The day after Vladimir Putin launched his immoral and evil war with Ukraine, my daughter posted a meme on Facebook that summarized a scene from the classic TV show M*A*S*H. You can watch the scene on YouTube here but the upshot is one of many signature observations made by the character of Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the O.R. of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit during the Korean War. Fellow doctor Frank Burns has just spoken the old adage that “War is hell.”
Hawkeye rejoins that this is not true because hell is hell and war is war and of the two, war is worse. The unit’s priest, Fr. Mulcahy picks up on the curious theology behind the comment and asks Hawkeye what he means. In reply Hawkeye says that the people in hell are sent there because of their sin and evil. There are no displaced persons or innocent bystanders in hell. But in war most of the victims are precisely innocent bystanders, starting with children and others who have no ability to get out of the way of bombs and bullets.
As a pastor-theologian, I am not going to try to weigh hell off against war and assign a rating system. Some might point out that if hell ends up being what the church has traditionally taught, then it is for eternity whereas wars will and do always cease. Surely the eternal more than edges out the temporal whether one is talking about a gladsome prospect for eternity or a tragic one. True enough. Fair enough.
But for now we are living in this temporal world, which is the same world that Son of God entered as a true human being. What’s more, it was in the arena of this world that Jesus accomplished the salvation that brings about eternal life in God’s kingdom. What happens here and now has eternal consequences. Suffering in this present time may be temporary and a drop in the bucket compared to all eternity but Jesus would be the first to remind us that this fact in no way strips this current world of significance. When Jesus encountered demons in people, he did not wave it off as no big deal since in eternity this person would be free of the demon anyway so let’s not fret the temporary stuff.
Thus with children dying in Ukraine, I will stand with Hawkeye Pierce and say that as of this moment, the war in Ukraine is worse than anything I can think about hell just now. What’s more, I am such a firm believer in God’s grace having galactic prowess that I for one will not be surprised if hell turns out to be a lot emptier—and heaven a lot fuller—than we might think. If things turn out that way, I also most assuredly would not be disappointed. Followers of Christ desire flourishing for all people, now and ever after.
But if hell in any sense can stand for and represent the fullness of evil, then there are few spectacles more lamentable in this world than when hell bursts forth onto the scene by unleashing the very worst that evil has to offer. If war is in any sense worse than hell, then this is true in large measure because war is the unleashing of hell’s evil in its rawest form. And evil always—always—seeks to harm the purest and the best and the innocent first and foremost.
The Russians under Putin have bombed maternity hospitals and also shelters that were known to be occupied by frightened women and children. Children are losing parents and classmates, grandparents and teachers, guardians and mentors. And not a few children are themselves being cut down by Putin’s bombs and tanks and the bullets of his soldiers.
We are right to be cautious and prudent as Christians and as pastors and as other church leaders when it comes to tossing around a word like “evil.” The moment we label any person as evil, we think we are relieved of our obligation to love even our enemies no matter what Jesus had to say on the subject. When we label whole nations as evil, we lose sight of the innocent bystanders who are themselves often trapped inside systems they cannot change and, once again, we forget that all people bear God’s image. A lot of terrible sins have been committed by individual Christians and by the larger church in history because we slapped an “Evil” label onto something or someone.
But I feel on solid ground when I say that when children are killed because of one man’s megalomania and warped sensibilities, this is evil. Whether or not war is hell, this war in Ukraine bears all over it hell’s fingerprints and the modus operandi of the Evil One himself. True, no nation is innocent. The United States bears the heavy burden of children killed in another war of choice in Iraq, and if in such places mothers who lost children regard America as evil in such matters, one cannot allege they are merely overreacting.
If you survey a welter of Bible translations of Matthew 6:13, you will see something of an almost even split between Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer saying “deliver us from evil” and “deliver us from the evil one.” What is not in dispute is that the strong Greek word for “evil” is there—it just comes down to what one does with the definite article “the” that precedes it. “Deliver us from the evil” sounds odd so maybe what is implied is “the evil one.”
Either way or both ways, Jesus would not have included this in his model prayer if he did not envision that his followers will, as a matter of fact, now and them bump up against genuine evil. Not generic badness or unhappiness or disappointment or mistakes or accidents or morally muddy things but real evil (and when so, can the Evil One be far away?).
The death of the innocent and most especially of children and babies in Ukraine is an evil from which the worlds needs deliverance. In this Lenten Season, we must not forget our common complicity in sin and evil and confess our fallenness and struggles accordingly. But we are also right to recognize evil when we see it and pray for deliverance and yes, for those perpetuating such evil to be called to account.
And while we are at it and contemplating eternity from this temporal moment, we pray also “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus. Come and rescue all the innocent and bring us with them into your everlasting kingdom of light.”