Throughout Europe, many of the great cathedrals and castles of the world still stand tall today, marking an era of human history and creativity unique and unmatched: the Renaissance. While decorated with gold and elaborate tapestry, among the most impressive elements of their construction are the artistic images that often begin underfoot, span the walls, and then arch across the ceilings. From a distance, they flow seamlessly from scene to scene, displaying in glowing detail the stories and likenesses that the artist sought to record. From up close, however, an unbelievable reality emerges: these massive works of art are actually mosaics; consisting of millions—hundreds of millions—of minute, single-colored tiles, each placed one-by-one over the course of decades. The closer you are, the more the tiles themselves dominate your vision . . . and the harder it is to see how the pieces fit into the larger work. When you are very close, you can’t tell at all what you are looking at . . . the tiles look like a random and senseless assortment of pieces.
That’s where I found myself in the winter of 2000. As I struggled to answer the questions about what was happening to my brother, I found that I was too close to the situation to see clearly; my heart was too near the pain to make sense of what was going on. That’s when I knew I needed to stand back and begin to look at what was happening from a bit of a distance. In the midst of the difficult details of what we were facing, I needed to put things in the context of the “big picture.”
For years, I’ve been committed to the “big picture.” Starting with the Word of God, its history, and its principles, I’ve always sought to build a worldview based on Scripture. It’s a framework of sorts—a grid of truth that can then be used to analyze the specific situations and the “evidence” we see around us. In that way, I’ve always tried to present a broad, biblical view in regard to issues that really affect our culture. Just like a mosaic, viewing the larger perspective allows us to see the details for what they are, and they then find meaning in the sum of the whole picture.
The true biblical “big picture” encompasses a Christian worldview that begins with Creation, then proceeds to Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, and Consummation. An understanding of the entirety of human history—the past as well as what is prophesied for the future—allows us to properly place ourselves within it, seeing more clearly what might appear to be random, unexplained events.
At this point, it’s important that you know that simply because you are a Christian, doesn’t mean that you have a Christian worldview. In fact, very few Christians see the world correctly. Many of us have been indoctrinated to believe in some sort of mixture of the secular-humanist worldview and the biblical one. Even though they might believe in Christ as their Savior, they might also believe in Darwinian evolution and that there were millions of years of suffering and death in nature before man evolved. Even though they believe in a God of love, they can’t respond adequately to the questions of the non-Christian. When difficult times come, a Christian who adheres to the worldly perspective of human history and origins suffers from confusion over reality, finding themselves without an awareness of the “big picture” that might help them make sense out of the detail.
No wonder Christianity seems to have lost its power! Christians have lost biblical Christianity, which is based on the Word of the living God. It’s only when the Christian understands the biblical origin of death and suffering that they will be able to give an answer to both the non-Christian and to themselves.
Developing a Christian worldview is important . . . and it is a process, as Paul points out in Romans 12:2:
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you might prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
Nowhere is this more important than in dealing with this seemingly perplexing and often painful question regarding the cause of suffering and death. Scripture has the answer to this problem . . . and it’s an answer that silences the skeptic and gives comfort and perspective to the perplexed and hurting Christian. But to find it, one must be willing to accept what the Bible says, and often cut through much religious and worldly heresy that has infiltrated the Church. Without a correct time-line, little of this makes sense.
The Big Picture
Before time and space as we experience it, there was God. He is an all-powerful God (Jeremiah 32:17, 27), an eternal God without beginning or end (1 Kings 8:27; Isaiah 57:15), and a God who knows all (Isaiah 48:3–5; 1 John 3:20). He’s a merciful and gracious God. Scripture even says that the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting (James 5:11). He is also a God that loves (John 3:16) and actually is love (1 John 4:7–8).
When God created reality as we know it, He did so in six days, and when He was done, He said that everything was very good. In fact, if you look up this word in the original Hebrew, the translation should really be that it was “exceedingly good.”
It’s appropriate to dwell on that for a moment. What He originally made exceeded good. I believe it was so good that we really can’t imagine what it was like at all! Can you imagine a world that was perfect? Functioning in absolute harmony? Where man and woman walked in complete intimacy with their Creator?
