March 30, 2020

Another Look: Surd Evil, Serpents, and the Cosmic Battle

Note from CM: I expressed some of the most important developments in my thinking about creation and life in this world in this post back in 2010. I continue to find it relevant, and never more than in these days through which we are living.

• • •

Originally posted July 3, 2010

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking)

A common Christian viewpoint attributes all the world’s disharmony, chaos, trouble, evil and its consequences to Adam’s sin. I have come to think the Bible does not teach that.

True, Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…” However, this text only says that human death is the consequence of our forefather’s transgression. Furthermore, it may be speaking only of human death of a certain kind — covenantal death, exile, separation from God, condemnation. As I read it, Adam and Eve were created mortal, subject to physical death. When they lost the Garden, they lost access to the Tree of Life, which was their hope (and the world’s) of both immortality and God’s eternal blessing.

Be that as it may, you find nothing in this text about earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, accidents, plant and animal death, disease, or any other “natural” forms of “evil” in the world. You won’t find them explicitly in Genesis either. Is it possible that the chaotic and destructive aspects of life in creation, elements that we would have a difficult time defining as “good” (as in Genesis 1) find their source somewhere else?

This article tries to help us think about that question. It suggests that the world Adam entered was not the “paradise” we imagine. The Garden in which he and Eve lived was rather an enclave protected from a harsher world around them.

In conjunction with this post, I also want to recommend a piece on the same subject — “Death and Evil existed before the Fall” at Austin’s Blog. Both of us owe our understanding primarily to the teaching of Bruce Waltke, whose Genesis commentary and OT Theology discuss this subject.

Despite one common interpretation of the fall story in Genesis 3, I have come to think that the story of Adam and Eve’s transgression and its consequences does not indicate a radical change in the nature of creation itself as the result of human sin.

Some will object, and say:

If, before the fall, plants and organisms decayed, if carnivorous animals ate other animals, if earthquakes shook the land, if meteors crashed onto the earth’s surface, if entire species died out and became extinct, if bacteria and viruses caused illnesses and suffering, if accidents occurred, causing injury and pain, if ancestors of humanity and perhaps even other human beings on the earth before Adam and Eve lived and experienced the vicissitudes of life and then died, if as Tennyson famously wrote, nature was “red in tooth and claw,” even at the beginning, then doesn’t that undermine the teaching of scripture that all these evils are to be attributed to the fall of humankind and the entrance of sin into the world?

I don’t think so.

Chaos at the Beginning
The first indication that all is not right in God’s creation is not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1:2 — “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep.”

The story of the six days of “creation” begins with the world already present, covered in darkness and watery chaos. This negative state is hostile to life. The Hebrew words tohu wabohu (formless and void) indicate a trackless wilderness, an inhospitable environment incapable of sustaining a “good” existence.

In his commentary on Genesis, Bruce Waltke elucidates the theological implications of this. This negative state at the beginning of creation indicates the presence of “surd evil” — evil that we cannot rationally explain. The origin of this evil has not been revealed to us. It is not dualistic, eternally existing and co-equal with God, for the Bible makes clear that it ultimately operates under his sovereign control. Nevertheless, we see it operating in the world before human sin.

The precreated state of the earth with darkness and chaos suggests that everything hostile to life is not a result of sin. This is Job’s discovery (Job 38-41). Job is mystified by his whole experience of suffering. God’s response is to make clear that everything negative in creation from the human perspective is not a result of human sin. The chaotic forces — sea, darkness, and the like — are a mystery to human beings. Although these forces seem, for the moment, hostile to life, human beings can still trust the benevolence of the Creator because the malevolent forces of creation operate only within his constraints. (p. 68f)

One main point of the creation account in Genesis 1 is to show how God brought order to a chaotic earth and made it habitable for his creatures and humans. He turned tohu into tob (good). “All is bounded by God’s control” (Waltke, p. 69).

Surd evil was present before human sin, and continues in the world under the providential oversight of God until the day it too will be swallowed up in new creation.

A Dark Power in the World
Another indication that there is more to evil in the world than that which results from the fall is found in Genesis 3, before the account of human disobedience.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’” (3:1)

Before Adam and Eve take their first bite of forbidden fruit, the author introduces us to the serpent. I don’t think Moses had anything against snakes in particular, although forty years in the desert might have given him an aversion to them. The text suggests that there was a Dark Power behind this serpent. Animals don’t talk in the Bible unless some spiritual personage gets hold of them and makes use of their tongues.

From whence did this Dark Power come? Does not his very presence, his questioning of God’s character and words, his active role in tempting Adam and Eve to disobey God, testify to the fact that all was not right in the world even before human sin?

