Have you ever wondered why the Bible seems to be guilty of double-talk when speaking of “the world”? John 3:16 tells us that God the Father loves the world so much that he sent God the Son to fix it. But we’re told in 1 John 2:15‑17 not to love the world, and James tells us that “a friend of the world” is “an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We have Paul telling us in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to be separate from the world and to “go out from” unbelievers, while Jesus, in Mark 16:15 commands his disciples to “go into all the world.”
What’s going on? Is the world good or bad? Are we to love it or hate it? Enter it or exit it?
The answer: it all depends on which sense of the word world you mean.
As scholars point out, the word world has three basic meanings in the Bible. It can refer to (1) the created order, (2) the human community, and (3) the sinful ways of humanity, or cultural godlessness. It’s this third meaning, for instance, that Paul identifies when he tells us, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). He’s not telling us to avoid the created order or other human beings. It’s actually worldliness that Paul is warning against.
Furthermore, when it comes to the world, it’s necessary to differentiate between “structure” and “direction.” It’s the difference between what there is and how we use what there is. The world as structure refers to the people (such as my next-door neighbor), places (such as Miami), and things (such as art or music) of the created order. “Direction” refers to the ethical use or misuse of God’s created goods. As the Bible teaches, God created all things good (structure). But our sin has broken and corrupted every good thing God created, “directing” it away from him. Everything in the created order (every person, place, and thing) has been twisted out of shape by our sin.
Sex, for instance, is a structural good that God has built into his creation, while sex outside marriage is an ethical misuse of that good. Or, to take an example one of my friends uses, the storytelling ability of movies is a structural good that’s a part of God’s created order (God himself is a storyteller). But the illicit sex, perverse humor, and shallow story lines found in many movies represent an ethical misuse of that created good. Therefore, while God loves the structure of the world (creation), he hates its sinful direction (fall), though he’s now in the process of redirecting it back toward himself (redemption).
We are, of course, to follow God’s lead in this. We’re to love the world’s structure (peoples, places, and things) while fighting against the world’s sinful direction. Or, as Flannery O’Connor put it, if you are a Christian you “have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle against it.”