I can’t imagine that kind of goodness; yet our earth was such a world. Even among the animal kingdom, death was an unknown. Originally, the animals were vegetarian, and man was vegetarian as well. Yes, plants were eaten, and as Dr. Hugh Ross notes,1 they “suffered” in this way, yet they clearly lack a brain to interpret this as pain. Scripture itself makes an important distinction between plants and animals at this point. In Genesis 1, we see a general Hebrew term—nephesh. This word refers to living creatures such as man and animals. The word doesn’t apply to plants, but it does apply to vertebrates. The Bible clearly distinguishes between animals that have a nephesh and the plants and insects which do not. So the Bible would not classify plants as living creatures in the same way as those that have blood and flesh.
The death of creatures with nephesh carries a different weight, even to us as humans. If you are out in the mountains and see the form of a large sun-bleached tree stump, twisted and weathered, you might look at this dead tree and think, Wow, that is beautiful. We even decorate our homes with dead and dried plants. But what would the neighbors think if you decorated with the dead carcass of a dog or something? Or if you were in the woods and saw the decayed remains of an elk, would you think, Wow, nice. Let’s stop here for the picnic! No, there’s something different about animal death, isn’t there?
Originally, there was no death for those who had nephesh. In Genesis 1:29–30 we read:
I have given you every plant . . . and it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.
Even though only plants were eaten as part of God’s original creation, it wasn’t until Genesis 9:3—after the Flood—that God said, “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you. . . .” Somewhere between these two mandates a change occurred, but that’s not the way it started. Originally, it was a beautiful world. It was exceedingly good. Pain, suffering, and death did not exist, and Adam and Eve walked freely with their God, uncovered and not ashamed in any way.
But then, it became corrupted, all of it. What happened? How did we get to the place we are at today? In Genesis, we again find the historical account of the actions that have led to our present realities.
The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16–17).
The command was clear and the implications were obvious. A line had been drawn and mankind was instructed to obey and live. But soon enough, Satan, the father of lies, would twist the command with a subtle deceit, with a half-truth that would cause Eve to question the intent of the command, appealing to the same desire we each face every day:
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4–5).
At that pivotal moment in history a choice was made that altered the course of humanity, sending shock waves forever into the future; spreading lies, pain, isolation, and death to all generations.
. . . she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
The implications of their disobedience were immediate and obvious: a sense of guilt and nakedness overcame them, and they hid from the One who had made them. Phillip Yancey described it this way:
By their choice they put distance between themselves and God. Before, they had walked and talked with God. Now when they heard his approach, they hid in the shrubbery. An awkward separation had crept in to spoil the intimacy. And every quiver of disappointment in our own relationship with God is an aftershock from their initial act of rebellion.2
Next came the blame game. When God confronted them, Adam pointed the finger at Eve and Eve pointed to the serpent, each attempting to dodge the responsibility for what they had done. But it was too late, the damage had been done. Forever, humanity would be born into a cursed and broken world; one filled with pain and hardship—and at the end of it all we face the certainty of death:
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).
Throughout Scripture, the Bible points to this event—“the fall” of man—as the origin of death. In Romans 5:12, for example, Paul states, “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Later, in Romans 6:23 he asserts that “the wages of sin is death,” and in 1 Corinthians 15:56 we read, “The sting of death is sin.”
Here we see one of the great contrasts between the secular-humanist worldview, which claims that reality has been directed by “time and death,” and the biblical worldview that shows life in this fallen world is accounted for by sin and death.
Not only does sin account for the separation we experience with God and the origin of death, but it also accounts for the decay and destruction we see in nature. Romans 8:22 tells us that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains. . . .”
For example, when we look at something like a tsunami, we could rightly call it a sinami, because it is a natural consequence of Adam’s disobedience. When Adam sinned, it sent shock waves through the entire universe, including nature. The covenant relationship between Adam and God was broken, as was the covenant relationship between Adam and the creation! In the beginning, God had placed man in dominion over creation, giving us the authority to subdue it. But now, the creation is in rebellion against man, often with deadly consequences.
