The Christian response to the problem of evil and suffering is profound. One of the greatest, or perhaps most often asked, questions or challenges aimed at Christianity surrounds what is historically labeled The Problem of Evil. Skeptics of Christianity will often acknowledge that real pain and real evil does exist in this world, and abstract from that reality the conclusion that an infinitely wise and benevolent God (the God of Christianity) must not exist. Not only do skeptics pose this challenge, but those inside the Church often ask this exact question either in overt or subtle ways. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?Epicurus
After many years of Pastoral ministry, I can confidently say that in our moments of crisis, when significant pain shows up on our doorstep, there is a very human reaction to want to fully understand the questions surrounding evil. In our weakest moments we are susceptible to that quiet whisper of the enemy who taunts us with the lie, “Your God has abandoned you,” or even worse, “Your God never existed at all.” I say this as a fellow-sufferer on the journey of sanctification, one who has faced my own trials and encounters with pain and suffering, and heard those same whispers from our ancient foe.
In this post I aim to accomplish three objectives.
- Define evil biblically.
- Demonstrate the shortcomings of non-Christian worldviews in their attempts at answering the same challenges.
- present the beauty of Christianity’s response to the Problem of Pain.
Recall that my aim in posts like these, is not to demonstrate that Christianity is necessarily true because its response to the problem of evil is more beautiful than other possible responses. Christianity is necessarily true because the Word of God has declared it so. Rather what I am aiming to do is demonstrate that the various other attempts at responding to the problem of evil and suffering, pail in comparison to the beauty of the Christian response. I am aiming to develop a sense of confidence in the Christian that their hope in Christ resonates with the human soul in a way that no other worldview can.
Genesis 3:17-18 "And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field."
In the world of theology, we often talk about two kinds of evils, Moral Evil and Natural Evil. These two types of evil are distinct from each other categorically though they are related to each other in their root cause. Moral evil refers to those choices we as humans make to actively disobey God’s good and righteous commands: theft, rape, murder, adultery, blasphemy, etc. Most often when we speak and think of evil this is the category we are considering.
As I often write about, our standard for knowing which actions and thoughts are good versus which actions and thoughts are evil is God’s Word. Apart from God’s revealed Word there would be no method for determining what was good from what was evil. John Calvin summarized the purpose of God’s law in three ways. First, the law serves as a mirror revealing our fallenness over and against God’s righteousness. In this sense, the law gives us knowledge of sin as we see in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Second, the law restrains evil. This is often referred to as the law’s civil use. The law is the standard of judgment and therefore serves as a great deterrent for those who might otherwise consider participating in sin. Third, the law guides us to good works. It is through the stated laws and rules of God that we know what right behavior is and how we ought to please Him.
A second category of evil exists biblically, Natural Evil. Natural Evil refers to those events in this world that are not necessarily directly attributed to any one individual’s moral failures but are rather a result of living in a cosmically fallen world: blindness, deafness, sickness, plague, storms, death, etc. These events are natural because they most often occur without any one person’s direct sin. They are simply a part of living in a fallen world. When lightning strikes a person on a walk, or a plague ravishes a countryside, we are wrestling with the category of Natural Evil. It is worth noting that God often does use Natural Evil as judgment for sin both on a personal level as well as a societal level. All through the Old Testament we see that God would send plagues or war upon nations as a judgment against their sin. That does not mean that every occurrence of Natural Evil in this world is God’s judgment, but much of it may be.
The biblical worldview holds that all evil, both moral and natural, is traced back to the moral failure of Adam in the Garden of Eden. This is a vital starting place to rightly comprehend evil in all of its forms. In God’s original created order, Adam and Eve existed in harmony both with God and with all of His creation. Storms & earthquakes did not take lives. Neither blindness nor cancer ever impacted a person’s life because they did not exist. What’s more, Adam and Eve lived in a genuine harmony with God. Sin had not yet had its full set of consequences on the created order. Most importantly, the thought of disregarding or disobeying God or his commands did not even come across the minds of Adam and Eve. They’re relationship with God was pleasing and fulfilling to every need. He had given them more than enough to live and be joyfully content. Theologians speculate as to what the future of civilization would have looked like had Adam and Eve never sinned. More than likely it would have been a patriarchal society where Fathers led their homes in continual communion with God into an increasingly glorified society living out the Dominion Mandate of Genesis 1:28.
