sin

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!)

Introduction                                                                                                    

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

Parallels

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]

Developments

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]

Conclusion

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.

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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 Cost of True Riches (or The Cost of Discipleship…but that’s Already Taken)

As per my usual custom, I was perusing the daily newspapers the other morning. Whilst doing so, I happened upon a very interesting article in The Age. It reported that the creator of the 1960s-set drama, Mad Men, had forked out $250,000 for use of a Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows. According to the creator, “…the show lacked a certain authenticity…” because he had never been able to use a master recording of the Beatles. So, his solution was to spend a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege (see “Mad Men Pays $250,000 for Beatles Song,” The Age, 9th May, 2012).

It’s a mind-boggling amount of money, simply for a few minutes of music. But my point is not to focus on an apparent case of financial profligacy. Of course, we may baulk at the thought of spending that much on something as ephemeral as a few bars from a pop-song. Others, though, may see this as a wise investment. Arguments of this ilk are, in many ways, beside the point. It seems to me that the story is instructive for a very different reason. This peculiar little story can actually offer followers of Jesus a model, or metaphor, for the nature and cost of Christian discipleship. The costly efforts of the Mad Men creator to secure something he saw as absolutely indispensable to his creation should stimulate our thinking about how much Christians are willing to part with in order to reach that which is most precious. In order to perfect his show, to better it – to authenticate it – the creator (and the producers, no doubt) was willing to spend a small fortune on something relatively small.

How much more, then, should Christians reflect on the value placed upon, say, intimacy with Christ, and the consequent costs that are involved in securing that intimacy? Only if Christians are willing to pay the price for an authentic life of discipleship will they actually receive it. To be sure, intimacy with Christ is a gracious gift. The act of the dying, triumphant God, who opened up the possibility of salvation for those fashioned in his image, is something that cannot be earned or extracted. It is grounded in the free act of the One who is eminently free. However, this gift is not without cost. Indeed, salvation may be free, but it is expensive. It costs a lot, and entails much sacrifice: for the God who offered himself for his sinful image-bearers; and for those image-bearers who, by the Spirit, have given themselves to him in return. This is the hard road of discipleship and progressive sanctification, as Christians live out their declared separation from sin and under God’s reign. No claim regarding the Christian life that posits anything less can truly be known as such. Christian authenticity is none other than the reality of Christ’s life in the life of an individual; and given that this reality can only come about as the individual takes a resolute, lifelong stand against everything that would mar Christ’s image in him, Christians ought to reflect soberly on how costly that can be.

The New Testament has much to say about the costliness of true discipleship – about the sacrifice that Christian authenticity entails. Against the backdrop of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Christ, the authors of the NT write frequently of how much it takes to walk the narrow road. Cheap grace is not to be found in its pages; nor is an antinomian attitude countenanced. For once it is recognized that the chief obstacle between the Christian and intimacy with Christ is the constant predation of sin, the struggle against it takes on new, almost cosmic, meaning. The Apostle Paul, for example, spoke of putting to death the sinful nature (cf. Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:24). That is a striking image: death. Christians are called, not to reason with the sinful nature, or to simply oppose it (though that is certainly true). They’re to put to death, so to speak. Paul uses the chilling finality of a person’s demise as a way of getting at the attitude Christians should have towards sin. In the pursuit of authentic discipleship, followers of Christ are to ruthlessly and completely separate themselves from its pernicious effects.

But Paul is not the only NT writer to speak about the struggle for holiness, the cost of discipleship, and the conflict against sin. The evangelists, who recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, included in their works sayings that point to the importance, nay the utter urgency, of pursuing that which is godly. Let’s look at one particular passage: Matthew 6:19-24. It occurs in the midst of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he offered a kind of new covenant charter to the disciples that had gathered around him and received his ministry. In this passage, Jesus commands his followers not to store up earthly treasures for themselves. Instead, he counsels them to store up heavenly treasures (v.20) that cannot be harmed, followed by the conclusive statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v.21).

