The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

It’s Wednesday, October 11, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

‘This Is an Act of Sheer Evil’: Evaluating the Moral Language of President Biden’s Statement on the Hamas Attacks on Israel

The news coming from Israel yesterday was even worse than the news that had come already after the Saturday morning attack by Hamas had begun. That is because yesterday the depth, at least at this point of the atrocities committed against Israel and against human dignity and human life, they’re only now becoming well-documented and in moral terms, it is becoming impossible not to know what took place.

For example, in one village, approximately 40 babies found dead, some of them decapitated. It’s almost impossible to say this without deep emotional involvement. You ask the question, “How could this happen? How could any human being do this?” This is an atrocity, which is on the level of the kind of behavior we’ve seen recently from groups like the Islamic State.

It appears to be bloodthirsty, simply for the sake of being bloodthirsty. But then again, we remember that this is not without precedent, because we have also read the Old Testament and we understand the murderousness, even the genocidal nature of hatred in the human heart. But then we turn to the statement made by the president of the United States yesterday, and in this case, I’m drawing attention to the statement made by President Biden, not because of disagreement, but because of agreement, but then asking some deeper questions.

Here’s what the president said. Here’s the most important line. Speaking of the kinds of atrocities, the murderous atrocities that we have just discussed, including those babies in one village, The president went on to say, “this was an act of sheer evil.”

Now, in making that statement, the president of the United States was not wrong. He is emphatically right. The question nonetheless is engaged. In what sense is that right? What kind of worldview is required for that sentence to make sense? What kind of definition of evil is necessary in order for that sentence to have teeth? This is where Christians come in and understand, that if you try to use this kind of statement, this kind of language, you try to make a statement, “This was an act of sheer evil.” That statement and this is something we need to note, that statement is essentially theological.

One of the things we need to recognize, and this is a prime moment for us to recognize this fact, is that that kind of language, which is self-evidently true, is only true if evil is something that is real and thus is something that must be overcome. The question is of course, what or who can overcome evil on this scale?

So let’s get to the word evil and try to understand it. The word evil in this case is just indispensable. What else could the president say? Well, quite frankly, political leaders sometimes try to avoid using this kind of language because this kind of language, at least to many modern people, appears to be out of date. There once was a time when we could talk about good and evil, as if those were fixed objective categories, some would say, but in the modern age, they have become unfixed and a fixed definition has often been denied.

We’re in an age of plastic truth. We’re in an age of elasticity when it comes to language. We are in an age that involves many people, particularly in the academic elites who deny what we would have to describe as the reality of evil. Evil is a word that is a descriptor, that might be something better expressed as evil-ish.

But the president had said that this was an act, something like evil or what people in the past might’ve called evil that wouldn’t have worked. The only moral sense in the universe was that the president of the United States would say, without equivocation a short sentence with simple punctuation. “This was an act of sheer evil.”

So just to repeat here, my purpose in pointing to that sentence is to say that sentence is profoundly right, but that sentence invokes an entire worldview, and many people will try to use that kind of sentence while not accepting or affirming the comprehensiveness of the worldview.

So let’s ask the question. If those acts were sheer evil, is that a relative statement? Is that a comparative statement? In other words, is evil in this case just meaning that it’s more evil than something else? You can look at a span or a spectrum and say, “Well, telling a white lie that’s a little bit evil. But when you’re talking about killing babies, that’s a lot of evil. It’s deeply evil.” Or are you saying that there’s something that’s objectively wrong here, such as it is just wrong to tell a lie, but in this case, it is just absolutely wrong to kill and in particular to kill a baby, who by definition cannot be a combatant. You’re talking about innocent babies here, slain in an act of outright hatred, in this case, homicidal hatred.

So we’re talking about evil that reveals itself with clarity, but here’s where Christians need to ponder something. If you’re talking about something as evil, that means it’s evil in a sense that wouldn’t make sense, if this world is simply some kind of materialist accident. If there is no God and there is no creator, if there is no holy judge, if there is no divine source of our knowledge of good and evil, then this is nothing more than saying, “This in the grand scheme of cosmic events is something that is not to be celebrated.”

