A Tale of Creation
Why doesn’t God simply split the sky open, roll it back like a scroll, and reveal himself to the world in all of his power and glory? If he thundered from the heavens on a flying chariot, surrounded by ten thousand angels, he could settle once and for all any questions about his existence and sovereignty. Then he could rule the planet with perfect justice, dispensing with all the corruption and pollution and oppression.
Why doesn’t he make it so easy? That’s not to say that he is the one who makes it difficult. It’s to say that he could end all challenges to his authority quite easily. So why doesn’t he do something miraculous in order to bring us all into reverent submission? That’s probably what I would do if I were God. Or if I were going to create a god in my own image—or create a straw man that I could usurp—that’s probably the kind of god I would create.
Well, according to the Bible, that is simply not God’s personality. He doesn’t show off, nor does he intimidate. That’s not how Genesis says he reveals himself to the world. Nor is it how Jesus revealed himself to his followers. “I am the good shepherd,” he said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) He truly did not regard divine power as something to be grasped. A lot of people could not fathom such an attitude, so they kept challenging his claims. But even as they hung him on a cross they dared him to prove himself, he would not be provoked.
So who is he?
The first thing that Bible reveals about God is that he is creative and hardworking. He is always on the initiative to bring life. So one way to understand the Bible is as a tale of creation. Let’s follow this theme from Genesis to Revelation.
The Beginning of His Story
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. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:1-5)
On the second day it says that God separated the waters below from the waters above, and called the area in between them heaven. On the third day he separated the waters that were below with dry land, and on the land he created vegetation and fruit trees. On the fourth day he separated day from night with the appearance of the sun, moon, and stars: “And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:14-15)
On the fifth day he created sea creatures and birds. “And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’” On the sixth day he created land animals, and then he created man:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
And on the seventh day God rested.
Now there are a lot of things here that we don’t know. What does it mean to separate light from darkness? And what does it mean to say “there was evening and there was morning”—a phrase which is repeated for each of the six days—if it wasn’t until day four that God used the sun “to separate the day from the night.” And does day refer to 24 hours or is it a figurative way of accounting for an age of time (the same word in Hebrew)?
Let’s also remember that there are a lot of things about nature that we do not know. We have no clue what 68 percent of the universe is made of, and another 27 percent we call “dark matter” though we only have a theoretical understanding of that. Of the five percent that we are familiar with—the stuff composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons—mysteries abound. We know that protons and neutrons are composed of much smaller quantum particles quarks, but there are at least a dozen other quantum particles about which we are clueless. And to top it all off, we have absolutely no idea what time is though we have very good evidence for what it is not: it may well not be physical.
All that is to say that a bit of humility is appropriate in understanding the creation of the Creation. So what does God want us to understand from this account in Genesis? What is the Bible telling us?
One thing that comes across clearly is that he is works hard.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:1-3)
After giving us the picture of a work week, he also told Adam and Eve to work hard. He created them in his own image and then told them to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth. So although he put them in paradise he did not expect them to lie on the beach drinking margaritas all day. All through the Bible work is treated as something good. When the Jewish leaders got angry with Jesus because he was healing people on the Sabbath (the day of rest), he replied “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17)
Another thing that comes across clearly in Genesis is that God is creating through words. Before anything appears, he speaks. Now we have zero reason to assume that he was actually speaking in ancient Hebrew when he said things like, “ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי אור” (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”). But what if he had instead said, “Let ∇ × Β ⃗= μ0 J ⃗+ 1/c2 ((∂Ε ⃗)/∂t)”? (That’s one of James Maxwell’s equations for light.) He’s just letting us know that he created the universe with words. “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (Hebrews 11:3) In parallel with this, one of the gospels introduces Jesus not by telling about his birth to Mary and Joseph, but rather by saying (in ancient Greek):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
So we see God working hard and creating life through words. Another thing we see is that he is working artistically. Just as an artist establishes a workspace and then gathers materials in order to express himself creatively, so also God established a workspace and created materials in order to express good things. The culmination of his work was to create two creative people and then to give them the command to go work creatively.
