Holy Agony: The Birth of God’s Children

This article is the first in a series I am beginning with my friend Jesse Hake. Jesse wrote a guest post last week about fairies and their role in the reenchantment of Christianity. You can read that article by clicking HERE. You can read more from him on Substack by clicking HERE.

The other day we were having a discussion about the degree to which the cosmos reflects God’s desires and intentions. This conversation happened in a Facebook group dedicated to the work of David Bentley Hart where Jesse had posted one of Hart’s quotes. We decided to make the debate more intentional, thorough, and available to a wider audience by doing an exchange of essays. This is my opening statement, you can read his opening statement by clicking HERE.

First I will share the quote from Hart with you, then I will explain what he means by it to the best of my ability, then I will explore why I’m not entirely convinced. It may well be hubris on my part to disagree with Hart, who knows more than I do in every relevant field of study and has published a translation of the New Testament through Yale, but hey let’s give it a try. If you want more of the context of what Hart has to say you can click HERE

“The claim has always been for Christians [that] this cosmos (under the archon of this cosmos) is not creation as God intended it but creation enslaved to death [as] an ontological condition. Everything is shattered and torn asunder and involved in mortality. That is the Christian story. Spiritual creation actually determines the reality of physical, of natural creation. For Paul, the glorification of creation comes through the creation that’s revealed in the sons of glory: the restoration of the human and of all the powers. The whole thing has been deranged and disordered and in Christ has been restored. The ultimate end of all things is finally to achieve the true story that God is telling in creation and in which we have a part to play. I don’t know of any other version of Christianity.”

What Hart is providing here is called a theodicy, which means “vindication of God.” The reason God needs to be vindicated is because the world is full of death and suffering. The question a theodicy seeks to answer is essentially this: If God is good and loves us, why do we experience hardship and despair? This is an ancient debate that has had many brilliant minds make exceptionally good points and reach very different conclusions. We aren’t likely to settle it definitively any time soon.

Many of the world’s problems (like slavery and environmental destruction) are caused by human hands, but death and suffering are also part of the world outside of human influence. Plagues and natural disasters are part of the way the cosmos operates on its own and one has to ask if God is responsible for them, since it is generally assumed that God created the world. Unless we can somehow get God off the hook, then we have to start questioning whether God is really good.

One way to explain this is to say that the cosmos is not creation as God intended, some sort of cosmic blunder has messed everything up. There are many different variations on the theme, but usually Satan rebels against God with his army of demons or Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and are exiled from Eden. I believe Jesse is going to write about the atemporal fall of Adam from paradise, so I will focus my attention on Paul, the archons of this cosmos, and the restoration of all things.

All of my scripture quotes come from the NRSVUE. I assume traditional authorship of the letters of Paul, as I am not a Pauline scholar. My desire is to reflect upon the Paul of tradition rather than the Paul of history.

For Paul, as well as many others in the ancient world, what happens on earth is a reflection of what’s happening in heaven – as above, so below. In this way of thinking, the cosmos is governed by intelligent angels (archons) who have free will. The fact that they have free will is very important. If we expect these angels (or anyone really) to take responsibility for the reality of death and suffering in the world, there must be some ability for them to choose. If they have not freely chosen to turn away from God’s will, then they can never be held responsible for their actions. The definition of free will is complex and important to this conversation, perhaps we will explore it in another essay.

In this way of thinking, everything in the universe is orchestrated by these angels – from international politics to the movement of the stars to the laws of physics. Because of this, when angels fall from grace, the way the universe functions is affected. Their evil actions in heaven (the spiritual realm that gives form to the cosmos) have catastrophic consequences on earth (the entire material universe). Thus their twisted wills are the reason we suffer and die. This is the worldview behind what Paul says in chapter 6 of his letter to the Ephesians. 

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

While Hart is right to point out that Paul believed in evil angels who govern the world, it does not necessarily follow that this serves as a theodicy in his thought. The key text in understanding Paul’s views on this is Romans 8:19-23. There is a lot going on in this passage and we need to think about it carefully, so I will provide a relatively short line by line commentary. I do not necessarily agree with everything Paul says here, so this should be read as my amateur interpretation of what Paul believes, not my personal opinion.

