30th April 2012 | Dave Bookless | 18 comments

Rotten to the core? In what sense is creation good?

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.

Serengeti Lion Running © Schuyler Shepherd

Serengeti Lion Running © Schuyler Shepherd

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?

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.

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Categories: Questions
Tags: God suffering
About Dave Bookless

Dave is Director of Theology for A Rocha International, where he works to embed creation care into international Christian organizations, theological institutions, and mission movements. His past roles with A Rocha include being an International Trustee and the co-founder of A Rocha UK (with his wife Anne). He has a PhD from Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation, and has contributed to many books and articles, including Planetwise, available in six languages. Born and raised in India, Dave has a love for Indian food, Indian culture and Indian Christianity. Dave is also a qualified bird-ringer and loves birding, islands, running and mountains.

View all posts by Dave Bookless (72)

18 responses to “Rotten to the core? In what sense is creation good?”

  1. Júlio Reis says:

    On the first paragraph, I think God pronounced all of Creation “very good” after he put the sentient species in charge of all of it. Not just that everything’s very good just by being together, but that it’s very good that those who can take care of the universe would do so.
    …but this doesn’t answer your question. 🙂

  2. Is one problem we don’t want God to be “wild and dangerous” we want a god we can domesticate and control, as we think we can control the world? You ask the question well about suffering in the natural world. I don’t have an answer. I’ve simply repeated and linked to your question in my blog post today, ‘Bird-watcher sets cat among pigeons’.

  3. J Elliott says:

    In my view, it would be a good thing to look at what is actually there and to correct the theology accordingly. Feel-good theology that doesn’t do that will sometimes make things worse. It’s theology that needs to mature: Sorry to mix the metaphors, but theology is a field with buried treasure; some is baby and some bathwater.

  4. J Elliott says:

    The people who wrote the OT weren’t stupid and would have seen the world around them. We need to recognise the wisdom that is in it, and not press it for answers that are outside its scope. This means mature theology.

  5. Godfrey Rust says:

    Hi Dave – thanks for this post and the invitation to respond. Our attitude to this issue mystifies me. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that life has existed on earth for several billion years, and that it has always involved predation, disease and death. Most things which we call disease, like viruses and infections, are simply the predation of one life form on another. Humanity has been around for something between 70 and 200 thousand years, according to your choice of definitions – a tiny fraction of life on earth. If there was a human “Fall”, there is no conceivable way it could have corrupted a prior “perfect” world, because there never was one. Augustine’s theology, on which this lingering notion of an original physical perfection corrupted by man’s sin rests, has no basis in observed reality (and little in the Bible) – precisely the opposite. Until it is discarded we make no progress to a better understanding of reality. Scientists throw out theories when the evidence shows they don’t work. As Christians, sadly and destructively, we often need to have our debunked theological idols prized from desperate fingers because we fear the calamitous consequences of letting them go. Pain, disease and death weren’t the fault of Adam, Eve and/or the talking serpent: they were around from the beginning of biological life. The laws of universe are rooted in entropy – that was not a historical consequence some human moral lapse. So what does that mean for the Fall? Many people are, I think, either too scared or too disinterested to ask that question. If creation is not “fallen”, but full of death, disease and and malformation as well as life, on what basis can you claim the human animal be somehow magically exempt? There is, I think, nothing in scripture and certainly nothing in science which would support it – we were made from the same dust to which we shall return.

    • justthefacts says:

      IN genesis Adam and Eve where able to take of the tree of life ..why did they need this tree? seems they were possibly mortal if they did not eat of it..and doubtful all the creatures in the sea and on land where eating of it .. it may be that God had a slightly different idea of what he meant by death by sin and what we do ..The breath of life was breathed into Man and Man became a living soul ..It seems man had something different about them to be called a living soul .. basically it seems to imply that there may have been the death in the nature around us but we were kept alive by the tree of life until Sin ..maybe..

