Life's Big Questions: What's Wrong with the World?
As I write this article, my local Mississauga newspaper headlines the arrest of a suspect in the Cecilia Zhang case. The highly publicized kidnapping and murder of the 9-year old Cecilia had touched the hearts of most living in the greater Toronto area and even beyond. A few weeks earlier in June, the headlines were about the confession of Michael Briere that he watched child pornography just prior to kidnapping, raping and murdering 10-year old Holly Jones who just happened to walk into his path. And as you read this article online, it will be September 2004, the third anniversary of 9/11 when terrorists took control of passenger airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center killing hundreds. These, and many other examples, point us to the fact that something is wrong with the world.
One of the most popular questions I have come across on campus from both struggling Christians and skeptical non-Christians is why does a good and all-powerful God allow so much evil and suffering in the world? The very fact that the question is posed shows the almost universal consensus that something is very wrong with the world and that evil and suffering is somehow not the way it is supposed to be.
In this article, I am going to tackle the third of life's big questions, "What's wrong with the world?" How we answer this question will also determine how we answer the question, "What's the solution?" This will be clear when we look at some of the common and, in my opinion, wrong answers to the question.
In the history of Western culture, three sources of evil had been suggested: the material world itself, society and its social structures, and human nature.
Some people think that material things, the very world we live in and our physical bodies are somehow the source of our problems. For them, the whole universe is a bad, mixed-up place to begin with. The universe is a sick joke, and we humans are the punch line. Or more subtly, some things in this universe are more flawed and more inherently bad than others. For instance, our physical and bodily needs are limitations and flaws that hold us back from rising to our highest potentials.
Within this view, the solution is always a variation of either controlling or fleeing from the source of evil. For instance, if we believe that our bodily needs themselves are sources of evil, then the solution is to escape this body, to escape the material world with its flaws, to reach a higher form of existence. Sometimes, science and technology may be seen as solutions towards controlling the unruly world, towards overcoming or transforming some of our bodily limitations.
Sometimes, Christians think in this way as well and fit the Biblical story into this framework. Misreading the Bible's uses of the words "world" and "flesh," many Christians think that the Bible asks us to flee the world, that our ultimate destiny is to live in heaven without bodies, without the earth, to live in pure spirits. But that is not what the Bible says. The earth and all of creation are good, not a bad joke. It is distorted by sin, yes, but not to the point that God cannot redeem it and restore it to its original goodness. Jesus Christ was resurrected with a physical body that eats and drinks. Likewise, Christians will be resurrected with physical bodies too, albeit with bodies that are somehow different than the ones marked with sin.
Most people don't think that only the material world is to blame for all forms of evil. For instance, is the material world really to blame for the deaths of Holly Jones, Cecilia Zhang and the hundreds at 9/11? A lot of people think that human beings have some responsibility for evil as well.
Hence, the second commonly identified source of what's wrong with the world is human society and its social structures. Here, people will often point at misinformation that leads to misunderstanding and conflict. Or political and/or economic systems that is unjust and causes inequality and conflict among people. So, logically, their solutions are often either proper education to remove misunderstanding or changing the social structures via political and economic policies and systems.
We can see many examples of this: Marxism, for instance, believes that class conflict and economic inequality are the roots of evil and advocates for revolutionizing the political and economic systems as the solution. On the other hand, Democratic Capitalism believes that its own political and economic brand is the solution to the world's evils and champions democracy for the countries of the world. Democratic Capitalism sees restriction of human freedom as the biggest source of evil and therefore any system that curtails individual freedom is bad.
Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, both Marxist-Socialist and Democratic Capitalist systems inherently see social structures as the source of the world's problems.
We also see today many educational types of programs to erase social evils such as racism, spousal abuse, substance abuse, etc. The widespread availability of these programs show that many of us today implicitly believe that education, getting rid of misinformation and misunderstanding, is a solution to the world's evils.
Do these solutions work? In some ways they do help, albeit in short-term ways and in relative amounts. But injustice and oppression continue to occur in both Marxist and Capitalist systems. And despite numerous educational programs, racism and abuse are still rampant. Can better social structures and better education programs prevent the deaths of Cecilia and Holly? Social structures are only part of the problem, but not all of it. For instance, despite introducing public policies that affirms the equality of women with men, there are still many sexist practices and attitudes around. You cannot simply blame everything on society. At some point, individual human beings are also responsible.
Finally, this leads us to the third popular source of evil: human nature itself. Some believe that our human nature is inherently evil or at least flawed. There was once a discussion on the topic of what's wrong with the world in London's newspaper, The Times, where famous writers wrote in their opinions. The last letter was by the famous Catholic journalist, G. K. Chesterton, which simply read: "Dear Sir, What is wrong with the world? I am. Yours sincerely, G. K. Chesterton."
A subtler version of this view is to identify certain parts of human nature as flawed, or more flawed than others. For instance, our emotions and desires could be the source of human wrongdoings and conflict. Hence, to rid ourselves of this menace, we need to control or subdue our emotions and desires either by relying on our human reason, or our will power, or by using spiritual techniques of meditation and the like to rid ourselves of unruly desires and emotions.
