? Is our faith merely a promise that there will be a just reckoning at the end of time? Or, is our faith only a guarantee that we will be saved after death even though evil continues to reign on earth? Or, is Christian faith actually a way of overcoming evil with good?
The New Testament is filled with hope about the end of time. 2 Thessalonians proclaims the coming judgment of God, when "the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." (2 Th. 1:7-8) And the thirteenth chapter of the gospel of Mark presents in more detail the vision in 2 Thessalonians of the day of the Lord, when the Son of Man will come and "gather his elect … from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven." (Mk. 13:27)
In Mark 14:62 Jesus uses images from Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14 to proclaim the reign of the Son of Man at the end of time. Matthew 26:64 contains exactly the same statement, and the gospel of Matthew also relates the parable of the Great Judgment (Mt. 25:31-46), which depicts the Son of Man separating "people one from another" for eternal punishment or eternal life according to their righteousness. In the gospel of Luke, Jesus proclaims that "the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God," (Lk. 22:69) and the Revelation to John depicts the great battle between the forces of good and evil prior to the final victory of Christ at the end of time.
All these visions in the New Testament of the end of time offer eternal life with God in heaven, but there are also passages in scripture that support the idea of eternal reward immediately after death. The gospel of Luke tells of a poor man named Lazarus, who dies and goes to heaven and of a rich man commonly known as "Dives" (the Latin for "rich man"), who dies and goes to hell (Hades). In the story the rich man in hell looks up to heaven and appeals for mercy to Abraham, who is there with Lazarus. (Lk. 16:19-31)
The warning to the reader, as well as the promise of life immediately after death, is clear. The gospel of Luke also reports that when the man crucified with Jesus asks to be remembered after Jesus comes into his kingdom, Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk. 23:43)
Certainly, the hope of eternal reward either at the end of time or right after death is central to the good news proclaimed in the New Testament. We may believe that this hope is unrealistic, in a world we understand largely through science. But certainly hoping for the triumph of good over evil after our individual deaths or the death of all life is utterly realistic in facing the apparent triumph of evil in the world.
Christian faith does not offer us an illusory hope of life on earth without evil. Instead, Christian faith calls us to fight evil with good — in the world as it is. In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus urges his disciples: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children" of God, who "makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (vs. 44-45) The lesson of scripture is that God loves our enemies, so the church calls on Christians not merely to love those who love them but to love as God loves.
Consider Paul’s counsel to the Christians in Rome. "Let love be genuine," he writes. "Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good." (Rom. 12:9) Clearly, Paul believes that Christians should resist evil with their own goodness. "Bless those who persecute you," he says. "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all." (Rom. 12:14, 17)
We need to be reminded that these teachings were not written for rulers. Jesus and Paul are not advising governing officials in Palestine or in cities of the Roman Empire. These teachings were written to help Christians resolve differences within their churches and persevere in the face of persecution.
Listen carefully to Paul’s words. "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God." (Rom. 12:18-19) Paul knows that the Christians in Rome do not have control over what is happening there. "If it is possible," he says, Christians are to live in peace. "So far as it depends on you," he advises Christians, settle your differences among yourselves and with non-Christians without violence.
Paul expects there will be violence, but tells Christians in Rome not to seek vengeance. Although they may be unable to prevent persecution, they have the power not to seek vengeance through violence. Paul teaches that vengeance belongs only to God. If Christians are to live peaceably with non-Christians, then Christians must respond to evil with good. Listen to Paul’s words to the church in Rome: "If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." (Rom. 12:20)
What does Paul mean? He is quoting Proverbs 25:21-22. Literally, of course, showing mercy to one’s enemies will not "heap burning coals on their heads." But this metaphor may be taken to mean that loving our enemies is how they may come to have remorse for the injustice they have done to us. If they have harmed us, because they felt their cause was just, our loving response may undermine their self-justification, and so open their minds and their hearts.
Paul urges the Christians in Rome: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12:21) The power of evil cannot be defeated, if we respond to evil with evil, no matter how justified our response may be. Christian faith teaches that evil can only be overcome with good. Responding to evil with good is how we witness to the love of God for the world.
What does this mean for American Christians today? Christians need to consider this question prayerfully, and even with prayer we should not expect unanimity in the church about our response to the war against terrorism. The New Testament was not written for citizens with the power to elect their government, nor does the Bible anticipate attacks on the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. But both scripture and the church call us to fight evil with good, and this wisdom should not simply be dismissed as either unrealistic or unpatriotic.
How might American Christians fight the evil of terrorism with good sense and good will?
By seeking justice rather than vengeance. The war against terrorism should not be motivated by a desire for revenge. When people are arrested and charged with being terrorists, they must be given a presumption of innocence and a fair trial. When war is waged against a government harboring terrorists, the violence must be limited to the objective of ending the government’s support for terrorism.
By providing food, water and medicine for our enemies. The goal of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should not be to kill government officials, who have refused to turn over the leaders of Al Qaeda to the United States, but to turn these leaders against terrorism. Even as we fight this war, we should urge our government to reach out to our enemies so that at least some of them, some day, will become our friends.
By promoting the rule of law within and among nations. While our government wages war, it should also support initiatives for peace that help the United Nations mediate disputes among nations and that strengthen the use of international law in fighting terrorism.
By supporting all that is good in America. Patriotism in support of our civil liberties, our constitutional form of government, American openness and generosity, and a renewed spirit of community service deserves the energetic support of every citizen.
By understanding the history of Islamic civilization. We should welcome the opportunity to learn more about the heritage of 1/5 of the world’s peoples, and to understand why terrorism against America is now being justified by some Muslims because of the way the Western nations have treated Islamic peoples.
By praying for those who persecute us. As Christians, we are commanded to pray for our enemies, because God cares for them, too. If we are to pray for forgiveness for ourselves, we must pray to God to help us forgive our enemies. If we are to be children of God, we must accept that all other peoples, even our enemies, are also children of God.
By worshipping the one God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. There is only one God. That is our Christian faith. The God of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad is worshipped in different ways by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Yet our prayers are all directed to the God who is God, and only the God who is God will answer our prayers.
"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom. 12:21) This Christian teaching is good advice. May we take it to heart and put it into practice. Amen.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer