Course: A Guide to Christian Beliefs
Lecture: God and the Universe
The story that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of how God created the world, how the world fell into sin and rebellion against him, and how God has begun a process of new creation that will continue until every trace of sin has been destroyed. In the present chapter we are to look at the creation of the universe and then, more closely, at the nature of mankind and how they fell into sin.
God the Creator (Genesis 1)
The way in which the Bible describes the creation of the world can best be appreciated by a comparison with two other types of approach. On the one hand, many ancient cultures possessed stories describing how the gods made the universe in some crude fashion. The Babylonian epic of creation describes how the god Marduk slays the rebel Tiamat, and then fillets her body like that of a fish, using one half to make the sky and the other half to make the earth. Although some superficial resemblances can be traced between the biblical accounts of creation and these pagan stories, it is abundantly clear that the former are remarkably free from the mythological elements and sheer fantasy found in the culture of Israel's neighbors, and are altogether on a loftier, monotheistic level of thought.
On the other hand, we have the kind of explanation of the origins of the universe found in a modern textbook of scientific cosmology. The Bible makes no attempt to give an account of this kind, and it would have been impossible for it to do so. A typical modern book on cosmology outlines several competing theories on the subject and expresses them in a mathematical form that is beyond the ordinary reader's comprehension. Had the Bible attempted to provide a scientific cosmology it would doubtless have been equally beyond the understanding of the ordinary person.
Instead, the biblical account gives us a poetic description of the fact that God created the universe; it lists what can be seen in the world and asserts that everything owes its origin to God. It makes no attempt to explain how God created the world, and indeed it is doubtful whether the act of creation could be described in words.
It is a misunderstanding of the account in Genesis 1 to see it as a scientific account of what happened. Hence the alleged conflicts between the biblical account and modern scientific accounts of creation are merely apparent. The two types of accounts are doing two different, complementary tasks. Scientists are interested in the "what" and "how" of the universe; they want to describe it accurately and explain the laws that governed its development. The Bible is interested in the "why" of the universe, with the questions of its ultimate origin, final destiny, and moral significance. These are two different questions, and attempts to answer them need not produce any conflict, so long as theologians and scientists do not make illegitimate attempts to answer each other's questions. It is true that there is a certain "no man's land" between science and theology, where real problems can arise, but the work of many scientists who are also Christians suggests that these problems are capable of a coherent Christian solution.
The purpose of the biblical account of creation is, then, to teach that the universe is not self–existent but owes its origin to God. Pagan myths, such as the Babylonian one quoted above, suggest that the gods created the universe out of some previously existing "stuff," just as a potter imposes an intelligible form on a shapeless lump of clay. By contrast the Bible asserts emphatically that God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo). He created the materials as well as molded them to shape (Hebrews 11:3). We may even suggest that space and time are his creation, although since we cannot think without making use of the framework of space and time it is impossible for us to imagine what the creation of these might mean.
The biblical doctrine of creation rules out the view — which is still often found — that God is to be wholly or partly identified with the universe. The ancient philosophical system of pantheism has no support in the Bible, which emphasizes that the universe is merely the creature made by God. God is far greater than the universe that he created and over which he rules. No matter how great the universe may be, he inhabits eternity and the earth is like a mere footstool to him (Isaiah 57:15; 66:1). This is why the Bible is so vehemently opposed to idolatry, which is the worship of the creation, or part of the creation, rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). In modern times some astronauts have commented that they did not see God in the course of their explorations, and one might be tempted to draw the foolish conclusion that there is no God. Such a view fails to recognize the transcendence' of God as the One who is greater than the universe and whose existence is not bound by our categories of space and time.
