There are ways the world goes terribly wrong. Natural disasters, diseases and so forth spoil what the biblical prophets thought of as shalom. Shalom is the wonderful harmony, balance and delight that human beings have been given by God in creation. It will be restored in the end. Evil is any way that defaces, mars or spoils shalom. And sin is any evil for which somebody is blamed.
If we never did before, those of us who live in America now need no reminder of the terrible evil, the horrible sin, that exists in our world and in the human race.
It’s hard for us to imagine how human beings could be capable of some of the things they do to other people. Yet as we’ve learned, to our sorrow, there is no end to evil. I had the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Professor Neil Plantinga. Dr. Plantinga is a Christian theologian, teacher, writer, preacher. He has given a great deal of thought and attention to the problem of evil and its solution. He’s the author of a book entitled “Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be, a Breviary of Sin.” We talked together about the evil that entwines all of us in its web. I began by asking Dr. Plantinga about the title of the book.
David Bast: You wrote a book called “A Breviary of Sin.” Explain that title, would you? Where did you come up with that, and what does it mean?
Neil Plantinga: Well, the full title is “Not the Way It’s Supposed to be, a Breviary of Sin.” And the breviary part simply signals that it’s not a full account. It’s an introduction. It’s a short account of a very big topic.
David Bast: So breviary like brevity.
Neil Plantinga: Like brevity, exactly. But I like the fact that it’s often used for prayer, so it gave us a little literary spice, to use it with sin instead.
David Bast: Yes, I’ve heard the word in connection with a prayer book. Isn’t that a word for a prayer book?
Neil Plantinga: That’s the usual use of the word, but it can also mean a short introduction to anything.
David Bast: So you kind of stood it on its head a little bit.
Neil Plantinga: A little bit.
David Bast: So really the book is “Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be.”
Neil Plantinga: Not the way it’s supposed to be.
David Bast: And why did you choose to write on such a depressing subject?
Neil Plantinga: In the early 90s when I was thinking about the topic, sin was being routinely ignored in pulpits, certainly in society generally. I thought that the gospel doesn’t make any sense unless we know what the good news tells us we may be delivered from. That basic component in the recipe of understanding salvation, understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ had been trivialized, euphemized, overlooked, ignored. So what I wanted to do was to kind of raise the nap on the carpet again where sin is concerned.
David Bast: If you don’t believe you’re sick, why bother with a doctor?
Neil Plantinga: If you don’t believe you’re in the wrong, why bother repenting?
David Bast: Yes.
Neil Plantinga: Exactly.
David Bast: I remember reading somewhere that C.S. Lewis said as he was writing his classic “Screwtape Letters,” his book about the devil, that it felt like dust and ashes, or something to that effect. It was not a pleasant experience. I wonder if you had a similar experience in focusing on sin and evil.
Neil Plantinga: That’s a good question, David. One of the things that did depress me at times was reading about cruelty and particularly about cruelty with respect to very vulnerable people, children, animals, and people who are picked out for mockery. That was depressing to such an extent that it started to interfere with my life at times. But I was also very determined. My wife Kathleen was very helpful in this way. I was determined that a Christian would look at sin from inside the cradle of grace and that I would not permit myself to look at sin as those who have no hope. So I tried very hard to stay in good spiritual trim. I also tried, and this comes through in the book, I think, I tried to see some of the folly in sin. And some of that is “pretty funny.”
David Bast: Yes, that’s right. There are absurdities, news of the weird kind of stuff.
Neil Plantinga: Exactly.
David Bast: Some of the things that sinful people do are absurd.
Neil Plantinga: They get very earnest about their sin, you know, like the bank robber who tried to stick up a teller who told him that she’d be happy to hand him some of the days receipts but that she made no pass overs of cash without a withdrawal slip. So the guy filled out a withdrawal slip with his own name and address on it!
David Bast: So people are not only sinful. They are stupid.
Neil Plantinga: They get things mixed up.
David Bast: Yes. What about the distinction between sin and evil? That’s fundamental.
Neil Plantinga: It is fundamental.
David Bast: How do you describe it or explain it?
