Gordon Graham. Evil and Christian Ethics. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 241 pp. $23.00. ISBN 0521797454


Reviewed by Charles K. Bellinger, Theology and Ethics, Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, TX


Gordon Graham is Regius Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He begins by noting that in the modern world theology has been in a retreating mode in relation to science. It is science we look to to explain the world, while theology has been reduced to the study of its own history, or to an emphasis on living as an ethical person with spiritual values. Christianity has been forced to present itself as one lifestyle option in a pluralistic, multicultural world. This is a challenging task, given that the surface rhetoric about pluralism and diversity masks an increasing homogenization of opinions across Western culture, which is quickly becoming world culture. Since basically everyone, except for a few pathological people, condemns “torture, theft, fraud, child abuse, murder, rape, lying, cheating,” etc., it is difficult for persons of religious faith to argue that there is much that is distinctive or important about their way of life. Graham suggests, in other words, that the modern world is a strange environment of rhetorical pluralism overlaying de facto sameness.

Graham attempts to make the case that there is no such thing as a distinctive “Christian ethics.” He admits that the earliest Christians stood out from their surroundings, but now, 2000 years later, Christians either are the surroundings or they blend in with them. The fact that Christians can be found on all sides of controversial issues such as abortion, the death penalty, sexuality, etc., is a proof that there is really no such thing as a specifiable Christian Ethic. (Yes, this does seem to contradict what he was just saying about homogenization of opinion.) The other way of interpreting this situation, that some Christians hold erroneous or apostate beliefs, while others hold correct beliefs constituting a distinctive Christian ethic, is obviously not one which Graham favors. Graham is using the term “Christian” descriptively or sociologically, rather than normatively as a basis for separating true from false believers, as some denominational traditions tend to do. It is as if Graham is saying that Constantine has succeeded in making the Church worldly, therefore there is no Church. It is in this context that he makes what I find to be a rather odd statement. He admits that the fact that “every modern culture” deplores slavery, murder, torture, etc., may be a product of the gradual influence of Christian revelation on the human race, but he goes on to say that this is “of historical interest only”(20). I find this worthy of a ?! in the margin, because I resonate more with Rene Girard’s playing up of the importance of Christian influence on culture than I do with Graham’s downplaying. But a decisive turn takes place in Graham’s argument occurs when he claims that even though there may not be a distinctive Christian ethic, there is a coherent Christian theology rooted in the New Testament which can give us a way of understanding the reality of evil that is superior to various secular alternatives; further, only belief in God can give us an account of why human beings should be moral at all.

            Graham maintains that what the historical Jesus taught regarding ethics is historically uncertain and debatable. Further, even those teachings we do find expressed fairly clearly in the Gospels are similar to those expressed by other Jewish leaders of that era. Graham argues that the significance of Christianity for morality lies not in its rules or precepts, but in its vision of Jesus’ role in cosmic history. More specifically, Christian theology should emphasize the triumph of God over Satan and the realm of the demonic, which was accomplished through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

            After a highly philosophical discussion of metaethics and the problem of evil, Graham begins his commentary on the struggle between light and darkness, good and evil. He addresses the topic of multiple murderers such as Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Thomas Hamilton. What does it mean to describe such persons as evil, or as mentally ill? Are these concepts mutually exclusive? Graham makes the case that contemporary “scientific” explanations of such behavior are inadequate. What is needed is a renewed appreciation within philosophy of the concept of demonic influence on human beings. In this context he discusses the Columbine High School killers Harris and Klebold. To say that they were led to act as they did because they watched violent videos may be an example of putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps they had a desire to watch such videos because of their own violent impulses. Graham suggests that the most fruitful path for understanding such behavior lies in seeing human beings as led astray by demonic influences, if they open themselves up to such influences. There is a subtle interplay here between being seduced and wanting to be seduced that Graham articulates in a memorable way. Victimizers may be victims of Satan’s wiles, but only because they have a deep desire to victimize others.

            References to scholarship on the historical Jesus appear from time to time in the book. Graham clearly favors the relatively conservative approach of N. T. Wright over that of liberal commentators such as Marcus Borg. Graham argues that above the level of historical explanation which focuses on Jesus as one who was crucified by the Romans as a potential insurrectionist, there is the more spiritual or metaphysical level. Here, the earthly drama is seen as a spiritual struggle between God and Satan, with God’s victory being accomplished through Christ’s death on the cross. This victory on earth is an echo of Satan’s defeat which occurred already in the heavenly realms. Graham is fully cognizant of the many reasons why it is difficult for “modern” people to believe in the existence of Satan, yet he continues to insist that some notion of Satan and the demonic is necessary for understanding Columbine, Hitler, Rwanda, etc. Evil is most clearly revealed as that which hates the Good, virtue, innocence, life. Satan can be characterized as the ultimate principle in the universe that rebels against God and goodness. What is deeply mysterious about human beings is how we can be created good by God yet turn against our Source, our happiness, and our fellow human beings and choose to join forces with Satan in his absurd rancor against God.

            Graham argues that conversion to Christian faith is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for placing oneself on the side of the angels rather than on the side of the demons. In other words, even a supposedly Christianized society such as Rwanda can become a demonic festival of cruelty. To become a Christian does not magically protect a person from ever doing evil, but it will hopefully give a person a more alert consciousness of the dangers posed by the dark side of human nature. Graham closes the book with the argument that a naturalistic humanism does not offer any real basis for the belief that human evils will diminish in the foreseeable future; neither does it provide a coherent incentive for people to work for such an outcome. But the Christian story, by contrast, does offer a basis for a positive attitude toward the future. Christians can live in the attitude of hope and prayer that God has called them to, knowing that their efforts to grow as persons and make the world a better place are in tune with the Creator’s will. This “premodern” way, Graham argues, is ultimately more helpful than the various “modern” alternatives.

            This book is obviously interdisciplinary, combining analytic philosophy, New Testament studies, history, psychology, etc. Some readers may find this a strength, but others may find that the various strands don’t mesh as well as they could. Another possible criticism of the book concerns its lack of an ecclesiology. Graham could have said more about how the Church is God’s answer to the world’s evil, but he does not go, or even gesture, in that direction. Perhaps it is implied, but such an important idea should be developed.