Christian Reflections on the Coronavirus: A Rebuke to Modern Illusions


Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.

Shattering human illusions

One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.

Enslaving nature

Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.

The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.

Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.

It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.

Trying to break out of nature’s orbit

To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.

Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.

Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.

All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.

Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.

The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?

This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.

In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.

Seeking guidance from a more ancient source

The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?

The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.

The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.

The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.

Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.

Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).

In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).

The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.

Concluding thoughts

Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.

Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.

Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.

Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.

Rugby Stars, Religious Schools, and the Charge of Hypocrisy

I wasn’t going to write about the Israel Folau saga: given that oceans of ink have already been spilled on the topic, I wondered what else I might be able to contribute. Surely everything that could be said has been said?

Well, not quite. There are some commentators who think that criticising Rugby Australia’s decision to sack Folau bars a person from also supporting a faith-based school’s right to employ staff on the basis of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof). For Peter Van Onselen, this is an egregious case of religiously-tinged hypocrisy. For David Marr, holding both views simultaneously not only manifests cognitive dissonance; it also reveals the inherent arrogance of conservative religion. So far as I can tell, no one has tried to rebut these assertions.


To be sure, the alleged equation between Israel Folau’s firing and the hiring policies of religious schools – issues that have intensified the confused debate concerning religious liberty in Australia – is superficially compelling. RA’s CEO, Raelene Castle, insisted recently that the sporting body was well within its rights to sack Folau, since he had violated some of its key values. She implied that by posting his now-infamous tweet, the former rugby star had fallen afoul of RA’s commitment to “inclusion”. Castle also added that it was “important” the code “defend [its] values”, which presumably meant firing one of the Wallabies’ most important players.

In what appears to be a similar principle at work, the leaders of religious schools and their supporters argue that a faith-based institution ought to be able to employ and dismiss staff according to its grounding principles. To condemn the former whilst applauding the latter might indeed seem duplicitous – a form of religious privilege masquerading as high ideals, which critics like Marr regularly flay.

To reach such a conclusion, however, would be hasty. For whatever similarities hold between the two cases, they are outweighed by key differences. Though not as apparent, those differences are far more consequential.


There are several crucial issues concerning the two cases in question: differences in the respective values at play, the nature of the institutions articulating those values, and the subsequent demands placed upon employees. The principles inhering within a faith-based school are essential to its institutional identity – marking it out as a distinct religio-educational entity, and leading naturally to an understanding of staff duties that includes adherence to those principles. As I shall suggest below, the absence of any real parallel in a sporting body like RA means that cries of hypocrisy simply do not apply. This requires a degree of stage-setting, so bear with me.

Consider the relationship between a religious school and one of its teachers. In addition to undertaking discipline-specific responsibilities (teaching maths, for example), the employee is in most cases expected to uphold that institution’s foundational values. As I have written before, the raison d’etre of a faith-based school is the transmission of those values to students. Not only are students educated in the various subjects one commonly associates with school; they are also enjoined to engage in a broader process of intellectual, moral, and spiritual formation, set within the religious matrix that informs the school’s ethos. This is part of the institution’s core aim of propagating a particular vision of reality. Staff members are not only expected to conform to that vision; where appropriate, they are to reinforce it (gracefully and winsomely, of course) with students. Such expectations are neither arbitrary nor tangential. Rather, they naturally flow from, and are rooted in, the school’s overriding mission and identity.

None of this is unique to faith-based schools: all bodies predicated upon the articulation of a certain set of beliefs – philosophical, political, or religious – require members to reflect and promote that institutional identity. This is grounded in the recognition that such beliefs are constitutive of the body’s distinctiveness – something without which it would simply fail to exist as it is. To borrow an example from a previous post, it would be quite odd if the Australian Greens remained sanguine about an employee who thought that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax, and was unflagging in his support for fossil fuels. This is for the obvious reason that the Greens’ entire purpose is constituted by a “deep-green” environmentalist philosophy at odds with so-called climate “denialism”. Indeed, to retain such an individual would be self-defeating in the context of the Greens’ overall aims. We can therefore say that there exists a rational connection between the values of an institution of this kind, and the subsequent demands made upon individual employees.


For orthodox Christian schools, staff requirements are likely to include adherence to a conservative view of sex and sexuality. It’s important to elaborate this point, for proscriptions against certain types of sexual conduct aren’t simply a set of arbitrary rules, which can be discarded at will. They are integral to the wider body of Christian beliefs – beliefs which claim to say something crucial about reality – and cannot be easily amputated.

According to most Christians (including most Christian educators), beliefs concerning sexual and gender expression are rooted in what orthodox believers take to be the authoritative word of Scripture, behind which stands an understanding of God’s designs for the flourishing of his creation. Indeed, there is good reason to think that woven into the fabric of biblical revelation is an understanding of sexual relations as grounded in gendered/biological complementarity. Sexual distinctiveness is central to the originating vision for human beings, as set forth at the very beginning of the Bible’s master narrative (Gen 1:27-28; 2:20b-25). That harmony-in-difference is consistent with the integration of created polarities – land and sea, night and day (Gen 1:1-25) – while its most obvious sequel, procreation, reflects the native creativity of the God in whose image humans are made.

The NT clearly reinforces this vision. Jesus cited the creation mandate in a debate with some Pharisees over the legitimacy of divorce (Matt 19:5; cf. Gen 2:24). For him, marriage is a one-flesh union between male and female specifically, which should be sundered only under the most extreme conditions. To defer to the authority of such a passage is to implicitly affirm what it says about the gendered nature of sexual congress. Finally, we shouldn’t forget that Paul selected same-sex erotic relationships to illustrate humanity’s debasement in Romans 1 (vv.26-27). This wasn’t because sexual intimacy between, say, two men was seen as more egregious than other types of wrongdoing. Rather, homosexual conduct provided for the apostle a clear and ready manifestation of the thoroughgoing corruption of human beings, and the universal misdirection of their divinely-ordained telos. Behind his denunciation lay the belief that same-sex eroticism signalled humanity’s collective failure to live within the sacred structures of reality, as portrayed in (amongst other places) Genesis 1-2.

All this is to say that how one expresses oneself sexually is hardly peripheral within the ambit of classical Christianity. Given the cosmic implications involved – i.e., the boundaries of the created moral order, and its role in framing human behaviour – these convictions are of central importance. Indeed, they are indelibly tied to the nature of scriptural revelation and its purchase on theological, ontological, and ethical truth. As the Roman historian, Kyle Harper, has observed:

“Sexual morality [for early, as for most modern, Christians] was woven inseparably into their whole effort to live rightly in the world. Sex, by its essence, is entangled in the most fundamental questions about the nature of the self and its relation to God”.

Upholding certain standards of sexual conduct reflects their significance as key constituents of the very worldview animating an orthodox religious school. Likewise the obligation that every staff member observes such standards, stemming as it does from the school’s overriding mission.

Let me summarise what I have been arguing for thus far. Conservative Christian schools (or Jewish, or Muslim) can be said to be characterised by two defining features: the inherent requirements pertaining to staff responsibilities, enjoining them to embody and articulate a certain set of religio-ethical values (including those pertaining to sexuality); and behind this, the constitutive nature of the values they espouse.