And that may be enough. That may be all that we really need to know—that God worked hard to design and create good things. As to exactly how he did it, we can certainly ask questions but we don’t have to get answers. If he can speak some 200 billion galaxies into existence then his ways are, to say the least, much higher than ours. By contrast, many other creation stories show gods involved in bitter rivalries and savage struggles, portraying in themselves human frailties.
So how does the Bible say that corruption and frailty entered into God’s creation? It says he put Adam and Eve in a garden which had the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and he commanded them that, on pain of death, they were not to eat fruit from the later. However, the ability to be creative apparently meant that they were able to make choices, and they chose to disobey. From that point on the inclination to disobedience and rebellion passed to all their offspring, all of humanity. Jesus said that corruption spreads like leaven in dough.
And so from that point on death also entered the picture for all of humanity. Now when God told Adam and Eve that the punishment for their rebellion was death, he did not simply mean that their bodies would die. He meant that they would be separated from him. Previously they had walked with him in the Garden of Eden, but after they rebelled he sent them away and there remained distance—both literally and figuratively—in their relationship. Would that separation from God continue after their bodies died? Would their souls remain apart from him? That is what the rest of the Bible is about—whether people’s separation from the Creator is partial and temporary or total and eternal.
But before we continue with the narrative, we need to understand how Adam and Eve’s disobedience affected the rest of the creation. God had put them in charge of the earth, so when he punished them for their sin, he made it clear that everything under them experienced the consequences. Again there is a lot we don’t know. Had there been any physical death in the garden prior to their disobedience? On the one hand, fruit dies when you eat it. On the other hand, it is supposed to die in order for seeds to be planted. But for both vegetation and herbivores, immortality is, scientifically speaking, entirely plausible even if, logistically speaking, things could get a bit crowded if they continue being fruitful and multiplying. Nevertheless, the only reason that our bodies do not continually regenerate new cells is that we are, quite literally, programmed to slowly break down and fall apart. Just as physical life reveals intelligent design, so also does physical death.
That is all wonderfully fascinating to explore. But at the end of the day, there is actually no reason to ask, “What would have happened if Adam and Eve had not sinned?” Why? Because clearly God was not taken by surprise. Nor was he finished creating. Indeed, he had only just begun. He had a plan for dealing with people’s rebellion. He would recreate them.
The End of His Story
The Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apocalypse) means “revelation” or “unveiling”. And in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, God finally does reveal himself to the world in awesome and terrifying ways. But it’s not because he wants to dazzle or to intimidate. It’s because his patience has run out and he is very angry at all the oppression and corruption in the world. The world drinks the cup of his wrath as his judgments come in wave after wave of increasingly violent punishment.
And yet it is the image of birth. After a prolonged series of painful contractions, we see a new creation, a new Garden of Eden.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. (Revelation 21:1, 22:1-2)
Nothing in the Bible gives a picture of heaven being full of white clouds and flying harpists. Instead nature fills all. (See Isaiah 11:1-9). And Revelation also makes it clear that not just the earth but also the entire Creation will be a paradise. Who knows what we will do there? Likely we will continue working and creating things. After all, Adam and Eve had the opportunity to work before their fall, and the Bible always talks of work as a blessing—as something in which God delights. We will have eternity to work in a very big universe.
But for those who stubbornly insisted, at all costs, on refusing God’s offer of forgiveness and instead assuming the authority to judge good and evil for themselves, there will be hell to pay. When God does finally thunder from the heavens, they curse him. (Revelation 9:20-21) But the Bible says that their curses and hatred will turn back upon themselves as they experience everlasting loss.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:5-8)
In short, as the Bible presents it, people are either created once and die twice or they are created twice and die once. And when all is said and done, God will have used all the suffering to accomplish something good: the refinement of our love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The pain his people experienced will be irrelevant in light of eternal life, which is the end goal of God’s plan. (Just ask any mathematician how a few thousand years compares to eternity.) No one will be bitter or resentful about the agony they endured. As Jesus put it:
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:21-22)
So at the beginning of the Bible God is creating good things, and at the end of the Bible he is recreating good things. What happens in the middle of his story?