  6. Chris Parkman says:

    Thanks for that reflection, Dave. I like the questions you leave for readers to ponder. You hit on a paradox of creation (being good yet fallen). As Christians, I think we have to learn to live with a number of paradoxes – in fact, as humans, not just Christians. I agree that the moment one closes down one paradox, one opens up a whole new set of problems. I think we are forever needing to learn to live with paradox and yet still proclaim the hope we understand as Christians. What I say is nothing new and numerous writers who I respect (churched and unchurched) articulate this far better than I do – to me, the challenge as a Christian is to say ‘Am I, even with this paradox, prepared to live the good news?’ That might sound like brainless humility to a Dawkins. But I prefer to view it as realistic acceptance of our limited human consciousness and a correct posture before our Creator. Oh my, that’s a long rant!

  7. Doug Gray says:

    “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?”

    I think when read more broadly, I think Romans 8 answers the above questions…

    18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy [to be compared] with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected [it] in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only [that,] but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?

    (Answered even more so when chapter 8 is read in its entirety…)

  8. Michael Perry says:

    Have you looked at Polkinghorne’s theology of kenosis in relation to creation Dave? There is a brief exploration of this in last month’s Science and Christian Belief (24 31-32 and previous paper). It offers a way of exploring the area you are thinking through. You could also have a look at his book ‘the Work of Love, Creation as Kenosis’ (2002).

  9. Júlio Reis says:

    Tim Keller speaking at Google touches this issue starting on minute 32: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxup3OS5ZhQ

  10. Joyce Ribbens Campbell says:

    This discussion is so pertinent to the thoughts I’ve been having lately, ever since reading this from N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: “… Evil is real and powerful, within biblical theology, but it consists neither in the fact of being created nor in the fact of being other than God … nor yet in the fact that it’s made of physical matter and belongs within space and time instead of being pure spirit in an eternal heaven. Nor — and this is crucial — does evil consist in being transcient, made to decay. There is nothing wrong with the tree dropping its leaves in the autumn. There is nothing wrong with the sunset fading away into darkness. Evil consists in none of those things; indeed, it is precisely the transience of the good creation that serves as a pointer to its larger purpose. Creation was good, but it always had a forward look. Transience acts as a God-given signpost pointing not from the material world to a nonmaterial world but from the world as it is to the world as it is meant one day to be ………. (D)eath, which was always part of the natural transience of the good creation, gains a second dimension, which the Bible sometimes calls “spiritual death.” In Genesis, and indeed for much of the Old Testament, the controlling image for death is exile ……..”
    There’s much more there, but I can’t quote it all.
    Reading this was the first time I heard the idea that physical death and decay, the “cycle of nature”, including and especially that of human beings, could have been part of God’s good creation and His intent from the beginning. It’s contrary to what I have believed all my life. But I can “hear” it from a deeply thinking Christian who believes in the Resurrection and the coming of the Kingdom of God and confesses the Apostles Creed. While helping to resolve the supposed conflict between creation and evolution, or between the Bible and science, this new way of thinking also makes me feel better about growing old, about the passage of time and the temporality of human life. To think that that all is part of God’s good, pre-fall creation changes my whole outlook on it …..

    • Júlio Reis says:

      Aging is encoded in our DNA. We will die—even if there were no diseases or accidents. So, either I believe that original sin instantly transformed human DNA from being immortal into what it is now, or I have to face the notion that humans would die before the Fall. I think.

  11. Dave Bookless says:

    Some great replies here – thank you all, and please keep the discussion going! The more I read the Bible and the more I study the world of God’s creation, the more I feel that God’s ways are far more complex and mysterious than we simplistically reduce them to, especially in those western cultures that are so insulated from nature and from natural daily suffering. God’s idea of a ‘very good’ creation may very well include death, earthquakes and suffering. The question I am still left with is about God’s new creation. Biblical descriptions of the ‘peaceful kingdom’ imply an end to all suffering, death, and even carnivorous behaviour. Although science throws up its hands in horror at such a thought I tend to side with the biblical pictures here … after all science is very good at describing things based on past evidence, but science by definition has no way of understanding something brand new – never been seen before – and if God is going to make all things new then surely science has to simply say ‘pass’!? So, perhaps that does mean that one day the lion will lie down with the lamb, and every tear will indeed be wiped away … I can’t wait to find out!

