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Is the World of “Beowulf” More Christian than America Today?

Every person and every age has its own understanding of the relationship between good and evil. America is known as the great “melting pot,” indicating the infusion and assimilation of many people and ideas from the entire world into one country. This has led to the diversity and breadth of beliefs that can be seen in America today, most of them unbiblical. Writing in a likely unchristianized Britain in the late first century, the “Beowulf” poet, seemingly as a Christian, held a view of good and evil that was probably not typical of the time. Although his view may not have been typical of the age, the “Beowulf” poet’s view of good and evil is more Biblical than that of American culture today.

To understand where the poet and the culture aligned with and have strayed from the truth of the relationship between good and evil, a study of truth itself would be in order. The Bible repeatedly states that God and God alone is perfect – every aspect of His nature is wholly and utterly good. This means that anything contrary to His nature is not good, for it is not God. Humanity cannot hope to meet God’s standards. As Romans 3:10 states, “No one is righteous, no not one.” Humanity is fallen and incapable of doing any good, and when life is over, God will judge our lives and we will see that our supposed “good deeds” are as filthy rags in His sight and really worth nothing at all. Only by salvation through His Son may we escape eternal judgment. As C. S. Lewis once said, “No good work is done anywhere without aid from the Father of Lights.” Such is the standard that humanity can never attain – if our good deeds are as rags, what must our wicked deeds be in His eyes?

The culture has many points of view on the relationship between good and evil – as many, it seems, as there are people who make up the culture. However, there are some predominant themes that seem to rule American culture as a whole. In a relativistic society, there is no true meaning to the word good, as there is no meaning to the word evil. Good seems to mean something that helps others, promotes popular causes, or supports popular ideologies. In America today, it seems to be very hard to do anything evil at all. The end justifies the means in our world – if the end result was “good”, it doesn’t matter how one gets there. This belief is reflected widely across our culture though the various forms of entertainment, specifically mass entertainment. As long as one doesn’t hurt another in the process, it never was really bad in the first place. However, as askew as America is today, it is not completely off the mark. A corrupt politician exploiting the citizens of his district for financial gain and power plays is universally disdained. Nothing is more despised than one who hurts another for his own personal benefit. An overwhelmingly large percentage of Americans believe in some kind of eternal reward, but the popular conception of heaven is not quite the paradise as described in the Bible. “As long as I’m not terribly bad, or at least more good then bad, God wouldn’t send me to Hell,” they say. Yes, the culture does acknowledge Hell, but they reserve it almost exclusively for the Hitlers and Stalins of this world. As can be seen, the culture has strayed dramatically from the Biblical view of good and evil and is not likely to return anytime soon.

The “Beowulf” poet had a view that is more similar to the Bible’s as compared to that of the culture’s perspective. “Beowulf” does not deal so much with goodness as much as the evil that dwells within this world. Within humanity, the poet frequently calls people “good” when referring to their physical or behavioral characteristics. People that are “good” within the poet’s story are those that are strong and powerful or good to others, most notably those who are unselfish, self-sacrificing, and generous. The poet also acknowledges that God is both sovereign and powerful as well as good on many occasions. The poet also has a very well-defined view of evil as well. The list may seem rather similar to the culture’s list: murder, cruelty, and other things that seem to unjustly hurt others. Then a surprising addition pops up. According to the poet, striving against God is a terrible evil (lines 106 – 114) and condemns worship of idols, calling Satan “the killer of souls.” Regarding eternity, God is the judge of the deeds of mankind, says the poet (lines 180 – 188), but we are left to guess whether or not the God of the poet’s world is as just as the God of the Bible or if it rather like the wishy-washy god of the culture.

God alone is the standard of perfection and the judge of all things. While the culture takes an elastic stance on the issue, the Biblical standard of good and evil is inflexible and unyielding. “Beowulf” falls somewhere in between The “Beowulf” poet seems rather undecided – sometimes mirroring the Bible and other times mimicking modern culture – and eventually lands with view of good and evil that is markedly more Biblical than that of American culture today.

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