Continued from “The Offence of Evil”
Karl Marx said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world . . . the point, however, is to change it.” The Bible might similarly tell us that theologians try to explain evil, while God’s plan is to destroy it. God will win. God will finally be just, and justified, in all his doings. And the justice and justification of God will ultimately involve the exposure and destruction of all that is evil.
This is the vital third perspective we must add to what we have said so far about evil and suffering. In “The Mystery of Evil” we saw that the Bible compels us to accept the mystery of suffering as something that is beyond our final understanding (and thankfully so). In “The Offence of Evil” we saw that the Bible allows us to protest and lament at the offence of suffering as something that seems inexplicably to contradict the goodness and purpose of God himself. But the Bible takes us further, much further, and calls us to rejoice at the prospect of the defeat and final destruction of evil. Evil will be eradicated from God’s creation. That is the hope and the promise of the Bible.
The whole Bible, indeed, can be read as the epic account of God’s plan and purpose to defeat evil and rid his whole creation of it forever. That, it can be argued, describes everything between Genesis 3 and Revelation 22. We cannot here retell or even summarize that great narrative, but we can unequivocally say that the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth stand at the centre of it. Here is the central and decisive moment of the victory of God over evil and the guarantee that it will ultimately be destroyed.
Let’s probe three ways in which the cross helps our understanding of the problem we are addressing here and provides God’s final answer to it.
The Cross and Three Great Biblical Truths
In his profound study of this topic, Evil and the Cross, Henri Blocher argues that there are three fundamental biblical affirmations that we must hold together in wrestling with the problem of evil. Each of them is an essential part of the teaching of the Bible. Each of them is clear and comprehensible when considered on its own, but our main challenge is in holding them together in our minds and in our faith when our struggles with suffering and evil in this world seem to contradict one or another of them. They are: the utter “evilness” of evil; the utter goodness of God; and the utter sovereignty of God.
Blocher suggests that they can be arranged like a great capital T, or in the shape of a cross.
As we struggle with the problem of evil, we are tempted to compromise on one or another of these three absolute biblical convictions. We may, for example, reduce the severity of the Bible’s diagnosis of evil – it’s not really as bad as it seems and may even be all for the best. Or we may compromise God’s goodness by making God complicit in some way with evil. Or we may try to “protect” God from being the cause of evil by limiting his sovereignty – there are some things that even God simply cannot control. But all of these moves will betray the Bible’s teaching and reduce the full impact of its redemptive message. “Against these three temptations, Scripture raises the triple affirmation: that evil is evil, that the Lord is sovereign, and that God is good.”
The Utter Evilness of Evil
The Bible simply has no truck with evil. The Bible does not accommodate evil into a framework of acceptable realities, as many forms of religious worldview did and still do. Evil is never “just the way things are”. It is never “all for the best in the end”. Nor is it the best we can hope for in “the best of all possible worlds”. Evil is not intrinsically “necessary” (in the sense that the world never was or never could be free from evil), even though the Bible certainly allows for the fact that in a fallen world evil sometimes necessarily has to be done.
Now, although we may be right to point out that moral freedom only makes sense when we have a real possibility of choosing evil rather than good, that does not make our free will the cause of evil’s origin. As an example, If a teacher were to tie up all his pupils and put gags on their mouths and then instruct them not to leave the room or make a noise while he was away, he would happily come back and find them all following his orders. But it would be meaningless to commend them for being “good children”. They had no free choice to do otherwise. Their behaviour was not really moral at all.
If, however, he left the room telling them to stay there and be quiet, and then came back to find that some have run out, others are shouting, while a few are getting on with their work, then we have a rational foundation for moral judgment of blame or praise, for distinguishing good and evil behavior. The gift of freedom to the class has made that distinction possible. But the gift of freedom was not the cause of the bad choice that led some to disobey the instructions. It was merely the condition in which that bad choice was exercised. The cause lies somewhere else within them.
Evil cannot be dismissed simply as “the price God was willing to pay” or “the risk God was willing to take” for allowing us the gift of free will. This provides no explanation for the origin or cause of evil, and it tends to reduce the evilness of evil by giving it a validated place in God’s moral universe.
On the contrary, evil is uncompromisingly rejected and denounced, and categorically doomed to ultimate destruction and eradication. It is the total negation of all that God is and wishes, hostile to the life, blessing, and goodness that God creates. Any “solution” to the problem of evil that makes evil less evil than the Bible says it actually is, is no solution at all for the Christian. So there must be no compromise or confusion at this point.
Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.
— Isaiah 5:20
The Utter Goodness of God
Habakkuk, who struggled mightily with the problem of evil and the justice of God, declares that God cannot even look upon evil, let alone compromise with it.
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
— Habakkuk 1:13
John agrees: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
Many other Bible texts affirm this about God. There is no admixture of evil within him. Evil has no foothold in the person or character of God. On the contrary, he is utterly, primally, exclusively, and eternally good. As African Christians rejoice to repeat, “God is good: all the time!”
He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.
A faithful God who does no wrong,
upright and just is he.
— Deuteronomy 32:4
Therefore, although the Bible clearly indicates that God is sovereign over the reality and operation of evil within creation in such a way that he can include existing evil realities within the accomplishment of his purposes, God himself is not the origin, author, or cause of evil in itself. This is an important distinction. God’s sovereign use or control of things, events, or people who are evil does not compromise his own essential goodness. For as we will see, all such overriding exercise of God’s power over evil is for purposes determined by his goodness.
The Utter Sovereignty of God
The will of God remains sovereign over all created reality. This is a repeated biblical affirmation. It generates much mystery and theological struggle, particularly in relation to the equally biblical affirmation of human responsibility for the choices we make as free moral agents. Nevertheless, the Bible affirms that nothing happens in the universe outside the sovereign knowledge of God, whether by his decree or his permission. That single will of the one Creator God, indeed, is what constitutes the fact that we live in a universe, not a chaos. And that sovereign will of God can encompass even the alien force of evil, ruling and overruling it in such a way that in the end God’s will prevails.
This is affirmed in the Bible even when the things that happen include disaster and many things that we would see as evil. Theologians at this point usually need to make distinctions between the decretive will of God (what God directly wills and wishes to happen) and the permissive will of God (what God permits to happen even if it includes the reality of evil in our fallen world). This is not the place to get into the finer points of that discussion, for the ultimate point still stands. Either way, God remains in overall sovereign charge of the outcomes of history and its final goal.
When a trumpet sounds in a city,
do not the people tremble?
When disaster comes to a city,
has not the LORD caused it?
— Amos 3:6
I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.
— Isaiah 45:7
In the context of the terrible judgment of God on Jerusalem, the author of Lamentations struggles with precisely the agony of knowing that what has happened is under the will of God, and yet has brought so much suffering that God himself grieves over.
For people are not cast off
by the Lord forever.
Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to any human being.
To crush underfoot
all prisoners in the land,
to deny people their rights
before the Most High,
to deprive them of justice –
would not the Lord see such things?
Who can speak and have it happen
if the Lord has not decreed it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come?
Why should the living complain
when punished for their sins?
— Lamentations 3:31 – 39
This agonizing series of questions shows that the writer is desperately holding together the goodness of God (he is filled with compassion and unfailing love), the terrible evil of injustice, and the overruling sovereignty of God.
All Three Truths in the Story of Joseph
There are some places in the Bible where these three great affirmations are woven together to show how closely they are related. One is the story of Joseph. It illustrates human wickedness at its worst – brothers planning a brother’s murder and then betraying him into slavery; sons lying to a father. These are terrible evils and there was no excuse or justification for them. But the same story also illustrates the goodness of God in using these circumstances to good ends, preserving life and bringing blessing in spite of constantly contrary circumstances. And above all, the whole narrative is explicitly interpreted as a display of the sovereign will of God behind human choices and actions. So in this one story we have the evil of evil, the goodness of God, and the sovereignty of God, all operating in the same arena.
At the moment when Joseph made his identity known to his shocked brothers, Joseph utters these remarkable reflections:
Then Joseph said to his brothers,
“Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
“So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
— Genesis 45:4 – 8
Later, when the brothers are still fearful that their initial crime will rebound on their heads (ironically compounding it with yet another lie), Joseph sums up the situation in this profound theological affirmation: “Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’ ” (Gen. 50:19 – 20).
There is no softening of the evil intent and action of the brothers or of their moral responsibility. Their actions are inexcusably evil. Yet the goodness and sovereignty of God not only overruled their intentions but used them for the ultimate good of saving life.
