Legends of the Fall: Reflections
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.–Psalm 19, KJV
This is one Biblical text, among others, that supports the traditional theological doctrine that the universe reflects God. We cannot know the essence of God, what He actually is like. However, we can know His energies–that is, we can know how He interacts with the world and with us. Everything is a reflection of God, tells us something about God. For example, living things show that He is alive (analogically so, but alive nonetheless). That we are intelligent shows that He is intelligent. The starry night sky shows His grandeur, the flower His beauty, a quiet fall sunset His peace.
How, then, is God reflected in earthquakes that kill thousands, in psychopaths who kill without mercy, in ichneumonid wasps that paralyze caterpillars and on them lay eggs that will hatch into larvae that will eat the caterpillars alive? How is He reflected in tuberculosis, in malaria, in cancer? How does our wrath, our hatred, our ugliness reflect God?
While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.–John 17:12, KJV
Jesus here is speaking of the Disciples, of course, and the “son of perdition” is Judas Iscariot. God’s plan is totally effective–except when it’s not. He loses not one–except for the one He loses. What are we to make of this?
And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.–John 12:32, KJV
When he says “If I be lifted up,” Jesus is referring to his Crucifixion. There’s no “if” to it–he was crucified. He doesn’t say that he will then draw a “few” or “some” or “many” or “lots and lots” or “everyone but the son of perdition”; he says all. So what are we to make of this, which seems to contradict the last verse?
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.–1 Corinthians 15:22-28, KJV
God will be not some in some or most in most but all in all. In a sense, being the ground of all being, He already is “all in all”. And yet, given the messiness of the world, He is obviously–as this verse implies–not all in all right now; at least not in a functional sense. Nevertheless, this implies that at the end, God’s influence and being will truly permeate everything in a definitive way. That, of course, seems difficult to reconcile with an eternal Hell. Yes, God is even in Hell, and as the saying is, what the saved perceive as love, the damned perceive as fire; but it still doesn’t seem what Paul implies by “all in all”.
Let’s pursue these avenues.
Ichneumonids, cancer, earthquakes, and all could be taken as reflecting the fact that God is an evil bastard. Obviously, that’s not an option in Christian theology. They could taken as implying that He is, if not evil, then at least very unpleasant, with a nasty streak a light-year wide. I’m not interested in defending the idea of God as a fluffy bunny, or good in a sense fully comprehensible to humans; but I’m not interested in defending the idea of God-as-a-nasty-cuss, either. If His goodness is to mean anything, then analogical as it may be, it has to be basically benevolent.
If we admit that He’s really good, we still have some problems. The cosmos is a harsh, unforgiving place. I teach, and students ask for “do-overs” all the time (something I’d have been afraid to ask for back in the 70’s). The cosmos doesn’t give do-overs. Fall off a horse at the wrong angle, and you’re paralyzed for life, like Christopher Reeve. No do-over. Get drunk once and go driving foolishly, you wreck and die. No do-over. Contemplate your mis-spent youth–no do-over. In the first quote from John, Jesus intimates there is no do-over for him. Put that with Matthew 7:13, and God does not seem to be a God of do-overs. So does the universe reflect a God who doesn’t give us second chances, who is more immovable than the most immovable teacher refusing to allow a single question to be re-answered? Is God an inflexible tyrant who allows us to seal our own perdition permanently by reckless, rash, or thoughtless acts that can never be taken back?
If so, it seems to me that it’s not that the way to life is narrow, but non-existent, or nearly so. But then, the second two quotes above seem to indicate the ultimate do-over for the whole universe at the end. What are we to think?
On a personal note, this has always troubled me. We are told so often in our society that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and that we must be honest with our children in telling them what a nasty cruel place it is; which of course helps perpetuate the system. This seems so inhumane; and yet the world God created is far more inhumane. Are we deluding ourselves in seeking a kinder, gentler God that indulgently looks over our sins time and again, who gives us second, third, and fourth chances, and beyond? In light of this series and my long thought upon this subject, I have come to what I think is a satisfactory view.
I make the following postulates:
1. It is part of God’s plan that intelligent creatures begin relatively separated from Him, and must stray further before ultimately returning to Him. This seems to me a piece of logical necessity, as I’ve discussed here.
2. God is reflected to different extents in different things, being reflected more fully and perfectly in higher things than in lower. This actually involves a paradox–in a sense, a rock reflects God as fully as a rose; that is, the rock reflects God to the extent of its capacity just as much as a rose does. What I’m saying is that the rock’s capacity is less than that of the rose. Thus, reflecting God to the peak of their abilities, a rock and a rose are equal in that they give all; but unequal in that the rose gives more.
Thus, I don’t think the nastiness truly reflects God–or at least reflects Him very much indirectly. Cancer, for example, does not reflect a deity who enjoys seeing creatures suffer or who revels in pain or who likes dealing death. Rather, it reflects a God who is so serious about having creatures that really, truly, freely love Him and each other, that He’s willing to pay the short term price of a cosmos of sadness and suffering in order to achieve the long term goal of salvation, love, and happiness for all. I’ve said before that the cliché is that a person says having cancer was “the best thing that ever happened” to them. Not that it was good having cancer; but the goodness is in the results in one’s life–to speak sweeter and love deeper, as Tim McGraw might say. That’s where the reflection of God is–not in the nastiness and metastasis itself.
Relatedly, just as a rock doesn’t reflect God as much as a rose, cancer doesn’t reflect Him as much as a hyacinth or a puppy or a lover. In a more metaphysical perspective, I think this explains the apparent callousness of the cosmos. First, I don’t attribute that callousness–or the evils of the physical world in general–to God in a direct way but to those spirits fallen from the Pleroma (demons, Archons, pick your onomastic poison). I’ve discussed this here and here.
Second, we humans are higher than the force of gravity. To unpack: gravity is unforgiving (you fall, you fall, commoner or king), humans are not. On the one hand, the standard spiel that adults give to kids (or teens, or older adults to young adults) is that the “real world” is a hard place, and your parents/teachers/mentors have to prepare you for that, so they can’t be too soft on you. There is certainly an element–more than an element–of truth in that.
On the other hand, one of the highest human values in all human cultures, religions, and philosophies is compassion. Not mindless, weak, idiot compassion; but a strong, clear-eyed compassion that says that at our best we must give second–or third, or fourth, or seventy-seventh–chances to even those who do not deserve it. To the extent that we do this, we are reflecting God far more accurately and deeply than the unforgiving blind forces of the cosmos. Thus, while we may need to harden ourselves somewhat to live in the world as it is, we are not deluded in thinking that love, compassion, forbearance, and yes, sometimes do-overs, are in some way deeper icons of God than His frequently merciless cosmos.
Thus, I think the Bible verses that imply loss, failure of God to extend His kingdom to all, and a harsh, “narrow road” refer to the contingent–but very real–conditions of the world as it is now; but the universalistic statements and the prophecies of God “all in all” and Jesus drawing “all people” to himself are the deeper and greater truths, pointing not to the world as it is, but as it should be; and as it one day, in God’s good time, despite all the evil, despite all the sorrow and tears, despite all the cynics and doubters, despite the gates of Hell itself, finally and blessedly will be.
Part of the series Legends of the Fall.