By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Evil is an impossible reality for monotheists. According to the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, those who believe that God is all good, all powerful and the creator of all things cannot be monotheists and also believe that Satan’s evil exists independent of God’s goodness. That would make them dualists rather than monotheists. Dualism originated with the Gnostics of ancient Persia, who believed that the forces of darkness (evil) were in a cosmic battle with the forces of light (good); and Sacks acknowledged that dualism is found in both Judaism and Christianity.
Rabbi Sacks addressed dualism in the context of religious violence, and he explained that “Dualism entered Judaism and Christianity when it became easier to attribute the sufferings of the world to an evil force rather than to the work of God.” For Sacks, God is the source of the bad as well as the good, judgment as well as forgiveness, and justice as well as love, so there is no room for Satan in Sacks’ monotheism. Sacks explains that “…the bad God does is a response [punishment] to the bad we do.”
Sacks articulates a dualistic concept of an omnipotent God universal in matters of justice (Elokim) and particular in His compassion for the Jews as a chosen people (Hasham). God loves and judges, forgives and punishes, and Sacks acknowledges the complexity of such a concept, and that dualism simplifies it. Sacks attributes religious violence to a “…pathological dualism that sees humanity as…divided between the good and irredeemably bad.” It is the Us versus Them dichotomy that is associated with fundamentalist and exclusivist religions that assert one true faith, one inerrant and infallible holy book, with all others false and condemned by God.
Jesus was a Jew who, according to the Gospel accounts, was tempted by Satan before he began a public ministry that predicted a coming kingdom of God based on love and mercy rather than on divine law, judgment and fear. It was a spiritual kingdom opposed to Satan’s worldly domain. Jesus and the Jews of his day spoke of Satan’s evil as opposed to God’s goodness, and Jesus exorcised the demonic minions of Satan. In The Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, and to deliver us from evil. And like Jesus, Muhammad spoke of Satan as evil and the spiritual enemy of God’s goodness.
According to Jesus, neither God nor Satan favors one religion over others. Jesus taught that all who do God’s will, as summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself, are his spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God. The Hebrew Bible teaches that those who fear God and obey God’s Law are rewarded, while the disobedient are punished. The Qur’an also teaches that those who fear God and obey God’s law (shari’a), and believe in the Qur’an as the final, perfect and immutable word and law of God will experience eternal paradise, while all unbelievers will be condemned to eternal damnation.
Such exclusivist views give rise to what Sacks calls altruistic evil, which is based on the belief that God saves His chosen (Us) and condemns all others (Them). Satan uses that theme of fear and condemnation and does a convincing imitation of God, and Satan does some of his best acting in the synagogue, church and mosque. How do we tell the difference? God uses love and mercy to reconcile and redeem, while Satan uses fear, hate and violence to divide and conquer.
All religions—and for monotheists, even God—can be the source of good and evil. The seeds for the evil of Islamist terrorism germinate from a fear that reason and advances in knowledge are a threat to their traditional beliefs, and that fear has spawned a virulent form of Islamic fundamentalism that motivates hate and violence toward unbelievers. But most Muslims, like most Jews and Christians, are not religious fundamentalists and share belief in the greatest commandment as a common word of faith. It is the love of our neighbors—even our unbelieving neighbors—that distinguishes God’s goodness from Satan’s evil.
In a world of increasing religious pluralism and danger from Islamist fundamentalism, true justice depends on Islam embracing the values of democracy, libertarian human rights and the secular rule of law. Those secular values have been embraced by Western religions but rejected by Islamism. Unlike Moses and Muhammad who taught the supremacy of holy law, Jesus taught the supremacy of love over law. The victory of the light of God’s love over the dark forces of Satan’s fear, hate and violence will require a mix of the powers of persuasion and coercion, with the ultimate objective of undermining the legitimacy of Islamist fundamentalism, so that religious reconciliation and lasting peace are possible among all people of faith.
Are good and evil spiritual forces engaged in a great cosmic battle, or is God the source of all good and evil? Rabbi Sacks was right to blame religious violence on a pathological dualism that considers unbelievers as evil, but wrong to reject the idea that evil can be a spiritual force separate from God that motivates devout believers to harm unbelievers. It is ironic that Islamists share a belief with fundamentalist Jews and Christians that their ancient holy laws are God’s standard of righteousness and that the immorality prevalent in libertarian democracies is sin—the product of Satan’s evil—and should be punished. To that end Islamist terrorists consider themselves instruments of God’s judgment and kill unbelievers and sinners.
The challenge for people of faith, whether monotheists or dualists (or both), is to learn to love all their neighbors, including unbelievers and strangers, and in a dangerous world that includes the tough love of protecting their neighbors from those who would do them harm.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and New Beginnings: Salvation and Reconciliation into the Family of God, January 4, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? January 25, 2015; Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness, February 8, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil, February 15, 2015; Religion as a Source of Good and Evil, March 1, 2015; A Fundamental Problem with Religion, May 3, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism, November 1, 2015; Tough Love and the Duty to Protect, November 8, 2015; and American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion, November 15, 2015.
The quotes from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are from his book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken Books, New York, 2015) at pp 49, 51 & 53. For a review of Rabbi Sack’s book, see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/books/review/islam-and-the-future-of-tolerance-and-not-in-gods-name.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share.
On the origin of Satan as the personification of evil in 1st century Christianity, see Elaine Pagels, The Origins of Satan (Rndom House, New York, 1995).
The Editorial Board of The Washington Post characterized the Paris attacks as evil. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/facing-evil-in-paris-and-beyond/2015/11/14/c0f82606-8afd-11e5-be39-0034bb576eee_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines. The editorial asks, “What can containment mean in a war like this?” For my response see A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism, November 1, 2015; Tough Love and the Duty to Protect, November 8, 2015; and American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion, November 15, 2015.
Paul Waldman refers to the debate over whether to use the words “radical Islam” or to avoid using the word Islam in referring to Islamist terrorism as a “silly, distracting” debate. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/11/15/the-silly-distracting-debate-over-whether-to-use-the-words-radical-islam/?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions. It is a legitimate and important debate since Islamist terrorism must be recognized as a fundamentalist (and evil) form of radical Islam, or Islamism, in order to be effectively countered within Islam.
In the battle against ISIS and Islamist terrorism, experts have explained how global powers can smash ISIS and agree that it will take religious reform within Islam. Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist, has criticized those who say that Islamist terrorism has nothing to do with Islam as disingenuous. It will also take putting the defeat of ISIS ahead of ousting Assad from power in Syria, and establishing legitimate governments in Islamist cultures which provide “fair justice” (that must include libertarian human rights, beginning with the freedoms of religion and speech). See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/18/world/middleeast/envisioning-how-global-powers-can-smash-isis.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share&_r=0.
On the objective of Islamist terrorism to polarize Western society by destroying the “grayzone” of tolerance to pave the way to Jihad, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/hating-muslim-refugees-is-exactly-what-the-islamic-state-wants-europe-to-do/2015/11/15/dfe0ca84-87d1-11e5-be39-0034bb576eee_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
On the Paris attacks as “precisely chosen targets” chosen by ISIS, with Paris as “the capital of prostitution and vice,” see https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/we-are-everything-they-hate-mourners-gather-at-paris-attack-sites/2015/11/15/c09acbbe-8b39-11e5-bd91-d385b244482f_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines.
On the Paris attacks as a precursor of an apocalyptic Jihad and the end times sought by ISIS, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/for-the-islamic-state-paroxysms-of-violence-portends-apocalypse/2015/11/16/7020482e-8c99-11e5-baf4-bdf37355da0c_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_headlines.