It is important not to suggest that God “turned the evil into good”, or that because it all worked out in the end, it wasn’t really so bad after all. The actions of the brothers were evil. Period. Evil in intent and evil in execution. But God demonstrated his sovereignty by showing that he can take what is done as an existing evil in the world and use it to bring about his own good purposes. God remains good, and God remains sovereign.
All Three Truths Converge at the Cross
When we come to the cross, we find the same three great truths supremely at work. The powerful combination shows us just how essential it is to put the cross at the centre of all our wrestling with the problem of evil.
Like Joseph, Peter sums up what happened at the cross by seeing the wicked actions of morally responsible people under the sovereign knowledge and will of God, and by seeing the goodness of God’s saving love whereby even those who perpetrated the act can find God’s forgiveness:
“People of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
— Acts 2:22 – 24 (my emphasis)
A moment later Peter holds out the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness:
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
— Acts 2:36 – 38
So all three central truths are summarized here as Peter explains the cross in terms of human evil, God’s sovereignty, and God’s goodness. First, the cross exposed the utter depths of human and satanic evil – in hatred, injustice, cruelty, violence, and murder. All of this was hurled at Jesus, with no justification or excuse. Jesus died at the hands of “wicked men”. At the cross, evil is seen at its worst for what it is and does.
Second, the cross happened fully in accordance with God’s sovereign will from eternity. It is the supreme moment in history (which defines and enables all other such moments) in which God caused the wrath of human beings to praise him, somehow building the evil intent and actions of free creatures into his own sovereign purpose of loving redemption.
Third, the cross also expressed the utter goodness of God, pouring out his mercy and grace in self-giving love. At the cross God drew the worst sting of human and satanic evil and concentrated it on himself in the person of his Son, in order that it should be borne in the full depth of all its consequences and thereby release forgiveness. We will say more on this later.
The Cross and Christ’s Government in History
The crucifixion of Jesus was an event in history. But the crucified Jesus is the one whose reign spans history. Indeed, it is the crucified Christ through whom God’s sovereign government of the universe is exercised. This is the message of the amazing, mind-boggling, neck-stretching vision of John in Revelation 4 – 7, which should be read as a connected whole vision. It may seem remote and symbolic, but it is urgently relevant to the issue we are tackling here – the problem of evil in the world of human history.
The book of Revelation not only presents a vision of the ultimate future; it also exposes the hidden reality of the world we live in. It “uncovers” (the meaning of the world “apocalypse”) what is really going on and how we are to live in the midst of this world while affirming the lordship of Christ. The world John lived in was filled with suffering, injustice, and evil – just as much as ours is. It was the world of the Roman Empire. We need to remember that as the backdrop to the whole book.
In such a world, who is in charge? Revelation 4 proclaims the answer: God is.
Room with a View
In Revelation 4:1 John is invited to go through a door into a room with a view – a view of the whole universe from God’s perspective. This is our world from the perspective of God’s throne. What does John see? It is like a series of concentric circles around the central focal point:
- The throne of God at the center of the whole universe (4:1 – 2)
- Twenty-four elders of God’s people seated on their own thrones (4:4)
- Four living creatures (4:6 – 8)
- Countless hosts of angels (5:11)
- Every creature in all creation (5:13)
This is a God’s-eye view of reality. It includes the world we can see with the eyes in our heads ( people and creatures), but also the world we can see only with the eyes of faith (the angelic hosts). John’s vision binds it all together and says, “This is the real world. Everything in heaven and earth; everything past, present, and future; everything in the whole space-time universe is seen from the throne of God and is ruled over by the God on the throne, and it all exists to give him worship and praise.”
This is a truly cosmic worldview, with a radically transforming perspective for someone living in a world where everybody saw Rome as the centre of the known world and the Roman emperor as the one seated on the throne of imperial power and government. No, says John, the throne of the living God is at the centre, and empires and emperors are among the creatures of the outer circle who exist to give praise to God.
The Lamb with the Plan
John then shifts our gaze from this “room with a view” to the Lamb with the plan. As Revelation 5 begins, John sees that the living God on the throne is holding a sealed scroll with writing on both sides. This is a closed book, as it were, a story that cannot be read and understood until it is opened. It stands for the meaning and purpose of history, the great plan of God for all time. But it is sealed with seven seals. History is a closed book in the sense that none of us who live within it has the stance or leverage to open the scroll – that is, to determine God’s will in history. John weeps to realize that we cannot by ourselves understand the whole meaning of history within the plan of God (5:4).
