The Bible Shows How God Overcomes Chaos: An Interview with Sidney Greidanus
When God created the world, he brought perfect order out of what was “without form and void.” But with human rebellion against God, disorder (chaos) was introduced into creation which God continues to redeem (cosmos). How is this “chaos to cosmos” theme interwoven through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation?
What do you mean that the chaos-to-cosmos theme permeates Scripture?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” that is, the cosmos: “The world or universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious system” (Webster). Genesis 1:2 backs up to the earliest stage in God’s creation of the earth: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” These five italicized words describe the primeval chaos. Genesis 1 adds two more words that refer to chaos: seas (v 10) and great sea monsters (v 21). These seven words will be used in later Scriptures either individually or in combination to refer to some form of chaos. This original chaos was not evil; God created it. In fact, God called the “seas” and even “the great sea monsters” “good” (Gen 1:10, 21). Chaos took on connotations of evil with the human fall into sin and God’s curse (Gen 3).
The New Testament uses some of these same words (in Greek) for chaos but it focuses especially on the contrast between darkness (skotos) and light (phos) and various synonyms. But it also uses sea for chaos: for example, Jesus stilled the storm and calmed the sea, turning chaos to cosmos (Mark 4:35-41). So we can trace the chaos – cosmos theme through Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, and the book of Revelation. The New Testament centers the chaos – cosmos theme primarily in the battle between Satan, the prince of darkness (Eph 6:12) and Jesus, “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). In addition, the New Testament views creation christologically: Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is not only the maker of the first creation (John 1:1-18), which is now broken, but also the maker of the coming new creation. Paradise will be restored (Rev 2:7; 22:14).
What are the biblical reasons we experience chaos in the world?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: The biblical reasons why we experience evil chaos in this world are primarily three: the devil, human sinfulness, and God’s curse. Tempted by “the serpent” (later identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan” [Rev 12:9]), our ancestors disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God had warned them, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die [a form of ultimate chaos]” (Gen 2:17).
The effects of the fall into sin were felt immediately in the loss of innocence and the breakdown of harmonious relationships. The human relationship with God was broken: the man said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Gen 3:10). Then the man had the nerve to blame both God and the woman: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” And the woman, in turn, blamed the serpent: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen 3:12, 13). The harmony of Paradise was broken: chaos invaded God’s good creation.
Then followed God’s judgment: “The LORD God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field” (Gen 3:14). The fact that the serpent is cursed “above all livestock and above all beasts of the field” suggests that the animal world is also living under God’s curse. The lamb has good reason to fear the wolf. The calf has good reason to fear the lion. With the fall into sin, chaos also invaded the animal kingdom.
The LORD continued addressing the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Gen 3:15). Enmity between Satan and its offspring and the woman and her offspring leads to much hardship in human history: “you shall bruise his heel.” But ultimate victory is held out for the offspring of the woman: “he shall bruise your head” – a fatal wound.
With the fall into sin, the chaos of pain and suffering entered the world. To the woman God said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” And to Adam he said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:16–19). Thus the fall into sin resulted in pain in childbearing, pain in providing food, coping with thorns and thistles on a ground cursed by God, eating bread by the sweat of your face, and then the last enemy, death.
Then God drove them out of Paradise; they were to live East of Eden (Gen 3:24). Life had turned into a painful existence in a hostile, cursed world. The blessed cosmos of Paradise had turned into chaos, not the original chaos of Genesis 1:2 but now an evil chaotic world: struggles between animals and animals (Gen 3:14), between animals and humans (Gen 3:15), between husband and wife (Gen 3:12, 16), between nature and humans (Gen 3:17-19), and between humans and God (Gen 3:8-10, 12, 22-24).