Contrast this with RA and its stated commitment to a culture of “inclusion”. Whatever one says about the concept, it is implausible to claim that: a) “inclusion” is a constitutive part of RA’s mission or identity; and b) that there exists a clear, rational relationship between a rugby player’s role and conformity to that particular value. RA was established for the express purpose of administering the game of rugby union in Australia. As a body charged with governing a professional sporting code, RA’s founding had little to do with the promotion of a certain set of ethical values. Excise all reference to “inclusion” from RA’s communications and official statements, and its fundamental aims remain largely unaffected. Moreover, the concept itself is one of near-limitless elasticity, the meaning of which is deeply unstable; trying to divine the function of so vague an idea within the institutional architecture of RA is fraught with difficulty. It simply isn’t an inherent component of a sport’s core business in the way that certain views of (e.g.) sexual conduct are for the identity and purpose of orthodox religious schools. At best, “inclusion” is a non-essential (though non-conflicting) adjunct to an institution created long before the concept’s emergence within late-modern culture.

Similarly, while the specific purpose of a faith-based school rationally grounds an employee’s obligation to act as a conduit for her employer’s tradition, the requirements of an Australian rugby union player like Israel Folau are largely limited to competent execution of his on-field responsibilities – not deference to an ill-defined concept only tangentially related to his normal professional duties. While he may have been required to refrain from behaviour deemed manifestly disreputable (e.g., criminal acts), his chief role was to play his chosen sport to as high a standard as possible. Folau’s function within the enterprise of Australian rugby union was therefore qualitatively different from that played by an educator in, say, a Christian high school – precisely because the two institutions are qualitatively different in nature, constitution, and goals.


The upshot of all this is that glib denunciations, such as those slung by the likes of David Marr and Peter Van Onselen, simply ignore the crucial distinctions I have tried to outline. The charge of hypocrisy – whatever its rhetorical power – is of no substantive use, being little more than a category error. What I have raised here means that one can, without a whit of hypocrisy or privilege, hold simultaneously the views in question. If critics weren’t so willing to allow their anti-conservative animus to trump logical acumen, they’d be able to recognize this.

Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Three

The last time I examined the issue of same-sex marriage, it was by way of a response to the (predictable) views of a Fairfax journalist. However, it is one thing to hear from commentators on this issue; quite another to listen to those directly embroiled in the matter. Perhaps they have a unique insight that mere pundits lack. Roger Munson, a Uniting Church minister who conducted a wedding ceremony between two men during the ACT’s brief interregnum on SSM, is one such individual. Here he is in his own words, explaining his reasons for supporting such a momentous shift:

“Jesus never said anything against people who are homosexual…Jesus always welcomed people, had compassion and never judged people…These people should be allowed to marry because they want to express their love for each other through a public right as anyone else does.”

Leave aside the fact that Jesus’ personal opinion of homosexual individuals hardly settles the public policy debate regarding the nature of marriage; Mr Munson’s views are nevertheless likely to appeal to those of a more liberal persuasion (by the by, it’s interesting that one Christian can be feted for holding views that the Left has already embraced, whilst another Christian can be howled down and accused of illegitimately trying to inject religion into a public debate if he so much as breathes a conservative sentiment). I have already talked about the possible pitfalls of trying to ground marriage in the subjective and transient (if intense) emotions that exist between two people, so I won’t cover old ground. Suffice it to say, it seems that Mr Munson assumes precisely this: people who wish to marry should be able to “…because they want to express their love for each other.” Note the consequential word, “because”: marriage should in effect be afforded to those who declare their love for each other, based precisely on this quality. According to Mr Munson (if his stated view is any indication), the only thing required for a marriage to be codified is the presence of such feelings. On its face, this view is compelling, generous, open and seductive. It reflects the mores and norms of a permissive, liberal age, and is likely to be celebrated with increasing enthusiasm. There’s just one, small problem: it’s wrong. And it’s wrong on several counts, not least of which is Mr Munson’s analysis and application of Jesus’ alleged views. It is upon this particular dimension of Mr Munson’s argument that I wish to focus.

Now, Mr Munson is absolutely correct that Jesus never said anything explicitly about homosexuality – or at least it’s true that the evangelists never mention Jesus saying anything about it. We simply have no record of Jesus’ utterances on the matter. But that’s the first problem; suggesting that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality as a way of legitimising SSM is an argument from silence. Arguments from silence, I should point out, are notoriously feeble. Because the gospels – the only records we have of Jesus’ putative teachings – are so brief, we simply have no way of knowing whether Jesus did have anything to say about the matter. So basing one’s support for homosexual relationships upon the apparent silence of the founder of Christianity is fraught with difficulty. The most we could say is that if Jesus said anything bearing upon homosexuality specifically, the evangelists – for reasons known only to themselves – decided to omit it from their writings. Moreover, I am sure many people can think of other instances of (purported) moral impropriety – behaviour that might well attract near-universal criticism – about which Jesus was absolutely silent. A few examples come to mind; whilst attracting widespread opprobrium today, they are things on which we have no (expressed) opinion from Jesus. Ought we tale his silence on those matters as synonymous with approval? My point is that arguments from silence trade in ignorance – in this case, ignorance about what Jesus actually thought when it came to the question of homosexual acts.

But Mr Munson’s citation of Jesus’ (apparent) silence regarding homosexuality runs into another difficulty – namely, that it seems to reflect a fairly simplistic view of theological ethics. Let me explain. To ground (at least in part) the legitimacy of an act in Jesus’ silence on a particular matter is to give credence to the idea that ethical truths – in this case, prohibitions – are to be found only in explicit commands. But this is false, both in terms of ethics generally, and biblical ethics specifically. Surely Mr Munson knows that, when it comes to a biblically-informed ethical worldview, narrative substructure and underlying perspective are just as important as any explicit endorsement or proscription. This is germane, for once one introduces Scripture’s underlying narrative or ethical worldview, things take on a decidedly different complexion (as we shall see). Ironically, Mr Munson’s view seems to represent the worst kind of “reverse” proof-texting – the obverse of the sort of superficial ethical reasoning for which fundamentalist Christians are regularly (and often rightly) castigated. But of course, when such thinking is pressed into service to shore up presently accepted norms and mores, people are willing to overlook its demonstrable woolly-headedness.

* * *

These are just preliminary remarks, of course. But they point to intrinsic weaknesses in Mr Munson’s position. Moreover, and contrary to what Mr Munson seems to think, I believe that it’s possible to suggest – at least with some justification – what Jesus might have thought about the vexed question of homosexuality. I cannot argue that this case is “air-tight”, for the argument from silence can be a double-edged sword: that Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality means that we cannot be certain – at least from the biblical evidence before us – that he condemned it outright. Still, by examining what Jesus did say about sexuality generally, as well as clear-headed reflection upon the religious-ethical matrix within which he and his primary interlocutors operated, I think we can reasonably suggest that Jesus held to what would now be seen as a “conservative” position on matters sexual.

