By / Sep 1

If God is so good, why is there evil in the world? If you are a Christian, chances are you have been asked that question many times, and if I am being honest I haven’t always had an answer. Even now I am not completely sure. There are a lot of questions about God that are impossible to answer because we simply are not God. He is outside of time, space, and matter. We are his creation. However, there are some questions that I think God does gives us an answer to and in fact wants us to know, such as how did it all start, or why is the world the way that it is? 

Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, reveals where the answers to these questions are found in his new book, The Characters of Creation. He also answers how we can find meaning and purpose in a broken world. Darling takes readers through the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and highlights how it is not just a story but God’s living Word to humanity. Below, he talks about how his book can help us rest in God’s providence. 

Joshua Martin: I found it interesting how you pointed out that if we were in the same situation as Adam and Eve, we would have decided to partake of the fruit, causing sin to enter into the world. How was it possible, if the first humans were in perfect communion with God, to disobey him? What does that say about our nature? 

Daniel Darling: Humans walked in innocence, but were not necessarily sanctified, as Christians redeemed by Christ experience and will experience in full at the end of the age. The innocence of Adam was tested and found wanting in the Garden. Of course, the innocence of the second Adam was tested and found worthy in Jesus. The way God’s sovereignty and rule coexist with our moral agency to commit sin against God is a mystery that theologians have wrestled with throughout the church age, but it is clear that God created human beings with a conscience and moral agency, which means humans can make choices which can go against their Creator and for which they are accountable. 

JM: If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we long for community with others. In your book, you emphasize that we can see from the very first book of the Bible that we ultimately long for community with the One who created us. Does that give us any indication of what Heaven will be like? 

DD: I think it’s profound that Moses paused the narration of his description of God’s creation of humans to make a statement that “it is not good for man to be alone.” This is the only part of God’s creative acts that was declared not good, because it was unfinished. Humans were created for community as a way of imaging the community experienced by the Triune God. I think we saw this during the last few years, as the pandemic forced a worldwide social experiment that I think reminded us that we were made for community, made for togetherness. We learned that while technology has thankfully allowed us ways to interact and communicate without being physically present, there is no substitute for embodied presence. In many ways, this is how the church can minister in a digital, isolated age. The ancient and often analog rhythms of church life can in many ways serve as a respite for digitally exhausted people. 

Our longing for togetherness, for community, does, in many ways, give us a glimpse of Heaven. Heaven is not just me and a thousand mansions and Jesus. Heaven will be, as described in Revelation 5 and 7 and other places, God’s gathering of his people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. It will be perfected fellowship. Humans are embodied people, not merely souls on sticks. And by design, we grow, we find joy, in our life together. The new Jerusalem will have all of the goodness of life together as humans, absent all of the ways in which life together can be corrupted and destructive. 

JM: You state that “Sometimes we assume that the battle between God and Satan is a fight among equals.” Why do we sometimes believe this, and what dangers does this present? 

DD: There is a natural sense, even among those who are not professing Christians, that the world is a battle between good and evil. We see this in the stories we tell, from the superhero genre to the ancient tales to even the cliched Hallmark movies at Christmas. This stems from, I believe, the Christian story where God prophesied to Adam and Even an epic battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, which runs as a thread throughout Scripture, culminating in the cross where Jesus cried it is finished, and in the empty tomb, where death, the final foe, was defeated. Satan walks around as a lion today, powerful, yes, but toothless against the people of God. 

And yet, this epic struggle is not an even one. Genesis and the story of Job and other passages remind us that Satan is a created being. He is a mere fallen angel. He does not do anything that is not allowed by God and is not worked, in God’s inscrutable and mysterious way, into God’s plan from before time began. As Christians this is important to understand. We can underestimate Satan’s power in that we foolishly tempt him and think we can beat him on our own (we can’t). But we can overestimate Satan’s power, who is no match for the all powerful I Am. 

JM: In our day and age, truth gets misconstrued, and Satan’s words in the garden, “Did God really say?” do not seem so foreign. In what ways do we act like the serpent in the garden and question God’s Word? 

