Is This the Best Possible World?

If the classical formulation of the Divine Attributes as exemplified by Thomas Aquinas or, in a less systematic way, Augustine is true, and God is indeed immutable and atemporal, then the following statement must be true:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

Does it have to happen that way?
               Does it have to happen that way?

We can argue for this fairly simply. Christian scripture states that God had a purpose for creating the universe. If that purpose could have been achieved by creating a world with less suffering and evil than the one which actually exists, that would mean that God chose to create a universe with more suffering and evil than was necessary to achieve His purposes. One cannot respond to this that “He must have had a reason that we don’t know about”, because whatever that reason is, the same question could be asked: “Could there have been a universe with less suffering which fulfilled that reason?”

Eventually, if we hold this view, we must come to say that there was no possible way that there could have been less suffering & evil in the universe. Because if there was, and God did not create this other possible universe, then it would mean that God intentionally created a universe with more evil & suffering than was necessary, for no reason whatsoever.

Now, Scripture reveals some sweeping claims about the purpose of the universe:

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.” Romans 11:36.

Ultimately, the universe is made for God’s glory and His pleasure, some add that God’s sharing the divine love is the central plan of creation. Taking either or both of these, what I have said above is still unacceptable.

Do we really believe, despite all the language of scripture indicating that the world is in disorder and in many ways plainly against God’s character and goodness61, that God could not have created a world where less evil happened and where His purposes were still accomplished? Well, if we believe that God foreknows, or foreordains all things, we really have no other choice. He saw every single detail of it coming (or “sees it eternally”), and had (or “eternally has”) total control over the path that He set in motion.

These are the conclusions.

Two fixed points for Christians should be that 1. God’s love is prima facie equal towards all humans he has created, and 2. God truly wants for every single human being to enter into a restored relationship with Him. I’m not just repeating the “God hates the sin but loves the sinner” mantra. I don’t even know if that’s always true without qualification. But, I believe that the scriptural witness stands clearly in favor of Christ’s death on the cross as being a redemptive act for all people. Here is a sample of the witness in favor of those fixed points.

“34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him.” Acts 10:34

“17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. 19 So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19

“7 Respect the Lord and make careful decisions, for the Lord our God disapproves of injustice, partiality, and bribery.” 2 Chronicles 19:7

“16 For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:16-17

“21 But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. 22 None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live. 23 Do I actually delight in the death of the wicked, declares the sovereign Lord? Do I not prefer that he turn from his wicked conduct and live? …

31Throw away all your sins you have committed and fashion yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why should you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no delight in the death of anyone, declares the sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:21-23, 31-32

“10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you have said: “Our rebellious acts and our sins have caught up with us, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?” 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil deeds! Why should you die, O house of Israel?’ Ezekiel 33:10-11

“1 First of all, then, I urge that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanks be offered on behalf of all people… 3 Such prayer for all is good and welcomed before God our Savior, 4 since he wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, revealing God’s purpose at his appointed time.” 1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6

“8 For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” 9 This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. 10 In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers.” I Timothy 4:8-10

“3 Above all, understand this: In the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 4 and saying, “Where is his promised return? For ever since our ancestors died, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation…8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

“1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous One, and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world” 1 John 2:1-2

These verses attest unilaterally that God does not desire the eternal death of any human being. How, in light of these passages, is that earlier conclusion tenable?

What I have seen keeping us from taking these statements of scripture as unqualified and univocal, as would be most natural, are one of two things. One is simply a theological commitment to something like atemporality and immutability, which imply that God must know all human choices “before” (or eternally) they occur in time, and thus obviously God cannot really desire things which He has “decreed” or “eternally foreknown” would not happen. Rather, this interpretation would say, those passages above are general valuations of things that God would see as good, but that He’s chosen not to accomplish. I think that this explanation is in the end totally unwarranted, unnecessary, and ultimately casts doubt on our view of God. I am using my language here of course, but to believe that God did not decide to do something (e.g. save all humans), or things, which not only we see as good, but that He Himself has said He wants (e.g. Ez. 33:11, and others above) is to believe that God’s character is not one of complete goodness. To avoid this conclusion, again we would have to resort to the one earlier:

Either this is the best possible universe God could have created, or God chose to create a world with more suffering and evil than it had to have.

