Saturday, June 21, 2014

Where Does Evil Come From?

If God created all things and considered them “good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), then where did evil come from? This question sometimes vexes Christian believers, who wrestle with the effects of evil in their lives — illness, poverty or financial reversal, ill-treatment by others, unhappy circumstances of all sorts — not to mention the incidents of evil persistently reported in media news of nation and world. If God is good, why do we face these undesirable conditions, and why do our prayers for relief seemingly go unanswered?

The question has philosophical, as well as personal, implications. Atheists are quick to point out the presence of evil in the universe, considering it to be an argument against the Christian view of a good God. In fact the experience of evil circumstances has led many to deny the existence of God altogether, on the supposition that a good God would not allow the suffering and abuse that are so widespread on the human scene. Furthermore, an unjustified belief in God — especially the God to which the Christian Scriptures bear witness — is seen as the source of evil in the world. This objection is epitomized in the title of Richard Dawkins’s book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. If Dawkins finds religion itself as the source of evil (neglecting to take into consideration the unspeakable horrors committed by atheistic dictators like Josef Stalin in the last century), Christians have sought to explain the origin of evil in other ways.

One popular explanation is the rebellion of Lucifer, once a prominent angel — a fanciful theory based in part on a misinterpretation of Isaiah 14:11ff. and Ezekiel 23:12ff.. These passages refer to the king of Babylon and the king of Tyre, respectively, and the details of Lucifer’s fall from heaven owe more to how John Milton used the imagery of these passages in Paradise Lost to develop his picture of Satan than to any direct scriptural source. The Israelite prophets sometimes used such grandiose imagery to depict the fall of earthly rulers, but there is no substantial basis in biblical theology for seeing in these passages an explanation for the origin of evil.

Another popular explanation among Christians is that based on the creation of mankind in the image of God (Genesis 1:27-27). As creatures after God’s likeness, people have the option to disregard God’s moral order and go their own way. Otherwise they would be acting in robotic fashion, predetermined to do only good and not evil — a contradiction of their having been created in God’s image. Having a will of their own, people tend to “play God,” arrogating to themselves the authority to dominate and control others. Evil eventuates from mankind’s attempt to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5), a temptation placed before them in the Garden of Eden by the serpent. If the serpent is seen as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Revelation 12:9), then the origin of human evil is ultimately traced back to the rebellion of Lucifer, as mentioned above. In any case, the working of earthly evil — not only in human affairs but in all of nature — is attributed to “the fall,” when Adam and Eve chose to disobey their Creator and went in a different direction, away from his will.

But even a supposed pre-human origin of evil in the fall of Satan may not go back far enough, for the possibility of cosmic evil must have been present for that hypothetical event to have occurred. Is there another way to approach the question of the origin of evil, from both a biblical and a cosmological standpoint, that carries it still further back in time? We believe there is.

The Bible, as stated above, makes the point that the original creation was “good.” Cosmologists typically ascribe the creation of the universe to the “big bang,” before which nothing existed — not even space and time. Matter, in the primordial form of light (as the Bible states, Genesis 1:3), came into being at the same “singularity” when space and time appeared. Matter requires the elapse of time in order to exist; that is, for anything at all to exist it must exist in space and time. However, on a universal scale time is characterized by entropy; over time energy dissipates, order degenerates to chaos, everything “runs down.” Barring a new creative infusion, the universe will ultimately die the “heat death” when no more movement occurs except the expansion of its components into cold isolation. Thus existence itself, since it requires time, dissolves into nonexistence through entropy. This is the cosmological origin of evil, which is the denial and destruction of all meaningful existence.

This is why the Scripture is at pains to show that God, who is “good” and made his creation “good,” continually works to combat the evil of entropy. By the very nature of things existing in time, evil will arise and do its destructive work. God, therefore, though he may “rest” from his creation (Genesis 2:2), has never retired from the activity of sustaining his universe. He acts constantly to “uphold the universe by his word of power” (Hebrews 1:3), the Word revealed historically in Messiah Jesus (cf. John 1:1-5). The apostle Paul states, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), as the cohering force that opposes the disintegrative effects of entropy. The Bible affirms that “the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11:3). The foundation of all things is the information, or “word,” which is immaterial but which is necessary for matter to exist at the quantum or even sub-quantum level. That information needs to be continuously infused into the universe, or entropy takes over to accomplish its evil end.

