The God of the Whirlwind (RJS)

The God of the Whirlwind (RJS) April 22, 2014

Ronald Osborn (Death Before the Fall) finds the cosmic theodicy provided by C. S. Lewis as an effort to think through the problem of death and suffering in creation both thought-provoking and insufficient. The conflict with rebellious non-human powers is almost certainly part of the picture, one with strong biblical basis, but it doesn’t provide an answer to the most significant questions – how these powers originated and why God permits them to wreak havoc. Certainly it can’t be because of a fundamental limit to God’s power. Otherwise why should we have any hope for the age to come?

God as creator is responsible for those features of which we approve and those we find troubling. Here Osborn quotes Wendell Berry from the essay Christianity and the Survival of Creation in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays.

“We must credit God with the making of biting and stinging insects, poisonous serpents, weeds, poisonous weeds, dangerous beasts, and disease causing organisms.” “That we may disapprove of these things,” Berry continues, “does not mean that God is in error or that he ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding – that is, we are ‘fallen’.” (p. 151)

Rather than ‘fallen’ (although we are ‘fallen’) I think it means that we are finite – we are not God. Osborn turns to the book of Job to search for a proper approach to the problem that we can have reconciling  our understanding of God with the nature of the world we see around us. This is a world where predation and parasites play a natural role and where evil was present from the beginning of human experience. Even in the biblical narrative the snake was in the garden.

Job in his mental and physical suffering, undeserved suffering as we know from the prologue, calls for creation to be undone, at least for his creation to be undone. In chapter 3 Job curses the day of his birth using words that Osborn suggests undo the creation act of Genesis 1 – ‘let it look for light but have none.’

The challenge posed by Job is not simply the problem of distributive justice: Why do the innocent suffer? It is the problem of nihilism: Why is it better that there should be a suffering creation than no creation at all? God might have made an earth in which there was creaturely flourishing and happiness without any possibility of suffering or death. How, then, can God proclaim the world he actually created to be “very good”? Job does not deny God’s existence on skeptical and evidential grounds but rather declares that the costs of creaturely existence are too high. (p. 151-152)

Creation according to God. When God responds to Job out of the whirlwind he does so through a creation narrative pointing out the features of the creation surrounding Job. God does not answer Job by pointing to the sins of his fathers, or the sin of Adam and Eve and lay the blame on the guilt of the collective human race. Rather God glories in the majesty of his creation. There is no indication that predation is evil or that any of the natural features we might find morally offensive are in fact problems. In ch. 38 it is God not Job who can and does provide prey for the lions and ravens. In ch. 39 God turns to the hawk and to the eagle who seeks prey to feed her young who feast on blood.  In ch. 40 and 41 we find majestic descriptions of Behemoth and Leviathan. These four chapters of Job provide a vision of God’s creation that we would do well to take seriously.

The God of Job is not a God who glories in defanged lions, which is to say unlions. Isaiah 11:1-9, by contrast, envisions a future peaceable kingdom in which “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord” and “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid … and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” But the Isaiah passage, unlike Job 38-42, contains no parallel language, allusions or references to the Genesis creation. Its orientation is strictly apocalyptic, anticipating a final transformation of the creation without providing any commentary on its origins. (p. 154)

The answer to the question posed by the one who asks how God could have created a suffering creation is the answer that God gives Job – “who are you to question my ways.” This applies to the young earth creationist who places all pain and suffering at the foot of Adam … a first man who incurred the wrath of God and thus precipitated a curse that devastated creation … as though humans could undo or derail God’s plan. Twisting scripture in a futile attempt to remove from God the blame for so-called imperfections in creation.  And it applies to the rationalist philosopher who uses to the presence of natural evil to declare that God, at least a loving God, must not exist.

The vision of creation provided in the book of Job is not anthropocentric. In fact Kathryn Schifferdecker Out of the Whirlwind: Creation Theology in the Book of Job quoted by Osborn points out that it is unique within the Bible in its “radical non-anthropocentricity.”

The theology of creation we find in Job does not exclude forces of chaos that are dangerous to human beings as well as other animals. But submission to God, Schifferdecker concludes, means learning to “live in the untamed, dangerous, but stunningly beautiful world that is God’s creation.” (p. 156)

And it Was Good. Osborn is on to something here. An understanding of God’s act of Creation that omits or, as is often the case, contradicts the vision of Creation found in the book of Job is not a fully biblical understanding. We need to take seriously all of the images we are given. That I agree with Osborn on the importance of Job should come as no surprise. I posted a long series looking at the book of Job in some detail. Perhaps the most relevant of these for the question of death before the fall addressed by Osborn is God’s Creation … Chaos Creatures and What is “Good”?.  When God comes to Job in the whirlwind he 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. This has significant implications for how we should think about supposed “flaws” in the design of God’s creation. We need not make excuses for or explain away the presence of predators, parasites and death before the fall.

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