The popular view of creation posits an act of God at some point in the remote past that brought the universe into being and, as it were, set it going like a clock to carry on ticking under its own power without any further attention. This view is open to criticism on three accounts. It makes God into a kind of absentee landlord who has left his universe to its own devices and no longer exercises any control over it; this is the error known as deism, which flourished in the eighteenth century. It also fails to take into account the possibility of the continual replenishment of the universe with fresh supplies of matter — the so-called "continuous creation" of matter, postulated by some cosmologists. Further, it ignores the continuous creation of new forms of inanimate and animate nature that surround us at every turn. The question, "Who made this beautiful scene?" is not completely answered by speaking about God's original act of creation: we need to refer to the action of wind and water over centuries, to the planting or removal of vegetation by human agencies, and so on. Similarly, when a child asks, "Who made me?" it was not the original act of creation by God that was responsible but the coming together of his parents in a creative union. It follows that our doctrine of creation must preserve the insight that God continues to create the universe in and through such natural acts. He exercises continual care and control over the universe; and if he did not do so, it would cease to exist (cf. Colossians 1:17).
When we turn to the New Testament we find that Jesus Christ is closely linked with God the Father in the work of creation. He is clearly the central agent in the new creation, which is the theme of the New Testament, but he was also involved in the original creation of the universe (Hebrews 1:1–3). A careful distinction is made between the roles of the three Persons of the Trinity. God the Father is the ultimate author of creation. His Son is the agent by whom the world was created, and he is said to be the one for whom it exists (1 Corinthians 8:6). The Spirit is also associated with the creation (Genesis 1:2). Thus, as we might expect, the whole Trinity is involved in the work of creation.
God the Lord (Psalm 107:148)
If God created the universe, he must be greater than it. It is not surprising, therefore, that he is spoken of as the Lord or Sovereign of all that he has created. This relationship is expressed by the three "omni–" words which bring out the supreme authority of God over the whole of creation.
God is omnipotent or all–powerful. He is able to do what he wishes to do (cf. Isaiah 40:21–31). Of course, it does not mean that he is able to do things which are self–contradictory or absurd. People have sometimes poured scorn on the Christian belief in the omnipotence of God by asking, "Can God create a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it?" We need not waste our time over logical puzzles of this kind. Rather we should be moved to wonder at the power by which God the Son was able to become part of his own creation when he was incarnate as a man. From the point of view of logic this too is an impossibility, but our inability to comprehend how it is possible reflects the finiteness of our human understanding. A much more important problem in relation to God's sovereignty is the existence of evil in the world (see the last section of this chapter).
God is omniscient or all–knowing. He fully knows and understands the universe which he has created. Nothing that happens in it is hidden from his sight (cf. Romans 11:33–36; Colossians 2:3). Here again we have a concept which transcends what our minds can conceive. It is not possible for us to imagine a situation in which we know everything, including all that we ourselves are going to do. The Bible speaks of God's fore–ordaining of what is going to happen in the future, so that history proceeds according to his plan and his prophets are able to foretell certain aspects of what is going to happen. Such fore–ordination necessarily includes what God himself is going to do in the future. But as soon as we try to think of what is implied in a free agent fore–ordaining what he himself is going to do in the future, we find that we involve ourselves in a logical tangle from which there is no escape. Omniscience is an attribute of God which we can confess, but cannot understand. This is why the concept of predestination, which has played so important a part in Protestant theology, must be handled with the greatest care. To speak of God's omniscience and predestination is to speak of a mystery, which lies beyond human comprehension, and from which we can easily draw false conclusions. Rather we use these words to confess the greatness of the God to whom we can commit our future in entire confidence that he will work all things for our good (Romans 8:28).
God is omnipresent or all–present. This too is a quality which can be misunderstood and can be the cause of problems. We are obviously not to think of God as being like some kind of rarefied gas or wireless waves filling all space. Rather the point is that no part of the universe is closed from God and his activity. Jacob found that he could not escape from the watchful eye of God by running away from home (Genesis 28:10ff., especially verse 16), and a psalmist affirmed that it is impossible to flee from God by day or by night, in life or in death (Psalm 139). People may find God and commune with him anywhere and at any time (Matthew 28:20). The doctrine of omnipresence is thus an expression of the fact that God is always there to help his people with sovereign power. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of people shutting themselves off from the presence of God by their sin, and we sometimes talk as though there were degrees of God's presence: the saying of Jesus about his being present when two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:20) suggests that he is present in a special way in groups of Christians, although we would not want to deny that he can be fully present with the individual Christian. The term "presence" is somewhat open–textured and can have a somewhat different force in different contexts.