The second hindrance to Christians taking the verses above as “univocal”, or literal, when they use the pronouns “all”,  “none”, “the whole world”, etc., are other scriptures that seem to indicate that God has in fact decided which individuals will be saved and who will not, so the scriptures that describe God’s desire for all to be saved “cannot” be univocal. This sort of foresight also seems to extend to the crucifixion of Christ, as though God had planned for Adam to sin and thus planned that Christ would have to come and die, and that all sins which have occurred, must have occurred. If we recall, this would also imply that the way the world is, though it’s not “the way it’s supposed to be” in a moral sense, actually is “the way it’s supposed to be”, in the sense that God created the world with full-inerrant knowledge that this is the way the world would play out. Though I cannot treat all of these verses in depth, I want to offer some different ways of looking at the most frequently cited passages for this belief in the next post.

A Devout Atheist & Suffering

I just attended a forum with guest speaker Vanessa Zoltan, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, where she spoke about her “devout atheism”. The forum was jam-packed with Christian seminarians interested in hearing and learning from someone who was willing to come talk openly about her Atheism, what it means, and what it does not mean.

Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum
Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum “Devout Atheists: A Closer Look at the Non-Religious Experience”

Vanessa’s story was fascinating, and I’ll mention one thing that struck me before moving onto the most moving point.

The first thing of interest was her position towards “the Sacred”. Vanessa has a well-developed sense of how humans can take things and treat them as “sacred”, and how we then learn from them just by taking that posture. As opposed to a Christian’s assumption that the reason that, say, the Bible inspires them and challenges them is that God is working in them or through it, Vanessa sees this possibility inherent in any sufficiently complex piece of writing, and stemming more from the human potential for these things which only needs the instigator. In her own experience, she took the book Jane Eyre and for months treated it as a sacred text, learning and growing into a better person through it. I find it fascinating that this term “the sacred”, which is now used rampantly among Christians, is so flexible and broad that an atheist can apply it to her own experiences. It reminded me of the analysis that Allan Bloom made of the term in The Closing of the American Mind and how its’ roots are solidly in Nietzche and the atheistic German school of philosophy. In this culture, despite the reduction of our attentions to only value 140 character quips, we talk too much,  in language whose meaning we do not explore, and thus, we talk about we know not what.

The second thing that struck me was her emphasis on suffering. Vanessa was raised Jewish and growing up she literally did not know one-single elderly person who was not a Holocaust survivor. For her, belief in God was absolutely impossible in the face of what her grandparents and all of their friends suffered. She relayed how she visited Jewish Temple still, but how the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” was offensive to her, not because of what it said, but because this was often the prayer that the Jews would make right before they were gassed to death. As she put it during our Q & A “Either God was not looking, or there is no God.”

This moved me profoundly because my own theology has undergone dramatic shifts which sometimes, it seems to me, only atheists, or those who do not believe in God, seem to grasp fully. Most of those shifts revolve around suffering.

In the “Classical” tradition of theology, which most Catholics and Protestants have inherited, God’s “essence” or “being” does not suffer. Suffering, it is assumed, means that one is not in control, because if one could avoid suffering, why wouldn’t they? Thus, it is impossible for God, who is the most powerful being, to be impacted and suffer from anything that happens in his created order. Obviously, this seems to fly in the face of the revelation of God in Christ, but theology has its’ ways (and I appreciate them, even though I disagree with most). In addition, the Classical statements of the divine attributes, which imply that God foreknows (Arminian) or “foreordains (Calvinist) all things which will occur, ever, implies this fact:

“Either this is best possible world, or God deliberately created a world with more evil in it that was absolutely necessary”.

