If God is really so good, surely mission must be the easiest work in the world. Simply hold out Jesus in his gospel, and people should come flocking.
Of course, that’s not how it is. Quite the opposite. Bizarrely, wonderful good news of free grace is a tough sell. People dislike not just the idea of God in general but the message of the gospel specifically. Late in his life, George Orwell recalled that as a schoolboy, he hated Jesus and even felt sympathy toward Judas and Pontius Pilate, who had betrayed and executed him.1 Orwell’s attitude may well have been the perversity of a schoolboy, but it expresses something of our natural hostility toward God and the gospel.
Human beings are fallen, and this is why we do not intuitively worship, trust, and love God. The radiance of God’s glory shines not into neutrality but into darkness. Indeed, Paul writes that our hearts are “darkened” (Rom. 1:21) because we reject the Lord. The truth is that human beings, originally made in the image of God to love and enjoy him, reflecting his radiance in the world, have become inglorious through turning away from him.
Made for Glory
We were created to live in the presence and blessing of God. The first couple, Adam and Eve, were placed in the paradise of Eden, which God himself had planted for them, and where they were to enjoy fellowship with him (Gen. 2:8; 3:8). Bursting with beauty and gracious provision (Gen. 2:9), Eden was to be the base from which humanity could “be fruitful and multiply” across the face of the earth (Gen. 1:28), filling it with life. Adam and Eve were to rule over the creation, stewarding and caring for the world on behalf of the Lord (Gen. 1:28). In his “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26), they were to be agents of his spreading goodness.
Paul writes that Adam was a “type,” or pattern, of Christ, “the one who was to come” (Rom. 5:14), because his purpose was to picture the one man who has always enjoyed the love of his Father (John 17:24), to whom every knee would one day bow (Phil. 2:10), and who would come to fill all things (Eph. 1:23). Adam is even called “the son of God” in Luke 3:38, so much was he meant to be like the eternal Son of the Father. This was God’s design for humanity: that we would delight ourselves in the love of God, image him in the creation, and reach to the ends of the earth in abundant fruitfulness. Here is the root of our sense of dignity, the reason we feel an itch for purpose and significance. We were created for glory and to be glorious, like our God.
Enslaved to Emptiness
Sin unraveled all this. More than simply disobeying a command and getting himself into trouble, Adam in his fall turned away from the Lord, the fountain of all life and love. The aftermath was devastating, for in denying God, Adam also defaced himself, enslaving himself and all his children to emptiness.
that they went far from me
and went after worthlessness [הבֶלֶ, hevel] and became worthless?
It is now impossible for us to imagine life and humanity before the fall of Adam. We will generally tend to underestimate the ruinous consequences of the fall on ourselves and the world because we have not even a moment’s experience of life untouched by it. Even as we recognize beauty in broken humanity, the capacity for great achievements or moments of compassion and altruism, we only see a faint glimmer of the glory for which we were meant. We were supposed to be like Jesus Christ, the radiance of God’s glory, living from and to him, shining his light into the world. But in our turning away from our God, the glory has departed: we are darkened, shriveled, and empty. Like a laptop computer with the power cord unplugged, even the life we appear to hold within us is gradually ebbing away. Disconnected from the ever-full source of life and light and love, we are but waning shadows of all we were intended to be.
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa. 40:6–8)
The Image Defaced
Our fallen emptiness means we cannot be radiant as we were meant to be. Humanity, made in the image of God, should shine on the earth with reflected light. We were created to have fulfilling fellowship with God and so to glow with his beauty and happiness, like his Son, drawing all creation to enjoy our God. As Athanasius put it in the mid-fourth century, we were created to have our being “God-ward in a freedom unembarrassed by shame” just as does God the Word in whose image we were formed.2 When, in the fall, Adam ceased to contemplate or look to God and looked instead to himself (even to his own body in its nakedness and vulnerability, Gen. 3:7), the crucial bond between the divine image and the image bearer was broken. The image of God in humanity was defaced, and the glory dimmed. Having no glory of our own, we have nothing to give out. Athanasius said that, “because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone.”3
Adam’s loss of glory became the family trait. As well as being infected with his guilt and his death, each of us bears his likeness in behavior, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). It would be wrong to say that fallen people no longer bear the image of God at all: sin has not entirely destroyed all that God created. Nevertheless, the image is spoiled and marred such that we do not shine out with the glory of God.
With our eyes off God in his glory, and forever flitting about in the darkest corners, we are gradually formed into the image of creatures that deprive us of the life we miss and cannot satisfy us or restore us to our proper place. As Luther had it in his exposition of the first commandment, instead of worshiping God who is the source of all good and help and consolation, our hearts “stand gaping at something else,” which cannot help us.4 Anyone who has struggled with an addiction or a besetting sin will know the strangely enthralling power of the very thing we know to hurt and reduce us. However frustrated and unfulfilled we find ourselves, we nevertheless settle into unhappy cycles of worshiping nothingness, with nothing to gain and nothing to give out.
Perhaps the most perplexing response we encounter in evangelism is not so much anger but apathy. This reaction may frustrate the evangelist, but it should provoke our compassion. It is the fruit of a heart that is simultaneously deeply unsatisfied and without hope of satisfaction. The emptiness of sin is so profound that it leaves us hardened and stagnant.
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall . . .
Given all we have seen, it is no wonder that our culture is overrun with issues surrounding identity. Since the garden, we do not participate in the fullness of God’s life, his image in us has been vandalized, and we are consumed with self-love. Sinners do not know who, why, or what they are. Many people want to improve themselves but simply do not know what “mended” or whole people would look like. Sensing our brokenness, we make wild stabs at solutions: political activism, radical moral codes, mindfulness, self-improvement, dieting fads, and so on.
Feeling our emptiness, we crave the praise and attention of other people, making ourselves hostage to their opinions. We may find ourselves emotionally leaning on others too heavily, forcing friendships or romantic relationships to carry a weight of expectation they are unable to bear. Anxiety, stress, depression, and loneliness soon follow. A 2021 study by Harvard Graduate School of Education found that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, 36 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all of the time.” While loneliness has often been most associated with old age, this study found that 61 percent of young adults (ages eighteen to twenty-five) reported “serious loneliness.”5 For all the talk of learning to love ourselves, we ourselves are often the ones with whom we’re most terrified of being left alone.
The emptiness and darkness of this present age form the context and backdrop of the mission of the church (Titus 2:12). They mark the condition of the people around us who must hear the gospel of the glory of God if they are to be set free. The church alone can see through the prevailing wisdom that hope lies within. The church alone can see that the city built on love of self is the city divided against itself that cannot stand (Matt. 12:25). The church alone can show the world where real fullness, happiness, and life are to be found.
- George Orwell, The Complete Works of George Orwell: It Is What I Think (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986), 379.
- Athanasius of Alexandria, Against the Heathen, in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, vol. 4 of A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson (New York: Christian Literature, 1892), 4–5.
- Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation (New York: SVS, 1996), 39.
- Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, ed. Paul Timothy McCain (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2006), 360.
- Richard Weissbourd, Milena Batanova, Virginia Lovison, and Eric Torres, “Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do about It” (PDF), Harvard Graduate School of Education Making Caring Common Project, February 2021, 3, https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports.