Why does evil grow in the world? Why do the wicked prosper? When we look around and see so much violence and injustice and unfairness, we might be tempted to conclude that this life really is just for the lucky and the strong: let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die! But of course such an attitude would only makes the problem a thousand times worse. We know there must be more. We know there must be an explanation for all the darkness and decay.
Some say that decay is a natural, and that death is simply a natural part of life. This sounds mysterious and poetic, and on the surface provides an odd sort of reasoning: one generation fights for growth and understanding, and then gets out of the way so the next generation can continue the struggle in the never-ending circle of life. If we strive for the good then our children and students can carry our name forward while we are set free to sleep the sleep of death.
However, if we slow down and look at the words, they don’t actually make any sense…at all. Saying that death is a natural part of life is about as coherent as saying that black is a natural part of white, or that war is a natural part of peace, or that confusion is a natural part of reason. Once grief has quieted down and our emotions are spent and we are thinking of the meaning of it all, we might pause and say, “What!?!?”
According to the Bible, death is not natural. Nor is it necessary. Nor is evil necessary. We don’t need evil to show us what is good, much less to balance with good. Although we cannot have up without down or hot without cold or fast without slow, we can have peace without war and joy without sadness and love without hate. We can have good without evil.
Furthermore, the reverse is not true, for evil is entirely parasitical: we cannot have war where there is no peace to corrupt, nor deception where there is no truth, nor disease where there is no health, nor pollution where there is no beauty. Evil only steals and kills and destroys, and never creates anything.
By contrast, that which is good is always working to create. And creativity endures and grows and bears fruit that lasts.
The good news of the Bible is that God always works to create and give life, and he will eliminate evil and death altogether. In fact, the Bible both begins and ends with God creating something incredibly good. If we want to understand what it says, we must see it, among other things, as a tale of creation and recreation.
The Beginning of the Story: God Creates
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2) God then created light, and then the land and the sea, animals and plants and all the stars. And each time he took pleasure in his creation and called it good.
Then he created man and woman “in his own image” and placed them in a garden. Adam & Eve walked with him in paradise. And one characteristic about them—part of what it meant to be created in the image of the Creator—was that they were creative. People create art and technology and cuisine and constitutional democracies. We create many lists of rules, such as for football, which we follow just for the re-creation of joy. All of these can be good—expressions of love and peace and joy.
So when God Adam & Eve them he told him to go and be creative: “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.’” (Genesis 1:28) They were to enjoy having children and then working to subdue to earth.
But then, for no good reason at all, Adam & Eve turned away from God. He had commanded them not to eat from a particular tree in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He told them that on the day they ate from it they would die. But they disobeyed him and instead listened to Satan, who came to them in the form of a serpent. Satan told them they would not in fact die, but instead become just like God.
So why did they disobey God? Why did Satan lie, and why did Adam & Eve choose to believe a lie?
Well they did it for the same reason we all do things that we know to be wrong, things that we know we shouldn’t do. Whose fault is it? We know it’s our own. I know when I lie that I can’t point to God and blame him for creating me with the ability to lie. No, I know it’s actually my fault. It may not always be my fault for being confused or being led astray; nevertheless, many times I deliberately do what I know to be wrong. So if you can explain why you or I do it then you can explain why Adam and Eve did it.
In fact, the Bible says that we inherited this tendency from them. And we also inherited their punishment. God said that the consequence of their rebellion was death not just for themselves, but also for all their descendants, who would be like them. So we all die because we all turn away from God.
Furthermore, at that point death entered into all the creation—all of nature—over which God had given man authority.
Now stop and consider what this means. God did not simply wipe them out and start over. Instead, he punished them. And in doing so he took complete responsibility for all death in his creation. Regardless of how it comes—whether due to the great flood under Noah, or due to war, sickness, murder, famine, old age, abortion, cannibalism, genocide, execution, assassination—for whatever reason, God takes responsibility for it all. It is his creation and a sparrow does not fall to the ground apart from his sovereignty.
But he also made it clear that he still intended for his people to live forever in paradise. He will have the last word, and that word will be life. And although someone will have to pay the price for all the evil in the world, in God’s plan he will pay for it himself.
His creative work has only just begun.
The End of the Story: God Recreates
The last thing we know about God, he is creating—recreating the cosmos. Although his people died, he made it possible for them to live again. For he took complete responsibility not only for death, but also for sin and rebellion and corruption. The Bible says that Jesus died in order to pay the price for these things—to pay the wages for our sin.
