The Reclamation of Paradise

Written by
Benjamin Goodman
Jun 24, 2020
Benjamin Goodman
“To one who sees the Creator, the whole of creation is limited. But one glimpse of God's light makes everything that has been created seem too narrow. The light of interior contemplation in fact enlarges the dimensions of the soul, which by dint of expanding in God transcends the world. Should I say this? The soul of the contemplative transcends itself when, in God's light, it is trans­ported beyond itself. Then, looking below itself, it understands how limited is that which on earth seemed to it to have no limits. Such a seeker . . . could not have had that vision except in God's light. It is not surprising that he should have seen the whole world gathered up in his presence, since he himself in the light of the Spirit was lifted up out of this world. When it is said that the world was gathered up before his eyes that does not mean that heaven and earth were contracted. No. The soul of the seer was expanded. Enraptured with God he was able to see without difficulty everything that is under God.”  -Gregory the Great [1]
“Men would understand: they do not care to obey – understand where it is impossible they should save by obeying. For the sake of knowing, they postpone that which alone can enable them to know. They will not accept, that is, act upon, their highest privilege, that of obeying the Son of God. It is on them to do His will that the day dawns; to them the day-star arises in their hearts. Obedience is the soul of knowledge.” -George MacDonald 
“Understanding is the reward of obedience. Obedience is the key to every door. I am perplexed at the stupidity of the ordinary religious being. In the most practical of all matters he will talk and speculate and try to feel, but he will not set himself to do.” – George MacDonald 

One of my clearest adolescent memories came during a youth group missions trip to Juarez, Mexico, when I was about fifteen. Our group had just finished entertaining some of the local children with puppets and games outside of a small, single floor cement church building found in one of the poorest areas of Juarez. I distinctly remember that as we were finishing up our stories and games and passing out candy, I noticed that there was a small toddler standing alone at the back of the group just on the edge of the rubbled dirt road. It turned out, after some discussion among the leaders of our group and with leaders of the church, that the child was not a sibling of any of the children who had gathered to greet us. Actually, as the pastor explained, the child (who was barefoot, wearing nothing else but a diaper and a t-shirt), had wandered to the church alone, completely unaided by any adult. Her mother, in fact, was probably not even home to care for the child at all, for she was a prostitute and a drunk, and at this very moment was most likely occupying someone else’s bed in some other part of town. When this information came to me through our interpreter, I was holding the small toddler in my arms, her little chubby fingers clinging intently to my shirt. Eventually, it was time for our group to depart and head back to our hotel so that we may have some fun at the hotel’s pool, and then eat a large dinner that had been prepared for us. Yet I was still holding the child, desiring to not leave the church, and, to be honest, not wanting to let her go. My young American teenage mind simply could not comprehend the reality of the situation, that this child was alone and that her mother may or indeed may not return this evening to care for her; and that about this fact, really nothing could be done. I could not blame the local pastor, who had a congregation of less than 20 people, and who did not even have enough chairs to seat them all. I could not even blame the leaders of my youth group, for I don’t know what they could have practically done if one of their youth (me) told them that he wanted to kidnap a toddler and bring her back to our hotel with us. Finally, as everyone gathered into the vehicle that had brought us, it was impressed upon me that really I must let the girl go, for nothing could be done, and after all we had to be getting back for lunch. I reluctantly (and with much embarrassment) watched her waddle away, her bare feet plodding along in the dust, her soft black curls bouncing happily upon her head, her tiny feet finding space between the broken rocks in the road, eventually disappearing around the corner of another building. And since we did not return to that particular church during the trip, I never saw that little girl again. 

A number of years later, when I was teaching English in a public middle school in central Florida, I had another instance of being confronted with some of the same hopeless and seemingly banal pain and tragedy. During a morning class, a young student came to me and began to apologize that she might have done very poorly on the quiz the class had just taken. She explained that it was because she did not get a lot of sleep the night before, because her mother had gotten into a violent argument with her boyfriend, and as a result the boyfriend had hit the mother and kicked them both out of the trailer they had been living in. The girl and her mother therefore slept that night in their car, in a grocery store parking lot. The young girl began to weep as she told me this, and thin lines of tears rolled gently down her cheeks. She repeatedly made ardent promises that if I just gave her one more chance to take the quiz tomorrow that even if she had to sleep in her car again that evening, she would study hard and retake it tomorrow and earn a higher grade. 

