God saw everything that God had made, and indeed it was very good (Genesis 1:31)
I have always thought that the word “indeed” is a telling detail in this passage. I don’t know, and am too lazy to go find out, what the relevant Hebrew word is here and what its nuances are. But to my ear, there is a suggestion of additional affirmation of the sentiment that all the things God had made are very good. But why would God need to affirm God’s own sentiment that what God had created is very good? Wasn’t God sure? It’s as though God got distracted for a minute, got onto something else – the grocery list, the dishes, the lawn – and then a fleeting anxiety registered in God’s mind: wait – was that stuff I made good? Let me double check. Oh yes. My creation is indeed good. Very good, in fact. Thought so. Whew.
The “indeed” here probably doesn’t suggest a moment of hesitation, of God’s second-guessing the wisdom of creating all the things, especially human beings. But if it did, it wouldn’t be the last time in Genesis that God expresses concern about God’s human creation. The Noah and Abraham stories are peppered with Creator’s remorse. And, one might imagine, human beings continue to be the cause of divine consternation: genocide, ecological devastation, structural evils of all kinds, not to mention garden variety murder, abuse, and the like. We human beings seem to be here for all of it. And we are so profoundly vulnerable, limited, finite, as the current public health crisis reminds us.
In my view, the deepest mystery of faith is contained in this one verse at the end of the first chapter of Genesis. For better or for worse, I’ve never been challenged with a lack of certainty about God’s existence. I have simply been aware that God exists. It’s not always easy to know that God is present – although I suspect that our breath, when we pay attention to it, is God’s reminder that God works actively in every instant to sustain all of creation in its existence. At any rate, I just cannot shake the conviction that God exists, even when God does not feel present.
I am, however, vexed by what theologians and philosophers often call the “problem of evil” – the problem, in other words, that an allegedly all-powerful and essentially good God would permit the existence of evil and suffering in the world. But I am not bothered by it in quite the same way that the problem of evil often challenges philosophers and theologians. That problem is often taken to call the very existence of God into question: how can such an all-powerful and irreducibly good god exist if evil, pain, and suffering also exist, as they surely do? Yes, evil, pain, and suffering surely do exist, either by dent of human abuses of their freedom, however much or little of it we human beings have, or by the limitations imposed by finitude – that we human beings are not eternal and not invincible; we are instead vulnerable to vicissitudes like COVID-19 and other diseases, earthquakes, cancer, and the like. Two things are true: human beings abuse the agency we have, and the agency we have doesn’t protect us from everything. These twin afflictions are sometimes called “moral evil” and “natural evil.” (There are probably better ways of describing the conditions of evil, pain, and suffering in the world – but this is good enough for now.)
The end of Genesis 1, in my perspective, raises a challenge to some traditional explorations of the problem of evil. According to Genesis, human creation, with all creation, is supposed to be good. If that’s true, then we human beings must be good in the way that God created us: as, one might say, finite creatures who also enjoy a modicum of freedom, some ability, however limited, to step outside of our desires and instincts and to critically evaluate and respond to them. All of human experience exists under these conditions (again, there might be a better way of describing them – but as a shorthand, they’re good enough). That is, all things that we human beings say we value, that we experience as good, exist under the conditions of finitude and limited freedom. What we recognize as courage, love, honor, fidelity, commitment, etc., are only intelligible to us because we are both a lot bit vulnerable and a little bit free – we are limited, we suffer and die, and we also abuse our freedom from time to time, or perhaps a lot of the time. But we cannot imagine or experience human value except from within the conditions of finitude and relative freedom. We cannot, for example, imagine what love is except from the perspective of creatures who are finite, who die, and who abuse their agency from time to time. After all, what would love be if loss and disappointment were not possible? Christians hope that an infinite love exists in the being of God, and some have faith that it does – but it’s not a part of our natural experience.
