Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some reflections on evil

So far our blog has been more of a tool for updating family and friends about the details of our lives here in Scotland. In my view this is its primary purpose and it has served us well to that end. However, occasionally on the blog I intend to do more theological reflection and this post is one of those times.

The weight of evil has been on my mind a good bit lately. It must be said that there are good and successful answers to the question "If God is morally perfect and all-powerful, why is there evil in the world?" Surely God is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent—there is evil in the world, but only because He has a morally sufficient reason for its existence. There are certain things that, logically speaking, could only be accomplished if our world has evil in it; these certain things are of such a high value that God has no "blood on his hands" for the evil that so dominates our world. There is some debate as to what exactly these "certain things" may or may not be (free will, humans as they are, "built" souls that overcome evil, etc), but such discussions are not really my point right now. Intellectually, this problem can be answered satisfactorily.

Yet evil hurts no less. People do horrible, awful things all the time, and the wake of destruction left behind is sometimes unfathomable. Even when armed with good theological answers the weight of evil can be crushing. What can be said to the victim of sexual abuse? Someone who's been financially ruined by a crooked CEO with a golden parachute? What can you say to parents on the day they bury their toddler? Probably nothing; we should weep and mourn with them.

So what prevents us from despair in the face of such seemingly senseless evil? Some days, very little. Yet Christians have comfort in knowing that evil will not have the last word. In good time God will truly make everything right. The heart of this victory over evil was accomplished on the cross, but the fulfillment and full realization is still future, so that today we Christians live in an "already/not yet" tension. God is already conquering evil in the hearts and lives of believers, in the church as a whole and in her influence on the world, but that reality has not yet fully been realized on the earth.

    

Drawing from Revelation 20 and 21, I'd like to offer up some thoughts on the weight of evil we experience today and the "setting everything right" that is future.

Judgment: Revelation 20

    Revelation 20 speaks of the final, comprehensive and ultimate judgment of all evil and all things associated with or tainted by evil. This is the big one. What God does in this judgment is final and forever: God gets the last word in against evil, and what he has to say completely settles the matter. In God's final judgment He will judge the entire universe including all humankind, doing away with all evil and any taint of sin. What can be said about this judgment?

This judgment is comprehensive. Everything and everyone will have to stand before God, who is seated on the Great White Throne. Often times we focus on the judgment of humanity and fail to notice that "earth and heaven" flee away. God must go to such drastic measures because the whole universe has been tainted with the stain of sin. The creation groans with the weight of sin and longs for its removal. In a judgment that includes all of the universe, no one escapes this final reckoning—the dead, great and small, stand before the throne. Whether a person is a powerful and wealthy politician or a poor street bum, no one is too important or unimportant to escape accountability with God. No one is immune. In this judgment the opening of the Pandora's Box of evil that was unleashed by sin is undone; the seemingly impossible has been done—Adam's box is closed back up. All the evil and sin and suffering released into the world will be completely and entirely cleaned up.

This judgment is final and forever. What God does in this judgment is the last word and those who are condemned are condemned eternally. There is no escape clause, no bargaining, no time left to change. The penalty is permanent because sin is such a severe offense against a severely holy God—anyone who has experienced the evil in this world knows that the sin that brought it about is of the highest offense. Evil hurts, and that pain reminds us how bad evil really is and how costly is the penalty for sin.

A universal day of accountability is coming. All wrongdoers will have to answer to God for what they have done, because God is holy. The throne that the holy God sits on is white to signify the purity and holiness of the one who sits on it. The judgment of God on the Great White throne reflects the severity of His holiness and goodness. In his presence no evil can be tolerated and now he only tolerates evil in our world on account of his great mercy towards us.

    Who can escape this judgment and punishment? It is not arbitrary; no one can be "lucky" and squeak by. God will render to a man according to his deeds; however, this judgment is not based on a "morality scale." It is not as if God takes everything good that a person did and put it on one side of a scale, then puts everything wicked on the other side. If he did this there would be nothing to put on the good side because even the positive acts of the wicked are tainted by sinful motives and an implicit rejection of God. No one apart from God's power can do any genuine spiritual good. Also, we must understand that just one sin against a holy God is enough to condemn a person to the worst of all final destinations.