DD: The same whispers the Serpent uttered to our first family in the garden are uttered today, the temptations to question God’s Word, twisting it to fit the moment and our desires. At the heart of this is the lie that Satan managed to get Eve to believe, this idea that the Creator of the Universe, the one who fashioned her from dust and breathed into her the breath of life, was somehow holding out on her. We are tempted to believe the idea that our Father is not a Good Father, that we would be better gods than God, that we are better rulers of ourselves than the one who made us. All of this only ever leads, not to “being like God, ” but actually being less than human, succumbing to the animalistic instincts of the tempter. 

JM: In Genesis, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From God’s response and other verses in the New Testament, we see that the answer to that question is unequivocally yes. What does it actually look like to be our brother’s keeper? 

DD: That’s such a great question. At the heart of it is a kind of disjointed view of what it means to be human, the seeds of the expressive individualism we see championed today. Cain’s conceit was that he could find his way to God with his own self-righteousness and that by eliminating his brother, he could hide from the Creator, who sees everything. Cain falsely believed he could sin in isolation, that his hubris and pride would not affect the rest of the human family. But that’s always the case. Sin is always a public event. And God sees every act of violence, every time humans try to advance at the expense of other humans, every time we see those made in God’s image as disposable. We are our brother’s keepers, whether we admit it or not. Cain’s ethic was the exact opposite of Jesus’ ethic which tells us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” and reminds us that our neighbors are the people we least likely want to be responsible for. 

JM: What is your response to people who question, If God is so good, why is there evil in the world? How do you point them to hope? 

DD: At the heart of that question, I would say, is a conception of who God should be if he were to exist. In the mind of someone who asks that question is the idea of a God who is sovereign and big and good enough to reverse what is evil and prevent what is bad. And in a sense this is the story the Bible tells, that there is a God who is renewing and restoring creation, who is making all things new, who is making all that is broken right again. 

Personally, like Naomi, like Job, like Habbakuk and Paul and millions of believers down through the ages, I have wrestled with a God who seems to allow things I despise, to allow things even he despises. But I’ve found it more comfortable to believe in a God who is in control, to know someone is at the wheel, than the alternative, which is that life has no meaning, no purpose, and no grand plan. When I lay my head on the pillow at night, when I send my kids out into the world, I take comfort in knowing that there is a God who is big enough to control what I cannot control and who is gathering history to himself. That doesn’t mean I always like what God allows. But I trust the God who allows it. 

By / Feb 11

“How do you respond to people who locate the gay rights movement within the civil rights tradition?”

When a friend asked me this question in a Sunday School class that I was teaching a couple weeks ago, I was fighting the clock, and felt slightly frustrated because I could not, on the spot, figure out how to answer him concisely. So I rambled through a desultory answer. I hate doing that.

Ten minutes after class was over, the concise answer crystallized: It all depends on your anthropology. If you have no distinction between humanity created and humanity fallen, you will have a hard time maintaining the distinction between ethnicity and sexual orientation from the standpoint of the civil rights tradition. If you have little to no concept of Genesis 3 in your anthropology, then, yes, homosexual rights absolutely belong in the civil rights tradition.

I couldn’t help but tweet it: “Does gay rights = civil rights? Depends on your anthropology. If evolutionary materialism, yes. If both Gen 1 AND 3 true, not necessarily.” (And you can insert any number of things in the place of evolutionary materialism: moralistic therapeutic deism, positive thinking spirituality, Oprah-esque self-actualization, etc.)

The civil rights tradition of the 1960s, to a Christian way of thinking, is grounded in the fact that all people are made in God’s image. Think of Martin Luther King Jr’s claim: “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Ethnicity, on this account, is a basic and created element of the human person. Ethnicity belongs to Genesis 1, you might say. It belongs in the “creation bucket.”

Yet historic Christianity affirms this and also acknowledges that other basic facts about human beings grow out of Genesis 3, things that belong in the “fall bucket.” And not just external things, but the deepest things: our very nature has become corrupt. A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bad, Jesus said. And apart from being born again, all of us have a bad nature (even though we remain capable of good).

Historically, many Americans, whether Christian or non, had more room in their anthropology for something like the fallenness of human nature. Just think of James Madison’s mixed anthropology in the Federalist Papers. Yet best I can tell, the general public’s anthropology today is far less mixed. We prefer to think of humans as basically good, even if, yes, they might do bad things from time to time.

