Susan Grove Eastman / The Empire of Illusion: Sin and Evil in Romans

[The following essay is excerpted from Susan Grove Eastman’s Oneself in Another: Participation and Personhood in Pauline Theology (Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]

In 1977, the novelist Walker Percy published a best-seller called Lancelot.[1] It made quite a splash, not least because of its stunning exposé of the moral poverty of a society with no language for evil. The main character, Lancelot Andrews Lamar, is locked up in a psychiatric ward after killing his wife, his wife’s lover, and their friends, by blowing up his New Orleans home during a hurricane. The novel consists of his retrospective, disjointed account of those events, as told to a priest who visits him. He tells of his disgust with the superficial “niceness” and profound duplicity of his wife’s friends and lovers, all directors and actors who were filming a movie at his antebellum home. Lancelot sees his own horrific actions as a quest to get at the heart of evil, and to name human responsibility for it. He says:

“Evil” is surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age . . . God may be absent, but what if one should find the devil? Do you think I wouldn’t be pleased to meet the devil? Ha ha, I’d shake his hand like a long-lost friend. . . . In times when nobody is interested in God, what would happen if you could prove the existence of sin, pure and simple? Wouldn’t that be a windfall for you? A new proof of God’s existence! If there is such a thing as sin, evil, a malignant force, there must be a God![2]

Lancelot is fascinated with the problem of evil, trying to get to the heart of it, because he has given up on the existence of God. But, he claims, if one could identify “sin”—a real, honest-to-god sin—one would know there is a God also.

I was reminded of Lancelot while reading Andrew Delbanco’s searing book, The Death of Satan, which explores the demise of belief in, and language for, personal evil within American society.[3] The book links the loss of a language for evil with a loss of religious faith.[4] Although Delbanco himself does not consider religious belief in any sort of transcendent deity to be a live option, he asks whether an adequate account of evil is possible without such belief. From his self-professed “secular” viewpoint, he sees only two alternatives. One might revive the religious conception of evil as an “alien invader,” but absent any notion of transcendence, this revival devolves into “the blamable other—who can always be counted on to spare us the exigencies of examining ourselves.” Or one might opt for a privative notion of evil, as does Augustine, but excised of Augustine’s belief in a transcendent, gracious God; here, Satan is, in Delbanco’s words, “a symbol of our own deficient love, our potential for envy and rancor toward creation.” Delbanco adds that this “latter way—evil as privation—is much more difficult to grasp. But it offers something that the devil himself could never have intended: the miraculous paradox of demanding the best of ourselves.”[5]

The theme of this essay is the apostle Paul’s treatment of sin and evil in his letter to the Romans. Percy and Delbanco brilliantly set forth the issues that arise in any contemporary attempt to talk about evil: questions of its source (or sources), scope, relationship to human agency, and relationship to God. Within the bounds set by secular rationality, answers to the first three questions come to rest on human institutions, and above all, on human individuals, and the issue becomes simply this: do we locate evil in others, demonizing them, or in ourselves? Hence Delbanco writes, “The essential modern evasion was the failure to acknowledge evil, name it, and accept its irreducibility in the self.”[6] For Paul, however, living as he does in a cosmos that is transcendent as well as personal, such an evasion is of what we might call second order importance; the essential primal evasion is the failure to acknowledge God, name God as God, and accept that God cannot be reduced to the self. Once that fundamental evasion occurs, everything else becomes, to quote another critic of the American scene, an “empire of illusion.”[7]

In what follows, I shall attempt to show that Paul’s account of both sin and evil (which are not precisely the same) provides resources for naming human accountability for evil, the necessity and limits of judgment, and the larger reality of sin as that which deceives us and co-opts even the “the best of ourselves” for its death-dealing ends. Furthermore, in Paul’s vision, the transcendent and personal operation of divine grace creates the conditions in which such naming is possible, and corporately constitutes human agents with the hope of victory over evil. I will begin with an overview of Paul’s language about “evil” and “sin” in the structure of Romans, in relationship to two overlapping but distinct depictions of the human predicament. Then I will suggest some ways in which this complex, layered and paradoxical picture of human existence may enrich our own discourse about evil and sin, and illuminate the radical good news of Paul’s gospel.

Evil, the Lie, and the Necessity and Limits of Judgment

Paul depicts evil-doing as a web of falsehood and violence accompanied by a corresponding suppression of human capacities for perception and cognition. In Paul’s words, human beings “were made futile in their thinking, their senseless (asunetos) hearts were darkened.” Their self-knowledge became distorted: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Thus their ability to recognize truth was compromised, whether in relationship to themselves, to their surroundings, or to others—let alone God.

This cognitive and perceptual impairment has important implications. It means that the difference between “truth” and “falsehood” is not located in the intentions of the individual, but in the difference between an accurate (“truthful”) or distorted (“false”) orientation to the fundamental reality of God’s creation and rule in the cosmos. Deception thus goes deeper than consciously false speech; it concerns, rather, the idolatry that creates and maintains an alternative, counterfeit personal reality. In contemporary terms we see this idolatry in many forms: virtual reality, “life on my terms,” “personal truth,” “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere,” and so forth. People consciously lie, and people also unconsciously act out the implications of living in a lie; this too, for Paul, is evil. Thus the common excuses, such as “I didn’t mean to do it,” or “well, that’s what I said, but I didn’t mean it,” or “I didn’t know what I was doing,” are simply irrelevant to questions of human culpability and divine judgment. Intentions are slippery if not impossible to pin down. At least here in Rom 1:18—5:21, Paul does not try to do so.

