Nature’s “Glass Darkly”
For many New Yorkers, a visit to Phillips Manor is perhaps the first introduction to what life on a farm with domesticated animals is like. The Bronx Zoo is a paradox: wildlife surrounded by a subway line, commuter trains, and tall buildings. Further west flows the Hudson, across which the lure of wilderness has for centuries drawn people away from human habitat, civilization, and the city. Nature lay beyond the river, over the mountains of Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Mississippi was the continent’s divide before the walls of the Rocky Mountains. The self-made man, hunting, settling, and then moving on again, was closely associated with being in nature in years past, in an era where one could prove one’s qualities and avoid the pitfalls of having neighbors.
Fast-forward to decades later. Anyone who did not pioneer for whatever reason can quite easily buy his own house and tend his lawn on his plot, pretending he is taming and experiencing nature. Nature is being close to the ground, master in one’s own homestead, one’s ear and heart attuned to wilderness, far away from the shouts and cries of the city. There is a harmony not easily found among people. Nature—in all her majesty, silence, and novelty—is romantically perceived as a divine temple.
In no way was this typical of the new world of the Americas. Germans love their forests, glens, and brooks. The Sunday walk has largely replaced attendance at church. Scandinavians love their birch forests, ponds, and moors. French have replaced church with rabbit hunts or local tastes at the nearest café. The English hike over the Downs.
Perhaps humanity is so often in search of nature because it is our closest neighbor, yet one that does not talk back, with its hidden ways and energies. From it we draw our food and drink and to it we return at death to dust. There is movement without too much chaos, change with great regularity of seasons and tides; there are cycles of birth and death, and the sun seemingly goes round and round.
Isaiah Berlin draws an interesting line to connect such an embrace of nature with the eighteenth-century Romantic Movement, where the individual expresses what is on his personal wish list. Religious enthusiasts have similar ideas of freedom from reality. As reaction to society and everything that is of human invention, they express a return to a more pagan view. Even the familiar ideologies of democracy—fascism, Marxism, and secular humanism—assume that a more advanced order for life now proceeds from human nature; a way of life more holistic and relevant than their parents’ sources in Christianity and Judaism. The “natural” human being is closer to his real self, where men and women discover their own divinity through imagination and dreams.
In our generation we have perhaps advanced a further step, suggesting that the adjective “human” caused a problem by differentiation from the rest of nature, a threat to all else, and should therefore be made less central. Nature has become the model. Animals are studied to direct our attention to how we should now live. Submission to an ecosystem is now valued more than human distinctives, because the human is seen as the source of all Earth’s problems.
The distinction between humanity and the rest of creation as uniquely crafted in the image of God and not part of nature exclusively, is rooted in the biblical affirmation. The mandate to exercise dominion elevates us into places of responsibility, creativity, and change agency. Nonetheless, it violates the notion of a fundamental unity with our surroundings and therefore is seen only as a problem, not also a part of all major solutions.
For more than fifty years David Attenborough has taken us into the world of animals around the world by means of exciting and detailed documentaries about their natural habitats. He observes them from close range, lies in their paths and then describes their lives, feeding, and mating habits in their ecosystems with wonder and fascination. One would expect that with so much sensitive exposure to the animal world and nature he would advocate a reduced role for humankind in greater humility to a nature that perhaps reveals the divine.
During a recent interview on BBC television in appreciation of his life and career, he was asked whether all his experience and research has made him more aware of “someone like, you know, a creator behind these marvels of animal life.” His response, after a very brief pause, was the reflection of a very observant scientist. He said something like this: “When I expose people to such marvels, such majesty and details of animal life, I also have in mind at the same time, the horror for that small boy in the Congo region of Africa, whose eye is at that same moment slowly penetrated by a river worm from behind, where his brain is, after it has wormed its way all through the body from his feet upwards. I have to keep both glory and horror in mind. When I do that, I do not see a benign creator in all this.”
He continued to say that many people sentimentalize their observation of nature. But for him such an interpretation misses the reality of what he loves to show. These observers see only what they wish to see, such as the glory in primitive natural life always ordered by habit and instinct. Even talk about the food chain reveals a delight in its orderliness but misses the reality of its cruelty.
Woody Allen acknowledges this cruelty in his own observant and realistic way when he speaks of nature as a “giant restaurant.” If God wants the lamb and lion to lie down together in such a world, the lamb better keep a very watchful eye on the lion.
