Louis Armstrong sang it; millions of us have hummed along: ‘What a wonderful world’. But is it really? Sure, God made it good – Genesis tells us so repeatedly and finishes up by God declaring it all ‘very good’. Note that God never says humanity’s arrival made it very good. God declares it all very good, implying that what’s special is the wondrous variety of creation including, but by no means only, us.
However, if creation was created very good, what’s happened since? What about predation, disease, cruelty, viruses, volcanoes, disability, earthquakes? David Attenborough, the famous wildlife presenter, when rebuked for never crediting God for the awe-inspiring wonders in his TV programmes once said: “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”
The knee-jerk Christian answer is that suffering, death and disorder in the world are explained by sin and the fall. Adam ate the apple and now the earth is rotten to the core. Paradise is lost. Creation is fallen.
I used to agree, but I confess I’m not so sure now. Why?
- Scientists, philosophers and any astute observers of how nature actually works, tell us that suffering, death and the shifting of tectonic plates are vital parts of what makes the earth go round and nature thrive. In Pacific North America, salmon need to be eaten by bears and eagles if the nutrients in their bodies are to be brought from the deep ocean to fertilize the soil, creating a rich ecosystem. What’s not good about that? Unless you’re a salmon possibly.
- Believing creation has lost its ‘goodness’ may solve one theological problem, but it quickly gets us into others. If creation is no longer good, what do we make of all those Psalms that use nature as a stepping stone to worship? What about Job 38–41, where fearsome creatures beyond human understanding and control are celebrated as part of God’s good world? By emphasizing nature’s fall, aren’t we rejecting Paul’s claim in Romans 1:20 that a good creation reveals God’s character?
- The bible is clear that humanity is ‘fallen’ but what about the rest of nature? Yes it’s ‘groaning’ and ‘in bondage to decay’ (Romans 8 ) but is that just because of human sin, or is something stranger and deeper going on as part of God’s ultimate plans?
So where does that leave us? Are suffering and death part of the warp and weft of a good but not yet perfect creation? Should we ditch a cosy human-centred concept of what ‘good’ means, and recognize that God’s wild and dangerous world has a bigger, more mysterious goodness? I’m offering questions not answers… but sometimes even birdwatchers need to set the cat amongst the pigeons.