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The True Prophet … alone can enlighten the souls of human beings, so that with their eyes they may plainly perceive the way of salvation. For otherwise it is impossible to come to know divine and eternal things, unless one learns from that true prophet. – St. Peter, Recognitions of Clement 1:16.
In early antiquity, Christianity not only spread far and wide, it diversified.
Therefore, we can’t overgeneralize about early Christian beliefs. Although faith in Jesus Christ resided at the heart of all sects of Christianity in ancient times, yet particular doctrines and beliefs varied widely. One fascinating text is the first great Christian historical novel: The Homilies of Clement and its other version, the Recognitions of Clement. Since we began this series with this very text, let’s now compare the doctrine of evil, as presented in the Clementine literature, and compare it from a Baha’i perspective.
As pointed out earlier in this series, in the Homilies of Clement, and the Recognitions of Clement as well, the figure of St. Peter debates with Simon the Magician. Basically, these debates represent a competition between the claims of ancient philosophy and astrology, versus prophetic knowledge as revealed by Jesus Christ. Christ, throughout this literature, is referred to as “The True Prophet,” as seen in the opening quote above.
In one of these debates, St. Peter (whose original name was Simon) and Simon the Magician hotly debate the question of the origin and existence of evil. Much of their discussion focuses on the specious sophistry of philosophical discourse, in contrast to the enlightenment brought by the True Prophet.
Peter opens with a Socratic question:
And Peter: “Is then evil the same as pain and death?”
And Simon: “It seems so.”
Simon the Magician takes the rhetorical bait. Peter then explains the paradox of evil, which exists, but not always:
And Peter said: “Evil, then, does not exist always, yea, it cannot even exist at all substantially; for pain and death belong to the class of accidents, neither of which can co-exist with abiding strength.
For what is pain but the interruption of harmony? And what is death but the separation of soul from body? There is therefore no pain when there is harmony. For death does not even at all belong to those things which substantially exist: for death is nothing, as I said, but the separation of soul from body. – Homilies 19:20; cf. Recognitions 4:23; The Clementine Homilies (1870), p. 306.
This proposition, set forth with forceful clarity and compelling simplicity, holds that evil is relative. In other words, evil’s existence is conditional, existing only in relation to an absence of good. Therefore, evil has no substantial or absolute existence.
In the realm of human interaction, evil does not come from something external, but from something intrinsic to human nature: free will. The moral actor chooses based on what is right—not on what is most desirable or most expedient.
In the Baha’i teachings, Abdu’l-Baha advances a similar explanation resolving the paradox of how evil may be said both to exist, yet not exist:
One thing may be evil in relation to another but not evil within the limits of its own being. It follows therefore that there is no evil in existence: Whatsoever God has created, He has created good. Evil consists merely in non-existence. For example, death is the absence of life: When man is no longer sustained by the power of life, he dies. Darkness is the absence of light: When light is no more, darkness reigns. Light is a positively existing thing, but darkness has no positive existence; it is merely its absence. Likewise, wealth is a positively existing thing but poverty is merely its absence.
It is thus evident that all evil is mere non-existence. Good has a positive existence; evil is merely its absence. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 304.
This argument has a sophisticated simplicity. Light is not the absence of darkness. Rather, darkness is the absence of light.
At this point, you may well ask: “So, if there is a fundamental agreement between this early Christian doctrine and the Baha’i perspective, why should I investigate the Baha’i teachings any further?” Good question! Excellent critical thinking. This deserves a worthy answer.
Truth be told, although Peter offers a sophisticated argument for resolving the paradox of evil—yet Peter still lived in the enchanted universe of two millennia ago, inhabited by demons and sprites.
Baha’is believe that not only are there no evil powers, there are no evil entities. This makes a world of difference. It also has a direct impact on our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ, if understood in a context in which Satan has no place and no reality.