Today we see this evil chaos East of Eden in the enmity between people, races, religions, and nation-states: wars, slavery, religious persecution, racism. We see this chaos in the swollen bellies of malnourished children, in people dying from cancer, ebola and other diseases and disasters, in the thousands of refugees fleeing their home countries for Europe and America, hundreds of them drowning as they cross dangerous seas in flimsy boats. We see this chaos in the violence perpetrated by drug cartels, in the senseless murders in our inner cities, in the rape of women and children, in the spread of terror organizations whose goal is to destroy people, nations, and cultural treasures. But the Bible also provides hope for a return to cosmos – Paradise.
How does Isaiah picture the new creation as pure cosmos?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: Through his prophet Isaiah, God promises to turn the chaos we experience East of Eden into a harmonious cosmos. Isaiah 11:1-9 predicts the righteous reign of a new Davidic king who will usher in a new cosmos: “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (v 4). This cosmos will even affect the animal world. Instead of chaotic predatory behavior, there will be peace and harmony in the animal world. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (vv 6-7). Even God’s curse of enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) will be lifted: “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den” (v 8).
In Isaiah 25:7–8 the LORD promises to swallow up the chaos of death forever–a reversal of God’s punishment of death for the human fall into sin (Gen 3:19): “And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering [funeral shroud] that is cast over all peoples, the veil [worn at funerals] that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.”
In Isaiah 51:3 the LORD assures Israel that he will turn her chaotic waste places into an orderly cosmos, like the garden of Eden: “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness [chaos] like Eden [cosmos], her desert [chaos] like the garden of the LORD [cosmos]; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
Finally, Isaiah 65:17-25 predicts a new heavens and a new earth as the climax of the “new things” Isaiah mentioned in Isaiah 42:9; 43:19, and 48:6. It will be a new creation: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. [The chaos of pain, sorrow, and death living East of Eden will be forgotten. This will be a completely new start]…. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress [signs of chaos]…. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” [Cosmos: a reversal of God’s punishment, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life,” Gen 3:17]…. Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity [chaos], for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them [cosmos]. Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. [Complete restoration of communion between the LORD and his people.] The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox [no more predators], and dust shall be the serpent’s food. [Not even that ancient serpent that ushered in chaos shall prey on people.] They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD.” The orderly, harmonious cosmos of Genesis 1-2 will be fully restored.
How does the book of Revelation picture the new creation as pure cosmos?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: In Revelation 20:11-15 John reports, “Then I saw a great white throne and him [Christ] who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne [the resurrection and judgment], and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, therefore, will mark the end of every form of chaos on earth: it will not only mark the end for those who supported chaos with their actions but also for death itself and the realm of the dead (hades, sheol) which will be thrown into the lake of fire, “the outer darkness” (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).
John follows up this elimination from the earth of every form of chaos with a vision of a new cosmos. He writes in Revelation 21:1, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” The sea–the primary symbol of chaos in the Bible–was no more.
Instead of chaos, John continues, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes (compare Rev 7:17), and death shall be no more (compare Isa 25:8), neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:2-4). Death shall be no more because Jesus died and rose again and has “the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:17-18). In the new creation, the curse of death (Gen 3:19) is lifted. “The former things [chaos] have passed away.” “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Rev 21:5). The cosmos God intended in the beginning will be restored.
John then describes the holy city Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10). He writes, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). Since God himself will dwell with his people in the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:3), there is no need for a temple. “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it [creation’s lights take a backseat to the light of God and the Lamb], for the glory of God gives it light, (compare Isa 60:19-20) and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light [cosmos] will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night [no chaos] there” (Rev 21:23–25). In the new Jerusalem there will be no more night, no more darkness, no more chaos, but all will be light – cosmos.
John continues in Revelation 22, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life [compare Gen 2:10], bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life [compare Gen 2:9] with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations [compare Ezek 47:12]. No longer will there be anything accursed [the curse, Gen 3:17, will be lifted], but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face [compare Matt 5:8 and 1 John 3:2], and his name will be on their foreheads. And night [darkness, chaos] will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:1-5).