Who can then? Who is worthy to govern history, to interpret and carry out the plan of God? The elders and the four living creatures give the answer: “The Lamb who was slain!” whom we know from elsewhere means the crucified Jesus. Thus, John now sees the crucified Jesus sharing the throne of God and taking the scroll and opening it, seal by seal (Rev. 5:5 – 7).
Jesus, the Lamb of God, holds the scroll of God’s purpose, the key to the meaning and goal of all history. To confirm this, the living creatures and elders sing out this great affirmation:
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
members of every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.
— Revelation 5:9 – 10
Why is Jesus worthy to open the scroll? The song gives three clear reasons:
- Because he was slain (referring of course to the cross, through which he redeemed humanity);
- Because through the cross Jesus fulfilled God’s purpose, ever since Abraham, to bless people from every nation; and
- Because through the cross Jesus has achieved victory for his people who will reign with him on the earth.
To put it in summary form: The cross is the key to all human history because it is redemptive (humanity will not go down the drainpipe of history into some cosmic sewer), universal (the cross is for people of all nations and cultures throughout all human history), and victorious (the Lamb wins! Victory is guaranteed for Christ and those redeemed by him).
In other words, the unfolding and meaning of history flow from the cross, just as the scroll unrolls in the hands of the Lamb who was slain. Like John, living in the horrors of the Roman Empire of his day, stuffed with evil, cruelty, and suffering, we too can only make sense of the world and all the terrible events that fill its history, past, present, and yet to come, if we look at them all from the perspective of the cross of Christ and all it accomplished.
But John isn’t finished. The scroll starts to unroll, seal by seal, and the opening of the first four seals shocks us even further.
The Horsemen of History
Revelation 6:1 – 8 is a scary vision, but it is important that we read it now only in the light of what we have just witnessed in chapters 4 and 5.
I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
What on earth is going on here? It seems to me that these horses and their riders are intended to be symbolic of realities in John’s own day (and ours). They picture the release of disasters that we see in repeated cycles all through human history. Through bow and crown the white horse speaks of invasion and conquest. The red horse speaks of war, probably civil war and rebellion especially, in which people slaughter one another. The black horse speaks of famine, or rather famine for some but continuing luxuries for others. And the pale horse speaks of disease, plague, epidemic, and death of all kinds.
These are constant realities in human history. These four horsemen are not apocalyptic nightmares of the distant future. They are the stuff of the world in which we live. These four riders thunder through the pages of every history book of every era. It takes only a moment’s thought to identify the horsemen of conquest, war, famine, and disease in multiple forms all over the world today.
Conquest still goes on, sometimes by military might (there used to be a country called Tibet), sometimes by economic or cultural aggression. War dominates everyday news. A single five-year period (1990 – 1995) saw 93 wars involving 70 states that left 5.5 million people dead. Famines still recur, in spite of all human efforts and sometimes caused by human folly or cynical neglect. HIV-AIDS is sucking the life out of swathes of Africa at the rate of a tsunami a month, though malaria actually kills even more. These are precisely the kind of evils we are struggling to understand in relation to the God we know and trust but often don’t understand.
What about John’s own day? George B. Caird lists some of the terrible events that convulsed the Roman Empire during the last thirty-five years of John’s life – earthquakes in AD 60; defeat of Roman armies by the Parthians in AD 62; the fire of Rome in AD 62 and the persecution of Christians that followed; the suicide of Nero in AD 68, followed by chaos, civil war, and four rival claimants to the throne; the four-year horror of the Jewish war, which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70; the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in AD 79, obliterating several towns in the Bay of Naples; the serious grain famine of AD 92.
From the first to the twenty-first century, these horsemen wreak their devastation through history. The point is that John sees the horsemen ride out from the scroll in the hand of the Lamb. That is to say, “John’s vision of the four horsemen is intended to assert Christ’s sovereignty over such a world as that.” Indeed, “unless Christ can be said to reign over the world of hard facts in which Christians must live their lives, he can hardly be said to reign at all.”
But is this not all rather disappointing, something of an anticlimax? There we were with John in the throne room of the universe. We listened to choirs of all creation singing praises to the Lamb. We watched as the Lamb began to open the scroll of God’s plan in history. And out come only these four wretched horsemen, representing disasters as old as the book of Genesis. Is this all there is to the reign of Christ? Nothing more than a kind of cosmic supervision of devouring evils rampaging out of control?
