Nothing is evil. How do you read those words? Do you hear me saying that there is no such thing as evil? Or maybe you read them as the absence of something, the void, is evil? Either way, when you read Genesis 1 as a primal story, as a cosmological myth, you are right.
In the Beginning
When we open the Bible how are we supposed to read the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth?” If we follow the typical formatting of the text, we would read this as God’s creative act that turns nothing into something. In this case, we go from nothing to a water-covered earth (this is what theologians call creation ex nihilo or “out of nothing”). The rest of the chapter then outlines what God does from there.
However, our formatting, including chapters and verses are all relatively recent additions to the ancient text. This does not mean they are inherently wrong, but we certainly should not allow them to shape our interpretation. Moreover, in ancient texts, the opening line is often an introduction to everything that follows.
So what if we allow that reality to shape our reading? What if what you and I know as Genesis 1:1 is an overview or headline that lets us know the big picture of the coming story? If that is true, then the actual account of God’s creating does not come until what we mark as verse two.
To help visualize this, here the text is, reformatted like a newspaper or magazine.
From this perspective, Genesis does not tell us where everything came from, but how God comes to nothing, the only thing that the first chapter of Genesis never calls good, and makes everything (which God then calls good).
What is Nothing?
But what is nothing, that formless void or the watery abyss? It is hard to describe because even those things sound like something. We end up sounding a bit like this clip from the fairytale turned movie, The Neverending Story:
But what if nothing and something has more to do with form and function than it does substance? What if the bestowal of purpose is what takes nothing and turns it into something?
This means that light and dark both have a purpose. Same with earth and sky. Land and sea both have meaning. As do the creatures that inhabit them all. The same is true of male and female, although, since these are both characteristics of the divine we should think of them as the far less sexualized, gendered and binding, masculine and feminine. The point is, everything belongs!
And if that is true, if it is not about the substance but its function, then the creation story of Genesis is not just about a past event, but the continued bestowal and renewal of purpose and function. It would mean the divine activity of declaring nothing as something continues from the pages of Genesis and into our lives.
But just how far does everything belonging go? Could the argument that nothing is evil extend to both sides of opposites like sickness and health, sadness and joy, or chaos and order? It is easy to look at the uncomfortable side of those dynamics and call them evil, but what if they too are part of what God describes as good? After all, nothing, other than nothing, is evil.
While we’re at it, why not carry it over contrasting states like youth and agedness, sight and blindness, speaking and mute, hearing and deaf, or even able-bodied and disabled? If nothing is evil, then all those somethings, despite how much we might disparage them in modern society, are also good.
If that is the case, then our experience of evil is either life without purpose or an assault on our purpose. This means that agedness, blindness, muteness, deafness, and dis-ability are not evil, but viewing them as evil is evil because it strips them of their belonging. The same is true of sickness, sadness, and chaos. And if all that is true, it changes everything.
My Experience of Nothing and Evil
Those of you who know my story know I spent most of my first four decades living in the void. At the core of my being, I believed I was nothing and therefore I experienced evil. Many of my desperate attempts to create a sense of purpose involved the disparagement or objectification of someone else, which means I also did evil.
I knew what I was doing and I wanted to stop, I just didn’t know how. This is why I have often used the language of addiction to describe that season of life. Ultimately, I spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on a wide array of therapies desperately trying to fix me so I would stop doing evil.
From Fixing to Loving
As a part of the fixing effort, and ultimately part of the doctoral dissertation that fuels all of Abundance Reconstructed, I attended the To Be Told Workshop put on by the Allender Center at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.
After three days of delving into my story and the story of others, I sat with a young therapist named Abby Wong who looked me in the eyes and said, “Maybe it’s time to stop thinking of yourself as a problem to solve, and instead start thinking of yourself as a person to love.”
It took years for those words to sink in, and six years later I still find new depths of meaning in them. But at this moment, they remind me that nothing is inherently evil, and instead of fighting the sides of me I learned to see as “darker” or the parts I don’t necessarily like, life is best when I choose to love them.
As it turns out, my doing evil largely flowed from seeing myself as evil. When I stopped hating myself and started loving myself, I found purpose. Moreover, the compulsion to do evil, that is, assault the belonging of myself or someone else, faded away.
Article: Is Genesis 1:1 a Summary of Gen. 1:2–31, a Heading, or an Initial Act of Creation? (Part One)
I share this article to highlight the interpretive history behind Genesis 1:1, not to promote the author’s conclusions. He is, after all, and Evangelical which will guide his interpretative process (much like my views guide my understanding). That said, he does a good job of highlighting the various valid interpretive options.
Video: There’s No Such Thing As A Dragon by Jack Kent
This children’s story invites us to think about those parts of ourselves that we don’t like or are tempted to deny. When these aspects dwell in the shadows, they tend to express themselves in destructive ways. But when acknowledged and loved, they can become manageable.
Sermon: Developing Love by Joe Burnham
In May of 2020, The Sanctuary, a church near downtown Denver, asked me to preach my story. If you want to know more about my experience in the void, here’s what I said.
Make a list of things that you see as evil (or unwanted). Pick one and write a letter to it:
- If you can see the good in it, thank it for the ways that it served you. Here’s an example I posted on Instagram a few months back.
- If you cannot see the good in it, tell it you are trying to see how it too can be good.
Let’s delve deeper into the idea that Genesis 1 is not just a time-bound story, but a personal one that continues today. What does it mean that we too are being created?
Love that story. And the healer you encountered. Once when I felt so despised and useless I attended a church group. That was UU. (which I do not endorse, but certainly I do not fault their search for meaning.) I was still very attached to Christianity as were others in the congregation. We started a study of Christian Liberation Theology. So I read that cool stuff. One night we had a prayer circle. Kind of a meditation sitting on the floor. It was my turn to share, so I began. Ms. Virginia reached over to me, putting her hand under my chin, raising my eyes to hers. She said “It’s okay to look at me. Let me see your eyes when you speak.” Pastor Joe, you may not know that is avoiding others gaze was something I was so accustomed to, turning away in anger and shame. That was a grand healing act. I have not had a problem making eye contact with people since that night. Footnote. Virginia Carver has a dance studio (or did) named for her at Univ. of Georgia. She was a professor of dance. Thoughts about nothing. Thank you
Actually, if it’s thoughts about being seen, it strikes me that it’s thoughts about everything!