Evil in the Good Book

Question from CM, United Kingdom

What is the Bible’s view of good and evil and how does it compare to that of today’s society (given that western values are supposed to have been built on Christianity) and is there still any common ground?

The Bible’s view of good and evil is best summed up using the classic summary of the Mosaic Law, as found in Matthew chapter 22 verses 37-39: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbour as yourself.” Goodness or righteousness, whichever term we prefer, is bound up in these distilled commandments. The centrality of God in the life of the believer is the means by which a human is declared to be good or not.

As far as the metaphysical problem of why evil exists at all, the Bible gives us no answer. Human sin lies at the root cause of human pain and toil in the early chapters of Genesis – the explanations for pain in childbirth and the labour needed for human beings to eat are the main interests of the author of Genesis. In later tradition, the tempting serpent, often identified with Satan was blamed for the existence of evil. Yet in the Old Testament, moral evil was always related to transgressing divine commands. Natural evil (earthquakes and the like) were calamities that just happened and while God was sovereign over the whole world, he could not be called to account for things like that. It would seem that the Biblical authors had no trouble reconciling an all-powerful, good God with the existence of evil in the world. It is later generations who have wrestled with the ‘problem of evil’.

In fact there are some difficult instances in the Old Testament where it would appear that God is the author of ‘evil’ events. In Isaiah chapter 45 and verse 7, Yahweh speaks through the prophet and claims: “I bring prosperity and create disaster”. This does not mean that God is amoral, or even immoral. Rather it asserts that God is in control of all events and can act in any way he chooses to bring about his purposes.

As far as relating the Biblical concept of goodness (unyielding allegiance to God’s cause), there is obviously little common ground between modern culture and what the Bible thinks is good behaviour. Ironically, the good things in life: prosperity, peace, health, trustworthiness, fidelity, love and laughter are generally all things valued by our society. The Bible quite clearly teaches that the only way to truly grasp these good things, whether in this life or the next, is through submission to God and complete obedience to his commands. Our culture, like all human cultures before it, does not share the same outlook.

I hope this answers your question, CM. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology.

The size and contents of Noah’s ark

Question from JB, Australia

Creationists are well known for explaining the size of Noah’s Ark as adequate to accommodate even dinosaurs, but how can anyone explain how the ark could have accommodated the sheer number of species in the world? One biologist recently estimated that the world today contains thirty million species, 97 per cent of which are insects. The Bible says that the flood wiped out all living things, and that the ark contained all living things. Further, it would seem that sea creatures were not included in the ark, but if not, why would God treat them differently in his plan to destroy all living creatures – except for the one (unclean animal) or seven (clean animal) pairs of each that were taken into the ark?

Thanks for the question, JB. This is a theme that keeps reoccurring at the moment with regards to the early parts of Genesis. There are a number of things to note about the ark story. Firstly, it has been included in Genesis to tell us about God’s character and the fact that God does not tolerate human sin. The story in Genesis chapter 9 verses 18-29 about Noah’s drunkenness shows that the ‘warning’ of the flood did not restore the right relationship between humans and God. It is a mistake to blindly assert the ‘fact’ of the flood without drawing out the reason behind it (see below).

Secondly, there are instances where Biblical terms are literally translated as ‘the whole world’, but probably do not mean the whole world as we are aware of it now. (A good New Testament example of this is in Acts 2 v 5 “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” – really, where are the Welsh?) In the case of the Noah story the Hebrew word translated as ‘earth’ in chapter 6 verse 17 is usually translated as ‘land’ or ‘country’ in chapter 10 verse 10.

The limitations of ‘the whole world’ as a phrase probably refer to the known world, i.e. the region surrounding the Mediterranean and the ‘fertile crescent’. This phrase becomes more enigmatic when we realise that the Noah story is one of the oldest stories in the Bible. Comparative accounts have been found in Babylonian legend, with very close parallels to the Noah story, but without the spiritual message. The likelihood is that there was some kind of civilisation-destroying flood in South Mesopotamia a long time ago in human history (there is certainly evidence in rock formations and silt deposits for this hypothesis). Whether the destruction of ‘the whole world’ as it was known to the writer ‘only’ means Mesopotamia is one way to look at this and does not diminish the catastrophic effect of the flood.