In the beginning of the book of Revelation the risen Lord Jesus promised his followers, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). In concluding the book, the Lord Jesus repeats, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life” – adding, “and that they may enter the city [the holy city, the new Jerusalem] by the gates” (Rev 22:14). Paradise, the garden, with its life-giving waters and the tree of life as well as the holy city where God dwells with his people will be restored in the new creation. Pure cosmos. What a marvelous vision of the future!
What do you hope readers of your book will glean from it?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: I hope that readers of From Chaos to Cosmos will come away with a better understanding of the unity of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and that they will understand the New Testament Gospels and epistles in a new way. To quote my preface, “Studying the chaos – cosmos theme from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 is a fascinating journey. It deepens our understanding of the original creation and the coming new creation. It not only helps us see the unity of the Scriptures but also the centrality of Christ in the Scriptures.
The chaos – cosmos theme will further make us aware of the various forms of chaos caused by the fall into sin and God’s cursing the ground: pain, suffering, enmity, violence, enslavement, and death. But it will also make us aware of God’s sovereignty over chaos, turning chaos into cosmos (or micro-cosmos) merely by speaking, God’s grace for his fallen creatures, his aim to deliver them, his faithfulness to his covenant promises, and, by making ever new starts, his intent to restore his creation to the cosmos he intended it to be in the beginning.”
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Why? When I left family and friends at age 20 to join the Royal Canadian Air Force, my parents gave me a little Bible along with the inscription, “Psalm 23.” That testimony of David became very meaningful and personal for me.
In the Air Force we had to learn to land a jet at breakneck speed. I am the kind of person who likes to think things over before acting. But here there was no time to think: approach the runway at high speed at a thousand feet; whip the plane into a downward spiral; release the airbrakes; put down flaps and landing gear, and nail the runway. The plane was down before my thinking could catch up. I was scared! Every time I went up solo I thought I would not survive the landing. But somehow I did not give in to the fear of death; I kept flying because I knew that the Lord was my shepherd.
Later, when Marie and I got married, our pastor asked us to select our wedding text. Psalm 23, of course, “The Lord is my shepherd.” As we look back on our lives, we can testify to the fact that the Lord has been a good shepherd for us: closing many doors but opening others. Closing the door of immediately becoming a commercial pilot, the Lord opened the door to a college and seminary education. Then, with minimal income, the Lord provided enough for our, by now, family of four to complete six years of graduate study. Closing the door of immediately becoming a college Bible teacher, the Lord first opened the door to become a church pastor and preacher. Seven years later the Lord opened the door to become a college teacher, then a seminary teacher, and now in retirement an author who writes commentaries for preachers.
We have truly experienced in our lives that the Lord is our shepherd. And we know that the Lord will be our good shepherd also when our life ends. We’ve inscribed on our grave marker, Psalm 23:6, “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Sidney Greidanus: After each of the 14 sections in From Chaos to Cosmos, I’ve added discussion questions for individual reflection and small-group Bible studies. The appendix (pp 201-203) lists the reading assignments for Bible study groups. I’ve also added suggestions for preachers who wish to accompany the Bible study groups with their sermons. Chapter 4 lists 14 preaching texts that would accompany the small-group Bible studies from the pulpit. I’ve suggested the theme of each text. If 14 sermons seems too ambitious, I’ve included a series of Christocentric sermon starters on seven early, foundational, preaching texts along the chaos – cosmos trail: Genesis 1:1-2:3; 2:4-25; 3:1-24; 6:9-8:22; 11:1-9; 11:27-12:9; and Exodus 14. I suggest their themes and different ways of moving forward from the text to Christ in the New Testament. Whether 14 or seven sermons, either way would turn small-group Bible studies into a congregational enterprise.
Bio: Sidney Greidanus (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) has taught at Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, and The King’s College. Since his retirement from full-time teaching in 2004, he has devoted his time to writing commentaries specifically for preachers. He is the author of many books, including Sola Scriptura; From Chaos to Cosmos, Preaching Christ From the Old Testament, and The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text.
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