A few years later, at another school, my class was interrupted in the middle of a lesson because the assistant principal was bringing a new student to join the class. This student, I was told privately, had some very significant emotional issues, and did not really get on with other students, though he desperately wanted attention and friendship. I was warned that he may act out for no good reason, and to do the best that I could with him. It was revealed that the student had these problems because he had lived in a home where the mother’s boyfriend emotionally and physically abused both the student and his siblings. The mother’s boyfriend would force the children to do push-ups until they couldn’t anymore, and when they would stop or cry or beg, the boyfriend would tase them with a small handheld taser. This continued for weeks, until one day the young boy escaped the house through a window, and ran to the nearest neighbor’s house, banging on the door, begging and pleading for help. 

It seems to me that in moments like these, when one gets a glimpse into a reality that is so thoroughly and hopelessly evil, that Christianity can be a very hard religion to continue to believe in. There is bad, yes, and there is good. There are things that are wrong and things that are right, and on this side of eternity our lives cannot escape some measures of both. But there is also such disaster, such evil, such sadness, such depravity in some situations that it seems to evacuate even the hope or possibility for goodness to remain, and especially for goodness to overcome. When a parent buries a child, or when someone is emotionally or physically abused, or there is senseless murder, all of this seems to threaten any claim that God, should He exist, is utterly good, and indeed, all goodness as such. And even if God is such goodness, and yet there is such evil, what can I possibly do about the evil, or do in light of it? 

It goes without saying that I believe that no Christian can provide an adequate answer to the problem of evil. Even an answer that is logically or metaphysically coherent (such as the necessary chasm of difference between the realms of primary and secondary causality) nevertheless still falls short. As Chris E.W. Green says, daily experience calls God’s very goodness into question. [2] An abstract answer may satisfy the intellect, but in this life it will never fully satisfy the heart. 

My aim here, though, is not to call God’s goodness into question. Scripture and the best of theological tradition assures us that God does not do evil, has not caused evil, and is always and forever against evil. Christ has come to deliver us from evil, from ourselves, and to remake us in His image and likeness. What is to be called into question is not God’s goodness via his acts in the world, but ours. What does it mean to believe in the God who is working out His good works in us, who wills the restoration of all, if our own behavior towards our neighbor is rather indifferent to the immediate practical implications and possibilities of that restoration for them? For to the extent that God’s radical love is not expressed through our actions, it is to that same extent that we tolerate the continuation of a radical evil. Our vocation in response to this inaction is a divine participation, participation with God in standing against any evil, in every case, all the time. Through this participation with God, we are remade more like God, as through his love he remakes the world.

For Origen, “every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God”. [3] The human being, created by God and for God, bearing His image, must also attain his likeness, a participant in the creation and re-creation of the world. We are called to do justice and to love kindness [4], and to the extent that we do not do these things, instead favoring our own self-preservation, our pride, comfort or embarrassment is to the same extent that we deny the intrinsic glory of God in others, and instead become hoarders and misers of the treasures we have received through Christ. Our vocation as the human is to become like God through grace, to continually become that which we were always destined to be, to have life, and have it abundantly”[5]. To the extent that God radically loves us, we are to radically love others. To the extent that our Christ suffered, we are to suffer with him, to “go forth to him outside the camp, bearing the reproach directed at him; for here we have no abiding city, but instead seek the one about to come”[6]. What does this look like in the life of the Christian? It is nothing less than the receiving and giving of faith, an absolute dedication to the world because we are assured of God’s dedication to us, which culminates in our commitment to co-suffer with Christ, who first co-suffered with us. We must abandon the offerings of this world, scorning the gift that glitters but is not gold, and in response, offer ourselves to each other, and therefore to God. Obedience to God leads to a greater awareness of God; The more I obey God, the more I want to be like him, the more I am made like him, and therefore the more that I can know him. This, I believe, is what MacDonald means when he says, “understanding is the reward to obedience.” It is by living my life for others, that I find my true life for myself, because I understand more about God for myself, and therefore I am blessed to express him better to others. What I give away is paradoxically given to me, and what I choose to lose is the very thing that I am guaranteed to find. 