The creator of Mad Men, obviously devoted to his work, is a perfect reflection (albeit in a rather perverse way) of the general thrust of Jesus’ words in verse 21; indeed, one might even say that his heart – the centre of who he is – lies with his creative endeavours. That forms the background to what might seem to be an extreme act. Jesus’ pithy statement rings true, regardless of context, for one’s life will be devoted to what one considers most valuable, such that one will offer everything for it. The question for those who claim to value Christ above all need to reflect upon where their hearts are set, and just what their treasure is. A person “cannot serve two masters” (6:24); devotion to God cannot be tempered by devotion to something else. As such, authentic Christian living – living that is genuinely and transparently Christ-like – will not admit such admixture.

Intimacy with Christ, and the life that is transformed accordingly, is one that demands the complete devotion of the person who benefits from it. Again, we may look to Jesus himself to shed light on this. Matthew 13:44-46 has him likening the kingdom of heaven (God) to both treasure and fine pearls. They conjure up images of objects prized and valuable. Like them, the kingdom is something to be treasured; and, like the ones pursing them in Jesus’ parable, those who claim to follow him are to “sell everything” for it. In order that true Christian discipleship may flourish, a resolute willingness to sacrifice everything for it needs to sit firmly within the Christian’s heart. Whereas Paul uses the image of death as a way of characterizing the extent to which Christians ought to pursue God and the holy life, Jesus here puts it in terms of payment. Either way, the point is clear: Christian discipleship is a life marked by the kind of total sacrifice that is itself grounded in the knowledge that what is being received is of infinite value. It cannot be otherwise. It means taking up one’s cross, dying to sin and declaring exclusive allegiance to the One in whose image we are made and to whose likeness we are being conformed. It means giving everything – up to, and including, ourselves – in order to secure something far more valuable. The late John Stott, in writing of the Christian’s struggle against the sinful nature, said this:

“Self-denial…is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way” (“The Cross of Christ”, p.323).

Quite so. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said that when “Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, and in many ways, it is true. Having been bought at the price of Christ’s death, we must recapitulate that death in our lives so that we might obtain true life. Indeed, we are to “put to death” the sinful nature (borrowing from Paul). Of course, that is the case for all those who are in Christ, for death is the final stage of sin’s rule. Nevertheless, discipleship in this life demands a thousand daily “deaths” to self, to the pride, to sin. Only as that happens can we truly say that we are members of God’s kingdom. Denying the sinful nature and taking hold of God’s kingdom, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. Or, to put it slightly differently, everything that I have mentioned in this essay – intimacy with Christ, the pursuit of holiness, authentic discipleship, and devotion to God – are of a piece; you cannot have one without all the others. It’s a packaged gift. As I said earlier, it’s a gloriously free gift. However, an authentic Christian life, even more so than an authentic TV program, costs everything. 

The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part Two)

It is something I have said several times now, but it bears repeating: the multidimensional brilliance of the resurrection is almost inexhaustible. That is why a single essay on the topic cannot possibly hope to provide a comprehensive account of its significance. Only by considering each dimension in turn can a satisfying picture of the sequel to the crucifixion be realized.

It is with that preamble in mind that I turn to the resurrection and its relationship to sanctification. Already, I have explored the way in which the resurrection actually secures, completes and verifies a change in our legal standing before God. But its power and relevance extend into the realm of sanctified living: the progressive erasure of the effects of the old life, marked as it was by sin; and the gradual, life-long envelopment of the new life, into which Christians have been “born” and into which they grow. It is because of the resurrection that we may be assured of our own success in the defeat of sin (at least those of us who have accepted the tenets of Christianity and the person of Christ himself).

I turn to a book of the Bible that I have turned to a number of times recently in order to explore the relationship between the resurrection and sanctification: Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Chapter 6 of that book deals with the issue of sanctification, and our apostle makes several references to the raising of Christ as a foundation for the purification of Christians. Let’s look at the chapter more closely, starting with Romans 6:4:

“We were therefore buried with him [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life”.

Paul makes a startling statement: we who have given our lives to Christ have been “buried” with him through baptism. Without digressing too much, the apostle offers us a picture of baptism rich in theological symbolism. Baptism is much more than a lingering tradition; it constitutes the outward symbolical expression of an inward, spiritual shift. Namely, it represents the transfer of our lives from the reign of sin and death – the end of which could only come about through the finality of Christ’s sacrificial death, and our participation through baptism – to freedom from those pernicious forces (cf. v.7) under the reign of God’s righteousness.

