Tag Archives: Creation

The problem of good in the world (Part 2/3): good that consumes

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator—Romans 1:25a

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies—Romans 8:22-24

I started this 3-part essay (here) with the contention that if the world and humankind were created by an intentional creator, it stands to reason that we can understand the nature of the creation by understanding the character of the creator.  Admittedly, I continue to presuppose that there is a knowable true Truth (discussed more here), impervious to time or location, and that this true Truth is a person—the Judeo/Christian God.

Part 1 discussed God’s nature as a Triune God who created mankind in His image, sculpted the universe to house a Garden (and more broadly, the Earth) to sustain us; and declared that both were ‘very good’.  From this we concluded that:

  1. We were designed for a relationship with God
  2. We were designed for relationships with one another
  3. The things in the world are good
  4. Culture is good

Or said another way, being created in God’s image suggests we were made first for a relationship with Him (point 1), then for relationships with one another (2) and that we also have a relationship to Creation itself (3 & 4).  We deduced from God’s nature and motives (a good God creating a universe for people He loves) that the essence of Creation reflects God’s goodness—that it’s a gift to us and therefore the things in this world are good.

But if we’re intellectually honest with ourselves, the world doesn’t always feel so good, does it?  And as I alluded to in the conclusion of Part 1 (concluding remarks have been edited), I think we’re left to ask: how can I hold my belief in the value and dignity life and still acknowledge humanity’s clearly failing (/failed?) history?   How can everything created be good (1 Timothy 4), but the whole of creation be groaning as in the pains of childbirth (Romans 8)?  And for what does it groan?

Throughout history, philosophers and religious thinkers have tried to answer these questions.  Gnosticism and Nihilism are two such attempts.

The main tenet of Gnosticism is that the human spirit is Good but that it is trapped inside a physical world of Evil—both the very body that holds it and the world in which that body resides—pushing us always to compromise our goodness.  It allows its adherents to maintain the belief in the goodness of humanity (at least in a spiritual sense) and blames evil on the physical world.  The challenge of life then is to be disciplined and master ourselves—to beat our bodies into submission of the sprit’s will (think Monty Python’s monks whacking themselves over the head as they sing in Gregorian chant).

Nihilism takes a different approach. It claims that there are no inherent values or truths in the world—that “…morality does not exist, and subsequently there are no moral values with which to uphold a rule or to logically prefer one action over another…..(that) life is without meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value” (Wikipedia) (ideas I refuted here and here).  Nihilism claims there is no such thing as good and evil, so there’s no riddle to answer.  Evil isn’t evil at all!—problem solved.  It’s a terrifying idea if you follow it through to its end.

I am sympathetic to the logic of Gnostics and Nihilists because I believe both philosophies are attempts at intellectual honesty in the face conflicting information and experiences.  Many who ascribe to these philosophies may not know the words Gnosticism or Nihilism but they seek to true up what they want to be true of human nature and what they see in the world.  In other words, we genuinely want to believe that human nature is good and that life has value, but we look around and see (and often experience) a world full of pain: hunger, broken relationships, man-to-man violence where we stand against each other, natural disasters where the world seems to stand against us—and even death.

Have you never looked in exasperation at how brutal a place this can be?  Have you never wondered how we are capable, at times, of being so cruel to one another?

So the logic of Gnosticism allows us to preserve the notion that the soul is good, while the logic of Nihilism allows an escape from the problem altogether.  But adherents to either must face their respective dire conclusions: the Gnostic stands against a hostile world with even his own body against him in the struggle for the spirit.  The Nihilist must stare into the abyss, recognizing the only findable absolute is that of meaninglessness—and is forced to conclude that not even the spirit within him can be deemed Good.

Both, I think fall short—they are neither true to our experience of the world nor of our instinctive sensibilities.  So how do we bridge the chasm?

I want to offer what may seem like a counter-intuitive answer: I think we’ve treasured too much the good things in the world, and in so doing have sacrificed the most sacrosanct component of ourselves—severing the relationship with God for which we were built.

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, in reflecting on the condition of humanity concluded that we were each made with a “God shaped hole” in our hearts.  Idolatry is the biblical term for trying to fill that whole with something other than God, anything other than God.   And we have a lot to choose from—God has given us so many great things to enjoy!   But nothing else will fill that hole.