The effect of speaking of God in terms of these three rather abstract concepts is thus to bring out the greatness and wisdom of his care for his people, which is available to them at all times and everywhere. This care of God for the universe and its inhabitants has traditionally found expression in the term providence (literally, "foresight"). The biblical writers ascribe the round of the seasons, the provision of rain and sunshine, and all that enables people to live in security, to God's gracious care for the world. This care is related to the behaviour of God's people. The Old Testament story shows that when Israel was righteous she enjoyed prosperity on the material level, but when she served false gods and ceased to trust God to provide for her, disaster followed (Genesis 1:29f.; 8:22; Deuteronomy 28; Psalm 104; Matthew 6:25–34; 10:29–31).
It must be admitted that there is not an exact correspondence between human behaviour and divine provision for human needs. We cannot trace connections between human piety and material prosperity and between human sin and natural disasters in the way the Old Testament prophets did; lacking their prophetic insight, it would be quite wrong for us to say that some particular natural disaster was due to some particular sinful act on the part of humans. The biblical writers themselves were very conscious of the problem that the wicked often seem to prosper at the expense of the righteous and were driven to the conclusion that the problem can be solved only when what happens after death is taken into consideration (Psalm 49:73). It is here that the character of religious faith as faith is relevant. Faith is not, as the schoolboy definition once put it, "believing what you know isn't true." It is, however, believing despite considerable obstacles that something is true. The appearances are often against Christian belief, and we are tempted to an interpretation of the universe which sees only its outward character of confusion; faith is the daring act by which, in virtue of such stubborn facts as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are not content with mere appearances but believe that behind the universe there stands the figure of a loving and all–powerful God. The Christian belief is that, no matter how great be the tribulations of the person who trusts in God, nevertheless God knows their situation, cares for them in the midst of it, and will eventually bring them safely through.
The Nature of Mankind (Psalm 8)
Humans are the climax and crown of God's creation, for, unlike other creatures, they are the image of God (Genesis 1:26f.). This phrase means that they are like God and in some way are God's representatives in the world. They have dominion over the world of nature, and are able to control their environment and create new things. Above all, they possess a moral nature. Alone of created beings they are capable of moral behaviour; they know the difference between right and wrong, between love and hatred. They are capable of fellowship with other people and with God himself. They are beings with a moral and spiritual nature that distinguishes them from the rest of creation and places them "a little lower than God," yet firmly as creatures.
The Bible's description of humans as creatures made to be God's image is unaffected by scientific questions regarding the origin of the human race. There has been much debate among Christians about the correctness or otherwise of the theory of biological evolution, and some would argue that the theory cannot be true because it contradicts the biblical account of the special creation of humans. A number of questions can easily be confused here, as with the general question of the creation of the universe. It must be insisted that the question of the biological beginnings of the human species is a question for the scientist and cannot be settled by an appeal to the Bible. The Bible is not concerned to give a scientific account of the origin of mankind, but to insist on their divine creation and their spiritual nature. There is no necessary conflict between the Bible and science, provided that we do not interpret the biblical account of creation in a literalistic manner which goes against the intention of the original writer. Again, we do well to remember that biological evolution remains a scientific hypothesis, admittedly the most generally accepted theory, but, like every scientific hypothesis, open to falsification and replacement by a better theory. Further, assertions about the spiritual nature of humans cannot be falsified by appeal to their possible humble origins, any more than a pearl can be said to be worthless because it comes out of a humble oyster. In the same way a person's worth is not to be measured by their chemical ingredients (once valued at two dollars, but inflation has affected the figure somewhat), but by their spiritual, moral, and physical qualities. The trouble is that we think too exclusively of Adam as being made in God's image; but so too is every child born to human parents. The statement that mankind is God's image is a statement about us all, and not merely about the first person.