Of course, the outworking of that process takes place over a lifetime. Although the judicial transfer happens the moment we accept the message of the gospel, sanctified living, free from sin and unrighteousness, is an unfolding experience. Nevertheless, like justification, sanctification cannot operate without the reality of the resurrection. Let’s look again at 6:4. Paul explicitly grounds the fact of Christians’ new lives in the fact of Christ’s new life (resurrection). On our behalf, he took on the penalty, the pain – the wretched effects – of sin. And on our behalf, God raised Christ from the dead, as a prototype for the newness of life he will bestow upon those who have already been justified by him. The one depends on the other. For if Christ did not leave the tomb, then the reign of sin and death would still be present. The fact that he has discarded the graveclothes for the new garment of resurrection life means that our striving for holy lives (in the power of the Spirit, of course – see Rom. 8:4-13, for example) is not futile. Not at all, since it is done – or ought to be done – in the knowledge that God has already defeated these forces through the One to whom we are united.

Paul goes on talk about our being united with Christ, not only in his death, but also in his resurrection (verse 5). He declares that those who are united to Christ in his death will “certainly” be united with him in his resurrection. The two halves of God’s salvific work cannot – indeed, must not – be separated. If we participate in Christ’s death by putting to death the sinful nature (cf. v.6), then we will surely participate in the newness of life he experienced at his resurrection. The conclusion – our “death” with Christ is one of separation. The reign of sin has come to a conclusive end; we have been freed from it (v.7). Our apostle is explicit in outlining the consequences. Because we have been separated from sin (in other words, it has been put to death in us because we have appropriated the benefits of Christ’s death), we must now offer ourselves to God instead of offering ourselves to corruption (vv.11-13). We have crucified the old nature, the old life, on the cross. Our obligation now is to live our lives to God. But again – all this is futile if Christ himself did not gain mastery over death. For if he did not, then sin is certainly still at work, and every effort made to prevent its reign is bound to fail.

Paul is certainly aware of the logic of this supposition. For he states in verse 9 that Christ was raised from the dead, so that the death he died to sin, he died once-and-for-all; death (and sin) can no longer have its way with him. It is a defeated foe. And because it is a defeated foe, we can be assured that our own participation in Christ’s crucifixion – through the sacrificial pursuit of holiness – is not an exercise in fruitless denial; still less is it a bad joke that has us trying to do what is actually impossible. The ideal of a sanctified life is not a denial of what is, and always will be, the case. It is rather the promise of a life that will forever be freed from the predations of sin and death, grounded in the tangible evidence of the resurrection itself.

*   *   *

Matthew Barrett, a Christian author and blogger, wrote recently on this topic (“The Neglected Resurrection,” The Gospel Coalition, April 5th, 2012). He finished by quoting Paul’s admonition to the Colossians, which is certainly apt here:

“If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

Amen. We ought to focus on the godly, spiritual things in this life, for we know that our lives are no longer beholden to sin – and as a consequence, the shadow of death. Christ’s own resurrection is proof of that glorious fact. It is also a present reality in our lives, bursting the boundaries of history to transform each Christian as he or she walks in newness of life. Of course, sin still knocks at our door; it still beckons us, and bids us to come. However, the past triumphs of the One in whom we trust will be fulfilled. For as Paul says, when Christ appears (referring to his second advent) we, too, shall appear in glory. Our present yearnings for holiness – such as they are – and the present work of God to sanctify us will not come to nothing; they will be fulfilled in our glorification, of which Christ’s resurrection was both the model and the promise. Indeed, we can be assured that in living by the Spirit and separating ourselves from sin, we are engaging in a task that God will consummate, precisely because he has provided us with embodied evidence that sin and death are vanquished. It is a challenge, but also an encouragement, to pursue and receive the sanctifying grace of God in Christ.

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

The Death of Evil and the Birth of New Life

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

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

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

“But he was pierced for our

transgressions,

  he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace

            was upon him… (Isaiah 53:5).

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

The End?

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

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.