Suppose then that your anthropology has no room for Genesis 3 and the idea of a pervasively corrupt human nature. How will you respond to someone oriented to same-sex attraction? You have no choice but to affirm it as natural, created, and therefore good. “Natural”—by nature—is basically always good. “Natural” cannot be bad. Why? Because you have no Genesis 3 in your anthropology, not really, anyhow, even if you give lip service to it.

So let’s revisit the MLK quote above. If you read it from the perspective of someone with a strong concept of Genesis 1 and Genesis 3 in their anthropology, homosexuality does not necessarily belong in the civil rights tradition. It might, of course. Matthew Vines, for instance, has both buckets. He simply places same-sex orientation in the creation bucket, as in, “God created me this way.” I disagree with that, but, fine, my argument here is not with him. Rather, I want you to try reading the MLK quote above from the perspective of most (I assume) Americans today, people who really only have a Genesis 1 bucket and little to no concept of a pervasively corrupt human nature. From this perspective, the MLK quote absolutely requires same-sex orientation to be placed inside the civil rights tradition. In fact, it would be positively immoral not to affirm such an orientation as good and worth protecting.

Here’s the big lesson: if an anthropology only has a category for humanity created and not for humanity fallen (whether you can articulate that to yourself or not), there is no reason why homosexual orientation should not be protected by the civil rights tradition. You will find it nearly impossible not to affirm homosexuality as morally good. Therefore when someone like a Christian comes along and does not want to affirm same-sex marriage, or does not want to acknowledge sexual orientation as a special category for civil rights purposes, equivalent to gender or ethnicity, you won’t be able to comprehend what they are saying. It cannot but seem mean-spirited and discriminatory. After all, a person’s sexual orientation, to your way of thinking, is a Genesis 1 reality, not a Genesis 3 reality. Remember, you have no category for Genesis 3.

In fact, we can go a step further: “Without a distinction between man created and man fallen, the civil rights tradition can be employed to justify nearly every desire.” That was my follow up tweet. Here’s where conservatives start to make slippery slope arguments, where progressives cry foul, and where history, I dare say, sides with the conservatives.

In 2012, for example, conservatives would say things like, “If two men can marry, why not three men, or ten men, or a man and a horse, or who knows what else?!” Progressives would cry foul because they weren’t asking for these things, and, perhaps, the yuck factor still hindered them from considering these other permutations. But by 2014, the court decisions and feature articles in national magazines—sure enough—began to toy with these other ideas (see here, here, and—don’t read—here).

And such slippage is inevitable because the foundations have fundamentally shifted. When an anthropology has little room for Genesis 3 or humanity fallen, then every desire, every orientation, every possibility, no matter how crazy, deranged, or off-the-wall, gains access to a Genesis 1 status. Everything can be blanketed with the moral covering of “I was created that way.” You personally might not be able to imagine pursuing some other permutation, but other people might, and you’ve destroyed the moral foundations for telling them not to. You have nothing left to say.

Here’s the sad irony of it all: the civil rights tradition, once a force for so much good and born out of judeo-Christian ideals, becomes a force for new discriminations, particularly against Christianity, when placed in the hands of the LGBT lobby. My last tweet of that particular morning: “The civil rights tradition, if joined to an anthropology of humans as basically good, will lead to new forms of discrimination and injustice.”

The civil rights tradition, when it’s wed to a worldview that depletes the Genesis 3 bucket of all its content other than the mere idea of discrimination itself, must be put to work discriminating against anyone who wants to place more things in the Genesis 3 bucket. The tradition must fight against the religious person who maintains more substantive ideas about “humanity fallen,” and who dares to suggest that a person’s deepest desires or loves or ambitions might actually a property of the fall, and not creation. Such a claim, by definition, is irrational, because the landscape of this rationality, again, has no category for Genesis 3, not really.

What’s the solution? I’m not sure. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Christians should better figure out how to employ rights language, as the right-to-life movement did. But that has its own problems, and my goal here really is just to help Christians understand the landscape. Our civilization’s movement away from the nominal (and, yes, hypocritical) Christianity which so long defined it, means we no longer have the same access to Genesis 3 and the idea of a corrupt human nature. And without that, the civil rights tradition will be used in all sorts of ways its originators never intended.

If nothing else, it gives us another reason to share the gospel. The Holy Spirit is pretty good at giving people categories they don’t already have!