God is love. God is good. God is control. If I were an atheist, I would enjoy taking those claims, pulling out a newspaper, and pinning Christians to the wall. How can a believer explain the depravity and suffering of the world without losing touch with logic, finding excuses for God, or abandoning their faith entirely?
I propose that it is impossible to understand the relationship between God and man if we do not understand 1) the history of our relationship, and 2) the character and intentions of our Creator. I believe that a proper understanding of these two issues can offer some insight on this challenging and important topic.
THEM, NOT HIM
God is a community of free persons, not an individual. The significance of this reality cannot be understated. Jews, who scrutinize the same Old Testament as Christians, would disagree. They believe in one God, Yahweh. God cannot be three. But then Jesus showed up and threw a wrench in the gears. Actually, he threw wrenches into a lot of gears.
If we want to understand the heart and mind of God, or gain insight on the human condition, we have to start with Jesus. As God in the flesh, and the perfect example of a spiritual man, he is the clearest revelation we have.
Before Jesus, the concept of an afterlife was bound to Sheol, a literal underworld. Then Jesus started talking about heaven and hell. He exposed the dominion of Satan and his demons, a concept barely addressed in the Old Testament. He got to the heart of the Law of Moses, which had been lost through legalism. Most importantly, he revealed that God exists not in solidarity, but as a communion of free persons, the Trinity.
In John 14 – 16, Jesus explains that the union he shares with his Father is not based in some mystical reality impossible to understand, but in a genuine relationship based in self-giving love and mutual submission. The Holy Spirit is described in the same terms. The three of them share a love that is so pure that the phrase “not my will, but yours be done” can be seen as a sort of mantra, creating a unity that is hard for our independent, self-oriented minds to comprehend.
Creation was an act of community. I Corinthians 8:6 states that all things were made from and for the Father, and by and through the Son. The Spirit of God is active as well, moving across the void, turning something dark and formless into something light and beautiful.
God created the cosmos with the spoken word, but when he made humanity, he breathed his own life into him, establishing a unique connection. Only by looking at the whole of Scripture can we see that Adam and Eve were joined to God by the Holy Spirit, allowing them to bear his perfect image and share dominion on the earth (Gen. 1:26). How can we be sure? Sometimes the solution to a problem (spiritual life and sanctification) can shed light on the problem itself (spiritual death and depravity).
After God made man in his image, he said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Of course. How could a Trinity support a life of isolation? When Eve is introduced, the man and woman are declared “one flesh.” But wait . . . they’re different. Apparently, from God’s perspective, unity is based in freedom and love, not in uniformity or control.
Not only were Adam and Eve unique on the earth, they were put in charge of it. Although God named the earth and sky, affirming his authority over all, Adam named the animals, affirming his role as manager. Just like heaven is the domain of God, and hell was made for rebellious angels, the earth was made for man, and it was placed under his care.
OUT OF EDEN
Then something happened that drove a wedge between God and man. This wedge is presented as a veil in Scripture, a fiery sword blocking humanity from an Eden of perfect fellowship and proper function. I agree with CS Lewis in thinking that the Fall of Genesis 3 suggests a tragedy that goes beyond the fable-like elements of Eden—trees with names, naïve nudity, talking snakes and magic fruit. The divorce between God and man must have been as messy as any divorce could be, with lasting effects.
How could God allow something like this to happen? Well, Sting was right. “If you love someone, set them free.” Love is not about programming or power. I love my wife when I choose her over other women, when I choose to restrain my own will and desires for her benefit. If I don’t have a choice, I can’t really love her. Not really.
If God is love, as his disciples claimed, he would create free persons with the ability to genuinely love him back. Of course, with that kind of freedom comes an inherent danger. What if they love someone else? What if they love themselves?
Even the angels were made free. Satan wanted freedom without the limitations that relationships require. He was jealous of God’s power, so he used his freedom to try to take his throne. If God ruled with an iron fist, Satan’s rebellion would be unthinkable. It reminds me of when Absalom wanted to take the kingdom from his father, and David, unwilling to use his sovereign power against his own son, left Jerusalem. Perhaps this could explain why a third of the angels sided with Satan. Sometimes power is more attractive than love.
I realize that when God puts his foot down, it’s not pretty. But don’t forget that this same God told his disciples, “I am meek and humble in heart.” Sounds like a good parent, not a schizophrenic.
God defeated the devil, and sent him and his angels to earth. Then he put humans there. Why would God put a clever, power-hungry angel on earth with naïve human beings? Did he want them to fall?
Again, the answer comes by looking at the solution. Imagine putting Jesus, the last Adam, in the garden of Eden. Jesus would tell the devil and his angels what to do and where to go. The first Adam had the same rights and power. He should have been the devil’s jail keeper, but instead, he listened to his lies, and abandoned his God.
So how did the earth ultimately fall to the devil as Jesus claims? Think about it this way: Man with the Holy Spirit is like a lion tamer with a whip. He would be the dominant species in any lion cage. But if the tamer loses his whip, who becomes the dominant species?