On Floods and Faith – Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God (Part Two)

In this particular post, I want to continue my exploration of the question of evil, suffering and God. A rebuttal of atheistic critiques is all well and good, but that in no way automatically validates a theistic position; what is also needed is a positive account of how God’s reality can be reconciled with the manifold suffering and evil that we witness in this world. For some, the question is not so great, since they may have embraced nothing more than some variation of deism (the notion that if there is a god, then he is nothing more than a “prime mover” or a “first cause”). Others may believe something else about the divine, including the notion that God may well in fact be evil and corrupt. If that is so, then the apparent tension between evil and God’s existent is, as it were, non-existent.

That may be the case for some, but the author of this blog is deeply committed to the god of Christianity. As such, I am not talking about a god who at one stage brought this world into being but now has nothing to do with it (deism). Neither am I talking about a god who is to be identified with the material world (pantheism). Instead, throughout this post, I will be implicitly referring to the god who is deeply involved in his creation, who willed it into being, who governs it, and who is still passionately interested in it. This god is good and loving, grieved by suffering and moved by evil. But if these claims about God be true, then how can he permit evil and suffering? Indeed, how can the presence of these tragic and (sometimes) destructive forces be reconciled with what Christians maintain about the One they worship and follow? Recent events – floods in Queensland and Brazil, deadly earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan, the manifest corruption of governments in the Middle East – sharpens the question somewhat, and once more forces us to ask: just how can the persistence of so much suffering (and those events are just the tip of the iceberg) sit alongside the historic Christian claim of a good, loving and powerful god?

Before I go on, I must admit to the inadequacy of words for some who have experienced tragedy. Whether you have lost a loved one, been battling with depression, or been the hapless victim of nature’s fury, my defence of God’s existence in the face of such hardships may seem somewhat uncouth. I am of course aware that the question of suffering is not, in the final analysis, a philosophical problem to be solved; it is instead a sometimes-monstrous experience with which people wrestle on a daily basis. I cannot stress that enough, for it is not something that can be understood by writing a blog about it in the comfort of one’s living room, or inquired of in a university lecture hall. No; it can only be truly understood if it is first lived. That is why my essay may prove to be of shallow consolation to those who have experienced first hand the evil of other men, or the destruction of a ravenous disease. Nonetheless, I do pray that this post uplifts and encourages those who have been hit by the effects of evil in this world. What is more, I should point out that these arguments do not automatically bring one to full-orbed Christian faith. They do, I believe, show us that belief in God can sit alongside the presence of evil in the world, and that there is even room for belief in the Christian god. There is indeed a great deal of overlap between the more general philosophical and theistic claims made here and the specific claims made in Christian theology, despite the fact that this particular series has not argued for the reality of God as he has been revealed in Scripture and Christian theology. What I present here does not take into account what the god of Christianity is actually doing about evil and suffering, and how Christian theology interprets these tragic phenomena. To use the language of faith, what I present here may reflect a generalized theology of creation, but it does not embrace a theology of redemption. That will have to wait.

The above caveats notwithstanding, it is important that a response is forthcoming. To begin with, we need to make a distinction between human evil (that is, suffering caused by the immoral or imperfect actions of other human beings) and natural evil (suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones I have mentioned in this, and my last, post). Of course, the distinction is not nearly as neat as it may first appear, and it is important to bear that point in mind. In any case, if we concentrate for a moment on human evil, we cannot explore the possible tension between its presence in this world and the claim that God exists, without taking into account the wider purposes of the Creator. Many (perhaps speculative) reasons could be offered, but in this post I will focus on just one. Specifically, I am thinking of God’s desire to not only create a world, but to also have a relationship with it, including of course those created in his image – human beings. This is a cardinal Christian truth, helping to explain the theological rationale behind the creation of humanity. God did not create us – or this world, for that matter – simply in order to study us, or to keep us at arms length whilst he admired us from a distance. No, he created humanity, in part so that he could have a relationship with it, to bestow his goodness upon it, and to give it the privilege of being in communion with him. But in order to develop a true relationship with his image-bearing creatures, he first had to endow them with what we might call free will. Only with free will is it possible to respond, freely and genuinely, to the intimate proposal for a relationship by another. Anything else would be a sham. And so it was, and is, with God and humanity. The endowment of free will was a necessary requirement for the creation of a group of people who would be able to come to God of their own accord; people who would be no more than automatons – prisoners of the efforts of a totalitarian god. Love and devotion can only come about through the freely chosen acts of the one expressing them, necessitating the presence of free will in humanity.

