The marvel of God: turning disaster into joy

Human history started off as very good but soon turned into very bad. Actually, it was a disaster, because sin got a foothold on this planet, producing a rot in the human mind we could not reverse.

But God not only cured the rot he transformed it into our salvation, too. Try doing that with a mouldy banana or a rusted piece of metal, where the rot and rust are so bad it’s impossible to salvage anything. But God takes the unsalvageable and turns it into salvation, by taking upon himself (as the human Jesus) the suffering and death we brought on ourselves and transforming them into joy. That’s the marvel of God, but how does it work? How can sin be turned into joy?

As a grandparent, I got a little glimpse of how this works when our 5 year old granddaughter broke one of our dishes. It was beyond repair and she was devastated. She fell on the floor, crying her eyes out. I didn’t yell at her or get angry, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Instead, I got down on the floor with her, hugged her tightly and said, “Cheer up, all is forgiven!” It had a magical effect on her. She stopped crying, looked up and said, “OK,” and off she went, happy and free. From an unsalvageable dish to joy. What a marvellous transformation it was.

How did it happen? By the same process Jesus transformed our unsalvageable mess into joy. In the same way that he absorbed both the pain and penalty of our sin into himself, I too absorbed the cost of the dish and my granddaughter’s pain. And what was her reaction? Instant relief, peace of mind and joy. I imagine she could hardly believe her luck. Here she was sitting in a pile of broken dish parts being hugged – and at no cost whatsoever to her, either. She was forgiven, loved and free to go.

Which is exactly what God does with us. We bring all this suffering and death on ourselves but God comes as Jesus and doesn’t hold any of it against us, nor does he expect us to pay for what we’ve done. He absorbs it all himself.

How can you not want to hug a God like that? But that’s exactly what he’s after, a hug. A hug of relief, peace of mind and joy when we realize God knew our pain, shared every bit of it himself, and absorbed the cost of all our broken dishes in himself, leaving us forgiven, fully loved and free to go – and free in the knowledge he’s that kind of God, too.

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Suffering and death: the magical doorway to salvation

So, why do we have devastating natural disasters? Because, Paul writes in Romans 8:20-21, God subjected the entire creation to “futility” and “bondage to decay.” For now life on this planet is a brute. But why would a loving God do that to us – leave us stranded in a mess of suffering and death?

Because that’s the life we chose from the beginning. God told Adam and Eve not to take the way of death but they took it anyway, and so do we, because we don’t trust God any more than they did. So God lets us experience the futility of our choice, including having to live as fragile humans on a volatile planet. If we’d trusted God instead, would we have been touched at all by suffering and death and natural disasters?

For now, though, we’re stuck with them, but as Paul explains, suffering, death and disaster are not our lot in life forever. “Deliverance” is coming, he writes in verse 21. One day, Paul writes, God will lift us into the freedom of his family for ever. That’s his ultimate plan of salvation, but to get us there it takes suffering and death first.

And not just our suffering and death either, because God also suffered and died. He came here as a human being to live the consequences of our choice, but with one remarkable difference. His suffering and death became the doorway to our salvation. “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him,” Hebrews 5:8-9.

God took upon himself the futile life of suffering and death we’d chosen and transformed it into our salvation. Suffering and death now became the doorway to his ultimate plan for us – so instead of suffering and death being our lot in life forever, they became our escape, our deliverance, the doorway to our salvation. That’s the brilliance and love of God. He transforms the suffering and death we deserved into the very means of our salvation. What other god does that?

Because of Jesus’ suffering and death, salvation from our suffering and death is guaranteed. We have to wait a bit first, though. This futile world, including natural disasters, has to continue a while longer yet to convince us stupid humans that not trusting God was the dumbest thing we could have done.

There comes a point, though, when God says “that’s enough,” and he puts an end to this agony forever. At which point he clanks open the doorway to his amazing world, and the life he’s always had in mind for us begins.

Were natural disasters in God’s original plan?

The Bible is sketchy on how our planet formed and whether natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and hurricanes were part of the original plan, or not. Disasters certainly became part of our history because the earth was reduced to a dark mass of water, Genesis 1:2, and our pockmarked moon and cratered earth are visible witness to something dramatic happening.

But the beginning of our human history was very different, because everything was “good,” the Bible says. Adam and Eve lived in a paradise setting. All they had to do was eat, sleep, tend to the garden and reproduce. There was no fear, no need to head for cover and no hint of danger. Even the animals were friendly.