Between the Creation and the Recreation
Why did Adam and Eve disobey in the first place and eat the fruit that God commanded them not to eat? Well why does anyone else do it? Why do we lie? Why do we covet power and money? Why is there so much evil in the world? The Bible makes it clear that we are all guilty. No one people can self-righteously judge another people as being inferior. We all have to admit that above us there is a moral standard and that even in the easiest, most serene circumstances, we fail to meet it. For that matter, serene circumstances are often a petri-dish for evil.
So how did God respond to this corruption? Let us first put this question into context and consider what he did not do:
- He did not create an angelic police state. He did not coerce everyone into submission and nip rebellion in the bud wherever it sprang up.
- He did not just wipe mankind out, leaving nothing but the giraffes and the zebras and the butterflies.
- He did not just leave us alone to settle our own problems.
So what did he do? He took complete responsibility for our rebellion and then made it possible for us to be recreated, for us to choose from deep in our hearts to turn away from our sinful nature and submit to him in trust. How did God do this? Well the first thing he did was to reintroduce himself to the nations by creating a nation of former slaves over which he was king.
THE CREATION OF ISRAEL
Some twenty generations after Adam, God told a man named Abram to leave his kindred and go to a new land that he promised to give to him and his descendants. He told him that those descendants would be in bondage for 400 years.
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” (Genesis 15:13-14)
Now God told this to Abram—whose name he changed to Abraham—over 200 years before it began to happen, but he didn’t give him any of the details. As the story unfolds, Abraham’s grandson is named Jacob, and God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. And Israel has twelve sons who all move to Egypt and settle down there, where they multiply rapidly into a nation—a nation of slaves.
After about 400 years God then sent a man named Moses to ask the Pharaoh of Egypt to allow the Israelites to have a worship festival to God in the wilderness. But Pharaoh refused to let them go. What followed were increasingly violent waves of judgement—the plagues of Egypt—to try to persuade Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to hold the festival.
Again, it was the image of birth. After the last wave of judgement, the Israelites finally left Egypt, passed through a channel, and were delivered by God into new life with a new identity. Formerly their days were defined by agonizing, monotonous manual labor in service to their masters. Now, however, that history was invested with new meaning: they could proclaim to the world the salvation of God. They were to be a light to the nations, a city on a hill. Their story would be written and read.
However, God made it clear to the Israelites that in fulfilling this role, they were inherently no better or more righteous than the Egyptians had been. They did not deserve his favor or blessings any more than any other people. In fact, when God brought the last plague on the Egyptians and killed all their first-born sons, he told the Israelites that they had to put the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes so that their own first-born sons would not be killed. In other words, the reason that their own sons weren’t dying was not because the Israelites were morally superior but because someone else was dying in their place—someone symbolized by the blood of the Passover Lamb. And just as that blood was symbolic of God himself paying the penalty for their sin, so also the whole nation was symbolic of God’s forgiveness and re-creation of new life:
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23)
As God’s firstborn son, Israel was to show the world who God was and how we could be reconciled to him. God told the Israelites that their own first-born sons belonged to him—that he had paid for them—and that those sons would act as intermediaries between the nation of Israel and God. These intermediaries would bring people’s animal sacrifices before God because blood had to be shed in payment for sin so that justice could be upheld. But that blood was, again, only providing a symbolic payment for sin, not a literal payment. Now since it would be very administratively challenging for every family to send their firstborn sons to serve as intermediaries (i.e. as priests), God simplified things by choosing one of the twelve tribes of Israel—the tribe of Levi—to serve as those intermediaries. But when a headcount was made and they found that the number of firstborn sons outnumbered the number of Levite males by 273, they had to pay cash to redeem those extra 273 firstborn sons. (Numbers 3:40-51) For God was meticulous in matters of justice.
Thus God introduced himself to the world as the deliverer of slaves and as the one who would himself pay the price peoples’ sins. If those people showed that they trusted him by bringing the symbolic animal sacrifices to him, then they would be redeemed. They were setting their hopes on reconciliation with God the kingdom of heaven. As one of the oldest books in the Bible put it:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me! (Job 19:25-27)
Almost every facet of their culture—from their work to their rest to their clothing to their holidays to their worship—was designed to be a conversation-starter about the grace and mercy of God. Now one of the most unusual and defining characteristics of this people was that one day a week they would stop working and instead rest and worship the Creator. As he had commanded them:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:9-11)
They were to stop and remind themselves not to set their hearts on an earthly kingdom but instead on eternity. Their forefather Abraham knew that God’s promises to him could only be fulfilled in heaven (Hebrews 11:8-10), and so likewise the Israelites were to see themselves as sojourners on the earth.