If you deny the larger existence of meaning and truth and you suggest that all truth is just socially constructed, if you go back and deny creation and you say that the entire cosmos is just an accident, then moral actions are robbed of their moral importance or moral significance. Human beings are no longer just moral agents, we’re just atoms and molecules.

So what’s really important to recognize here is that in the face of this kind of evil, the only sentence that makes sense spoken by a president of the United States is just what President Biden said, “This was an act of sheer evil.” He’s absolutely right, but evil as a category doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make any moral sense. It doesn’t make any logical sense, if there is not an absolute reality of good and an absolute reality of evil, and those categories are impossible if we just live in the midst of a materialist world, which is nothing more than a cosmic accident.

But if there is no God, here’s the bad news for you. There is no meaningful category of evil. Evil is just something you don’t like because in a cosmic universe, in which there is no right or wrong, then the language you use of right and wrong is nothing more than a matter of ephemeral perception, personal judgment. You like blue, I like red. There is nothing objectively true about that. It’s a statement of taste.

But what the president was saying here, and it only makes sense if he knew what he was saying here, is not a statement of aesthetics or taste. It’s not a statement of comparative judgment. It is a statement of moral truth, and in so doing, we have to say, “That’s absolutely right. This was a statement of moral truth.” But you know what? If there is a moral truth on this issue, then there’s also a moral truth on other issues as well.

The creator makes very clear in his righteousness, that this kind of homicide is simply sheer evil and sin, and the creator does say that. Then at the same time, the creator has the right to say, “Oh, what does it mean to be male and female?” In other words, we’re looking here at the incongruity of a post-Christian morality. We’re looking here at the incongruity of people making moral judgments when they’ve undercut the very foundation for making those moral judgments.

When you hear someone who argues on the one hand that there is no God and the universe is a cosmic accident, but that something is sheer evil, well, in an evolutionary worldview lived out to its logical consistency, there is no such thing as evil and there is no such thing as good.

But here’s where we understand that we are indeed made in God’s image and as creatures made in God’s image, we have a moral sense, a moral knowledge that cannot be denied. It is something that is so real that in conversation, someone looking at the massacre of these innocent babies simply has to say, “That’s horrifyingly evil.” No other word fits. It’s not just evil-ish. It’s not just evil-like, it’s evil and one who would do such things is evil.

But there’s another aspect to this, and by affirming the reality of evil, I’m going to use a theological category. It’s a big word that is used by philosophers and theologians. It is the word ontological, which means it deals with being with reality. This is to say, it’s not just a matter of perception. It is a matter of reality. It’s a matter of the structure of the universe. It is a matter of the very fabric of creation of the entire cosmos. It doesn’t make sense that this wasn’t evil. If this wasn’t evil, then there is no good and there is no evil, but it points to something else, as well.

It points to the fact that there is a moral knowledge common to us that also can’t be explained unless there is a creator. In other words, we would go so far as to say, that any person who could look at the site of massacred babies and say, “That’s not aesthetically pleasing.” That person is not normal, not a normal functioning human being. There is instead a necessary response of moral revulsion, and that moral revulsion is coming from a moral knowledge. You also have to ask that question, where does that moral knowledge come from?

Part II

The Reality of Evil in an Age of Confusion: Moral Clarity in the Wake of Barbarity

Well, there is no theory of evolution that can give us any adequate explanation for where that sense of evil, and a corresponding sense of good would come from.

So again, what we’re looking at in the horrifying situation of the conduct of the terrorist organization Hamas and the attack upon Israel, and what we’ve seen here in these massacres, rapes of women, naked bodies, paraded pride in videos, the taking of hostages, which means that now we’re looking at an evil act that is not something, and this is also of legal and moral importance. This evil act is not something which is simply done, and we’re looking at it in retrospect, as you might in a criminal trial.