I’ll argue for that point in my next post, but assuming that is true, we can easily see how it flies offensively in the face of anyone who not only has suffered, but who empathically suffers. This is more than just suffering yourself. If you find yourself deeply affected by the suffering of others, as I suspect Vanessa has, it is not only your own experience which you must find a worldview to explain, but the suffering of your friends, of people who have been murdered and never found, violated and never consoled, people whom you have never met, but are able to mourn for at the thought of these disturbing realities. What Vanessa’s talk helped me realize was this:

While many branches of the Christian tradition are not yet ready to even touch the inherited understandings of God as immutable, impassible, and atemporal, there is a whole world of hungry lost souls waiting to hear that, possibly, God did not create the world with depression, suicide and rape as just a necessary part of what some would call “his incomprehensibly deep and beautiful design”; that, perhaps, God is not just “outside” of the universe, in his timeless, spaceless, impassible, moment-less “perfection”; but rather, as I think is clearly revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He has fully entered our suffering, and is calling us to step into His kingdom as He finishes the war on death, suffering, and all that causes the Vanessa’s of the world to turn their face from Him. This invitation, and the image of God we’re given through Christ, is what I live for.

Lewis’ Problem with Prayer (Pt. 2)

In the last post I ended with two questions:

#1. Assuming we have the required faith, and the person we’re praying for having faith, should we pray with assurance, as  Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13 imply, or with the qualifier “if it is Thy will Lord?”

#2. If a prayer is prayed with assurance, as Mark 11:22-24, Matthew 18:19-20, & John 14:13 imply they should be, what are we to think when such prayers seem unanswered, or negatively replied?

I think that the answer to #1. should be, unequivocally,  that we should pray “with assurance”. The most commonly used passage against this method would be Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane. But, this prayer was made by Jesus for himself. So, strictly speaking, Jesus only modeled for us how we should surrender to God in our own lives when we are specifically suffering because we are living a life that opposes the dominant culture. When we’re praying for others, on the other hand, there are a number of places in scripture where we’re given either commands or examples to pray with assurance. One of the most potent would be Mark 11:22-24 .

Yet, the answer to #2. pushes back against the idea that “just having assurance”, “just believing”, will result in a prayer answered. Even the phrasing of #1 assumes that “faith” is only “believing” in a mental sort of way, as though if I only “believe really hard” then anything I pray for will come to pass. I say however, that according to the Bible, true faith always is a whole-life lived (see this passage). So, perhaps, one of the things that inhibited CS Lewis’ ability to swallow the full implications of the passages in Mark, Matthew, and John was the lack of a full-blown “warfare worldview”. Here’s a story in the Bible to show how faith as “a whole life lived for Jesus” connects to the warfare worldview and prayer. The story is from Daniel 10 (netbible.org):

In the third year of King Cyrus of Persia a message was revealed to Daniel (who was also called Belteshazzar). This message was true and concerned a great war. He understood the message and gained insight by the vision.

 In those days IDanielwas mourning for three whole weeks. I ate no choice food;no meat or wine came to my lips,nor did I anoint myself with oil until the end of those three weeksOn the twenty-fourth day of the first month I was beside the great riverthe Tigris. I looked up and saw a manclothed in linen; around his waist was a belt made of gold from Upaz.

Then he said to me“Don’t be afraidDanielfor from the very first day you applied your mind to understand and to humble yourself before your Godyour words were heardI have come in response to your words. However, the prince of the kingdom of Persia was opposing me for twenty-one daysBut Michaelone of the leading princescame to help me, because I was left there  with the kings of Persia. Now I have come to help you understand what will happen to your people in the latterdaysfor the vision pertains to future days.”

The core lesson for prayer is that though Daniel had faith, and that God responded to his prayer promptly, there was opposition that inhibited his prayer being answered for a significant period of time. Yet, his persistence, his dedication, not just in words prayed but in actions done, allowed him to be in a position to receive the answers he requested even though they took some time to arrive.

Did Daniel pray with assurance? Most likely. He had already experienced other-worldly rescues in his life (see Daniel 6). Did his prayer go unanswered? For a time. But the reason was neither that God was “testing him” nor was God waiting for him to “really believe”. There were other factors at work which Daniel did not see, and the same is usually true in situations which we are praying for as well. We are called, like Daniel, to be humble, be persistent, pray with the assurance that Jesus said we should have. We also know from the many examples of prayer in scripture that when a request goes without the answer we desired, when we desired it, that reality is complex.

As we petition God for others we must remember that there are more factors at work than just our faith and God’s willingness to respond. These things might be a cause for a request to go (seemingly) unanswered, but it is not always necessarily so.