Or that’s what God called them to do. For their part, they had a lot of trouble being thankful for what they had and agreeing with him that they were not better than other people. He kept blessing them richly, but as the centuries went by they fell into heinous lapses of tyranny, barbarism, and perversion. Of course this inevitably led to weakness, so that they would become subject to another nation again. Again and again they would turn away from him, then fall before their enemies, and then cry out to him in repentance. And again and again God would deliver them and bless them, only to see them disobey again.
By the end of the Old Testament the situation looks hopeless: no matter what God does for his people, they keep falling into corruption and then subjugation. By the first century CE, some 1400 years after Israel’s exodus from Egypt, only one of the twelve tribes, Judah, is left. They are again subject to a foreigners—this time the Roman Empire. That’s when a humble teacher and miracle worker appeared on the shores of Lake Galilee, claiming to be their promised, long-awaited deliverer.
THE ARRIVAL OF ISRAEL’S KING
Jesus was not the kind of deliverer they had been looking for. They expected a warrior who could lead them in spectacular victory against Rome. But what they got was a poor itinerate preacher who kept telling them to repent of their sins. His cousin, John, introduced him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) Jesus told people that they were slaves of corruption and that they needed to be recreated. “You must be born again.” (John 3:7)
A lot of people—especially Judah’s religious leaders—did not like to hear that. They could not deny that he was a miracle worker, but they were extremely offended by his humility and jealous of his popularity. They simply could not fathom how their God-ordained king could be a friend of the poor, the outcast, and the despised. Surely if he were God’s chosen one then he would befriend the elite.
Although the crowds loved him, they also had false expectations. Not even his closest disciples understood, though he told them several times, that he was planning to be crucified. On the one hand, they believed that he was the Son of God. On the other hand, it was simply unthinkable that the Son of God would let people execute him. So when it actually happened they were absolutely bewildered. Heartbroken and scared, they all ran and hid.
Now he had told them that he would rise from the dead three days later, but since that didn’t make any sense they just didn’t give it much consideration. They had seen him raise at least three other people from the dead. Furthermore, everyone knew he had said that he would rise from the dead, and the Jewish leaders even asked for extra Roman guards to prevent his followers from stealing the body and faking a resurrection. Nevertheless, his followers had no category for really believing that a shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep.
So when Jesus actually did rise from the dead his disciples were dumbstruck. They were very happy but also very disoriented. When his lead disciple, Peter, finally realized that Jesus really had risen from the grave, that he was not a ghost or such, the most profound thing he could say was, “I am going fishing.” (Several of them were professional fishermen.) Six of the others said, “We will go with you.” (John 21:3)
But Jesus went and called them back out of their fishing boats. He spent forty days explaining to them what had happened and why. He had taken complete responsibility for the world’s evil, died as punishment for it, and then risen from the grave, the firstborn of a new creation. As the Apostle Paul put it some fifteen years later:
He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness 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. (Colossians 1:18-20)
Slowly, they began to understand. It would take them about six years to digest the fact that Jesus did not just die for the salvation of Jewish people but also for the whole world. But as timed passed, the enormity of his revelation started to become clear. The things he had said earlier started to make sense.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16)
He had founded a new humanity to replace the old humanity in Adam. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22) The message was that people who trust in Jesus identify with his death, and so also identify with his life—a new creation in the kingdom of heaven. So he sent his disciples to proclaim this good news. “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation,” he told his them. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)
What does it mean to be baptized? It means a person makes a very clear, dramatic (literally) public proclamation that Jesus is their Savior and Lord. Churches use water to illustrate both the washing away of sins and also identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection. A person goes under water, thus identifying with his death; they rise from the water, identifying with his resurrection. They believe that their sins are left behind in the grave.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. (Romans 6:5-10)
Map image from http://www.seektheoldpaths.com/