To begin, Jesus’ comments on sexuality do reveal his views fairly clearly – and, by implication, his views on homosexuality. Take, for example, his debate with a contingent of Pharisees on the question of divorce in Matthew 19. His opponents come to him in order to test his devotion to the Law of Moses (v.3). There are interesting contextual roots to this discussion, pertaining to the differing interpretations of the relevant OT material. Two schools of thought, congregating around the rabbis Hillel and Shammai, debated the meaning and scope of passages such as Deuteronomy 24:1. The former was more liberal in his interpretation of the verse, particularly its references to “displeasing” and “indecent”, whilst the latter adopted a more restricted understanding of legitimate grounds for divorce.

Jesus’ reply to his interlocutors, however, seems to bypass this internecine debate entirely. Indeed, he seems to point to the central meaning of the marriage covenant. Over and against this kind of rabbinic minutia, Jesus holds fast to the underlying ideal of marriage, as outlined in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, by stating in vv.4-6 that marriage was always meant to be the lifelong, one-flesh union between a man and a woman. If one were to say that Jesus didn’t explicitly rule out other kinds of couplings, it would appear that, implicitly at least, he did. Note verse 4, where Jesus quotes specifically from Gen 1:27 – humanity was created male and female. NT scholar Craig Blomberg, in commenting on this passage, has said that the Genesis text set the paradigm, by which “heterosexual, monogamous marriage” was established “as the most intimate of interpersonal relationships and as the only relationship in which sexual union was appropriate” (emphasis mine). The creational ideal, it would seem, meant the distinction between male and female – or sexual complementarity, if one wants to use contemporary language – as the underlying basis for the one-flesh union. The Genesis texts, which the Matthean Jesus took to be foundational and authoritative, offer us a picture of marriage marked by two, intrinsic features: sexual distinction; and fleshy union (i.e., sexual intercourse). It encompasses these complimentary dimensions as structural elements of its own reality. To say, then, that this is the ideal (as Jesus seems to have done), is to implicitly screen out other sexual combinations and permutations, whether they occur within, or beyond, the constraints of some kind of formalised commitment. This includes SSM; however much Mr Munson might like to believe that Jesus would have no problem with two men or two women marrying each other (assuming that such an event is ontologically possible in the first place), it seems that the data contained in the gospels present a rather different picture.

Mr Munson, and those who have trod this path before, might want to argue that even if Jesus presented marriage in these terms as the divine ideal, his silence on homosexuality specifically might reflect a lack of interest in the subject. But this represents a failure to take into account the context within which Jesus and his opponents operated, and the influence it likely had on the shape and complexion of the debates that took place. Let’s take Jesus first. His reliance upon the OT’s premier text as a way of cutting through the debate over divorce suggests that, whatever else might be said, he saw the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative. Indeed, Jesus’ reliance upon the Genesis texts to make his case functions as a window through which we may glimpse his embrace of the OT’s normativity – particularly as it pertains, in this case, to sexual relations. Take Matt 5:17-20, for example, where Jesus spoke of his relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, and the implications his coming had for its authority. Certainly, the advent of Christ meant (to some extent) the radical redefinition of the Torah and its place in the life of the people of God. But his words in this passage do not indicate that it was thereby abolished. Quite the contrary, in fact. Jesus declared the ongoing legitimacy of the “Law and the Prophets”, even as he fulfilled them. And this would have included everything pertaining to sexuality generally, and homosexuality in particular. Far from abolishing the law, or diluting its force, Jesus actually intensified it.

As noted, there are debates over what place the OT plays in the life of the church today, and how it is to be applied. Furthermore, Christological fulfilment meant, in some case, the rescinding of certain laws (think food laws). But it cannot be said that Jesus dismissed the authority of the OT as a result of his ministry, or implied that its ethical strictures – including those related to sexual relations – were thereby null and void. The Sermon on the Mount clearly illustrates the point; there, in talking about matters such as murder and adultery, Jesus deepened the righteous requirements to which disciples were beholden (Matt 5:21-30). He certainly contrasted his teachings with those found in the OT. However, he did not present a new, liberalised application of Torah, but rather something that went beyond the outward acts proscribed by the Hebrew Scriptures. The point is that on the evidence, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have held anything less than an orthodox understanding of the authority and interpretation of the OT. This has important implications for his views on sexuality. Even though the evangelists did not record anything Jesus might have said about homosexuality, his general attitude towards the OT suggests that he would not have endorsed it.

As a good Jew, Jesus would not have been unusual in this understanding; many, if not most, of his co-religionists and ethnic kin believed the same. This brings me to the other side of the historical-contextual coin: the beliefs and attitudes of Jesus’ interlocutors (whether hostile or otherwise) towards sexuality and sexual relationships. Far from being a strange omission, Jesus’ apparent silence on the matter of homosexuality is easily comprehensible – perhaps doubly so, when one takes into account his own (likely) attitudes – in light of the social, religious and cultural matrix within which the bulk of his ministry occurred. The main recipients of his mission, it would seem, were fellow Jews. To be sure, Jesus made occasional forays into Gentile territory, and spoke with non-Jews. Moreover, his ministry seemed to provide the guiding resources – and indeed, the theological legitimacy – for later missionary activity within largely Gentile areas. That said, it seems reasonably clear to me that Jesus directed most of his vocational energy towards his fellow Jews – urging them to be the Israel of God they had been called to be, and to turn with penitence towards their true sovereign. From the perspective of the evangelists, first-century Israel had many problems, but acceptance of homosexual practices was not one of them. Similarly, and despite its pluriform character, first-century Judaism was unanimous in its rejection of same-sex acts. If Jesus’ ministry took place largely within this context, it is hardly surprising that he should not mention anything on this topic. Arguing that Jesus’ silence in this regard is morally significant is like claiming that an archbishop’s silence on the question of papal authority amongst a gathering of priests has any bearing on whether the Pope is the acknowledged and infallible head of the Catholic Church. For first-century Jews, the moral propriety of homosexuality was uncontroversial, precisely because of it near-universal rejection. It was simply a given – part of the assumed “plausibility structures” of the Jewish worldview, in other words. As such, if Jesus was silent on the issue, we do not have to wander terribly far to discover why.

* * *

Mr Munson’s views are neither new nor revolutionary. Rather, they simply reflect the dominant cultural and sexual narrative in today’s West. His Christological invocation, besides being simplistic and naïve, is little more than a veneer, masking a position that has been formed on quite different grounds. The “givenness” of sexual differentiation, as reflected in the biblical narrative (and which seems especially clear at key points) has given way to an individualised conception of marital relations – one that is largely based upon the pattern of desires and attractions of the participating individuals (whoever they may be). To be sure, Mr Munson is free to disagree with a biblical theology of marriage and the underlying significance of sexual difference. But one thing he is not free to do (logically speaking, anyway) is to pretend that a view owing much to late-modern Western constructions of sexuality and individual choice is, in fact, deeply and authentically Christian. Apart from anything else, I have tried to show that any such pretensions founder on the rocks of biblical and theological reality.

Murder in the First – a Biblical Analysis

Here is an essay I wrote a number of months ago for an Old Testament class I am taking at theological college. I was quite happy with it, so decided to include it on the blog for the enjoyment of my many readers (I know you’re out there – somewhere!)


