Defeat of Evil

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.3)

The Death of Evil and the Birth of New Life

If the incarnation and identifying death of Christ were all we could say about God’s response to evil, one may wonder if he had responded to it at all. I mean, it’s one thing to suffer alongside the bereaved, as God did on the cross; quite another to actually do something about the source of that, and every other, form of suffering. But that is what the cross is: God’s ultimate “no” to evil’s reign, and in this third and final post, I shall outline the significance of the cross (and its sequel). By allowing sin to apparently crush him, Jesus not only experienced the horrors of a sinful world; nor did he simply do this as a way of demonstrating his radical identification with humanity and its plight. Rather, on the cross, God in Christ defeated evil. Through the very act of going to Calvary and dying at the hands of evil men, Jesus won a paradoxical victory over the malevolent forces that had captured God’s good world and warped his image-bearers.

Several passages help throw light on this mystery. Take Paul’s words in Romans 8:3, which we have already touched upon. Christ came in the likeness of sinful humanity, precisely to take upon himself the unimaginable burdens of sin and its companion, death. Incarnation leads inexorably to Atonement, where God’s representative freed the world from evil’s grip. And he did this via two, complementary, ways. First, he allowed himself to be the bearer of sin; here, the full significance of Paul’s words in Rom. 8:3 emerges. I said before that sin was drawn to this one point – Jesus’ body – whereby God condemned it for good. Sin was defeated, even as Jesus apparently was, and its rule brought to an end. The representative man stood in place of humanity in order that we would not have to bear the brunt of God’s just condemnation of sin. Second, Jesus eschewed the use of violence to win a victory over the various powers arrayed against him. Instead, he submitted himself to evil and its manifestations, giving us a remarkable picture of “evil doing its worst and being exhausted” (N.T. Wright). Evil had nowhere else to go, for its terrible cycle had been broken and its legitimacy stripped. Nowhere is this better expressed than in one of Paul’s latter letters, where he writes that the crucified Jesus “…disarmed the powers and authorities…ma(king) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). It was precisely through Jesus’ apparent defeat and humiliation that through him, God passed sentence on the powers that oppressed his image-bearers and his creation, and condemned for good that to which those same image-bearers had given themselves.

And so, we come back to Isaiah 53 to find confirmation of much of what has been said. The verses from Isaiah, which I quoted in my previous post, indicate that Jesus, the longed-for servant of the Isaianic prophecies, went beyond mere identification with the suffering and bereaved. Elsewhere in Isaiah 53, we read this:

“But he was pierced for our

transgressions,

  he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace

            was upon him… (Isaiah 53:5).

Jesus actually took the sin of others upon his own shoulders in order to deal with it. And deal with it he did, as he underwent the pain and the consequences of sin – abandonment, divine disfavor, death – in order that those made in God’s image might be set free from its pernicious effects (see, too, Mark 10:45, which consciously alludes to Isaiah). Many have gone through life suffering at the hands of a pervasive evil – victims of oppression and unrighteous men. But all of us, in our own way, have been caught in the maelstrom of chaos. The sin of which Paul spoke of in Romans 1 is something in which we have all participated, and from which we all need redemption. On the cross (in tandem with the resurrection), we see God’s upside-down solution to the question of its existence and our desperate need.

Indeed, the crucifixion of Jesus stands as the paradoxical liberation of those who have been crushed and enslaved by the encroaching chaos (whether their own or that of others). The seminal event in the Old Testament is the Exodus, where God led his peopleIsraelout of slavery and into freedom. Well, the New Testament speaks of the positive results of Christ’s crucifixion in those terms. John 1:14, for example, looking back at Jesus’ life from the vantage-point of a post-resurrection world, remarks that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us”, with the assumption that this indwelling would somehow lead to the defeat of evil. Here, the evangelist deliberately uses language that evokes images of God dwelling in the midst of his people after their flight fromEgypt, all in an effort to describe the incarnation of Christ. The radical identification of God with humanity thus dovetails with the “exodus” from sin and evil that has been accomplished through Christ walking the road toCalvaryduring Passover – the time when his kin celebrated their own flight from oppression. Humanity has been facing a deeper kind of slavery than any mere earthly form of bondage, and we witness it everyday. The cross was one half of God’s double-sided plan to finally, decisively, put a stop to sin and release the captives.

