Prior to the devastating tsunami that wrought havoc across the Indian Ocean last December, many Christians probably thought that St. Paul was waxing metaphorical when he wrote about creation “groaning in travail” as it “awaits with eager longing the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8: 22, 19). Now we know. Or, perhaps better, now we have been reminded: creation is “groaning,” because creation has not experienced the finality of redemption. And when creation “groans,” its travail can have devastating effects.
It was probably inevitable that the tsunami would trigger a worldwide round of God-bashing, God-questioning, and God-denying (although it was a little surprising to find Dr. Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, publishing an op-ed piece under the title, “Of course this makes us doubt God’s existence”). Yet with the exception of Orthodox theologian David Hart, no one else I heard or watched or read asked what seemed to be the obvious question, which is not so much about God as about Satan. Surely someone in the punditocracy beyond the brilliant Dr. Hart might have asked, where is the Evil One in all this?
It’s not as if we live in a culture from which the idea of Satan has disappeared – not with the plethora of books, films, and creepy CDs on the satanic available over-the-counter at your local Barnes & Noble or Borders. But perhaps the satanic has been trivialized to the point where it seems unreal. It’s tough to sit in a megastore’s coffee shop, sip a latte, browse a gothic novel, and take the satanic seriously – much less the “groaning” of creation. Then came the Asian tsunami: the expression of wounded and unredeemed nature, which will continue “groaning in travail” until the Second Coming, because of the damage done to the natural order in that primordial catastrophe tradition calls the fall of the angels.
Perhaps environmentalism also played an unwitting role in the lack of attention given the Evil One following the tsunami. The environmental movement has a lot of things to its credit, including the fact that air and water in the developed world are cleaner than they’ve been in half a millennium. Yet environmentalism has also reinforced an anti-biblical trend in western thought that first cropped up in 18th century Romanticism: the tendency to see the natural world as gentle and benign and the human world (like the world of cities) as broken, damaged, warped. In this construal of things, nature is “naturally” good, and civilization is ambiguous. The path to redemption lies in a return to nature from the corrupting influences of civilization and cities.
Yet the biblical image of the redeemed world is a city, the New Jerusalem, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). The city, not the world of nature, is where we shall find “the dwelling of God…with men,” the place where redeemed mankind will be “his people and God himself…will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:3-4). What God has in mind for the consummation of creation and history is not what the Beatles had in mind: “Strawberry Fields Forever.” What God has in mind is a city. In the biblical view of things, nature is not unsullied and innocent; nature suffers from the after-effects of the angelic fall; nature awaits its final redemption. Until that happens, nature is capable of, and will do, terrible things.
This is exactly the opposite of what much of our culture teaches us. The message from both Romanticism and environmentalism is that nature is innocent until it’s corrupted by human influence and human artifacts. There was nothing “innocent” about the tsunami, however; and human agency had nothing to do with its murderous effects. Indeed, it was a lack of human agency (in the form of undersea detection devices connected to land-based warning systems) that contributed to the vastness of the great wave’s destruction.
Creation is groaning. The Evil One is the reason why. Something to think about during Lent.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.