A cursory glance at the account of Cain and Abel yields little more than a bizarre and bloodthirsty tale. In reality, the story of history’s first homicide is a deeply integrated part of Genesis, looking retrospectively at Chapters 2-3 and prospectively towards the rest of the book. Through artful use of literary techniques, it offers a window into central themes and motifs[1] that shape the Genesis narrative. This essay will elucidate the ways in which Gen 4:1-16 accomplishes its two-pronged role, unfolding the argument in three stages. First, an exegesis of Gen 4:1-16 will offer a summary of the unifying themes and images which link the passage to its textual environment. Second, using those findings as a springboard, it will consider how the passage both echoes and develops the central points contained within Genesis 2-3. Third, the essay will use Gen 4:1-16 to consider the enduring influence of the aforementioned ideas throughout the book – identifying the story as negative preparation for the further spiral of sinful humanity; and as positive preparation, setting the stage for God’s gracious response.

Cain and Abel – Looking Down

It is first necessary to identify, by way of brief exegesis, the various themes and motifs reflected in Gen 4:1-16. Before looking backwards or forwards, we must look down.

The passage opens with Cain’s birth, accompanied by his mother’s faith-filled exclamation (v.1). [2] Almost in passing, Abel’s birth is also mentioned – which, along with the meaning of his name, foreshadows his abrupt demise (v.2).[3] After briefly detailing the brothers’ respective vocations and relationship with the land, the narrative records the offerings they brought to God. Yahweh accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s (vv.4-5), provoking the elder’s rage. God unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Cain from allowing sin – pictured as a ravenous creature at the door of his heart – to gain a foothold.[4] He is instructed to “master it”, lest there be consequences (vv.6-7). Cain’s failure to do so is immediately narrated: he deceives and kills his brother in an act of premeditated murder (v.8). God interrogates Cain as to Abel’s whereabouts, offering him a chance to confess; instead, he receives only defiance and sarcasm. In the course of a few verses, the word “brother” is used four times, throwing the heinousness of Cain’s fratricide into sharp relief (vv.8-11). It is also at this point that Abel finally speaks: he who was silent now “cries out” from the grave, exposing his brother’s crime.

God renders judgment: he pronounces a curse on Cain, consisting of expulsion from the land and a recalcitrant earth.[5] What was meant to be his source of life and livelihood has become a source of restlessness and futility (v.12).[6] The land now acts as God’s agent in judgment[7] – receiving Abel’s blood as a place of rest, whilst truculently refusing to yield to Cain. The sinner chafes at his punishment; in response, God mercifully “marks” him so that he doesn’t fall prey to another.[8] He then executes the sentence, expelling Cain to Nod, “east of Eden” (v.16).[9]

Theological Window

This brief rendition of Gen 4:1-16 unveils a constellation of themes and motifs that constitute a theological window into the Bible’s premier book. Obvious is the layered, symbiotic relationship between humanity and the land.[10] Cain and Abel ultimately derive their livelihoods from the land, participating in humanity’s ongoing vocation to harness it. Creational service, however, does not exist apart from service before the Creator, and the juxtaposition of work and worship in Gen 4:2-3 alludes to the land’s theological significance. Gen 4:1-16 thus envisions a triadic relationship between God, humans and the land – a web of connections, mutated by sin. It shatters harmonious interdependency between the earth and humanity; the land serves as an instrument of divine judgment, and its association with life is replaced by one with death. Moreover, exile from the land – as Cain correctly perceived – means banishment from God’s presence. The theological-ethical connection (for good or ill) between these three “actors”[11] is reflected throughout Genesis. Furthermore, several recurring motifs flesh out these organising principles: blessings/curses; judgment/mercy; rest/restlessness; and sibling rivalry. These, too, weave strands between the account and its literary environment.

Cain and Abel – Looking Back


The relationship between Gen 4:1-16 and Genesis 2-3 is particularly intimate, with a series of echoes establishing deep thematic continuity.[12] Dotted across the landscape are various verbal/linguistic parallels between the two narrative sections. We may cite the frequent use of “land” language, variously described as “earth” (2:4,5; 4:14), “field” (2:5; 4:8) and, in particular, “ground” (2:5,7,19; 3:17,19,23; 4:10-12).[13] Land’s presence in Genesis 2-3 suggests that its thematic reach extends beyond Gen 4:1-16, binding the passage to its narrative predecessors and evincing the land’s consistent function as an arena for human-divine-natural interactivity.

In addition, Gen 4:1-16 uses precise words to look back at key moments in Genesis 2-3 in order to frame its message. Gen 4:2, by referencing Cain and Abel’s respective vocations, parallels similar references in Chapters 2 and 3. The words “keep” and “work”, for instance, consciously recall the role God assigned humanity (2:15).[14] Indeed, even after the first act of disobedience, Adam’s land-associated vocation endured (3:23).[15] Gen 4:2 suggests the ongoing relevance of humanity’s original commission to tend the earth (cf. 2:5). Even Cain’s defiant response to God’s question – where the word “keeper” is employed – implicitly reveals multivalent connections between land and human-to-human relationships, constituting aspects of the divine ideal.[16] Finally, Genesis 3-4 highlights sin’s previously-unknown presence, signalled through the word “desire” (3:16; 4:7). A similar relationship between sin and Cain to that of his parents (post-fall) is implied. The fall itself is portrayed as a paradigmatic act, theologically framing Cain’s crime.[17]

Underlying these linguistic/verbal echoes are fundamental structural similarities between Gen 4:1-16 and the previous two chapters, particularly Chapter 3[18]: ongoing symbiosis between God’s image-bearers and the earth (2:7,15; 4:2); introduction of a moral test (2:17; 4:6,7) God’s judicial interrogation (3:9-13; 4:9,10); personification of sin/evil as a creature (3:1; 4:7);[19] pronouncement of a “land-based” curse upon the offender, centred upon his vocation  (3:17-19; 4:11,12);[20] barrenness and banishment (to the “East”)[21] as the outcomes of divine wrath (3:3,23; 4:16); and the temperance of judgment by mercy (3:21; 4:15).[22] Importantly, the structural parallels largely embrace Genesis 3-4. However, their significance exposes contrasts between the Cain and Abel pericope and Genesis 2, which exist as a result of the events of Genesis 3. In other words, although parallels between Chapters 2 and 4 aren’t as apparent, the account of the fall links them indirectly. Abel’s murder details the outworking of primal rebellion; together, they flesh out sin’s deleterious consequences upon the ideal envisioned in Chapter 2.[23]


Thus, it would be wrong to conclude from this survey that Gen 4:1-16 simply reprises the fall, or that the situation established in Genesis 2 continued with only minor alterations. In fact, the parallels within Genesis 2-4 throw light on subtle, yet significant, differences. Gen 4:1-16 represents development from the moment of initial transgression and its effects. For instance, it alludes to sin’s growth in the midst of human experience, which was not the case in Genesis 2-3. Cain’s response to God’s disfavour – and indeed, God’s warnings to Cain – suggests sin’s already-present rootedness in human nature. Genesis 3 pictured sin as an external force; Gen 4:1-16 sees it as something internal to God’s image-bearers. A cause-and-effect relationship between vertical sin (towards God) and horizontal sin (towards others) is clearly indicated.[24] Disobedience to a command transmogrifies into murder. Similarly, God’s sentence upon Cain is an extension of his judicial reaction to Adam’s sin: he curses Cain, not merely the ground;[25] the land, instead of simply producing “thorns and thistles”, becomes completely barren; and Cain’s exile is beyond Adam’s own banishment, completing a process of graded alienation.[26] The upshot is a mournful counterpoint to God’s original plan, pictured in Chapter 2. Gen 2:2 saw God “rest” from his work in creating an environment of bounteous pleasure for humanity (cf. 2:8-14).[27] By contrast, Cain is condemned to a life of futile labour and constant restlessness. Rather than being a blessing to humans, the land’s divinely-ordained role is to mediate cursing. Finally, Cain’s fate seems to mark off any hope of intimacy with God, differing sharply from Gen 2:7,25; 3:8.

