notre dame montreal

Evil and the Temptations

Sermon on Mark 1:12 preached by
The Revd Charles Royden
9th March 2003

Mark Chapter 1:12

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.


You may have noticed that there are more baptisms at Putnoe Heights Church than at St Mark’s. Why? It is not because there are more babies in Putnoe, indeed many families live in Brickhill but choose Putnoe first. The reason is all about timing, the service at Putnoe is later and therefore it fits in much better with the ‘do’ afterwards.

In the passage from Mark today Jesus is baptised and we might expect that afterwards there would be some kind of celebration. Instead we read that Jesus is tempted in the wilderness by Satan.

The New Testament gives us this idea of Satan who is the arch-enemy of God.

And Jesus is engaged in a titanic battle and goes out for confrontation, note that Jesus is not tempted into the wilderness, it is the Spirit which takes him there. Rather than have a celebration after the baptism, the Holy Spirit of God takes Jesus directly out into the desert for a confrontation with the Devil. That confrontation will be prominent throughout the pages of the Gospels as Jesus is seen to confront evil and go about restoring to wholeness that which had been corrupted. It is God’s intention to take on evil and not to see Jesus avoid it.

Satan and the presence of evil

So, today I would like us to think about evil, what it is and what we should do about it. 
Does it exist and should we be afraid?

What is evil ?

You might like to ask yourself whether you really believe in evil at all. Just as some people take God out of their world view and deny his spiritual force in the universe, so too others deny any evil force.

On a daily basis we are confronted by stories and newspaper reports of terrible things taking place in our world. Occasionally people say things like

‘this should not be happening in 2003,’

This statement makes the suggestion that humanity is, or should be better now than it was 100 years or certainly 1,000 years ago. This doctrine of progress uses the principle that as civilisation progresses, we become better, there is no evil power which corrupts.

But surely, we know that the world doesn’t just advance steadily towards a better future. As soon as we become optimistic about human behaviour or the world in which we live, we are confronted by the terrible reality of all that is wrong within and around us.

History repeats itself and as we look back we see the world express the same shock and surprise when things go wrong. It happened with

  1. The Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day 1755
  2. Auschwitz in World War II 
  3. And now September 11

Neither is it any good pointing a critical finger at Islam or the Middle East, pretending that all we need is Western democracy and Christianity to resolve our problems. It was mainstream European culture which produced the Holocaust. We need to be reminded that the deep roots of the Holocaust lie in several strands of European thought including Hegel and those of you who remember the Lent Course from a previous year will remember the writings of Luther and how they fuelled a hatred a for the Jews which would lay down an easy path for Hitler to follow.

Some people do refuse to acknowledge the existence of evil and suppose that the world is basically a good place but they do so in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

The world and its problems are not solved by human means

  1. Technology 
  2. Education, 
  3. Development or ‘westernization’, 
  4. Neither are they solved by political ideals of western democracy

There is no day when we will make things better, we must recognise the inevitable truth that there is no moral evolution, no social Darwinism. There is no steady march towards freedom and justice.

Humankind does not have the solution to its core problem and so is not able to make itself advance.

It’s not all about money as Marx said It’s not all about sex as Freud said. Neither is it all about power as Nietzsche said

There does exist evil and we must recognise evil so that we are not surprised by it and are able to deal with it.

Christian tradition has spoken of evil very seriously. Since the enlightenment there has been a tendency to move away from the personification of a Devil, to drop the ‘D’ and speak more of an impersonal force of evil. Nevertheless evil and its effects have been recognised.

Recently and quite suddenly Christians do not sound so ridiculous when we speak of evil.

An understanding of evil resonates with what we instinctively know to be true. There is no need to go into great explanation of what is meant in ‘Star Wars’ when it speaks of the ‘Dark Side,’ because we all have one! So too the story of the great Christian writer Tolkien shown in the great epic movie ‘Lord of the Rings’ speaks easily to people about the existence of good and evil.

  1. President Bush has declared that there is an ‘axis of evil’ in our world 
  2. Tony Blair, our Prime Minister has declared that our aim must be nothing short of ridding the world of evil. 
  3. The events surrounding the terrible murders at Soham caused the press to write about real evil.

