I remember sitting in a church men’s meeting I had been invited to watching images of the universe on a screen while a song played asking “how can you say there is no God!” The images were all of stunning beauty and natural wonder, and only a cold emotionless being could fail to be moved by them.
All these dazzling images before me were taken by the Hubble space telescope, which opened up the heavens to us in a way that wasn’t available to previous generations. Anyone with an internet connection can marvel at the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, or the rather splendid Sombrero galaxy.
When people think of creation, often it’s the beautiful things they have in mind. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak of experiencing God through a majestic sun-set, or in the grandeur of a mountain range, or the vast expanse of the oceans. There is certainly no shortage of natural wonders; beauty is not in short supply. We see it in the night sky when we gaze at the stars; we see it through phenomena like rainbows or the northern lights. On one occasion I remember seeing a toucan at a bird park on a family holiday in Spain and welling up, so moved was I at how beautiful it was. Seriously. A toucan. It’s easy to see the hand of God in such things.
I also remember a song that used to be sung when I was in primary school:
“All things bright and beautiful;
All creatures great and small;
All things wise and wonderful;
The Lord God made them all.”
Indeed. The verses of the song go on to cite example after example of the wonderful beauty of the natural world. How loving is God to give us such a wonderful and beautiful world to live in!
Alas, the world isn’t all rainbows and toucans. Needless to say my old primary school song doesn’t tell the whole story: about parasitic worms that infect and feed on human eyeballs, causing blindness; swarms of hornets that attack beehives and tear the heads off all the bees; hyenas that begin to eat their prey before it’s even dead; various animal species that reject the young if their parents die. The Lord God made all these too, presumably. Creation might indeed be stunningly beautiful, but it’s often an incredibly fearful place too: bloody, cold, cruel, dangerous, and merciless. Most of the earth isn’t safe. The earth is wild. Beautiful, yes – but so very wild.
And what are we to make of the wildness, the danger and the sheer bloody cruelty of it all?
The traditional answer in Christian circles, even in countries which typically boast a high degree of scientific sophistication, is that creation used to be perfect but has been adversely affected by the sin and fall of humankind. So, God made all things perfect, but when the first humans rebelled against God certain consequences followed – not only for humankind but also for the created order. The sin of the first humans corrupted the earth, leaving pain, suffering, death and misery in its wake.
Regrettably this rather tidy explanation is utterly untenable given what we now know of natural history. If we go back in time prior to the appearance of homo sapiens we won’t find lions lying down with lambs. Polar bears did not eat snow-cones prior to the appearance of the first humans and the first sin. Nature was just as red in tooth and claw as it is today. Animals ate other animals. Even some plants ate animals! The suggestion that the natural world got ugly as a result of the sin of the first humans was OK for Saint Augustine but it’s unbelievable these days.
In any event it isn’t at all demanded by the biblical narrative itself. In the primitive simplicity of the Genesis account there is no indication that the natural world was perfect and then completely corrupted with the first sin. According to the Genesis story Adam was not created in some paradisal state, but rather he was created in an earthly garden which he has to tend. When we compare the relative simplicity of the actual biblical account with the later theological developments – mainly via Saint Augustine – we see really how massively overstated these theological developments were, both in terms of exaggerating the heights from which creation fell as well as the depths to which it fell.
Of course it’s not just the empirical problems with the traditional – Augustinian – account of sin and suffering in the world that make it implausible, there are weighty theological considerations against it too. One crucial problem is that the traditional account doesn’t shed any light on suffering and evil by pointing back to the fall of man or a prior fall in the angelic realm. This theology presents us with a paradox: man (or angels) created as finitely perfect in a perfect environment and then somehow engaging in evil. As John Hick points out this doctrine of the “self-creation of evil ex nihilo” is difficult to make sense of, if indeed it isn’t downright incoherent. Hick puts it: “To say that an unqualifiedly good (though finite) being gratuitously sins is to say that he was not unqualifiedly good in the first place.” Moreover, it raises massive problems for the doctrine of heaven: if perfect humans in a perfect environment fell once why could it not happen again? And of course this entire theology was made all the more bewilderingly incoherent once Calvin came along with his doctrine of strong divine determinism.