Neil Plantinga: There are lots of ways to go here and some of it’s technical. But what it seemed to me was clarifying was to recognize that there are forms of spoiling, of neglecting, of hurting that we are to blame for. And there are forms of spoiling and neglecting and hurting that no human being is to blame for. When a person gets brain cancer, very likely no human being is to blame for that. When a person gets addicted in the womb, that person is not to blame for it. Perhaps somebody else is, but that person isn’t. So there are ways the world goes terribly wrong. Natural disasters and diseases and so forth spoil what the biblical prophets thought of as “shalom,” this wonderful harmony and balance and delight that human beings have been given by God in creation and which will be restored in the end. Evil is any act that defaces or mars or spoils shalom. And sin is any evil that somebody is to blame for.
David Bast: So on broad terms, sin refers to the bad choices we make or the wrong things that we do. Our wills enter into it somehow.
Neil Plantinga: Our wills enter into it somehow.
David Bast: And evil would refer to those things that are just beyond us, that happen to us.
Neil Plantinga: Sin always has in it some possibility that we might have done otherwise. Evil is any spoiling of the way things ought to be, that no human being could have changed or controlled.
David Bast: You’re a theologian. The big question is: Where does evil come from? How do you explain evil?
Neil Plantinga: When I was young and first learning theology, I resented the fact that so many people in my seminary and in my church kept talking about mysteries. It seemed to me that they talked about mysteries too early. We were punting on third down all the time before we really tried to get to the end of the play. But I do think there are genuine mysteries and that one of the most profound is what St. Paul calls “the mystery of iniquity.” Why would human beings live against their own good? Why would a whole race rebel against the source of their own life? Why would a Christian minister who is perfectly well-versed in the way God wants the world to go – why would such a person live a double life? There are deep, deep questions in the area of the human will. It is full of trap doors and back stairways that nobody can really find or follow.
David Bast: Yes, at the deepest level it’s mystery versus mystery, isn’t it? The mystery of iniquity, on the one hand, and the mystery of grace on the other. Why would God love people like us? People who are full of those trap doors? And ultimately I don’t think there is an answer to that.
Neil Plantinga: I don’t think there is an answer to that. I think there’s a chill down the spine to that. When we understand how truly perverse and duplicitous and, frankly, just cowardly we human beings can be, then to understand that at the center of the universe is a lively love and intelligence that not only cares about us but finds us a treasure which cannot be deflected, which cannot be negated, that comes at us with the full force of infinite spiritual light – to think in this way seriously for any time is to be converted to the gospel all over again.
David Bast: Yet we talk about mysteries and there are so many. It seems like most of our contemporaries glibly dismiss one or the other of those. I’m thinking, for example, of people who claim that we’re all gods – there’s nothing wrong with us. We ought to be worshiping ourselves. Although I’m not sure if it was Chesterton who said that original sin is the only Christian doctrine you could prove without the Bible. Do you agree with that?
Neil Plantinga: I think so. I think that there is plenty of evidence of human treachery and faithlessness. There are regular disappointments. Life can often be crushing, not just because we suffer evil but because we suffer evil at the hands of people from whom we could have expected so much better. But I will say at the same time that there were surprises in the area of goodness too, and that, you know, we see all this spoiling. We also see lots of evidence of God’s good creation that persists right through.
Somebody once said that (it was actually a Reformer, Bulllinger) the church is an anvil that has worn out a lot of hammers [i.e., it endures and outlasts the opposition of heretics and persecutors]. The same thing could be said of God’s creation. Creation is extremely durable [i.e., the goodness of God’s creation shines through despite the effects of sin]. It’s one of the enduring insights of the bit C and little c “Catholic tradition” [“Catholic” in the Roman Catholic sense and in the sense of the broader universal church] that the goodness of creation is displayed by little traditions of barn raising and joining hands when people are suffering. Those things are nearly universal and in some cultures (I’m thinking now of Asian cultures), they have become so much a part of how people live with each other (for example, respect for the elderly, politeness and courtesy), that they are themselves, it seems to me, a beautiful revelation of God’s common grace.
David Bast: I was just thinking of that. That’s what we call it in our tradition, isn’t it? Common grace. Common to all. Common everywhere.