Sentimentality about nature’s ways is one of the human responses to the many questions reality raises. We can admire something’s orderliness, even when it has painful and destructive elements. We call something cute or majestic, cuddly or wild, because we wish to see it as such. We would feel very differently if we either looked more closely or had to live in the midst of the untamed wild for all our life; if instead of domesticating animals, we were now told to live like what many call “the animal within us.”
Attenborough’s camera does not go through intellectual reflection. It does not compare and contrast. It responds to the way it is held and takes pictures according the producer’s actions on its mechanism. It feels no distance between what shows up in the lens and what ought to be there. Attenborough himself, however, makes a moral judgment about the camera’s observation and then draws a philosophical conclusion from it. He notices the conflict between beauty and horror: even though the worm only functions in accordance with its circumstances and instincts, Attenborough transcends the moment and sees in his mind what will happen to the boy. He compares this with what he wishes the boy to experience instead. And he can imagine what it would feel like if the worm were crawling into his own eye.
There is very little room for sentimentality in observing nature. One must admire the workings of nature and bring them closer to the casual observer and ignorant city dweller. One may be tempted to grant room for nature to follow its way without demanding its compliance with our standards of moral selection. At the moment where such ways intersect and influence our human existence, however, or even threaten the survival of other animal species we start viewing nature through our moral lenses. While nature functions on instinct and in accordance with nature’s laws, we also notice that it prevents no threat to survival and respects no rights or dignities. Humanity requires a moral law above the natural law, for we value human life and assert a sense of what the Bible gives as the mandate to human beings: to subdue the earth and to have dominion, to multiply and to work with our hands and minds against thorns and thistles so that another generation can continue when our own bodies return to the dust from which they were taken.
Sentimentality is one unacceptable response to nature’s ways. Careful observation, reflection, and moral responses are required in a world of precise definitions. When we recognize that we do not live in a harmonious ecosystem but instead in one where big eats little and little can destroy big, we require tools of discernment, skills for survival, and moral direction in order for life to have continuity and death in its many manifestations to be restrained.
Another unacceptable response is to create a category called “mystery.” We place all the things we do not (now or presumably ever) understand into the “mystery” box. There are mysteries of course, occurring when we experience events or observe slices of reality which we assume belong together but cannot connect at present. For instance, how does the body know the exact time when labor starts the birth of a child. What directs migrating birds to find their way to their destination and back? How about salmon returning to their sweet water spawning grounds after having grown to adulthood in the salty ocean? Why did Lisa ever choose to marry Tom (Any resemblance to persons living or dead purely coincidental) in light of what even we know about each of them?
Among human beings it always puzzles me why we make the choices we make. Even if I know my own reasoning, I certainly don’t understand some of the choices others make. My wife, Deborah, and each of my five children still are a mystery to me in many ways. They are outside me, well-known strangers. They love and are reliable, trustworthy, and always there, but who are they. . . really? I do not know with any finality for I am finite, in many ways a mystery to myself.
Yet we must be careful to separate these mysteries, in which we gain insight gradually through experience and science, from what is quite casually called “mystery” in the frequently suggested relationship between God and nature, or God and history. All too readily people wish to see God in nature, so the question was put to David Attenborough. I held my breath while listening and was so relieved to hear that with all his observations about animal life he could not see a benevolent God in nature in spite of all the majesty he observed there over the years. For, nature’s majesty also bears the face of cruelty; all the strength of life also gives off whiffs of death. All the orderliness loses its shine in instinctual-but-violent attacks and the loss of life in the giant food chain and lust for blood.
Perhaps we should tread carefully before sending postcards and hanging posters presenting Bible verses on a background of autumn foliage, mountain scenes, and immaculate beaches. A closer look at these picturesque scenes would give a far more mixed insight. We would quickly realize the presence of death as well. If God’s character is revealed more in nature than in the world of human beings made in his image, we have either God’s moral character hidden in mystery, or sentimentalized cruelty.
Among human beings—in their art and efforts, their unpredictable choices to love, speak, and create; in their concerns about pain or about peace in the midst of society’s imperfections—we more readily find something of the Bible’s addresses to people. And in people we see what the Bible reveals of God’s being. We are his children, not the children of nature. We are not fully at home in nature; we more readily abide in what God said about taking dominion and building family, relationships, and homes against the surrounding wilderness.
