Why would a Good God allow Suffering and Death?

I had used the story of Pinocchio, his destiny hanging in the balance, to help us see the stark and eternal contrasts between the two roads that opened up before us with our forebears’ rebellion in the Garden. And God, with his veiled foreshadowing of the coming Redeemer at the dawn of history, wanted us to see and choose this path of redemption that He would carve out for us. But there was a more immediate problem that God had to deal with.

Adam and Original Sin

In his Declaration of Independence something in Adam changed. As I went over in Corrupted (Part 2) … Missing our Target, immediately after his defiance he tried to cover up. He would not accept responsibility. What Adam started we continue because we have inherited that disposition. Some misunderstand the Biblical account to infer that we are blamed for the rebellion of Adam. In fact, the only one blamed is Adam (ex. Romans 5:14) but we do live in the consequences of that rebellion. We can think of it genetically. As our parents have had genetic mutations, we receive them and, in turn, pass them on to our offspring.  Similarly, through characteristics passed from parent to offspring we have inherited this mutinous nature of Adam and thus innately, sometimes unconsciously, but still willfully, we continue the uprising that he started.  This is what is meant by Original Sin.

Adam – Head of Human Race

We can also think of it in terms of headship. The following real situation helped me start to better understand what the Bible means when it says we are ‘in’ Adam. In recent times several Canadian provinces have been involved in high-stakes negotiations with aboriginal groups over their logging, fishing and hunting rights. At the heart of the negotiations lies the fact that several hundred years ago British generals signed treaties as British representatives on behalf of the Queen and British Empire with the then-living aboriginal leaders over the rights that the British Empire would grant them. In short, treaties were signed back then and the parties are now negotiating over the implications. What is interesting is that no one today had any say in the treaties signed back then, yet all parties today are bound by them. It is no use to protest, “But I did not sign the treaty”. In fact, there was not even a Canada (or provinces) back then, yet the Canadian government still has legal and moral responsibility to uphold (though they may not like it, and do find it economically inconvenient) what the treaties stipulated. In a very real sense, the British general of yesteryear was representing every Canadian who would ever live. These men, whoever they were, created a reality for Canadians living today that we must abide by. In this sense we can say that Canadians living today were ‘in’ those generals who signed back then and are thus bound by the treaties they created. These generals form a headship for Canadians today with respect to these ancient signed treaties.

Similarly, when a nation goes to war with another, it takes only one, the Head of State, to declare war and all citizens of that state, whether they like it or not, are then implicated. When US President Roosevelt declared war on Germany and Japan in World War II, all Americans were at war with Germany and Japan. American citizens were ‘in’ Roosevelt and what the Head of State put in effect applied to all. In similar ways, the Bible tells us that we are ‘in’ Adam. He is Head of Man and the Declaration of Independence from God that he started implicates us all.

God’s Obliges

And God, true to the essence of freedom of choice, respected Adam’s decision. His love for Adam was not some sort of co-dependent ‘need’ for him. But God, in his overall plan to redeem us, which He declared in that veiled manner using the promise of the coming offspring, also set things up so we could better ‘see’ the destiny toward which our Independence was taking us. Adam (and descendants) needed to understand, in a real sense needed to feel, the consequences of their rebellion and the start of their own pseudo-jurisdiction. As Adam was corrupted by his rebellion, God cursed the world he lived in so he could get a taste of what life apart from God would be like. As God said to Adam:

“…the ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains. By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:17-19)

Lives of people would now be marked by frustration, struggle and finally death. But this was not done out of spite. We wanted a Divorce and God is obliging with an initial Separation. The Divorce will come and it will be Permanent (more on that later), but for now He is helping us feel the consequences of our Separation. When a rebellious teenager wants to move out of the parents’ house, the parents may oblige, but to help them see consequences they do not pay the teen’s newly acquired rent. The teen needs to experience the full implications of their new autonomy. Then they may realize it was not so bad at home after all – and may decide to come back. In a similar way, since we chose independence from God, and He is in actual fact the source of life, we needed to get a taste of what death – being apart from God – would be like. God was setting the stage so we will perhaps come to our senses, lay down our arms, and re-enter the new covenant with Him.