    The only escape from this horrible fate is to have your name written in the Book of Life, the Lamb's Book of Life. Jesus Christ is the author of this book and he writes the names of his own in it. It is not good deeds that can get a person's name in the Book of Life but it is belonging to the one who wrote it. It's not what you do, it's who you know.


 

    I find it deeply satisfying that all evil and all evildoers will get theirs. Can you imagine a God who does not hold Nero or Hitler accountable? Can you imagine a God who gives a pass to the 9/11 hijackers, or to child molesters? Certainly that God is not holy and good. In fact, it is the great holiness of God that makes eternal punishment what it is. God is infinitely holy and as such any sin against Him is infinitely offensive. A sentence of eternal and conscious punishment is the only suitable response to sin against such a great and holy God. Those who sin against God will spend forever paying for it.

I cannot move on without stressing that everyone deserves this fate, myself included. There is no "holier-than-thou" to be had here. Those who escape this fate do so not on their own merit but rather because the price of eternal punishment has been paid for those who trust in the Lord. We need not face such severe punishment because Christ went through hell for us on the cross.


 

Home: Revelation 21

Yet judgment is not the whole story of God's making right the world. In doing so He does not simply stop at eradicating all evil and wickedness but goes on to recreate reality, creating our eternal home. Revelation 21 speaks of the eternal home of those who belong to the Lord. In our eternal home we enjoy a reality without evil, one that is centered on our great God.

This is the grand climax of all history, the climax of the mighty workings of God, the climax of everything! When God makes all things new His presence will bring everything to perfection. I have 4 points to make about this true home of ours.

1.) The heaven and earth are "new" in the sense that the former, sin-sick world has passed away. Things are not merely "new" temporally but also with a qualitative newness. There is a different kind of reality and a different kind of existence, a much better one, where all discoloration of evil is gone.

2.) There is also a new unity between heaven and earth; there will no longer be the divide between heaven and earth that we have today. This dichotomy has been removed because of God's presence. Heaven and earth will be united into a larger reality, a new and perfect place where God dwells with his people. The new heaven and the new earth are not two distinct items but are united into one new reality.

3.) There is a new Garden of Eden. It is described as having a river of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. The tree of life is described in our new home as bearing fruit for us for eternity as we live forever. The imagery conveys that nothing touched or tainted by sin and evil will be there. In this new Eden we will worship God with our whole existence, and we will have the sort of close intimacy with Him that Adam had in the garden.

4.) There is a new city, Jerusalem. The new city is marked by holiness, glory and joy. To understand this new Jerusalem it is helpful to note some things that are NOT in this new holy city. First, in the city there is no temple. The temple is where God is and here God is completely and eternally dwelling among his people. The city itself is a temple of sorts because the glory of the presence of the Lord permeates it. With God and the Lamb physically present there is no need for a temple. Second, there is no need for the sun or the moon. The light source in this city is the radiant glory of the presence of God. Third, there is no need for closed gates. This is because all evil has been destroyed, so there is no need to protect the city by closing the gate. Fourth, there is nothing unclean or shameful. No unclean thing and no unclean person will enter the city. The language used here is the strongest negation possible. To paraphrase in English, "absolutely nothing bad or evil will enter the city, never ever."


 

The new heaven and new earth is our true home. This world is but a shadow of the one to come. Do not be discouraged by the brokenness of this world—the sin and the suffering we face day in and day out—because it is not our home, it's just where we are living for a while. Our true home is much, much better than this.


 

Revelation 21:3 reads, "the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God." God will dwell with us, and we will be his people. There are no more tears of suffering. God has removed death, evil and sin: He has removed the sources of sorrow. God's glory will be our light and He will be our comfort.

    

Lately, I've been more than a little homesick.