Cain and Abel – Looking Forward

Negative Preparation

By echoing and developing Genesis 2-3, Gen 4:1-16 establishes a number of themes and literary tropes. In the process, the account also precipitates a series of downward cycles throughout Genesis 4-11, charting humanity’s progressive decline. At this point, the account is akin to the stem of a funnel: supplying a microcosmic picture of the multifaceted corruption wrought by sin, which eventually spreads to take on a monstrous universality.[28] Gen 4:1-16, then, negatively prepares its audience for further moral and spiritual disintegration of God’s image-bearers.[29] It does not do this alone, but in concert with Gen 4:17-26, which details Cain’s genealogy. Whilst an identifiable literary sub-unit in its own right, Cain’s line logically extends Gen 4:1-16, and so can be considered alongside it. Moreover, the subtle reference to other people in 4:14 suggests that Cain’s experiences were never meant to be seen in isolation. Along with later descriptions of city-building and the growth of human culture (vv.17-22), it anticipates the burgeoning influence of sin within, and across, human society.

Lamech, Cain’s descendant, exemplifies this anticipatory relationship (vv.19,23-24). Like Cain, Lamech represents another stage of moral retrogression.[30] Falling from the ideal of monogamy to which even Cain adhered, Lamech boasts about murder in a manner unlike his forebear (vv.23-24). What was writ small in these individuals is, by Chapter 6, a universal phenomenon. Again, the triadic relationship between humans, the land and God – now characterised by complete discord – continues to frame the narrative. Cain’s sin becomes an exclusive, deeply-rooted reality (6:5,11-12); his expulsion and curse becomes permanent “banishment” from the land through the flood as God enacts a similar round of judgment (6:7). Genesis 11 repeats this cyclical pattern: human arrogance met with divine wrath, mediated through alienation from the land (11:8-9).[31]

Positive Preparation

Nevertheless, as with Cain, divine mercy accompanies divine judgment. Noah and his family find salvation; the people of Babel are scattered, but the original commission to multiply endures. Gen 4:1-16 thus introduces another thread, changing the trajectory of Genesis beyond Chapter 12. In this way, the Cain and Abel pericope, in addition to provoking questions about the solution to the dire situation it precipitates, prepares readers positively for the growth of God’s responsive grace and covenantal promises. Whilst some negative themes and motifs linger – sibling rivalry[32] and divine judgment, for example – its chief contribution is as a foil (in concert with the rest of Genesis 4-11) for the turn the narrative eventually takes. Hints of new beginnings are already present,[33] starting with the election of Cain’s younger brother, Seth (4:25-26). An epochal change, however, occurs at Chapter 12. Framed by the programmatic call of Abraham (12:1-3), the orientation of Genesis 12-50 is fundamentally positive, and constitutes a divinely-initiated counterpoint to Cain and his line. The contrasts between the two men can be seen below:

Cain   (Adam) Abraham
Banished from the land (4:16) Called into a good land (15:7; cf.   28:13-15)
Cursed (4:11) Blessed (12:2-3)
Driven from God’s presence (4:16) Walked with God (18:18)
Unrighteous (4:7-8) Righteous (15:6; 17:1; 18:18)
Genealogy/progeny marked by sin   (4:19,23-24) Genealogy/progeny marked by election (12:1; 17:19; 37-50; cf. 4:25; 5:21-24)

Table 1

Table 1 outlines the ongoing and contrasting significance of themes and images featured in Gen. 4:1-16. The implications, when seen in biblical-theological terms, are clear: Gen 12:1-3ff, represents a kind of reversal of all that Cain’s sin engrained within human experience.[34] Abraham himself should be seen as an antitype to Cain (and, by implication, Adam). Gen 4:1-16 detailed the various interrelationships between God, the land and humanity, as well as their resultant dissolution. The call of Abraham and his offspring play on these same themes, but with a much different complexion. Structurally, Genesis 12-50, contrasting Gen 4:1-16ff, suggests a harmonious return for humans and creation, as well as God and his image-bearers. The triadic relationship continues to feature as an interrelated macro-structure for the narrative, but with the promise of righteousness, rest and reconciliation – not sin, discord and alienation – firmly in view (cf. 50:24).[35]


The Cain and Abel pericope is far from an isolated tale. Instead, it fits naturally into its literary environment, looking back to Chapters 2-3, and forward to the rest of Genesis. As theological window, it offers a microcosmic look at the network of themes and images that constitute the underlying structure of the book. Through literary parallels and causal developments, Gen 4:1-16 details the catastrophic results of initial transgression, presenting a stark counterpoint to the idyllic situation envisioned in Chapter 2. Simultaneously, the account prepares readers for further exploration of the thematic patterns it establishes. Although sin and judgment are especially prominent in Genesis 4-11, Gen 4:1-16 also signals the eventual growth of divine mercy throughout Genesis 12-50. As a typological contrast with God’s chosen agent, Abraham, Cain’s trajectory subtly invites one to anticipate the gracious solution. It is with this turn that the triadic relationship between God, humanity and land, so corrupted in Gen 4:1-16, promises to be restored. The story of Cain and Abel, then, acts as a narrative and thematic bridge, clothing its message – and that of Genesis – in a tragic, yet ultimately hopeful, garb.

[1] See Roger Syren, The Forsaken Firstborn: A Study of a Recurrent Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 11; David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, Second Edition (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1997), 20-21, for distinctions made between “theme” and “motif”.

[2] Derek Kidner, Genesis (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 74; R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Preaching the Word; Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 102.

[3] Abel can mean “breath” or “futility”. See Kidner, Genesis, 74.

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1; Waco: Word, 1985), 106.

[5] Walter Bruegemann, Genesis (Interpretation Series; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 60; Robert P. Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City – Sacred Geography and the Interpretation of the Bible (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2004), 20.

[6] Wenham, Genesis, 108.

[7] Kristin M. Swenson, “Care and Keeping East of Eden: Gen 4:1-16 in Light of Genesis 2-3,” Interpretation 60, 4 (2006): 381-82.

[8] Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (NCBC; Cambridge University Press: New York, 2009), 80.

[9] Nod means “wandering”. See T.C. Mitchell, “Nod”, NBD 3rd ed., 827.

