God’s Creation … Chaos Creatures and What is “Good”? (RJS)

God’s Creation … Chaos Creatures and What is “Good”? (RJS) October 1, 2013

Over the last three or four years I have known six, make that seven, friends or acquaintances who have died of cancers (only a little less than the previous two or three decades of my life). While most of the earlier cases I had known were older people (including one of my grandmothers), four of the most recent six seven had school aged children. The cancers left a total of eleven children ranging from preschool to early college mourning the loss of one parent. How can we make sense of this?

Evolutionary biology tells us that mutations provide the mechanism for change creating the wonderful diversity of life we experience. While I think the expression of evolution as red in tooth and claw is wrong, the connection between evolution and cancer is, it appears, very real. Evolution relies on the occasional “mistake” and many cancers also develop because of this capacity for error built into the functioning of cells.

The questions are not limited to evolution and cancer of course. Volcanoes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes all raise the similar questions.  These all cause pain and suffering that cannot be laid at the feet of some sinful action justifying the pain, and all are intrinsic features of the nature of the world in which we live. They are necessary components of our functioning, living, earth.

But back to evolution. A question that often comes up in any discussion of science and faith centers on this very issue. How could a good God use a design process that intrinsically involves so much pain and suffering?

What does this tell us about God’s good creation?

Can the Book of Job provide any insight?

This brings us to the third reflection on the framework of God’s speeches as he corrects and instructs his servant Job. Job has been suffering for reasons completely unknown to him. His children and a number of his servants have been killed and his health is gone.  Although we may recognize the book of Job as a story to convey a message – and shouldn’t put much emphasis on it – the children, servants, their families, and Job’s wife also suffer for no deserved reason.

Job and his friends, including Elihu, were all convinced that God’s world operated on a retribution principle, and that God’s justice demanded the application of this principle in every instance. Job’s friends (including Elihu) all questioned Job’s righteousness. It was readily apparent to them that Job’s suffering was a consequence of his unrighteous behavior. He deserved what he got. In the view of his three friends Job was being punished. Elihu allowed that there could also be an element of correction – but nonetheless Job warranted the suffering he experienced. The only appropriate response of Job was repentance.

Job knew he had done nothing to warrant his suffering, and we know he was right. In the context of this book Job’s suffering is a test of God’s principles for the functioning of the cosmos. Walton, in his commentary on Job, points out that “the book never intended to provide an explanation for human suffering.” (p. 414) God does not defend his justice, nor does he explain Job’s suffering. Rather God calls Job, and by application us, to trust God’s wisdom in the design and operations of the cosmos.

But even this has implications for how we should think about human suffering and supposed “flaws” in the design of God’s creation. Walton reflects on these questions at greater length in this section on theological issues (pp. 416-422).  Because this discussion deals with creation, and the nature of creation, it also harks back to Genesis 1-3.

Genesis 1-3. God brought the world into being, he created order out of disorder or chaos.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2)

Walton has a long discussion of these two verses in his commentary on Genesis. The tohu wa bohu (formless and empty) of v. 2 gives a clear indication of a disorder out of which creation began.

By logic alone the words can be seen to concern functionality, and analysis of the Hebrew confirms the conclusion that these terms indicate that the cosmos was empty of purpose, meaning, and function – a place that had no order or intelligibility. … It is the condition that bara’, by its nature, remedies. (Genesis p. 73)

The serpent is another important piece of the puzzle. Walton has a fairly traditional view of the fall as a historical event, and this comes out in both of these commentaries on Genesis and on Job. This would be a good subject for a future post, but it doesn’t prevent him from looking carefully at the text in the context of ancient Near Eastern culture. A few important points:

When the Israelite audience considered the serpent, certain ideas would be associated with it in their minds. In the ancient world the serpent was viewed as possessing a mythical wisdom and a demonic and hostile creature. (Genesis p. 203)

In the context of Genesis, the serpent is described as crafty (‘arum) but not sinister or magical. (Genesis p. 203)

It is important to recognize that the serpent is simply classified as one of the wild animals. This classification mitigates any speculation concerning an Israelite understanding of a hidden identity of the serpent. There is no god or demon or genie lurking beneath the guise of the serpent. (Genesis p. 204)

William Blake – who did the illustrations of Job used throughout this series – has echoes of Job 38-41 in his most famous poem (HT SG).