The God of the Bible is not obscured in mystery, nor are his intentions mysterious. He has said things and shown things. His acts are revealed and described so that we would understand them (Deuteronomy 29:29). His speaking addresses our minds and needs to be understood, otherwise it is only a cacophony of syllables. Understanding the text, the sentences, the paragraphs, and the flow of Scripture’s argument requires considerable effort. This should not surprise us. Any piece of literature, contract, or love letter also requires such effort. What do the words mean? Where else is this subject treated? What could it not possibly mean? How can I discover whether it is meant honestly? Where is there evidence to support the assertions? What can I do to complain if the words are not honored?
The God of the Bible is not totaliter aliter or wholly other. His word is not indirect, full of hidden meanings and reversed values. Of course there are depths to God’s being that we do not fathom. We were not present at creation. We have now been evicted from the garden and depend on letters from God to inform us until a time when he will again dwell among us and we with him. He has sent his Spirit so that the spiritual death and alienation we experience as orphans, ignorant and with little comfort here now, is removed and spiritual life becomes a reality.
The concept of a totally other God comes from philosophy, not from the Bible or history, though many theologians have embraced it to justify their acceptance of the irrational as a source of knowledge. This delight in the irrational extends to many impossible explanations of Christ’s death and resurrection, which has plagued modern theology since the nineteenth century. It is built on the assumption that for God to be God he would have to be totally different from us. Since we think in terms of time (finiteness), reason (words and syntax), and causation (science, analysis, and deductions), God must be timeless (infinite), irrational (feeling, spiritual) and full of unexpected surprises compared to our standards and ways of thinking and doing.
The problem is that this conclusion forgets that the God of the Bible made us in his image and able to understand God’s communications, though not exhaustively. This God has created a real universe where he is not a stranger. He talked with Adam and Eve, came for lunch with Abraham, and in other multiple occasions talked, explained, and demonstrated his sovereignty over Pharisees. Further, he pronounced his judgment of bad blood between people, expressed his revulsion over sickness, and openly asserted his authority over evil spirits and finally death itself.
In fact Jesus says, to the surprised and opposing Pharisees in John 10:33–38, that the judges over Israel (who are called elohim, a name normally reserved for God, in the Psalm Jesus quotes, 82:6!) could understand God’s word to instruct them in how to make just choices in their obligations to serve the people. The Bible speaks of an infinite God, who is not timeless in some sort of “eternal now,” but eternal in sequences of “before” and “after” relationships. Time unfolds like a sequence in the relationship between the persons of the Trinity before creation. From God’s perspective, we are now living in a time after the fall. In the same way God’s relation to people is different before the birth of Christ “in the fullness of time” and after his glorification. Different aspects of God himself are disclosed at various times. These are not merely what seem to be sequences from our finite human perspective.
God is an infinite person with clear and consistent characteristics, whose depth we cannot ever reach or absorb, but whose personality is evident, accessible, and trustworthy. With God things and events are the way they appear to us to be, when his actions and the verbal explanations of his actions are carefully observed and understood. God exhaustively knows all things and events. From God we receive a reliable witness to things and events with enough of a verifiable context to allow us to know them truthfully. Reality, including the reality of God’s being and character, is never just an illusion or something “totally other,” either in creation or in the finished work of Christ.
Of course, there is always “something more” we can discover about God. This is not surprising, since “something more” can always be said and discovered about all reality as well. No object, person, or situation is ever completely known by us in our finiteness. Inexhaustible knowledge is the continuing challenge and privilege for any finite being. But the “inexhaustible,” by definition, touches on the quantity of knowledge, not its quality. It does not mean that limited knowledge is necessarily erroneous. True knowledge about God—though finite—does not imply that what we know of God is in the end contrary to what God has said and done.
Francis Schaeffer speaks of the infinite-personal and personal- infinite God in his lectures and books. Our visit to a German university showed us the importance of this qualified infinity and eternal character of God. The materialists in the audience needed to hear about the person of God, and the pietists in the audience needed the clarification of God’s infinite character.
There are essentially three areas in which the Bible speaks of mystery. Daniel was able to know the king’s dream and explain its meaning. God revealed it to him to show that he, Daniel, knew things from God, unlike the king’s diviners who played guessing games. This mystery relates to how God can make something known about future events.