The Cosmic Battle
Although we commonly go to Genesis 1-2 to study the story of creation, there is more than one text discussing this subject in the Bible. A common theme in these passages is the “cosmic battle” by which God tamed the forces of chaos and established order in the world. This emphasis is also present, though muted, in Genesis 1.

As Peter Enns writes:

One of the ways the Old Testament describes creation is through a conflict between Yahweh and the sea (or “waters” or one of the sea monsters, Leviathan or Rahab). Sea is a symbol of chaos, and so Yahweh’s victory in the conflict establishes order. He is the creator, the supreme power. Israel’s proper response is awe and praise.

Some examples:

Psalm 104:5-7
He established the earth upon its foundations,
So that it will not totter forever and ever.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters were standing above the mountains.
At Your rebuke they fled,
At the sound of Your thunder they hurried away.

God did not just “separate” the waters, he rebuked them and they fled to their appointed locations. This pictures God and “the waters” in conflict with one another, and God putting them in their place.

Psalm 89:8-11
O LORD God of hosts, who is like You, O mighty LORD?
Your faithfulness also surrounds You.
You rule the swelling of the sea;
When its waves rise, You still them.
You Yourself crushed Rahab like one who is slain;
You scattered Your enemies with Your mighty arm.
The heavens are Yours, the earth also is Yours;
The world and all it contains, You have founded them.

Our Creator is the one who rules over the seas, stilling them, and crushing the enemy forces of chaos that exists within them, here called Rahab, the great sea monster.

Psalm 74:12-17
Yet God is my king from of old,
Who works deeds of deliverance in the midst of the earth.
You divided the sea by Your strength;
You broke the heads of the sea monsters in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
You gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You broke open springs and torrents;
You dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, Yours also is the night;
You have prepared the light and the sun.
You have established all the boundaries of the earth;
You have made summer and winter.

Note how God’s creation acts are described as “deeds of salvation (deliverance)”! It took his “strength” to divide the waters, which involved breaking“the heads of the sea monsters in the waters” and crushing “the heads of Leviathan.” Note also how the emphasis of the text is bring order out of chaos, of “establishing boundaries,” thus organizing his creation so that it is “good” for his creatures.

Job 38:4-11
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements — surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut in the sea with doors

when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed”?

See also Job 41, where God graphically describes the power of Leviathian: “Who can confront it and be safe? Under the whole heaven, who?” (Job 41:11). God the almighty Creator, that’s who! He and he alone is able to thwart the forces of chaos, command the raging sea into its place, and tame the wild beasts of the sea that foment disarray and destruction.

One evidence of God’s final victory in this cosmic battle is Revelation 21:1 — “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

Is this “cosmic battle” emphasis seen in Genesis 1, the foundational account of creation? Yes, there are at least a few indications that this “cosmic battle” against the sea and Leviathan inform the author of Genesis 1.

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. (1:2)

And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. (1:20-21)

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ (1:28)

We’ve already discussed how the negative state described in 1:2 suggests a creation in which surd evil is present even before the fall. In fact, the word “deep” in Hebrew is very close to the name of the Babylonian god “Tiamat,” the power of the ocean. In their creation epic, the god Marduk kills Tiamat, splitting her in half, and uses her body parts to make heaven and earth. Genesis 1 makes a subtle allusion to this myth as it portrays God taming the darkness and the deep.

In verses 20-21, note now God mentions only one specific creature in sky and seas: the great sea creatures. This may be read as a polemic against Babylonian myths representing these sea monsters as great powers that the Babylonian gods had to defeat in order to achieve victory. In contrast, the one living and true God, creator of land, sea, and skies, simply brought forth these creatures and populated the seas with them. They are mere works of his hand.

Verse 28 says that part of humankind’s vocation is to “subdue” the land. This is a word that indicates a battle that humans must win against elements of creation that resist the “good” order God set in place.

What does this “cosmic battle” emphasis say to our subject? It says that the Bible portrays the presence of forces and powers opposed to God active in the universe and in the world before the first act of human sin. God had to perform “acts of salvation” (Ps 74:12) even to create the world! In creation, he delivered the world from conditions of chaos and disorder, bringing order and “goodness” to it, so that his creatures could live in his blessing. Those forces are still present, but they are kept within the boundaries that God’s sovereign, providential rule has established.

What about Romans 8?
Paul seems to infer that creation is “groaning” because God subjected it to the curse delineated in Genesis 3. Here is Romans 8:18-25 (NASB):

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.

