Passivity in the face of evil is among the most intolerable insults paid to those who suffer the cruel injustices of evil. As the maxim goes, “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing“; history does nothing if it does not illustrate how innocence suffers when those who have the responsibility to resist evil shirk their duty and do nothing.
One of the most difficult questions, then, that those upon whom this terrible responsibility falls must answer is to determine the just means necessary to resist evil. How should good people resist evil? Is the use of force within the gospel-means of stopping injustice? And, even more importantly, were Jesus’ followers meant to carry forward and implement in real life his self-sacrificing means of overcoming evil, or were we meant merely to be the beneficiaries of his sacrifice? These are the questions that have occupied my mind for some time. And I hope to at least introduce my thoughts here.
As much as Jesus demonstrates in his life that it is true that “evil triumphs when good people do nothing“, his life also clearly demonstrates the lesson that it is also true that evil triumphs when good people do evil. And it is perhaps this lesson that good people wrestle with the most because it is not always immediately clear in the face of evil what “good” might be done to put an end to its tragedy. And our zeal to rise up for the cause of justice there is always the clear and present danger that we might ourselves become the evil we seek to subdue.
So I want to answer the three questions posed above to provide a principle that I think moves us closer towards a Gospel-Means of peaceful resistance.
How Should Christians Resist Evil?
First Question: “How should good people resist evil?”
Romans 12:9, 17–21 (CSB) – 9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,, says the Lord. 20 But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head., 21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.
Paul’s whole letter to the Christians in Rome unfolds the idea that “the righteous live by faith” (Romans 1:17), with most of his letter laying down the requisite theological reflections for this principle of faith. For his conclusion Paul turns his attention to applying this principle of faith: “what does it mean for those who have been made right with God to live by faith?” The above pericope reflects this application and details how Christians should live their lives by faith through love.
This idea is not new to Paul:
Galatians 5:6 (CSB) – 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.
Galatians 6:15 (CSB) – 15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation.
Paul is articulating in real-life terms the meaning of the new creation, which is to express and work out our faith in Christ through love. So this faith-produced love must necessarily answer the question at hand and cope with the challenges presented to it by evil people.
Fortunately, Christians aren’t left to guess at what this means as Paul expounds at great length. Our challenge is narrowing our focus to just a few of the points he gives us. I think each point should be considered, but for the sake of brevity we can only focus on a few points.
Christians are to “detest evil and cling to good.” This idea is fairly straight forward but bears unpacking. First, far from viewing evil as useful utilities that can aid our cause in certain circumstances, Christians are to detest or abhor evil. But even more than this, we must strive against the forces of darkness that would tear us away from the light to cling tightly to good. So we must never think of sin as chips on the table that we can use to win the game. Instead, the consistent teaching of Scripture on this point is always to “stay off the path of the wicked” (Proverbs 4:14), “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22), “come out and be separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17), and “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11).
Christians should never “repay anyone evil for evil“. When good people return the evil they suffer to others, it only makes them evil. Instead, we follow Jesus’ way, who said “don’t resist evil people, but on the contrary, if someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to them as well” (Matthew 5:39). So we don’t take advantage of those who swindle us, we don’t return violence for violence, cursing for cursing, or hatred for hatred. And, although the world does this and says their response is justified by the aggression first initiated by evil people, Jesus shows us another way. So we don’t return evil for evil. We accept the wrongs perpetuated against us by evil people so that, as far as it depends on us, we can live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18).
Christians do not seek to avenge injustice, but, “instead, leave room for God’s wrath.” As an outworking of what it means for those who have been made right with God to live by faith (Romans 1:17), we are to entrust the providence of justice entirely into the hands of God. So, in place of vengeance, we deal out love to our enemies and seek to relieve their suffering. Are they hungry or thirsty? Christians give relief to the wants of our enemies as agents of God’s divine grace. Can you imagine the undeniable testimony for Christ that would shine from the Church if Christians put this principle into practice without exceptions? I believe it will only be when God’s children of peace practice peace like the Prince of Peace that our witness will once again shine brightly into the darkness (Reflect on Isaiah 58:8-10).
When taken together, these lessons provide the answer to our first question: “How should Christians resist evil?”
Romans 12:21 (CSB) – 21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.
So we overcome evil with good in the means described above.
Second Question: “Is the use of force within the gospel-means of stopping injustice?”