Genesis 1:28 "And 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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
This glorious state was interrupted by a Satanic ploy to undermine God’s authority. God had given one prohibition to his beloved which we read of in Genesis 1:27,
Genesis 1:27 "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."
The entirety of Eden was theirs to enjoy and to steward. Yet rather than submit to God’s law and live in the freedom that comes from such obedience, they listened to the tempter and defied the one true and living God, the author of life. The judgment God had promised if they broke his law became a reality. Death, and all of its consequences, entered creation. Paradise was lost. Their sin was cosmic in its consequences. We read in Romans 8:20-22,
Romans 8:20 “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”
This groaning of creation was not God’s original design, but a consequence of rebellion to sin.
Atheism & Postmodernism’s response to the Problem of Evil
Before we can evaluate Christianity’s response to evil, we will first examine other worldviews responses to evil. As we do this we will discover is that there exists no worldview outside of Christianity that offers such a compelling and holistic response to evil. Let us begin with the atheist’s response as it will serve as a sort of starting place to evaluate other worldviews as well.
Recall the honest worldview of the atheist. According to the atheist, no God exists and we (if one can honestly call us a “we”) are simply the product of random chance. What we call the “self” is truly nothing more than random space dust floating through space and time that has just so happened to coalesce in such a way that “I” have the illusion of “self.” But in reality, there is no soul, there is no true, “I.”
An honest pressing of this worldview arrives at the unfortunate position of believing that no such thing as good or evil actually exists. At best, the atheist is able to say that what we call “good and evil” are simply conventions, man-made ideas, to simply pass the time and improve our illusion of life. We have seen this idea developed in some length when we dealt with the Moral Argument. Very honest atheists will agree with the premise that “good” and “evil” do not truly exist in some universal sense. How can anything be more or less good or evil in a universe that is simply molecules floating through time and space, unguided, and non-purposeful. Imagine for a moment a billiards table. When the billiards player breaks the rack and scatters the balls around the table, there is nothing “good” or evil” about the behavior of the balls. They are simply bouncing around the table off of the power from the initial blast. According the Atheist, that is precisely what we are. We are simply molecules blasting through the universe from the initial blast of the hypothetical Big Bang.
So, when an Atheist like Sam Harris says that Christianity is the cause of much evil, the first question we should ask is how he as an atheist is able to honestly utilize the term “evil” in a sentence. In other words, when Sam Harris accuses Christianity of moral evil, he is borrowing capital from the Christian and not standing on his own worldview. He is borrowing capital from the Christian of the idea of evil. Most atheists I have met really do believe that Hitler was bad and that killing and rape are universally wrong. But when they confess this, they are standing in a place of inconsistency.
Postmodernist is unable to do much better than the atheist. Recall that the postmodernist rejects metanarratives, grand sweeping statements of truth, categories of right and wrong, male and female, etc. Instead of the truth, the postmodernist believes in my truth and your truth. How does the honest postmodernist address the problem of evil and suffering. Like the atheist, the honest postmodernist is only able to address these concepts by borrowing capital from the Christian.