And since we were built in a way that our relationships to one another and to the physical world were tied intrinsically to a proper relationship to God, all of our lives are thrown out of balance when that vertical relationship is broken.  Multiply that times 6.7 billion people and you have a world that doesn’t perfectly reflect God’s goodness.

This is not good news, but it’s consistent with what we know, isn’t it?  There is much beauty and friendship and sacrificial love in the world.  There are sunsets that move us, landscapes that silence us, mountains that awe us, oceans that mesmerize us—there’s Ireland!  We’ve all known laughter and the hand of friendship.  But we’ve also known tears and loneliness.  We’ve betrayed and been betrayed.  We’ve seen wars and destruction.  We’ve mourned the deaths of loved ones.

Our experiences don’t show us a world that is evil or souls that are always good; and our instincts don’t allow us to cop out with the claim that there’s no such thing as either.  We’re not good souls fighting our evil bodies, we’re one entity of body and soul just as God is!  We’re capable of tremendous good but also of terrible evil.

And the world is full of things for us to enjoy—mountains, beaches, oceans, sunsets, marriage, sex, family, wine, money—they’re all good things from God, not evil things designed to destroy us.  But they will destroy us (and we will also destroy them!) if we worship them instead of the one who made them for us.

The world was not made for death and decay (other thoughts on this here).  It groans to be restored.  And so must we.

part 1 here. part 3 here.

The problem of good in the world (Part 1/3): the image of God

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For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving1 Timothy 4:4

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuseRomans 1:20

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the CreatorRomans 1:25a

In Are all truth’s equal? I touched on the idea that God is a knowable God—and that the world is an expression of God’s character—that there exist both physical laws and spiritual laws that show us who God is, what He is like. It was a point in a broader discussion of whether there are any true Truths—or truths that apply to everyone at all times. Modern thinkers have trended away from the idea of any universal or findable truth of this sort in favor of a more relativistic approach that argues what is right for one person may not be right for another—or what is right at one time may not be right at all times.

It is my contention that there is a true Truth. But rather than a set of doctrines or abstractions, the true Truth is a person—a knowable God who started history, guides the present and controls the future. It is the Judeo/Christian God who created us and who also came into the world as the person of Jesus Christ.

I won’t repeat my case (here) for knowable truth here, but will rather try to expand on the nature of this Truth and pull that together with some threads of our discussion of the significance of the world and our lives (here) to help develop a framework for understanding the nature of the world and our humanity, the devolution of human history leaving broken versions of both and God’s plan for restoration. Let’s look at it in three parts (which I’ll post in serial fashion):

  1. the image of God:  what the character  of God tells us about the nature of human beings and the created world
  2. good that consumes:  the effects of treasuring the good things of this world
  3. the end that has begun:  the already, but not-yet of restoration

Perhaps at the expense of literary suspense, I will start by stating what I hope I can show—that God is a relational God who made us to know Him and gave us a world full of things that point to his love and goodness; but that we have tended to love those good things more than the God to which they point. Yet in spite of our infatuation with the good in place of the Consummate, God promises to restore the Creation to its intended state; and that process has already begun.

Nature of God and what it tells us about who we are

Consider the account of creation presented in Genesis 1-2 (portions omitted):

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

So God created man in His image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

Then God said “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth, and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it. I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis 1:26-31a).

Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the East, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. (Genesis 2:8-9a).

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 1:15).

“The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

… So the Lord caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

The man said, “This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.”

For this reason the man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18,20b-24)

The Christian teaching of the Trinity or Triune God—a God that exists as three persons but is One God—has always evaded me. Catch the ‘us’ in “Let us make man in our image”. The best I have heard it explained is that the Father, Son (Jesus) and Holy Spirit are like water which can be found in three states (liquid, gas and solid) but is still a single entity (it should be said that God more impressively takes the three forms simultaneously!). This was a largely esoteric discussion for me, until I heard someone suggest what it tells us about God—that God’s very nature is relational. It means that the God who was here to put the stars in place did so as team—(probably high fiving all along the way!).

The implication of a God, not just outwardly relational, but also inwardly relational reveals to us His motivation for creating us—which in turn tells us a tremendous amount about who we are. Let me try to show you what I mean.

My younger brother was married to a wonderful woman several years ago and they recently had their first baby (bear with me here). It was a joy to participate in the ceremony with them as it was to watch them fall in love with one another and nurture that relationship over the years that preceded the wedding. These two are tight. They (obviously) live together and they work together (for the second consecutive job). I can remember watching my brother dictate a school paper as his (then) girlfriend typed away for him on the computer—now that’s teamwork! So it was no surprise that shortly after making vows to spend the rest of their lives together—the two becoming one flesh—that they began thinking about having a child, a child that would share their name and their love.

The idea is that as a man and a woman come together in this way, a circle of two is built that is nurturing and unified—a home. And that unity tends to become something larger, something that compels itself to be shared.

In a much larger (albeit harder to understand) way, I humbly suggest it was much the same with God. We know from God’s Goodness that the relationships within the Trinity aren’t just tight; they’re perfect—perfect love, perfect harmony—a perfect home. Ah, but no one yet to live in it!

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image…”

God’s decision to create people was not a science experiment, as some have suggested (watch the very end of Men in Black). It wasn’t that He got so bored that he decided he needed pet people. He didn’t create us to fill a need in His life, but rather to fill us with His life that was overflowing—to share the love and community he already had.

God was so enraptured with the relational love within Him that He wanted to grow it by sharing it—and He created us to be the recipients of that love. He invited us into that relationship; the Home for which we were built (will discuss the idea of our perfect home in a future post).

It’s important to note that God, being somewhat clever, in addition to consummately loving, first took the time to conceive of and build a universe and a world for us. And after creating Adam and Eve and giving them names, he gave them roles of significance, putting them in the garden and asking them to cultivate it.

God is loving and relational—He poured out his love on us as He made us and invited us into community with Him. Genesis tells us that He created us in His image, so understanding God’s nature should tell us something meaningful about our own. Douglas Moo, discussing what it means to be created in God’s image concludes that it tells us three main things (plus an extension of the third), each relational: how we are meant to relate to God, how we are meant to relate to one another and how we are meant to relate to the physical world (Nature in the New Creation, Wheaton College). Let’s explore each of these briefly as they offer considerable insight as to who we are:

1.  We were designed for relationship with God (vertical relationship). We will see a bit later in the text, God looking for Adam in the Garden, calling out to him: “Where are you?”

This is probably the most obvious deduction from the discussion so far so I won’t belabor the point, but God created us to invite us into a relationship with Him, to share in the unity of the Trinity—to find our ultimate home in Him. He is a historical and knowable God who wants us to know Him!

2.  We were designed for relationships with one another (horizontal relationships). It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.

God did not take up His permanent dwelling with Adam on earth, but rather created Eve. Just as God is inviting us into his circle, so he built in us a desire to share that love with others. When we are experiencing the love God wants to pour into us through the vertical relationship, it is inevitable that we will then move out and share it in horizontal relationships.

3.  Things in the world are good. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good/For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving/For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

If God created us out of love and built a world for us in which to live, then it only makes sense that the things in the world are good—all of them.  Creation itself bears the mark of God.  Just as the spiritual realm is an expression of His nature (discussed here) so too is the physical world (have you never seen a sunset or a landscape so beautiful that you knew for a split second God had created it?).  Understood correctly, all of creation points us to the Creator.

3b. Culture is inherently good. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

God planted the garden, but asked Adam to cultivate and shape it. That’s what culture is—it’s the cultivation of the raw materials of this earth and God allows us to, wants us to, even commands us to participate in that process! Culture was God’s idea and we should regard it highly, even when it’s not one with which we feel a particular connection.

With an understanding of ourselves as those made in the image of a loving God, and of a good creation designed for us and pointing us to Him, we may wonder why we experience so much pain.  In fact, many have concluded that what I have written here cannot be true because of all the pain or evil in the world.  As the argument goes: God may be loving, but not all-powerful; or God may be all-powerful, but not loving—but he cannot be both.  For if He were both, there would be no pain or evil in the world. While I cannot satisfy the question of God’s permission of evil in the world, I’d like to address the part we play.  Evil is a difficult question, but I think it’s the good that kills us.

part 2 here. part 3 here.