C. John Collins suggests that the key term in Rom. 8 is “slavery to corruption”. In the LXX of Genesis this term “corruption” is used, not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 6:11-13, where it says that the world became corrupt in God’s sight because “all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.” Collins writes,

Seen this way, the creation is “in bondage to decay,” not because of changes in the way it works but because of the “decay” (or corruption) of mankind, and in response to man’s “decay” God “brings decay to” (or “destroys”) the earth to chastise man. The creation is “subjected to futility” because it has sinful mankind in it, and thus it is the arena in which mankind expresses its sin and experiences God’s judgments. No wonder it “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” for then the sons of God will be perfect in holiness, and sin will be no more. (Genesis 1-4, p. 184)

Human sin did not introduce all forms of evil and chaos into the world, but it did intensify them. Human beings, who were called to exercise dominion over the world, have become corrupted, and under their rule the world sinks even deeper into chaos. Acting out in a world where surd evil often rears its ugly head, voluntarily in league with the Evil One who first tempted them to sin, aligning themselves and cooperating with the cosmic forces opposed to God’s rule and righteousness, sinful human beings threaten to turn tob (good) back into tohu wabohu (an uninhabitable wasteland).

This effort shall not prevail. Our hope is in God, who in Jesus is making a new creation. In the new heavens and new earth, all forms of evil and chaos shall be destroyed, and everything in heaven and on earth reconciled to God through Christ.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:8-9, NRSV)

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The Raising of Lazarus, Giotto

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First Sunday under the stay-at-home order in Indiana. Fifth Sunday in Lent. Gospel text: John 11:18-26, 30-37.

A Lenten Brunch Response to Pharisaic Idiocy: March 28, 2020

Seattle Daily Times, 1918

Lenten Brunch Lite 5: March 28, 2020

This Lenten season has been somewhat overwhelmed by all the attention paid to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has given us all an opportunity to ponder some fundamental aspects of what we believe and how we view the world (certainly consistent with Lent’s purpose).

This morning I want to respond with utmost disagreement to a purportedly Christian perspective on what’s happening, from an article by R.R. Reno at First Things. Here is a key passage from his article:

In our simple-minded picture of things, we imagine a powerful fear of death arises because of the brutal deeds of cruel dictators and bloodthirsty executioners. But in truth, Satan prefers sentimental humanists. We resent the hard boot of oppression on our necks, and given a chance, most will resist. How much better, therefore, to spread fear of death under moralistic pretexts.

This is what is happening in New York as I write. The media maintain a drumbeat of warnings. And the message is not just that you or I might end up in an overloaded emergency room gasping for air. We are more often reminded that we can communicate the virus to others and cause their deaths.

Just so, the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere. Governor Cuomo and other officials insist that death’s power must rule our actions. Religious leaders have accepted this decree, suspending the proclamation of the gospel and the distribution of the Bread of Life. They signal by their actions that they, too, accept death’s dominion.

This is nonsense. A complete failure to discern pile of nonsense. Pharisaic nonsense.

Reno imagines that putting into practice what we have learned from science and public health studies, now being advocated in an effort to save lives and protect the vulnerable is a wholesale capitulation to a materialistic mindset that is captive to the fear of death.

To support his argument, Reno imagines a laughable interpretation of what happened during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Kentucky Post and Kentucky Times-Star, 1918-19

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.

This is so preposterous that I cannot believe a major Christian publication would even think of printing it. Look at the newspapers from those days! (see images) Furthermore, we learned from 1918. One thing we learned is that those cities (such as St. Louis) that practiced more severe forms of social distancing saved many more lives than those who didn’t (such as Philadelphia). This was about protecting people, not imprisoning them under death’s captivity.

In his response to Reno’s awful article,

The primary virtue of this world is autonomy: the sacred and inviolable right to self-rule. Individuals ought to do as they otherwise would despite the potential harm they would do to others or their community. Cities ought to return immediately to their daily rhythms regardless of what those rhythms might spread. Nations ought to pursue their economic prosperity without regard for how the very mechanisms that generate economic activity establish the conditions health experts warn us to avoid. Anyone who advocates for a break from life already in progress is under the sway of the power of death. The moral choice to act for the good of others, whether on the personal or social level, is thereby invalidated.

DeLorenzo is also on point when he says that the genuine Christian response to our current crisis is found, as always, in the cruciform way of Christ, who chose to sacrifice himself for the well being of others, especially the most vulnerable. Letting go of a bit of our autonomy for the good of our neighbors seems like a small sacrifice to me. And if we are asked to give more, then may God continue to guide us in a Jesus-shaped way.

In contrast, Reno’s article is preposterous, Pharisaic, and a complete failure to discern what it means to be a Christian in the world, especially in times of crisis.

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