Sunday, April 24, 2016

Our Extravagantly Loving Creator

A longtime close friend sent me an email in which he asked me to consider this blog post by Tim Challies. In it, Challies, a young-Earth (and young-universe) creationist, responds to a lengthy quote from the book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander, who is apparently a theistic evolutionist. I'm assuming that each of the four of us--me, my friend, Challies (the blogger) and Alexander (the author)--is a follower of Christ who cares about truth, and who seeks to discern truth by taking seriously the Creator's revelation to us in Scripture and His revelation to us through the creation itself. These shared commitments are really significant (especially in our day and culture), and I want to celebrate that common ground.

But it is precisely because we each care about truth (and because my friend specifically asked me to) that I'll briefly respond here to these two different claims, identifying where I take each to have strayed from the truth.

The excerpt from Alexander's book is a straightforward retelling of what Earth's history would look like if the 4.6 billion years it involved were condensed into a single day. I've read such illustrations elsewhere, and the chronology that Alexander shares is reasonably faithful to the actual records (geologic and fossil).* Humanity really does show up in the very last three seconds of such a day. The problem for Alexander is that he (like a great many other folks) accepts an evolutionary explanation for this chronology, whereas taking the evidence seriously--critically examining it--necessarily yields a rejection of Darwin's speculative theory.

The new life forms that appear at the various stages of Earth's long history do so without evolving from a previous form. Each species that has ever lived appears in the fossil record without precursors and fully formed, fully adapted (designed) for its time and place and for the complex ecology of which it was a part. Each species recorded in the fossil record remains the same throughout its tenure there, looking at the time of its extinction exactly as it did at the time of its creation. There is as much evidence for species evolving into one another in a neo-Darwinian fashion as there is for species morphing into one another in a Transformer-like manner--that is to say, none. If we take the fossil record at face value, we recognize that the same Creator who brought the universe into existence, and who designed the universe and, more specifically, the Earth, for life, also designed and created each new life form at its proper time. And the evidence from the fossil record does nothing to contradict the evidence from our experience, that living things invariably produce offspring "after their kind," as the Bible has it.

But what I was really asked to respond to was Challies' claim. After admitting the usefulness of Alexander's all-Earth-history-in-a-single-day illustration because "we have trouble understanding the vastness of billions of years," Challies gets to his main point...
What I cannot reconcile with my understanding of the biblical account of creation is that man appears only at the very, very end of it all.
He elaborates on his own angst,
In this understanding of our origins, the history of the universe is not the history of mankind.
Challies is, of course, more to be pitied here than censored. It takes both humility and honesty to begin his argument by admitting that its conclusion is based largely in his own understanding and his personal inability to reconcile the evidence. I think I can assist him there, offering some suggestions that might help him reach a truer understanding of the world God created for us and, more importantly, a better appreciation of the bigness of that Creator/Redeemer God.

But before offering those hints, let me address one other claim in Challies' post, to wit,
The biblical writers seem to want us to understand that the world was created for man and that it had no purpose apart from man.
Challies offers no support for this claim, and may feel that the popularity of this view precludes the need for establishing its validity. I could write an entire chapter addressing this misconception,** but will content myself here with offering a couple of alternate notions.

First, I acknowledge the temptation to read the creation accounts through such an anthropocentric lens. There are at least a couple of goods reasons for this. One is that it is human nature to place ourselves at the center of things, to make ourselves the protagonists of the story. So to the extent that the Bible's accounts seem to give us a place of centrality, they feed right into our sense of our own worth. More basically, though, the Bible is the Creator's revelation specifically to humanity, and not to any of the rest of His creatures. We alone (because created in His image) have the ability to read this propositional revelation, to understand (in part) His purposes in creating us and subsequently establishing relationship with us. So it is only to be expected that our role in God's plans (rather than His purposes for the rest of creation) would take a central place in that revelation. The ultra-brief creation account of Genesis 1 gets quickly to the creation of man and woman--rather than discussing in even greater detail (than it does) the creation events of the prior 4.6 billion years of Earth's history--because the theme that occupies the majority of the rest of the Bible is God's subsequent interactions with the descendants of Adam and Eve.

But no matter how prominently mankind figures in God's purposes in creating the universe, it simply does not follow (indeed, is ludicrous to claim, as Challies does) that the creation of the universe "had no purpose apart from man."

A correct understanding is that the Bible's several creation accounts are not anthropocentric but theocentric. They are about the Creator/Redeemer, and only derivatively about mankind. We are not the heroes or the protagonists; we don't play the lead role. The Bible is about God, and the same is true of the various creation accounts it contains.

If we examine such creation accounts more closely, what we find is that the central theme is not our superiority over the rest of God's creatures but rather our shared creatureliness, and the Creator's standing as wholly other. This is apparent not only in Genesis 1, but in Psalm 104 and Psalm 148. Similarly, in the picture (in Revelation 5) of the New Creation and the fulfillment of the purposes for the present one, not just humanity, but every living thing will be gathered together in praise of the Creator:
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever." (Rev. 5:13)
But perhaps no creation passage makes my point--and refutes Challies' claim--as clearly as the early Christian creed embedded in Paul's letter to the church in Colossae. Its theme is the preeminence of Christ, "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation."
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:16-20)
Christ not only created all the living things that have inhabited the earth over the past 4.6 billion years--he died to reconcile them to Himself. To be sure, mankind is central to the need for that death--it was our fallenness (and not that of any other creature) that led to the need for that redemptive, reconciling, sacrificial death. But God clearly seems to have purpose and value for all of creation, and not just for mankind.

