“Good could never come of such evil,” said the forlorn prisoner in Tale of Two Cities. Lewis, fond of Dickens, would have enjoyed a squabble with this character’s conclusion. While Lewis resisted any notion that God was the ultimate instigator of evil (some of his punchier lines are leveled at such ideas), he steadily insisted that human redemption hinges in part on this fact: God exploits evil toward good ends.
For Lewis, the incarnation tells us that God is not stoically distant from our devastation but enters the chaos, refashioning wasted remnants into something beautiful again. “The world is a dance,” said Lewis, “in which good, descending from God, is disturbed by evil arising from the creatures, and the resulting conflict is resolved by God’s own assumption of the suffering nature which evil produces.” (1) God does not ignore the wreckage. God subsumes it into himself.
Lewis’ posture coalesces with two of the texts for the first week of Lent (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11). These narratives provide us with a tale of two temptations: Adam and Eve’s temptation in a Garden and Jesus’ temptation in a wilderness. One is a tragedy; the other is a comedy (think: Shakespeare, not Modern Family). One tells of ruin; the other of redemption. One suggests evil wins; the other announces that evil has been forever wrecked.
To read the second tale apart from the first does injustice to the whole of Scripture as a narrative, but it also does injustice to Jesus’ decisive action against evil. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness does not primarily sketch a moralistic story providing helpful hints on how we too, with a bit of Jesus-inspiration, can conquer the Tempter. Rather, Jesus’ hostile standoff with Evil was a reprisal for all humanity had lost in Eden and could never, on our own, regain. When Jesus emerged from the wilderness as Victor, his triumph signaled an end already sat in motion: evil doomed to obliteration and humanity destined for joy.
While numerous connections demonstrate how Jesus’ temptation also recapitulated Israel’s temptation and wilderness wanderings, the thread stretches back even further, to the Eden tragedy. As Eve listened to the serpent’s wily seduction, she began to look at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil anew, with eyes clouded by the illusion of self-will. Rather than refusing the tree God had warned them to resist, she gazed upon a tree she now considered to be “good for food…a delight to the eyes…and [something to be desired for gaining wisdom].” In other words, she had been snagged. The lust of the flesh. The lust of the eyes. The pride of life.
When the Tempter approached Jesus in the wilderness, he carried no original material. The Tempter prodded Jesus to provide food for himself, to set his eyes on kingdoms to possess and to force God’s hand by asserting his own rule in his own time. In virtual point-by-point fashion (lust, eyes, pride), another serpent came to Jesus. Only Jesus did not bite. Rather, Jesus decisively recaptured ground Eve and Adam surrendered.
Jesus went where we could never return (another original temptation) in order to accomplish what we have proved unable to manage (triumph over the incarnation of evil). In other words, Jesus would not merely wink and make evil disappear. Rather, Jesus walked into the bowels of evil and defeated evil on its own terms, first in a wilderness and then on a cross. Or as Lewis put it: “He who is without sin became sin for our sakes [and] plumbed the depth of that worst suffering…” (2) Jesus did not merely cover evil; Jesus, in his humble humanity, dismantled evil.
Lewis, I believe, would remind Dickens’ despairing prisoner that in God – and only in God – evil can always be made good.
Winn Collier is a columnist and the author of three books, most recently Holy Curiosity. Winn is also the pastor of All Souls in Charlottesville, Virginia. You may connect on his blog at winncollier.com.