Some thinkers talk about the problem of evil as though we could hope that God should and would suddenly remove the conditions of human finitude and relative freedom. But what, then, would we be hoping for? All the things that human beings understand and care about, they do so from within the human perspective, not from some other perspective. What would love mean to us if we were infallible? What would courage mean if we were invincible, or if human life had infinite duration? To suggest that a good and all-powerful God should work to change or alleviate the conditions under which human beings are, well, human, either from the outset of creation, or by swooping into history from time to time to save us from ourselves, is essentially to hope, it seems to me, for a kind of re-creation. But how could that situation be intelligible to us? What we recognize as valuable and meaningful and good is intelligible to us from within a human horizon, not some other creaturely horizon. What would human goods and values mean, how would they be intelligible to us, if they existed in a non-human horizon?
Genesis tells us that God made us human beings – not as unfree automatons, nor as eternal and unconditioned gods, nor as perfectly responsible angels, nor as invincible “men of steel” (or more inclusively, “humans of steel”) – and deemed us, along with the rest of creation, to be good. What does that mean? (And in asking this question, I underscore another distinctive feature of our human existence – that we human beings, unlike many of our co-creations, are very given to meaning-making.) So I ask again: what does this mean? This human creation – a lot bit vulnerable, a little bit free, and very given to meaning-making – and not some other kind of creation, is supposed to be good. Can that be?
Another way of asking this question is: When God created human beings and deemed us to be good, was God telling the truth? This strikes me as the more compelling theodicy question – one that perhaps even induced a divine double-take not long after God created us.
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20: 26-29)
This passage from John is my favorite post-Easter moment. The disciples are sheltering in in place, socially and physically distanced, hiding not from an invisible pandemic, but from very visible authorities who, presumably, are hunting them. Suddenly, Jesus shows up, stands among them, and offers a blessing: “Peace be with you.” Then Jesus, enfleshed in a physical body, breathes on the disciples, bids them to receive the Holy Spirit, and empowers them to forgive sins. We who have sheltered in place for several weeks, who fear the coronavirus, who have suffered and even lost loved ones to it, long for Jesus to show up behind our locked doors, offer peace, and impart the repairing and reconciling power of the Holy Spirit.
Then it happens again. Now Thomas is present. We remember Thomas as the doubter, who resolves only to believe in the resurrected Jesus if he can see and experience the physical resurrected Jesus. Thomas is often construed as a sceptic, who needs empirical evidence to believe in Jesus. We are supposed to learn from the Thomas story that faith, not experience, is sufficient to substantiate belief in the risen Christ. Maybe so. But I’ve often wondered if Thomas is the most faithful character in this story. Thomas, not the other disciples, is willing to do what only we vulnerable and somewhat free meaning-makers can do: Thomas sticks his fingers in the wounds of human vulnerability, and tries to figure out what’s down there. It’s a scary thing to do, and many of us, including myself, are often unwilling to do it. What is down there? Pain, brokenness, loss, death? Absolutely. But is there anything deeper than that? The answer that the story gives is, in a way, simple. What lies underneath our wounds and our vulnerability is peace and forgiveness.
Amidst all of the brokenness and complexity of human experience, God shows up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ with one more “indeed,” one more affirmation that, indeed, when God created human beings and deemed us good, God was telling the truth. God is present among us, not as an unfree automaton, nor as an eternal and unconditioned god, nor as a perfectly responsible angel, nor as an invincible “person of steel,” but as a broken, wounded, and (until recently) deceased human being, who breathes, who knows anxiety, who understands fear and brokenness, who mourns the loss of loved ones and friends.
We now find ourselves in that locked room with the disciples, physically and socially distanced from our friends and family, afraid, and perhaps mourning the loss of loved ones. Now, perhaps, more than ever, we ask ourselves: is any of this that we call “human experience” good? In the deepest recesses of our wounds, when we stick our fingers all the way down into them (and in this moment, we pretty much have to), what we find is peace and forgiveness. We still find ourselves in locked rooms, afraid, hiding from an “invisible enemy.” The brokenness and suffering do not go away. The wounds are still present, even in the body of God. We are still a little bit free, a lot bit vulnerable, and very given to meaning-making. But our fear and wounds don’t define us. They’re not the most real condition of our existence. Nor are the locked rooms, the fear, the physical distancing, the sheltering-in-place, and the quarantines. Peace and forgiveness are really real. When God created us and deemed us good, was God telling the truth? Yes, indeed, God was.