One of the biggest questions in life is: what is wrong with this world? This comes up in many different ways. In theology, it's called the problem of evil. It raises the question of how evil and suffering can coexist with God.
Sometimes it comes up as a philosophical question. When the Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsed on August 1, 2007, killing thirteen people and injuring 145, people asked why God could have allowed that to happen. Or, when an earthquake and tsunami hit in 2004, killing more than 225,000 people, a lot of us wrestled with how the goodness and power of God intersects with a natural disaster of that magnitude. How could a good and powerful God allow this to happen?
But sometimes it's not a philosophical question; it's a personal one. I once went to McDonalds. I was starving. I looked up at the pictures of the hamburgers and ordered one, but what came looked nothing like the picture. It looked like some high school student who really didn't care had thrown it together, which turns out to have been the case. I expected what I saw in the picture and ended up with reality.
That's exactly what it's like in every area of our lives. A couple falls madly in love with each other, but they soon discover that the reality of their marriage doesn't match the picture they had on their wedding day. A couple has a child, and they discover a few years in that their child is a sinner whose favorite word is "no!" For the first time they come to understand the term "the terrible two's." Even worse, in a few years that child discovers that her parents aren't as good as she once thought either.
You start a new job, and within a few months you find that your boss is passive-aggressive, that you really have enough work for two people, and that Joe in the next cubicle thought he should have been given your job.
In every area of life, we expect the hamburger we see in the picture, and we end up with reality instead. There is something fundamentally wrong with this world.
So today I want to ask why this is so. And then I want to tie this into Christmas, since it's the first week of Advent. But the place to begin is with understanding why we have this problem in the first place.
Made for the Garden
Someone has put the problem well:
We all deal daily with annoyances. The first motorist in a green arrow left-turn lane is often some dreamer who lurches forward like a startled hippo just after the arrow has come and gone…We toss sixteen socks into the dryer but get only fifteen back… (Cornelius Plantinga Jr.)
We all face annoyances. But below those annoyances is something even more serious: regrets. Regrets about decisions we made that have locked us in to a career we don't enjoy. Regrets about mistakes we've made, and memories we wish we could forget.
Even deeper than annoyances and regrets is the sense that this is all that there is, and it will be gone soon as well. We look in the mirror and realize that we are aging. Someone's said that we only walk through the valley of death once, but we walk through the valley of the shadow of death our entire lives.
You're probably no stranger to feelings like boredom, anxiety, restlessness, shame, and guilt. You can't escape the sense that we get that everything is supposed to be different here. There is something fundamentally wrong with this world.
Why is the world like this? Scripture tells us that it hasn't always been so. In Genesis 1:1-2 we're introduced to an earth that is formless and void and dark. But then God speaks, and he brings light, order, and life to the world. And he continually pronounces that what he has made is good. And as the pinnacle of creation, he creates us in his own image, male and female, and then we read: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). Then God took a day for rest and enjoyment of all that he had made, because all of it was very good. This is the way it's supposed to be: very good, a place in which we feel at home.
We read in Genesis 2 that God placed Adam and Eve this is a place of luxury and pleasure. It's like a royal park. It's a place of abundance, in which all the trees are both nice to look at and good for food. It's like a divine sanctuary where humanity can enjoy all both God and all that he created, including each other. And God gives the command to work the garden and keep it, and not only to do this but to fill the earth and have dominion over it. In other words, to take the Garden and spread it throughout the entire earth, so that the whole world is like Eden. This is the world that we were created for.
This is behind all of our unmet longings and our desire for the world to be more than it is. We were meant for Eden, but we don't live there. The world is not what it was supposed to be. We have to ask: what in the world happened?
The Vandalism of Shalom
According to Genesis, something went very wrong with the world, and it had tragic consequences. Sin entered the world, and as a result of sin, the world has become a broken place. It's no longer what it should be. It's no longer the world that we were made for.
A couple of weeks ago in a study I'm leading, somebody asked why sin is such a big deal. Why did it have such an effect on the world? If your child knocks a cup over at home, and pieces of glass go flying all over the kitchen floor, you don't say, "Well, that's it. The whole house is coming down. This place is a wreck!" No. You get out the broom and you clean up the mess. Why can't God do the same with sin? Why did it change everything?
I don't think Adam and Eve knew what they were unleashing when they sinned. A couple of weeks ago, my young nephew found something on a hotel room floor and stuck it in his mouth. That's what toddlers do; they stick everything in their mouths. Nobody knows what it was, but within minutes his face started to get blotchy, and a rash began to spread over his body. He's fine, now, by the way. My nephew has one thing in common with Adam and Eve: they never imagined what they were unleashing when they ate what should never have come close to their mouths. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they came to know evil experientially, and it wasn't just a cup that had fallen to the floor that could be swept up later. Their act of defiance and rebellion changed everything.
