They walked a lonely road of doubt and fear headed for despair. Two men wondering on a Sunday afternoon, “What might have been? What might have been if their teacher had not died?” (Luke 24:21). Doubting the reports of women and angels, who that morning swore that he really was alive (Luke 24:13-35).
What might have been, if that dream had not been devoured by a nightmare? What might have been, if that disease had not come calling? If that precious child had not been lost? If that baby had seen the light of day, or that teenager had walked across the stage? If that parent had not been so filled with rage? What might have been if that mother had lived to see her children have children one beautiful day?
What might have been of that relationship, if I had said something differently or just different? Or if I had said nothing at all? What might have been if I had decided differently? Or if something different—something just and true—had been decided about me?
I wonder, oh how I wonder, about what might have been? What if that accident had not happened? If tragedy had not fallen? If evil had never darkened my door?
So often in this world the beauty and joy of the seed of potential never finds its bloom. Things in this world are really never as good as they could be, and neither are we. Hopes are dashed; dreams are shattered; and the warm light of every life—not matter how dim or how bright— seems to be extinguished by the cold darkness of death.
But those two despondent disciples did not walk alone. A familiar stranger, no stranger to the evil of this world, came along side them, bringing with him Easter’s answer to the question, “What might have been?” Also to the one about what will be?
The promise of Easter is that through Jesus and the power of his resurrection we have a real and living hope, hope that our future is as bright as Christ’s past. We have hope that the potential of what might have been in this fallen world will be far, far better than all we could ever imagine. The glimmer of the good of what might have been in this world, will be infinitely brighter and more brilliant in the world to come. O what a day it will be to see those who never walked, joyously leaping and dancing with Jesus in the blessed Trinity! To see those who never talked singing, “holy, holy, holy is He”!
The darkness of that Friday afternoon, was swallowed up in the light of the victory of Sunday morning. Therefore, it is good; Christ’s death is redemptive. The hopelessness of what might have been has been swallowed up in the victory of what will be because of Easter. Hope has come; hope is with us; hope will come again.
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory of what will be over what might have been through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Emma and Charles had already lost a few children way too early, something all too common in their day. After the death of their 10 year old daughter, Annie, Charles couldn’t even bring himself to even attend the graveside service. Annie’s untimely death may have been the impetus that moved Charles to publish some ancient philosophical ideas he had honed with the power of the scientific method and the full weight of the Enlightenment behind him. These were ideas, which included his religious skepticism, that he had held without publishing for over two decades, apparently out of love for his wife, Emma, and out of respect for her devout belief in God, the afterlife, and the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Annie’s death apparently relieved him of those inhibitions and Charles Darwin went on to publish his revolutionary materialist, naturalist views in “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Suffering and death in the world, not least that which pervaded his own life, certainly influenced Darwin’s beliefs about the randomness of life.
Suffering, and especially death, can lead one to the conclusion that life is ultimately meaningless, without real purpose. Even the ancients going on only what they could observe and experience directly of the world could come to the same conclusion. You really see a hint of this in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, in which you find the well-known refrain, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).
Now I don’t believe the message of Ecclesiastes is that life is really meaningless. Life in this world lived for it’s own sake certainly is, whether it be for personal pleasure or pride or both. As Ecclesiastes indicates, pleasure is fleeting and pride only lasts as long as the memory of future generations. The pain of aging and illness will quickly rob the largest storehouses of pleasure; and most people will not be remembered at all a couple generations after they die (Do you know your great, great grandmother’s name? Add another “great”?) Nevertheless, just from observing the cycles of life, the sun rises and sets and then does it all over again, and again, and again. In our modern time we know that we are literally spinning around in circles as we swirl around the sun once every 365 days only to do it all over again and again … That alone can give you the impression that we might just be going around in circles chasing our tails until we die. And die we will. Generations come and generations go and death eventually takes us all.
And if that is all there is, then what exactly is the point of it all? Is there even a point at all? Is it all one big accident, or as Ecclesiastes indicates are we really headed somewhere after all “if we fear God and keep his commandments…”, namely to the judgment of a personal God (Eccl 12:13-14). Suffering and especially death can drive one to the former rather than the later, sadly.