But, the serpent was in the Garden, a point that cannot be overlooked. The serpent is a creature, one of the wild animals – but it is also a “chaos creature,” an identification Walton makes in the discussion of Job 38-41. The serpent was in the garden before Adam and Eve ate of the fruit.

Creation includes chaos creatures, and God’s provision for predators. In the Old Testament, including the book of Job, these are not associated with the Fall of Adam and Eve or their exile from the Garden. Walton has a long discussion of many aspects of this.

The essence of the idea of creation in the ancient world is that God brought order to the cosmos in his creative acts. … Order is imposed on the material of the cosmos as well as on the functions of the cosmos. In the ancient world people were more interested in and focused on function, whereas we, in the modern world, are often more interested in and focused on the material cosmos when we talk about creation.

Nevertheless, order has been imposed neither fully nor equally on the cosmos. As mentioned in passing in Original Meaning, this diverse state is evident in Genesis in the description of the garden of Eden, in the creation of chaos creatures, and in the incorporation of darkness and the Sea. (Job p. 418)

I’ve commented on these ideas in a number of posts over the years – in particular recently The Garden in Ancient Context and Wait! No Sea? . There is no indication within scripture that when God saw that it was good it meant a total absence of disorder in creation, some kind of utopian perfection. The presence of the serpent indicates the presence of disorder in creation, and one can argue that the presence of darkness and the sea meant the same to an ancient Near Eastern audience. This isn’t twisting the text to match modern scientific ideas, but reading the text, in context, for all it is worth as inspired by God.

Walton looks at the Fall in Genesis 3 like this: “Adam and Eve had the task of expanding the ordered cosmos …, and when they sinned they were driven from the ordered space to the area outside the garden, where things were much more difficult, for order was less evident.” (Job p. 419)

Disorder is the evidence of creation in progress a mission in which humans, created in the image of God were to participate. “Biblical theology substantiates in both Testaments the continued existence of disorder – both that which remained after creation and that brought about by sin – and amplifies the effects of disorder on the human world.” (Job p. 419)  This idea is not a modern invention, and has roots in a number of Christian thinkers throughout the centuries.

In the next post I will look more closely at the application of these ideas in Job and for us from the commentaries of Walton and Longman.  But this is more than enough for one post.

What do Job, and Genesis, tell us about creation?

Are cancer and earthquakes, like the serpent, the sea, and darkness, simply something about which we must defer understanding, trusting God’s wisdom?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • NateW

    Just a couple quick thoughts:

    “Disorder” is not a thing that exists. It is a negative state—the absence of order. Without without its negative, the experience of its absence, a thing cannot be known. The brightness and warmth of light can only be known and enjoyed by one who knows what it is to be cold in the dark.

    Without its opposite good cannot be enjoyed and cannot be known. A world with no shadow is as much chaotic and void as a world with no light.

    In the beginning God created by DIVIDING—separating light from dark, land from sea, the heavens from the earth, and even Man from God. The essence of creation is the introduction of distinctions within the eternal timeless perfect nature God.

    The very act of creating bears witness to the God who gives himself up into death in order that others may know and cherish Love itself, Love Himself. These distinctions, these instances of “not God,” these places where love and light seem furthest away are not “things” that “exist” which are “not good”, but are the instances of God’s deepest love, the places where He who is literally Peace/Rest/Love itself is being crucified so that He might be known as He is.

    The pain of illness and loss and regret and shame and poverty and death are very literally God’s pain, God’s death, felt in every ounce of severity by God Himself. The death of love, life, peace, rest, hope, innocence, and joy in our midst are the death of God, the crucifixion of His son, and are the very place of deepest connection.

    To paraphrase Bonhoeffer: Christ is with us not by virtue of his omnipotence and power, but ONLY by virtue of his suffering. God suffers with and for us so that we can know Him and enjoy Him in Love that bubbles up in the midst of our suffering and for eternity after.