    • Júlio Reis says:

      Don’t know whether science has to say “pass”, but science fiction says “now we’re talking!” 🙂
      If aging in encoded in our DNA, then life after death means DNA reencoding—perpetual cell renewal!
      But no more death means also no more accidents, and that nature cannot hurt us anymore. So, a change so fundamental in the substance of matter that we can go through walls (à la Jesus after resurrection) is needed: a piano can fall on me and won’t hurt me. Now I’d read that SF!
      On this last, if (as I think—and smarter people than me!) the ‘Kingdom moments’ Like Luke 10.17ff and Mark 16.17ff are windows into the future, then “you’ll be able to step on scorpions and pick up snakes” are a hint to that new kind of life in store with a different substance.

  12. Nicholas Mayne says:

    This is something I am working through personally and as part of a Pentitude paper. What if we have been reading Genesis 1 wrong? My lecturer tells me that Gen 1:1 is a title and not part of the text or the first act of creation. Rather the narrative starts with the primordial chaos and becomes more ordered leading the praise of very good. However the narrative also indicates the continual improvement of creation which we can extrapolate to the new heavens and the new earth. A process that will be competed only by God, but which in this Sabbath (read justice) period is the work of humanity who has been give domain to subdue the chaos.

    It’s a working theory but I am finding it interesting.

  13. Godfrey Rust says:

    Hi Dave – I just revisited this thread to read the later comments, and wanted to comment on your “new creation” question, and Julio’s “fundamental change in the substance of matter” comment. From the evidence we have, it seems that the extraordinary natural laws which were laid down at the beginning of time, and which we believe were created by God, have not changed since – if they had (for example, if the sun really had been “stopped” for an hour for Joshua) – we would have some very weird and unpredictable telescopic readings as we gaze back into time and space (not to mention the fact that earth would I believe have burned up). So if what we have in the Resurrection is indeed a breach, or transcendance, of natural law, then it would make some sense for it to be a precursor of a radical and wholesale change in the scientific order, and for the new heaven and new earth to be a universal remake – not merely the lion lying down with the lamb, but something altogether far more extraordinary. Spiritually this also makes a lot more sense to me than that “back to Eden” model of redemption. If God’s love is the motivating force of reality, and love demands its own sacrifice for its beloved (“greater love has no man…”), and if the redeemed state is better than the unfallen state (“there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents…”), and if the whole shooting match was in any case pre-planned (the cross wasn’t a rescue plan but was intended all along), then the consequence of the execution of the plan (and the execution and resurrection of God) is that something is possible which was not possible from the beginning – a new, redeemed universe. There’s some echo here of the old Marxist “thesis – antithesis – synthesis” pattern which also has a profound resonance. Reality is love-shaped: and if we want to know what love looks like, we need to look closely at reality, not rely on our preconceptions or dogmas.

    • Dave Bookless says:

      Many thanks for this, Godfrey! I am totally with you in regarding the resurrection as ‘precursor of a radical and wholesale change in the scientific order’, and that the new / renewed creation will not simply be a return to Eden, but will be something totally beyond anything we can imagine, let alone predict with our current scientific laws. At the same time there will also clearly be continuity and familiarity along with all that is new and unimaginable – hence the risen Jesus carrying the marks of crucifixion and being recognised by his voice and how he broke bread … whilst also being different enough not to be immediately recognised. I’m planning to tackle the question of ‘What’s the future for planet earth?’ in a forthcoming blog … so do keep the perceptive and provocative comments coming!

  14. […] Postado em 30 de abril de 2012,  em https://blog.arocha.org/post/rotten-to-the-core-in-what-sense-is-creation-good/ […]

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