Just as the biblical account of the origin of mankind is not meant to be a scientific statement, so too the biblical description of the nature of humans is not meant to be a scientific statement of this. It is in fact dangerous to construct a biblical "psychology," because the same psychological terms are used by the different biblical authors with varying shades of meaning. In general, however, we can say that in the Old Testament mankind is regarded as creatures made of flesh and bones; they are described as being living souls, and their life is inbreathed by God (e.g. 2 Samuel 19:12f.; Genesis 2:7). In the New Testament mankind has a body composed of flesh and blood (1 Corinthians 15:50), and they have, or are, a soul (psychē) and a spirit (pneuma) (1 Thessalonians 5:23). It is an old argument whether mankind is correspondingly bipartite (body and soul) or tripartite (body, soul and spirit). The tendency among modern scholars is to say that these three words refer to three different, but closely related, aspects of mankind; "body" refers to them as physical beings, "soul" to them as beings who have a mental life, and "spirit" to them as beings who have a spiritual life. Rather than their having three "parts," they can be looked at from three different points of view. Nevertheless, the term "body" appears to refer to the physical aspect of humans rather than to their whole being, and the term "soul" or "spirit" refers to their mental and spiritual aspects rather than to their whole being.
The chief purpose of mankind's creation has been expressed briefly and memorably in the Westminster Shorter Catechism as "to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." Manifestly this statement needs to be filled out, concerned as it is solely with mankind's relation to God. But it has the merit of putting first things first by stating that a person's life is meant to be centered on God, to be devoted to the praise of God (both in actual words and also in its general motivation), and to find its supreme joy in living fellowship with God. It is the merit of John Calvin to have rediscovered this central truth, that God is at the center, and mankind is his creation. In a justly famous passage in his Reply to Sadolet he criticized the Roman Catholic theology of his day for placing too much stress on mankind and their desires for eternal blessedness, as if this should be a person's chief interest: "it is not very sound theology to confine a man's thoughts so much to himself, and not to set before him as the prime motive of his existence zeal to show forth the glory of God. For we are born first of all for God, and not for ourselves." It is not too much to say that this placing of God at the center and humans in subordination to him is the fundamental insight of Calvin's theology and of Protestant theology generally.
At the same time, people are made to live in community with others, the basic unit being the family, which reflects the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity (cf. Ephesians 3:15). It is virtually impossible for people to live without some kind of community — the Robinson Crusoe type of situation is highly unusual and manifestly incomplete — and it is only in community that they can fully realize their nature as humans. Indeed it could be said that "person" is a term which involves reciprocal relationships, just like "husband" or "wife."
The Problem of Evil (Genesis 3; Job 24)
So far we have been looking at the universe and humans in relation to their Creator without taking into account the complications caused by the existence of sin and evil. According to the familiar biblical story, however, the creation of mankind was quickly followed by the entry of evil into their heart. They were created with the possibility of choosing between right and wrong, between obedience to God and disobedience. But they made the wrong decision at the instigation of the tempter, and sin with all its dreadful consequences entered the world (Genesis 3, cf. Romans 5:12–21; 2 Corinthians 11:3).
The story of Adam and Eve's fall is concerned only with the fact of sin's entry into mankind. We are not told how or why evil arose. The temptation comes from the serpent who was apparently one of the creatures made by God, but we are not told how it came to have its evil nature in a world which God created "very good". Other passages in the Old Testament push back the story of evil by suggesting some kind of disobedience among angelic beings before the creation of the world (cf. Genesis 6:1–8; Isaiah 14:12–15; Ezekiel 28:12–19; Jude 6), but these too do not offer us any explanation of how sin arose.
The problem of sin, i.e. human wrongdoing, is closely bound up with the problem of evil generally. Evil is anything that causes pain and suffering and interferes with the enjoyment of life. People suffer through a variety of causes, including their own wicked actions and those of others, but also through natural calamities, such as storms and earthquakes, deadly bacteria, and poisons. Much suffering is caused by ignorance, some but not all of which might have been avoided. The nature of humans as beings subject to decay also leads to suffering and eventually to death. There is suffering too in the animal world, although we may perhaps exaggerate its conscious extent in animals with elementary nervous systems.