Paul speaks of the mystery of our resurrection, a sure event that will become evident. This mystery surprises by its powerful abolition of death at the hand of the creator for whom the death of persons is not the end.
The central mystery referred to in Scripture relates to the way of salvation: Can humanity’s fall or my own failures ever be undone when time has moved on from the events? How is it possible? Is there any hope to recover fellowship with God, moral restitution, and peace of mind? Who would accomplish it, and when would we be certain of it? This mystery deals with what God is able to interpose to remove guilt without becoming guilty himself.
The promise in Genesis, in the immediate context of Adam’s fall and a creation spoiled by the effects of sin, speaks of God doing what amounts to an additional work. A moral or legal dilemma now existed through our first parents’ choice to turn their back on God and believe a lie. A second dilemma arose when physical death eventually followed the moral death from sin.
God’s additional work consisted first of running after Adam and Eve to promise restoration. This would redress the legal dilemma of personal guilt by a work of God, who—in the second person of the eternal Trinity, God the Son—would receive a body from a woman and crush Satan’s head for good (Genesis 3:15). The Lord and judge of the universe would take the result of our sin, true moral guilt, on himself. He as judge, rather than we as the guilty party, would suffer and bear the consequences to pay for the wrong. He would absorb divine alienation so that we would become God’s children again.
The repeated sacrifices of lambs without blemish in the Old Testament liturgy dramatized this entire transaction: sin, guilt, and their lethal consequences are unavoidable until God, through the infinite moral value of his son’s death, accomplished the legal and factual reality of forgiveness once for all. This is real history. There is a time and space component to it. From the “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” to the “It is finished” on the cross, the judgment was enacted.
God also instructs Adam and Eve at the time of the Fall, and repeats it through the prophetic teaching and the law in increasing detail to later generations: humanity must work together in a sweaty effort against death and fragmentation to live in the expectation of their Savior. The legal problem would be healed when the eternal judge of the moral universe would take our punishment on himself. He would deal with the factual problems that resulted from sin by the power of his resurrection, a first-fruit of a larger and richer harvest. In addition he would deal with the problem of ignorance, confusion, and social tension by means of the Law. Its application would diminish the legal, moral, and personal chaos of people surrounded by a reality of hideous contradictions in natural and unanswered questions about truth, reality, right, and wrong.
The central mystery Scripture speaks of concerns the how and when of the fulfillment of this promise, which is clearly stated and repeatedly confirmed through the whole Bible. The rest of the mystery of the promise is explained in enough detail to leave no room for confusion. The question of whether God had caused suffering and injustice would be clearly addressed, demonstrating that sin and the resulting evil were creations of the creature, not of God. God had no hand in them. Adam and Eve created a new situation by their choice to question God’s truth. They stupidly believed in the serpent’s impossible promise that they, created beings, would be like the eternal God.
In Greek religions, “mysteries” described secret rites into which people were solemnly initiated. The word implies a select insight purposefully hidden from others to express exclusivity. The Gnostic philosophers spoke frequently of mysteries, private insights about the divine way to escape the prison of the material world, including the human body. The Church went to great effort to distance the insight of the Bible from such a focus on personal directives, mysterious knowledge, and “other” goals. Jesus does not exist in the heart of people, in their inner conviction, or in their emotions. He existed for us first on earth (“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” Colossians 2:9) and then after the resurrection and ascension on the right hand of the Father in heaven (“Jesus Christ . . . has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” Ephesians 1:3).
In stark contrast to mystery religion, the Bible does not know secret rites. All things are out in the open. All ritual is explained and given a broader historic and intellectual context. The word of God is given to declare truth and reality to the whole world. The mind is addressed and sharpened by it to make any confusion with imagined gods and lifestyles obviously foolish.
In the Bible “mystery” refers to details not yet known, things which will be revealed later in order to complete what is now known in part. Salvation contains no mystery about what God will do, but about how and when. Mystery does not relate to God’s attitude towards people or his actions on their behalf. The mystery component concerns the question of how it will all work out eventually before human eyes.
The book of Job in the Old Testament sheds much light on the fundamental questions about God’s absence, his justice, the kind of world we live in, and what can be done about it. In Job we find encouragement to ask difficult questions. They are in many ways the core of why our contemporaries reject Christianity in favor of religions, with all the damage they cause in soul, spirit, and culture. Job and his story shall form the touchstone for much of our conversation on the character of God in these pages.