A classic example of the postmodernist conundrum is found in the issue of women’s sports. Across both collegiate and professional women’s sports, men dressed up as women are now dominating the field, setting new world records, and eliminating the possibilities of actual women from competing to win. At times, the debate is comical to watch as muscle-bound men with necks like an ox put on a dress and wear makeup and then are asked whether or not they feel they have a competitive advantage over women in rugby or weight lifting. The comedy lasts only for a moment though, as the real pain is felt by the beaten, battered, and often harassed women are left wondering what they are supposed to do in a world that no longer has a definition for what a woman is. Or where they are supposed to change for that matter. This is lunacy and wickedness. The cause of the confusion is the worldview underneath the issue. So long as progress is defined as the rejection of reality, the problem will endure. This is postmodernism lived out. The only real solution is to return to the Biblical worldview and declare that God made men different than women, that true standards do exist, that they are measurable, and that postmodernism is a failed philosophy.
Greek Stoicism’s Response to the Problem of Evil
In the 1st century throughout the Roman empire, it was Greek philosophy that ruled the minds and ways of understanding life. Greek thought and philosophy were wide ranging but one of the key schools of thought (propagated by teachers like Aristotle and Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) was a school of thought called Stoicism. As Christianity spread, Stoicism as a formal belief system, rapidly faded out. This occurred for a number of reasons but the summary understanding is well captioned by the idea that what Christianity offered was not only true, but more beautiful to its adherents.
Perhaps the first and primary way that Christianity differed from its predecessors was in its understanding of Individuality. What is a person? And what is their relationship to the larger society and the world. To Greeks (particularly within the school of stoicism) their idea of the universe was of transcendent oneness. They believed that the universe itself was God (not in the sense of the Christian personal God) but rather that the all-powerful divine order was the universe. And that divine universe held an eternal order to things. Harmony was always restored by the universe, by their sense of God. Certainly, bad things and bad disasters happened from time to time, but in general they were short lived and the divinely powerful universe always found a way to restore harmony. And so we read Marcus Aurelius describing the natural justice of the universe this way:
“All that comes to pass comes to pass with justice. You will find this to be so if you watch carefully. I do not mean only in accordance with the ordered nature of events, but in accordance with justice and as it were by someone who assigns to each thing its value.”Marcus Aurelius
For the Greeks the great aim of life was to find yourself and your purpose in this great divine harmony. If your life was in ruins or painful it was simply because you had taken some action to disrupt the harmony and nature was running its course in your life. In some ways this is similar to modern day religions that are rooted in karma, such as mainstream forms of Hinduism that we have previously explored.
It is easy to see how the Greek understanding of God and the Christian understanding of God were at fundamental odds with each other. To the Greeks, God was impersonal, unknowable in any meaningful sense. To the Christian, God is an actual person, a Trinity composed of three persons, one of whom (Jesus Christ) actually entered into humanity. God was fully personal and knowable. The incarnation of Jesus into the world for Christianity is not just a value statement but it is a statement of what is believed to be true about the history of the world.
For the Greek Stoic, God was unknowable and so any real sense of knowledge or justice or what is right or wrong or good or bad was entirely up to human discovery. There was no direct contact from “God” and so the discovery of things like right and wrong was essentially a series of trial and error. One philosopher says slavery is great, another says slavery is wrong. How can you know? Well live it out and see if the divine cosmos works out in your favor or not. The challenge with this worldview is that it runs contrary to reality. Sometimes evil happens to us not as a result of our own sin, but because of the result of other people’s sin. When a woman is raped, she is a victim not an abuser. Stoicism in the face of this kind of evil has very little to offer other than challenging its adherents to put on a strong face and move on.