No, this is an ongoing crime. This is an ongoing act of evil. There are those who have been taken by Hamas as hostages, and they’re being used as leverage, and they also include children and mothers and other persons, not just combatants who have been taken. They’re being held as hostages, and Hamas has threatened that those hostages will be executed live and on video if Israel attacks those targets, and Hamas, as the statement says, without warning, but Israel’s basically given a warning to Hamas that it should expect an attack, and military analysts now, think that in all likelihood Israel is mobilizing for a massive land invasion of the Gaza Strip. Then that raises another issue. What about the human fight against evil?

Now, that doesn’t mean that anyone involved in this fight represents in himself or herself, absolute good or absolute evil because we as human beings, as sinful human beings, even when we are inclined to the good, we are still–and this is where the biblical doctrine of sin is so important–we are still bound by sin in that even when we do the right thing, we might not be doing the right thing for the right reason.

We might not continue even a good act to what would be its proper completion or its proper end. We as human beings, even when we’re good, are not all that good, but what a radical distinction and contrast we make with those who give themselves to evil, and so even those who commit evil, here’s what Christians know ontologically, they are still made in the image of God. They’re still image bearers, and that means that they still bear moral responsibility.

If we live in a world in which we have nothing but atoms and molecules and cells and all the rest put together, and it’s nothing more than an accident, there’s nothing more than material reality, then there is no true moral responsibility. You don’t hold a molecule responsible, but it is a human impulse to look at the actions by Hamas (and there’s some other things we’re going to have to say in a moment about that), but to look at the actions by Hamas and say, “That is evil.” Not just in terms of a dispassionate moral judgment, “That is evil, that must be stopped.”

So you go back to the middle of the 20th century and you go back to the Nazi holocaust against the Jewish people, and by the way, of course that is not an accidental symmetry. You’re looking at the Nazi regime and the Hamas terrorist organization. They’re acting with a similar kind of hatred and with a similar kind of lethal, almost unspeakable brutality and murderousness.

To state the president’s words again, we’re talking about sheer evil. But when you go back to the awareness that fell upon the civilized world at the end of World War II, the reality is that the moral judgment was, this was unspeakably wrong, it’s ontologically wrong, so wrong that the allies led by the Americans were ready to put together a war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg, in which the argument was this is objectively ontologically wrong. So wrong, that it demands that the civilized world respond in two ways, assigning and punishing moral responsibility to those who did it, and now taking moral responsibility to say, “Never again.”

But of course, what we’re looking at right now is the fact that never again, seldom actually means, never again. The darkness in the human heart that drove the Nazi regime is very close to the darkness in the human heart that is now driving Hamas as a terrorist organization. Whatever might be the legitimate claims of one group against another group, there is no expression of behavior similar to that undertaken by Hamas that can be accepted and normalized by any society on earth. We are talking about a parallel with Nazi Germany, never again turned out not to last very long.

This ongoing act of evil, the ongoing nature of it, leads us to come back to the fact that there are lives right now at stake and Hamas is leveraging those lives and further lives are being threatened. Hamas does not intend to retreat and it doesn’t intend to give back these hostages nor to operate by the rules of war.

That leads to a very interesting statement, another statement made by the president of the United States. Speaking of Israel, the president in this context made very clear that this is an act of terrorism. The president said that this blood thirstiness, “Brings to mind the worst of the worst rampages of Isis.” But then he went on to say this, speaking of his conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Biden said, “We also discussed how democracies like Israel in the United States are stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law.”

Well, true. True, but where does that rule of law come from? Here’s where the international movements at the end of World War II trying to put together a global morality to restrain this kind of evil, this is where they fall woefully short, because in speaking about the rule of law, here’s the reality.