In other words, God partly obliged our desire for autonomy by bringing about frustration into our world that would give us a taste or feel for what existence Divorced from Him would ultimately entail. Often referred to as the Curse, it is explained Biblically in the following way:

19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 19-23)

It states that ‘the creation was subjected to frustation’, i.e., it was imposed on it by God. This ‘frustration’ is its universal ‘bondage to decay’ – mutation, disease, death (and extinction) in the biological world, and increasing entropy or disorder in the physical world. Things run downhill, wear out, rust out, break down – both the creation and we ourselves are ‘groaning’ in this state. Notice though the causal connection. Verse 19 says the creation is waiting for the ‘sons of God to be revealed’ for (v.20) it had been frustrated. Therefore the ‘sons of God’ must have been key to the original imposing of the frustration. When mankind became corrupt God placed a frustration on the world – a Curse. The revealing of redeemed humanity, now the ‘sons of God’, like the return of Pinocchio to Jepetto, will herald the release from this frustration.

But why was that done? This Curse would include all the hellish things of our current existence, chief among them: aging, sickness, pain, and death. And here we come to some diametrically opposing views. Many today, including well-known skeptics use this as a primary argument against God. Bart Ehrman, arch New Testament critic, succinctly expresses this view in his statement:

“There came a time when I left the faith … because I could no longer reconcile my faith in God with the state of the world that I saw all around me … there is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving God who is in control”  Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted. 2010. p. 17

Why would God arrange things in such a way as to give Ehrman and others such ammunition, and indeed such unspeakable wretchedness in the lives of so many? My experience living in Africa and then returning to Canada gave me a glimpse into why He may have done this … in my next post.

The Final Countdown – Embedded in the Beginning

In my last few posts I have looked at how mankind and Lucifer fell from their initial created state. I then used the story of Pinocchio that has helped me to visualize and understand what God was hoping for His creation. But hope is one thing, an executed plan is another.  Jepetto (the creator in Pinocchio) did not have a plan to redeem Pinocchio (it happened apart from him), and here the Pinocchio analogy falls short. In the Biblical account, God has a plan that He will execute. This plan has two parts: A Promise and a Curse. Here I look at the Promise and later I look at the Curse.

The Bible – Really a Library

To appreciate the significance of this Promise we must know some basic things about the Bible. Though it is a book, and we think of it as such, it is actually more accurate to think of it as a mobile library. This is because it is a collection of books, written by a diverse set of authors, over a time span that exceeds 1500 years, which today is bound up into one volume. This fact alone makes the Bible unique among the Great Books of the world. The different books of the Bible make statements, declarations and predictions that later books pick up on. If the Bible was written by just one author, or a group of authors that knew each other that should not cause us to take note. But the authors of the Bible are separated by hundreds and even thousands of years, writing in different civilizations, languages, social strata, and literary genres – yet their messages, allusions and predictions are picked up seamlessly by later authors or are fulfilled through facts of history verifiable outside the Bible. This makes the Bible unique on a whole different level – and knowing that we should take note. Existing manuscript copies of these books are dated to about 200 BC so the textual base of the Bible is better, by far, than all other ancient books of the world.

I gave a public presentation recently entitled Does God Exist? at McMaster University and will upload the whole presentation shortly. But I have included the first 10 minutes in the video clip below which covers the diversity of authors and the manuscript texts of the books in the Bible. View it to better appreciate the points I am making above.

The Gospel Promise in the Garden

We see this foreshadowing ability clearly in the Creation and Fall account right at the beginning of the book of Genesis in the Bible. In other words, though it is recounting the Beginning, it was written with the End in view.  Here we see a Promise when God confronts Satan (Lucifer) and speaks to him in a riddle:

“… and I (God) will put enmity between you (Satan) and the woman and between your offspring and hers. He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

This is a Promise in riddle form – but it is understandable. Reading carefully you will see that there are five different characters mentioned and that this is prophetic in that it is looking forward-in-time (seen by the repeated use of ‘will’ as in future tense). The characters are:

  1. God
  2. Satan (or Lucifer)
  3. The woman
  4. The offspring of the woman
  5. The offspring of Satan

And the riddle predicts how these characters will relate to each other in the future. This is shown below

Relationships between the characters depicted in the Promise

God will orchestrate that both Satan and the woman will have an ‘offspring’. There will be ‘enmity’ or hatred between these offspring and between the woman and Satan. Satan will ‘strike the heel’ of the offspring of the woman while the offspring of the woman will ‘crush the head’ of Satan.