[10] On the land’s theological significance, see Bruegemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Challenge and Promise in Biblical Faith, Second Edition (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 4-5.

[11] Swenson, “Care and Keeping,” 381.

[12] William Sandford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey – The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 80.

[13] C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4 – A Linguistic, Literary and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2006), pp.189-90.

[14] Swenson, “Care and Keeping”, 374-76. See also Arnold, Genesis, 59. In Hebrew, the word for “keep” is the same in both verses.

[15] Victor H. Matthews, Old Testament Turning Points: the Narratives that Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 24.

[16] Swenson, “Care and Keeping”, 374-76.

[17] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel – A Theological Survey of the Old Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 24.

[18] S. McKnight, “Cain”, DOTP, 107.

[19] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology. Volume One: Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 151.

[20] Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 2006), 96. See also Peter Williams, From Eden to Egypt – Exploring the Genesis Themes (Surrey: Day One Publications, 2001), 34-5.

[21] This is substantiated by double use of the word, “driven”.

[22] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 213. See also Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 24.

[23] ibid, 210. See also M.D. Gow, “Fall,” DOTP, 286.

[24] Bruegemann, Genesis, 55. See also Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-historical Study of Genesis 2-3 (Winona Lake: Eisenrauns, 2007), 31.

[25] T. Desmond Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 118.

[26] Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City, 22; See also S. McKnight, “Cain”, 107.

[27] J. McKeown, “Blessings and Curses”, DOTP, 87.

[28] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 190. See also Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 71.

[29] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 65.

[30] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 190.

[31] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 66-67. See also: John H. Sailhammer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 310-11.

[32] See Syren, The Forsaken Firstborn, for detailed exposition of this motif.

[33] Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land, 119.

[34] L.A. Turner, “Genesis, Book of,” DOTP, 357; J. McKeown, “Land, Fertility, Famine,” DOTP, 488; Brueggemann, The Land, 19-24.

[35] Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 28; Arnold, Genesis, 126-7, 132.

The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part 3.2) – New Creation and the Individual

A dense and layered truth rests in a person’s hands when he or she scrutinises the resurrection. It is for this reason that I have required several posts in order to delve into it and explicate its “manifold significance” (to borrow from my title). Following my exploration of the interweaving connections between resurrection, justification and sanctification, my last post on this topic was an examination of the victory of Christ as a paradigm for a new order, indeed, a new creation. That, as I have said, takes place on a multiplicity of levels. Having looked at the model and first step of new creation, it is now time to turn my attention to what it means for individuals. Using the creational motif that I have employed previously (and which the Bible itself uses as an overarching theological theme to help elucidate the redemptive work of God), I shall attempt to offer a glimpse of the ultimate goal of justified, sanctified Christian life, of which the resurrection is the pattern. The New Testament is replete with references to resurrection, new life and the consummation of salvation as they pertain to individuals. And, although a comprehensive look at what the NT says on the matter is impossible, no account of resurrection as the fresh creation of believers can be considered faithful to its witness without a cursory glance (and hopefully more) at the statements that compose it. The NT, both explicitly and implicitly, makes the astonishing suggestion that those who have been united to Christ will participate in his resurrection. It has not simply secured our initial justification; nor has it merely provided us with new, spiritual life in the present. Rather, it takes up both those stages of a Christian’s salvation, and completes them in his or her total reception of new life. It is something Scripture depicts as a recapitulation of the original creation of humanity; and yet, it passes well beyond the first fashioning of God’s image-bearers to a kind of existence that is beyond death, chaos and decay. I want to make all this plain, but in order to do that, I must also challenge popular notions of Christian hope: not so that long-cherished beliefs are destroyed, but so that the actual truth of a person’s resurrection – according to the riches of Christian theology – may become clear. I shall say more in due time.

But first, traversing over old terrain is, perhaps, necessary. As I noted in earlier essays on this topic, a person is neither justified nor sanctified if Jesus is still in the grave. In like manner, no one has escaped death if Jesus himself – the true man and humanity’s representative – did not triumph over it. The notion of new creation is but a forlorn hope without it. As the Apostle Paul emphatically states in 1 Corinthians: “…if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15: 17, 19). But if Jesus has been raised from the dead (and I believe he has), then this life is not the end. The present creation will pass away, but only so a new creation can take its place. And those of us who are “in Christ” and united to him will receive the blessed gift of new, incorruptible life. To put it another way: death could not maintain mastery over Christ, for the Creator and source of all life could never be held by it. In like manner, all who belong to Christ will share in that same release, precisely because they share in his paradigmatic act. Such is the strength of this fact that Jesus himself could call believers “…sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).

We must examine more closely the connection between Christ’s resurrection and the new life accorded to those who are united to him. Romans 6:1-9, which I surveyed previously, is a good place to start. After dispensing with the hypothetical argument made against his case for salvation through the grace of God, Paul speaks of believers having been baptised into Christ’s death (v.3). If that be the case, Paul effectively asks, then a person has been separated from sin; it no longer has mastery over them. Just like Jesus, we who are “in” him (that is, united to him spiritually) are raised to “new life” – something Paul emphasises in verse 4. That new life has been secured by Christ’s death and resurrection; we cannot isolate them. It is because of the triumph of the one man, Jesus (which I examined in the previous essay on this topic), that any one of us can be said to have new life. Death to sin is, by itself, meaningless. In commenting on this passage, I. Howard Marshall puts it this way:

“…the baptized could be said have died to their old life in which they were under captivity to sin…But this would be no freedom if the believers were simply dead rather than passing through death into a new sphere of existence” (New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, p.317).

That “new sphere of existence” is patterned on the inaugurating work of Jesus. He died his death to sin, but because he has been raised from the dead, never to die again, death cannot have mastery over him (Rom.6:9). We who are united to him in his death are thus united to him in his life.

To be sure, this certainty is a future expectation (though it emphatically commences in the present). Still, the point is that it will happen. What has already begun in the life of a follower of Jesus will be completed, consummated – radically fulfilled – by the same Spirit that brooded over the waters as he preserved God’s original creation (Gen. 1:2; cf. 8:11). What was subject to decay and death will be immersed, if you like, in immortality. What was perishable will become imperishable. What was vulnerable to the fatal effects of sin will be impervious to them. One day, a believer’s body will leave behind the fetters of mortality for good, and death will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). Incidentally, it is here that a connection between individual new creation, justification and sanctification becomes apparent. Having already spoken of resurrection’s importance to these stages of the Christian life, I will not detain readers with a detailed recapitulation. Suffice it to say, if justification is God’s judicial act of counting someone righteous, what could better reflect the consummation of that initial decision than one’s final resurrection, one’s new creation? In the Gospel of John, marked as it is by a creational-redemptive framework, Jesus himself touched upon this. Using the forensic language often linked to justification, he said that those who have “done good” will enjoy resurrection and life at the end (see John 5:29). Similarly, if sanctification is the progressive unfolding of righteousness in a believer – and, with it, the progressive erasure of sin – then the consequences thereof (ie. death) will eventually be vanquished. The notion of resurrection forms the ground and the goal of sanctification, and, therefore, new creation.