Please understand the implications of this: It’s not God’s fault there’s death in the world. It’s our fault. And just like Adam, we would much rather point to someone else, or something else, rather than take responsibility for it ourselves. There is a remnant of beauty and a shadow of goodness on this planet, but when we look at all the horrible things going on, we don’t want to admit that we are the ones who are to blame. We want to accuse somebody else. We want to blame God, or the politicians, or our parents . . . always pointing elsewhere, rather than face the fact that we are dead in our own trespasses and sin.
Jeremiah 17:9 says that “the heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (NKJV). But instead of us saying, “Look what our sin did to the world!” You know what we want to say? “Why does God do that?” We don’t want to admit the horrible thing that we did (and continue to do) when we sin. When we disobey, we are truly committing high treason against the God of creation. Do you realize how bad that sin is? Just look at what it has done to the world! Rather than shaking our fists at the heavens, we should be falling down on our knees in prayer saying, as Paul did, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24).
No, it’s not God’s fault—responsibility lies with each of us and with all of us. Isaiah 59:1–2 restates the corruptive and divisive implications of sin in different words:
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear.
And it all started that one day in Eden when Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation to become like God. The rest is history, and because we are all descendents of Adam, his history is our heritage. In numerous places the Bible refers to us being “in Adam.” When Adam sinned, we were all “in” Adam, and thus must suffer the consequences of his rebellious action against a Holy God. (And of course we have all individually taken part in that rebellion in our own lives, too.) So since that day, we have been given a death sentence at the point of conception . . . and like Adam, we are naturally inclined to deny it and try to shift the blame.
As the days passed and Robert’s body and mind continued a slow and steady destruction at the hands of his disease, this “big picture” presented in Scripture began to give me a perspective from which I could make sense of the suffering Robert was facing and the death that was at hand. Now, both the question and the answer were becoming very clear.
How do you explain death and suffering in a world where an all-powerful, loving, and just God exists? You explain it with sin; Adam’s sin and our personal sin.
For many, however, the truth about sin and death (and our personal responsibility for it) is not an acceptable answer. Yes, it’s hard to face the truth sometimes, and many who don’t want to face the message will try to undermine the messenger. In our case, in this contemporary world, that means that many who don’t want to take responsibility for sin and its consequences will try to attack the truth at its source . . . that source being the Word of God.
Defending the Source of Truthful Answers
My brother was a devoted defender of the Bible. Robert also understood that the history in Genesis is foundational to the rest of Scripture—and foundational to a correct big picture of life, for all Christian doctrine is founded in the Genesis history. Robert also believed that Genesis makes it plain that there was no death, bloodshed, or disease before sin, and that sin originated at “the Fall” and continues through our personal actions.
Robert so wanted to teach people God’s Word and was continually searching for the best tools to help him do so. A year or so before he was stricken with this terrible disease, Rob excitedly told me about a Bible study program produced by a well-known Australian theological college. However, he was immensely saddened to find that this program compromised the Word of God in the Book of Genesis with evolutionary teaching.
Rob believed that the Bible could not accommodate the notion that life had evolved over millions of years, as this Bible study program did. To do so would be to admit that the Bible’s words cannot be trusted and that God is an ogre. Integral to the notion of evolution is the idea that the fossil record—with its evidence of death, disease, suffering, and violence—was laid down millions of years before man came on the scene. But the Bible says that at the end of the sixth day of creation—after finishing the creation of all living things including Adam and Eve—God described the creation as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). As Rob once said to me during one of our phone calls, “If God said death, suffering, disease, and violence is ‘very good,’ then God is an ogre. No, God created a perfect creation that has been corrupted by sin. There is no way the billions of fossils could have been laid down before man. I believe you’re right in saying that most of the fossils resulted from the Flood of Noah’s day, not from millions of years of death prior to the sin of man.”
He knew that it was the sin of the first man, Adam, which resulted in the judgment of death and the entrance of disease, suffering, and violence into the world. Yet the Genesis section of this Bible study program had adopted the secular worldview of time-and-death evolution and this was extremely upsetting to Rob. He saw what this theological college had done as an attack on God’s Word—and like our father, Rob hated compromise. He realized that if one could take man’s fallible interpretation of the world and reinterpret the Bible accordingly in Genesis, then this could be done with any passage in the Bible. People could start questioning the Resurrection or the virgin birth. And after all, no scientist has seen anyone rise from the dead, so maybe this part of the Bible should be reinterpreted also!