Deductions on the Offspring – a ‘he’

So far we have just made observations directly from the text. Now for some reasoned deductions. Because the ‘offspring’ of the woman is referred to as a ‘he’ and a ‘his’ we know that it is a single male human – a man. With that we can discard some possible interpretations. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘she’ and thus cannot be a woman – but the ‘he’ comes from a woman. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not a ‘they’, which it could have plausibly been, perhaps a group of people, or a race, or a team, or a nation. At various times and in various ways people have thought that a ‘they’ would be the answer. But the offspring, being a ‘he’ is NOT a group of people whether that refers to a nation or those of a certain religion as in Jews, Christians or Muslims etc. As a ‘he’ the offspring is not an ‘it’ (the offspring is a person). This eliminates the possibility that the offspring is a particular philosophy, teaching, technology, political system, or religion. An ‘it’ of these kinds would probably have been, and still is, our preferred choice to fix the world. We think that what will fix our situation is some kind of ‘it’, so the best of human thinkers through the centuries have advocated different political systems, educational systems, technologies, religions etc. But in this Promise the compass is pointed in a totally different direction. God had something else in mind – a ‘he’. And this ‘he’ would crush the head of the serpent.

Another interesting observation comes from what is not said. God does not promise the man an offspring like he promises the woman (we will see further what He promises there in the Curse). This is quite extraordinary especially given the emphasis of sons coming through fathers throughout the Bible. In fact, one criticism of the genealogies in the Bible by modern Westerners is that they ignore the blood lines that go through women. It is ‘sexist’ in our eyes because it just considers sons of men. But in this case here it is different – there is no promise of an offspring (a ‘he’) coming from a man. It says only that there will be an offspring coming from the woman, without mentioning a man.

Out of all the humans that have ever existed that I can think of, historically or mythically, only two have never had a physical father (this includes the Greek demi-gods who were sired by ‘gods’ like Zeus being with mortal women). The first was Adam, created directly by God. The second was Jesus who (the New Testament claim goes) was born of a virgin – thus no human father. Is Jesus being foreshadowed here in this riddle? This fits with the observation that the offspring is a ‘he’, not a ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’. With that perspective, if you read the riddle some pieces fall into place.

‘Strike his Heel’??

But what does it mean that the serpent would strike ‘his heel’? I could never see it until I worked in the jungles of Cameroon. We had to wear thick rubber boots even in the humid heat – because the snakes there lay in the long grass and would strike your foot – i.e. your heel – and that would kill you. My first day there I almost stepped on a snake, and could have died from it. The riddle made sense to me after that. The ‘he’ would destroy the serpent, but the price he would have to pay, would be that he would be killed.  That does foreshadow the victory achieved through the death of Jesus.

The offspring of the Serpent?

But who is his other protagonist, this offspring of Satan? Though we do not have space here to trace it out exhaustively, the later books speak of a coming person. Note the descriptions:

“… when their sin is at its height, a fierce king, a master of intrigue, will rise to power. He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause a shocking amount of destruction and succeed in everything he does. He will destroy powerful leaders and devastate the holy people.  He will be a master of deception and will become arrogant; he will destroy many without warning. He will even take on the Prince of princes in battle, but he will be broken, though not by human power. (Daniel 8: 23-25; written by Daniel in Babylon ca 550 BC)

A man, with an invisible power behind him will challenge the ‘Prince of princes’ but his head too ‘will be crushed’.

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him … Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4; written by Paul in Greece ca 50 AD)

Hmm … sounds like an echo of Lucifer’s challenge at the dawn of time. The old saying, ‘the apple does not fall far from the tree’ may apply here. And the last book in the Bible, many pages and thousands of years removed from the Promise in Genesis, predicts:

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come. This calls for a mind with wisdom. (Revelation 17:8-9; written by John on an island off Turkey ca 90 AD)

These later books (again note the diversity of authors, settings and eras they were written in) more explicitly speak of a countdown to a clash between the offspring of the woman and Satan’s offspring. But it is first mentioned in embryo-like form in this Promise of Genesis, at the very beginning of Biblical History, with details waiting to be filled in. So the climax of history, the countdown to a final contest between Satan and God, started long ago in the Garden is foreseen at that same beginning – the earliest Book.  It could almost make one think that history is really His-Story.

Click here to see & hear a video presentation on this in a Christmas context.

Corrupted (Part 2) … missing our target

In my last post I looked at how the Bible describes us as corrupted from the original image of God that we were made in.  A visual analogy that has helped me to ‘see’ this better was the orcs of Middle Earth, corrupted from the elves.  So this is how the Bible describes us.   But from the Biblical point-of-view, how did this happen?

The Fall of Man

It is recorded in the book of Genesis of the Bible.  Shortly after being made ‘in the image of God‘ the first humans were tested.  The account records an exchange with a ‘serpent’.  The serpent has always been universally understood to be Satan – an angelic adversary to God.  Through the Bible, Satan usually confronts by speaking through another person.  In this case he spoke through a serpent.  The exchange is recorded in this way.

