In a world full of increasingly different viewpoints on everything, trying to come to a consensus on what is right and wrong can at times seem like an exercise in futility.
But one thing I have found, and you may have seen this yourself, is that while it may be difficult to come to a universal definition of what is good, moral or right, even people who do not hold to a Christian view of morality can often find common ground in regards to what is absolutely evil.
Some things are bad, so very bad that they would be considered absolutely evil by almost everyone.
Murder for example, not just of anyone, but of someone innocent, seems to be one thing that most people can agree upon as being evil. The Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials that succeeded them brought to the world a general consensus that there are some things so horrendously wrong that mankind as a whole comes together to condemn them.
But this was not always so. For much of human history, evil was generally not considered evil. Rape, murder, pillage, and plunder were so commonplace and an accepted part of life in most of the world, that they weren’t even considered wrong by many; it was just the way things were.
It was Socrates who said that asserting the existence of something also asserts the existence of its opposite. That is, if something exists, then it exists relative to and contrasting with something.
So if evil exists, it must do so in relation to something, go to the other side of the spectrum and we have goodness. If we accept that there is an ultimate evil, then we must concede that there is also an ultimate good.
If absolute evil is doing harm to someone who is innocent and undeserving of such harm, then the ultimate good would be doing good to someone who does not deserve it. It would be doing good to someone to your own hurt even to the point of the sacrificing of yourself, whatever the cost, whatever the pain, to save someone who not only has done great wrong but done it towards you.
Interestingly enough, we find the greatest example of this in the embodiment of Jesus Christ. Whether you are religious or not, he is probably the most fascinating case study of the ultimate good.
Jesus, though he had done no wrong, gives himself over to a cruel and merciless death, and through that death, he takes on the punishment to save (by paying the price for their sins) the very people who were killing him.
Nowhere else in history do we find such a compelling narrative, such a clear embodiment of “good” that it becomes the quintessential personification of the concept.
The fact that Jesus did not just teach this as a core tenant, but actually lived it out, lends incredible weight to it.
For Jesus, the concept of the ultimate good was so central to his teachings, that he said that it would be the defining characteristic of his followers.
In Matthew 5:44 he says “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;” and in John 13:35 “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
He knew the power that living out the ultimate good would have in a world that had yet to even understand that there was objective morality.
We must realize that it was Jesus’s exemplification of the ultimate good that challenged the status quo of how morality was understood.
In this day and age, we know that that harm exists. Some things are so extreme that we can all agree that they are wrong, bad or evil. It is objectively clear that where there is intentional harm, there is immorality. From that, we can move to the understanding that where there is intentional good, there is morality.
Doing the ultimate good
So if we accept that there is an ultimate good, what is our obligation to pursue it? The ultimate good, by its very nature, cannot be compelled.
Its very power comes from the personal decision of the individual to pursue it. Take that away, and you lessen its impact.
While there might not be a mandate to pursue it, the power it has when people seek to live it out, not because of laws, rules or regulations, but because of a personal conviction in the “rightness” of it, has great power. While harm often begets harm, so to goodness begets goodness. It’s called the compound effect.
The Compound Effect can be likened to ripples in a pond that build upon each other. When you plant seeds, you not only reap what you sow, you reap more than you sow.
The results are not always evident immediately, yet with time, good choices and good decisions as we live out our lives in pursuit of the ultimate good in service towards others, it will have an impact, not just for ourselves, but in the lives of those around us and society as a whole.
We see this in Jesus, how the power of his words and the truth his teachings have changed the world.
His example of the ultimate good gives us an incredible framework with which to live out our lives, and the Bible makes it clear that we should do the same.
John 3:16 “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.”
I do find it somewhat ironic that in this day and age we find more success using the common understanding of absolute evil to assert the existence of the ultimate good when Jesus demonstrated through his life and death that through living out the ultimate good, there had to be an ultimate evil.
This Easter let us remember that the good done by the man who went about everywhere doing good, through his definitive act of the ultimate good in his death on the cross to pay the price for all sinners, even those who caused his very death, is at the heart of what he calls his followers to do if they are truly going to be his disciples.
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About Tim and Sharie Martiny.
We are missionaries in Guatemala with our six children, Julia-now is college- (19), Audrey (16), Vanessa (14) Jessica (12), Alex (10) and Alison (8). We both come from missionary families and were raised overseas, Timothy in Europe, and Sharie in South East Asia and Mexico.
We work primarily in orphan care and prevention. The Biblical call in James 1:27 to care for the orphaned and vulnerable is our calling. Our ministry works with vulnerable children and their families in their communities through programs we run at two community centers in Colina Santa Fe and San Jose Pinula.