Such suffering is obviously not in proportion to the personal wickedness of people, so that it might be regarded as due retribution for their evil ways. Indeed, it is its haphazardness that makes it so hard to bear. To a certain extent people can bear pain when they can see a reason for it: a person is ready to suffer aching muscles and a racing heart in order to achieve some feat of physical endurance. We recognize that some pain is inevitable in the world. But there still remain the two basic problems of the existence of much pain and suffering that seems to serve no useful end, to spoil life rather than to ennoble it, and of the sheer arbitrariness of it all. "Why does it happen to me?" is perhaps the most characteristic and pressing question asked by the sufferer. The thoughtful person may produce the even more baffling question: "If God is good and all–powerful, why cannot he arrange things so as to avoid suffering and evil?" If we reply that suffering is due to human sinfulness, this still does not explain the existence of natural calamities, nor does it deal with the objection that God could have created beings who, although possessed of freewill (or the appearance of it), are so controlled by him as to avoid falling into sin and suffering.
It is possible to advance various points which mitigate the difficulty of these questions, such as the warning value of certain experiences of pain (e.g. toothache) or the good effects on character produced by undergoing some painful disciplines; but it should be emphasized that some people speak far too casually of the good effects of suffering, and forget that warning pains are warnings against worse pains, and that certain types of suffering (such as the effects of rabies or brain damage) cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as means of refining the character of the sufferers.
Other types of solutions may be suggested which limit either the goodness or the power of God, so that he is either unwilling or unable to deal with the problem. Such solutions (particularly the latter one) may lead to a dualistic view of the universe in which God is opposed by an evil power. Christians have almost universally rejected such a solution, since the postulation of two equally powerful opposing forces leaves it uncertain which is going to win in the end and puts a large question mark against the biblical assertions of God's sovereignty. On the other hand, it seems even more difficult to trace the origin of evil to the will of God, and the Bible categorically denies this idea (Genesis 1:31; James 1:13; such a passage as Isaiah 45:7 simply asserts that God sends calamity upon people as a penalty for their sins).
One solution is to argue that God permits evil rather than directly wills it, but this does not solve the problem, because to speak of "permitting" is to imply that God himself would prefer that things were other than they actually are. Or, it may be argued, what appears evil and pointless to us would nevertheless appear good and purposeful could we see it from God's angle with a fuller knowledge than we can possess as humans. Job is the classical example of the man who could not see the reason for his sufferings, although the reason is revealed to the readers of his story, and the point of the book is that, if the sufferer had known why he was suffering, his sufferings would have lost their purpose of demonstrating to Satan Job's resolute faith in God.
Yet another type of solution is to argue that the problem arises because of the creation of humans as people with freewill to respond to God in love. Such freedom implies the possibility of refusal to love God and carries with it the risk of all the attendant suffering. But this solution means that God still permits the development of evil in the world, even if he does not approve of it. Nor does it solve the problem of natural calamities which cannot be ascribed to the results of human rebellion against God.
The truth of the matter seems to be that evil is an irrational quantity in the universe, a surd which cannot be either explained or explained away. The Bible does not explain its origin, and its origin cannot be explained; perhaps if it could be explained, it would cease to be evil. What the Bible does say is, first, that God is implacably opposed to evil, so that he is not to be regarded as its origin; second, that God is active to overcome evil and that he has demonstrated this supremely by himself submitting to its effects in the death of Jesus; third, that God is mightier than evil, a fact which he showed in raising Jesus from the dead and which will be shown in his final victory.
There are difficulties in ascribing the origin of evil to God or to an independent power; we must be content to leave its origin a mystery. Its existence continues to be the biggest objection that can be brought against the Christian belief in God. The objection, however, is far from decisive, although it must be continually assessed and answered. It can be rebutted by the Christian understanding of the cross as the event in which God has declared his opposition to sin and his involvement up to the hilt in sharing the suffering of mankind and enabling them to overcome it. The Christian may also want to suggest that the non-believer has an even greater problem in explaining the presence of good and beautiful things in a purely material universe.
The Nature and Effects of Sin (Romans 1:18 — 2:16)
However mysterious the origin of sin, its character in the lives of people is all too obvious. We can describe it from three points of view, in relation to God, other people, and the sinner.
