The other day Terry asked me about evil. He’s a regular at the coffee shop where I do my morning reading and writing.
His question had a sharp edge. Most of us began adult life with hopes for a successful career, a happy marriage, and a satisfying retirement. But who promised us this hoped-for stability? Did God? Is it a right due to all humans?
And if the wheels come off—with unexpected job losses; divorces; the chaos of dementia or cancer—is God to blame?
God answers our questions at the cross. Christ’s crucifixion was the meeting point of every moral, societal, and cosmic disruption. We recall that all reality connects in Christ. Everything was made through him and for him—everything still holds together in him. Yet human sin took over all he had made. And when he became a man to win back his creation we crucified him.
Let’s be more specific. In the Edenic fall life was completely disrupted. So our human struggles are ultimately a legacy of Adam’s reach to “be like God.” With this overreach God cursed the creation with dying and death. The glory and stability of Genesis chapters one and two died.
“So,” Terry asked, “why does God allow this mess? Why did he create Satan and evil? And why did he bless Ishmael even though it would be through Ishmael’s children that the Middle East is such a mess?”
It was the last bit that startled me. Terry knows the Bible! So I asked him, “How do you know about Ishmael?” His answer surprised me. “I’m a pastor’s son so I learned this stuff as a kid.”
Somewhere between then and now he seems to have put faith aside.
“Why,” he continued, “does a good and all-powerful God allow evil to exist?”
His question wasn’t original but it was clearly heartfelt. And it’s a question God is happy for us to raise. The Bible is his response.
We may not like God’s answers but the tension sets up his call to faith. He wants us to trust him even in the face of disruptive evil. To have a faith that only operates in a happy life is not a real faith.
A closer look at the account of Ishmael may help. God wanted Abram, Ishmael’s father, to experience faith even in the face of challenges. At the beginning of his walk with God Abram was given a gratuitous promise: God would bless Abram and through him, the nations. The key would be Abram’s “seed”—an obvious reference to the “seed of the woman” in Genesis 3:15—by whom evil would be crushed. Then God gave Abram time to embrace the promise.
The blessing included instructions: God would provide Abram with both a land where he could live and a son to carry the promise forward to others. In the process Abram needed to leave his clan behind and go to the place God would show him. Abram was slow to engage the plan: a close reading of Genesis 12-22 shows this stop and start pattern.
Part of his learning came when God was slow to provide a son to Abram and his wife Sarah. Call this Abram’s disrupted dream. Sarah decided to help God with a plan for her servant, Hagar, to be a surrogate mother. So Abram slept with Hagar and Ishmael was born.
But Ishmael was not the son God promised to Abram. So God disrupted Abram’s plan. He made him wait thirteen more years—until after Ishmael’s bar mitzvah—before bringing along the promised son, Isaac, through his wife Sarah.
What about the blessing Terry mentioned?
God had already blessed Abram. So God blessed his illegitimate son, Ishmael, as an extension of Abram’s status. But it was a disrupted blessing since Ishmael came by way of an illicit faith. So the blessing to Ishmael was an upside-down blessing: he would be “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). By tradition, then, he became the paternal figure for Israel’s most earnest enemies, the Arabs. This was behind Terry’s question.
What, then, is God’s answer?
He allows humans like Abram and Sarah to fiddle his plans. But he, in turn, disrupts our plans by letting our faithless plans bear disruptive outcomes. So the more the world disrupts God’s ways, the more unstable the world becomes. This is not what Adam and Eve first experienced, nor is it what God intended in an ideal world.
But Adam did sin and in response God cursed this creation with decay and, ultimately, a death still to come.
Why? Because death graciously disrupts Adam’s ambition to “be like God” till the end of time.
The realm of spiritual rebellion is, after all, the serpent’s turf. His alternative ‘life’ that denies God’s true ‘Life’ is a living death. So God condemned his fallen world of spiritual death with the consequence of cosmic death—something Paul traces in Romans 8:18-25.
The cross, then, is where God disrupts death by defeating its power in all who, by faith, unite with God’s promised Seed, Jesus. There he conquered death and draws his people into the realm of faith and Life.
So in my answer to Terry’s question I went back to the beginnings. Terry is longing for what Adam abandoned: an enjoyment of communion with God and others in a pure and beautiful world.
But we only get there by dying with Christ on the cross as the place where he graciously disrupts all our efforts to live life “my way.”
God’s plan—for us to walk by faith—happily disrupts Adam’s original disruption. So, Terry, let’s taste and see what Life after the cross really offers.