If there really is an all-powerful God who cares, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? And the question about suffering is inextricably connected to the question of meaning. Does life with so much suffering ultimately have meaning and purpose? The Bible’s answer is a definite and resounding yes. It also gives us a reason for why there is suffering.
Quite simply the Bible’s explanation is there is suffering because of sin. We live in a fallen world because there was a fall; we live in a broken world because humanity broke God’s commandment. The first three chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, establish this claim: God created humanity to reflect his glory through stewardship of creation under God’s authority. When Adam and Eve, enticed by the tempter, decided to live for their own pleasure and pride instead of for God it brought the disastrous consequences that God had warned them about – spiritual death and suffering, which would eventually result in physical death.
Genesis 3 tells us that human sin lead to a painful curse that affects not only humanity but the creation itself. This is echoed and amplified in Romans 8 when it says:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:18-25 (ESV)
Interestingly, here Paul says the creation was “subjected to futility.” Futility is the same word that is translated “vanity” in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Yet Paul tells us that although it was subjected to futility, it was not without hope. Life in this world lived for its own sake is certainly futile, but God did not leave us without hope and greater purpose. Restoration is available for ourselves and, as a consequence, for creation itself.
Suffering is the consequence of sin in a general sense. Just as all of humanity, the righteous and the wicked, all enjoy the general blessings of God, which are still very much a part of our fallen world (see Matthew 5:45), all people, good and bad, will suffer to one degree or another under the consequences of the curse and the general judgment of God on the earth and humanity. The convulsions of a fallen world under the curse because of sin affects everyone to one degree or another, good or bad. Death itself is the ever-present reminder of the general judgment of God on the world that affects everyone, righteous or not.
Recently Kirk Cameron became a lighting rod for heated criticism when he suggested God allows powerful storms like the recent hurricanes as a reminder of our need to humble ourselves, to stand in awe of God, and to repent. For this one progressive Christian pastor and author basically called Cameron a jerk and an A-hole for suggesting such a thing.
If he thinks Kirk Cameron is bad, I wonder what he would think of John Wesley, who wrote an entire sermon in response to a deadly and devastating earthquake entitled, “The Cause and Cure for Earthquakes.” Wesley was much more explicit.
“I am to show you that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth. Now, that God is himself the Author, and sin the moral cause, of earthquakes, (whatever the natural cause may be) cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures; for these are they which testify of Him, that it is God” which removeth the mountains, and overturneth them in his anger; which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.” (Job 9:5, 6) ~ John Wesley – Sermon 129:1
Wesley goes on to tie natural disasters to the curse brought about by “the original transgression,” the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. He also considered natural disasters to be a part of the general judgment of God and a reminder of our need for humility and repentance in the face of such temporal judgments, especially to be prepared for the final judgment still to come. And lest we be tempted to think it was easy for Wesley to preach that in his day, we must realize that he himself fought against theology within the church influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and deism, even mentioning famous skeptics like David Hume and Voltaire by name. Wesley’s message was better received among coal miners than Anglican priests and bishops.
For both Cameron and Wesley, natural disasters and the suffering they bring, or even suffering in general is not without reason and purpose. Neither are they completely inscrutable. If you believe the Bible, the reason is clear, although we may not understand everything on a individual case by case basis. But, again, the question of suffering and meaning are closely connected.
In a pastoral care class I took in seminary, the professor stressed emphatically that we should never try to explain or give reasons for someone’s loss. She strongly suggested not only that we may not know the reasons, but that there really are no meaningful reasons. The best we can do she seemed to suggest is to make meaning for ourselves. I understand we certainly don’t want to jump to conclusions or to give pat answers to complex questions, but I sensed she was leaning too far toward nihilism. I asked, “Are you saying there really are absolutely no reasons at all?” After a pregnant pause, she said she was not saying that, but her hesitation spoke louder than her words.