It is very unlikely that dinosaurs were included in Noah’s manifest and many creationists posit the Great Deluge as the extinction event that caused the dinosaurs to die out and, of course, artificially age the Earth considerably. As has been said on freelance theology before, building a huge cosmology on the basis of these Biblical accounts is up to the individual. However, there is a danger that in getting wrapped up in the ‘how’, people can easily lose focus on the ‘why’.

What we see in Genesis and Exodus is a progression. God is in relationship with humans who sin. Punishment does not work. The covenant with Noah’s descendants (all of humanity) soon leads to the prideful project of Babel. With mankind scattered, the next covenant is with Abraham. However, that does not seem to have the holding power it should, so a covenant is made on Sinai with the nation of Israel (one offshoot of Abraham’s family). Even that doesn’t work, hence the Incarnation and a personal covenant made individually, either with the ‘elect’, or those who choose to know ‘Christ and him crucified’ (whatever your view on predestination may be).

Along this timeline, Noah’s story is one of a God angered by human rebellion, pride, selfishness and ingratitude and acts as a warning to wayward human beings today. Asking ‘how big was the ark?’ is not really the issue, in the opinion of this theologian.

I hope this answers your question, JB.

Living the victory

Question from DM, United Kingdom

I have had health difficulties for nearly 5 years and no doctor can cure me (3rd consultant still bemused). Yet sometimes I hear people say we should “Live in the victory”. Can I “live in the victory” without getting better?

To ‘live in the victory’ is one of those Christian phrases that has become so divorced from reality that it frequently adds guilt to the suffering of believers in physical or emotional pain. Living ‘in the victory’ is best understood not as living a life without pain, but as holding onto faith despite pain and trouble.

The victory of Christ over those things that would separate humanity from God is seen in the cross and, as I said in the community talk I gave on Revelation, when we are living the life of victory we live out the crucifixion and that is obviously not a way of avoiding suffering. Perhaps the best way for us to understand suffering is to seek to understand the cross and it’s place in time and eternity.

Martin Luther was one of the first theologians to actively pursue a ‘theology of the cross’. He was keen to assert that God is seen in Christ and that God suffered at the crucifixion. Given that Christ suffered in his human nature and his divine nature, that means his suffering takes on an eternal dimension (hence his ‘one’ death, paying the price for many). Jurgen Moltmann, the twentieth century German theologian took this further, by saying that in his very being God has not only experienced pain and death but also experiences bereavement: the Father losing the Son to death. God therefore, in his eternal nature, somehow experiences pain, death and bereavement – the three worst aspects of mortal existence.

Given that suffering is a hallmark of Jesus’ life, as his followers we can only reproduce authentic Christ-likeness through sharing in his suffering. However, we are ‘citizens of Heaven’ and we are told that through baptism we die to the old life and are raised to the new (see e.g. Romans chapter 6). While this happens here in this life, it seems as though we are in another ‘Kingdom of God’ situation. By that I mean we experience it now and not quite yet, just as the Kingdom is here and is coming soon. Luther, again, faced up to this problem: why do the redeemed suffer? He noted that although we were made blameless in God’s sight, we still lived in a world of sin and were essentially sinful creatures that had ‘put on’ righteousness. We would not actually be made righteous until we were remade in the likeness of Christ with resurrection bodies.

It is therefore not hypocritical to ‘live the victory’ and feel pain. It is perhaps realistic to expect suffering as we should, as Christians, be aware that the world we live in is a fallen world full of sin and pain. Becoming a Christian is not a magic cure-all to the situations we find ourselves in. We follow a God who has chosen to reveal himself most fully in suffering and the only way to truly follow that example is to resolutely believe in the final victory of Christ over suffering, sickness and death even as we experience those things in our daily life.

I hope that this answer helps, DM. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology.

Revelation – a Community Talk

This is the main thrust of my community talk on Sunday June 20. The Biblical passages read out were from Revelation: chapter 13 vv 16-18, chapter 20 v 4, Chapter 21 vv 1-7 & 22-27 and chapter 22 vv 1-5.

As Christians we have a capacity to get used to things being a certain way. I’m pretty sure that if you have heard these passages from Revelation before, you may have got some idea of what I’ll probably be speaking about. Stop me if I’m wrong, but the likelihood is that you’re expecting to hear about the end of the world.