In fact, strength was a primary Stoic value. The truly harmonious person was the one who was able to bravely withstand anything life the cosmos threw your way. Picture for a moment those Greek warriors all muscle bound. The image is of bravery and courage. No emotion. A Stoic nature. From Epictetus we read:
“So… when you kiss your child, or your brother, or your friend, never give way entirely to your affections, nor free reign to your imagination; but curb it, restrain it, like those who stand behind generals when they ride in triumph and remind them that they are but men.”Epictetus
Without stealing too much from later section which will demonstrate Christianity’s beauty over and against other worldviews, we must note here the drastic dichotomy between the hope of Stoicism and the hope of Christianity. The Christian God is not just a divine essence of the physical universe, but He is a person, particularly immanent in the person of the Jesus Christ. When one reads the like of Jesus Christ, certainly strength and courage are qualities he exemplified. He looked the religious leaders of his day in the eye and condemned them for their heretical teachings. Jesus was no weakling who lacked courage. But Jesus was more fully human that stoicism permits. Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and quite literally bawled over the godlessness of the city of Jerusalem. Stoic philosophers would have deemed these acts unworthy. We see in Jesus a man who loved people who were considered weak and helpless in his day: Lepers, blind, deaf, lame, mute. All the outcasts of Greek society – the ones who weren’t strong – Jesus always went to them and cared for them. This is entirely anti-Stoic behavior. Jesus exemplified love by demonstrating compassion towards the vulnerable, concern for the weak, and love toward the poor.
Stoicism quite literally died out because it could not offer such a beautiful response to the real world of pain and suffering as Christianity. Jesus’ way changed the world.
Christianity’s Response to the Problem of Evil
Genesis 50:19-20 "But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today."
In this final section I want to evaluate Christianity’s response to the Problem Evil. As I’ve said previously, answering questions this large is not as simple as fitting a puzzle together. Yet, the Biblical response provides responses to evil that no other worldview is able to provide. Responses that not only stir the intellect, but reach straight through to our deepest longings and affections, posturing the soul towards that which it ultimately desires.
A Validation of the Pain
First, the Bible validates pain and suffering meaningfully. Unlike Christianity’s first century philosophical predecessors such as Greek Stoicism, Christianity does not ask its adherents to mask the emotions of living in a fallen world. The call of Christianity is not to muscle up and demonstrate your manliness by overcoming suffering with a straight face. Rather Christianity recognizes evil as evil. Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus. He wept over the great city of Jerusalem that failed to recognize its messiah. And he experienced such high levels of prayer and stress that he sweat blood on the night of his arrest (Luke 22:44), a medical condition now known as Hematidrosis. Christianity invites its adherents to experience the full range of human emotion, and to submit those emotions to the God who directs our steps. To those who have suffered greatly, and to those who are suffering now, this is good news. Christianity, does not say, “Put on a brave face and suck it up.” Christianity validates the pain as meaningful .
An Awesome Mystery
Second, Jesus invites his followers to embrace the mystery of our faith. The Bible contains an entire book that primarily deals with the problem of evil, the book of Job. When we first meet Job we discover that he is a man who has submitted his life to God. “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1).” Yet God allowed tremendous evil to befall this righteous man. His children were killed in terrible tragedies, and all of his wealth was stolen. The suffering was so extreme that even his body was riddled with painful sores. For thirty five chapters of the book of Job, Job and his friends go back and forth discussing why such evil had befallen such a man as Job. All sorts of reasons are suggested by Job’s friends, most noticeably that Job must have angered God with some great sin otherwise such evil would not have befallen him. Yet the reader knows the hidden truth; Job’s suffering is not a judgment by God against Job’s sins, but is rather a Satanic effort to get Job to reject God.
After thirty-five chapters of human debate on the problem of evil, the reader suspensefully awaits the final chapters where God responds to Job. But when God finally responds, he does not give the type of answer that many of us seek. He does not instruct Job on the hidden request of the Satan in chapter 1 of the book. Rather his response is one that invites both Job and the reader to accept the great mystery of life, that God is God, and we are not. As a brief sample of God’s response consider Job 38:4-7
Job 38:4-7 “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?"
The main idea of God’s response is that Job is not permitted a perfectly well-ordered systematic response to the problem of evil. Rather, Job is invited to live in the mysterious tension of humanity, and to trust that a Holy, just, and good God must have His hidden purposes. I want to linger in this tension for just a moment as I believe it runs contrary to our modern desires. In our darkest moments we all want answers. How could God permit such tragedy to befall me? Why doesn’t God simply answer this particular prayer? The Bible invites us to have such a full vision of God that we are content to live in the mystery, to not have all the answers, and yet to exhibit faith in the midst of it. Job’s response to God is fitting,
Job 40:4-5 “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further."