When we see evil at work, whether in human affairs or in the events of the natural order such as storms, earthquakes and the like, we understand that this is a necessary consequence of existence in time. God is not responsible for it, and has established his Word as the bulwark against it. Aligning ourselves with his Word is the best defense against the encroachments and effects of evil.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Concrete Words of Worship

Christian congregations are often divided over the issue of worship style; commentators on the contemporary scene sometimes speak of the “worship wars.” This sad situation is partly the result of failure to understand and appreciate the concreteness of the Bible’s descriptions of the worship of God. Worship planners and leaders who want to be faithful to the Word of God need to consider how Scripture describes worship in concrete, down-to-earth terms. Here we can only provide a sample of the more important expressions.

The biblical words regularly translated “worship” in English versions (Hebrew hishtahavah and Greek proskuneo) mean, literally, to bow down, bend the knee, prostrate oneself. Whether used literally or symbolically, they underscore the fact that worship is primarily an act of homage to a sovereign. Thus it is an observable action, not just something done “in the heart.” Of course biblical faith expects that external actions should reveal true inward motivation. But in Protestantism we have focused on this motivation or attitude and downplayed the visible action. The result has been “spectator worship” in our corporate gatherings. Who can tell anything about our real commitment to honor the Lord if we are never asked to express this commitment through visible gestures, whether bowing, kneeling, lifting the hands, or other actions both verbal and non-verbal?

Scripture often refers to God’s people “giving thanks to the Lord.” This seems to be another synonym for visible worship. The Hebrew word hodah is derived from a root that means “lift the hand,” referring to the act of swearing an oath of loyalty. To “give thanks” or “make confession” (the same Hebrew root underlies both English expressions) means to affirm our allegiance to the Lord as King; it is to take the oath of covenant loyalty, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Paul combines these two ideas — bowing the knee and taking the oath of loyalty — in his reference to the universal worship which is to be offered through the triumph of the gospel, when “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (see Philippians 2:10-11). There is no reason why the church shouldn’t anticipate this type of worship in its own corporate gathering.

Citing Romans 12:1 about our “spiritual worship” beclouds the issue, because Paul here uses the word latreia which means “service,” not “worship.” And reference to John 4:24 on “worship in spirit and truth” also begs the question until we have defined “spirit” and “truth” in biblical terms. That which is done in spirit is not invisible. To the contrary, only visible actions reveal that the Spirit is at work in a person’s or community’s life; one who is acting “in the Spirit” acts in a certain identifiable way. And truth, as Jesus defined it in the gospel of John, is the Word of God (17:17). So “worship in spirit and in truth” translates into visible, spirited actions of worship in conformity with Scriptural patterns.

Protestants have spiritualized the faith until it has become virtually invisible — even to the point of “forsaking the assembling together” in some cases. I suggest that biblical people wouldn’t recognize this as worship. When our practice of Christianity becomes primarily “a matter of the heart,” there is no way we can be held accountable for our faithfulness to the Lord by our brothers and sisters in the body. We can always claim that no one but God can judge our hearts. The point is that visible expressions of worship, whatever they may be, are not just window dressing for an inner attitude of trust in the Lord. They are part of our obedience to the Lord out of faithfulness to his covenant. Our “sacrifice of praise,” as the Psalms put it, is the tribute we offer as servants of the Great King. That’s why we need to pay much closer attention to what we do in public worship.

In The Shape of the Liturgy (1945,1983), Dom Gregory Dix wrote:

Briefly, the puritan theory is that worship is a purely mental activity, to be exercised by a strictly psychological “attention” to a subjective emotional or spiritual experience. . . . Over against this puritan theory of worship stands another — the “ceremonious” conception of worship, whose foundation principle is that worship as such is not a purely intellectual and affective exercise, but one in which the whole man — body as well as soul, his aesthetic and volitional as well as his intellectual powers — must take full part. It regards worship as an “act” just as much as an “experience” (p. 312).

One final point: genuine worship is directed to God. Much of what we do when we assemble as a body is directed horizontally, to instruct and encourage our brothers and sisters. This is good, but often there is a missing element: expressions of worship addressed directly to the Lord. Our lives of humility, consideration for others and prayerful study of the Word cannot substitute for telling the Lord directly of our love for him. I am pleased when I visit my grandchildren and observe them interacting one another, playing or conversing together without fighting. However, they could do that and ignore me entirely in the process. How much more valued I feel if they include me in their interaction, perhaps even hug me and say, “Grandpa, I love you!” I suspect this feeling is not unknown to the Lord, as well.