What does it mean to be human beings living in a sinful world but having our citizenship in a different place?
It is common in today’s culture to view the concept of evil as an outdated, “dark ages” idea, inappropriate for a modern worldview. Of course, this perspective was even more persuasive before the first and second world wars. Today we have seen evil in many forms, and we are less able to discount it utterly.
When one begins to delve into the question of how to live as a follower of Christ in this world while keeping oneself “unspotted,” the waters get murky very quickly. Here are just a few texts that are downright confusing, if not contradictory!
- “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).
- “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (v. 17).
- “All that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16).
- “The world is Mine, and all its fullness” (Ps. 50:12).
Well, which is it? The world and all it contains belongs to God—or “all” that is in the world is not from God? Or how about this pair? “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, emphasis supplied). “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15, emphasis supplied). John even goes on to say, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (v. 15).
How can all this fit together? Checking the Greek language doesn’t help much. There is only one word used for “world” in the New Testament, except in places that also mean “age” or “era.” The word is kosmos, which seems pretty all-inclusive, even if one doesn’t read Greek. It means the people, the physical creation, the order of the universe, the human system, just like the English “world” or even “universe.” Kosmos covers it all. So is it good, or is it bad?
We know God made the world, and “saw that it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, NLT). We also know the children He made to be His own chose their selfish interests ahead of their love for Him, and the world became a very different place than God had planned. So far, it’s clear. There were physical changes, thorns and unruly weeds, storms and seasons, dangerous animals; and there were spiritual changes in the hearts of human beings, leading all the way to murder within the first generation of humans (Gen. 3; 4). None of this was from God, yet this changed the world He loved and immediately began to work to save.
From then on, there were choices to be made. There were “sons of God,” and “daughters of men” (Genesis 6). Of course both those phrases include both genders. There were people who chose to follow God, even though He was invisible and no longer walked with them in “the cool of the evening,” and there were people who chose to follow their own erratic desires.
What did it mean for them to be human beings living in a sinful world, but having their citizenship in a different place, desiring “a better, that is, a heavenly country”? (Heb. 11:16). We can learn a lot from the examples set for us in the early stories of our faith. And the first thing that becomes obvious is that the definition of “not of the world” is not a static one, but varies drastically from person to person and from one situation to another.
Evil, in this sense, is equated with sin; it is diverging from God’s will and living in rebellion.*