As a devout defender of the Bible, Rob wrote to the president of the college and eventually visited him, challenging him personally concerning this matter. Here is a portion of that letter:
If death came into this world as a result of Adam’s sin, where is there place for the evolutionary process? The evolutionary process is a process of death and struggle. If we were simply guided by the Bible with no other influence, I have no doubt that the only conclusion that could be made would be that death came into the world as a result of sin. . . .
Obviously, we do not have all the answers in respect to the original creation, and certain questions remain as a result of the Fall. However, we must acknowledge that we are looking back at a perfect creation through fallen eyes, and our first and authoritative revelation must come from the words of Scripture.
So many people . . . do not approach the creation doctrine from Scripture first, but allow theories and assumptions from certain fields of science to create a framework of thinking that is then taken to Scripture, instead of the other way around.
When faced with an important issue, Rob would go immediately to the Bible, beginning with Genesis, and answer from there. Without the literal history in Genesis, Rob would not have had a consistent, logical answer; and he would have floundered in poor philosophy and unending confusion just as the secular-humanist does when faced with these questions.
But let there be no surprises when the clear answers found in Scripture often cause a stir and are rejected by many. There is no quick-fix solution when it comes to countering more than a century of evolutionary indoctrination. Absolute truth is divisive truth, separating darkness and light. The humanist knows this is where the real battle is being waged and they will reject us on this point incessantly. Because Christ is the truth, His ministry was divisive as well. He said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . .” (Matthew 10:34–35).
Truthful answers can only come from a truthful source. While many may not receive it, it is only from the source of truth, God’s Word, that we can honestly find the foundational answer to the question regarding suffering and death. On the “big picture” foundation we can begin to build a clear understanding of our present circumstances. But without that foundation, what do we have to turn to?
The sincere believer in God, who seeks honest answers to the most perplexing and painful of life’s problems, will find that the truth can set you free from the anger, disappointment, and futile hopelessness of the evolutionary worldview based on time and death.
The sincere believer in God, who seeks honest answers to the most perplexing and painful of life’s problems, will find that the truth can set you free from the anger, disappointment, and futile hopelessness of the evolutionary worldview based on time and death. The biblical worldview (encompassing creation, catastrophe, confusion, Christ, the cross, and the consummation) gives the necessary perspective we need to face difficult realities.
The “big picture” sure helped me and my family as we wrestled with the questions about what was happening with my brother. How do you explain death and suffering in a world where an all-powerful, loving, and just God exists? The answer is sin. While this world had a perfect beginning, it was thrown into death and destruction by the willful choices of Adam and Eve to disobey the Father . . . and we continue to sin day-to-day “in Adam.”
As the issues we were facing began to take their place in the biblical worldview, I instinctively wanted to reach for the phone and call Rob to discuss these things with him, just as we had for years and years. What would he have to say? How would he apply the Word of God to this situation? As a pastor, how would he have counseled us, and what would he suggest we do in response to the circumstance we were in? I so desired to connect with him one more time. I longed for the opportunity to hear his perspective on what he himself was facing. But of course, as I looked at him now—just an empty shell of the former man he had been—I knew that was impossible . . . or was it?
Questions for Group Discussion:
- In your opinion, how would the average person on the street answer the question, “How do you explain death and suffering in a world where an all-powerful, loving, and just God exists?”
- In regard to the origin of death in nature, Rob once said, “If God said death, suffering, disease, and violence is ‘very good,’ then God is an ogre. No, God created a perfect creation that has been corrupted by sin. There is no way the billions of fossils could have been laid down before man’s sin.” Do you agree or disagree with that statement? What reasoning would you give for your answer?
- If everyone in your family or church accepted the “big picture” worldview of God’s Word, how would things change?
Questions for Personal Reflection:
- When things go wrong in your life, where do you tend to place the blame? Consider the specific challenges you face right now. What is the root issue behind these struggles?
- Read Romans 3:23–24. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your sinfulness compared to other people? How would you rate yourself according to God’s standards of holiness? (See James 2:9–10)
Bible Verses for Contemplation and Memorization:
- Isaiah 59:1–2
- Romans 5:6–12