These are the final 4 words of the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6: 9-13) – but what do they mean? Wait, isn’t that obvious? Maybe not!
The entire prayer is really an invocation of Good:
- Thy kingdom come
- Thy will be done
- Give us this day our daily bread
- Forgive us our trespasses
- Lead us not into temptation
Then the prayer ends with, “Deliver us from evil.” Is that just a restatement in negative form of the 5 positives that went before? Are we to define Evil merely as the opposite of ‘thy kingdom, ‘thy will’, etc? Or is something more intended here? Does this phrase add to the information content of the prayer or just restate what’s already there?
Some theologians and scholars have read “evil” as “Evil One” (aka Satan). According to this interpretation, the final exhortation of the prayer is for God to save us from the embodiment of evil, Satan. Does this merely push the problem from ponerology (the study of evil) to Satanology: ‘how do you understand evil’ now becomes ‘how do you understand Satan’? Or is an active agent of evil somehow materially different from evil per se?
Clearly, if we are to understand this enigmatic phrase, we have to define what we mean by “evil”. According to most Roman Catholic theologians, evil is not a thing in itself; it is merely the absence of good. In his treatise, On the Incarnation, 4th century theologian and saint, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote: “Evil has not existed from the beginning…”; C.S. Lewis in his Introduction to this work added, “(Evil) is not a proper characteristic of created existence but is rather a deviation from the right relationship between God and creation.”
For Augustine (d. 430) and others after him, ‘being’ per se is ‘good’ and therefore anything that is is ‘good’, at least to some degree. I am reminded of the Book of Wisdom (12:24a): “For you love all things that are…”
Therefore, there is no such thing as absolute evil. It might exist as a concept but absolute evil cannot actually exist in any ‘real’ world: if it did exist, it would by definition not exist. We are stuck with a world that is basically good…albeit in degrees.
This idea is not as strange as it sounds. We understand that ‘darkness’ does not exist as a thing as itself; it is the absence of light. Likewise, ‘black’ is not its own color but rather it is the absence of any color. The same model applies to evil.
Yet, if this is how we are to understand ‘evil’, the final 4 words of the Lord’s Prayer, so carefully crafted throughout, seem out of place. Except in poetic language, we don’t need anyone to ‘deliver us from darkness’; we just turn on a light (or light a fire). Likewise, we don’t need to be delivered from the absence of color (black). So why would we sum up the entire Lord’s Prayer by asking God to ‘deliver us from the absence of good’ when we just finished asking him for an abundance of good? It’s not wrong…but it doesn’t make much sense.
Or maybe Augustine is wrong after all? Maybe absolute evil does exist. If so, what form might it take?
Memento mori: Remember death! In our current humanistic age, we are told from infancy that “death is just another part of life”. But clearly it is not! Even Ludwig Wittgenstein, no friend of theology, wrote, “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.”
We are fond of saying, “Everyone dies;” and from the point of view of an objective observer (i.e. anyone still living) that is true. Yet from the subjective point of view of the person dying, it is never true: no has ever experienced her own death.
The poet and theologian, John Donne (c. 1600) had it right, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee might and dreadful, for thou art not so…nor canst thou kill me.” Not the ‘subjective’ me anyway.
Wittgenstein and Donne agree that there is no subjective experience of death; but after that their views diverge. Donne puts his faith in God and the promise of eternal life: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Where does that leave Wittgenstein? It’s unclear but let’s try to fill in the blanks. If death were real, what would its impact be? First, it would erase all subjective memory and that in turn would erase subjective experience itself. So called ‘past experience’, itself an oxymoron, cannot exist in any present; experience only happens in the present. There is no ‘dead’ in the present; ‘dead’ by definition refers to something that existed in the past.
Sure, once dead, we would ‘live on’ in the memories of those who knew us; but soon everyone who knew us will also be dead (Jules Romains, Death of a Nobody). Of course, we would ‘live on’ in the material products and social institutions we created…
Ok, let’s stop this nonsense now! Someday there will be no Planet Earth and, if that’s not good enough for you, someday there will be no Universe, period (Big Freeze or Big Crunch). So the notion of any form of permanence in a temporal universe is an illusion.
So back to our earlier question: what is death? Death is time; and what is time? Time is the great cosmological and ontological eraser. It simply makes everything that ever was to have never been. It is the ultimate ‘time traveler’ of science fiction fame, going back in time to kill his grandfather so that he himself will never be born.
If death were real, every fitful attempt at cosmogenesis would be still born. The fact that there is a cosmos at all proves that death is unreal. If there was a universe that included death, there would simply be no universe.
C. S. Lewis: “Created from nothing, creation rests upon nothing; it depends totally for its existence upon the will of God alone, by which it was called into being. Yet rather than allowing it to relapse into nothingness, God acts to ensure its stability: ‘…and thus not suffer what would otherwise have happened, I mean a relapse into non-existence…”
Existence and non-existence are not reciprocal terms. Something that exists is always in danger of no longer existing whereas something that no longer exists can never exist again: the information is lost forever. In fact, something that no longer exists never did exist since information is a measure of existence.
So if being per se is good (Augustine) and death (aka time) annihilates being, then maybe there is a species of absolute evil after all; its name is Death. Let’s be clear: understood this way, death (evil) is no longer merely the absence of life (being, good) but the annihilation of being (good). Death becomes a verb. As a noun, evil merely denotes an absence of good; but as a verb…
Of course, as Christians we do not believe that this is possible. It’s not possible because God is Being, God is Good, and God is not subject to annihilation. But without God, it not only could happen, it would happen…and it would have already happened! Does that fill in the blanks for you, Ludwig?
I am reminded of a line from Be Thou my Vision, an Irish poem traditionally attributed to 6th century poet, St. Dallan: “Naught be all else to me save that Thou art.”
So what does this have to do with the Lord’s Prayer? Well, now ‘Deliver us from evil’ means ‘deliver us from death’ and by logical extension, ‘deliver us from time’.
What form could that take? Now we’re back to John Donne: “One short sleep past we wake eternally…”
So yes, God…
- May your kingdom come
- May your will be done
- May you give us our daily bread
- May you forgive us our trespasses
- May you lead us not into temptation
But most of all, may you deliver us from evil (death, time) and grant us the only thing that can possibly make life worth living: eternal life. That is a climax worthy of the Lord’s Prayer!