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the LORD God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. (Genesis 3:1-6)

The crux of their choice, and thus the temptation, was that they could ‘be like God’. Up to this point they had implicitly trusted God for everything and taken Him at His word for everything. But now they had the choice to leave that behind, become ‘like God’, trusting themselves and taking their own word for things. They could become ‘gods’ themselves, captains of their own ship, masters of their destiny, being autonomous and answerable only to themselves. Long before Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, the first humans fell for the real god delusion – that they could be ‘like God’.

In their Declaration of Independence something in our forebears changed. As the passage recounts, they felt shame and tried to cover up. In fact, just afterwards, when God confronts Adam about his breach of covenant, he blames Eve (and God who made her). She in turn blames the serpent. No one would accept responsibility.

The Fall Today

And what started that day has continued because we have inherited that same innate disposition. That is the reason why the Israelites (in the previous post) of Hosea’s day were behaving like Adam – because they (like us) had inherited his disposition. Some misunderstand the biblical account to infer that we are blamed for the rebellion of Adam. In fact, the only one blamed is Adam but we live in the consequences of that rebellion. We can think of it genetically. We have inherited this mutinous nature of Adam and thus innately, almost unconsciously, but willfully we continue the uprising that he started. We may not want to be god of the universe, but we want to be gods in our settings; captains of our own ships; autonomous from God. Bon Jovi’s chorus “It’s my life”, Frank Sinatra’s more sublime “I did it my way”, Self magazines dotting our supermarket aisles are light-hearted echoes of this desire, while Hitler’s Mein Kempf (“My Struggle”) and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il (known as ‘Dear Leader’) cult of personality are much darker echoes. But they are exhibits of the trend in our nature that Adam’s rebellion started.

And this explains so much of human life that we take for granted. This is the reason that everywhere people need locks for their doors, they need police, lawyers, encryption passwords for banking – because in our current disposition we will steal from each other. This is why empires and societies all eventually decay and collapse – because the citizens in all these empires have a tendency to decay. This is why after trying all forms of government and economic systems, and though some work better than others, every political or economic system seems eventually to collapse on itself – because the people living these ideologies are dogged by tendencies which eventually drag the whole system down. This is why no religion has fully brought about the vision for their society – but neither have the atheistic ones (think of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia) – because something about the way we are tends to make us miss our vision.

Sin is ‘miss’

In fact, that word ‘miss’ pretty much sums up our situation. A verse from the Old Testament gives a picture that has helped me understand this better. It says

Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. (Judges 20:16)

This verse describes soldiers who were experts at using slingshots and would never miss. The word in Hebrew translated ‘miss’ above is יַחֲטִֽא׃ (pronounced Khaw-taw). What is so interesting, is that this same Hebrew word is also translated to sin across most of the Old Testament. For example, this same Hebrew word is ‘sin’ when Joseph, sold as a slave to Egypt, would not commit adultery with his master’s wife, even though she begged him. He said to her:

No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:9)

And just after the giving of the Ten Commandments it says:

Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Exodus 20:20)

In both these places it is the same Hebrew word יַחֲטִֽא׃ that is translated ‘sin’. It is exactly the same word for ‘miss’ with soldiers that sling stones at targets as in these verses which means ‘sin’ when dealing with people’s treatments of each other. This provides a picture to help us understand what ‘sin’ is. The soldier takes a stone and slings it to hit the target. If it misses it has failed his purpose. In the same way, we were made in God’s image to hit the target about how we relate to Him and treat others. To ‘sin’ is to miss this purpose, or target, that was intended for us, and which we in our various systems, religions and ideologies also intend for ourselves.

This corrupted and missed-the-target picture is not pretty, it is not feel-good, nor is it optimistic.  Over the years I have had people react strongly against this particular biblical teaching.  I remember one grad student looking at me with daggers in her eyes saying, “I don’t believe you because I do not like what you are saying”.  Now I find that rather curious.  What does ‘liking’ something have anything to do with whether it is true or not?  I do not like taxes, wars, AIDS and earthquakes – I doubt anyone does – but that does not make them go away, and neither can I ignore any of them.  All the systems of law, police, locks, keys, security etc. that we have built in our society and take for granted to protect ourselves from each other does suggest that something is wrong.  At the very least, this doctrine deserves to be considered in an even-handed way.

But this doctrine of the Fall raises a couple of questions.  For starters, why did God create an evil devil ready to tempt mankind into the Fall.  Secondly, if God is omniscient He would have known the Fall and ensuing corruption was going to happen when he first made mankind ‘in his image’.  So knowing the fall was going to happen, why would He still go through with it?  Finally, what has He done in response to the calamity of the Fall?  We start by tackling the first question next post.