Let me tell you a story that’s been passed down in the church of the West for centuries. If you’re at all familiar with Christian religion, it’s a familiar one. It goes like like this.
God made the heavens and earth and called it good. The crowning moment of creation on the last day, Day 6, was the creation of humanity, male and female. God looked at everything he made and said that it was (note the past tense “was”) very good. Everyone and everything lived happily, wholly, and in perfect harmony within the Garden. Everything was flawlessly perfect.
But then… [cue the da-da-dum music], Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whereupon they unleashed the curse of sin, reducing all humanity and the rest of creation to a fallen, less-than-ideal state, separated from God, from one another, and from themselves. Sin corrupted everything from its original, idyllic condition.
Skip ahead to the New Testament. To fix the problem of sin, God had to send his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross so sinful humanity could be redeemed from the curse of sin. All who believe in Jesus and repent will be restored to a heavenly Paradise upon their death or at the return of Christ, whichever comes first. In the meantime, we live as sinful, less than ideal beings in a cursed creation. But all that will go away one day when all of God’s saved people will be gathered with God in heaven. The End.
For many of us, this is the story of the Bible. It’s the traditional narrative construct that frames the whole biblical cannon into roughly five distinctive parts: creation, sin, fall, Christ, church.
Frameworks like these, often called narrative constructs, are necessary tools. They serve to hold together the massive amount of literature— story, poetry, worship psalms, books of wisdom, prophesy, and letters— that makes up the Bible. Without it, it’s hard to see how the whole thing hangs together.
However, every narrative construct is bound to have its flaws, and this one has some major ones, a few having proved to be downright deadly. Here are several of its more problematic flaws:
- It assumes that God’s use of “good” to describe humanity and creation means “perfect”, as in fully whole, complete, flawless, sinless, and deathless. I would argue that this is a Platonic usage of the word “good”, implying perfectly ideal. But that is not the Hebrew understanding of goodness, which points more to something’s God-given, good purpose, value and blessedness.
- It totally skips over the role and purpose of Israel, i.e. everything else in the Old Testament between Genesis 4 through Malachi. It’s simply not mentioned, back-burnered as non-essential to salvation history. This is very unbiblical, literally, since the authors of the New Testament continually pointed to the whole cannon of the Hebrew Bible, only occasionally quoting from Genesis 1-3. I would also argue that this elimination of Israel from the narrative construct is the product and one of the root causes of Christian antisemitism.
- It reduces Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection to God’s Plan B. In the Plan B presumption, Adam and Eve screwed up. That doomed the rest of us to screwing up. So God resorted to sending Jesus to clean up our mess. However, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is not a Plan B. From the very beginning, he is the epicenter of creation (John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:16-17), the one who brings unity to it all (Ephesians 1:10) and the herald of the New Creation (Isaiah 65:17). His death and resurrection is part of God’s continuum of Creation and New Creation.
- It assumes that the goal of God is to fix a problem by getting everything back to the way it was. (Milton wrote of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.) Meanwhile, the Bible tells a different story. It always points forward to something new and better— a new covenant, a new heavens and a new earth, an Eden-esque garden within a new City of God (Revelation 22:1-3). Neither we nor creation will be what we once were. We will be transformed into something new (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s what the resurrection of Jesus points to, as well.
But to me, the most insidious error of this traditional narrative of the Bible is its notion of “original design.” It implies that a good creation is equivalent to an idealistic perfection, and that we, as as fallen creatures, are sinfully imperfect.
I was recently in an online conversation with a friend of mine who argued (as many others have before him) that defects, disabilities, or a non-straight sexual orientation is less than the ideal norm, and is therefore the result of sin. We’re defective in a variety of ways because we messed up or someone else messed up. God can’t be blamed for a creation that is less than perfect, so somehow, somewhere, the error is within us. We’re the culpable ones.
What bothers me— strike that!— terrifies me about this line of thinking are the implications and unintended consequences.
For example, my son Jacob has Down Syndrome. This is caused by a mutation of his 21st chromosome whereby he has one extra chromosomal part, resulting in the condition of Down Syndrome. (You could argue he’s got more substance than most of us do!) Nevertheless, something like this is scientifically labeled a genetic anomaly. Jacob is classified as having a cognitive disability along with physical abnormalities.