Adolf Hitler would not have operated by the rule of law. Here’s another reality. Hamas is not intimidated or limited by the rule of law. So should the United States be so limited, should Israel be so limited? Well, once again, it is because we believe in an ontological reality of moral judgment and of moral truth. We would say yes, we would expect the United States and Israel to follow the rule of law. But we also understand that the rule of law has a great deal to do with how a war is righteously to be fought.

That’s why the president was making the statement. He was very much making the point, that in his conversation with the Israeli prime minister, he was calling for what in historic Christian moral tradition has been called the principle of discrimination. Now, when we hear discrimination, we think that’s bad, but let’s face it, discrimination in this case is absolutely necessary.

It is to say, it is the responsibility of a moral nation even fighting a war against an immoral force to seek, to discriminate in such a way that there is no targeting of civilians, that there’s an intentional effort to discriminate, saying that it is right in a fallen world sometimes necessary to attack the forces of evil, and yet there should be no targeting of civilians.

Now, here’s where things get a lot more complicated. Just follow along, because Hamas like happened in some of the previous context of war, has intentionally mixed civilian and combatant targets to make it very difficult for Israel to avoid civilian casualties. It is an effort just like the effort undertaken in taking hostages. It is an effort to try to prevent Israel from being able to mount a counteroffensive against Hamas to put an end to this evil purpose and this evil conduct.

And thus we have to go back where we had excruciating questions in this context of war in the 20th century, there must be the principle of discrimination in order not to target civilians, but there is no context of war in which there can be an absolute assurance that there will not be civilian casualties. And then the question arises whose responsibility thus would be those civilian casualties?

And here’s where according to Christian moral theory, it is the one who is endangered those persons who bears the primary responsibility, and that would mean Hamas, intentionally mixing together combatant and non-combatant populations actually bears the responsibility for putting those civilians in danger. It is not an accident. It is a part of their strategy.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Israel has carte blanche to launch a massive attack indiscriminately that would kill civilians as well as combatants. It is to say that attempting to stop combatants and when necessary to use lethal force against combatants, it must do everything reasonable to try to avoid civilian casualties. And insofar as that’s the president’s point, it certainly is a legitimate point. But at the same time, we have to realize that Hamas bears direct responsibility for intentionally mixing the populations.

This became a major issue, by the way, in terms of the aerial bombardment of Nazi occupied Europe during World War II. The mixing of populations when you’re dropping bombs from the sky, it’s very hard to discriminate between combatant and non-combatant populations, and that’s particularly true when there was an effort intentionally to mix them.

But even as I’ve said, the language, the moral language used by the president is in this sense inescapable. There was no other language he could possibly have used that would’ve made any moral sense or even political sense, in the national and international context, but he went on to say something else that I think is not adequate. And I’m simply going to say when you have to make statements like this, not every sentence is going to be equal value. So I’ll give the president that credit, but I want to point to one particular form of language he used, just in order to say, we have to be careful when we use this category.

This is what the president said. He said, “This” (meaning the loss of a loved one in this kind of attack), “is what they mean by a, “human tragedy.”” The White House put that in quotation marks. “An atrocity on an appalling scale.” Here’s where we have to be very careful.

The word tragedy here, well, it’s not precisely the right kind of word because a tragedy is something that can happen by an accident. A tragedy is something that can happen by a tumor or an accident that might take place, say on an interstate highway or something that might happen that is a tragedy like a hurricane or an earthquake. That is not an issue of human moral responsibility, but when it comes to this kind of attack, this is not just a tragedy, it is an atrocity.

By the way the president did use that word. He went on to say, “An atrocity on an appalling scale.” All I want to say is a tragedy does not always imply moral responsibility. Even an atrocity if you’re saying, “Well, this was an atrocious earthquake.” Or all the rest, but that’s actually ascribing too much moral agency to an earthquake. When you’re talking about evil in this sense and atrocity in this sense, we need to be very careful that we are blaming human beings as responsible moral agents for bringing about this evil. This was not a termite, it was not a tumor, it was a terrorist. In this case, a terrorist force.