Lastly, I did not here distinguish between strictly “petitioning God” and directly “commanding” things to come to pass in Jesus’ name. Throughout the Bible we see people simply commanding for certain things to happen (most frequently this is in respect to someone being healed from a physical or mental illness), and these things coming to pass. In these cases, I think that there are even more factors at work which I did not discuss, though they are illustrated in the Daniel story. I’ll elaborate on that next time!

A Problem for Theistic Evolution, Pt. 3

Destruction of Leviathan - Gustave Doré
Destruction of Leviathan – Gustave Doré

This is the 3rd post on this topic, and there at least 2 things we’ll be assuming here from those last two posts, both are observations from Genesis 1:

(1) Everything that God created and called good, was good; but God did not call everything good. The things which God does not explicitly call “good” were: the state of the world as “without shape and empty”, “the darkness”, “the deep”, and “the serpent”.

(2) The impression that the paradise Adam & Eve enjoyed was unique on earth. Combined with (1) above, this opens up the possibility that the “curse” does not imply that the entire world was an Edenic paradise up to then.

There’s one more objection to (1) above I want to clear up. In Genesis 1:31 we read,  “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Doesn’t this imply that up to this point, everything was perfect? Well, not necessarily. Verse 31 is at the end of the seven days, and it would be sticking more closely to the actual order of things to say : “God declared ‘everything that he had made’ as ‘good’ when the finished product had appeared”. This is the same pattern throughout all Genesis 1, and, by the end of this post, we’ll hopefully have some other scriptures to balance out this reaction to the isolated creation account in Genesis.

The question now is: “How do we interpret ‘the bondage of decay’ spoken of in Rom. 8:20-21?”

From the perspective we’re working towards, “the bondage of decay” is represented in Genesis by “the darkness”, “the deep”, and “the serpent”. There are two aspects to understanding how this fits with the rest of the Bible.

One aspect is looking at more scriptures which give us the reason to believe that God’s commands were met with hostility during creation. There are several places in the Bible, outside of Genesis, that talk about the creation of the world. We’re trying to avoid ignoring all these other passages. The second aspect is how God “subjects the world to futility”, as it says in Romans 8:20. We’ll explore this by looking at how God does similar things in other instances of the Old & New Testament. This will be left for the next post.

So, are there actually other scriptures which connect “the bondage of decay” to “the deep”, “the darkness”, or “the serpent”, and, are there other passages about creation which give us reason to think that God was overcoming these powers as he spoke the created order into existence?

Well, we know that “the serpent” is interpreted as Satan in the New Testament (Rev. 12:9, 20:2). The Canaanite culture around the time Genesis was written also used the imagery of a “dragon” and “sea monster” to “symbolize the destructive water of the sea and in turn the forces of chaos that threaten the established order” (netbible.org/note 4). Remember this for the rest of the way.

“Darkness” is constantly representative of evil itself, the very opposite of God (1 Jn 1:5, 2Cor. 6:14, Eph 5:8, Jn. 3:19).

“The deep” is only slightly more complicated.

The Hebrew word for “the deep”,  “tehom”, resembles another word used in another ancient creation account: “tiamat”. Many scholars believe that the author of Genesis was deliberately mimicking the word to make a point in reference to that other creation account: Enuma Elish. Here’s a link if you’re interested in all the parallels, and differences, between Enuma Elish and the Genesis account: Enuma Elish

There are a few things to note for our purposes. One is that the goddess Tiamat was representative of chaos. In Enuma Elish the god Marduk, after defeating Tiamat and cutting her up into pieces, uses her body to form the physical world. The following passage is telling (emphasis added):

137   He split her into two like a dried fish:
138   One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens.
139   He stretched the skin and appointed a watch
140   With the instruction not to let her waters escape.

I highlighted that last line of Enuma Elish because it re-emphasizes how water was representative of chaos for the canaanite culture around the Israelites. So, “the deep” was a sort of negative way of talking about the oceans and seas as they represented the forces that threatened the order of the world.  This will all help bring out the ways in which scripture turns these metaphors around to imply that it was “Yahweh” not “Marduk” or any other combination of Canaanite gods that was responsible for the order of creation.