But do they really help us? Increasingly today, in a postmodern culture, we are recognizing that reason is full of flaws too. We see that an over-reliance on rationality has also created its own share of problems for human society. The rise in popularity of New Age-type spirituality may suggest that our Western culture, having abandoned the failed experiment with reason, is now experimenting with spiritual methods to "solve" our human nature. Only time will tell but my guess is that this experiment will fail too. This is because the diagnosis itself is wrong. All these attempts at explaining what's wrong with the world are mistaken and hence they prescribe the wrong treatments for them. Let us see what a biblical view of the world's problems looks like.
In my first article in this series, I used the mirror image to explain our created relationship to God, us being in God's image. The mirror image suggests that we need to have a proper relationship with God in order to fulfill our purpose and our natures. If we turn away from God, then the reflection in the mirror will be distorted.
Another analogy is supplied by, of all people, the atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. In his Parable of the Madman, Nietzsche suggests that we are like planets designed to revolve around God our sun, which gives us light and heat—the basic necessities for life. But, according to Nietzsche, we have broken out of orbit away from the sun and as we move further and further away from the sun, we are also moving away from our only source of heat and light.
I find this to be a very helpful image to describe what's wrong with our world. Humanity, both as individuals and as societies, and all of creation—the material world, the whole universe, all the plants and animals—are created by God to have a relationship with God and with each other. Like the planet earth, we are all designed to stand in a very specific relation to God the sun—not too close or we fry up and not too far or we freeze. This balanced relationship between God, creation and humans is what the Bible calls, "shalom." The Hebrew word shalom means more than merely peace or the absence of conflict. Shalom means that all relationships are in harmony and everything is the way it should be. Shalom was the condition of the world when God first created it. An essential ingredient of shalom is creation's proper relation—the world's orbit—to God the maker.
But shalom was broken when humanity decided to do away with that relationship with God. When Adam and Eve chose to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they chose to be their own gods. They wanted to be autonomous, to be independent of God, to decide for themselves what is good and evil, rather than relying on God's parameters for good and evil. Like the ripples in a pond caused by a thrown stone, human rebellion affected all of creation: nature, the animal kingdom, and the environment. Everything in God's good creation was tainted by this rebellion. Another analogy to explain this is that human beings are created in solidarity with the rest of creation. All of creation is tied together, so to speak, and if one falls, the rest are dragged along. When we humans broke orbit from God, we dragged the rest of creation along with us.
As a result, our human natures are distorted. So are our social structures. And the rest of creation, the material universe, is also affected. Hence, the common answers to the sources of evil above—material world, society and human nature—all have a grain of truth in them. But they miss the real root of the problem.
Now since God is our only true source of life, as the sun is the only true source of heat and light for the earth, breaking free from God is really sending us to our deaths. Because we have moved away from God, the world's perfect shalom is now distorted or twisted. We turned against God's creation. We turned against each other. And we turned against God. In all of these turnings, we have actually turned away from our own selves. As we increasingly distort and twist the relationships that make us human, as we move further and further away from orbiting around God, we increasingly find ourselves adrift, "lost in space," and confused of our own identities. We become increasingly alienated from our world, from each other and from ourselves. Like a spider's web that begins to unravel when the strands begin to break and untangle from each other, we have begun the process of unravelling the fabric of our own lives and reality when we said "No" to God, the crucial thread that holds all together.
Because we broke free from orbit, humanity and creation are dying a slow and painful death. So, what's the solution? Actually, we cannot solve the problem that we have caused ourselves. Going back to our analogy, the planets are in orbit primarily because of the sun's strong gravitational pull. It was God who created creation and us as "beings-in-relationship" with him, and it is up to God to restore that marred relationship, to pull us back into orbit. God's solution was to enter our world in Jesus Christ to be the human representative that brings us back into orbit around God. We, and all of creation, broke away from God because we were all in solidarity with Adam and Eve our first human representatives. Thus, in order to return back to God, we need to be in solidarity with Christ Jesus the new representative. By trusting and loving God through Jesus Christ, we help restore shalom to the world. The Bible ends with the promise that one day, all these will be fulfilled as God brings a heavenly city to the earth, symbolizing a perfect communion of spiritual and physical, a perfect being-in-relationship of God, humanity and the world (Revelation 21). In sum, shalom will be fully restored.
All this may sound simplistic and naive to some of you. You may be asking, "Could we really solve the world's problems by simply believing in Jesus Christ?" Would becoming a Christian stop Michael Briere from becoming a child pornographer and murderer? In fact, don't Christians have their own share of crimes and injustices? Isn't Christianity's history full of wars, crusades, executions of heretics, injustice to women, genocide of Native Americans, justified slavery of Africans, and so forth?
Well, for starters, believing in Christ is more than mere intellectual assent. It means more than saying in your mind, "Yes, Christ is Lord, God exists, all this Christianity stuff is true." It's more than how we believe in the existence of gravity, for instance, or how we believe that 2 + 2 = 4 is true. To believe in Christ, to have solidarity with him, means trusting him with our whole lives. Such trusting, therefore, requires a certain direction in how we live. Many who assent to Christianity's truths may not be trusting Christ with the direction of their lives.
Secondly, the effects of us breaking out of spiritual orbit around God are still lingering. Our world did not become this way over night after breaking orbit. Neither will turning us back in the right direction immediately remove all the problems.
A fuller discussion of these issues, however, leads me to my final life's big question: Why am I here? Or what is the purpose or meaning of our lives? We will explore this in my next article.