This paper investigates the concept of living in an “evil age”. This term was used by Paul in the letter to the Galatians, but it is not immediately obvious which aspect of the society was responsible for the evil. Two examples are cited which show that righteousness and evil can be viewed as relative standards, depending on values of the individual. Tradition and “the majority” are common methods establishing a set of values. For the Bible believer, however, standards must be derived from those which are of God and revealed in the Bible.
2. The Evil Age
The letter of Paul to the Galatians is one of both concern and hope. At the start of the book, he first greets the ecclesias in Galatia,
Galatians 1:3.: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4. who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5. to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. NKJV
This is a greeting of hope, speaking of the hope offered though the death and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, Paul is looking at their deliverance from “this present evil age.”
Deliverance from from the evil age, of course, implies that there was something wrong with world at that time. From a historic point of view there is some difficulty in comparing the world of the first century to that of the late 20th century. Both periods have their obvious problems - with wars and oppression in various parts of the world. These wars and oppression, though, are really only symptoms of the evil of the age. The true evil is the attitudes of people that cause these things.
Even the most respectable and esteemed society can be based on the principles of an evil age. One example is in the time of prohibition in America. During that period, many of the wealthy and honoured citizens had based their wealth on the illicit supply of alcohol. In many parts of the society, these backgrounds were known and tacitly accepted. In some others, the backgrounds were known and wholeheartedly approved. A society that to many was glamorous, respectable, exciting and fun, was to others - including the law - an evil society.
The people accepting the distribution of bootleg alcohol were still inherently the same type of people as the “law abiding” citizens of the time. What was different is that they had chosen to accept a different set of values. One part of the society saw the bootleggers as being evil, while another saw the law-enforcement officers as being evil.
Consider now what the average citizen (if such a thing existed) would think. With no history to the time, and without an implicit trust in the 1920's American government, the average citizen would have trouble working out who was evil and who was not. On one side, there is the glamour of the wealthy society, and on the other the respectability of a uniform. There is a problem here, because it is no longer clear what is good and what is bad.
Another example of confusion between good and evil occurs with the scribes and Pharisees. The Pharaisees were highly respected religious leaders of the time. They were considered by many to be the true representatives of God. But then the man we call Jesus came along and started criticising them. To many people this would have appeared uncalled for. One example of the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees is in Matt 23:27.
Matt 23:27.: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28. "Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. NKJV
In this passage, Jesus attacked the nature of the true character of the Pharisees. He claimed that their outside appearance was a deception, using the example of a painted tomb. The image is one of a grand and beautiful tomb, which people look at, appreciate and like. The tomb, however, is really just the container of dead men's bones.
In Mark, Jesus claimed that scribes did the things that make them appear respectable and “good”, but it fact they did not represent goodness at all.
Mark 12:38.: Then He said to them in His teaching, "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, 39. "the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, 40. "who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation." NKJV
3. Good and Evil
A person's concept of what is right has a lot to do with their background. The Pharisees believed they were doing the right thing, and many people had grown up to believe the Pharisees were doing the right thing. Paul, in his earlier life, was one example of this. Similarly in the 1920s, many Americans had grown to accept the alcohol wealth society, even though it was contrary to the law of the time.
This is a question of whether it is a real “law”. Civilisations enact laws, but these are only conveniences -- like the terms of a truce. As part of a very different argument, Paul in Romans talks of Law and transgression,
Romans 4:13.: For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14. For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, 15. because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression. NKJV
Basically, if there is no fundamental law, there is no transgression, and no evil. So without a fundamental law, there can be no “evil age” as mentioned in Galatians. The “evil age” concept comes from the evaluation of the society based on the precepts of the Bible.
For humans to believe anything, we have to make use of assumptions. The most basic assumption is that the things we have seen in the past is a good representation of the truth. If we assume that, so many things fall into place. For example: If people said to you “there's been an earthquake in New Zealand,” would you believe them? Most probably you will, because you know from your experience that that is a reasonable thing to do.
From experience, you build up a concept of what things are possible, and what things are not. All of science, engineering, commerce and management is based on past observations. It is when it comes to interpreting experiences and probabilities that opinions start to vary.