But even if one wishes to insist that creating humankind was God's ultimate purpose for creating this universe, it is perfectly reasonable to think that He may have used the rest of His creatures--and Earth's long history--to prepare things for humanity. This idea has the full support of both the biblical and scientific records. The creation 'week' (of Genesis 1:3-2:3) is an account of just this--how the Creator prepared the unformed, lifeless Earth described in 1:2 into a fit place for humanity. And the scientific discoveries of recent decades have verified the truth of these ancient passages, confirming both the formlessness of the early Earth and the role of other living things in changing the planet--its crust, atmosphere, and all--into the ideal place for humanity that it was by the time God eventually created our species.

It seems that Callies (like others) is predisposed to reject this conclusion to which the united dual revelation leads, and that because it doesn't fit with the timing arrived at by Lightfoot and Ussher's 17th-century interpretation of Genesis 1. 'Couldn't God have created everything already fit for human habitability, rather than taking long ages to achieve His purposes?' I don't know the answer for the true hypothetical, but, given the physics and chemistry with which He chose to endow this creation, the answer is 'no.' In this (actual) universe, God really did require the miraculous interactions of all that He made over billions of years to arrive at the perfect place for humanity.***

God reveals Himself to us first as Creator. And if we think about it, art can be (roughly) divided into two types. Passive art is largely finished when the artist completes the last brush stroke or precise incision. The resulting painting or statue is inactive. To be sure, the viewer brings something to the appreciation of the piece, but the piece itself is fixed and unchanging. The other category is active--or, better yet, interactive--art, and is exemplified by symphony or drama. In these, the artist establishes how the art is intended to play out, but he or she voluntarily allows others (the musicians or actors) to play a significant role in the unfolding of the ever-changing work of art.

God's creation is not passive art--it is interactive art. I suspect that Callies would acknowledge the fact that this universe was intended by its Creator more as a drama than as a painting. But his objection, then, really devolves into an impatience on his own part, a desire that the drama arrive at the penultimate scene much quicker than it does. And my response is that--in the drama that God actually wrote, all the prior scenes were absolutely necessary for the introduction (in the second-to-last scene) of the actors whose welfare and destiny the Author--who is also the Star--had in view throughout.

Unlike us, God is never impatient. Unlike us, the Creator doesn't need to economize. Indeed, God is outside of time--which He created--and so the 4.6 billion years of Earth history, or even the 13.6 billion years of the universe's history, are no longer for the Creator than if He had created Earth and everything in it instantaneously. But rightly understanding the long history of the Earth and universe has at least two implications for us.

First, it should give us a much deeper appreciation of the severity of the Fall. That our sinfulness brought a curse upon all of a 4.6-year-old very good creation is no small thing. That we--as the last species created--could overnight mess things up for all of creation entails a gravitas that is hard to overstate.

But that leads to the second implication--which is how incomprehensibly great is the Father's extravagant love and forgiveness. It is an indescribable wonder that He lovingly prepared the universe over 13.6 billion years, and took 4.6 billion years in carefully crafting Earth as a perfect home for us. But it is even more remarkable that, even before we spurned His love and trashed that creation into which He had put so much, He instituted an immensely costly plan for making all things right. Psalm 19 and many other Scripture passages instruct us to learn about God's love, provision, , glory, and forgiveness through the study of the creation itself. When by doing so we discover the truth about God's extravagance in creating, it brings much greater depth to the meaning of passages like Ephesians 1:3-4, which have in view not a period of 144 hours (between His forming of Earth and His creation of mankind) but at least 4.6 billion years:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world!

* The only significant mistake in Alexander's chronology has to do with the establishment of the genetic code. He has it as occurring somewhat after the first life forms. The reality is that the universal genetic code seems to be an essential characteristic of all life on Earth, and that the earliest living cells exhibited that code already fully established. It seems that only a pre-commitment to evolutionism would cause Alexander to place the establishment of the genetic code rather later than the first life forms.

** Actually, a full-length book addresses this popular misunderstanding of the Bible's creation accounts: Living With Other Creatures, by Richard Bauckham.

*** To explore these ideas further, the reader is directed to Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, by Hugh Ross, and The Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great stuff as always Rick, haven't read the blog in a while, need to get back on it!

The quote below stuck out,

"A correct understanding is that the Bible's several creation accounts are not anthropocentric but theocentric. They are about the Creator/Redeemer, and only derivatively about mankind. We are not the heroes or the protagonists; we don't play the lead role. The Bible is about God, and the same is true of the various creation accounts it contains."

In this day age where biblical narcigesis (narcisism and esigesis combined)is ruling the pulpits, stages,watercoolers and blog posts of America, we need to remember who the bible is about!

God does not need to and in fact cannot deceive or lie to us about the age of the earth or anything for that matter. The whole idea that Challies presents of the world being created quickly with the appearance of age would fall into that category I would think.

Again, nicely done.