Sunday, July 20, 2014

E1. Evil is a matter of choice, intention, and desire.

Now with two sections of my theology in bullet points done, we move on to the third section I am doing, "The Problem of Evil."
Evil is a matter of choice, intention, and desire.

Technically speaking, people are not literally evil and no one literally has evil inside them. This is figurative language. Literally, people make choices based on evil intentions, and such choices can so typify a person's choices that we might say metonymically that they are evil people or that they have evil inside of them. [1] People have evil desires. And people make evil choices.

Most significantly, an evil desire is a desire to do harm to others or see harm happen to others. This is because the ultimate standard of good is the twin love command to love God and love neighbor. It is against this standard that wrongdoing is most meaningfully measured.

An evil intent is an intent to harm others directly or to cause harm in some degree to others indirectly. An evil choice is an act, physically or mentally, intended to harm others or to lead to the harm of others. We call such evil choices, "sins," intentional acts against God and others when we know what the righteous choice would be.

Desires are not yet sins (Jas 1:14-15). It is only when the desire conceives a choice to act that a sin has taken place.

We can of course speak more broadly. It is perverse to desire to harm "the good" in general, where the good is anything God has called good. It is perverse to want to destroy or damage beautiful things.

There are thus degrees of evil intent and thus degrees of sin. The more defiant the choice against God, the more "high handed" the sin. The greater the intent to see harm done to others, the more heinous the evil. You might say with Paul that "nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14).

The most meaningful standard of evil intent is thus measured most appropriately against the most meaningful standard of good intent, which is the love of God and others. It is not most meaningfully measured against standards outside of human intent, such as a set of objective laws or rules. God is interested in the consequences of our actions, because he loves everyone and he loves his creation. But the standard of moral culpability is a standard of intention.

The same act can thus be sinful when done by one person but not sinful when done by another. It depends on the knowledge and intention of the person involved.

Note that it is a misinterpretation of Romans 3:23 to see sin as anything short of perfection. The New Living Translation wrongly translates the latter part of this verse to say, "fallen short of God's glorious standard." Rather, all are "lacking the glory of God," where the glory of God is what God originally created humanity to have within the creation (Ps. 8:5; cf. Heb. 2:6-8). The verse is not defining sin as anything short of God's perfect standard.

Despite how popular it is to say that "all sin is the same," the Bible does not in any way bear out this slogan in terms of sin itself. There is some truth to the saying if you mean to say that no one can earn God's favor and that "all have sinned" (Rom. 3:23). But this is something different from what we are saying, namely, that some sins are more heinous than others.

The Old Testament sharply distinguishes between sins with intention (e.g., Num. 35:16-21) and unintentional sins (e.g., Lev. 4:1, 13, 22). In general, the Levitical system of atonement did not make provision for atonement in relation to intentional wrongdoing. The death of the perpetrator was generally required for that.

However, the holiness codes established objective standards of what was clean and unclean, and you could violate these codes unintentionally by accidentally touching the wrong thing. The New Testament more or less does away with this system of cleanness (e.g., Mark 7:19).

It is still possible to wrong others unintentionally in the New Testament, as it is today, but the primary sense of sin in the New Testament is doing wrong with intent, including the wrong of others. [2] John Wesley called this sort of wrongdoing, "sin properly so called" and defined sin as a "voluntary transgression of the known law of God." [3] So James 4:17 tells believers that it is sin if someone "knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it." Paul in Romans 14:23 says that "everything that does not come from faith is sin." Both verses strongly reference the intention of the wrongdoer in the light of what they are thinking.

Emotions are thus not sinful in themselves. You can be angry and not sin (e.g., Eph. 4:26). You can have evil desires and not yet have sinned (Jas 1:15). It is when we make the wrong choices in relation to our emotions that we cross the threshold of sin.

The level of intentionality correlates directly with the intensity of the evil. This is why law systems distinguish between manslaughter and first degree murder. The punishment for a well planned out murder (murder in the first degree) is greater than killing someone in a fit of rage (manslaughter). Wesley somewhat humorously called the latter kinds of sins, "sins of surprise." [4] They bear the intentionality of the moment rather than a more extensive act of will.

However, Wesley was also clear that a person can set themselves up for sins of the moment. A momentary act can be the culmination of emotions and desires that have been brewing long before the act. A person is morally culpable for failing to deal with the storm before the lightning came. Similarly, one may have chosen not to know better. In short, a person can be wrongly convinced about the known law of God (e.g., Rom. 14:22).

Sin is thus to do wrong or to wrong others. You can sin unintentionally. Unintentional sin is not evil because it does not involve intention. By contrast, all intentional sin is evil to some degree. It is primarily intentional sin for which God holds us morally culpable. [5]

You can have evil desires without yet sinning. This is a desire to do wrong or to wrong others that has not yet reached the level of intent. Evil intentions are when a person has made the choice to sin.

Next Sunday: God created the possibility of evil choices.

[1] A metonymy is when something is so associated with something that you can refer to the thing by it. So you might say of someone known for wearing a bow tie, "Here comes the bow tie." In the same way, to say someone is evil--indeed to say God is love--is not to imply that their atoms are made up of evil or love but that evil and love so typify them that we can say figuratively, "He's evil."

[2] All sin is thus a function either of motive or consequence. Unintentional sin congeals around consequence. Intentional sin centers on motive. In neither case is sin fundamentally a matter of the act itself. Character, the fourth domain of ethical consideration, is the accumulated pattern of one's intentions and choices.

[3] You can find references to "sin properly so called" in Wesley's sermon, "The Scripture Way of Salvation" and you can find this definition of sin in a letter he wrote in 1772 to a Mrs. Elizabeth Bennis.

[4] E.g., in his sermon, "The Fruits of the Spirit." He did not reference murder when speaking of this category, I should make clear.

[5] However, you might argue that, apart from trusting in the atonement provided by Christ, we are also held morally culpable for our unintentional sin.

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