Job is rewarded for his refusal to accept his friends’ advice. They are wrong to believe that our lives are fair now. Job’s experiences are tragic. He suffers the consequences of a heavenly battle through no fault of his own. He has done no wrong to deserve what he experiences. He demands that God show himself and explain the unfairness of all his suffering and loss of family. And God does. It is important to realize that God is no contemporary Christian in his response! Job is told neither to accept a mystery, nor that because he is a sinner he deserves death and should be glad that he at least is still alive when his children are already dead.
Instead, Job is honored in several ways. God does eventually show up; he judges Job’s friends in their foolishly simplistic assumptions about reality being fair. Is it not true that “under the sun” (as Solomon describes the span of our birth and death in Ecclesiastes) “all is vanity?” There is no resolution now, no justice unless it includes what follows after death: the balancing of the books and the resurrection.
God also points out to Job that reality is more complex than meets the eye. As “omniscient readers” of Job we know why: we have the book’s prelude, in which the accusation and challenge from Satan against Job and any believer is disclosed. A curtain is opened on a second “stage” above that of visible history disclosing a war for a while between God and the rebellious and accusing angel who wanted to be like God. This fallen angel is the accuser of the brethren who seeks to devour some. But there is no mystery about what God will do. Job was right to have that confidence. His knowledge was only limited to the when and how, which God points out by reminding Job that this heavenly battle is very serious and of long duration. Reality has become extremely complex ever since the fall of both angels and humanity affected all creation, but that does not make it at all confusing to God.
First Corinthians 15:51 talks about the “mystery” that we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed at the coming of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 2:1 Paul says that he did not come to Corinth with eloquent speech or what the Greeks understood to be wisdom when he proclaimed the mystery of God. Here Paul distinguishes God’s available knowledge from that of Greek mystery religions. The latter was open to a select few who passed the muster of philosophers whose authority rested on their fine speech, high ideals, and contemplation of beauty. The former is revealed to everyone, for God’s Spirit knows the mind of God and has revealed it to us (1 Corinthians 2:6ff).
The “mystery of faith” mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:9 refers to precisely the details of what we believe for good reasons, affirmations which should be held confidently by elders of the church. They should not hide this mystery but be apt to teach it because they are convinced of it after critical discernment. Otherwise, why would honest people teach it in good conscience?
Ephesians addresses the desire to declare the mystery of the gospel with boldness (6:19). Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ having been revealed (3:3–4), so that he and the recipients of his letter could understand it. In the first chapter he speaks of the fact that the mystery of God’s will has been made known in Christ’s coming, work, and purpose (v. 9). In Christ, he says, we have every spiritual blessing already in heavenly places (v. 3). In Christ we are chosen (v. 4) and adopted (v. 5). In and through him God has lavished his grace on us (v. 6). In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness (v. 7). This is the “mystery” now made known to Jew and Gentile in the fullness of time, when God summed up all things in Christ (v. 10).
Colossians, a letter to a church that was very much exposed to Gnostic mystery ideas, has Paul again explain that the mystery is related to the person of Christ. He asks God “to fill [the people] with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding” so that they may please God in every way, bearing fruit in every good work. The first two chapters are dedicated to the reality that whatever mystery there is has now been made manifest in public, “disclosed to the saints” (1:26).
This is the tenor of Scripture’s treatment of “mystery.” Peter speaks of it in terms of the prophets before Christ seeking and searching the promised salvation diligently, when they prophesied of the grace that would come to Peter’s audience and those who would read his letter in generations to come: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Peter 1:10–11).
Mystery, then, is not what some people think in secret, even though they cannot know, think, or understand it. Neither does it relate to something about a far-off place, cut off from material reality, the mind, or moral and intellectual categories. According to the Bible, mystery is something quite specific of which fuller understanding is a matter of time, not relegated to feeling or make-believe. We shall see in Scripture that the reason why a person believes in God or his Christ is not a mystery. There is no mystery either, nor mere subjectivity in the soul of a person, about God’s word and work. Knowing God has something to do with a decision to recognize and acknowledge the Lordship of the Creator, the redeemer and restorer God.