Some want to avoid questions of meaning and purpose altogether. They suggest that we can’t know if God actually is somehow involved in disasters, pestilence, famine, and war. They suggest that we can’t be sure that there is any reason and purpose behind these things at all. In criticizing Kirk Cameron one progressive Christian said, It’s not God, it’s just science,” implying that it is just the way the world is, without rhyme or reason, period.
The Bible, in comparison to other ancient stories like the Babylonian creation story and in comparison to some modern scientific accounts, indicates that creation is not capricious and neither is suffering. The flood, for example, didn’t happen because the unpredictable gods were just annoyed by the noise of humans, nor was it just an accident of natural forces. The flood happened in response to sin and wickedness upon the earth (Genesis 6).
Of course this does not mean that every time tragedy strikes someone God must be punishing them for specific sins in their life. Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, the book of Job, and even the teachings of Jesus and the story of his own life show us that in this fallen world, sometimes the innocent and the righteous will suffer. Sometimes this is at the hands of sinners, Jesus being the prime example. Sometimes it will be because of accidents, natural disasters, and disease, which God allows to afflict the righteous for a season. Job is perhaps the best example of the later. Sometimes the same event may be a specific judgment against the wicked and a general time of testing through trials and tribulations for the righteous, but the general judgment of God due to the fall is the reason for it at all. Jesus himself used a report of Pilate slaughtering Galileans and a deadly accident, a tower collapse, to remind everyone that they weren’t worse sinners than anyone else, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
This really is a basic Biblical worldview and the framework that makes sense of the redemption from the curse that God wrought in Christ. I think Wesley was right when he said, it “cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures.”
The Bible is the revelation of a personal and intelligent God, who created the universe out of nothing, not out of necessity, but out of love. This God is transcendent, being so much greater than and independent of the universe, but simultaneously very much present and involved in all of his creation. He created us out of nothing for something very important, to be his image-bearers. Using our freedom to live by our own desires rather than the will of the One who created us throws everything out of order. But God is merciful and has provided a way for us to be reconciled to him to once again bring harmony and peace back to the world. Our sin subjected the world to futility, but not without hope. The consequences to sin were built in by God himself and those consequences are not without meaning and purpose. They are a reminder that we need to remember how small we really are and how awesome God really is, especially in mercy and grace when we do repent and return to him (just look at the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 and think of that in light of the prodigal son of Luke 15).
As someone slips from this theistic worldview, into more deistic or pantheistic worldviews, the less likely he or she will take sin and its consequences seriously. Conversely, the less seriously we take sin and its consequences, the more likely we are to hold deistic, pantheistic, or atheistic worldviews. It is no secret that the doctrine of hell, the eternal suffering of unrepentant sinners, which Darwin rightly saw as having been taught most clearly by Jesus himself, was another factor in his ultimate rejection of the Christian faith. He wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last. What perhaps is scarier than the thought that nothing really matters is that everything really does forever. But God in his mercy through His Son Jesus Christ has made a way for the vilest of sinners to be forgiven and set free from hopelessness and despair.
Haratio Spafford owned a thriving law practice in downtown Chicago. He and his wife Anna had one son and four daughters. In 1871, roughly 12 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species,” pneumonia took the life of his young son. That same year much of his business and its assets were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. By the fall of 1873 his business had bounced back. Around Thanksgiving that same year his wife and four daughters boarded a ship for a trip across the Atlantic. Mr. Spafford stayed behind to deal with an unexpected business problem. He planned to catch another ship to meet his family in Europe. On that voyage, the ship carrying his family collided with another and sank. While Anna barely survived clinging to debris, his four daughters drowned and were lost to the sea. While being pulled out of the water, Anna it is said, knowing her girls had been lost, expressed confidence in the midst of deep grief that one day they would understand why.
When Mr. Spafford got word of what happened, he boarded a ship to join his grieving wife. On that voyage across the fathomless waters that had robbed him of his children, H.G. Spafford penned the lyrics to the beautiful hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”
The creation has indeed been subjected to futility, but not without hope.