Of course, none of what I have claimed for the cross would be the case if it weren’t for its sequel, the resurrection. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are indissolubly linked, and without the latter, the former would have been the failure of yet another would-be Messiah (of which there were many at the time). I said before that God, through Christ, held the powers up to contempt and triumphed over them (Col. 2:15). This is true and indeed happened at the point at which Christ himself was held up and crucified. But that act would have been incomplete – nay, meaningless – without the resurrection. God’s victory over evil and sin through the work of Christ needed the promise, and the reality, of new life, if a new world free from these forces could come into being. Let us return to Romans 8 for a moment. We saw that Paul began by talking about God himself doing what humanity could not – hatching an escape from the clutches of sin. Those who were formerly slaves are now free because of what the Creator-Redeemer has done through Jesus. But, more than that, Paul speaks of the wider, creational transformation that will take place as a result of the epochal work of God (8:19-22). This is the promise of the resurrection: that those made in God’s image should not be gripped any more by the manifold examples of evil in this world. He has dealt with it decisively on the cross, allowing it to do its worst, before condemning it in the person of Jesus. The worst possible manifestation of sin is death, the complete negation of life and creation. Thus, the resurrection stands as the permanent sign that sin and death have been truly defeated. Jesus’ resurrection was a vindication of his sacrifice at Calvary in addition to being the first step in God’s new world: a world beyond pain, chaos, suffering, misery, angst, hatred, evil. A world beyond sin.

We should not forget that, in the midst of the efforts of God to redeem his world, those made in his image stand at the centre of this project. It is no different with the resurrection, for it is humanity that will be the beneficiaries of what God, through Christ, accomplished at Easter. Once more, I shall turn to Paul, and his letter to the Corinthians. He speaks about death’s end, of sin’s final condemnation – of the ultimate defeat of evil (1 Corinthians 15) – which hinges upon the reality of the resurrection, the birth of new creation. In assuring his audience of the resurrection and their own participation in everything that it stands for, Paul writes, “…Death has been swallowed up in victory” (15:55). Those who share in this resurrection will gain new, imperishable life, untouched by the corruption of the present world. This is the ultimate Christian hope, and the grounding for our belief that evil will be vanquished. As Paul writes, we who are “in Christ” will participate in new creation, given that he has taken upon himself the evil and the sin in this world (2 Corinthians 5:17, 21). A divine exchange, if you like, has occurred, by which those God has created have the chance to be free from evil – this world’s and their own – finally and permanently.

*          *          *

So, we reach the conclusion (almost): God has spoken against evil’s reign, and decisively so. He has borne the brunt of evil in himself, through the incarnational work of Jesus, identifying radically with those who have suffered and continue to suffer. But through that work, he has also condemned evil through the apparently bizarre act of submitting to it. However, as we have seen, it was via that sacrifice that God exposed and condemned sin in sinful man, liberating victims, bringing his wrath to bear upon evil, and doing so graciously yet justly. Finally, he has given us a concrete sign that evil will see its end. The empty tomb means that sin and death no longer have mastery over God’s world. Of course, we can ask why that new world has not yet arrived. That would require another piece entirely. Nevertheless, the resurrection functions simultaneously as the provisional fulfillment of a plan God began with the calling of Abraham and a glimpse of new, uncorrupted life – the firstfruits of a redeemed creation. This is what people can hold onto when the world seems to be crashing down around them – that the God who has himself suffered, and who has defeated evil, will bring about the promised new world for which so many long.

The End?

I would be remiss if I did not tell the whole story. I may have given the impression that all will be saved, and that all will leave behind this world, with all its points of suffering, and participate in a new world that is free from the attendant consequences of evil. But I would not be true to the witness of Scripture, and the reality of sin. By no means is one’s entry into this resurrection life a joyous fait accompli. One must accept it and receive it. Moreover, one must ground oneself in the work of another – Jesus Christ. Yes, we have all been victims of sin and evil throughout our lives; some more so than others. But, as I said earlier in this piece, we have all participated in that corruption in various ways. God has not only called us out of this place, he has made a way for us to be rescued – not just from our own pains and hurts and misery, but from the very presence of sin itself. The embrace of Christ as the One who stood as our representative; redemption from the decaying consequences of sin; and reconciliation with God in a creation restored and renewed – these are of a piece. But the question is: will we respond?

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On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.1)

Over the past few months, I have engaged with the issue of evil and suffering from various angles. The job of doing so appears to be quite pressing at the moment, given what we have seen occur around the world. I began this series shortly after the devastating floods inQueensland. But the destruction they wrought has been dwarfed by the unimaginable numbers of dead and missing (not to mention the tens of thousands of homes destroyed) by the recent earthquake and tsunami off the coast ofJapan. And all the while, people in other parts of the world continue to endure violence and bloody suppression at the hands of unjust dictators, whether inLibya or Syria. To remain unaffected by these events probably means that one has not truly understood their magnitude, nor the suffering involved.

In previous posts, I attempted to grapple with the different interpretations of evil and suffering in the world, pointing out the deficiencies of an atheistic perspective whilst also trying to provide some rationale for belief in God amidst hardship and tragedy. However, those posts were written at the level of general philosophical engagement and speculation, and whilst they may have been successful in their respective aims (people perusing this blog will have to judge their success!), they were abstract renditions of the problem. Further, whilst they may have created space for belief in God, they in no way automatically validated the Christian faith. In these posts, I hope to provide a fully Christian account of evil and suffering, in addition to giving some insight into God’s response. I mean, it’s one thing to claim that the so-called “free will argument” (for example) makes the existence of God and the presence of evil theoretically consistent; quite another to claim the truth of the Christian faith and to tell the story of what God is actually doing about evil and suffering in the midst of a messy and chaotic world. I trust, however, that readers will have gained some insight into these issues by the time you finish these articles.