Many today seem to like their mysteries, much in the same way people in the past liked to see God behind all events. Like constantly changing fad diets and guidelines for eating, mysteries sound very much like neighbors of common gossip and conspiracy theories. Many instances of personal guidance, private readings of Scripture, and spiritual gift inventories reveal a pleasure in personal mysteries and meanings. The reference to “God” in relation to mystery seems useful and pious, but it does not compass a genuine desire to know and realize. Instead it fosters a persistent ignorance of what is factual, coherent, and true in light of how God’s word relates to the evidence of life.
An appeal to “mystery” also opens the door for suggesting that the natural world is always tied to some hidden moral purpose through God’s immediate intervention. In this paradigm, natural disasters, illness, and unjust governments are all attributed to the hand of God. Some take Scripture’s affirmation that God sustains all things by the word of his power (see Hebrews 1:3) to mean that no apple falls off the tree until God withholds his word to keep it there. They seek a reasonable and powerful explanation behind all events and thus credit God as the mover behind all events. Greeks and other pagan societies see such an “animus” or mind behind all natural events. This animistic belief at times refers to a moral will and other times the mere power behind events. Through this perception events like personal injuries or fortunes could be explained, as well as natural phenomena, such as an earthquake or a river coming from a source in the side of a hill. Thunder was but the gods bowling, illness the working of an evil spell or a moody deity. “Let the water run, it wants to live in Mombassa,” says the African foreman in the film version of Out of Africa when the dam is too low to retain the flood. Such an articulation is widely held in many cultures; to me, this is understandable. Nonetheless, I think there are two flaws in this way of thinking and speaking.
First, it fails to see that the “powerful word” referred to in the Bible is the “God spoke and it was” of creation, by which apple trees were made to produce only apples each year, not monkeys or marshmallows. God designed and defined it this way. This is what Christians mean when they say that God ordains everything that comes to pass. His is a coherent and rational universe where cause and effect function and are not subject to odd turns and freak or random events. We shall see that this even relates to the grace of God, which is not a matter of seemingly arbitrary choices.
Second, to see God behind all events seems to do justice to God’s power, but it violates God’s moral character each time. When God is behind all things he is not only the deus ex machina, but also the reason and source of both good and evil, making him either wicked or incomprehensible. In such a world, the values of “good” and “evil” have lost their real distinctiveness. Reality is then, as in Hinduism, an illusion. Events only seem to be good or evil. In reality they are blank.
The deus ex machina of the past was gradually replaced by greater insight and scientific discoveries, fueling mandates to diminish pain, evil, and suffering. These were not expressions of unbelief but of affirmation that we live in an ordered (or “lawful”) universe. Such encouragement to discover applicable insights for human life is found only in the Jewish and Christian cultural traditions. It laid the intellectual foundation for that kind of consistent and steady inquiry. The Bible encouraged people to believe that God had made a real universe “upheld by the word of his power.” Jews and Christians became culturally innovative, unlike fatalistic Muslims, or Buddhists in perpetual search of detachment. Those standing in the Judeo-Christian lineage are not materialists with the concurrent denial of real significance. Neither are they like African animists, always afraid to unbalance the occult workings of hidden spirits in all parts of nature.
With all our involvement with nature and the discoveries of how it worked, Jews and Christians did not believe that God was acting in all events of a tragic, painful, and problematic world and its history. They did not function from a perspective of inevitable fate or an all-pervasive fairness, or of a puppeteer God. When they acted or interfered with what normally happens in the real world, they were not rebelling against God’s plan for the world. They acted in reality, as God himself also does, to flesh out the words
of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth (where it is not fully accomplished yet), as it is already being done in heaven.” They understood the moral mandate as well and sought to create a better order than what nature, including human nature, provided after the Fall. Adam was told to work against thorns and thistles, to have babies, to love his wife and to improve on what had become a fallen world. Believers saw themselves in that line of thought, judging the world of reality from the standards of the Word about reality, that Word which was before the beginning and then took on flesh to dwell amongst us.
The moral silence of nature was overcome with the language of purpose, life, and a hope well explained in Scripture. Nature, including human nature, was to be transformed into a holy culture. It is anchored in the realization that the eternal Word, who is God and was with God, came into the world and dwelled among us (John 1:1). Our culture is built on this Word, while religion finally maintains a moral indifference. Buddhism and her children teach that silence is a more fitting description of reality. Islam and Marxism use many words and speak, like propaganda, of divine or scientific rules for the world. Yet both produce in effect a silence through words merely repeated collectively and by rote without comprehension and real meaning, without heart and soul.