Easter is about much more than confirmation of an afterlife, although that would be a significant implication. Nevertheless, Easter, specifically here referring to the main event of Easter, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, is the firstfruits of a much larger harvest to come, the general resurrection of the dead (see 1 Corinthians 15), and along with it the renewal and rebirth of the creation itself (see Romans 8). The consummation of this new creation is described in Revelation 21 and 22; the story of it’s beginning is found in the stories of Easter.
Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week. That’s the first hint that his resurrection was about new creation. There are other hints as well, but the first day of the week is symbolic of the first day of creation, and in the case of Jesus’ resurrection it is the first day of the new creation. Another clue is that the body in which Jesus was resurrected was not the same as it was before he was raised from the dead. His resurrected body was no longer perishable or mortal; it was, and still is imperishable and immortal.
The body, still physical, flesh and bone, as the gospel accounts make clear (see especially Luke 24:36-43), with which Jesus was raised had been transformed from the one which was previously subject to death and decay, to one that no longer could die. His glorious resurrected body in which he appeared to his disciples on the first Easter was like the body that all believers will receive after the general resurrection when Christ comes again. This promised new body is specifically designed for the New Creation, which will also still be a physical reality. In Philippians 3:21 we find the promise of the new body when Paul there says Jesus, at his second coming, “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (ESV). 1 John says something very similar.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 1 John 3:1-3 ESV
In this passage from 1 John we get a strong hint about the connection between the resurrected Jesus and the life of believers before the general resurrection of all believers. The promise that we shall be like him when he appears, our ultimate hope, enables us to share in the purity that Jesus presently enjoys in his resurrected human form. According to John this purity sets us at odds with the world, the present age which John says is governed by sinful desire and pride, but is passing away (1 John 2:15-17). In the life of a true believer there is a dramatic change that takes place, and it’s not just a matter of following a different set of rules or principles that will enable us to have our best life now in the world. Instead it is a miracle that takes us out of the fallen world and takes the desires and ways of the fallen world out of us.
When someone believes a change of status and a change of being takes place. Faith moves a person from the status of being justly condemned as a sinner, to being declared righteous before God because of Christ. This also involves new birth, what John calls becoming children of God (John 1:12-13). There is a change in status, but also a change of being, from children of the devil, who live according to desires corrupted by sin, to children of God, who receive the new heart and the new spirit promised to come under the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27). Through faith in Christ we receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, which begins the work of healing our hearts and renewing our spirits by giving us desires to please God rather than ourselves.
The Holy Spirit is just a down payment on a much greater inheritance (See Ephesians 1:13-14), but make no mistake, he is a wonderful foretaste of glory divine. The new birth brings us out of one realm and brings us into another, the kingdom of God (see John 3). The change of being that takes place puts us at odds with the world because we are no longer of the world. As children of God, we become citizens of a new world, the new heaven and the new earth, and the new Jerusalem, which Revelation describes as eventually coming down from heaven to earth. But our citizenship in it doesn’t begin then, it begins the moment we believe. Children of God are children of the Jerusalem above, which will eventually come to earth (see Galatians 4:26, and context of course).
Back in Philippians, Paul conveys this idea by contrasting those who live to satisfy sinful earthly desires with those whose “citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). Our citizenship is present tense, although the fully consummated benefits of that citizenship we still await as we anticipate the return of Christ and the transformation of our bodies to be like his, the hope that we’re reminded of in the very next verse (v. 21). It is at that point that our spiritual citizenship in the heavenly Jerusalem will become a physical reality as the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth in a renewed and reborn creation. But in the meantime, or the in-between-time, if you will, we live as citizens of the kingdom of God in a fallen and fading world subjected to bondage and decay because of sin, humanity’s rebellion against the Creator.
So Jesus’ resurrection could be considered the first act of new creation, but the new birth of believers is also an act of new creation. Interestingly, after his resurrection, when Jesus meets with his disciples behind closed doors in Jerusalem, after extending peace to them and showing his nail-scarred hands and spear-scarred side, John says “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (John 20:22). I believe this was an intentional sign-act echoing Genesis 2:7, where God breathes life into the first man. Here Jesus breathes new life, new covenant life, yeah, new creation life into his disciples in anticipation of their receiving the fullness of the promised Holy Spirit.