Collectively, I think the scriptures below make it pretty clear that , if we’re looking at all of the Bible, God did have to overcome opposition to create the order of the world in Genesis 1. If this is true, then the “bondage of decay” is not something God imposed on creation, but, a corruption of reality that was present already; not eternal, but definitely pre-human.

This then opens up the possibility that the suffering which seems to be present in the world before humans entered the picture, was the working-out of this conflict between God and the forces that oppose him, the chaotic “waters”, the “darkness”, the “deep”, and “the serpent”; and this, at least in a general way to start, is a way to understand the problem I posed in the first post with regards to evolution. There’s much to be added, but that’s a glimpse of the general picture.

I’ll end with some of those passages I’ve referred to, and allow them to speak for themselves:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Now the earth was without shape and empty,
and darkness was over the surface of the deep,
but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.
And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light!
God saw that the light was good, so God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”
There was evening, and there was morning, marking the first day.- Genesis 1:1-6

Who shut up the sea with doors when it burst forth, coming out of the womb,
when I made the storm clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
when I prescribed its limits, and set in place its bolts and doors,
when I said, ‘To here you may come and no farther,
here your proud waves will be confined?” – Job 38:8-11 

When he established the heavens, I was there;
when he marked out the horizon over the face of the deep,
when he established the clouds above,
when the fountains of the deep grew strong,
when he gave the sea his decree
that the waters should not pass over his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth – Proverbs 8:27-29

You rule over the proud sea.
When its waves surge, you calm them.

You crushed Rahab [symbolic of the mythological sea serpent]  and killed it;
with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.
The heavens belong to you, as does the earth.
You made the world and all it contains. – Psalm 89:9-11

He established the earth on its foundations;
it will never be upended.
The watery deep covered it like a garment;
the waters reached above the mountains.
Your shout made the waters retreat;
at the sound of your thunderous voice they hurried off—
as the mountains rose up,
and the valleys went down—
to the place you appointed for them.
You set up a boundary for them that they could not cross,
so that they would not cover the earth again. – Psalm 104:5-9

You destroyed the sea by your strength;
you shattered the heads of the sea monster in the water.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you fed him to the people who live along the coast.
You broke open the spring and the stream;
you dried up perpetually flowing rivers.
You established the cycle of day and night;
you put the moon and sun in place.
You set up all the boundaries of the earth;
you created the cycle of summer and winter. – Psalm 74:13-17

He marks out the horizon on the surface of the waters
as a boundary between light and darkness.
The pillars of the heavens tremble
and are amazed at his rebuke.
By his power he stills the sea;
by his wisdom he cut Rahab the great sea monster to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
Indeed, these are but the outer fringes of his ways!
How faint is the whisper we hear of him!
But who can understand the thunder of his power?” -Job 26:10-14

Am I the sea, or the creature of the deep [or “dragon”]
that you must put me under guard? – Job 7:12

**All passages from new english translation of the bible
** Several of these passages, along with the relevance of Enuma Elish for this question, were brought to my attention in God at War by Gregory Boyd, Chapter 3: “Slaying Leviathan”

A Problem for Theistic Evolution Pt. 2

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity…The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either” -C.S. Lewis

Adam-And-Eve-In-Paradise
Adam and Eve in Paradise
By Johann Wenzel Peter

As I go on with this theme of Genesis, the Christian perspective of origins, and the light it can shed on evolution, along with the reality of suffering, I thought that C.S. Lewis’ words were especially relevant. Especially because the perspective I’m working towards is not the dominant one, and it takes time to think through it, to see a possibility if we have never before considered it.

In the last post I said that there were a few places in the Christian Scriptures which seem to imply that:

somehow mankind bears responsibility for the reality of death, all death; humans, amphibians, insects… Many Christians believe that, because of passages like Genesis 3:17-19, not just death, but all suffering in the world is the direct result of humanity’s rebellion against God.”

But, the passages I mentioned only directly state that mankind is responsible for human death (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:56-57, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:21. On the other hand, there are other passages which seems to indicate that the “curse” in Genesis 3:17 applies to all of the world, and therefore that the rebellion of humanity is the primary cause of the decay of the entire world. One text is Romans 8:20-21

For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of the one who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.”