In relation to God, sin is rebellion against him. It is disobedience to his will and purpose expressed in the commandments he has given to people (Deuteronomy 17:2; 1 Kings 8:50; Isaiah 1:2; 63:10). The sinner is a person who misses the mark by falling short of God's standards for human conduct (Luke 15:18, 21; Romans 3:23). Instead of giving God the worship and love due to him, they offer their devotion to other gods; in the ancient world this was expressed in idolatry, but in both the ancient and the modern worlds the essence of idolatry is to make something other than God the object of one's supreme concern and passion (Exodus 20:3–6; Luke 12:13–21; 1 Corinthians 10:14-22). Sin is basically a refusal to accept God as our sovereign Lord, and it often expresses itself in a perverted knowledge of him which denies his truth and love (Romans 1:18-23; 2 Corinthians 4:4).
In relation to other people, sin is seen in immorality, injustice and lack of love (Romans 1:18-32: 13:9f.; 1 John 3:15; 4:8). These words all indicate the attitude which refuses to treat other people as persons with their own rights. The sinner refuses to respect the rights of other people and disrupts the fellowship of love, which is God's purpose for people. They treat other people as means rather than as ends, as things which they can use for their own pleasure instead of as persons who are to be helped to enjoy fullness of life. They are like children playing a game, who are determined that they will win at any price and disobey the rules in order to beat their competitors. The rules are necessary in order to indicate the rights of the competing individuals; they are an expression of the structure of society and are designed to prevent any individual disrupting the structure and thereby spoiling life for others.
In relation to oneself, sin expresses itself in pride, self-sufficiency and self-centredness (Malachi 4:1; Luke 1:51; James 4:6; 1 John 2:16). It is the attitude of the person who not only puts themselves first, but also resents any interference from outside in the running of their life. They are unconcerned about anybody except themselves and their own pleasures, and they feel no need of the counsel or help of God in managing their own affairs. They think that they can do without God.
Sin thus affects every relationship of people, and its influence can be seen in every part of life; its badness corrupts their thoughts, sayings, and deeds. The old–fashioned term for this pervasive effect of sin is "total depravity." But this must not be misunderstood. It is not to be denied that one person differs from another in degrees of goodness and evil. Even when measured by such an inadequate, external standard as the secular law, people manifestly differ considerably from one another. Nor should the existence of good deeds even in the worst of people be forgotten. The tendency of Christians is to deny that non–Christians can be good in any sense at all without the help of Christ. This is palpably false. Otherwise, all our moral comparisons between people would be nonsensical. The point is rather that none of us is free from the taint of sin; all of us are sufferers from a disease which affects the whole of our lives to different degrees, and none of us can cure himself. We cannot weigh our good deeds over against our evil deeds and claim that the former should be regarded as cancelling out the latter.
The fact that we are all sinners does not mean that we have lost the image of God. The Bible never suggests that sin leads to the loss of a person's essential nature and destiny. Rather, we cease to reflect the character of God as fully as we should. If people were originally created good, we can say that we have lost that goodness, and indeed the Bible is unsparing in its delineation of the sheer wickedness of the human heart (Genesis 8:21; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:9–18). And this is the condition of all of us. The sin of Adam is repeated in the lives of all men. The evil tendency is there from birth (Psalm 51:5). Theologians refer to this as "original sin," meaning that our sinfulness is something present in our lives from the start; we inherit a sinful disposition and we live in a sinful environment which nourishes it and tempts it into sinful action. We are born as self–centered individuals and our natural tendency is to think of ourselves and ignore the claims of God and other people. The purpose of our upbringing and education is to wean us away from self–centeredness; in this way much can be and is done to fit us for life in society, but without changing our essential nature. Sin remains in our lives and produces its effects.
What, then, are the effects of sin? It should not be forgotten that the existence of evil has "cosmic" effects, to which we have already alluded. In the Bible, natural calamities, hard and unproductive labour, disease and so on are all regarded as reflections of the fact that the universe as a whole, and not merely mankind, fails to fulfill the divinely intended pattern; it is a "fallen world" in which we live (cf. Genesis 3:14–19; Romans 8:19–22). But our concern here is with the effects of human sin.
First, it leads to suffering, both for the guilty and the innocent, for the sinners and those affected by their actions. Sin violates the divine pattern for life. It shatters a person's fellowship with their neighbors, hardens the sinner's heart from showing love to others, and cuts them off from communion with God. It brings its own unpleasant consequences in this life, quite apart from the final judgment of God (Romans 1:18–32; 2:5; Galatians 6:7). One of the ugliest features of sin is that it affects not only the sinner, but also a host of other people who had no part in their particular sin.
