Jesus once told a parable about a farmer who sowed good seeds in his field. Once “the plants came up and bore grain,” however, his servant discovered that the field also contained weeds. The servant approached his master and asked him, “Where . . . did these weeds come from?” The good farmer replied, “An enemy has done this” (Matt 13:24–28). There are a number of lessons that could be drawn from this parable, but for our present purposes I would simply like us to note that the farmer had a real enemy, and this explains why there were things in the farmer’s field that he did not plant and that do not belong there.
Wheat and Tares
Interestingly enough, Jesus’ entire ministry is predicated on what Nicola Creegan has labeled a “wheat-and-tares” understanding of creation.N. H. Creegan, Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 93. When Jesus encountered people suffering from various physical afflictions, he never once suggested that these afflictions were a natural aspect of his Father’s good creation. He rather discerned that these afflictions were weeds that reflect the work of “an enemy,” usually identified as demons but sometimes as Satan himself.See, e.g., Matt 4:24; 8:16; 9:32; 12:22; Luke 13:11–13, 15–16. For a review, see G. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 171–214. On John 9:1–3, which is often held up as an exception to this rule, see ibid., 231–36. In fact, the word the Synoptic Gospels sometimes uses to describe infirmities is mastix, which literally means “flogging.”E.g., Mark 3:10; 5:29, 34; Luke 7:21. Compare the use of mastix in, e.g., John 19:1; Acts 22:24; Heb 11:36, where its castigatory meaning is more obvious. It suggests that Jesus and the Gospel authors viewed those who suffered afflictions like COVID–19 as victims of abuse, and the one whom they understood to be whipping people was not God, but Satan and his demonic cohorts. Hence, Peter could summarize Jesus’ entire ministry by proclaiming: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power,” which is why “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him (Acts 10:38, emphasis added). Clearly, to be in need of healing is to be oppressed by the devil.
We can move the conversation a step further by noting that the afflictions Jesus addressed undoubtedly could all be scientifically explained as natural by-products of the laws of physics as we know them today. Indeed, death itself is as natural as anything could be, given the laws that currently govern creation. And yet, the author of Hebrews declares that the reason the Son of God chose to share our humanity and to be crucified was “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). Clearly, from the perspective of the New Testament, death is no more natural than the flogging that people (and, I would argue, animals) are often forced to endure.
The Enemy of Creation
If we take the New Testament’s perspective seriously, it forces this question: How can infirmities and death be natural by-products of the laws of physics, on the one hand, while also being the result of an enemy planting weeds in the field of God’s good creation, on the other? So far as I can see, the only possible answer is that the laws of physics that currently govern our world must have been corrupted at some point by an enemy, to one degree or another. These corrupted laws must be considered a foundational aspect of the creation that Paul tells us has been “subjected to futility” and is in “bondage to decay” (Rom 8: 20–22).On the question of how this corruption of nature perspective might be integrated into evolution theory, see G. Boyd, “Evolution is Cosmic Warfare: A Biblical Perspective on ‘Natural’ Evil,” in T. J. Oord, ed., Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 125–45.
The suggestion that Satan had the power to corrupt fundamental aspects of creation is consistent with the breath-taking scope of authority that the New Testament and post-apostolic church ascribe to Satan. For example, Jesus three times referred to Satan as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The word archōn (“prince,” “ruler”) was used in political contexts to denote “the highest official in a city or a region in the Greco-Roman world.”C. Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 81. Hence, while Jesus certainly believed that God the Father has ultimate authority over the cosmos as a whole, and while he was clear God would defeat evil at the end of the age, Jesus nevertheless insisted that, at the present time, Satan is the functional boss of our oppressed “world.” In this light, it’s hardly surprising that Jesus didn’t dispute Satan’s claim to own all the authority of all the kingdoms of the world and to be able to give them to whomever he wanted (Luke 4:5–6).
The book of Revelation reinforces this view as it depicts all worldly government as “Babylon,” the political wing of Satan’s empire, which he uses to deceive the world.See Rev 13; 14:8; 17:5; 18. Along the same lines, the apostle Paul referred to Satan as “the god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4) and “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph 2:2). According to the cosmological thinking of the time, the realm of “the air” referred to the domain of spiritual authority directly over the earth. The author of Ephesians was thus essentially reiterating Jesus’ teaching that Satan is the “ruler of this world.” The Johannine literature makes the point even more forcefully when it teaches that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and that Satan “leads the whole world astray” (Rev 12:9; cf. 20:3, 8). And, just as significantly, in Revelation Satan is portrayed as having a certain amount of authority over natural phenomena (Rev 13:13; 19:20; cf. Job 1:16, 18–19; 2:7), a point that is also suggested in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus rebuking a threatening storm the same way he rebuked demons (Mark 4:35–42).
One simply can’t read the New Testament seriously and fail to get the impression that Satan and the demonic agents who comprise his kingdom are a ubiquitous force of destruction in our world and that they are persistently working to undermine God’s good designs for people and for creation. C. S. Lewis is hardly overstating the matter when he sums up the New Testament’s perspective by claiming, “at every moment, every square inch of the cosmos is claimed by Satan and counterclaimed by God.”C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 33.
Finally, as I mentioned above, the early post-apostolic church uniformly ascribed to Satan the authority to corrupt creation, to one degree or another. According to a second-century theologian named Athenagorus, for example, Satan was “the spirit” originally entrusted with “the control of matter and the forms of matter.”Athenagorus, A Plea For the Christians, 10, in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), II, 142. Unfortunately, this “spirit” used its free will to rebel against God. Hence, Athenagorus concludes, Satan “[now] exercises a control and management [of creation] contrary to the good that is in God.”A Plea, 25, ibid., 142–43. And this, he argued, is why there are aspects of nature that reflect a character that is “contrary to the good that is in God.” Moreover, because all early church thinkers shared this understanding of Satan, they didn’t attribute famines, plagues, diseases or other forms of “natural” evil to God’s mysterious providence: they rather attributed them to the work of Satan and his cohorts.For an overview, see Boyd, Satan and the Problem, 39–49; J. B. Russell, Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).
I am keenly aware that it is not currently fashionable in academic circles to profess belief in the reality of Satan and other spirit-agents. As Lewis once noted, though belief in Satan contradicts no known facts, it is nevertheless out of vogue in the current “climate of opinion.”C. S.Lewis, The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 134. Yet, as Lewis also noted, assumptions that are grounded in nothing but the current “climate of opinion” only serve to close minds and impede intellectual curiosity.
Unfashionable as it may be, I nevertheless am convinced that the perspective of the New Testament and early church presents us with the only adequate way of reconciling nature as we currently find it—“red in tooth and claw”—with the belief in an all-good Creator. If there are weeds like COVID–19 growing in the good farmer’s field, I submit that we must remain confident that it was not the farmer who planted them there. This was done by an enemy, and the job of God’s people is to respond to it as such.