But things changed dramatically when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They were kicked out of their paradise setting and into a world of weeds and hard grind, Genesis 3:17-19. Their world was a much nastier place to live in.

Had this world always existed outside Eden, though, or did God now make it that way in response to human rebellion? Had the world always had hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes, or did they only begin after Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden?

Either way, Adam and Eve found themselves in a world that God had deliberately made “futile” and “subject to decay,” Romans 8:20-21. And whether God made it that way from the beginning, or only in response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, the question that begs answering is “Why?” Why would God create a world of futility, hard grind, obsolescence and natural disasters? What useful purpose do they serve?

A very obvious purpose, I would think, because at the heart and core of everything bad happening on this earth is pride – first the devil’s pride, and then ours. What wrecked everything “good” in Adam and Eve’s lives, for instance, was thinking they could do without God. They loved the serpent’s idea that they were invincible and masters of their destiny. Well, there’s nothing like a natural disaster to jolt us out of that illusion. We are, in fact, extremely vulnerable. One massive meteor strike or prolonged volcanic eruption and we’ve had it.

And in the meantime we have no control whatsoever over earthquakes and hurricanes. At what point, then, do we recognize God made things this way on purpose for our sakes, to wake us up to why he created us in the first place? Which is? To live in the freedom of having him take care of us, Romans 8:20-21. Because when we get to that point, natural disasters end, Revelation 21:4. We won’t need them anymore.

Does God protect us?

Does God protect us? Yes, 1 John 5:18 (The Message): “The God-begotten are also the God-protected. The evil one can’t lay a hand on them.”

Does that mean we’re safe from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, volcanoes, accidents, terrorists and pandemics? Or that we’ll never break a leg skiing, never choke on a chicken bone, or never fall down a sinkhole? Or that all Christians will never be hit by lightning strikes, bad investments, mental breakdowns, Alzheimer’s, muggings, burglaries, scams or hijackings? Does God guarantee us a life of invincibility, of everything turning out right, and of never failing an important exam? Can I know for certain that when I get on a plane I will be safe?

But what did John mean when he says the “children of God” (verse 19) are “God-protected”? He explains himself in verse 20 – that God protects our “understanding”. And why is that far more important than protection from all those things mentioned above? Because, verse 19, “the whole world is under the control of the evil one,” and under his control the world does not “know him who is true,” verse 20, nor that “we are in him who is true – even in his Son Jesus Christ,” or that “HE (Jesus) is the true God and eternal life.”

When we understand that our lives are already safe and sealed in God’s keeping for eternity because of Jesus Christ, it frees us from the worry and fear of what might happen to us in this life. The evil one, however, wants people putting all their hopes and dreams into this temporary physical existence, as though this life is all there is, the result of which is the world makes “idols” (verse 21) of useless things that totally absorb their lives until they die.

Jesus came to offer us protection from that, from wasting our precious lives on useless idols that die when we die. He wants us experiencing instead “How bold and free we become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening” to the point “we know what we’ve asked for is as good as ours,” verses 14-15.

Jesus becomes so real we feel completely safe in his care. We don’t need the evil one’s idols to make us feel safe, like the security of money. But none of the evil one’s idols offer security anyway. A major financial crisis or a huge natural disaster, and all that security vanishes.

There’s no guarantee of safety for anyone in this world – except for the safety that Jesus offers, that no matter what our circumstances in this ridiculous world, our lives are never in eternal danger. And God protects our understanding of that.

If God cares so much, then why earthquakes?

Why would God create shifting tectonic plates when they’re so dangerous? They cause massive tsunamis that drown people. They knock buildings down and bury people. Children are left without parents. Badly injured people never recover.

And God wasn’t aware that all this might happen?

He had to be. He knew about the explosive energy released when tectonic plates shift. He watched silly humans build cities on fault lines, erect buildings that would easily topple when the earth shakes, causing lots of people to die, and he allows these things to happen too. But why, if he truly cares for us?

Well, for a start, he did tell us that death and disasters are only temporary. One day there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away,” Revelation 21:4, and he’s going to make “everything new” (verse 5).

What we’re experiencing now, therefore, is an “OLD order,” in which God “subjected” the creation to futility (Romans 8:20). It’s futile because everything in this world dies. Every plan and dream we have as humans dies when we die. Even the universe is dying. This old order, therefore, has but one purpose: to make the awfulness of death real.

But when God warned Adam and Eve about death they didn’t take it seriously at all. Why not? Because the serpent deceived them into thinking death was a lie, it wouldn’t happen, and it was nothing to be afraid of. And humans ever since have treated death just as lightly, demonstrated clearly in how frivolous and stupid we are building cities in well-known quake zones.

