A Very Good Place

Week of Monday, September 10, 2001

Albert Einstein once remarked that one of the most important questions we can ever ask is whether the universe is a friendly place. Oddly enough, Christians, of all people, often answer this question in the negative. We construe our world as hostile, alien, and evil, and teach our children to regard it with suspicion. Pleasure, for example, especially almost any form of sensual pleasure, is deemed suspect. In such a scheme, only a future heaven saves us from the present evil.

The Biblical picture is different. When you read the creation story in Genesis 1–3 you are in the literary land of theological poetry and not scientific description or historical narrative. This poetry tells us a number of truths about our world, but one in particular has suffered such neglect that we have pretty much forgotten it and are startled to hear it: our world is a very good place. Perhaps the single, most salient feature of the creation narrative is its poetic refrain, repeated six times, that creation is good. As if to punctuate it all, a seventh time we are told that all that God made is very good:

...and God saw that it was good (light)
...and God saw that it was good (earth and seas)
...and God saw that it was good (vegetation)
...and God saw that it was good (sun, moon and stars)
...and God saw that it was good (animals of water and sky)
...and God saw that it was good (animals of the earth)
...and God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good
Chapter two continues the refrain. In 2:9 the trees are “pleasing to the sight and good for food.” In 2:12 we read that “the gold of that land is good.” In this context it is conspicuous that it is “not good” for man to be alone. When we get to the New Testament, Paul boldly affirms that “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4).

In one of my favorite hymns, Folliott S. Pierpoint (1835–1917) captures this Biblical theme of a fundamentally good creation.

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour,
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree, and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and mind's delight,
For the mystic harmony,
Linking sense to sound and sight,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For each perfect gift of Thine,
To our race so freely given,
Graces human and divine,
Flowers of earth and buds of heaven,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

To top it all off, this good creation, says Paul, is for our enjoyment (1 Timothy 4:4).

But what about all the evil and suffering we experience? The Holocaust and sadistic tyrants, congenital birth defects, diseases and natural disasters? Isn't nature itself “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it? This too is part of the creation story. In the Fall we experience a fourfold alienation: from God (fear and hiding, 2:8–10), from each other (blame shifting by both Adam and Eve, 2:12–13, Cain kills Abel, Lamech boasts of his vengeance, 4:9, 23–24), from the earth itself (cursing of the serpent and the very ground itself which now produces thorns, thistles, and the sweaty toil of man, 2:14–19), and even from ourselves (shame, toil, pain in childbirth). The good creation is badly distorted and grossly deformed.

But however tragic, the Biblical story qualifies these realities of evil, sin and suffering with three significant caveats.

First, evil and suffering have no independent existence but rather are privative and parasitic. That is, they are a lack, limitation, distortion or privation of something good (privatio boni). Blindness, for example, is a privation or distortion of sight. In this sense evil and suffering are parasites on the good, and would not even exist without the good.

Next, evil and suffering deserve their due, but they are only partial. They are an important part of life's picture, but not the entire picture so that we should make too much of them. Some even go so far as to turn the tables, that if evil is a problem for the Christian to explain, then an explanation for the good is just as problematic for the unbeliever. HE Fosdick (1878–1969) once remarked, “The mystery of evil is very difficult when we believe in a good God, but the problem of goodness seems to us impossible when we don't.” Similarly, GK Chesterton (1874–1936) once advised that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” Gratitude, goodness and joy, in other words, are traces of the transcendent, what the sociologist Peter Berger called rumors of angels.

Finally, evil and suffering are penultimate. However disturbing, powerful and painful, they are not the last word, but at best only the next-to-the-last word on life. Paul, who experienced his share of suffering and died a martyr's death, writes that although today the creation groans and suffers with pain even too deep for words, these present sufferings cannot be compared to the future glory to be revealed. The creation itself (and not just people), although now subject to futility and frustration, “will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:18–27). When God “makes all things new,” He will wipe away every tear and “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 7:17, 21:4–5).That is creation's ultimate destiny.

As early as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) Christians interpreted Genesis 3:15 and the enmity between Eve and the serpent as prefiguring Christ's victory over Satan. In short, however dark the present evil in our world, it must inevitably give way to final goodness.

By the fifth century the church affirmed that the Fall was a “fortunate crime” (felix culpa). On the evening before the Easter day celebration, churches that used the Roman Missal would sing in the liturgy, “Oh fortunate crime, which merited such and so great a Redeemer.” In Augustine's word's, God deemed that it would be not only good but better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist (Enchiridion 8.27). As long as we are careful not to call evil good, it is entirely Biblical to maintain that even the Fall is part of God's design to reveal to us both Himself and His very good world (Genesis 50:20, Romans 5:20, 8:28).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.