In the post last Thursday I focused on Ch. 10, The Problem of Sin, in Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God. I found this chapter to contain many important insights and felt that it was worth serious consideration, free from distraction.
There is one passage in the chapter, however, that I found somewhat less useful. This also is worth some discussion. This is a section, p. 169-170, entitled The Cosmic Consequences of Sin. I will quote the passage here in its entirety.
The Bible speaks even more comprehensively (and more mysteriously) about the effects of sin than we have indicated so far. The first and second chapters of Genesis show God speaking the world into being and, almost literally, getting his hands dirty. ‘And God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7). The contrasts with all other ancient creation accounts could not be greater.
In most ancient creation accounts, creation is the by-product of some kind of warfare or other act of violence. Virtually never is the creation deliberate and planned. Secular scientific accounts of the origin of things are, interestingly, almost identical to the older pagan ones. The physical shape of the world as well as biological life is the product of violent forces.
Unique among the creation accounts, the Bible depicts a world that is brimming with dynamic, abundant forms of life that are perfectly interwoven, interdependent, and mutually enhancing and enriching. The Creator’s response to this is delight. He keeps repeating that it is all good. When he creates human beings he instructs them to continue to cultivate and draw out the vast resources of creation like a gardener does in a garden. “Go keep this going,” the Creator seems to be saying in Genesis 1:28, “Have a ball!”15
The Hebrew word for this perfect, harmonious interdependence among all parts of creation is called shalom. We translate this as “peace,” but the English word is basically negative, referring to the absence of trouble or hostility. The Hebrew word means much more than that. It means absolute wholeness – full, harmonious, joyful, flourishing life.
So far, so good. I don’t think the secular scientific account of origins, especially the origin and diversification of life, is quite as violent as Keller suggests. This is a minor quibble though, and wouldn’t be worth a post. The rest of the passage quoted above makes some very important points. And it is worth pointing out that, violence aside, the secular scientific account is intrinsically purposeless. The Genesis account of creation is deliberate and planned. The world has a purpose and it is good. This is a most important distinction between the secular account of origins and the biblical account of creation.
The next, last, paragraph of the section is the part worth some serious discussion:
The devastating loss of shalom through sin is described in Genesis 3. 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. In Romans 8, Paul says that the entire world is now “in bondage to decay” and “subject to futility” and will not be put right until we are put right.
There are several points that I would like to make here:
First, This is an extrapolation. In the absence of other information this is, or at least might be, a reasonable extrapolation from scripture. I think it is, however, an extrapolation. And there are some significant problems with it that are internal to the text of scripture. I don’t think that it is clearly taught in the pages of scripture that all chaos and natural disaster is the result of human sin. Oppression, war, crime, and violence are the result of human sin. If disease, genetic disorders, famine, natural disorders, aging, and death are the result of human sin it is only because God turned us out of the garden and kept us from the tree of life, not because the warp and woof of the world has unraveled. The serpent was in the garden from the beginning – evil did not originate with humans. Immortality is and was always a divine gift, not an intrinsic feature of human existence.
Second, I don’t think that the primary reference of Romans 8 is Genesis 3. I think the primary reference Paul had in mind in Romans 8 is to the imagery of the prophets. I wrote on this awhile ago (Creation Groans; But Why?) reflecting on Jeremiah, especially Jeremiah 4.
“The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. Therefore the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.”
I hear a cry as of a woman in labor, a groan as of one bearing her first child—the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath, stretching out her hands and saying, “Alas! I am fainting; my life is given over to murderers.” (Jeremiah 4:27-31)
I think that Jeremiah is describing a decreation of the original creation of Genesis 1, but this decreation is a result of the covenant unfaithfulness of Israel. There is nothing of the curse of Genesis 3 here from Jeremiah. The comparison to birth pains is also worth noting and common (see Jeremiah 6:24, 13:21, 22:23, 30:6, 48:41, 49:22,24, 50:43)
Both a commenter and an e-mail I received concerning this post referred me also to Isaiah, especially Isaiah 24.
Behold, the Lord lays the earth waste, devastates it, distorts its surface and scatters its inhabitants. … The earth will be completely laid waste and completely despoiled, for the Lord has spoken this word. The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away. The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty. Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left. (Isaiah 24:1-6)
Meredith Kline comments on this in this piece available on the internet (scroll down to The Veil Removed).
Third, We do have additional information. Although it is not wise to let science dictate theology, it is wise to use our understanding of the world, the nature of God’s creation, as we decide between alternative interpretations of and extrapolations from scripture. The earth is old and biological death, animal disease, genetic mutations, earthquakes and meteor strikes preceded the existence of humans. I think Keller agrees with this, and I am not sure how it fits in with the imagery he uses in the paragraph I’ve quoted above.
In conclusion. I agree with most of what Keller has to say about The Problem of Sin in Chapter 10. In fact this chapter helped to shape and refine my current understanding. We need to get away from the idea of sin attached to specific acts and buy into the idea that sin is, at its very core, a faulty orientation of one’s total life. But nothing about this idea of sin requires a physical, cosmic, consequence affecting the warp and woof of the universe. I think it is a deeply relational consequence. Sin may have consequences for the land, but not through a change in the laws of physics and chemistry.
What do you think are the consequences of sin?
How are these consequences cosmic in scope?
Do you think that the primary reference of Romans 8 is Genesis 3?
If you would like to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.