A Greater Purpose
Third, the Bible instructs us that God is able to use even the greatest of evils for His good purposes. This is demonstrated all through the Scriptures but, outside of the crucifixion—to be discussed below— is most notable in the story of Joseph in Genesis. As a young man, Joseph’s brothers committed a tremendous evil upon him. Initially intending to kill him, they ultimately chose instead to sell Joseph into slavery and tell their father that he was killed by a wild animal,
Genesis 37:28 “Then Midianite traders passed by. And they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. They took Joseph to Egypt."
In Egypt Joseph lived the life of a slave. He wa eventually thrown into a prison where he suffered for many years. Through all of these trials Joseph never lost sight of His God’s higher purposes. Eventually it was discovered by Pharaoh that the prisoner Joseph had the unique ability to interpret dreams. He called Joseph up from prison to interpret a dream for him. Joseph interpreted the dream and instructed Pharaoh that a great famine was coming on the Earth. Joseph was so successful in his interpretation and offered such wisdom that Pharaoh determined to put Joseph in command of managing the entire Egyptian economy through the predicted famine.
Years later, at the height of the famine, Joseph’s brothers left their home in Israel and made the dangerous trek to Egypt to find food to survive through the famine. Upon their arrival, Joseph— now dressed in Egyptian garb—recognized his brothers even though they did not recognize him. After a few delays Joseph eventually reveals himself to his brothers. They are frightened to realize that Joseph had now risen to such a high level of power and authority that their own lives could be at risk for their previous treatment of their brother. In the midst of that fear Joseph spoke these unforgettable words,
Genesis 50:19-20 "But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today."
In this dramatic family reunion, Joseph revealed a startling truth. Through all of his suffering: being sold into slavery by his own brothers, false testimonies that sent him to prison, and years spent languishing in an Egyptian cell, God had been weaving together an important story the whole time. God had never lost sight of Joseph. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, God was with Him and was guiding him. In God’s wisdom, He permitted evil to take place in order to accomplish a greater purpose.
We must pause and recognize the importance of this statement and the beauty it offers. There is no pain that God is not aware nor that he is not able to use for his eventual good purposes, both in our lives and in the lives of others. What a glorious revelation over and above other worldviews. Secularism offers no such promise.
A Miraculous Intervention
While point one through three above demonstrate a great contrast between Christianity and other godless faith systems, the points may in some degree be true of other monotheistic religions like Islam or Hinduism. While important details will be different, some of the same principles certainly could be true or at least claimed to be true by these other religions. What then separates Christianity from other monotheistic religions like Islam? Points four and five below demonstrate the utter uniqueness of the Christian hope over and against every other religion known to man. Hebrews chapter 4 reads,
Hebrews 4:14-16 "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity made flesh, does not simply stand at a distance and dictate how his creation is to behave in the midst of suffering as the gods of other monotheistic religions do. The gospel story involves the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, God made flesh.
In the midst of our suffering, we are able to turn to Christ, our Great High Priest, and find one who sympathizes with our pain. For He Himself has experienced the fulness of pain already on our behalf. There is nothing we can ever go through in this life that Christ has not already experienced to a fuller degree. His suffering was both physical and spiritual. Not only did Jesus Christ experience the abandonment of his closest friends (Matthew 26:70), as a well as a Roman flogging and crucifixion which is marked among the most painful and excruciating forms of torture ever conceived by man, but there was a deeper suffering still. In the moment of His greatest anguish, he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?” This is the cry of a man who is experiencing the full abandonment of the Heavenly Father, a full forsakenness of sorts.
Whatever pain you experience, whatever suffering you endure, look to Christ on the cross who has gone before you. He knows your suffering as one who has suffered greatly himself. It is for this reason He is able to grant such mercy in our time of need.