The question remains: “why do people believe in God and the Bible?” The answer to this varies from person to person. For many people it is because their parents do. Their parents went to church, and their parents parents before them. As a result they feel it is the right thing to do. This reason is actually not as poor as it sounds. As children, peoples' parents tell and show them many things, most of which are correct. For example, many people still tie their shoelaces in the same way that their parents showed them years ago --- and it still works.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus used trust in parents as an example.
Matthew 7:9.: "Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10. "Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11. "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! NKJV
The observation that parents like to give good things to their children suggests that it is often a good thing to trust in parents. Jesus, however takes it a step further and shows the difference between men and God. He claims that human parents are “evil”, while God is good. The evil here is not in the sense that parents always do evil things, as this would be contradictory. Instead it is in comparison with God.
This example bears out the obvious suggestion that not all parents are fit examples when it comes to issues such as belief in God. The very fact that there are many different opinions among people shows that not all parents are right.
Another approach is to say “everyone else believes that so it is probably right.” It is always comfortable to go with the pack. Currently the theory of Evolution is very popular. Many people don't even know what it really is, but they they believe it because a lot of other people do. In fact, the flat democratic society what the West currently esteems promotes the strength of the majority. Elections seek to find the best solution based on what the majority of the population says. Not only are there government elections, but they are spread throughout society, from shareholders to sporting clubs.
The approach of believing a majority is more comfortable with the scientific viewpoint. If you assume a system is an ergodic stationary stochastic process, you can predict the underlying system and future results based on a set of past results.
But, for better or worse, these issues cannot be well modeled using ergodic stationary stochastic processes. The truth is that the majority is often wrong. In Matthew 7, Jesus claims that this is the case with respect to belief in God.
Matthew 7:13.: " Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. 14. "Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. NKJV
In this passage, Jesus proposes the existence of two gates. These are not literal gates so much as markers in a decision process. One is a narrow gate that leads to a difficult road. Few people find this gate and traverse the road. The other gate is the wide gate. This gate admits a large number of people, and the road is wide, allowing the easy passage of a lot of traffic.
Imagine finding these paths and travelling these roads. Perhaps it is appropriate to consider walking tracks in a tourist area. You are presented with a choice: there is a wide, paved path which looks easy to traverse, and everyone else is going down that path. There is also a narrow, rough, dirt track which goes off in a different direction. You also have a guidebook for the region, but it's written in Greek, and is 104 pages long. If you were to bother reading the guidebook, you would find that the narrow path is really the good path to take. The tourist authority is anxious to give the visitors freedom, however, and the people are allowed to take the wide path.
From time to time, the authority sent messengers to tell the tourists which was the best way to go, with names like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In the most, they were ignored or despised. This was partly because they were suggesting something more difficult, and it was easier to stay with the majority.
There were even tour groups. These group leaders read and discussed the guidebook, and some even stopped the tourists reading the guidebook for themselves. After interpreting the guidebook, and adjusting things to suit the mood of the group, history, and various legends, they would sometimes lead the whole group in the wrong direction.
So overall, following the pack is a natural attitude, and it often works. However, it is not always the right thing to do, and the Bible claims that it is the wrong thing to do when considering God and Salvation.
At the time of the rebellion of Korah, Datham and Abiram in the wilderness, the rebel leaders were seeking the easy way. They said,
Numbers 16:13.: "Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you should keep acting like a prince over us? 14. "Moreover you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. NKJV
They thought that life had been easier back in Egypt. They could visualise their life in Egypt, the stability, and the range of food available. However, they could not easily visualise the entrance into the promised land. The result for the rebels was destruction,
Numbers 16:31.: Now it came to pass, as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground split apart under them, 32. and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the men with Korah, with all their goods. NKJV
They chose the wrong source of wisdom.
This leaves the question of what is the best way to find the truth about things like creation, God, and the Bible. We rely on past experiences to guide us, and these past experiences suggest that generally it is a good thing to listen to parents and the “majority”. Both of these avenues are flawed, however, particularly when it comes to the Bible.