Neil Plantinga: And not to be underestimated. If we thought that people always would be as nasty as they could be, none of us would have any unbroken windows.
David Bast: You mention shalom, that wonderful, biblical word. How do you define it?
Neil Plantinga: In English, we translate it “peace,” but in English the word “peace” is often thought of too thinly. We think of it as absence of warfare, or we think of it as tranquility of mind. But in Scripture, the word “peace” translates a huge reality that in Hebrew is named “shalom.” You can find it especially in the prophecies of Isaiah, of Joel, and of Amos. And it has to do with a coming time when children will no longer be afraid of animals, when people can erect vineyards and harvest their own grapes, when people can go to bed at night without worrying that somebody’s going to come in and shoot them, when everything is fruitful and benign, when people get along with God and with each other and with nature, and that whole wonderful state of affairs that’s full of harmony and balance and delight. That’s shalom. And we do see some glimpses of it from time to time. I think, in our longing, we often are longing for shalom, without knowing exactly what it is that we are longing for. When we see some striking instance of kindness or of cooperation or of reconciliation after there has been terrible squabbling we understand way down in our hearts that this is the way life was meant to be. Then we have some sense of shalom.
David Bast: What makes you hopeful as you look into the world?
Neil Plantinga: I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of all that we think and believe in the Christian gospel, the anchor event is the resurrection of Christ. It tells us that all that is dark and despairing and deadly has been overcome. We now have a new platform on which to build good efforts of reconciliation, of peace with neighbors, hoping not only in the person Jesus Christ but in his program, thinking that we can be humble and that humility is not for fools but for the wise. We can risk ourselves for others even if it’s painful. It’s not stupid. We can extend a hand toward somebody we don’t even like and this may turn out to be a blessing so profound that we now don’t even imagine it. And I think it all stems one way or another from Easter.
Christians are called to be Easter people whose lives are given to the pursuit of shalom throughout the world. We are ambassadors of Jesus Christ. The New Testament calls us agents of reconciliation. We want with our words, with our actions, with our entire lives to be serving the cause of bringing people together with God, together with each other, together with the whole creation.
In his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be,” Plantinga describes the great concept of “shalom” this way:
The prophets kept dreaming of a time when God would put things right again. They dreamed of a new age in which human crookedness would be straightened out, rough places made plain, the foolish would be made wise, and the wise humble. They dreamed of a time when the deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps, people would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful, benign and filled with wonder upon wonder. All humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God and delight in God.
The webbing together of God, humans and all creation in justice, fulfillment and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call “shalom.” We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease fire between enemies. In the Bible shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.
Of all the biblical visions of the coming kingdom of God’s shalom, the greatest, the most magnificent, are those of the prophet Isaiah. Listen to what he says,
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my [children] shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord – and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; … They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Isaiah 65:17-25, NRSV
This same theme is traced out by the prophet in an earlier passage as well.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9, NIV
This almost unimaginable transformation of the whole created order is the hope that we as Christians have not only for ourselves, for our individual salvation, but for the salvation and restoration of the whole universe. In “Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be,” Plantinga also illuminates the meaning of shalom with a beautiful quotation from the ancient church father Irenaeus. “The days will come,” he wrote, “in which vines shall grow, each having 10,000 branches and in each branch, 10,000 twigs and in each twig 10,000 shoots and in each one of the shoots, 10,000 clusters and on every one of the clusters, 10,000 grapes, and when any of the saints shall lay hold of a cluster, another shall cry out, “I am a better cluster, take me, bless the Lord through me.” What a thought! What a picture of the blessedness of life in the kingdom of God! The very elements of creation vying with each other for the privilege of being used to the praise and glory of God – that’s shalom. That’s the great future to which Christians look forward because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The same prophet Isaiah who writes so vividly of the coming kingdom in which the lion will lie down with the lamb also spoke of the suffering servant of the Lord, the one who would bear our transgressions, who would heal us with his stripes, who was bruised for our iniquities. Jesus Christ is the great prince of shalom and it is his death and his resurrection which is our ground for hope.