This is at least one of the reasons why Christians are so often instructed to “rejoice in our suffering (Romans 5:3, James 1:2).” On the one hand we know from Scripture that God often does use suffering to form deeper faithfulness of sorts in our lives. For that we certainly may rejoice. But there is something else that happens in our suffering and our confrontations with evil. In them we are reminded of our Savior’s suffering on the cross. In them we more deeply relate to Jesus as he suffered on the cross. The Apostle Peter reminds us,
1 Peter 4:12-13 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed ."
In our suffering we turn to Christ and we see the depth of suffering He was willing to endure in order that we might be secured eternally in Heaven. This forms new and deeper worship in the heart of a Christian in a way that no other religion ever could offer for the simple reason that no other religion’s God has suffered like ours. In his classic work A Bruised Reed Richard Sibbes writes these important words.
“God sees fit that we should taste of that cup of which his son drank so deep, that we might feel a little what sin is, and what his son’s love was. But our comfort is that Christ drank the dregs of the cup for us, and will succor us so that our spirits may not utterly fail under that little taste of his displeasure which we may feel. He became not only a man but a curse, a man of sorrows, for us. He was broken that we should not be broken; he was troubled, that we should not be desperately troubled; he became a curse, that we should not be accursed. Whatever may be wished for in an all sufficient comforter is all to be found in Christ.”Richard Sibbes
A Great Comforter
God has not left us without a very powerful helper and comforter in our time of need. Before Jesus’ crucifixion he turned to his disciples and said,
John 16:7 “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you."
Jesus here is speaking of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, who was sent to fill and bless His Church. Jesus’ words must not be overlooked. The Holy Spirit is our helper in a very real and tangible way. Again, this is unique among every religion in the world. Whereas in other religions God (or the gods) stand at a distance and provide instruction for navigating life’s challenges, the Christian is not only never alone in his suffering but is empowered by God Himself. God is not just to be read about or discussed in some distant manner, but He is to be lived with and experienced immanently.
Again, I am trying to make the case that these unique factors of the Christian faith not only are radically different than every other religion, but are also beautiful beyond comparison. It is only the Christian who has experienced the love and comfort of the Holy Spirit in the midst of their suffering that can fully appreciate the weight of the hope we have in Christ as we lean on the power of the Holy Spirit. When we are confronted by evil, it is the Holy Spirit who ministers to our wounds and “lifts us up on wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31).” When we stray from God’s design and bring evil upon ourselves, it is the Holy Spirit who applies the Word of God and the promises of God to convict us and draw us back to Christ. When we look at the evil all around us and struggle to see how God can work all things together for good (Romans 8:28), we remember that God has sent the Holy Spirit into this world and it is He that is busy “convict[ing] the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8).”
Oh, what a blessed hope we have in Christ! No matter what we go through in this life, He has been their first. He knows our suffering as a sufferer Himself. He has sent His Holy Spirit as a great help and comforter in our times of need. There is no other foundation to endure suffering like this available to man.
The Beauty of What is To Come
1 Corinthians 15:24-26 "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."
Lastly, we must consider the beauty of the Christian vision of the future. When we speak of the future of humanity are ultimately asking questions about our purpose. Where are we headed? What is the ultimate destination both of our lives and of this world? As we have seen over and again, the atheistic worldview is unable to answer these questions with any meaningful substance for a few key reasons. First, according to the atheistic worldview there is no true idea of “progress.” Many modern atheists love to use the word, but when they use the word, they are borrowing values and ideas from Christianity and not standing on their own worldview.
The idea of progress involves some kind of motion towards a fixed goal. The challenge set before atheists which they are unable to meaningfully navigate is that they do not believe it fixed purposes or goals for civilization. One particular atheist may personally believe that a Marxist Utopia ought to be the goal while another atheist may personally believe a truly capitalistic society ought to be the goal. Without a fixed standard to measure ideas by, there can be no true progress or positive movement towards either. There would only be movement with no moral connection to it at all.