Christian tradition takes evil seriously and the events surrounding our current world situation have kick-started a fresh wave of discussion about

  1. whether evil really exists 
  2. where it comes from 
  3. and last but not least how to defeat it

Christians believe that evil really does exist as a power separate from God. Call it by whatever name you choose it was a real choice which Jesus had to make of what authority to follow. There is such a thing as a force, or forces, of evil which are supra-personal, supra-human, which appear to take over humans as individuals or, in some cases, as entire societies.

But as Christians we do not believe in dualism, that is, a power like God. Evil comes out of creation, Satan is described as a created being, God has no equal and cosmic order will be restored. So we know that it is entirely to be expected that evil will not triumph over God.

Humanity is seen locked in a struggle with evil. A battle is waged in every human heart. By heart I mean our spiritual, emotional and intellectual centre. The battle with evil is not something which was reserved for Jesus alone. We too are called to recognise evil when we see it and refuse to go down without a fight.

Life is about choices and decisions. How we live our lives, bring up our children, spend our money. The values which we think are important, education, consideration of others. When we do bad things, we can blame someone else, our upbringing our peers, yet most decisions are at least partly our own choice.

In those choices we can all be influenced by God or evil. As Jesus had difficult choices to make so must we. We can choose as individuals to follow evil, it cannot overpower us. The choice is yours and mine.

In 1 Peter 5:8-11. The writer uses a very graphic description of what the devil is like. He speaks of like this

‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.’

The writer has acknowledged the power of evil, warned his readers to be aware of evil but he has finished by telling them that they are capable of resisting. They can stand firm they have a choice. God by his grace can make us strong and steadfast.

The power of God is not compromised by evil, Satan is defeated, there is nothing about which we need be afraid.

John Bunyan also used the description of the Christian facing an adversary like a lion. Christian is walking down the road when to his horror he discovers a ferocious lion barring his path. There is no way that he can avoid this animal! Then to his delight he notices that the lion has been chained to a post. Someone has been that way before him and tamed the fearsome beast.

That is how it is for the Christian today because of Christ and his triumph over evil, seen in this episode and ultimately in the cross of Christ.

The battle of Jesus in the wilderness teaches us that there is a real evil. We see him in combat, we recognise his struggles as our own. From this episode we know that we too have a choice to follow the higher power of God. Today you too can know that power of God in your situation too. We should know that there is no power greater than God. Of what are you afraid? Is it fear of the future? Worry over death. There is no power stronger than the power of God and nothing of which we should be afraid.


Additional material

The depiction of this battle with a supernatural real being an evil one (Eph 6:16, 1John 2:13-14), becomes explicit in the New Testament in passages such as our reading from Mark today In the New Testament we find the name Greek name ‘Satanas’ which means adversary. This could mean any being who played the role of an enemy, but the idea emerges of a particular being and other names are used for Satan in the New Testament including Beelzebul, the prince of demons Matt 12:4, the tempter Matt 4:3, Beliar 2 Cor 6:15, evil one 1 John 5:18 and Apollyon Rev 9:11.

There are also seen to be lesser demons responsible for causing illness (Mark 17:14-18 Acts 5:3,2, Cor 12:7)

There are different answers to how to deal with evil depending on where you look

The Buddhist says that the present world is an illusion, and that the aim of human life is to escape it. This has several affinities with classic Platonism, though Plato was concerned as well that actual justice and virtue should work their way out into the world of space, time and matter, even though reality lay elsewhere.

The Hindu says that evils that afflict people, and indeed animals, in the present life, are both to be explained in terms of wrongs committed in a previous life, and to be expiated through an obedient following of one’s Karma in the present - a worldview which attains a deeply satisfying solution at one level at the cost of enormous and counter-intuitive problems at other levels, as Glen Hoddle found to his cost four years ago.

The Muslim says that the world is indeed in a state of wickedness because the message of Allah through Mohammad has not yet spread to all people, and that the solution is for Islam to be brought to the world - the sharp distinction then being between the great majority of Muslims who see this as a peaceful process and the small minority who want to achieve it through Jihad.

Corporate evil

The American writer Walter Wink has argued strongly in his major work, there is a great deal to be said for the view that all corporate institutions have a kind of corporate soul, an identity which is greater than the sum of its parts and which can actually tell the parts what to do and how to do it; and for the view that in some cases at least some of these corporate institutions, whether they be industrial companies, governments, or even (God help us) churches, can become so corrupted with evil that the language of possession, at a corporate level, becomes the only way to explain what is going on.

Is this what Paul means in Romans 8 when he speaks of powers and principalities?