It changed their relationship with God. Adam and Eve were meant to govern the earth on God's behalf. Instead, they rebelled against God and instead obeyed one of his creatures. This went beyond disobedience. This was treachery.
It also changed their relationships. Up until that time, there had been no discord. But when sin entered, they began blame shifting.
It changed their relationship with evil. You can know about evil, but it's another thing altogether to experience it. Once they tasted of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, something inside them had changed. They had chosen their own way over God's, and now knew evil by experience. They had tasted it. And for the first time, they also knew shame and guilt.
But it gets even worse, because what they did actually affected the entire world. Up until this point, the world was in a state of shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word that means absolute wholeness – "full, harmonious, joyful, flourishing life" (Tim Keller). Shalom means:
…universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight – a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. (Cornelius Plantinga)
Shalom is God's design for this world. But when Adam and Eve sinned, the shalom of the world was destroyed. One theologian says that sin is actually the vandalism of shalom. So when Adam and Eve sinned, they did much more than slip up. Their sin changed everything, and the world changed instantly.
Tim Keller puts it this way:
We are told that as soon as we determined to serve ourselves instead of God – as soon as we abandoned living for and enjoying God as our highest good – the entire created world became broken. Human beings are so integral to the fabric of things that when human beings turned from God the entire warp and woof of the world unraveled. Disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disasters, aging, and death itself are as much the result of sin as are oppression, war, crime, and violence. We have lost God's shalom – physically, spiritually, socially, psychologically, culturally. Things now fall apart. (The Reason for God)
This explains why we feel the way that we do. This is the reason why the Big Mac doesn't look like the one on the menu. It's the reason why your marriage, children, and job have let you down. You were made for the garden, but instead we live east of Eden, banished from the garden in which we were made to live.
The Gospel in Advance
But even in the story of the vandalism of shalom, there is a note of hope. God says to the serpent in Genesis 3:15:
And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
Right as the world falls apart, and as God explains the consequences of what's happened, we also have this note of hope. The traditional interpretation of this verse is that the serpent would be defeated by a future descendant of Eve. That descendant would crush the head of the serpent, but not before the serpent struck his heal. But the victory would go to the descendant of Eve, because being crushed in the head is far more serious than being stricken in the heal.
This verse has been called the "protoevangelium" which means the first announcement of the gospel. It is the announcement that although the serpent has succeeded in causing Adam and Eve to vandalize shalom, that the serpent would one day be defeated by a descendant of Eve. This is what gives us hope that the world won't always be this way.
According to the prophets, this descendant would do far more than crush the head of the serpent. Isaiah spoke of a day when the Messiah would come and restore all of creation to a harmonious state like the Garden of Eden before sin. He would reintroduce shalom to the world:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
Infants will play near the hole of the cobra;
young children will put their hands into the viper's nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.
The prophet says that the world that we long for will one day be here, and all will be restored to the way that it should have been.
Who is this person, this descendant of Eve, who will one day set the world right again? Who will take this broken world and make it into what it should be? Who will crush the serpent's head?
Hebrews 2:14 says that because we are human, "he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil." It's Jesus who breaks the power of the serpent, who holds the keys of death.
1 John 3:8 says, "The devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." Everything that the devil accomplished in the Garden of Eden is undone through Jesus Christ. This is the reason the Son of God appeared: to destroy the devil's work.
You don't normally see this verse on a Christmas card, so I'll read it again: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work." In other words, everything that the devil accomplished in Genesis 3 – the destruction of shalom, our separation from God, our estrangement from each other, our banishment from Eden – will be undone by this baby that was born in Bethlehem. Jesus became human to destroy the works of the devil and to restore shalom to this world. Jesus became human to destroy the works of the devil and restore the world to what it should be.
What does this mean for us? I hope this makes you long for Jesus. If you think that Jesus is just some nice story from long ago, then you don't know who Jesus is. Jesus has come to set things right, to restore this world to what it should be again. I hope that makes you long for him. I hope that leads you to worship him. I hope that you surrender your life to him.
I also hope that you see that Jesus came to do more than save us on a spiritual level. I want to be careful here. He did come to save us spiritually, to rescue us from alienation from God, and to bear our sins so we could be forgiven. But that's not all that Jesus came to do. He came to set everything back to the way it should be.
C.S. Lewis said:
Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world–that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colors and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God 'made up out of His head' as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.
Finally, I hope this makes you long for heaven. To quote C.S. Lewis again, all the adventures we have ever had will end up being only "the cover and the title page." We will one day begin "Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before."
Jesus became human to destroy the works of the devil and restore the world to what it should be.
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
Father, thank you for Jesus. Thank you that he is setting this world to what it should be once again. Help us today to long for him, to worship him, to see the scope of his work. So, your kingdom come; your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Even so, come Lord Jesus. Amen.