Second, sin enslaves the sinner. It is not just a matter of isolated sinful thoughts and deeds. Sin is an evil force which takes control of a person's heart and will; it gains an even tighter hold upon them so that they are more and more incapable of doing the right and the good. At times they may be an unconscious and willing victim; at others they may cry out against the evil force which grips them like a cancer and will not let go (Romans 7:14–20).
Third, sin leads to guilt in the sight of God. The word "guilt" is often used to mean simply the subjective feeling of shame which a person may or may not have after doing what is wrong. Psychologists can offer cures for guilt–feelings, and these have their value when a person has an irrational sense of guilt. But the theological use of "guilt" is akin to the legal use. It is an objective status in the eyes of the law or of God. It is the state of having broken the law or rejected the will of God, and is real and indisputable, whether or not the person feels "guilty" about what they have done. Guilt means liability to condemnation and punishment; the sinner stands condemned in the sight of God (Romans 3:19; James. 2:10).
Thus, fourth, sin leads to punishment. In ordinary usage the word "punishment" expresses a variety of elements. Punishment may be designed to deter evil-doers from crime, or it may be meant to restrain a particular criminal from further criminal acts, or it may include the attempt to reform the criminal by transforming their evil disposition into a better one, or it may combine these features. But it also may contain an element of retribution. This is seen in the fact that punishment is inflicted only on the guilty, while attempts to deter, restrain or reform criminals or likely criminals need not be confined to those who have actually broken the law. Retribution means the upholding of the law against those who would break it. A law would not be a law if it could be broken with impunity and no attempt made to enforce it. A penalty does not merely deter people from breaking the law again, nor does it merely act as a disincentive to people against a prospective act of disobedience: "I shall not do x because if I do I shall have to pay a fine." It entails the idea of making some kind of satisfaction for the broken law. On a more personal level, it corresponds to the feeling that if we have hurt or offended somebody we ought to do something to "make up" for the injury.
The thought of punishment or penalty is thus a complex one, and the various elements mentioned enter into the way in which sin is said to lead to a penalty. The penalty is summed up as death, which is the cessation of the divine life in a person. Through sin fellowship and contact with God are broken; the sinner fears God's presence (Genesis 3:8; Luke 5:8; 1 John 2:28); and they pass out of God's care into the power of sin (Romans 1:24ff.). The sinner can be said to die spiritually while they are still alive physically. Physical death itself is symbolic and part of this spiritual death (Genesis 2:16f.; Romans 5:12ff.; 6:23). Finally, the sinner suffers total exclusion from the presence of God; this is spoken of as hell or the second death (Matthew 25:41; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 20:11–15). In a very real sense sin brings its own consequences with it; by nature it is self–destructive and cuts people off from God as the source of life. Yet this process is not something automatic and impersonal; ultimately it takes place by the will of God who cannot do other than cast impenitent sinners out of his presence, but who longs to turn them from their sin to righteousness.
Thus the sinner is in a state of death even in this life (Ephesians 2:1–5). They are in desperate need of rescue before their present unhappy state gives way to final condemnation. How is rescue possible? Our attention is naturally drawn to the second Adam who "to the fight and to the rescue came." We must now look at the new creation in which God undoes the effects of sin in the present world through Jesus Christ.
Questions for Study and Discussion
- Does the Christian revelation place a question mark against any particular scientific theories of the origin of the universe and of mankind
- Discuss what is meant by the biblical teaching that humans are made in the image of God. Do people still retain that image?
- "Around the explanation of these three passages (Psalm 8:3f.; Jo. 7:17f.; Hebrews 2:6–9), so closely linked, might be gathered no small part of the Biblical doctrine of man" (H. W. Robinson): discuss the question "What is mankind?" in the light of these passages.
- An old Jewish book states: "Each of us has been the Adam of his own soul." Discuss this statement in relation to the teaching of Paul in Romans 5:12–21.
- "The common notion that sin is selfishness betrays a false assessment of its nature and gravity" (J. Murray): what, then, is the biblical view of the essence of sin?