And then he offers us eternal life for free. The only condition is that we have to accept it. Just as we choose to lie and cheat on our own volition, so also we must choose to apologize, ask for and accept forgiveness. The good news is that he does not want us feeling guilty; he wants us feeling renewed. We get to make the choice, and for those who choose life, he gives it in abundance.
But for those who choose to continue rebelling, there will be hell to pay. For the corruption in this world fills God with wrath. And it is not possible to commit just one little act of disobedience, like eating a piece of fruit from a tree that he told us not to eat from. No, it will take an ever-increasing amount of stubbornness to keep pushing God away. Even if we manage to distance ourselves from blatant acts of evil, nevertheless in suppressing the truth we will become partners with lawlessness, mocking righteousness and scoffing at holiness, calling good evil and evil good, entertaining ourselves with demons, celebrating perversion, and congratulating the rebellious.
So at the end of the Bible there are no more gray areas. For God’s enemies are not just disobeying him but bitterly cursing him. So his judgments start to fall with horrendous effect. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, overflows with violence as God’s sends forth his wrath in waves, faster and faster, more and more painful.
It is the image of birth pangs—in the birth of the new creation.
“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,” John wrote. (Revelation 21:1) And entire universe will be a new garden of paradise.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month.” (Revelation 22:1-2)
In the end, God will have used all the suffering to accomplish something beautiful: the refinement of our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. The pain and suffering will be irrelevant in light of eternity, which is the end goal of God’s plan. (Just ask any mathematician how a few thousand years compares to eternity.) “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Between the Beginning and the End: God Creates a New People
So in the beginning God creates, and in the end he creates. And in between this beginning and ending God is creating a people who love him and love one another. They come from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, a very diverse population perfectly united in the worship of the Creator.
But here is a curious thing: in the end they are all called Israelites, and heaven is called the New Jerusalem. That is to say that all these people from every country and every language on the earth are said to be descendants of a man named Abraham, the patriarch of Jewish people. Why is that? Indeed, much of the Bible’s story takes place within the nation of Israel, and Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews. (“Jew” comes from “Judah,” which was the largest of the twelve tribes of Israel, so the word “Jew” and the word “Israelite” mean the same thing.) Why? Why is Israel so important?
The Creation of the Nation of Israel
Let’s pick up the story back in the first book of the Bible (Genesis) with a man named Joseph, whose father was named Israel and whose great grandfather was the Abraham. Joseph was the youngest of eleven brothers, and the one most loved by their father Israel. A combination of his father’s favoritism and some youthful vanity drew jealous hatred from his ten older brothers, so much so that they actually tied him up and sold him into slavery. Slave traders took him far from home, where he served a master in Egypt.
Then, due both to a series of outrageous events orchestrated by God, and due to a series of dreams given by God, Joseph advanced from being a slave in Egypt to being a ruler in Egypt. He became so powerful that eventually his entire family, including his ten brothers (plus another, younger brother who was born while Joseph was a slave) came and joined him there. Thus God made it possible for Abraham’s great grandchildren to live prosperously as sojourners in the land of Egypt, where they remained for four hundred years.
In the process, over the course of generations, two things happened to them. One thing that happened to the Israelites is that they grew into a distinct people-group. What started as an extended family of 70 people developed over four centuries into a nation. From the beginning they had remained culturally isolated within Egypt, so as they multiplied they developed their own culture and language. After they left Egypt they were commanded to remember this very fact when they were worshiping the Lord with their annual offerings of first fruits: “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.’” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
However, the second thing that happened to them is that they became slaves. Israel was a nation of slaves within a larger nation (Egypt). In fact, their enslavement was a direct consequence of their rapid growth: “‘Come, let us deal shrewdly with them,’ said the Pharaoh (the ruler of Egypt), ‘lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens.” (Exodus 1:10-11)
Now here is the key for understanding this: God planned it all from the beginning, and then God caused it to happen. That is to say that he intended to create a nation of slaves. Long before Joseph or his brothers or their parents were born, before the patriarch Abraham had had any children, God told him, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” (Gen 15:13)
Why? God was going to reveal himself to the world as the deliverer of the enslaved. For just as he ordained their affliction, so he also scripted their deliverance. After four hundred years of bondage he set them free through a series of violent judgments upon the land of Egypt. Wave after wave of disaster came upon Pharaoh’s land until Israel finally escaped through the midst of a sea, with a wall of water on their left and on their right. When they came out on the other side they were free.
