As we say farewell to 2016, I think most would agree that this past year has been pretty dreadful for the world. 2016 started with the Zika virus outbreak, and subsequently produced dreadful news story after dreadful news story. The Middle East conflicts and consequent mass refugee crisis dominated world news for much of the year, alongside dozens of deadly terrorist attacks the world over, including Orlando, Nice, Istanbul, Berlin, and dozens of attacks in Iraq and Syria, to name just a few. The world also lost some of its most loved names in popular entertainment, including David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Muhammed Ali, George Michael and Carrie Fisher. And from the “mother of all parliaments” and the most powerful nation on Earth, came two of the most divisive, inflammatory, and nationally destabilising democratic election results in living memory: the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA.
No matter who you are, where you come from, and what your worldview and life philosophies are, I think we can all agree on one thing: the world can be a terrible place sometimes!
And this poses and interesting existential question: why is the world like this? What has gone wrong?
An Answer from Secularism
The secular worldview has an interesting answer to the question: what has gone wrong with the world? Richard Dawkins, in his book “River out of Eden” said this:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.”
Obviously, Dawkins does not speak for all secularists on all matters. However, on this point I think most secularist and atheists would agree; the answer to the question “What has gone wrong with the world?” is “Nothing”. If this universe is simply governed by blind, impersonal physical forces and properties that have incidentally converged to create the living world and intelligent human race, then pain, suffering and the awfulness of life is simply another incidental product of these physical forces and properties. This worldview argues that the world hasn’t “gone wrong” because there is no alternative “right way” the world ought to be. The awfulness of the world is just an immovable fact of life, and the ideas of what should and shouldn’t be the case in the world are human-constructed illusions.
However, I find this answer deeply dissatisfactory. Are our convictions that the world isn’t how it should be really totally illusory, or could they be grounded in some sort of reality? I think a much stronger answer to the question “What’s gone wrong with the world?” can be found in the Christian worldview.
An Answer from Christianity
In contrast to atheism, Christian actually affirms that our convictions, that the world should not be the way it is, are indeed correct- the world was never meant to be this awful!
The bible teaches that God created the world, and “it was very good”1. And God created the human race and gave us a moral framework by which, if we lived, life would be perfect: free from suffering, evil and death. This was how the world was meant to be.
However, God also gave us the free will to choose to either accept God’s moral framework and live by it, or to reject God’s moral framework and try to live life our own way. And the bible teaches that we as a humanity chose to reject God’s framework and live life as self-governing individuals- the bible calls this “sin”. And because we rejected God’s framework, we miss out on the perfect life we were meant to have, and instead live in a broken world, where suffering, evil and death permeate our existence from cradle to grave.
The source of the darkness and awfulness of our world is due to one ultimate cause: our human desire to reject God’s rule, and try to live as self-governing creatures.
Is there are way out?
So what do we do with this information? If the awfulness of the world is due ultimately to the human heart’s rejection of God, what can we do from here?
Gracefully, the bible does not stop there, but rather gives a two-part way-out from the awfulness of the world.
Firstly, the bible teaches that rejection of God and His framework for the world does not just lead to Earth-bound suffering; it also leads to divine judgement. When Christians talk about a God who will judge everyone, people always get rather twitchy. However, I would perhaps surprisingly argue that God’s judgement is actually a very good thing. God’s judgement means that what we do on Earth matters; how I treat you matters to God, how you treat me matters to God, and how we treat the world matters to God. God’s judgement means that people who commit atrocities and escape justice on Earth will have to face the justice one day. Dictators who murder their people but yet seem untouchable by world courts, or suicide bombers who are killed before they can be held accountable for their actions, will all one day see justice. I think God’s judgement is a very good thing indeed.
However, God’s judgement doesn’t just cover the heinous criminals- the bible teaches that we will all face God’s judgement, and the outlook is not as positive as it first seems. The bible teaches that because everyone who has ever lived has rejected God and tried to live life their own way, everyone has broken God’s law. Therefore no-one can be declared innocent before God’s judgement, and all of should face the punishment for our sin.
But thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Instead we can go on to part two of the bible’s way-out of the awfulness of the world: the coming of Jesus.
The gospel of John writes the following about the original Christmas story:
“ In him [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”2
John’s summary of Jesus mission in coming to Earth on the first Christmas is simple: “To be light in the darkness”. Jesus’ mission was to definitely deal with the darkness of the world, by dealing with its source- the sin of the human heart. On the cross of crucifixion, Jesus Christ took our sin upon Himself and bore the punishment we should have had. As the prophet Isaiah puts it “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”3
In going to the cross, Jesus offered us the gift of forgiveness for our sins. And the forgiveness offered by Jesus at the cross gives us two things. Firstly, it means that we can be counted innocent before God’s judgement, for the punishment for our sin has already been executed at the cross. And secondly Jesus offers us a place in a future, re-created Earth, where God will have erased all the suffering, evil and death, so that we may live in paradise, with God for eternity. This is a definitive way-out from the awfulness of the world.
How do we accept this gift of forgiveness and reconciliation with God? According to John’s passage, we need to simply “receive Christ”- we need to accept Him into our life. Jesus taught that we accept Him by repenting. Repenting means turning and saying “I want to stop living life my way, and I want to start living life God’s way. I want to have God as King in Heaven and therefore I will have Him as King on Earth”. If we repent from our self-governing way of life and decide to want to live life God’s way, God promises that we will no longer we accountable for our sin, and will be able to one day live in a perfect, re-created Earth for forever, free from suffering, evil and death.
The world is such an awful place, but Jesus offers a way out. The question is: who is willing to accept it?
Happy New Year!
- Genesis 1:31
- John 1:4-13
- Isaiah 53:5