Eastern religions have historically also faced challenges when considering where this world is headed. Lesslie Newbigin in his book Foolishness to the Greek outlines why it was that the Christian worldview was the only worldview that ultimately gave rise to the Science as we know it today. He explains that even though other cultures developed extraordinary minds over the centuries, those minds did not develop in a culture that had the preconditions to develop science. One of the main reasons for this was because of these culture’s vision of the universe and where it is headed. Eastern religions tend to believe the world is cyclical and not linear. In a cyclical universe, things continue to restart. As a result, they do not think of progress the way Westerners, thinking linearly, think of progress. Newbigin summarizes it well when he says,
“Science in the sense in which it has developed in our culture is not impossible, but it is unnecessary. Consequently, in the great cultures of China, India, and Egypt, in spite of the brilliant intellectual powers they have manifested, science in the modern sense did not develop. And even Greece, which came closer than any other ancient culture to developing a viable science, failed to do so and relapsed into the ancient idea of a cyclical universes—teh most pervasive form of belief in a world that is rational but not contingent… the necessary precondition for the birth of science as we know it is, it would seem, the diffusion through society of the belief that the universe is both rational and contingent. Such a belief is the presupposition of modern science and cannot by any conceivable argument be a product of science. One has to ask: Upon what is this belief founded?”Lesslie Newbigin
The only worldview in history that has supplied both of these presuppositions is Christianity. Other religions and worldviews are able to operate in this modern scientific world that Christianity created, but they were unable to provide the preconditions that would give rise to the progress of science as we know it.
This conversation on the development of science might seem a bit outside the purview of this section which is focused on the Christian vision of the future. In fact, it is a vital strand. Christians love progress towards the fixed goal of seeing civilization peacefully transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through the Church into God’s vision for life. The Christian vision of the direction of this epoch (the age between Christ’s resurrection and his final return) is one of the continual spread of the fragrant aroma of Christ to the nations, not by force and tyranny but through love and service.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:31-32).” For two thousand years of Church history, the sweetness of the Kingdom of Christ has slowly spread across this globe. Entire nations have been transformed. People have been lifted out of poverty. Human rights have been developed. Evils have been expunged. But there is still so far to go! So long ask Christ has not returned, there are more pages yet to be written in the story of God’s Kingdom growth. The vision of this epoch’s future is that of a victorious King spreading His love and Kingdom to the furthest reaches of the planet. Each and every Christian has been invited into this process, to live as Ambassadors for Christ planting seeds that will bear fruit in His Kingdom wherever we go (2 Corinthians 5:20). What a tremendous joy to labor towards this end each and every day. What a remarkable privilege to see lives transformed, hearts renewed, sins confessed, wrongs made right, evil expunged, all in the name of the King of Kings. Yes—this is our work until the King returns.
But the real beauty is still yet to come. For there will come a day when a trumpet will sound. In that moment every ear will hear and every eye will see a sight which will make every moment of pain and hardship every experienced on this Earth cry out, “It was worth it.” The sky will be ripped asunder. Christ, the conquering King, the lamb who was slain, will descend with his angels. Our eyes will behold the glory of the Lord. Those who are alive will fall on their knees in an overwhelming sense of awesome surrender. The dead will be raised. A judgment will be held. The wicked who never repented will be separated to experience their final judgment for every corruption of their heart. The righteous, those who trusted in the blood of the lamb to wash away their sins, will be given their crowns of righteousness. The saints will receive new incorruptible, unbreakable, glorified bodies for life in the everlasting. After His final judgment, the Lord will take his seat on His throne. Creation will be renewed. Our hearts will pulse in an overwhelming sense of joyful contentedness and worship.
No more sorrow. No more pain. No more tears. No more shame. No more fear. Forever. Death will be dead. We will join in the eternal chorus of the angels, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty. The whole Earth is full of your glory.”
Life to the full. Life everlasting. Life in community. Life with our King. Life in His creation. Life that we were made for.
Oh Lord come!