At this point, the reality of the larger narrative of new creation, and its relevance to the individual, has simply been implied. But, as these passages suggest, the paradigm of Christ’s life cannot be understood apart from the notion that his resurrection was the first step in God’s efforts to re-make his world – to redeem it from death, and to inaugurate, in effect, a new creative order. The fate of individuals sits snugly within that project. Nevertheless, we do not have to travel far in order to see how explicit the idea is at certain points, particularly in light of the prominence of the original creation as a theological motif for many of the NT writers. One might easily point to John 3, which famously has Jesus exhorting Nicodemus to be “born again”. The phrase itself evokes images of new life, in keeping with John’s overall theological scheme. But we may also look to places such as 1 Corinthians 15, Hebrews 2:5-9, or even 2 Corinthians 5:17 – a verse which uses the precise phrase “new creation” – to see how the concept has woven its way into the structure of apostolic thinking. To take just one example: 1 Corinthians 15, to which I have already alluded. Before Paul embarks on an extended discussion on the necessity of the resurrection of believers, he sharply contrasts two, paradigmatic men. On the one hand, lies the first Adam; on the other, the second Adam, Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45-49). The former, Paul says, was of the earth – mortal, finite, vulnerable to corruption. The latter, however, was of heaven – immortal, infinite, free from spot or blemish. The point is that the apostle deliberately invokes Adam as a motif, in order to draw a contrast between two “creations”, or “reigns”. The first man was the head of a humanity prone to sin and death, as the Bible’s opening book points out (cf. Gen. 1-3). The latter man was, and is, the representative of a humanity that will enjoy his likeness (cf. v.49).

Talk of new life, even resurrection, is all well and good. However, it is important to speak about what kind of life this will be, for even the notion of resurrection can be misunderstood. When the authors of the NT speak of new life, they do so with a degree of specificity. It is not the case that Paul and others were envisioning some vague kind of existence beyond the material world. To do so would have negated the goodness of God’s creative work, and undermined the thematic power of the original, material world. Ancient Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul; popular, present-day renditions of the afterlife imagine disembodied spirits enjoying some manner of heavenly joy in the hereafter. But if we look to the Apostle to the Gentiles for a moment, we find him speaking deliberately of resurrection. As N.T. Wright has commented, the term was only ever used to denote “re-embodiment, not…disembodied bliss”. Indeed, in Rom. 6:5, which we have already surveyed, Paul states that those of us who have been united to Christ in his death will certainly be united to him in his “resurrection”. Erroneous imaginings of ultimate Christian hope notwithstanding, resurrection was seen as a bodily, material phenomenon. It was certainly a new mode of existence, to be sure. But that newness was viewed as emphatically physical. Christ’s triumph over death only makes sense because his resurrection was bodily in nature. In the same way, those of us who have escaped the old life, held in bondage to sin and death, will take on new bodies. New life will be transmuted, but it will definitely remain physical. By the same token, if new life remains physical, then it will definitely be transmuted. As Leon Morris has said:

“The Christians thought of the body as being raised. But also transformed so as to be a suitable vehicle for the very different life of the age to come” (New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, p.1010. Emphasis mine).

If the resurrection of Jesus – being bodily in nature – is the ground for the new creation of the individual, then it seems that our redemption will follow his representative act. As I have noted, he is the pattern. He is the “firstborn from amongst the dead” (Colossians 1:18). And if that be the case, then our resurrection will be like his; “we shall be like him”, as it were (1 John 3:2). Paul’s letter to the Romans is once again instructive.  In chapter 8, we find the apostle talking about life in the Spirit. In the present, the Spirit changes and transforms a believer’s spiritual and moral life. In the future, though, all of one’s life will be transformed, including his or her body. It will be a complete and total change. We might look at 8:11, for example. Once more, Paul suggests that the new life of a Christian is patterned on the resurrection life of Christ. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will certainly “give life to” one’s “mortal body”. Nothing in this verse implies an escape from the body. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite: an enlivening addition to the present “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). It may constitute a radical transformation, but one that does not abandon the material realm. We should not think that it would be otherwise. And, with Paul’s multiple allusions to freedom, redemption, and creation itself (cf. Rom. 8:19-25), it is clear that for the apostle, a believer’s ultimate hope rests in a renewed creation – that of God’s world, redeemed from the bondage of death, and of those who will receive bodies fit to dwell within it.

 *          *          *

The drama of God’s redemptive activity, being played out on the stage of history and creation, is also being played out in the life of every believer. New creation will occur, not just on a cosmic scale, but on an individual one, too. What will happen universally is happening now, in the present, in the lives of believers. The triumph of the resurrection means that the old creation is passing away. All this is through Jesus Christ, who was the primary agent of both creation and new creation (see John 1:1-3). His own resurrection was the climax of his redemptive agency, and constitutes the model for believers. Those of us who have embraced that triumph will participate in his triumph, and, as members of both the old creation and the new, we have the unique privilege of seeing that sanctifying transformation happen in our midst. Christ’s resurrection body served as the first sign of new creation. Our own bodies, having already been enveloped by the Spirit, are also signs that the old has gone, and the new has come. We may still be vessels of broken clay, living in an ambiguous period between the announcement of God’s reign, and its final coming. Nonetheless, if new creation is a reality, then it is a reality that begins as a seed within each believing individual. That seed – that new birth, if you like – anticipates the wider renewal that will embrace a groaning world, as it waits on tiptoe for the children of God to be revealed. That, however, is the subject for a future post.

The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part 3.1) – One Man’s Triumph as the Pattern of New Creation

The resurrection (along with the cross) stands at the very centre of history. Others may argue that some other event – the invention of writing, say, or the onset of the industrial revolution – represents the decisive turning point in the story of humanity and the world. But, if the gospel is true (and I believe that it is), then the resurrection was more than one man’s divinely-ordained and divinely-empowered victory over his own, personal demise. It most certainly was not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, the raising of Christ represented the very first step in new creation. Indeed, it was the point at which the Creator God showed a rebellious and corrupt creation that he had, in principle, re-claimed it. Rather than abandoning his world to death, God commenced the final, decisive phase of his project to re-create what he had originally made, flooding it with life. At a multiplicity of levels – personal, corporate and cosmic – God set about fashioning something entirely new. Through the raising of his Son, the Creator became Redeemer, proving climactically that his redemptive work had broken into the present deathly course of a sin-stained world. So begins my foray into the last image of the resurrection’s significance. Having already explored its connection to justification and sanctification, it is time now to turn to underlying principle, the end goal – the telos – of that glorious process, and how it began in Christ, “…the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1:18).