Our generation fails in our task to carry on the banner of our biblical heritage whenever we appeal to “mystery” where things are in fact explained. We also fail when we succumb to the notion that God’s sovereignty is a form of control that leaves people hanging at the end of the wires of a master puppeteer. There is something blind and immoral when responsibility is given to and required from a puppet whose life a sovereign puppeteer controls. This is not a case of “mystery,” but of immorality.
Our interest in this whole question is not a matter of friendly discussions among the retired idle. Holding onto the deus ex machina suggestion, that whatever has no other explanation must be from God, exposed a nakedness concerning facts of many nineteenth century Christians. Their faith served them very poorly. Science in the form of a more careful study and observation—not faith—improved our hygiene, productivity, and life expectancy. Similarly, “you will achieve what you believe” is a modern motivational marketing slogan. By itself it does not accomplish anything, and if you act upon it you may well neglect the good and create evil. Faith does not create a new reality any more than belief in a flat earth makes it fl at. Situations in the real world require effort, creativity, a choice of priorities and skill in the context of moral evaluation. Scripture does not inform any faith that does not interact with the real world.
Christianity has exposed an intellectual nakedness by believing something the Bible does not teach: all reality is a manifestation of God’s character, and the hand of God can be seen in all events. As we will see by contrast, the Bible informs us of a break between the mind of God and the ongoing reality of our experiences. Faith in an ex machina God does not overcome real evil, but denies its existence in what is believed to be “God’s world.” Many Christians believe in their faith but do not really believe the God who speaks in the Bible about the fragility of life in a broken creation.
After the tumultuous events of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, Christians are again foolish when they conclude that God was not only present during its inhumanities, but in charge of them. A God who ordains the cruelty of what one neighbor does to another in the name of progressively-intended ideologies must be fought or buried. God cannot be an accomplice to the ends-justify-the-means creeds and manifestos of men. When God’s sovereignty is indentured to justify all reality, we cannot possibly place history into the seat of the accused. In this kind of world, Nietzsche and his offspring are the only moral folks left. They will go down as well but with their flag flying.
Much of Christianity’s contemporary rejection is grounded on these two unbiblical and therefore rather foolish and unnecessary stands: the first is a make-believe faith that is never put on the examining table where creation and history are dissected with the tools provided by Scripture. The second is a failure to acknowledge God’s declared war against evil through his acts into and against human history.
Bertrand Russell’s objections to Christian faith never dealt with all the jewels of the Bible’s teaching. He picked and chose what he wanted to deal with, perhaps all his church ever gave him to think about. His understanding of Christianity was truncated but is what Christians often say and seem to be satisfied with. His response to that kind of Christianity is more honest than that of many Christians.
But there are more jewels in the crown of the biblical God and King. If the first jewel is the existence of a good and almighty God, the second is the information of a historic break with goodness through the fall of Adam and Eve.
The record of this tragic break is of central importance and a distinguishing mark of the Bible, found nowhere else in philosophy or religion. There is a distance between what was at creation and for some time afterwards, and what is reality as we’ve known it ever since humanity’s fall. God is good and almighty and not the author of evil. His sovereignty is not a control or approval of all events. Only with these two jewels does the third, the work of Christ, become the glorious one in a long row of others. Without the first two we know nothing about a moral and good God. Without the historic fall there is no good God; without God being good, there is no moral compass whatsoever.
Many Christians readily speak of their personal relationship with the Savior, Jesus Christ. They read the New Testament with reverence and the Old with eyes searching for prophesies of salvation to heaven and social programs for earth. But this type of reading does not honestly deal with the text, for the text starts with God, then a good creation, then a real fall by choice, before it ever gets to the rest. And in those opening chapters the stage is set for all that follows with its tragic choices and gracious battles for the crown of God’s creation: humankind, male and female in the image of God.
But if God planned it all and sovereignly executed what took place at the Fall, God would need a savior or we would only be victims of his moves. What does it matter whether I have a personal relationship with Jesus if it remains unsettled whether God is at fault? Who would want to spend an eternity with a God whose sovereign plan was to orchestrate a monstrous history?