In 2 Corinthians where Paul is extolling the glory of new covenant ministry he alludes to Genesis 1:3 to explain what takes place in conversion. He says, “For God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6). This is another hint that this is about new creation which becomes all the clearer when we get to 2 Corinthians 5:17 which says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (compare Galatians 6:15). This new creation life in the fading-but-not-yet-gone fallen world is described in verse 15 as no longer living for self, but for the one who died for our sake and was raised from the dead. By faith we enter into what has been called the “already-but-not-yet” reality of the kingdom of God, the new creation, and the new Jerusalem, meaning it started with the first advent of Jesus, but it’s fullness is yet to be realized at the second advent of Christ. Salvation is about becoming a new creation in Christ who will be fully prepared for the New Creation wherein there is only righteousness and no more sin, wherein there are only saints and no sinners.
In the meantime in the in-between-time, however, we are called and equipped by the word of God and the Spirit of God to become channels through which the ongoing work of new creation continues. In John, before Jesus breaths on the disciples, he commissions them saying, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (20:21). He commissions them to proclaim forgiveness of sins and undoubtedly the new birth that goes along with it to bring others into the kingdom of God. The Gospel of Matthew puts it this way: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:19-20). Dare I say, in other words, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). What else would we expect from the one who “creates in himself one new man” out of formerly separated Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22) to be restored into “the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
And, of course, the new human race began with the God-man, whom Saint Paul, in the midst of his teaching on the resurrection of the body, calls the last Adam (hint, hint). The first Adam, he says, referring to Genesis 2:7, “became a living soul”; the last, Jesus, he says, became a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). But, make no mistake, the later no more means that Jesus after the resurrection was just a spirit without a physical body than the former means the first Adam was just a soul (or that you or I now for that matter) without a physical body. In resurrection the essence of human life is no longer the natural and mortal soul of corruptible man infected with the disease of sin passed on to all from the first Adam; rather resurrected bodies will be sustained and maintained forever by the eternal Spirit of the Living God, which is passed on by the last Adam, the God-man, Jesus Christ, to all who believe and thus are saved (see also Roman 5).
To be saved is to be delivered “from the present evil age” as Paul says in Galatians 1:4, to be “delivered … from the domain of darkness and transferred … to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” as he says in Colossians 1:13-14. Peter describes it as “having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4), which John describes as having “passed from death to life” (1 John 3:14; also Jesus’ statement in John 5:24). But we are not saved and ushered into the kingdom for our own sake only, but also for the sake of others, so that God may use us to call others “out of the darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). But we can’t call others out of the darkness unless we ourselves are children of the light who are walking in the light (see Ephesians 5 :8-14; 1 John 1:7), else we are just blind and deceived leaders of the blind and deceived both headed for the eternal pit.
Nonetheless, as part of the New Creation inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus we are to live accordingly, no longer as citizens of the world according to the spirit of this age, but as citizens of heaven according to the Spirit of God (see Romans 8), and as ambassadors (see 2 Corinthians 5 again) of our heavenly home in the fallen world, which should now be foreign to us and we foreign to it.
We enter into the New Creation the same way Christ did, by dying and being raised with him.
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old selfwas crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
This sets the pattern for entrance into and life under the new covenant and the new creation, which is its ultimate goal. The call of Christ is a call to die to sin and a sinful world, so that we may truly begin to live and walk in newness of life. The pattern of Christian life in the world before Christ returns or calls us home to be with him in heaven is to continue the process of putting off the old and putting on the new until the “body of sin is brought to nothing.” We do this by the power of the Spirit (see Romans 8:13) in hope and joyful anticipation of the resurrection of our bodies when the entire creation itself will be set free and reborn. It is only within this framework that we can begin to make sense of Christian vocation, including morality and ethics.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”