    ***PLEASE note that what I wrote above is meant to be read on an abstract/theological level, for whatever little worth that might be. It is NOT written as a theodicy or to comfort those who are in the midst of this deep suffering and pain. Explanations do not heal. Incarnation does. On an abstract/intellectual level I have found the concepts I outlined above to be very helpful, but the abstract is of very little practical use when it is expected to bring healing.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Good summary RJS. Your phrase “Disorder is the evidence of creation in progress …… ” is key. So often creation is presented as something that just took place in the past. The dynamic nature of everything shows this to be wrongheaded – and, it’s not even biblical. A similar kind of static thinking pervades many descriptions of salvation. But, it’s all of a piece. As Paul said, we are new creations in Christ. Again, the overall ethos is dynamism, the ‘engine’ of which is the Holy Spirit. But, just as in the garden, and in creation from the beginning, there is spiritual opposition. We must be in Christ with the power of his Spirit to fulfill our role – and for him to fulfill his work in us.

    You will like Greg Boyd’s treatment of Job in “Benefit of the Doubt”.

  • Peter Wolfe

    So a note from the non-abstract side. My wife died 6 years ago (cancer) at age 51, leaving me with 3 young adult children. Three weeks before our youngest daughters wedding. The pain is indeed real. I can whole heartedly endorse what Bonhoeffer said. In the darkness i discoverd that there with me was Jesus, weeping with me. Indeed when we suffer our God suffers with us. Why? Well I am no theologian but somehow this is meant for our good. One thing for sure it that it really clears up your beliefs, is this God thing real or not. I found deep comfort in my discovery that God was with me and for me. Not all my kids would agree with that.

    In my journey I have discovered that the Steven Curtis Chapman song “out of these ashes Beauty Will Rise” is true. 2 years ago I was met and married the most extraordinary person, beyond my imaging. Why did I get blessed with so much joy? Don’t know that answer either.

    RJS and the rest of you that engage in discussing these posts a huge THANK YOU. I am learning so much about this God we worship and serve. I just so much appreciate the (mostly) respectful tone that is present.

  • Nice post. I discuss how chaos and evil are connected in my podcast if you are interested: http://re2podcast.com/2013/07/02/episode-4-what-is-evil-and-transhumanism/

  • RJS4DQ

    Thanks Peter,

    I started this post the way I did because I did not want it to be an abstract academic discussion. The reality is very personal.

  • Abby

    In Walton’s commentary he suggests that God put the tree in the garden to be used in the future by Adam and Eve, and that the timing was just not right for them to eat of it. He compares it to the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and Satan offering Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world. It is an interesting point, but it does not reconcile Adam and Eve’s inability to understand the consequence for the decision that they were making. Adam and Eve did not know death. They did not understand consequence for what they were doing.

    How do you explain to someone that God was not tyrannical in placing the tree in the garden, warning of death, to people who had no concept of death?

  • labreuer

    To what extent is the Bible a description of God teaching us humans to be like him—to be gods? Job 40:6-14 offers a fascinating description of what man would have to be able to do for God to say, “Your right hand can save you.” Lest anyone balk at my statement “to be gods”, see Luke 10:34.

  • labreuer

    “Disorder” is not a thing that exists. It is a negative state—the absence of order. Without without its negative, the experience of its absence, a thing cannot be known. The brightness and warmth of light can only be known and enjoyed by one who knows what it is to be cold in the dark.

    Things can be simulated without being real. For example, with a more advanced understanding of the human body than we have now, we could simulate all sorts of sicknesses without actual people being afflicted with them.

    Another way to say this is that things can probably be made arbitrarily evil. There is no inherent good in this; see Unit 731 for an example. We could realize John 17:3 without Unit 731 ever existing. Burning children alive is not required to know God; he tells us he never even thought of asking for such a sacrifice!

    Finally, consider a world where we simply increase the suffering of every individual. Then the comparison of suffering to good will stay the same. And yet, just about every person would call such a world ‘worse’. Therefore, I do not see how your claim, which I quoted, is helpful in any way.