Ah, but that is precisely the point. They are not out of control.
Who summons them? Notice the word “Come”. Each one is summoned under the sovereign authority of the throne. God rules the world, not the horsemen.
Who gives them power? Notice that to each of them something “was given” (e.g., a bow, a sword). This is a way of saying that all their powers are merely deputed by the sovereign God. They have power, but it is temporary, provisional, and subject to God’s right to give and take away.
Above all, who is opening the seals? The Lamb who was slain! He is in charge of the unfolding of history within which these horrors take place.
The Lamb who was slain is the one who holds and opens the scroll. It was by his death on the cross that Jesus became worthy – that is, gained the right – to open the scroll. This means (and this is the absolutely pivotal, vital point to grasp), that Christ’s power to control these evil forces is the same power as the power he exercised on the cross.
And what was that power?
We have begun to think of it this way already, but let’s come back to it again. The cross was the worst that human evil and rebellion against God could do. At a purely human level it plumbed the depths of depravity, as the Gospels show with little need to embellish the facts. There were inflamed fanatics, corrupt religious leaders, lying witnesses, political conspiracy, vested interests, nationalist rage, morally bankrupt judicial process, excruciating torture, public shame, and taunting mockery; and even among the friends of Jesus there was treachery, betrayal, denial, and cowardice. At a more profound level, we know that all the powers of evil, satanic allied with human, were ranged against Christ and hurled their worst at him.
But Jesus, the Lamb of God, doing the perfect will of his Father, transformed all this into the triumph of divine love, absorbing and defeating it simultaneously. But the crucial point is this: not only did Jesus defeat all the powers of evil, he made them into the agents of his victory and their own defeat. He turned evil against itself to its own ultimate destruction.
In the sport of judo, so I’m told, the essential idea is to take all the energy and force of your opponent’s attack and turn it back on him in such a way that he is flattened by his own assault. If it is not too irreverent to put it like this, the cross was God’s supreme judo. In the person of his Son he took all that sin and evil, human and satanic, could hurl at him and turned it back to its own ultimate destruction.
Henri Blocher also draws on this illustration from judo as he reflects on how the cross used evil for the defeat of evil:
At the cross evil is conquered as evil: corruption, perversion, disorder, a parasite . . . evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The manoeuvre is utterly unprecedented. No more complete victory could be imagined. . . . Evil, like a judoist, takes advantage of the power of the good, which it perverts; the Lord, like a supreme champion, replies by using the very grip of the opponent. . . . We have no other position than at the foot of the cross . . . God’s answer is evil turned back upon itself, conquered by the ultimate degree of love in the fulfilment of justice.
The Lamb Who Was Slain Is the Lamb on the Throne
That, then, was the reality of the cross – the central moment in human history when God dealt with evil. But now, says John, that same Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, reigns over the forces of evil that are loose in our world, in the same way as he reigned from the cross. Ultimately, all that is evil and destructive will come under the sovereign power of the cross, to its own final destruction.
Once again, George B. Caird has a fine climax to his comment on this part of John’s vision.
He [John] is not asking us to believe that war, rebellion, famine and disease are the deliberate creation of Christ, or that, except in an indirect way, they are what God wills for the men and women he has made. They are the result of human sin; and it is significant that, out of all the apocalyptic disasters he could have chosen, John has at this point omitted the natural ones, like earthquakes, and included only those in which human agency has a part. The point is that, just where sin and its effects are most in evidence, the kingship of the Crucified is to be seen, turning human wickedness to the service of God’s purpose. The heavenly voice which says “Come!” is not calling disasters into existence. They are to be found in any case, wherever there are cruelty, selfishness, ambition, lust, greed, fear and pride. Rather the voice is declaring that nothing can now happen, not even the most fearsome evidence of man’s disobedience and its nemesis, which cannot be woven into the pattern of God’s gracious purpose. . . . The content of the scroll is God’s redemptive plan, by which he brings good out of evil and makes everything on earth subservient to his sovereignty.
Revelation 5 – 7, then, affirms this awesome paradox that is crucial to the way we should think about evil. All evil, disaster, and suffering stand under the sovereign control of God in Christ – and specifically under the authority of the crucified Christ (the Lamb who was slain, who is in the centre of the throne, sharing in the government of God over all creation).