Free creatures exist in a hierarchy of power. Now that man has been veiled from God, he falls down the list of dominant species, losing his spiritual strength and security, losing his ability to rule effectively.
BACK TO EDEN
Judging from the parables, humanity was like a prodigal son that wanted his independence. As we see in Romans 1, God’s “wrath” was to let him go. The sentiment behind the parables reveals that Jesus came to earth on a rescue mission, eager to retrieve the coin that rolled away, the treasure that was buried, the sheep that wandered off. The Fall was not some divine set up for some future glory. It was a genuine tragedy of human freedom.
STAGE 1: Adam to Noah
We can’t blame everything on the devil. God told Cain that he was responsible to manage his own sin. When the veil was drawn between God and man, the earth became like a world of children without parents, creatures living in the strength of their natural minds and passions, grasping at whatever advantage they could take. In the few chapters between Adam and Noah, we are presented with stories of murder, lust, greed and rampant violence.
Would any theologian claim that God was in control of the lives of these people? If the depravity before the flood was God’s will, why would he regret making humanity? Why would he send a flood to wipe the earth clean?
No, we see in these chapters that man is free, the devil is free, and God is free. But God, as Creator, is also sovereign, which means that when he wanted to send the flood, he didn’t have to ask permission.
STAGE 2: Abraham to Jesus
At Babel, we see that the effects of sin not only survived the flood, but that people were beginning to organize themselves against God. First, God slows them down by confusing their languages, then he starts a program of redemption with Abraham, a man that resonated with the divine mantra, “not my will, but yours be done.”
Through Abraham, God sets apart a nation with a specific purpose and destiny. Think of them as a teaser trailer for cosmic redemption. Through Moses, God gives the people a set of rules and rituals that were meant to sanctify their relationships and behavior, unifying them in righteousness. God uses prophets to urge the people to remain true to these principles despite their sinful tendencies.
But even with shortened lifespans and the advantage of a divine government, Israel lives up to its name (wrestles with God). After 70 X 7 years, God finally had enough of Israel’s spiritual unfaithfulness and, in his own words, sent them a certificate of divorce. Assyria wipes out the ten northern tribes, and Babylon takes the southern tribes into exile. The Jews that finally return to Jerusalem vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the Law of Moses.
By the time Jesus showed up, they had made of god of their own Law, losing touch with the elements that were supposed to bind them to their Creator and one another. They were blinded by their own arrogance and legal paranoia to the point that they could not recognize Yahweh when he was standing right in front of them. In fact, despite the direct warning of Christ, they rejected and killed him, instigating a more severe judgment than all the previous generations combined.
STAGE 3: Jesus and the Church
Jesus rose from the grave, ascended to his Father, and sent the Holy Spirit to his people, starting a new, spiritual Israel, the Church. This time, the Law was not written on stones, powered by human effort, but on human hearts, powered by the indwelling Spirit of God. Through Christ, the veil is torn, God and man are reunited, and the meek are gradually being transformed into the perfect image and likeness of God, inheriting the earth, reclaiming their whips.
Jesus claimed that he came to bind up the strong man (devil) and plunder his goods (fallen humanity). This continues to be the mission of the Church. In his divine authority, men and women are sent to all the nations of the world to release those in spiritual bondage, to bear witness to the truth with their love for one another and their holy lifestyles.
Believers today have a major advantage over ancient Israel, but God still wants real relationship with his people, free person to free person. That is why he will often remain silent or even allow suffering in a believer’s life, waiting for his people to engage with him, urging them to break through their self-oriented patterns until they settle into a posture of humility and surrender. His death plus our death equals eternal life.
Outside the Church, the world is still the world, just as free and rudderless as the world before the flood. That means the lust, greed and violence we see is perfectly natural, despite the fact that our movies and novels still applaud things like faithfulness, honesty, love and self-sacrifice. We still sense what is right, even though our disjointed hearts can’t seem to follow through with it.
STAGE 4: Hope
But this is not the end. In Revelation, we are assured that the devil will be cast out along with all who emulate his self-oriented patterns of behavior. We are assured that the relationship between God and Man and Creation will be set right again. In fact, the images in Revelation reflect the symbols of Eden—flowing streams, animals at peace, a Tree of Life—drawing the story of Biblical history full circle.
For now, as Christ explained, the roots of the wheat are tangled with the roots of the weeds. This is the reality of our world. In one sense, when God created free systems he became the author of both good and evil, though he is not directly responsible for the acts of his free creatures.
He is also not restricted by human freedom. If he wants a prophet, he can call one from the womb. If he wants to harden the hearts of the obstinate Jews in order to open the door to the Gentiles, he has every right to do so. Whatever he does, it is always for the good of his creation, just like a physician might use harmful chemicals or even amputation to heal a diseased body.
If we can begin to believe that God is always good, and understand where we are in the story arc of history, we can engage with God in a genuine and healthy way, allowing him to disentangle our selfish minds and turn our affections toward righteousness, toward him. Only then can we live with the confidence, security and gratitude of a prodigal son in the arms of his father, and help other prodigals to find their way home.