The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists International Conference on the Bible and Science takes place from August 15-24, 2014. I am delighted to be able to attend. While in the mountains of Nevada and Utah, I hope to hear some answers to questions that nag at my mind concerning faith and science.
Some look at the Grand Canyon and believe that it is an expression of God’s creative imagination. Others who stand in the same spot believe the Canyon portrays the fallout from God’s wrath. As the sun is setting, the cool Arizona temperature produces a blanket of fog. When you look out at the distant, mauve colored, mountain landscape do you say, “The mountain fissures are the tragic remains of Noah’s global flood catastrophe,” or do you say “This vista reveals God’s imaginative art in creation week”?
I have two thoughts regarding the Genesis 1 creation account that I want to cast in the form of questions. The first is, “who gets to evaluate whether or not creation is good?” In other words, can God be the proper judge of God’s own work? The second thought is, “how satisfied should we be with the Bible writers who have left us with so few stories about this ‘pre-fall’ creation?”
First: “who gets to evaluate whether or not creation is good?” I read this witty retelling of The Real Story of Paradise Lost:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth… And God saw everything He made. ‘Behold,’ God said, ‘it is very good.’ And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. And on the seventh day God rested from all his work; His archangel came then unto Him asking: ‘God, how do you know [that] what you have created is “very good”? What are your criteria? On what data do you base your judgment? Aren’t you a little [too] close to the situation to make a fair and unbiased evaluation?’ God thought about these questions all that day and His rest was greatly disturbed. On the eighth day God said, ‘Lucifer, go to hell.’ Thus was evaluation born in a blaze of glory.
This way of retelling the story offers a challenge to many people of faith. For the Christian, evaluating God’s creation includes evaluating the creation story as it is recorded in Genesis 1 & 2 and other biblical passages. The frightening issue is that in evaluating the creation story, we cannot escape evaluating the Creator’s Self-assessment. So God creates and evaluates, but so do we. A Public Policy Polling survey asked the question, “If God exists, do you approve or disapprove of its performance”? Only 52% of those who questioned approved.
Evaluation is part of our life. We can even trace it back to these early creation accounts. Despite the edgy humor in the poetic revision of the creation story referenced above, we see that creating inevitably includes an element of evaluation. Evaluation is “swallowed down,” as it were, in the very act of creating. In the creation week, when God assessed the chaotic water-world, he made an evaluation and divided the waters, thus creating land.
To create not only makes a decision about what kind of world you desire, it also makes a decision about the kind of world you find undesirable. When we call nature “creation” we express a value judgment about it. By calling nature “creation,” we credit it with meaning and worth: the worth that can only be attributed to the work of a divine artisan. Nature as creation implies that there is a creator: an artisan.
There are some who, having accepted the Genesis 1 story of creation, fear that for anyone to challenge this account is tantamount to challenging the power of God. “God has the power to create the universe in six days and that is that,” they say. Yet, to argue over the issue of whether God has enough power to create this world in six literal days opens up the bid for who can claim more power for God. “We have six days. Can I get six hours? We have six hours. Can I get six minutes? We have six minutes. Can I get six seconds for creation?” Given the world we live in, the more power we ascribe to God, the more prone we are to disapprove of God’s performance.
This process raises rhetorical questions of a different sort: could God have done better? Could God have produced a better world? Could God use God’s power and make things better, right now?
This leads to the second thought: should the Bible writers have added more stories about this “pre-fall” creation? The editors of the Bible decided to begin it with the creation stories in Genesis. Whatever their reasons, it appears that these stories only provide a backdrop for the real story—they are a prelude to what really matters. The biblical story opens up with the first two chapters describing what seems to be God’s perfect creation—after this we go on to read another one thousand one hundred and eighty-four chapters of natural disaster, family feuds, social oppression, political unrest, militarism, genocide, national displacement, imperial rule, judicial miscarriage, economic exploitation, cruel dominance of race, gender and sexual differences. All of this intensifying over time. Finally, the Bible closes with the last two chapters describing a cosmic renewal: a new heaven and a new earth.
I was once told that the sequoias in Yosemite National Park that survive the harshest winters are the trees that experienced a string of mild winters and long springs and summers during their early years. Those trees were lucky enough to have gotten a good start. They got a long good start. This ideal beginning gave them enough time to let their roots settle in. And with those roots deeply settled, they were able to endure during the harshest of times.
The Genesis creation story does not give us enough time to set in our roots. Two brief chapters. That’s all. If God ultimately destroys this world and starts afresh, it doesn’t seem necessary to wait until after all the pain and suffering of millennia. Given the world we have now, God should have just finished the job at the flood: destroyed Noah, his family and everything else. Why did God commit to a creation that (as far as the Bible is concerned) was ramshackled so very early on? Why doesn’t the Bible story spend more time describing the beauty of God’s supposedly perfect creation? Why not present more than two chapters?
The answer to these questions will never come. Not even at International Conferences on the Bible and Science. Really we don’t need alternative poetic renditions to remind us that The Real Story of Paradise Lost has its own edgy humor. As it reads, the story is unsettling.
Dr. Maury Jackson is a professor of the HMS Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University where he teaches pastoral ministry, ethics, and philosophy. He lives in Riverside, CA with his wife and children.
Quoted in Jeanne Sampson Katz and Alyson Peberdy eds. Promoting Health: Knowledge and Practice (London: Macmillan, 1997), 269.
The Atlantic Wire Only 52% of Americans Approve of God’s Job Performance retrieved 1/23/13 http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2011/07/only-half-americans-approve-gods-job-performance/40268/. Also reported on The Rachel Maddow Show MSNBC 1-8-13
Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1980), 39.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6163