A better creation in Isaiah

Another set of passages urged in support of the doctrine of a fallen natural world is Isaiah chs 11 and 65. The first is in the context of a Messianic prophecy, in which the Branch of Jesse will defeat Israel’s enemies and unite them, judging the wicked in favour of the righteous. Verse 6 begins:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

Isaiah 65 has similar contents, in a passage announcing new heavens and a new earth.

The argument for YECs is that these passages predict a return to the original state of Eden. I guess the Old Earth argument is that they show God’s dissatisfaction with his original, fallen, creation and his desire to replace it. Certainly both portray a contrast between the present age and the age of Messiah.

The first comment to make is that these passages are symbolic rather than literal. This is clear from 65.20, which pictures the new age as free of infant mortality, with people dying of old age at, usually, over a hundred years old. When the New Testament picks up “new earth” language, it is clearly on the understanding of eternal life and the defeat of death: mere longevity must therefore be a metaphor. But for what are these passages metaphors? It is very clear that the picture in both is of “the Great Israelite Dream” – the ideal life of an independent farmer dwelling amongst his kinsmen and cultivating his land-inheritance on the slopes of Mount Zion, close to the king and to God’s temple.

The animal references must be understood in this context, rather than as a description of nature in the raw. In each case a wild animal is paired with the livestock to which, in this age, the latter might fall prey, to the loss of the farmer. No wild herbivores are mentioned. It is more to do with the Israelite dwelling in safety than the correction of a cruel natural order.

There is a hint of Edenic imagery, in the mention of the snake, which in ch65 eats dust (a reminder of the effectiveness of God’s curse in Genesis 3) and in ch11 is safe for a child to play with. This, I think, is a contrast: in the old Eden you couldn’t trust your wife with the snake, but in the new you can even let your baby play with it. But this imagery is used less in order to compare the new world with Eden than to emphasise God’s new beginning: “Eden on steroids.”

There is indeed a contrast, whatever the metaphorical context, between this present age and the age to come. But is there any implication that this is a contrast between a damaged creation and a repaired one? I would argue, rather, that it’s a contrast between the first, good, creation and a new, better, creation. This is a progression that actually goes back to Genesis 1, and helps us understand not why the present creation is “naturally evil”, because Scripture does not state this, but why it could be better than we find it.

Genesis 1 (which, remember, is a functional and anthropocentric account, not a materialist cosmology) speaks of God systematically imposing order on chaos. But when he creates man, it is not only as his image on earth (a whole subject in itself) but to “rule” and “subdue” it. Necessarily, then, it was not completely subdued already, and elements of chaos remained. In the context of an old earth, it is clear that the world had existed successfully without human intervention for billions of years, so what can this rule mean? The fact of the fall into sin prevents us being able to answer this completely from history. Agriculture and civilisation seem to be part of it. But could it not also be that part of man’s intended role was to “tame” the wilder aspects of nature that were acceptable and even admirable in the pre-human world, but shown to be less than a perfect expression of God’s loving nature (not to mention dangerous to man) once his viceroy appeared on the scene? Is not Genesis suggesting that God delegated the final part of the ordering of his world to mankind?

Man, though, failed to bring about any such transformation. The Bible teaches, partly through such passages as these in Isaiah, that this failure is to be corrected by the transforming work of Christ, the last Adam. He completes the work that man failed even to begin. So it is not that, through man’s sin, nature became corrupt and needs to be restored to Eden, but that because of man’s sin, the primaeval world failed to be completed and needs the work of Christ to take it forward. Indeed, it would seem that in God’s economy the work Christ achieves in the creation is even beyond what man was originally commissioned to do, just as his salvation from sin takes us not back to Eden, but beyond that to the realm of the spirit where temptation can never again harm us.

Does that future include vegetarian lions? I think it is dangerous to conclude that from an agricultural pen-picture. Even the New Testament is careful to remain with metaphor in describing the age to come. But it is even more dangerous to conclude from these two passages that non-vegetarian lions are in any sense “evil”, especially when Psalm 104.20 presents them as so piously seeking their food from God.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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