No account of evil and suffering that claims to be truly Christian can be so without a robust account of sin. These days, it seems that sin is a “four-letter word” (despite only having three). People – even some Christians – are reluctant to speak about it, and our increasing theological illiteracy (among other things) has made the concept opaque and offensive. But although unpopular, sin is a much-needed antidote to the rather shallow and trivial accounts of human wrongdoing that sometimes abound. Far from being an easily malleable species, whose perfectibility is simply a matter of the right environment, humanity has proven itself to be in dire spiritual and moral need. I am not arguing that human beings are incapable of goodness and of right moral action; the contrary is demonstrably the case. But what is clear – at least from the vantage point of Christian theology – is that humanity’s nature is deeply corrupt. Against the progressivist, who might argue that all people need is a good dose of post-Enlightenment thinking to see them on their merry way towards the summit of human existence, it is apparent that there is something intrinsically warped about humanity, which no amount of education or moral reasoning can completely ameliorate. That warped nature is ultimately the result of humanity’s ruptured relationship with God; a rejection of the One who has created this world and in whose image we have been made; and a repudiation of the source of goodness and truth. I said in my previous post on this topic that humanity has been endowed with free will, and that much of the evil and immorality that we witness is a consequence of free will’s abuse. That is indeed true, but a Christian interpretation goes further, making the claim that even free will has been strangled by human sin, such that God’s image-bearing creatures, who were made to reflect the goodness of their Creator, are now unable to escape the distorting effects of primal disobedience. Each of us has, to varying degrees (though I would not like to speculate on that point further), been “infected” by this spiritual, moral and ontological chaos, with the consequence that all are separated from God, and are confirmed in that separation through actions that render us both victims and perpetrators of seemingly irrevocable evil.

Paul speaks at some length regarding this existential predicament in his letter to the Romans. There, with broad brush strokes, the Apostle highlights the dire state of man (Rom. 1:18-32). Using the creation narratives in Genesis as a backdrop, he argues for the present state of humanity being both a recapitulation and reflection of the first man’s willful separation from his Creator. What is more, Paul makes the very startling claim that not only humanity, but all creation, is in a state of chaos, and that the latter’s “slavery” is bound up with the former’s rebellion (Rom. 8:19-22). God created this world as his good world; he launched his project of creation by bringing it forth from the chaos (Gen. 1:1-2, where water symbolizes chaos, a common motif in Jewish cosmology), and by giving humanity the task of stewardship – exercising his wise order over the earth he had made. But, humanity failed in that task, and rather than being an unambiguously good and fruitful place, creation became marked by the encroaching chaos – darkly signified by death, the ultimate manifestation of humanity’s separation from the Author of Life. Man has bowed to sin’s monstrous performance on history’s stage, and the litany of sins Paul reels off at the end of Chapter 1 points to his (man’s) estrangement from God as well as his willing embrace of evil. What we witness now, with horror and with tears, flows from that distorted inclination within man.

This, at least, is a compact Christian rendition of humanity’s – and hence, the world’s – predicament. Even here, in the prosperous calm of the west, we are not immune to the more banal expressions of evil. Thus, the question arises once more: what is God doing about evil in the world? Some might think that God is unmoved by the brokenness and the suffering that abounds; I mean, it does appear that he has simply left the world to its own devices, and is eerily quiet when disaster strikes. But no. God has provided the solution to the problem of evil – not by “solving” it philosophically, as if it were a puzzle; and not by vanquishing it through an awesome display of destructive, worldly power (though he has vanquished it, and has done so through power). Instead, he has defeated evil in the most surprising fashion. Evil – at least in principle – has seen the curtain come down on its presence, though not in the way one might expect.

Of course, I am referring to the ministry of Jesus, climaxing with Calvaryand the empty tomb. His advent was the culmination of a redemptive project that God began with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). Through Abraham’s descendents, Israel, God set about reclaiming his world. But Israel, too, proved to be infected with the same sin that had corrupted the rest of humanity; God’s chosen instruments of rescue needed rescuing themselves. So he did the unthinkable – he involved himself, radically and intimately, in the fate of his people, and thus, the fate of the world. The transcendent Creator achieved the apparently impossible feat of becoming part of his creation. And as redeemer, he made a way through sin and death and evil and injustice by allowing himself to be momentarily crushed by these forces, even as he nullified their power through the events of Easter. And so it is here that the cross and the resurrection take their rightful place together at the heart of Christianity’s answer to the problem of evil and God. So much could be said about this epochal event (and they must be taken together as one event), but here I want to concentrate on just a few passages that shed light on the nature of the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and through them, weave together a theological tapestry that presents the full sweep of God’s climactic response to evil’s malevolent cry. Many of us have asked God what he is doing about it all. Through Jesus Christ, he has answered. That answer, however, will have to wait for my next post.