What I want to explore in this post then is what the curse of Genesis 3:17 meant, since how we interpret the passage above is largely determined by that background. The next post will deal more with Rom. 8:20-21 and others like it, and that should lead to the opening of a perspective that I think makes the entire narrative of scripture incredibly beautiful.

To start, we can note that if we don’t have reasons beforehand for thinking that the entire world was a paradise like Eden, God’s words in Gen 3:17 can be taken as a statement to Adam; he and his descendents would never again enjoy the kind of provision which came so easily in Eden. Although it is true that God’s pronouncement of a “curse” applied to the entire earth, the passage does not imply that everything outside of “Eden” was fine and dandy until God said that. Instead, the curse can be seen as a judgement that derailed God’s intentions for creating humanity, the focus of the judgement being on us. We’ll unpack this in the next two posts, but first, a few more misconceptions to work through here.

Many do think they have reasons for thinking that the whole world was an Edenic paradise before this. Despite the label “Garden of Eden, the dominant understanding is that the paradise of Eden reflected the state of the whole world, and not just a specific piece of land, the way we’d normally understand a “garden”.

A primary reason for this is the belief that “In Genesis, God created everything ‘good'” . This is true, but it omits a few important facts. The reason we believe God created everything good is because in Genesis we’re told God calls things good. But, there are several things which appear in the story that God does not explicitly call good.

For one thing, there’s a serpent that appears in the garden to tempt Adam & Eve. God certainly never called the serpent good.

Also, we read in Genesis 1:2:

Now  the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep, but the Spirit of God  was moving over the surface of the water” (new english translation, emphasis added)

None of the things I highlighted there are called good by God. 

The same Hebrew phrase “without shape and empty” is used in Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23 “to describe a situation resulting from judgment” (netbible.org). 

The same Hebrew word for “darkness” is later used  to “symbolize what opposes God, such as judgment (Exod 10:21), death (Ps 88:13), oppression (Isa 9:1), the wicked (1 Sam 2:9) and in general, sin. In Isa 45:7 it parallels ‘evil.’ ” (netbible.org).

The Hebrew word for “deep” is “tÿhom” and it is distinct from the word for “water”. The word “tÿhom” represented “chaos” for several other Middle-Eastern creation accounts. The ocean was the literal manifestation of that chaos, and it was a basic assumption of many ancient cultures, including that of the Hebrews, that the entire earth rested on water which God had to tame and push back in order to create the world (Prov. 8:27-29, Job 38:4-11) (netbible.org).

As we read on in Genesis 1:4, God “saw that the light was good, so God separated the light from the darkness.” God never calls the darkness “good” either. I don’t mean to belittle the beauty of a moonlit landscape of course, but simply to point out that the more literal you attempt to interpret Genesis, the less it warrants the belief that everything on earth was perfect, even with the start we’re given in Genesis 1.

Another point is that in Genesis 2:8-2:17 it’s fairly clear that we are supposed to understand the provision given to Adam & Eve as being connected to the location where God “places” them. Several geographical markers are given to denote a region of land, and it is in this region that God tells the man and woman, “You may freely eat  fruit from every tree of the orchard”. This counts  for the belief that the abundance of Eden was unique, and not the same throughout the world.

Lastly, when God removes the man and woman from the garden, Genesis says “So the Lord God expelled him from the orchard in Eden to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken.” (Gen 3:23). This gives the “curse” of 3:17-3:18 a direct application, to the ground from which he had been taken. While this does imply that all the ground outside of Eden (and possibly including it) was going to suffer in some way because of humanity’s fall, it also implies that Adam had been, up to that point, enjoying a privileged location/state from which he was “expelled”.

All of this leaves most of the traditional interpretation of “the curse” the same, except for an important assumption that is not at all clear in the story: that the entire world was like Eden prior to humanity’s fall.

While the curse of Gen. 3:17 affected the entire world, especially humanity’s state of being provided for without worry, it was not necessarily the starting point for the decay of the creation. If this is true, the next question is what is “the bondage of decay” in Romans 8:20-21? I think this leads perfectly into consideration of the entire Genesis narrative  in a different light.