Here Paul’s account gives us a way to talk about moral accountability for evil, and the urgent necessity of acknowledging human complicity in interlocking systems of lies and violence, in a world in which responsibility for evil is notoriously elusive. It speaks to the necessity of judgment. Illustrations are not lacking in our day. One thinks, for example, of the use of propaganda to engineer the genocide in Rwanda. The complicity of post-colonial powers, the distribution of lies about Tutsis combined with a systematic habituation in violence, and the use of the radio to incite and direct the killing, can all be narrated, their logic analyzed, and their perpetrators named. In his haunting book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch writes: “In 1994, Rwanda was regarded in much of the rest of the world as the exemplary instance of the chaos and anarchy associated with collapsed states. In fact, the genocide was the product of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history.”[8] In such a state, must not the cries for some kind of accountability, truth-telling, and judgment be honored? Gourevitch quotes a survivor, whose siblings all were murdered: “People come to Rwanda and talk of reconciliation. . . . It’s offensive. Imagine talking to Jews of reconciliation in 1946.”[9] Another man named Giramahatzu, who murdered his neighbors, tries to make excuses: “We were just pawns in this. We were just tools.”[10] But the relatives of the people whom he killed say, “[This] man is responsible for what he did.”[11] So judgment on the evil that human beings do, including the slander that fosters violence and the lies that attempt to evade responsibility, is indeed necessary. Like the psalms of imprecation, Rom 1:18—5:11 gives voice to this cry for divine judgment.

At the same time, however, this depiction of evil recognizes the limits of human judgment. As a corollary of humanity’s debased mind (1:29) and universal bondage to sin (3:9), Rom 2–3 fosters a profound suspicion of one’s own capacity for judging others rightly, and offers an exposé of self-deception. Paul is scathing: “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon others you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (2:1). There is no human judge who stands in a neutral place in which to see fully and correctly—that place is reserved to God. Romans 14 displays the social embodiment of this argument against human judgment, as Paul repeatedly exhorts the Roman Christians not to judge one another (14:3–22). As in Rom 1–3, this rejection of human judgment is based on the certainty of divine judgment on oneself as well as on the other: “Why do you judge your brother? Why do you despise your brother? For we all will stand before the judgment seat of God” (14:10).

In Rom 1:18—5:11, then, the first account of evil as something human beings do offers at least three contributions to discourse about evil and ethics: it explores the intimate connections between distorted perceptions, falsehood, and violence; it honors the necessity of human accountability; and it recognizes the limits of human judgment.

It has, however, one significant shortcoming. The shortcoming is this: where does the responsibility for evil finally come to rest? Recalling the stories from Rwanda, we ask whether responsibility falls fully and completely on the man who murdered his neighbors, or on the “evil regime.” What of the international powers who made money by supplying weapons to the killers? What of the other nations who chose to ignore what was happening? As one ascends the organizational ladder, the responsibility is always just one or two steps higher. And finally, in an atrocity of such proportions, where does one begin? As Gourevitch says, the ideal genocide is one in which everyone takes part in the killing, because “if everyone is implicated, then implication becomes meaningless.”[12]

Furthermore, whenever the ultimate source of evil is located in human beings, violence will continue to be justified, precisely in the name of ridding the world of evil. To get rid of evil, get rid of the source, wherever, or in whomever, one finds it. This is the very logic of genocide. Gourevitch observes:

And strange as it may sound, the ideology—or what Rwandans call “the logic”—of genocide was promoted as a way not to create suffering but to alleviate it. The specter of an absolute menace that requires absolute eradication binds leader and people in a hermetic utopian embrace, and the individual—always an annoyance to totality—ceases to exist.[13]

As long as human beings are seen as the source and agents of evil, the human response will be to demonize and eradicate them.[14] The cycle is never-ending. To this day, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide rages on in East Africa.

It seems, therefore, that this first account of evil, as a human attribute and action, is necessary and important, but ultimately inadequate. It provides a partial diagnosis of the human situation, but lacks the power to change it. So we turn to Paul’s second account, in which sin becomes a dominant actor on the stage of human history, and in which the power that overcomes sin is none other than Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. In the progression of Paul’s argument, this second narrative circumscribes and re-frames the first. The result is a layered, somewhat inconsistent but accurate and liberating picture of humanity’s relationship to evil, and God’s transformation of that relationship. That picture creates a space for naming the untidy realities of both the human perpetration of evil speech and deeds, and humanity’s suffering and bondage to evil.

[1]. Walker Percy, Lancelot.

[2]. Percy, Lancelot, 144–46, 54.

[3]. Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil.

[4]. Delbanco, Death of Satan, 220. Despite acknowledging the millions of people who do believe in a transcendent divine presence, Delbanco claims “it is the central and irreversible fact of modern history that we no longer inhabit a world of transcendence.” He leaves those who do profess religious faith out of the book because his focus is the “relentless . . . advance of secular rationality in the United States,” and the concomitant loss of an adequate language for evil.

[5]. Delbanco, Death of Satan, 234–35. Delbanco does not seem to recognize that the understandings of human agency in both accounts are changed in fundamental ways when they are divorced from their Christian settings.

[6]. Delbanco, Death of Satan, 197, italics added.

[7]. Chris Hedges, The Empire of Illusion: The Loss of Literacy and the Rise of Spectacle.

[8]. Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, 95.

[9]. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You, 240.

[10]. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You, 307.

[11]. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You, 305.

[12]. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You, 96.

[13]. Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You, 95.

[14]. The alternative, according to Delbanco, is to focus on ourselves as the locus and source of evil. But is this an adequate safeguard against the violent impulse to eradicate evil, or does it simply turn that impulse inwards in self-destructive ways?

Susan Grove Eastman is associate research professor emerita of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. She is the author of Paul and the Person: Reframing Paul’s Anthropology (2017), Recovering Paul’s Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (2007/Cascade, 2022), and Oneself in Another: Participation and Personhood in Pauline Theology (Cascade, 2023).


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