Our bearing the image of God undergirds our vocation to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28), along with humanity’s being placed “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). (Note, too, how Adam’s call to “work” and “keep” the garden assumes that even the garden tended towards disorder apart from humanity’s wise stewardship.)
Part 3: Humanity, God’s Solution to Evil
Last week in Part 2 of this series, we saw that evil is best understood as the privation of good and can be broadly categorized into three types: spiritual evil (evil in the supernatural realm), physical evil (evil in the natural realm), and moral evil (evil in the ethical realm).
We also saw that though all three types of evil are present in Genesis 1-3, God doesn’t go into detail about spiritual or physical evil’s ultimate origin. In today’s post, however, we’ll see that God is quite determined to have humans understand our purpose as image-bearers so that we can also understand God’s plan to “set-to-right” this creation by naming, judging, and redeeming evil through humanity. To begin, we’ll need to look more closely at Genesis 1-3.
THE CREATOR GOD BRINGS FULLNESS & ORDER
At one level, the creation account can be understood as the Creator God bringing order to and filling the cosmos. After the bold declaration, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the author goes on to note that “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis1:1-2).
And so, in Genesis 1:3-27, the Creator God declares, categorizes, and brings into existence all that is, thereby bringing fullness and structure to that which was void and without form. After each fresh, creative act, God declares his work to be “good,” culminating with the final endorsement of God’s newly filled and ordered creation as “very good.”
HUMANITY MADE IN THE CREATOR GOD’S IMAGE
Although God creates all things intrinsically good–meaning that no part of his creation is naturallyevil (for evil is the privation of good and cannot exist on its own)–we get the sense from Genesis 1-3 that even before humanity is placed in Eden, everything is not as it ultimately should be.
As we saw in Part 2, assumed in the creation account is the reality that just as the garden of Eden is a place on earth, there is also a separate (much larger) part of the earth that is not Eden. It’s from the not-garden that Adam was formed and it’s into the not-garden that Adam and Eve are exiled after their rebellion against God. It is also apparent from the story that even before humanity’s fall, the serpent (satan) is clearly acting in defiance of the good for which he was made.
The existence of the not-garden and the rebellious serpent is important because it helps us to understand how God seeks to correct the problem of evil in the narrative: he makes humans–male and female–in his image.
In the ancient Near East (when Genesis was likely written), earthly rulers were depicted as bearing a god’s image with the understanding that this image gave them authority and power as that god’s representative. Thus, the Pharaoh could rule over Egypt since he bore the image of the Sun God, Ra.
In the same vein, humankind being made in God’s image means that we are God’s representatives on earth (this idea is emphasized when we recognize that humanity–God’s image-bearers–are placed in God’s proto-temple, Eden). Thus, humans were created to be God’s vice-regents of his heavenly rule on earth.
We aren’t told why spiritual and physical evil exists in the world, but we are told that humanity is at the heart of God’s solution to name, judge, and redeem evil on earth as his vice-regents.
Thus, it’s not a coincidence that satan appears in Genesis 3 as a serpent–a part of the creation that humanity was to subdue. Given their role as God’s vice-regents, ruling on God’s behalf, Adam and Eve were required as image-bearers to subdue the serpent’s rebellion, exposing his lies, and bringing the serpent to God for judgment.
Had Adam and Eve obeyed God’s commandments not to eat of the forbidden tree and to multiply, to subdue the beasts, and to work and keep Eden, then theoretically, the Eden of God’s unique presence would have spread to cover the whole earth, conquering and redeeming spiritual and physical evil as it spread.
Tragically, as we know all too well, Adam and Eve fail in their task. Rather than represent God, they would rather be God, and so we see the genesis of moral evil in human experience. Thus, rather than following our God-given purpose to conquer, judge, and redeem evil–we willfully collude with spiritual evil, fall into the death of our moral evil (sin), and further promulgate physical evil as the creation is subject to futility with humanity’s rebellion (cf. Romans 8:19ff).
BUT GOD DOESN’T GIVE UP ON HIS PLAN
Despite our failure, God doesn’t abandon humanity. Immediately after pronouncing the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God, God shows himself to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He upholds his relationship with Adam and Eve and promises humanity’s ultimate victory over evil (Genesis 3:15).
And despite the profound moral evil of humanity in Genesis 4-11, God continues to take the initiative against evil by making for himself a people through whom God will move forward with his initial intention for humanity to conquer evil. Towards this end, in Genesis 12, God calls Abram to be Abraham, the father of a covenant people, Israel, through whom God will bless and redeem the world.
To this people, God gives the Old Testament. And through the Spirit’s work in scripture, God gives to Israel what they need to name, judge, and redeem all three types of evil.
Against spiritual evil God gives commandments, warnings, and God-ordained leaders to name, judge, and redeem idolatry and overcome spiritual forces in rebellion against God.
Against physical evil God gives commandments, warnings, and God-ordained leaders to name, judge, and redeem that which has gone wrong in the physical world (e.g. how to treat animals, deal with illness, guidelines for agriculture and diet, etc.).
Against moral evil God gives commandments, warnings, and God-ordained leaders to name, judge, and redeem our immorality (e.g. greed, murder, theft, sexual perversions, etc.) so that we might live rightly in relation to God, others, and the rest of creation. And ultimately, God provides faith, repentance, and the sacrificial system to forgive and atone for human sin.
THE NEED FOR A SECOND ADAM AND REPRESENTATIVE ISRAEL
But Israel–like Adam–fails in its task, choosing to follow their own ways rather than God’s life-filled way. And so–also like Adam–Israel’s disobedience results in their expulsion from a special land and the loss of the temple of God’s unique presence on earth.
And so as the Old Testament comes to a close, we find the world still plagued with evil, in need of a second Adam and a representative Israel to do what neither Adam nor Israel could do: fulfill humanity’s purpose as God’s vice-regent on earth to conquer evil and bring redemption to this creation. This, of course, leads us to Jesus–God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil.