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The World: Mixed Messages

I grew up with mixed messages about the world. My father had been a sailor in the Second World War. He had enlisted when he was seventeen. The war meant a way to get away from the hardships of the farm, prove himself as a man, and do something good for the country.

When he signed up, he was asked his religion, which caught him by surprise. No one in his family went to church or talked about religion. Seeing the blank look in his face, the petty officer asked, “Well, are you Catholic or Protestant?” Which brought my dad around at least a little bit.

“Neither, Sir! I am a Seventh-day Adventist.”

My father swears he had never heard of Seventh-day Adventists, although his mother had been raised as one.

“Well, you are not Catholic, so you must be Protestant.” And with that my dad was given a legitimate tie to religion.

His experience in the navy was hardly exemplary of an Adventist lifestyle. He never went to church. He caroused. He got drunk regularly when on shore leave. Finally, he got court-martialed after V-Day for threatening a shore patrolman who told him he had to leave a bar, because he was smashed.

My father apparently broke the bottom off of the beer bottle from which he had been drinking to make it a weapon, and he told the shore patrolman he would leave when he was ready. It was not a smart move. He woke up the next morning in a cell lying in a pool of his own coagulated blood. He had been beaten severely. Days later, he received a court-martial for thirty days in the navy brig on Treasure Island, midway on the Oakland Bay Bridge.

The other half of the story is that my father’s mother went back to church after my father enlisted in order to give insurance to her prayers for her son in the navy. When my father came home from the war, he began going to church with his mother and sister, and not long after was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

I have no doubts in my mind but that religion saved my dad. At the very least, it gave him a sober and prosperous life. My father needed a religion that was strict, with clear-cut lines between good and evil, this world and the world to come. It meant when a full bottle of beer floated down the irrigation ditch one hot day, my father came home and told us how tempted he was to drink the beer, but chose not to because his body was the temple of God and did not belong to him. It meant that despite difficulties that exist in every marriage, my father remained faithful to my mother. It meant that, although other farmers worried in the fall of the year whether they would get their sugar beets harvested before the Montana blizzards struck, my father never harvested a single beet on the Sabbath.

I tell this story because I believe it goes to the heart of not being in the world. There was, however, another side of the story of not being in the world that my father learned from his religion that bothers me to this day. We never took a vacation to the mountains or a rare visit to the ocean but that my father would remind us that there would be no mountains in heaven, or any sea crashing against a rocky shoreline, because these things were all consequences of sin. And when we visited San Francisco, we were reminded that the prophet had seen fireballs falling from heaven to destroy the city. I grew up never feeling totally free to enjoy any earthly thing. Everything was tainted with sin. Everything was waiting to be destroyed.

There is a fatal flaw to this kind of thinking. In the first place, most of the Bible knows nothing of a complete conflagration of the earth. Most of the promises in the Old Testament go along the lines of promises that God will do new and better things than God has ever done before (Isa. 43: 19–21). Perhaps the land will receive a Sabbath rest, but it will be restored, and made even better (Lev. 26).

In the second place, as human beings, we are incapable of thinking of any new state of being that is not tied to images of this earth. Even in the apocalyptic writings of Isaiah, Daniel, Peter, and the Book of Revelation, all images of the post-destroyed earth picture a New Earth in images of this earth. We have health; we build our own houses and inhabit them; we till the soil and eat the food we have sown, without fear of drought or invaders. No one will hurt or destroy in God’s entire holy mountain. (Isa. 65:17–25; Dan. 9:24; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21 and 22.)

I have a friend who cannot image heaven without the greatest works of human being present there. As an artist, I share this conviction. To say that human art is so pale compared to God’s artisanship that nothing is lost in its destruction is like saying no painting captures the beauty of a woman or the strength of a man, so it, too, should be destroyed. How odd is such thing? Do we stop doing art because we are not God? Or do we stop having children because they are not as beautiful, or strong, or wise as angels? Of course not! To create in siring a child, making a painting, composing poem or symphony, or doing a fair day’s labor is to share in the prerogatives of God!

So why does the Bible contain the language of destruction? There can be only one answer that makes any sense to me. God as artist has attempted everything possible to save the masterpiece that came from divine hands. The only reason that God as artist would ever destroy the earth is if it became so polluted, so sick, so barren that the only recourse left is to purify the earth of all contaminates, in a healthy fire storm, so that new life, like the flowers and trees in Yellowstone and Mount Saint Helens, can begin again—which brings me to the real point of Scripture in reference to the world.

The world as a place in time and space is never the culprit in the Bible. It is the handiwork of God. The world the Bible holds accountable is a state of mind and action that is destructive of all persons, places, and things. Being worldly means living for one’s own selfish ends and pleasures, rather than in service to God, others, and the earth itself and all its inhabitants. (See texts such as—Isa. 24:4; Isa. 64:4; Matt. 13:22; Matt. 16:26; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 2:2; James 4:4; 2 Pet. 2:20.)

The list of things consumed in the lake of fire is rather short—the devil, the devil’s co-workers, hell itself, and those who destroy the earth (Rev. 9:4; Rev. 11:8; Rev. 20:10, 14, 15). That pretty well sums up how God thinks about the world.

Glen Greenwalt is an artist who writes from Walla Walla, Washington.

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