One of the theological problems I had with an old earth a decade ago is less commonly remarked than some others: if mankind was created to rule and subdue the earth, as Genesis 1 teaches, how did it manage without him for over four billion years?
A related, less scripturally-based concern has more often come in comments from young earthers over the years: all those long-gone fossil species, not to mention all that suffering and extinction, being witnessed and enjoyed by nobody, were a complete waste.
The point on suffering is, I hoped, answered in brief in episode 2 of this series, and at length in God’s Good Earth. But it is worth considering the purpose of an earth created for mankind pursuing most of its history without him.
In fact, though, nothing in Scripture says that the world was created entirely for humanity’s sake, though there is no doubt that the creation account is anthropocentric in some aspects, for example in “livestock” being one of the three “kinds” of animals, and in the heavenly bodies being partially calendric in function, “signs to mark seasons and days and years…”.
But the Bible itself speaks of the utility of creation even before mankind. A myriad of heavenly beings were there to witness it, and to rejoice in its wisdom and beauty:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together(Job 38:4-7)
and all the angels shouted for joy?”
Then, too, God himself was not indifferent to the work of his hands. There were transactions (as it were) going on within the Trinity in the business of creation from the start:
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.(Col 1 15-16)
So the universe from one aspect is the gift of the Father to the Son, and from another the work of the Son for his Father.
And so all that we find astonishing and wonderful in the cosmos was so from the start, to the delight both of the angelic beings and God himself. Another truth is that, in its own way, this was always a worshipping creation, for the Bible suggests that the irrational creation brings glory to God simply by being what it is, which is (I think) the thought behind the whole of that great creation oracle of Job 38-41, and especially the long description of Leviathan, so hostile and apparently useless to man. Indeed, the whole tone of that hymn is to teach the sanctity of nature apart from man, rather than for him.
So what of the apparently essential place of mankind in the creation narrative? The guiding principle here is that mankind is placed in this cosmic temple to God as his image; as the presence, within the earthly creation, of a being uniquely formed after the image of its Creator, the Son – himself the true image of God.
In part, at least, we may see that as a priestly role, as people are able to express the worship of the creation rationally, bringing greater glory to God. The heavens and the earth may be very good, but it takes mankind to understand that and express praise.
In my thinking on this, I realised that even the long-gone “wasted” dinosaur comes under this human role, for we can only discuss the dinosaurs at all because we have found their remains, studied them, and gained an increasing understanding of their natural history, just as complex and wonderful as any of the several million species still living around us. We can also study the wonders of the history of the universe as the vastness of the universe, and the limited speed of light enable us to see its past as well as its present. God has so made things that we can praise him for things in the past, as well as the present.
John Walton’s insights helped me to make sense of the man-centredness (which is actually more God-centredness) of the Genesis 1 account. His recognition of the ancient world’s preference for functional over structural accounts enables us to focus on Genesis 1 as an account of the cosmos as a functioning temple, rather than merely as a physical entity. Given the chapter’s role as a preface to the drama that begins with Adam in chapter 2, we may see that, as that narrative begins, the earth has been prepared as a temple, endowed with a divine image since mankind’s arrival.
Richard Middleton encourages us to see mankind’s role in quite humble and prosaic terms: for humanity to begin to control the landscape through agriculture and civilisation, thereby gaining control over his world, is a true expression of his role as a ruler under God. Before mankind, the cosmos was still a wonderful work of divine architecture, but subdued by man and women it becomes increasingly ordered as a working temple for rational, human, worshippers.
My understanding of Genesis 2 (unlike that of scholars like Jack Collins) is that it is sequential to the creation account, rather than recapitulatory. If I’m right, then there’s a sense in which the geologically brief period of mankind’s existence before Adam was also a preparation for the work for which that individual was formed and called – the transformation of the whole cosmos into a spiritual, rather than a physical, realm filled with the glory of God. This is the hope inaugurated, after Adam’s failure, by Jesus Christ, to be consummated at his second coming.
One could perhaps compare the people before Adam to Solomon’s kingly role in building the Jerusalem temple. But only when the appointed priests had brought the ark of the covenant into the holy place, offering the appointed sacrifices, did the glory of the Lord fill the temple (1 Kings 8:6-11).
My last thought about the question of deep time arises from this, and also puts a perspective on the “troubles” which, from our viewpoint, seem to constitute almost everything it is to be human. The “good creation” before Adam, including the thousands of years when people were rational, but natural and distant, worshippers of the supreme Creator, was a successful project that brought glory to God for, in our present human reckoning, 13 billion years plus. The age to come, we learn from Jesus himself, is to last for eternity in the undimmed presence of the infinite God.
It is only what we might call “the adamic history” recorded in the Bible that is unusually short – mere thousands of years in the endlessness of eternity. And yet even this brevity shows that God can endow the insignificantly small with huge importance. This period is the pivot of creation, and the earthly work of Jesus the astonishingly brief 30-year centre – literally the crux – of that period . For it is only the grace of the Incarnation that fully reveals to the whole creation the true extent, and nature, of the glory of God:
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.(1 Pet 1:10-12)
With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.(Eph 1:8-10)