So instead, we have to rely more heavily on our own analysis of observations. The Bible does offer ways of proving itself, and we should make use of these. Things like internal consistency, external consistency, fulfilled prophecy all go together to put forward a strong case for the Bible.
Proverbs 8 speaks of true wisdom, both of the glories of that wisdom, and of the way to find it.
Proverbs 8:12.: " I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, And find out knowledge and discretion. ... 17. I love those who love me, And those who seek me diligently will find me. 18. Riches and honor are with me, Enduring riches and righteousness. NKJV
it shows that true wisdom from God should be sought for diligently.
Without accepting things like the Bible, all you can go on is the vague statement that “you judge what is correct based on past experiences”. Once you are confident that the Bible may be trusted, however, a great number of results follow. To be fully confident in using those results, though, you must first fully trust the book.
The important thing is that once you accept the Bible, there is now a hard, concrete Law. Not a Law specifically in the sense of the commandments given to Moses, but a fundamental concept that there is right and wrong. Furthermore the right and wrong are fixed, and not open to interpretation.
It is not like the human view of Prohibition, where people on both sides gain respect from different parts of the community. In this case, different parts of the community still have different views, but now one view, and only one view, is right.
Why the Age is Evil
It is based on this result of there being only one right way, that Paul talks of “this present evil age” in Galatians 1:4. Based on God's principles as displayed in the Bible, the age was evil. Even though many people may have been happy with the times and their lives, it was still evil. It was evil because the fear of God was not in the society.
There are now a number of paths in understanding the nature of a society. One is to appraise the society directly, based on observation. This involves questions like, “is it satisfying and do I have a good time?” We can also live based on the views of our parents or peers, or alternatively form opinions based on the majority. These are based on the premise that those sources can be useful. The other way is to first prove the Bible based on observation, and then use it as a trusted source of guidance.
In practice, people will form opinions and actions based on a mixture of these sources. As a believer of the Bible, however, it is clear that the Bible is to be the primary source of motivation and the basic judge of good and evil.
4. Turning Away
The start of the letter to the Galatians claims that the Galatian believers were turning away from God and the true Gospel. Perhaps it was a lack of trust in the Gospel for basic guidance that was leading the Galatians astray.
Galatians 1:6.: I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, 7. which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. NKJV
Paul is quite critical in stating this claim right at the start of the letter. The gospel had been contaminated by other philosophies. In particular, tradition, and the “everyone else it doing it” philosophy was threatening the Galatian belief. The concern is greater in chapter 3:
Galatians 3:1.: O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? NKJV
The rest of chapter 1, and half of chapter 2 details Paul's defence of his own credentials, and the subsequent trustworthiness of the Gospel message he had preached to them. Starting in 2:11, the issue behind Paul's concern emerges.
Galatians 2:11.: Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12. for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. NKJV
Paul was building up to the issue of observing rituals from the Law. In this example, he showed that even Peter was subject weakness on the issue. In 3:2, he reaches the substance of the argument.
Galatians 3:2.: This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3. Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? KNJV
At the time, it was a popular thing to obey the law, or at least to appear to obey the law. People had the observance of Mosaic rituals as the basis of their faith. As a result, the Galatians were drawn towards the majority and away from faith. In the same way, the majority of our world is removed from the faith in God. So in our case the result is that we are likely to be drawn toward the majority.
The Galatians had difficulties in part because it was hard for them to see some of the evil in their age. There's nothing unique to their situation, however, and the same thing can easily happen to us. Even once we have identified a potential source of evil, there is still the problem of the wide and narrow gates. The wide gate is enticing through its ease and comfort, but it leads to destruction.
A hint to one component of Paul's own resilience is given in Gal 2:10.
Gal 2:9.: and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do. NKJV
The important thing here was that Paul was eager. He actually wanted to do the things that pleased God. It is always easiest to follow commands when the commandment is to do something that you wanted to do anyhow.
In Chapter 4 of Galatians, Paul gives an encouragement and motivation for the Galatians to be eager.
Galatians 4:3.: Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. 4. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5. to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" 7. Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. NKJV
With such great promise, we too ought to be eager to follow God and search out his Gospel. If not, we have to be careful that we are not becoming blind to the evil of the world by using sources apart from the Bible as a source of values.