Matthew 5:38–42 (CSB) – 38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Jesus quotes the Lex Talionis and then proceeds to teach his disciples to eschew their usual means of justice in favor of the self-sacrificial love that he would later demonstrate for them upon the cross. But what manner of “resistance” is Jesus leading his disciples away from? The word used here for “resist” (ἀνθίστημι) is a compound verb composed of the word “anti” (i.e. “against”) and “histemi” (i.e. “to stand”). So, while on the one hand this word can be used to describe the kinds of evils that Christians are supposed to stand against (See Galatians 2:11; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9), it becomes clear from the examples Jesus selects to illustrate his point that he intends to lead his disciples away from the usual means by which this world seeks justice. He wants us to learn a new way of resisting evil. We will no longer use force to exact justice from our enemies. Instead, we will leave justice into the hands of God and choose rather to seek grace for our enemies.
I think this point is quite striking when Paul describes the manner in which we do resist evil:
Ephesians 6:13 (CSB) – 13 For this reason take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand.
Christians forgo the usual means of resisting evil in this world in favor of a new way of standing against the forces of darkness. We act as peacemakers in this world, resisting evil by means of God’s grace.
I think Jesus’ meaning is quite clear: we do not resist evil in the flesh, but do so by the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 10:2-4 (CSB) – 3 For although we live in the flesh, we do not wage war according to the flesh, 4 since the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds.
The battles we fight, regardless of the kind of battles they are, must never be waged by the means of the flesh. I think it is a critical mistake to lift Paul’s writings here so high into the ethereal realm so as to allow his meaning to permit Christians to wage actual war as the world does in the flesh, but I do think it is appropriate to apply his meaning comprehensively: when Christians think about how we resist evil in the world, we should not try to duplicate the world’s methods and fight our battles as they do. We have done violence to our testimony in taking up worldly means of resisting evil. Instead, Christians should reject the worldly use of force and return to Jesus’ example of self-sacrificing love as the means by which we resist evil.
Final Question: “are Jesus’ followers meant to carry forward and implement in real life his self-sacrificing means of overcoming evil, or are we meant merely to be the beneficiaries of his self-sacrifice?“
Luke 9:23–24 (CSB) – 23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it.
In contemporary sort of conceptions of Christianity, the cross is all about what Jesus did for us. And there’s some truth to this because the cross is, afterall, the means by which Jesus has reconciled the world to himself. But we should not miss in this the call to share with Christ in his life and death upon the cross. Christians are not only called to enact the same manner of living that characterized Jesus’ life, but also the same manner of dying that characterized his death. That is to say, that we are expected to enact this same self-sacrificial love for our enemies.
I think we should let that last sentence settle afresh in our minds. “Yes”, those who would follow Jesus in this world have no business gazing afar at the sacrifice of Christ and saying “how nice for me!” We are called to share in the same sacrifice of love as our savior.
On this point I have no words of comfort to offer much of the dogma that has leavened the modern Church. I can’t understand how we could have gone so far out of the way on this point. We have turned the cross of Christ into an emblem of self-gratification and self-justification! We have emptied the cross of Christ of all personal suffering and sacrifice. How are we going to answer our Lord when he returns and finds that we have emptied the cross of its power in this manner?
I think the life and death of Christ are applicable for instructing Christians how to overcome evil in this world. In fact, I think his life and death is the very foundation of our answer to these questions.
The apostle John explains:
1 John 2:3-6 (CSB) – 3 This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commands. 4 The one who says, “I have come to know him,” and yet doesn’t keep his commands, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. 5 But whoever keeps his word, truly in him the love of God is made complete. This is how we know we are in him: 6 The one who says he remains in him should walk just as he walked.
Jesus never fought wars or tried to cancel his enemies, not because he didn’t have political, social, or ideological opponents – he did – but because that is not his way. Instead, he showed us the way by courageously standing up for the oppressed and forgiving the sins of the wicked… even while they were his enemies. The proof that someone is Christ’s follower, then, is that they follow him in this way. Those who say they abide in Christ should live as he lived.
A Principle for the Gospel-Means of Resisting Evil
I think the apostle Peter brings our answers to these three questions together to help us formulate a workable principle for the gospel-means of resisting evil:
1 Peter 2:21-23 (CSB) – 21 For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22 He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; 23 when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.
Jesus never resorted to sin to overcome evil, but accepted the abuse of his enemies without returning insults, threats, or injury to them because he entrusted his defense and vindication into the hands of God. So we should consider our Kingdom-calling to Christ as the basis for how we understand our resistance against the principalities of evil in this world.
Christians should forgo the use of evil in return for evil and instead entrust justice to God so that we can overcome evil with good by seeking grace for our enemies. This is the way of Christ that we should follow him in.
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