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For Augustine, evil is nothing more than the absence of good, as we would say cold is no more than the absence of heat. Not every contemporary Christian follows this idea exactly, but the majority would surely agree that the goodness of God is supremely powerful, with evil (whether personified as Satan or not) significantly lesser.

It was not always this way. Many early Christian factions – most famously the Manicheans, but also the Marcionites and many Gnostics – believed that there were two warring gods, one good and one evil. (Augustine himself was a Manichean before he developed his own theology.) Of these, I have found the Marcionites particularly compelling ever since I first studied and taught early Christianity. Followers of Marcion of Sinope, they used the idea of two gods as their key principle of scriptural interpretation.

Marcion of SinopeThe Marcionites vastly preferred the New Testament – specifically the letters of Paul – to the Hebrew Bible; they took Paul’s letters as the appropriate scripture to be followed. But what’s particularly interesting about the Marcionite approach to interpretation is that they still believed the claims of the Hebrew Bible to be true! There is a God who created the world and performed all the acts attributed to him in the Hebrew scriptures. But this creator God was evil, and these acts were bad. He is in conflict with the good god, the redeemer god, who comes to save us in the person of Jesus Christ.

My faculty colleagues at Stonehill – where I taught about early Christianity – sometimes expressed surprise that when their students tried to grapple with theological problems, they would turn some form of Marcionite theology, without having heard the term. But it’s not surprising to me. Marcionism feels to me like a natural response to simply reading the Hebrew Bible and responding to the stories within.

Consider just the Book of Exodus – a book often cited as one of the Hebrew Bible’s nobler parts, the inspiring story of God liberating a people from slavery. In this story, God visits a series of ever worsening calamities on the people of Egypt: he kills the fish and livestock, turns the river to blood, releases swarms of pests over the land, covers the people with festering boils, and eventually kills all of their firstborn children. He does all this because the pharaoh will not let his people go. But of course ancient Egypt is not remotely a democracy; the Egyptian multitudes have no possible way of affecting the pharaoah’s actions. Yet God visits all of these horrible punishments on them for acts that they had nothing to do with. Worse yet, in Exodus 7:2-4 before it all happens, God tells Moses this:

You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not listen to you, I will lay my hand upon Egypt and bring my people the Israelites, company by company, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgement. (New Revised Standard Version)

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.” Even the actions of the guilty person, for whom the innocent are punished, were caused by the very one doing the punishing. So it is not even that God needed to cause all of these horrors in order to convince the Pharaoh that the Hebrew slaves be freed; God was himself doing the convincing in the other direction!

Imagine a human being doing something remotely like this. Imagine, for example, a local king deliberately manipulating the ruler of an opposing kingdom into keeping slaves from their freedom, and then murdering the kingdom’s children and despoiling its citizens’ livelihood as punishment for the action he himself had engineered in the ruler. While perhaps we might have some small admiration for such a king’s savvy Machiavellian Realpolitik, we could also not hesitate to condemn him in the strongest possible terms as a horrible tyrant, a wicked beast. The only reason we would ever have to avoid condemning such a man as evil is if we did not believe in the concept of evil in the first place.

But this is God! This is the God that shows himself to us in Exodus – and there is plenty more where all that came from, in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. After all of this, what Christian reading the Hebrew Bible wouldn’t be tempted by Marcionism? It is an ingenious solution for a tradition that wants to worship Jesus of Nazareth in spite of the scriptures he himself followed: acknowledge that those scriptures are true, but that they describe a God very different from Jesus’s own saving Father. One becomes able to trust in God specifically by avoiding any identification of that God with the God of the Hebrew Bible.

Today Marcionism has what TV Tropes would call Unfortunate Implications, for it implies that Jews, qua followers of the Hebrew Bible, are worshipping an evil God. Such a view seems dangerous after the history of twentieth-century anti-Semitism. But a tradition that largely died out in the 5th century CE can scarcely be blamed for atrocities over a millennium later. And moreover, Marcionite interpretation is a response to a very real theological problem that thoughtful observant Jews must grapple with as well. If a human being were to try to do what God does in the Hebrew Bible, the vast majority of Jews and Christians today would consider that being a terrible monster – and yet they do hold a being who does this as an object of worship. Atheists of the Dawkins and Hitchens variety take considerable delight in pointing this fact out. I do not, but it is a key problem that anyone who wishes to take the Hebrew Bible seriously must wrestle with. Marcion’s answer to that problem was thoughtful and clever, and if we wish to seek truth we should take it seriously despite its potential for abuse. It is, after all, far from the only philosophical or theological view that could be used to justify atrocities when taken up by the wrong hands.