Lyon is a retired clergyman who divides his time between
Guelph, Ontario and Melaque, Mexico. He taught high school
English, Latin, Greek and science, and served as an officer
in the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, retiring in the rank
of Lieutenant-Colonel. His latest book, Don’t
Throw Out Your Bible, from which the essay below is
excerpted, should be availalbe by the end of the year (2023).
His monograph, A Christmas You Can Believe In,
can be requested as a PDF file from firstname.lastname@example.org.
is a proper reluctance in Christian thinking to sanitizing
sin by equating it with ignorance, but unless that ignorance
is willful ignorance, the equation may not be far off the
truth. In the most generous words ever spoken, Jesus said,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”
(Luke 23:34). Jesus was certainly not discounting the evil
of what was happening to him on that first Good Friday. But
he also recognized the ignorance of those who did it: ignorance
of who he was, and ignorance of the good that God was going
to bring out of that evil, ignorance even of their own best
interests. But ignorance is not the same as innocence. Sometimes
we are ignorant because we are naïve, but as often as
not we are ignorant by willful choice, neglect, or disregard.
Which is why we say that someone “should have known
But why should we expect anyone to ‘know better’
about anything? Because we are rational beings designed by
a rational God to live in a world that can be rationally understood.
And because we have an innate sense of right and wrong that
can be further informed by the revelation of God’s law.
We get that law from the Ten Commandments, from the insights
of the prophets, from the wisdom of sages and scholars, as
well as from our observation of nature and the combined force
of reason and gut instinct. So the story of Adam and Eve is
the story of us all: Adam and Eve should have known better
because, from the beginning, they had been ‘told.’
It’s a story that eight billion people relive every
day. That’s why Scripture says: “He has told you,
O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly
with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
We have to remember that, even though God made us “a
little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5 – the
Hebrew actually says “a little lower than God”!),
we are by physiology and instinct still animals. Though we
are born with capacities for language, knowledge, aesthetic
appreciation and moral values, those capacities need to be
shaped and filled. I recall someone who had read John Wesley
on the topic of raising children saying that Wesley’s
advice would be more germane to the breaking of horses. The
comparison may be off-putting, but when you remember that
we do have an animal side, it makes sense that we need to
be trained. Despite our reason and instinct, like working
horses and sociable house dogs, we need to be taught, or at
least to figure out, how to live happily and usefully in community.
That’s the function of law, custom, good manners and
parenting. The Garden of Eden story reflects our rejection
of that training.
(If you read the story of Adam, Eve, and the forbidden tree
superficially, you might see it as a sexist tale that blames
the woman. But Eve is not Pandora. The snake was perceptive:
he knew who was supposed to be the decision maker in that
family, and who didn’t have the balls to take a stand
on principle and say No. Adam and Eve were equally to blame,
just in different ways.)
What that story says is that for each one of us the training
and self-learning sometimes doesn’t ‘take.’
Certainly our limited knowledge can be a cause of evil, but
more often we resist what we already know and follow misdirected
feelings and short-sighted desires. Our freedom is a gift
from God, a gift we were given to use for the combined ends
of our good and his glory, and those two ends are intertwined.
If we choose to separate those ends – living like squatters
on this earth, using its lands and resources but resenting
or denying its rightful owner – that’s sin. We
cannot long pursue our good apart from God’s glory.
James, the Lord’s half-brother, who led the church in
it right when he wrote: “What causes wars, and what
causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are
at war in your members?” (James 4:1).
By New Testament times, a developed notion of dark personalities
was a part of popular Jewish thought. Certainly, evil does
sometimes seem like a separate personality within us, even
multiple personalities. So James, being a man of his time,
did in fact believe in the dark world. But when he says, “Submit
yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from
you” (James 4:7), it is clear that, if a devil really
exists, James will not let us use him as an excuse for our
bad conduct. The devil (if you believe that tradition) sinned
by an act of free will, but so did Adam and Eve; so we can’t
pass the buck. In fact, when you consider the evil that mankind
has wrought in recent history, and when you really comprehend
the darkness of which our own hearts are capable, Pogo may
well be right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Nothing will drive you to your knees faster than that overwhelming
you can’t use the graphic above, then insert this paren
after “…he is us”: (Walt Kelly cartoon,
1971). Note that the period moved to the end of the paren.
Jesus also spoke as if he believed in a real devil. But we
should understand that Jesus, as God’s incarnation,
was not God-in-human-disguise (the monophysite heresy) but
a real human being, who may therefore have shared the world-view
of his contemporaries. For there were, you will recall, things
he did not know, such as when “heaven and earth will
pass away” (Mark 13:31f). Alternatively, he may also
have been accommodating his teaching to what his audience
understood, rather than trigger a throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bath-water
rejection of ideas that were more critical to his message.
Of course, both those explanations are speculative, and there
may be more to the dark-side personalities after all. I know
perfectly rational people who claim to have experienced them
in ministry both in Canada and on the mission field. Nevertheless,
the abstraction that we call sin or evil is real, pervasive,
anti-God, and a threat to both our present and our eternal
well-being – so however we understand or encounter it,
we must not trifle with it.
God, meanwhile, remains sovereign. And Christians believe
that he has already triumphed over evil on our behalf and
invites us to follow Jesus and share in that victory. But
we are unlikely to do that unless we are convinced that the
Jesus story is believable. But that requires another chapter.