Voices

Can it get any worse?

From Columbia's crash to terrorism's potential, the Fall is everywhere

Issue: "The cost of war," Feb. 15, 2003

I'd slept in a bit that Saturday morning a couple of weeks ago-a luxury I hadn't enjoyed often in recent months. So it was already 9 a.m. when I started the coffee and picked up Joel Rosenberg's thriller novel The Last Jihad. It had been hard the night before to put it down; but I still had 180 pages to go, and my Saturday schedule was uncharacteristically free.

But first, I thought, my e-mail. And that's when I picked up the early reports of the terrifying loss of spaceship Columbia. Maddened by the tedious slowness of the Internet, I flipped on the TV. And Peter Jennings's juxtaposition shook me to the core. "The specter of terrorism," he was saying, "is, of course, at the top of everyone's list of possible causes."

The images tumbled through my mind: real-life preparations, that very weekend, for war with Iraq; a news reporter-turned-novelist reminding me how tiny was the distance between fact and fiction; and now the possibility that a new act of terrorism would grotesquely reshape world events still again.

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The fact that in the end Columbia's problem was its own, rather than an assault by a terrorist, really changes little. In today's surrealistic climate, we would have been stunned but still not totally surprised to have learned that an Iraqi rocket had brought down our astronauts. The eerie connection should serve as a reminder of a grim truth of life: If something bad can happen, sooner or later it almost certainly will happen.

That dire outlook is true on two fronts:

First, bad things happen just because the creation and everything around us is broken and wearing out. Along with word of Columbia last weekend came news of how cancer has continued to ravage the bodies of two of my friends. Over the weekend, four different light bulbs in our house blew, and a plastic pipe burst and flooded a basement room. The oil in my car needs changing, and the windshield washer doesn't work well. One key on my almost-new computer won't function.

It's easy to say, "Get with it, Belz. That's just the way things are." Except that there's a reason for things being that way. The Apostle Paul refers to a creation that looks forward to being set free from its bondage to decay. "That whole creation," he says, "has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now." Implicit in Paul's argument is the assumption of the Fall-the ultimate terrorist attack that for millennia has subjected not just our hearts and souls, but the essence of the creation around us to constant deterioration. There's a theological explanation for ceramic tiles that fall off space shuttles and for foam insulation that comes loose on takeoff. Our bodies wear out. Our homes wear out. Mankind's most sophisticated inventions, including NASA's best spaceships, simply wear out.

All that would be bad enough-but might be endurable if we could only know that the hearts and souls of all our fellow humans were pure and noble as together we set about the tasks of curing cancer, replacing light bulbs, changing the oil, and perfecting ceramic heat tiles. But we know humanity too well. We know the Saddam Husseins and the Osama bin Ladens. We know the rascal down the street. We know ourselves-and even that would be enough to be discouraging. When we know the morality of our own hearts not just to be frayed at the edges, but often ready to fly apart, then what hope can we possibly have for those we think to be our pagan enemies?

The ugly truth is that just as you can count on material things to wear out and fall apart, you can also count on fallen humans sooner or later to exhibit the worst behavior you could ever imagine. Supposedly honest students will cheat on exams. Supposedly good men will cheat on their wives. A supposedly good mom will walk out on her children. Give Saddam Hussein long enough and enough opportunities and yes, sooner or later, he will rocket a nuclear warhead in someone's direction. It's part of our fallen genetic structure.

Because I'm a Christian who believes what the Bible says, I'm not an ultimate pessimist on all these issues. God's going to turn all these things around one day, and make all things new.

But because I'm a Christian who believes what the Bible says, I'm also a realist about all these matters in the short term. Evil lurks on every side-in the physical world and in the human heart. We're not engaged in a Saturday-morning fantasy war with a pretend destroyer, but with wicked forces intent on defying a righteous God. We might even pray that this is the death gasp of the Evil One, and that if things get especially bad over the next few weeks, it turns out that this is as bad as it gets. But for now, Murphy's Law is still very much at work.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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