Martin Luther is remembered for his sometimes quaint but often penetrating dinner table anecdotes and maxims. One of the things his students recalled him saying frequently was, “Et multiplicata sunt mala in terris” – “And evils were multiplied in the world.” This Latin expression was a part of Luther’s German dinner time conversation. He used this phrase in much the same way that we might borrow “C’est la vie” from the French language in order to express our reactions to troubling news.
Over the years, I have noticed that as a society we have a tendency to discount the possibility that there is in fact a multiplying evil in the world. When terrible things take place, it seems that we bend over backwards to try to define such things as being the predictable results of socio-economic systems that drive people to engage in certain anti-social behaviors. The assumption appears to be that people are basically good and, if only we would create social systems in which they had opportunities to enjoy meaningful work and obtain an acceptable standard of living, terrible things would not happen.
In as much as it exists and prevails in certain worldviews, this idealistic optimism is not new. In fact, it was, by and large, the view of the informed class of Western civilization at the dawn of the twentieth century. Social Darwinism provided the rationale and the Enlightenment provided the hubris for the new man, homo intelligentsia, to confidently expect the end of everything from religion to warfare and a new era of unprecedented peace and unlimited progress. This confidence was not to last. Writing in 1955, English historian and theologian J. S. Whale offered the following retrospect on the dawn of his own century:
“Serious people in the twentieth century have found themselves forced to reckon with the paradox, so offensive to their predecessors, that man is evil as well as good, contemptible as well as admirable: that he is not only the soaring idealist capable of heroism, self-sacrifice and even sainthood; there is also something mysteriously, radically and permanently wrong with him; he is capable of pride, envy and all uncharitableness, of appalling brutality and degradation. The pilgrim making his way to the celestial city (homo viator) is also a wolf to his brother man (homo homini lupus), and at no time in human history was it more true than now that man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn. The experience of the twentieth century leaves little room for the sentimental optimism which supposes that sinful man can discover within the actual system of his civilization the saving power which he needs. As we look back to the opening decade we see that we were claiming most confidently to save ourselves just when there was least evidence of our ability to do so… Modern man is discovering the truth of Nietzsche’s dictum that his culture is ever in danger of destruction by the very instruments of culture.”
As I consider the opening decade-and-a-half of our new century, I find Whale’s thoughts to be apropos. There is as little evidence as ever that mankind can resolve its paradoxical malignancy through its own societal systems. And, as offensive as it may be to many of us, we need to acknowledge the mala mulitplicata – the ‘multiplying evil’ that inflames human hearts and incites us to indefensible action, which actions include the misuse of every ‘utopian’ system we could conceive of! Only then can we truly appreciate and carry with us into this new year the hope of the Messiah’s birth. The message of Christmas calls us to place our confidence in and ground our actions on a Savior from heaven: one who has not been stained with the evil that so ‘mysteriously, radically, and permanently’ mars each of us as individuals and, by necessary extension, our societies as well.
Ultimately, it is not societal structures that cause bad things to happen. Fallen people will perpetrate evil regardless of the societal systems we implement on this side of heaven. Fundamentally, humanity’s problem is spiritual, and our inherent failures will persist in socialist and capitalist states, in theocratic and atheistic states, in democracies and monarchies alike… In this I agree with Nietzsche: culture is in danger of destroying itself by the very instruments of culture. When we as a society put our trust in the constructs of society, those constructs, be they free or regulated markets, a free or censored press, political correctness or institutionalized bigotry,’ Statism’ or anarchy… such things will always carry with them the very seeds of their own destruction. History proves that there is no good gift that humanity will not abuse through pride, envy and general uncharitableness.
This year the news will bring terrible and alarming reports of continued atrocities. We have come to expect it. We will also experience frustration with the politicians and other notables who seem unable or unwilling to do what is necessary to address the world’s wrongs – regardless of our political orientation. We will continue to think that if only this or that were done, or so-and-so were elected, then we might have peace. Our solutions will differ but our sentiments will be the same. And in thinking these things, we will simply be the latest in the long march of people throughout history who have put their hopes in humans and in culture. It is really quite sad. Such hopes have always proved to be misplaced. Our problems are in no sense created by the absence of the best societal structures. Our problem is the very real presence of evil – even in our own hearts.
As this new year begins, do you acknowledge the problems in this world and in your life as being fundamentally spiritual in nature? Do you recognize your need for a Savior who does not share in the ruin of our sinfulness? Have you heard that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes on him might not perish but have everlasting life?” (John 3:16) May the favor of God rest upon you and be your peace as you continue your celebration of the Savior’s birth throughout this new year.
 See Carl P. E. Springer, Trans., Acta Conventus Neo-Latini Upsaliensis, p. 1052.
 J.S. Whale, The Protestant Tradition: An Essay in Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), pp. 13-14.