And thus I think it’s time for Christian thought to explore other avenues with regards to the nature of the world and the suffering it contains. To this end I want to briefly sketch another Christian approach, one which is actually older than the Augustinian approach but which never achieved the same systematic organisation and development and thus was largely ignored by the Western church in its obsession with Augustine.
We see hints of this different theodicy very early in Christian thought. Tatian argued that God did not make human beings perfectly good but in such a way and in such an environment (not an idyllic paradise) as they could become perfectly good through obedience to God. In a similar vein Theophilus speculated that Adam and Eve were created as children – immature – and were placed in the garden of Eden to grow in maturity and obedience.
These tentative themes were developed further by the church father Irenaeus. Irenaeus made the (exegetically dubious, but ideologically useful) distinction between the image of God and the likeness of God in humanity. The former concerns our nature as rational agents capable of relating to God; the latter refers to our final perfecting by the Spirit, a goal which we must ourselves cooperate with.
This distinction then allows Irenaeus to argue that whilst humankind is created in God’s “image” we are not perfected in God’s “likeness.” We must use our moral and rational faculties to grow towards this perfect nature, a nature which must be freely chosen and developed, and which will be rejected by some. Under this scheme, therefore, Adam was only potentially perfect, not actually perfect. All human beings are in the same spiritual boat: presently only potentially the perfected beings God seeks to make. In fact Ireneaus also argues that this way of creating humankind is morally superior to the creation of a perfect finite being. The argument is that it’s good to grow and develop in moral knowledge; it’s good even to experience failure and suffering because through them we experience the great goods of forgiveness and mercy and have a deeper appreciation of God’s love and grace, since, in the teaching of Christ, “[for] he to whom more is forgiven loveth more.” As part of this scheme Irenaeus also stresses the epistemic distance between God and man, which makes a degree of cognitive freedom possible and allows us to move towards or totally ignore God as we see fit.
What is required, given God’s purposes for his creatures, is an appropriate environment in which these purposes can be realised. The world, then, was never an idyllic paradise but is intended – (at least partially since God may well have other purposes in creation besides humanity) – as an appropriate environment to develop those made in God’s image into the likeness of God. The world, according to this view, then naturally contains good and evil, suffering and pleasure, which God uses to teach his creatures lessons and values, and ultimately build them into the type of creatures he desires. The world was never a paradise with no suffering or physical death, but rather has always been a place with suffering, but this suffering has a divine purpose.
The contrast with Augustine is clear. Whereas Augustine looks back to a time when man was supposedly created finitely perfect and then somehow (inexplicably) fell from this state and plunged the entire human race into catastrophe and the natural order into death, suffering and cruelty; Irenaeus sees man as created immature and placed into an appropriate environment and thus looks forward to a time when humanity and the created order will be perfected.
Insofar as we can claim the world is “perfect” we can only mean a functional perfection – the suitability of the created order to accomplish the divine purposes, which includes what Irenaeus called the “likeness” of God, and what Schleiermacher later referred to as the “God consciousness” of human beings which can be awakened and challenged by pain and pleasure alike. This type of perfection is one which exists now – always was and always will – but it doesn’t – contra Augustine – refer to some primordial and long lost condition of perfect human virtue and its accompanying natural paradise.
It seems to me quite clear that the dominant Augustinian notions of an “original righteousness” of humankind and “original perfection” of the environment are empirically false and theologically dubious. The way forward for theodicy and an understanding of sin, evil and suffering lies elsewhere: in the notions of our human propensity to respond to God and share in his work and purposes – or not – and the conception of the goodness of the created order as lying in its being an appropriate environment for the outworking of God’s plan for his creatures.
Stephen J Graham
These ideas will be fleshed out in forthcoming articles.