We are conditioned to think of Revelation as future history – stuff that is going to happen as the world comes to an end. Now there’s nothing wrong in looking for that sort of thing in Revelation – in fact the book purports to be a timeline of the end times. But we miss a lot if we think about it solely that way because we remove the relevance to our own life when we think that the events described in Revelation are yet to happen and therefore assume there isn’t much we can draw from it for use in the here and now.

Let’s do some basic groundwork about Revelation. Well it’s a form of literature usually described as ‘apocalyptic’, which is a word based on the Greek word ‘apokalupsis’, which is derived from the Greek word ‘reveal’, hence ‘revelation’. It’s a complicated book, which starts with sections addressed to prominent churches in the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). It’s self-proclaimed author is ‘John’, about whom we know next to nothing, although he is traditionally associated with the apostle John and therefore with the fourth gospel and the short letters found near the end of the Bible. It is assumed from the way verse 9 of chapter 1 is phrased that the writer had been exiled to the slave-labour camps on the island of Patmos because he was a Christian.

The book possesses an urgency in the writing – and not just because it seems to be about doom and destruction. John has a need to tell this story and the fact that it was addressed to churches in different cities and situations implies that the writer believed there was something essentially practical about his revelation.

Running throughout the rather confusing narrative about dragons and beasts and plagues and judgements, there is a twin message: firstly, God is in control; secondly, God will win and those who steadfastly serve God’s purposes will be vindicated. Those are important messages for a church in any age and along the way we can read the stories as repeatedly affirming that true Christians resist anything that is not of God – even to the point of death.

So, what is the context of the time in which John witnessed his revelation? The church was emerging as a separate entity to the Jewish faith and was coming under persecution. The main factor in this was the unwillingness of Christians to participate in Emperor worship. In the Roman world this was treasonable behaviour – the Emperor required the citizens of the Empire worshipped him and there was huge popular support for this. It showed you belonged to the culture, to the Empire. In fact, Emperor worship was very much a grass-roots movement, with cities trying to outdo each other to show how much they valued the opportunity to worship the Emperor, who was regarded as both a ‘living god’, but also the embodiment of the Empire. So, in effect both were worshipped: the Emperor and the Empire.

Now, it has to be said here that the main focus of Revelation in terms of what was happening then is a pretty damning attack on Rome and on Empire worship. The ‘Babylon’ built on seven hills is a coded reference to Rome and some of the prominent evil characters in Revelation (the Beast and the Antichrist) probably refer to the Emperor and the Empire itself. At times John the writer gives Rome and Empire-worship both barrels. There is no way a Christian can tolerate such an idolatrous notion and those who ignorantly worship the Empire end up in the ‘Lake of Fire’.

When I was eleven I went with my parents to the USA. As part of that trip I attended a school where every day the kids would stand up, place their hand on heart, say the pledge of allegiance and salute the flag. In a Christian young people’s group I went to, the same pledge of allegiance went on.

Now I felt uncomfortable with this as a child and I didn’t really know why, apart from the fact that I’m not an American. It was only a few years later that I realised why this struck me as so wrong – it’s Empire worship. It’s standing up and saluting a man-made thing. It’s swearing allegiance to a human-created nation. You might think I’m making a big deal out of nothing, but as I see the American ‘might-is-right’ philosophy exercised on the world stage, it leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

I find it very difficult reading some of the very right wing Christian literature produced these days that makes patriotism and the ‘American way’ essential facets of Christian belief. ‘My country, right or wrong’ is not a Biblical tenet. Even in the God-instituted state of Israel, it was not a case of ‘my country, right or wrong’ – the Prophets calling the rulers of Israel repeatedly to account are proof of this. Revering ‘old glory’ and exalting a human-penned constitution is the kind of deluded idolatry that Revelation warns leads directly to the spirit of Antichrist.

At this point, I’m hoping that we beginning to see how Revelation isn’t just about the future – it’s also about the present.

The bit we read on here about the ‘mark of the beast’ is also something that we can apply to the present. Now a lot of mental energy has been expended on trying to work out what this mark could be. Some people have said its credit card numbers or social security identifications. If you read the fictionalised end times books like Left Behind and the several clones (and I would recommend that you don’t read those books), then the mark of the beast is always something very literal like a microchip inserted under the skin or whatever.