Of course, God took a risk when he brought humanity into existence. Free will can be used for good, but can quite easily be used for its opposite, evil. If this were not the case, it would not truly be free will. Similarly, if humanity was not free to choose to spurn God’s offer of a relationship, then neither was it free to accept that same offer. This applies to our relationships with each other as much as it does to our relationship (potential or actual) with God. For God not only created humanity to act morally towards himself; he also created humanity with a view to them acting morally towards one another. Moral responsibility – reflected in, and manifested by, our ethical treatment of other people – is a necessary corollary to one’s relationship with God. To claim the latter without committing the former renders both non-existent. But just as one’s relationship with God must be freely chosen, if it is to be a true relationship (and not just a fait accompli), so our moral acts towards one another can only be truly moral (in the sense that such morality becomes an deeply interwoven part of our identity) if they are, to some extent at least, truly and freely chosen. For instance, if one is forced to commit a moral act, we may say that the act itself is moral. However, the person committing it is not; he is simply adhering to a predetermined path, the nature of which does not impinge upon him. Humans have been created to be moral agents, freely choosing to pursue the good. And that necessitates the possibility of choosing the alternative, of rejecting the moral choice. That is one basis for authentic moral responsibility, rather than the product of divine pre-programming.

What we see around us, then, are the effects of the abuse of free will and the rejection of moral behaviour: murder, slander, corruption, exploitation, selfishness, greed. These are the inevitable consequences of the corruption of free will, which is itself the unavoidable concomitant of the creation of a group of beings that would be able to freely choose and freely love their Creator. This wider goal explains, in part at least, the persistence of evil in the world. The value God has placed on the free will of humanity is such that, even if is abused, as it has countless times throughout history, God does not necessarily remove it. In order to preserve part of the “essence” of humanity and its ability to freely come to the One who created it, the parallel preservation of free will, despite its corruption, is important.

Some may not like the above answer – that God apparently remains unmoved by the persistence of evil in this world. I shall respond to that objection in the next post in this series. Others may object that the presence of so much suffering does not make the preservation of free will worth it. To that, I would argue two things. On the one hand, I am quite sure that those who might be tempted to adopt this line of thinking would dispense of it once they could see its implications. If the history of the world has been consistently marked by human iniquity, then it has also been consistently marked by the struggle for human freedom. It is a prize to be upheld; not discarded because of the way it has been grievously abused. Of course, that is of no comfort to the one who has lost his spouse to the destructive behaviour of a drunk driver. In my effort to provide an explanation for the importance of human moral choice and free will, I do not wish to minimize such a tragedy. Nevertheless, I can only return to the answer I have supplied: that present free will is a necessary element in an authentic relationship with God, and an authentic moral existence. On the other hand, I would suggest that a freely chosen life with God – not to mention the choice to act morally towards others – is of such incomparable beauty that its reality cannot be jeopardised. If God is what traditional theism says he is – the great architect, who has not only created this world but continues to uphold and animate it – then some kind of relationship with him is a relationship with the foundation of life, truth and goodness. It takes us beyond our own finiteness, mortality and moral ineptitude since we have come into contact with a god who is beyond all three. What is more, according to a specific Christian theological account of the situation (which I will discuss in a future post), it is the very rejection of this reality that has led to the pervasive evil that we witness in the world. Once again, the creation of morally responsible, morally free individuals who possess the ability to choose the ultimate good – to choose God – could not proceed without the possibility that those individuals would end up choosing its opposite.

