Albert Camus, hardly a comfort to the Christian reader in most cases, has two things to recommend him despite his atheism: his unflinching attention to matters of good and evil, and his doggedly rigorous thinking. Although Camus’ mind leads him to some destinations that a person of faith find unpleasant, we cannot claim that he has reached these locations without careful deliberation. He therefore forces us to think hard and long, an exercise for which we can thank him.
Both of these qualities show themselves in Camus’ great wartime novel, The Plague. For our purposes, I would like to set out with a single quotation, spinning out from there:
The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.
The Plague deals not only with a natural evil, the bubonic plague, but with all manner of human evils as people respond nobly and basely to the illness, the quarantine, and the privations that arise in the wake of the plague. This evil, and the virtue that is brought into sharp relief by the presence of the evil, is Camus’ principle interest in this book. But is his view of evil tenable for a Christian. I’d like to camp on that for a moment.
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance” begins this statement. My first reaction is to refuse this assertion. After all, we traditionally associate evil and knowledge, since evil came into the world when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But let’s be clear. Knowledge did not cause Eve to sin. That first sin brought about a great deal of knowledge and a great deal of responsibility, but the knowledge did not cause the sin.
Did ignorance cause Eve’s sin? I could argue for that. For a moment, Eve looked at the fruit, saw that it had benefits and appeared delicious, and decided that this fruit’s positives outweighed its negatives. Had she known the negative results of her disobedience, would she have committed this evil? Had she known the positives she would be forfeiting, would she have taken that bite? I have to believe that answer to be “no.”
The great evils in Camus’ novel are those who escape from the city of Oran, in defiance of the quarantine, therefore risking countless other people’s lives for their own selfish needs. Other evils include those who profiteer from the situation in various ways. All of these place their own selfish needs over those of the larger community.
Similarly, the greatest virtues are to be found in the self-sacrifices of the citizens. Dr. Bernard Rieux, the main character and narrator of the book, risks himself beyond what is necessary in treating the sick and dying. Around him, a variety of others demonstrate a self-sacrifice and nobility that is not always rewarded with positive outcomes. Nevertheless, these people are held up as moral exemplars.
In 1 John 3:15, we learn that “no murderer has eternal life in him.” This verse matches well with Camus’ assertion that the ultimate evil is that which claims the right to kill. Having just read and written on East of Eden, I am quick to run to the example of Cain and Abel here. What Cain discovers after killing his brother is that he has not made his situation better by this deed. Indeed, he has estranged himself from the rest of humanity and diminished his world. He has deprived his parents of not one but two sons.
In the spin of systematic theologies, we as Christians can sometimes forget that the new command Jesus gave at the Last Supper was that his disciples love one another as he had loved them (John 13:34). How did Jesus love? Like Rieux, he lived and loved in a self-sacrificing manner. Although not a Christian, Camus gives the believer a great deal to chew on in this novel.