“The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”

Here Paul establishes that creation itself has a desire. Desire is oriented towards a goal. If that desire is holy, it is oriented towards the Good and the Beautiful. If it is unholy, it is oriented towards something else. The goal that creation is oriented towards is the revelation of the children of God – a holy desire.

In Colossians 1, Paul defines the relationship between creation and Christ when he says, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers —all things have been created through him and for him.”

Everything that has been created is created for Christ, which means that all creatures participate in the ultimate desire of Christ. The inclusion of rulers and powers is important because they are the evil angels named in the passage from Ephesians. “The creation” includes the archons of this present darkness.

“for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it”

First Paul establishes that the creation has been subjected, which means that it is in a condition of bondage and captivity. Then he tells us that creation has not chosen this condition by the exercise of its own will. Subjection is always something that is imposed upon us, if we choose it for ourselves we are not being subjected. Since the whole of creation is what has been subjected, the one who has subjected it must not be a creature. The One who is not a creature is the creator. Therefore, the futility of death and decay has been imposed upon the creation by God.

I assume Paul had the teaching of Solomon in mind as he wrote this. Futility is synonymous with meaninglessness and vanity – the subject Ecclesiastes specifically addresses. “There is a vanity that takes place on earth…For no one can anticipate one’s time. Like fish taken in a cruel net or like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.”

Solomon also attributes the futility of creation to the will of God. He makes the claim that God has made everything suitable for its time, including the cycles of birth and death. He also says, “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it nor anything taken from it…just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”

“in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its enslavement to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

God hopes that the creation will be set free from the condition of death he has placed upon it. The ultimate purposes of God transcend and include the desires of creatures. The creation’s eager longing is a reflection of God’s hope and both are oriented towards the same goal. The degree to which any creature can be called free is the degree to which it is aligned with the intention God has for it. Freedom is the fulfilment of purpose.

By introducing futility into the cosmos, God has afforded creation the opportunity to orient itself towards the Beautiful and thus become free. True freedom is born within constraint. God has created both life and death, but life has a greater purpose than death and is destined to overcome it. Even though death is experienced as meaningless by the creation, from God’s perspective it is not really futile at all. This is also expressed by Solomon, as he reflects upon the nature of the world’s vanity, when he says, “then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.”

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning together as it suffers together the pains of labor”

Once again, Paul reminds us that the creation suffers together as a whole. It is also groaning together as a whole. This groaning is the common desire of all creatures to obtain freedom. Even though there are individual creatures who orient themselves away from Beauty, therefore forfeiting their freedom, the creation as a whole still has a purpose and desires to fulfil it. The conflict between the children of God and the angels in charge of this present darkness is the painful process by which freedom overcomes ignorance.

Paul refers to the suffering of creation as labour pains, and this is very important. He chose a symbol that evokes meaningful hardship. A mother who gives birth to a child suffers a great deal. Her body is opened from within by a force beyond her control. She cries out in agony as water and blood pour out from her side. Yet, something beautiful is born from all of this and many mothers choose to go through it many times. Not because they do not suffer, but out of love for the children they bring forth into the world.

“and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

Our adoption as children of God is the redemption of our bodies, liberation from our bondage to death and decay. This process of spiritual birth is happening within the creation as a whole and it is also happening within every particular being. Christ was the firstfruit of those who have died and those who belong to him are harbingers of what is to come. In Christ our mother’s water broke and each saint who comes after him is another contraction. We groan inwardly, as we desire to be made free and we suffer with Christ as we help to bring about his kingdom on earth, where the lion lays down with the lamb, and the sun is always shining. Eventually God will be all in all and death will be destroyed as the whole of creation is born into eternal life.

And so, it seems likely to me that Paul imagines the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places as the adversaries of Christians, but not as adversaries of God. The cosmic powers of this present darkness are ultimately participating in the will of God, as all things are. We see this same understanding in the Book of Job. Satan opposes the righteous Job, who is beloved by God, but only does so after God places all that Job has within the accuser’s power.

There is not enough space in this opening essay for me to explore my own theology of the role death and resurrection play in the cosmos. I draw heavily from Paul but also work within a modern cosmology that acknowledges the evolutionary nature of the cosmos, which began billions of years ago and is still unfolding in the present moment. In contrast to Jesse’s atemporal fall, my theology centers around an atemporal death and resurrection. Perhaps that will be a subject we address in one of the essays that follows.

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