Also, we need to note in the president’s statement, he indicated that there are Americans among the casualties and there are Americans, at least potentially among the hostages. It is not known exactly what the administration knows, and the administration knows not to state exactly what it knows.

But it is sending a very clear message to Hamas about how the United States values human life and what the United States will and will not do, and these messages are sometimes sent not only with words, but with symbolic acts, sometimes with more than symbolic acts and moving the USS Gerald Ford, the nation’s newest and largest aircraft carrier, armed with lethal force and modern jets, moving it close to Israel right now, and also that means close to Hamas.

Part III

‘Don’t’ Warns the President: The U.S. Warning Must Be Backed By Overwhelming Force If It Is Not Heeded

The president is necessarily sending a very clear signal. The president went on to say this, “Let me say again to any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of this situation.” He said, “I have one word, don’t.”

Now, this also requires just a little bit of pause, because you don’t often hear American presidents. Doesn’t matter to the party, doesn’t matter the era, doesn’t matter the context. You just very rarely hear an American president speaking in this way, and yet the president in this case, President Joe Biden (and I speak often of where I have differences with this president), the reality is that this president is functioning in that sense as an American president simply saying to a foreign enemy, “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t even think it, don’t even move a muscle, don’t even fledge.” But let me tell you, behind that has to be the reality that if they do, the United States just like Israel is going to have to respond with overwhelming force. It will have no choice or we never meant, don’t. And trust me, on the world stage, when you use the word don’t, and they do and you don’t respond in an overwhelming manner, then the message is sent and that message by terrorist organizations will be received.

One final thought in terms of worldview and theological biblical issues here, we need to admit that we’re shocked by this. We need to admit that we are emotionally engaged on this. We need to admit that just hearing about those babies with mutilated bodies, this is not something that brings about a mild moral response. It brings about a deep unspeakable moral response, and let’s be honest, once you think about it, it brings an emotional response as well.

That’s not an accident, that also is due to being made in the image of God. It also deals with the fact that human beings, because of the moral knowledge, that because we are made in God’s image, we cannot not know. The reality is that this is an emotional knowledge. It is an issue that reaches to the very core of who we are, and this is not wrong. It is right.

Part IV

We Do Know Evil When We See It: We Are Created as Moral Beings, and It Shows

Over the course of the next several days, we’ll be looking at issues such as the fact that there are those who don’t want to speak of this attack is evil. They want to use some other kind of language. We’re going to have to consider why and what that means, but I just want to come back as we close today, with the fact that when we look at the reality of this kind of evil, we will be absolutely destroyed and absolutely depressed, except for the fact we also have the knowledge of absolute good, of absolute righteousness and of absolute love.

And of course, I’m speaking about the one true and living God, the creator of heaven and earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Triune God, father, son, and Holy Spirit. I’m talking about the God revealed in Scripture, and it is He, alone who is good and righteous, and just, and our only hope is in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the fact that in the end of all time, all things are made right by the judge of all, who is indeed the one true and living God.

It seems that virtually once in every generation there comes some kind of just inescapable, horrifying reminder of the reality of human sin and of the evil of which human hearts are capable. Sometimes on a world stage just as is happening right now, in terms of the attack by Hamas on Israel, you’re looking at something that requires a moral verdict, and we should at least be thankful that we’re living in a time in which there is at least enough residue of a Christian worldview, and there’s at least enough honesty coming from the Imago Dei within human beings, that this is an act of moral revulsion.

But this is where we need to understand that we are living in an age that otherwise when it comes to the total question of morality and good and evil wants to argue that there is no objective truth, no objective reality to either.

The only language that would work even the only language coming from the White House that would work yesterday, was the kind of language of absolute moral judgment. It also comes as a very important reminder of the fact that if that absolute moral judgment, that absolute statement of morality is one of which our government is no longer capable, then we are entering into a very, very dangerous age. Even more dangerous than what we see right now in Israel.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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