At long last I’m in a position to look at the content of most science-faith discussion, that is the material Universe, in the context of what we’ve seen from the Bible about its purpose. That means especially, in terms of (a) the glory of God, (b) his eternal purpose in glorifying Christ through sacrificial suffering and (c) the central role of mankind. We can even say a little about creation in relation to the angelic realm, if I remember.
Considering the glory of God, I pointed out at the relevant place that God himself doesn’t need a Universe. The Genesis 1 account describes the Universe as God’s sacred space, primarily, it seems, for mankind as worshippers. But yet he actively rules the creation itself by his own power – it is more than simply a collection of artifacts for man to use and admire. And as many people have pointed out, all the many wonders that in times past and galaxies far away have never been seen by man still have a point to their existence if God himself beholds them. Yet in a way a Universe without rational inhabitants is like a symphony existing only in the composer’s manuscript copy. He may appreciate that his work is great, but its true purpose is to be heard by an audience.
In the same way the cosmos glorifies God principally by being inhabited by those who can offer him worship (see Isa 45.18). Like any temple, its main purpose is not its own beauty, though that should reflect the worthiness of its Deity, but to be the stage on which the drama of worship – and the drama of salvation – is played out. We’ll turn to that now, after mentioning in passing that, of course, another worshipping observer of the cosmos is the angelic creation (see Job 38.7).
As we saw in the post on the Logos, the drama for which the Universe exists has the Incarnation and Passion of Christ at its centre. This is the opposite of the view that ateleological science tends to favour. In that, the Universe exists for its own sake. Mankind is a product of its existence, and events in human history epiphenomena of that. That back-to-front perspective easily gets smuggled into a Christian worldview unnoticed. The Universe is in trouble – how can God in Christ save it? Mankind has messed up Creation – by saving him, Creation can be put right. But it does seem from the biblical perspective that the corruption of the physical creation (see below) is merely a symptom of the the key event – the Fall of mankind, which leads to the even more key event, the demonstration of God’s glory through the cross.
Accordingly, the Bible treats the material creation – and especially the animal kingdom – very much as non-rational, and made in order to serve. There really doesn’t seem to be any hint of that idea that its purpose is to be (co-)creative and free, and that’s surely right unless there were evidence that the creatures have libertarian will (other than talking snakes and donkeys, where we may suppose at least metaphorical, if not supernatural, influence).
The Bible describes God’s care and love towards it (eg Ps 104, 145), but includes in that description predation and his taking of their lives. It commands kindness to animals – but actually very sparingly, and as often in relationship to good stewardship and human character as in concern for the beasts themselves (Prov 12.12, 27.23-24; Jonah 4.11).
The example of Jesus is instructive, too, though the evidence is, significantly, sparse. In referring to the sparrows he cites God’s will even in relation to their individual deaths, yet contrasts it with his greater concern for the saints. He praises the adornment of the lilies of the field, yet is happy to sacrifice a thousand pigs for the spiritual well-being of one man. He eats the slain Passover lamb, and even after his resurrection, fish. Paul, too, “updates” an animal-welfare regulation from Deuteronomy by applying it to people (1 Cor 9.9-10; 1 Tim 5.18).
It’s ironic that primitive cultures are said to be anthropomorphic, seeing spirits in animals, trees and even rocks. And yet the evidence is that modern man is far more willing to see animals as something more than animals than the ancient Bible does. That is probably because evolutionary theorising dissolves the sharp division the Bible draws between the beasts and man, the beast in God’s image, with eternity in his heart. We have to show the apes can speak, or admit that they are on a different plane from ourselves.
And so we come to the role of nature in human life. And here is where science, art and worship must be deeply involved, for the material creation is our domain, in which we live, and which we were created to rule and serve. As I’ve said before a large part of this is the bringing of more and more of creation into God’s worship space both physically, by caring for it, and “scientifically” by understanding it. To that one can add “artistically”, by representing it in innumerable ways through the imagination. In all these ways the “worship” of the creatures, which is for the most part just their simple business of existing as God’s wisdom created them, becomes through man truly to the glory of God. This role would have kept Adam’s race busy forever had sin not intervened.
Yet one seldom appreciated fact is that creation was not ruined by the fall. I’ve written on this several times (eg here and following posts) and hope perhaps to publish something more substantial on it before too long if the opportunity persists. Until the Renaissance most theologians vigorously refuted not only the idea that there was any corruption in nature, but the Platonic thought that matter was somehow intrinsically evil.
In fact the Bible seems to show that what we see as “natural evil” has several components: (a) the loss of immortality in man making us vulnerable, (b) God’s specific judgements making us succumb to natural events, (c) the evils we physically cause by abusing the creation and, less noticed but probably the key thing theologically, the desecration of nature’s goodness by the pollution of our sin. This is the spiritual equivalent of bringing pigs or orgies into the Jerusalem temple. It’s still the same, undamaged, building but has become corrupt as a temple.
This, it seems to me, is the best explanation of the “groaning creation” of Romans 8. The personified creation “wants” only to return to being the medium for worship that it was intended to be, and will be through the redemption of mankind’s (not nature’s) sin, as in Colossians 1.20, already quoted with reference to angels:
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
This brings me to a few thoughts on the future creation, in “the new heavens and the new earth”. If the creation is, barring a bit or refurbishment and tidying up, still “very good” as Genesis says, and if its “reconciliation” is actually the removal from it of causes of evil, then it’s possible – I wouldn’t put it stronger – that our dwelling in the age to come may not as radically different from what we know as we ourselves shall be in our likeness to Christ. So maybe some of the old science will still work after all, and maybe cod and chips will still be on the menu! Against that is the rather dramatic imagery of this age passing away by fire (but that might indeed be spiritual imagery), eschatological prophecies of wolves and lambs playing together (but prophecies too are sharing a meaning, not necessarily a photograph) – and the rather more prosaic scientific prediction of Universal heat death before our eternity scarcely begins.
Speculation, though, risks heresy – the negation of which has been the whole point of this series. My main point is to show that, understood in its own terms and in relation to God’s purposes for it revealed in Scripture, our Universe is exceedingly good, and should lead us even now to a life full of joyful worship. In the age to come, there will certainly be an equivalent “natural realm” for redeemed humanity, living with the risen God-man Jesus Christ, to enjoy, rule, subdue and turn into endless praise, to the glory of the everlasting Father.