Obedience, then, is an affirmation of faith, a belief that our God is the God above all things, the Good that transcends above all evil, but also the one who remakes that evil from within. It is a hope, to the point of excessive naivety, of an almost obnoxious insistence, that evil has no ultimate purpose for God’s good, but it is God’s goodness that is ultimately purposed as the final terminus of every rational soul. We cannot bear the burden of every evil, only God can do that. But we can, by God’s grace, partake in the suffering of others, shine God’s light into their loneliness, and assume, for the sake of the world, a humble posture as a perpetual servant. 

Obedience, then, is an affirmation of faith, a belief that our God is the God above all things, the Good that transcends above all evil, but also the one who remakes that evil from within.

This is especially true for the universalist. If universalism is true, and God ultimately reconciles all, then any evangel of peace is an evangel of God, a salvation that consumes every heart; and Christians not only hope for the glory to come but also insistently work towards that glory in our inward selves as well in the outward world. Where the spirit is working is where we must go, for there God is to be found. The God within me wishes to lead me to where he already is, that I may be found at the feet of the burdened and broken, and find him there also. For as I extend to them my hand of help, I am extending the hand of Christ. For as I am looking into their face, I am seeing the face of Christ. God compels me to go where he already has gone, that I take him there as a representative of his mercy, and as my reward I find him there, waiting for me in patience and in truth. For as we help each other, God works through us, working his creation back to its beginning by way of its end, by causing paradise to spring up among us, that it may root itself in the midst of evil. Christ inaugurates his kingdom in our hearts, and a shadow of the garden of Eden is reclaimed in every good work of God. It is this good work we are called to participate in now, not simply to theorize for our ultimate future. In practical ways, this means that every person we come into contact with is vitally important, and no pain is worth denying, no homeless person worth ignoring. Every injustice is worth our attention, every movement that works towards healing worth our consideration. And our hope is that by plunging ourselves into the fractured realities around us, that God by his grace joins us on our behalf, remaking both our hearts and the hearts of those we seek to help and love. 

God works through us, working his creation back to its beginning by way of its end, by causing paradise to spring up among us

The gospel stands apart from you and me. We cannot change it, alter it, or render it void. The gospel will always do what it does, which is to break every chain of sin, and pronounce in its place the glory of salvation, through the joyous necessity of repentance. The gospel does God’s purpose, it is the announced truth that opens our eyes to the remaking of the world. Even if the disciples had not heeded the command of Jesus to go, the gospel would have gone ahead without them anyway, through someone else, in some other way, by some other means. Who am I to say then, that the gospel needs us? Rather, it is us who need the gospel. In our pronunciation of Christ’s sacrifice and death, of a love that casts out all fear and justifies our faith, the gospel remakes us. As an eternal gift, it blesses the giver more than the receiver. Christ, through his word and spirit, empowers his body, the Church, out into the world rather than back and into itself, so that in the world, and not in the Church, we may truly see the face of God. Our Scripture speaks, not to a life that resides alone in any passive, intellectual contemplation that is an end unto itself; but into a lively engagement with all of creation, seen wrapped in flames of holy fire, burned but not consumed by God’s holy love. And when we stand in that creation, and see it as God sees it, we realize that we are indeed standing on holy ground, with wisdom herself at our side; and we remove our sandals of selfishness, and count our cost as nothing, and we take up our cross and follow Christ back to our home, and beckon others to do the same. It is the grand hope of our faith that God remakes all things, lifts everyone up unto himself, and wipes every tear from every eye. 

[1] Gregory the Great, “Dialogues”, 11,35 (PL 66,198-200) in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Oliver Clemente trans. Theodore Berkeley and Jeremy Hummerstone (New York: New City Press, 1993), 225-226.

[2] Green, Chris EW, “God is Heaven, God is Hell: A Review of ‘That All Shall Be Saved’

[3] Origen, “Commentary on St. Matthew’s Gospel”, 16,23,(PG 13,1453) in The Roots of Christian Mysticism, Oliver Clemente trans. Theodore Berkeley and Jeremy Hummerstone (New York: New City Press, 1993), 225-226.

[4] Micah 6:8 (NASB)

[5] John 10:10 (NASB)

[6] Hart, David Bentley. 2017. The New Testament: A Translation. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) 454.

Benjamin Goodman lives in Florida with his beautiful  wife and daughter. When he isn’t teaching middle school English, he enjoys reading theology/philosophy, early patristic writings and a diversity of fiction, Shakespeare, and poetry.