Tag Archives: Death

The problem of good in the world (Part 3/3): the end that has begun

“The great Spanish poet, novelist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, once asked a farmer if he believed it was possible there is a God but no afterlife.  The rustic responded ‘Then wherefore God?’” (The New Criterion, Martin Garner, Nov 2008).

He came into our neighborhood—John 1:11 (Dale Bruner)

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field”—Matthew 13:44

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—Matthew 27:46

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay—Matthew 28:6

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In part 1 (here) of this series we discussed the essence of God and what it tells us about the Creation—both humanity and the natural world.  We deduced from God’s inwardly loving nature that He created us for relationship with Him—and that with a proper understanding of our relationship with God, we can move out into relationships with one another.  Because we understand God to be a loving God, we also deduced that the natural world is inherently good—and also full of good things for our enjoyment.

But in part 2 (here) we acknowledged life doesn’t always feel so good.  We feel isolated from God, suffer on earth and are left to wonder what it all means and why God would allow such pain and loneliness.  We began to consider whether we have displaced God in our lives with the pursuit of other things—all good things, but none the right shape to fill our hearts—and in so doing have severed the relationship with God for which we were built.  The problem of good in the world being that it has lured our eye from the Creator to created things.

Garner’s farmer was right in a sense, but perhaps didn’t have enough time to fully think through his answer.  Yes, if this temporal life—with so much suffering and so many broken relationships—is all there is, we are left to wonder why God bothered; wherefore God (indeed!)?  On the other hand, if there is an afterlife—that is presumably more of what God had in mind—wherefore this life?  The latter is an earth-as-purgatory approach that suggests this was the best God could do for now—but that He’s engineering something better for us later. This is a notion we dismissed here, so we’re left to consider the farmer’s question.

Wherefore, God?

There are a lot of ways one can answer this question, though we’ve dismissed a whole set of them in concluding that God is loving (part 1) and that the law is an expression of His character (here) rather than being arbitrary or dictatorial.  Much of what’s left in popular thought can be grouped into two categories that might be expressed something like:

  1. God is a means to a happy life here (or)
  2. God is the means to an afterlife

If we look closely, I think we see they’re the same thing with different objectives: God as an assistant to help us get what we want—loving and benign, but with goodies in his bag for us if we can get His attention; earning them or otherwise.  But God as a means to anything suggests that something is more important to us than God.  It’s using God to get what we treasure—not treasuring God as an end in Himself.

He came into our neighborhood

There was another man, another rustic, who had plenty of time to think the whole thing through.  He was a man of little standing like the farmer. Though civilization had awaited his promised arrival for thousands of years, he was not recognized when born amongst animals in a stable.  He was a fugitive from birth, running from those who would have him killed.  He was a wanderer with no home, rejected.  He was upright, lived a life of service calling people back into relationship with God.  He offered comfort to the afflicted, friendship to the lonely and performed restorative acts—giving sight to the blind and healing the sick. He was comfortable in the company of the irreligious; he was ridiculed by the religious. They eventually had him killed.

While on earth, he was an ordinary man in most senses, certainly fully human, but also much more.  This was Jesus, the Nazarene, a baby born of a woman, yet conceived by the Holy Spirit.  He was the promised Messiah to the Jews—the One who was prophesied to come and bring them out of exile.  Yes, He was much more than human; He was Deity who had come into to our neighborhood—Jesus Christ, part of the Triune God.

The brokenness and separation from God that results from our idolatry is not easily reversed.  We have been expelled from the Garden, as Adam and Eve were when they chose the apple over God.  Israel never made it back into the Garden, but rather spent much of its history in exile.  Like the ancients, we are on the outside trying to get back in.  We have lost the privilege of being in God’s presence.

So He came to recover His treasure

In the end, He was brought up on false charges but didn’t defend Himself.  He was stripped, mocked and beaten;  forsaken by His friends.  He was hanged on a wooden cross between two common criminals to die of asphyxiation, when he could longer get a breath by hoisting himself up by his nailed wrists and feet.

It was in this—the greatest of all defeats— that he prevailed (see also upside-down, inside-out.  It was on this day that everything changed forever.

JC was taken outside of the city, so that we could come in.  He was forsaken by God, so that we could be reunited with Him. He gave up his standing and record so that it could be credited to us.  He wandered so we could be invited home.  He was a nobody, so that we could become somebodies.  He was annihilated, so that we could be restored.

It was through Jesus’ sacrificial death that the depth of God’s love was made known; the means of exalting God to the proper place in our hearts was made simple; and the restoration of the creation was begun.

He loved us enough to give everything to have us back.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field

Though we treasured Him not, He treasured us all the more! By Jesus’ death, we see that we are God’s treasure—the thing He was willing to give everything to get.

Only by understanding this can we restore Him to the proper place in our hearts—above all the good things of this world.   Only when we reflect on the way He loves us can we begin to love Him as we should.  Only when we see the beauty of the cross can we joyfully give everything we have to be near Him again.  Only when we see that we are God’s treasure can he become ours.  The we will cherish Him to no other end except to see His face.

The end that has begun

But Jesus didn’t just die; He rose again—signaling an ultimate end to death and decay.

He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.

In Him, we not only find a God who understands what it’s like to suffer (beyond that which we will ever suffer!), but also the promise of an ending that has already begun.  We find in Him not only understanding as we struggle in a world that is not yet perfected, but also the assuredness that the restoration has begun!  So we can mourn our present hardships and the world’s suffering with hope.  We can groan with Creation itself for the day when all sad things will come untrue.

It’s consistent with that for which our hearts hope, but also with what we see playing out in the world .   It’s the highest view of life and creation.

What Garner’s farmer didn’t understand is that this life and the next are part and parcel—that God’s love and presence are available in both. Yes, we are eternal souls in a world full of suffering, but we’re also children of God in a world full of His goodness.  The world is not against us, but is rather subjected to the same condition to which we are.  But the victory has already been won—death and decay are conquered.  We groan together with creation as we wait in hope for the end that has begun, but is not yet fully realized.

part 1 here.  part 2 here.

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.

Today, circa 33 A.D.

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.  About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn intwo from top to bottom.  The earth shook and the rocks split.  The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely, he was the Son of God.”

Matthew: 27:45-46, 51-52, 54