Again, it was the image of birth.
And then they were not only free, but they also had a new identity—past, present, and future. Formerly their days were defined by agonizing, monotonous manual labor in service to their masters. Now, however, that history was invested with new meaning: they could proclaim to the world the salvation of God. They were to be a light to the nations, a city on a hill. Their story would be written and read.
However, that story would include a whole lot of repeated rebellion against God. Although he gave them political freedom, they still struggled with the corruption they inherited from Adam & Eve. Again and again they would rebel against God, fall before their enemies, and then cry out to him in repentance. And again and again God would deliver them and bless them, only to see them rebel again. By the end of the Old Testament the situation looks hopeless: no matter what God does for his people, they keep falling into corruption.
Yet none of this took God by surprise. Just as he had planned for them to be born in slavery, so also he knew that they would repeatedly rebel. In fact, from the very beginning God had made it abundantly clear to the Israelites that they weren’t any better than the Egyptians or than anyone else, and that they didn’t deserve salvation. Almost every facet of their culture—from their work to their rest to their clothing to their holidays to their worship—was all designed to be a reminder and a conversation-starter about the grace and mercy of God.
But they had a lot of trouble agreeing with God that they were unworthy of his favor and in need of his mercy. He would keep showing them kindness, but as the centuries went by they often demonstrated that they were no better than the worst, for they repeatedly fell into heinous lapses of tyranny, barbarism, and perversion. Of course this inevitably led to weakness, so that they would become subject to another nation again.
So even though he told them ahead of time exactly what they would do, they did it anyway! But from the beginning he also promised them a savior.
The Arrival of Israel’s King
Some 1400 years after Israel’s exodus from Egypt, they were not a free nation again. This time they were ruled by Rome. That’s when a humble teacher appeared in Israel, and he claimed to be the King—and by implication, their deliverer. He had been born of a virgin, and he claimed to be the Son of God.
He told the people that they were slaves of sin, and that they needed to be recreated. “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) But a lot of people—especially the leaders—didn’t like to hear that.
In fact, he was not at all the kind of savior they were looking for. The leaders longed for a strong warrior who would lead them in standing up to Rome. They simply could not fathom how their God-ordained king could be a lowly itinerate preacher, a friend of the poor, the outcast, and the despised. They were so offended by his claims that they killed him—with an excruciatingly painful and violent death.
Three days later he rose…“the firstborn from the dead.” (Colossians 1:18) He founded a new humanity to replace the old humanity in Adam. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22) People who trust in Jesus identify with his death, and so also identify with his life—an abundant everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven. We are a new creation. We are the new Israel, the new people of God.
“The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel!”
All of Jesus’ wonderful teaching, as well as the teaching of his disciples and apostles after him, was summed up by the Bible in one sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15) So what do we need to repent of? First, of suppressing the truth—the truth that God created us and everything else in the world—and instead believing a lie. He has made this truth clearly, abundantly obvious.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
That is to say, we know there is a rational, creative mind behind it all. We don’t need science to reveal this to us (though it is wonderful to hear), for the truth is self-evident. You can be fluent in English without knowing a thing about grammar—without knowing the difference, for example, between a noun and a verb. Likewise, you know God created the world, even if you don’t know how to explain it. Yet we suppress this truth, and exchange the glory of God for our own pathetic whims. Thus we usurp God. Jesus says, “Repent!” Repenting means confessing our sins, asking for forgiveness, and committing to honor God with our lives.
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)
So Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The good news is that he will not hold our sins against us—our suppression of the truth and our twisting of morality. Instead he will create in us new life—a life that will continue forever and ever in eternity. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Now Jesus also said we must be baptized. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation,” he told his disciples. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16) What does it mean to be baptized? It means we make a very clear, public, illustrative proclamation that Jesus is our Savior and Lord. (You could compare it to a wedding.) Using water illustrates both the washing away of our sins and also our identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection. A person goes under water, thus identifying with his death; they rise from the water, identifying with his resurrection. And their sins are left behind in the grave. Thus even if a person is a terrible public speaker they can still make a dramatic statement. (And they don’t actually have to go under water; sprinkling or pouring can suffice.)
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:4-13)