This important point may help to explain human evil, but it cannot necessarily be applied to the suffering caused by natural calamities, such as the ones we have witnessed in Australia and elsewhere recently. Climactic conditions and the earth’s convulsive movements cannot be explained via moral categories (at least, they cannot be held morally accountable for what occurs). There is (apparently) no intentionality, no moral responsibility – only causation. Of course, I have already made the point that the distinction between human evil and natural evil is blurred. An earthquake may shake buildings and structures, but the presence of a city on a known fault line, as well as the shoddy nature of building construction in the area, can lead to a high death toll. Similarly, floods may wreck havoc on a hapless village or town, but the creation of dams could have stopped such a tragic event from occurring. Moreover, one may suffer from a seemingly inexplicable form of cancer, but given the many risks posed by certain foods and environments, it is impossible to rule out human action in such an event. Thus, even when a natural disaster strikes, one cannot so easily discount the effects of human action, which may lead to or exacerbate human suffering.

Nevertheless, we face a problem, for in many cases, human activity cannot account for the destruction wrought by a natural calamity. God’s existence and human evil can be explained via the argument from free will, but how does one account for the presence of natural evil? Surely God has control over nature in a manner that is unlike his relationship to humanity? Indeed, this is the case, but not to the extent that one might first assume. I spoke earlier about the free will argument as an explanation for the presence of human evil in spite of the claim that there God who is loving and powerful. Much the same could be said of the natural world. Just as free will explains human evil – and its corollary, human suffering – so free process explains the sometimes destructive nature of, well, nature. At this point, I should acknowledge the influence of John Polkinghorne, the British physicist and priest, whose work in developing this concept has been significant. I don’t want to follow him too far down this road (he also apparently claims that the future is unknown to God, with which I disagree). However, the point is well made. Rather than controlling the world like a puppet-master pulling the strings of his lifeless minions, God has endowed the world with the ability to freely develop, much like he has endowed humanity with the capacity to freely choose. Creation is not static; it is instead dynamic. And although its development has sometimes been messy and chaotic, the metaphysical independence of the natural world (and by “metaphysical independence,” I am referring to the distinction between God and his creation) is preserved in this developmental freedom.

This does not mean that we follow the god of deism after all; just because God has given the natural world the ability to freely develop in its own way does not mean that he also does not have unfettered freedom to involve himself in its affairs. We should not think that because God has endowed his creation with this kind of dynamic quality, he is therefore bound to refrain from activity within it. I have already dealt with this point above, in my discussion of human evil. Suffice it to say, God has created a world with a freedom to develop in a distinctive manner, just as he has created humans with a moral freedom that enables them to choose good or reject it. Because of that freedom, the natural world sometimes heads in a direction that occasions pain and destruction, and that is deeply contrary to God’s purposes. That does not mean that the world is simply chaos; there is enough order and regularity to suggest otherwise. But there is also enough unpredictability and flexibility within the natural world to suggest that it is more than just an animated diorama. And with that flexibility comes the sometimes-painful reality that nature will cause human suffering.

Such is the complexity of this issue that I have not been able to touch upon all aspects of it. What’s more, I have obviously not touched upon the specific Christian claims regarding evil and suffering in any detail. Thus, this post does not take into account the relationship between human sin and the corruption of creation. Nor does it note the pernicious effects of sin on human beings themselves. Furthermore, many questions remain. For example, what role does God’s providence play in a discussion like this? I have argued that humans have free will, but how does that relate to God’s activity in the world? Human free will is not unfettered, but when – and how – does God actually intervene in the affairs of his creation? Why does he appear to stop evil in some cases, and not in others? Why might he rescue a drowning child, but not millions of people dying at the hands of corrupt governments? And even if free will does help explain the presence of human evil, why has God not put a stop to it already (given that Christians believe he will do so at some stage)? Why does God allow human free will to remain, even in cases where it means the suppression of another’s free will? It could be said that God simply giving ample opportunity for people to freely choose the good, even if they continue to indulge in immoral acts, but the tension still lingers. Also, when should suffering be construed as a consequence of divine judgment? This may have more to do with a Christian perspective on the question of evil, but it arises nonetheless whenever God is invoked. Finally, how does God remain sovereign over the natural world, whilst also giving it a freedom to develop in its own, sometimes-destructive, manner? These questions may never receive adequate answers (though in upcoming posts, I shall attempt to do so), for to know them properly is to know the mind of God. Hopefully, however, I have given some account of how a belief in God is not inconsistent with the presence of evil in this world.