If the first four seals speak of representative forms of evil and disaster, they are just as much under the authority of the one opening the seals as are the fifth and sixth seal. That means that whatever devastations may be included under the symbolism of the rampaging horsemen (first four seals), they are as much under God’s sovereignty as the destiny of the martyrs (fifth seal, 6:9 – 11), the judgment of the wicked (sixth seal, 6:12 – 17), and the salvation of God’s people from all nations (7:1 – 17, especially 9 – 10). In other words, if we believe that God is sovereign in his plan and power to protect his people, judge the wicked, and save people from all nations, we are summoned to believe also that he is sovereign over the very things that most seem to threaten those plans.
That sovereignty is exercised by the same one (the crucified Christ) and in the same way (through the paradoxical power of the cross) all the way to the end of history. The cross shows us that God can take the worst possible evil and through it accomplish the greatest possible good – the destruction of evil itself. Accordingly, under the governance of the crucified, nothing can happen in human history over which God is not ultimately sovereign and which he cannot, through his infinite power and wisdom, weave into the outworking of his universal purpose of redeeming love for the whole creation.
The Cross as Guarantee of the New Creation
The grand climax of the whole biblical narrative, which has been nothing less than the story of God’s triumph over evil. To do that great biblical story justice we would have to survey all the texts in the Old Testament that anticipate (and even celebrate in advance) the victory of God’s kingdom over all forces of evil at work in history. We would need to observe how God’s mission beginning with the call of Abraham was to bring about the blessing of the nations and their liberation from evil through the history of his people, Old Testament Israel, as the first fruits of a new humanity. Then we would have to recognize the great battle that took place between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the evil one in the Gospels. There, the Messiah Jesus, embodying Israel but remaining obedient where they rebelled, fulfills that mission of God and ultimately accomplishes it on the cross, as demonstrated by God’s vindication of him in his resurrection.
However, taking all that grand narrative as read, we come to its climax: the arrival of a new creation. What do we find there? More importantly, what do we not find there? These two final chapters of the Bible repeatedly tell us about things that will no longer be part of universal reality. When God comes to establish the kingdom of his Christ, when he has made all things new and the old order of things has passed away, evil in all its forms will have been utterly eradicated. Look at the list:
- There will be no more sea (21:1). The sea represented chaotic, restless evil in Old Testament symbolism, the place from which the rampaging beasts in Daniel’s visions had come to trample the nations. All such unruly rebellious hostility will have gone.
- There will be no more death, mourning, crying, or pain (21:4). All suffering and separation will be ended for there will be nothing any longer to cause them.
- There will be no more sin, for there will be no more sinners (21:7 – 8); the new creation involves exclusion as well as inclusion – exclusion of the unrepentantly and persistently wicked.
- There will be no more darkness and night (21:25; 22:5), in the sense of all that they represented. The light of God’s presence will dispel the darkest evils.
- There will be no more impurity, shame, or deceit (21:27), characteristics that are among the original marks of our fallenness.
- There will be no more international strife (22:2), for the nations will find healing through the tree of life and the river of life.
- There will be no more curse (22:3). With the reproach of Eden lifted at last, earth will be freed from its subjection, and its redeemed inhabitants will be freed from bondage to its curse.
And all of this will be ruled over by, and filled with the presence of, the One who is repeatedly referred to as “the Lamb”. All this is the reward of the crucified Christ.
All that will not be there in the new creation will not be there because of the victory of the cross of Christ through which they have been destroyed. And all that will be there in the new creation will be there because of the victory of the cross of Christ through which they have been redeemed.
This is our great hope and joyful expectation. In the midst of all our struggles now, as we confront evils we cannot understand and as we cry out to the God we cannot fully understand, we are urged by Jesus himself to pray, “Deliver us from evil”. More than merely a prayer for daily protection, that is a cosmic request that will one day be cosmically answered. God will answer that prayer! It will be fully answered at the moment when God answers two other phrases in the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
When the reign of God extends over every corner of the universe, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea, when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, when heaven and earth are renewed and united under the righteous rule of Christ, when the dwelling place of God is again with humanity, when the city of God is the centre of all redeemed reality – then we will have been delivered from all evil forever.
The cross and resurrection of Christ accomplished it in history and guarantee it for all eternity. In such hope we can rejoice with incomparable joy and total confidence.