Do you see where this is going? Because of the pervasive attitude in our culture of idealistic perfection, he is seen as less than ideal, less than a whole, complete person. He’s seen as disabled, as in less-than-ideally-abled. People have called him, by words and actions, a “retard.”
My friend tried to argue that he is this way, and the rest of us are flawed the way we are, because of sin. If that’s the case, then one would have to conclude that my son’s life is less blessed than my own, since he has been inflicted with more of the consequential damage of sin than typically-abled, chromosomally “normal” people.
One would have to further conclude that Jacob is less in the image of God than most of us since his condition is further removed from the ideal of God’s “original design.” After all, is God disabled, too? Does God have Down Syndrome? Why, of course not! Jacob’s “less than ideal” condition, is by God’s judgment on our collective sin. Some have even hinted and implied that my wife and I must have sinned somehow. It’s our fault that Jacob is disabled!
Here is the truly terrifying part. (I haven’t even gotten to that yet!) This whole notion of “original design” is more than a coffee house, abstract theological discussion. It’s been acted on quite often— and still is!— to horrific consequences.
In the not-so-distant past, people like my son were left uneducated and institutionalized, completely marginalized from “normal” society. In Nazi Germany, people like Jacob were experimented upon, tortured, and murdered, all because they they were less than the “perfect” Aryan humanity that Hitler claimed to be the superior human race. People like Jacob are still excluded from mainstream education and society. If they cannot adapt to the dominant “more ideal” typically-abled culture, then they are left behind and left out from opportunities that most of us take for granted.
All of this kind of thinking is a direct result of the terrible theology of “original design,” which has its roots, not in biblical thinking, but in Platonistic idealism.
The truth is, there is no biblical notion of the “perfect ideal.” Everything is always being transformed and renewed. And even if there were a perfect “original design,” would we know what it is? Do imperfect beings such as we have the capacity to grasp what is truly perfect and ideal?
And what if, in some dramatic reversal, people we have labeled as disabled ended up being more abled, more ideal and closer to God’s goodness than typical people? Who is to say they are not? Didn’t Jesus say that to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like children— less sophisticated, less developed, weaker, and far more vulnerable than us adults? Could this be an invitation to become “less than ideal”?
His mother Mary sang of this same reality! In a great, dramatic reversal of power and value:
“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”Luke 1:52-53
And speaking of Jesus, he said something which flatly dismisses any notion of a sinless “original design.” Look at this:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”John 9:1-3
Did you see it? There’s no sin! In fact, this man’s blindness is not a liability or a fault. It’s the other way around. His blindness would be the very thing through which God would be glorified!
Yet every time I read this story, especially the disciples’ questions, I can see the source of all human shame. Shame is a diminishing blow to our worthwhile-ness and value when somehow we don’t measure up to a plastic world of idealized beauty, power, finesse, and wealth. When we don’t— and we never do because the “original design” of perfection doesn’t exist— we shame ourselves or we allow others to shame us into believing that we’re not good enough, not valuable enough, and hopelessly flawed. It’s a fault. It’s a sin, even.
Please hear the truth: Nothing in us is inherently bad. Nothing. God created us and called us good. That does not change. Ever.
Is there sin within us and the world? Of course. Sin mars and distorts our God-given image and separates us from our full communion with God, with others, and with ourselves. Christ’s death and resurrection gives us the freedom to be our true created goodness and to be resurrected into a new glorious body- the New Creation.
Still, we are who we are. God can work in and through anything, no matter how weak or strong, to bring about wondrous good. (See 1 Corinthians 1:27 and 2 Corinthians 12:10). Everything God does, especially within the painful, weaker parts of ourselves, is amazingly glorious.
In God we move from our created good to infinite glory. That is the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. God created us as good. And then, by the merit of Christ’s death and resurrection, we and all creation become a New Creation, resurrecting all of us, including our shadowy, weaker parts, into absolute glory. By his blood, Christ reconciles to himself all things (Colossians 1:20).
True glory will always outshine shallow notions of idealistic perfectionism. That’s because God doesn’t need our delusional notions of perfectionism. I’m convinced it never really existed, anyway.
All of us— abled and differently-abled, weak and strong, gay or straight— shine with the light of God once we realize that it’s been there all along. When we see ourselves as God sees us, then we shine so brightly. We illuminate the presence of God in all people and in all things. God transforms us from our created goodness to divine glory. And the best is yet to come.