  • Phil Smith

    “it does not reconcile Adam and Eve’s inability to understand the consequence for the decision that they were making. Adam and Eve did not know death. They did not understand consequence for what they were doing”

    well, in the strict text provided in the story the narrator never sits the reader down and takes them through a process of watching Adam and Eve “discover” death prior to their curse. However, it’s not too much of a stretch to imply it. After all, words (death) are useless unless those using them are able to associate the word with something familiar. There mere mention of it in the text without Adam and Eve asking “death, what is death?” is a strong indicator that the writer at least did not intend them to be ignorant.

  • NateW

    And thanks for doing so RJS. I debated about posting my theological comment, but learning to understand God in this way, as one who is literally present within love AND as one who is also present to share in the pain of its absence, has been a turning point in changing the way I aim to live my life. Yes, it is abstract and theological, but I hope that it might be helpful to those of us who’s pride has rendered the abstract as our first way of approaching change.

  • NateW

    I believe we’re thinking on different levels here. We could theoretically invent/simulate diseases that don’t exist, but we couldn’t have any word for or concept of “health” if no one were ever sick.

    A photograph that contains no shadows is just a blank piece of paper. Formless and void. It is no different than a photo that contains no light—a black piece of paper, also formless and void. Form requires distinction to be known.

    Or think about a statue, carved from stone. Every single molecule of the statue remains exactly as it has since the stone itself was formed. The sculpture has ALWAYS been inside the stone, but remains formless and void until it’s bounds are defined by an absence of stone around it.

    Whether this is helpful for others or not I don’t know. I just know that this line of thinking, as imperfect as it is, has greatly helped me make some sense out of the world I find myself in. Again, though, I would never offer this as a help to one who is in the midst of suffering, but share my thoughts hoping that they might help clarify what it will look like for us to put on Christ in our moment by moment life.

  • labreuer

    You’re saying that extant evil is required to learn good, which is something I’m just not convinced of. It may be true; one model of the Garden of Eden was that outside the Garden there was chaos for man to tame. The “very good” in Genesis 1 perhaps wasn’t “perfect”.

    If we look at ingestion as “integrating something into your being” (twice, prophets were commanded to eat God’s word), and assume that Eve’s addition of “no touching” to the command to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and evil was invalid, then perhaps it is ok to touch but not to ingest.

  • Susan_G1

    Are cancer and earthquakes, like the serpent, the sea, and
    darkness, simply something about which we must defer understanding,
    trusting God’s wisdom?

    This is the only approach I can understand.

  • Phil Smith

    “If we look at ingestion as “integrating something into your being” (twice, prophets were commanded to eat God’s word), and assume that Eve’s addition of “no touching” to the command to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and evil was invalid, then perhaps it is ok to touch but not to ingest.”

    Great observation. potentially very important for how we interpret the Origins narratives. The presence of, or even potential for evil is not the same (theologically) as the ingestion (“knowing”) of evil. The story sets up the possibility of failure/ evil for the characters, but the ingestion is the disobedience for which they are reproached.

  • kenny Johnson

    Does this mean we should look at creation as unfinished? The things like cancer are essentially the things that have not yet been put into order by God rather than as a consequence of sin / the Fall?

  • labreuer

    Note that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the tree of H1874 knowledge, which has its root in H3045 know, which is what a man does to a wife to have a kid, at least in KJV-language. 🙂

  • attytjj466

    The loving God of the Christian tradition certainly carries a much heavier load than the deities of many other traditions, when it comes to the evil and pain and suffering in the world. Suffering and sick and dying children is an especially tough one. Because which of us would not put a halt to that if we had the power to do so. An incomplete, still partially chaotic creation is another way to try and deal with that I guess. Though it kind of feels like kicking the can down the road. Eventually, inevitably the questions catch up.

  • Jeff Y

    Great stuff, RJS. Have you read Fretheim’s Creation Untamed? That should definitely be incorporated into this. He offers excellent, provocative and some original insights.

  • RJS4DQ

    Thanks Jeff. I haven’t read Creation Untamed, but I think Walton references it. I’ll get a copy and look to a post or two in the future.

  • mteston1

    I would concur with Fretheim’s Creation Untamed. As Jeff Y says, “excellent, provocative, and original insights.”