It would be difficult to overstate the epochal magnitude of this event. Before Jesus’ resurrection, the seemingly inviolable law of death, decay and corruption shadowed everything bound by the finitude of time. After it had occurred, the world, for all its ongoing chaos and frustration, had changed. The empty tomb (along with Calvary) divides the history of God’s creation into two distinct ages, something that the writers of the NT – not least of which is Paul – declare. But nothing would have happened if, after Jesus’ death, he remained in the tomb. We have already seen that, for Paul, the death of Christ is meaningless without the accompaniment of the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17-18). For if the death of Christ was the decisive response to sin, then the resurrection was the paradigmatic triumph over death. It was the resurrection – the new, incorruptible, bodily life in which Jesus was clothed – that represented the first step of God’s new world, breaking into the present. To put it differently, the raising of Jesus from the dead was the beginning of another genesis; the new life into which he entered three days after he died was a moment of both inauguration and anticipation, looking forward to cosmic and creational renewal. Like the mighty acts that God initiated at the time of creation, fashioning from nothing and bringing forth order from chaos (see Genesis 1:1-2), the raising of Christ was an act of unbounded creativity, of life in the midst of death. And, just like the original creation, the empty tomb was the beginning of something completely new.

My interest in juxtaposing Christ’s resurrection with God’s first creative acts is not an act of arbitrary poetics, forced onto an unwilling text. Much of the NT speaks in these terms, especially the Gospels. Of the four accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds, none is as explicit in pairing creation and new creation as John’s. From the very beginning (a word that is apposite here), the fourth evangelist has in mind creation, as it is lyrically described in the Bible’s very first book. John 1:1, for example, starts with, “In the beginning was the Word…” – a clear nod, for a first-century Jewish audience, to the first verse in Genesis. As one proceeds through the book, one becomes increasingly aware that John is using the Genesis account of the world’s origins to frame his reflections on the theological significance of Christ’s own work. It builds up into a theological theme that presents us with a picture of Christ standing above time and history; over both initial creation and re-creation, yet radically involved in both eras. When God began his great, creative works, the Word – that is, Christ – was (eternally) present as an equal partner in that project (John 1:1; cf. Gen. 1:1-3, 6, 9ff). Even more important is the fact that in the opening verse, John is hinting to his audience that just as the Word was present at, and involved in, the first creation, so too is he involved – not just marginally, but as the primary agent – in new creation.

The Word, then, is both generative and redemptive, and it was his incarnation that saw God’s plan to inaugurate another, yet more bountiful, creation reach a climactic phase. John reiterates and expands upon this central truth throughout the entire Gospel. Indeed, it is there in John’s prologue, throwing light across the evangelist’s opening gambit; it emerges periodically from beneath his narrative, as the story of Christ wends it way – slowly but inexorably – towards the events of Easter; the raising of Lazarus serves as a particularly overt symbol of it; and, of course, the theme of new creation effortlessly gives shape to the raising of God’s Holy One in John 20. There, “early on the first day of the week,” Christ was raised from the dead (see 20:1). Emerging from the shadows, something strangely new had occurred. Given the evangelist’s emphasis on the notion of God’s efforts to reclaim his world and launch a completely fresh creation, mention of the resurrection of Jesus in this manner is no accident. Rather, through this seemingly innocuous detail, John is subtly – yet unambiguously – declaring the start of a new creation “week”, just like the week that saw the generation and establishment of God’s original creation (see Gen. 1:5,8,13ff). The darkness of the old world was giving way to a light, shining: the light of Christ’s resurrection, which pointed, and still points, to the promise of God to restore his world.

Paul is also interested in the theme of new creation as he explains the raising of Jesus. He has a very robust theology of creation, and uses it to provide a rich canvass to explore and expound the significance of Christ’s resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, the apostle is explicit, as he was in Romans, in drawing out the contrast between the first man and the last man – between the original Adam and the second “Adam”, Christ. Both stand at the head of two “races”, two separate humanities, as it were. Those who have participated in the sin of the first Adam will die; those who participate in the second “Adam” “will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22; cf. vv.45-49). Paul deliberately uses, echoes and alludes to the Genesis narrative of creation and fall in order to parallel the paradigmatic significance of Christ, in contrast to the first man. However, it is vital to remember that this contrast occurs within the context of Paul’s exposition of the resurrection. In other words, Paul – like John – is motivated by a hermeneutic of new creation; he, too, sees the raising of Christ in terms of the commencement of God’s efforts to reclaim, remake and redeem his world. The curse of death, as poetically described in Genesis 3, was broken by the triumph of Jesus. This, too, is surely in view as Paul contrasts the heads of these two ages. Of course, “the end” had not yet arrived, and Paul had no trouble highlighting this (v.24). Even so, through the resurrection of his Son, God had inaugurated the coming of his redemptive reign, the undoing of the tragedy of the Fall, and the concomitant destruction of death.

The rest of the NT authors are immersed in the redemptive, re-creative and epochal significance of Christ’s resurrection. Their writings and reflections are grounded in the fact of this unprecedented act. So much of the early church’s preaching, as evidenced in Acts (see Acts 2, especially) was shaped and informed by this radically changed situation. Peter, the chief preacher in those early chapters of Acts, knew that Christ was now Lord over the world, and that this had been proved by his triumph over death. The writer to the Hebrews wrote about the dominion of Christ, applying OT references to the idealized dominion of man over creation to the One who had suffered and been glorified (Heb. 2:5-9, citing Psalm 8). Though resurrection is not mentioned in this passage, it is surely presupposed in what turns out to be a sophisticated reflection on the fulfilment of humanity’s vocative purpose in Jesus Christ – again, with the theme of creation forming a backdrop to present discussions. Moreover (and at the risk excessive anticipation), Christian hope is grounded in the tangibility of the unshackling of Jesus from that final foe. All this was part of God’s sovereign plan. It was not as if the cross was the accidental death of a would-be Messiah, with his resurrection representing God’s attempt to undo the damage. No – this was always God’s plan, for as Peter declared, “…it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).

To those who have become inured to the seemingly insurmountable mechanics of the present world, and the apparent finality of its laws, the resurrection is a challenge. It overturns our assumptions about the ways of this world, and breaks into the daily patterns of death and decay. Moreover, it is evidence that creation is not simply subject to its own, meandering evolution; God has been, and is, at work to transform it. The resurrection of Christ was, and is, proof that something from the outside, something that is not a product of this present corruption, has been at work to redeem, to heal, and to enliven. Thus, the secularist is challenged. So, too, the escapist, for Christ’s resurrection – whilst something unprecedented and gloriously new – was an emphatically physical event. When the writers of the NT wrote about the raising of Jesus (and resurrection generally), they were referring to a bodily occurrence. If Jesus is the paradigm for those who are his; and if his resurrection was bodily in nature; and if that transformed body was the first sign that God’s new world had begun; and if that new world was, and is, here, within his creation; then all attempts to paint the consummation of history and ultimate Christian hope as an escape from material existence are profoundly mistaken. I shall say more later; for now, it is sufficient to say that the resurrection of Christ is, in Tom Wright’s words, an emphatic “affirmation” of God’s world (renewed and restored, to be sure) – not, as some might think, the validation of a heavenly abode, liberated from body and creation alike.

I fear that I have already said too much. But if I have, it is only because I seek to bring those who have read this post (and the others like it) towards a deeper understanding of the raising of Christ. Even so, we have not reached the end of the journey, for the paradigmatic act of Christ’s resurrection was exactly that – paradigmatic. In concluding this series, I shall take a look at how the new creative order ushered in by the risen Jesus affects believing individuals, God’s people and his world. That, however, will have to wait.

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.