The cover story for the July/August issue of The Atlantic is titled, "The Ideas Issue: How to Fix the World." The article addresses, among other things, the housing mess, the Afghanistan war, the collapsing environment, illegal immigration, and homeland insecurity. A subtext of many of the entries is international terrorism, the most dreadful and symbolic of global threats. These are all but snapshots of the terrible panorama of blood, fire, smoke, and darkness of the present world order.

Except that the word order hardly applies. It's chaos we're living in, and we are weary and sometimes frightened. Among the many filmmakers who paint this reality in vivid hues are the Coen brothers. Their movies always feature a character who brings chaos to the world. Yet whereas in early films, chaos is always brought under control (in Fargo, for example, police chief Marge Gunderson captures the cold-blooded killer Gaer Grimstud), at the end of their last film, No Country for Old Men, chaos is still on the loose.

That last film is especially unnerving, because we hope against hope that chaos will be brought to order. We see this yearning everywhere: from the editors of The Atlantic to hope-entrepreneurs (like the book-promotion e-mail I received yesterday announcing, "Expert says world peace is possible if we focus on what unites us") to neo-messiahs of political and/or religious persuasion announcing the need for a "new world order."

Order. Peace. The human heart beats with the hope that somehow, someway, and someday, the chaos will be quelled. It is a hope addressed by every major political figure and every major religion. The coming kingdom of righteousness and peace is so central to Christian faith, some have summed up that faith as a "theology of hope."

But what if we discover that chaos can be created by fiat of our heavenly Father? What then?

* * *

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep" (Gen. 1:1-2, ESV).

As biblical scholars are quick to point out, this is an ancient way of describing chaos. We normally highlight what comes next: the Spirit "hovering over the face of the waters," followed by a narrative in which God brings order to this dark, unruly deep, creating something remarkable.

But the first thing God created was not order. He brought order, but the first thing he created was chaos. We rightly believe that in disobeying God, Adam and Eve unleashed another chaos into the created order. But before there was a created order, there was a created chaos over which the Spirit hovered, contemplating its dark and perfect beauty (what else could it be but beautiful if created by God?).

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Chaos, it seems, is not itself an enemy of the good. It appears instead to be something divine and spiritual, as in the Holy Spirit.

But this ruach ("breath") of God does not always refresh:

The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Most High uttered his voice,
hailstones and coals of fire.
And he sent out his arrows and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings and routed them.
 Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils. (Ps. 18:13-15, ESV)

Nor does the ruach of God always bring peace and order:

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
 Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. (Joel 2:28-31, ESV)

The biblical writers picture a God who sometimes creates a perfect and beautiful chaos, and sometimes one that is terrifying.

* * *

What we make of this has the potential to help us fathom and, to a degree, live peaceably with chaos within and without.

For one, this biblical picture suggests that sometimes chaos can be embraced as a beautiful darkness that we, like the Spirit, can meditate on in rapt contemplation. Baylor University's Daniel H. Williams, in an upcoming article in Christianity Today, reminds us that there is such a thing as "a luminous darkness," and that such darkness "is one filled with God's presence."

This is the great insight of Eastern Christianity and what is called apophatic theology: We come to know God most deeply when we begin by acknowledging his utter inaccessibility. The famous "dark night of the soul" is not merely the experience of feeling abandoned by God, but part and parcel of the reality of knowing God: He is infinite, we are finite; while we can know him truly in Christ, we can only know him partially, so partially that it can seem like we're looking into darkness. He is the God not only of peace and order, but of a divinity dark and mysterious.

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Apophatic theology reminds us that our faith is mere sentimentality if we ever forget the God who first created an earth without form and void.

At the same time, the biblical writers give voice to that deep human yearning for God to bring order out of chaos. We see that in the Genesis narrative, where something remarkable is created from the darkness and void, but also in those prophetic judgments. One example: That frightening vision announced in Joel ends with a picture of peace and order:

In that day the mountains will drip new wine,
and the hills will flow with milk;
all the ravines of Judah will run with water.
A fountain will flow out of the Lord's house
and will water the valley of acacias. (Joel 3:18, NIV)

It is difficult, if not impossible, to discern whether the historical chaos we experience at any given time or place is the result of human sin or the judgment of divine holiness. But in either case, the Prophets tell us that the chaos is not, and never will be, the last word.

In fact, often it is the first word, a divine movement that surprises and alarms, upsets neat theological categories and sabotages sentimental faith. Sometimes chaos comes to remind us of the mysterious, unfathomable nature of our Abba in heaven. Sometimes it is a sign of a terror-filled judgment. But in either case, we are assured that the Spirit is hovering over the turbulence, preparing to create, sooner or later, something remarkable.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. His latest book is A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

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In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
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