But let’s take a step back from literalism for a moment and consider some of the underlying symbolism. Why foreheads and hands? Well these two important parts of the body are the focal points for our thought life and our actions. We think and we do.

In Jewish tradition at the time it was customary for men to wear phylacteries. These were small leather pouches or wooden boxes attached to the forehead and wrist. They contained the laws of Moses written on tiny scraps of parchment. (This followed on from God’s command to do this in Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 8). The phylacteries were a memory aid; a sign of whose law you were keeping; a reminder of whose side you were on. The ‘mark of the beast’ betrays the fact that you are on the other side – anti-God and siding with Antichrist. As we seek to follow Jesus we must be aware that our thoughts and our deeds betray which side we are on.

If we are obsessed with earning money or respect from other people, if we are spending our time plotting Machiavellian ways to climb the corporate ladder, if we are more concerned with how things look than with how things actually are, then this betrays which law we are following. If we are bitching about people behind their back, actively doing things we know are wrong, being two-faced and breaking confidences, then this betrays whose side we are on. If we are going to act as fallen humans then we may as well have the mark of the beast on our hands and on our foreheads. To assume that the beastly mark is going to be the product of the reign of Antichrist is missing the point that our thoughts and actions have to come entirely under Christ’s control.

That isn’t always easy. We do slip up as human beings, although we have to be aware that because as human beings we fail doesn’t mean we should accept failure as inevitable. We are on a journey and every time we wander slightly off the path, which is perhaps bound to happen, we are faced with choices. We can try and get back on the path, we can carry on into the undergrowth and see where we end up, or we can slump down in a dejected heap.

In Revelation those with the beastly mark are in opposition to those who are remade in the image of God through believing in Christ. Revelation has a very high view of redeemed humanity. Redeemed humans are marked out for Christ. They don’t carry the mark of the beast. In Revelation 22 God’s servants carry his name on their foreheads. As we walk this journey together we must appreciate this fact: We carry God’s name. We bear the image of God in us. We take God to a Godless world. In effect, we bring Heaven to those who are going to hell.

Heaven is another idea that we have been conditioned to think about and the conditioning works two ways. Firstly, heaven is meant to be the most positive thing in the life of the believer – look at this promise: a place “with no death, mourning, crying or pain”, where everything is new, where the nations are healed, where the glory of God illuminates everything and there is no more curse, a place that is forever. Yet when we think about heaven, what do we think about? We think about dying.

What a way to remove the power of the promise of heaven! ‘Yeah, it’s going to be great, but first you’re going to have to die, probably painfully, and everyone you know will have to die too. But once you’re dead and the misery is over it’s something to look forward to.’ Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s almost as if someone decided ‘Ooh this heaven thing is nice to think about, we’d better spoil it.’

We are already citizens of heaven, which leads me onto the second part of our conditioning. Not only do we think about heaven only as a result of our dying, but we assume that because heaven will be perfect there’s no need for us to try and make this world a bit better.

I don’t believe that’s how we should be looking at it. As citizens of heaven we should be seeking to bring heaven into everyday life. This is shown in Revelation 21. Heaven descends to Earth and God will dwell with human beings. We are already citizens of heaven, even though we are living this life here and now. In some way heaven has come to Earth through our being displaced citizens of heaven as a prophetic statement of what will eventually happen when the New Jerusalem comes down. We are not just remade in the image of God, bearing the mark of Christ – we are also bearers of Heaven, actually bringing God to people and being the means in which God dwells among humans this side of the New Jerusalem.

Do we still feel pain? Yes. Will we still die? Yes. We’ll get sick, we’ll hurt, we’ll be emotionally wounded. The victory of Christ is in the crucifixion so when we are living the life of victory we are living out the crucifixion and that is obviously not a way of avoiding suffering. We die so that our bodies that “are sown perishable are raised imperishable”, “and just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (1 Corinthians 15 v 42 and v 49). But we begin bearing the likeness of the man from heaven from the moment we die to sin and allow our old lives to be nailed to the cross.

Bearing the mark of true humanity – redeemed humanity – as we bear the mark of Christ means heaven begins at the cross. We carry heaven wherever we tread in the name of God. For us, heaven begins right here, right now. The promise of the New Jerusalem becomes our world-view as we seek to bring this world closer to heaven.