But then a terrible earthquake happens, and suddenly death and loss of life are real and horrible. Now we take death seriously. Now we wake up to how futile this old order is, where no one is safe from death. Now we wish for a world where death and terrible suffering don’t exist, and fortunately for us that’s God’s wish too, because he made sure through Jesus’ death that a death-free world would exist one day.

In Jesus’ death we see that God takes death very seriously, but the problem has always been, from Adam and Eve on, to get US to take death seriously too. Death is our worst enemy but we treat it so casually, until, that is, it stares us in the face in all its horror and tragedy in a terrible earthquake. But for now, in this old order, that’s what it takes to wake us up to the awfulness of death, in the hope that we too come to hate death as much as God does.

I am a soul. But I need a soul too. How can that be?

The word “soul” in Scripture is confusing, not in the original language but certainly in English, because it has at least two quite different meanings. And the only way to differentiate between those two meanings is to look at the word in its original language, and in its context.

In Matthew 10:28, for instance, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The word for “soul” in that verse, according to my Greek Lexicon, is “an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death.” Jesus is making a very clear point here, that death has the power to kill our physical body, but death does not have the power to kill or “dissolve” the soul. The soul in that verse, in both its original language and in its context, is immortal. It cannot die. There is such a thing, then, as an immortal soul.

But then there’s 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul writes: “May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word for “soul” in that verse comes from the Greek word meaning “breath” or “breath of life,” which my Greek Lexicon defines as “the vital force which animates the body and shows itself in breathing.”

The soul in this verse, then, means something quite different to the soul in Matthew 10:28. Here it means the power that makes our physical bodies alive. And every human has it. We are all living souls, meaning we all have this vital force within us that makes us living, breathing creatures.

It is not, however, immortal, because this vital force depends on our breathing, so when we stop breathing at death this vital force and its power to animate life in us comes to an end. A person could, therefore, kill the soul by simply stopping us breathing.

Jesus, however, talked about an essence which differs from the body, that cannot be killed by stopping someone breathing. If someone, therefore, managed to kill my soul by cutting off my breath, that need not be the end of me, because Jesus talked of a soul that can survive death and continue to live beyond it. And that’s the soul our soul needs. Our physical breathing soul needs the undying essence soul. Our soul needs to be given a soul.

It’s a pity that just one word “soul” describes both types of soul, because how can a soul be given to a soul? – but in the original language it makes total sense. Our physical soul can be given an immortal soul, so that death isn’t the end of us.

Are we born with an immortal soul?

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” So it sounds like the soul is immortal. The Greek word for “soul” in that verse also means immortal. According to my Greek Lexicon it means “an essence which differs from the body and is not dissolved by death.” Death dissolves the body, but not the soul. The soul is immortal.

But are humans born with this immortal soul? Because if we are it raises the awkward question of why God would risk giving us an immortal soul when it could easily become evil and continue being evil forever. Is that why Jesus died, then, to save our immortal souls from hell?

No, because salvation is not about saving our souls, it’s about “the redemption of our bodies,” Romans 8:23. It’s our bodies that need saving, not our souls, because without bodies humans don’t exist.

When God created the human body he called it good, and if Adam and Eve had followed God’s instructions – and eaten off the Tree of Life instead – they could have remained in their superbly crafted bodies forever (Genesis 3:22). If they’d eaten off the Tree of Life it would have given Adam and Eve the “essence that is not dissolved by death.” Eating off the Tree of Life would have given them an immortal soul.

Which means, of course, they weren’t born with an immortal soul, because they lost out on their immortality when they ate off the wrong tree. But God didn’t abandon the human race to its extinction. He took on the life of a human being and substituted the death of his human body for ours, to save our bodies from extinction.

He then made it possible for us to receive an immortal soul again, not by eating off a Tree of Life, but by John 3:36 – “Whoever puts his faith in the Son has eternal life.” Believe that God sent his Son to redeem our bodies and God then gives us the essence of eternal life, an immortal soul that no one but he can destroy.

That’s why John wrote, “Dear friends, NOW we are children of God,” 1 John 3:2. We weren’t children of God when we were born, but we are now BECAUSE we believed in what God sent his Son for. Now “we are his offspring” (Acts 17:28), and being God’s offspring he’s given us the essence of immortality that makes us his children forever.

All we need now is an immortal body to go with our immortal soul, and according to Paul that’s exactly what God gives us at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42).