A Perfect World?
Note: Today and tomorrow, we’ll be featuring two final excerpts from Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, written by BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma and her husband and fellow scientist Loren. They comprise two questions and answers from the online companion to Origins—these questions and more can be found online at the Faith Alive website as well as in Chapter 13 of the book. (Please note that you can still receive a free copy of Origins with a $50 donation to the BioLogos Foundation.)
An old earth would mean millions of years of animal pain and species extinction. Didn’t God create the world perfect at the beginning?
Genesis 1 and 2 don’t say much about the conditions on the earth when humans were first created. The Bible does say that God declared them to be “very good.” This leads some Christians to picture the earth at the time of Genesis 1 and 2 as a place where everything was as perfect as one can imagine.
It’s tempting to say that everything in the world that annoys or hurts us is a result of humanity’s fall into sin and the Curse. For instance, we might be frequently annoyed by a puddle in our garage. When snow melts off our car, it drains to a low spot and makes a big puddle that just happens to be exactly between our car and the door into the house, right where we want to walk. Why is this low spot in our garage right in that most annoying of places? Is it because of the Fall? Probably not. Maybe the person who poured the concrete was lazy, but more likely the ground underneath that particular spot was a bit softer, and it sunk a little more than the surrounding dirt after the concrete was poured. It’s just part of the natural operation of creation. The puddle itself isn’t really a result of the Fall. More likely, the results of the Fall are seen in the fact that the puddle annoys us so much.
Astronomy and geology give us clear evidence that the fundamental laws of nature have remained unchanged since the beginning of creation. Whatever the effects of the Fall, they do not seem to have changed the basic laws of physics.
Quite apart from any evidence in nature, some features in the biblical text itself suggest that God’s original creation was not free of pain and difficulty. For example, in Genesis 3 after Adam and Eve sinned God said to Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (v.16). The word increase implies that Adam and Eve already understood what pain was.
In Genesis 1 God does not declare the world “perfect”; he declares it “good.” And this good may not necessarily mean completely safe. Also in Genesis 1 God commands human beings to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Biblical scholars tell us that the word subdue is not a “wimpy” word. D. C. Spanner writes,
. . . the mandate given to man in Genesis 1:28 which reads, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . . over every living thing . . . “ charged man with “subduing’” the earth. The Hebrew word for “subdue” is kabas, and in all its other occurrences in Scripture (about twelve in all) it is used as a term indicating strong action in the face of opposition, enmity or evil. Thus, the land of Canaan was “subdued” before Israel, though the Canaanites had chariots of iron (Josh. 17:8; 18:1); weapons of war are “subdued,” so are iniquities (Zech. 9:15; Micah 7:19). The word is never used in a mild sense. It indicates, I believe, that Adam was sent into a world where all was not sweetness and light, for in such a world what would there be to subdue? The animals, it suggests, included some that were wild and ferocious, and Adam was charged to exercise a genuinely civilizing role and to promote harmony among them. —D. C. Spanner, Biblical Creation and the Theory of Evolution, Paternoster, 1987.
To get a sense of how the word subdue is used elsewhere in Scripture, we can survey how it is translated in other passages. The Hebrew kabas is translated as bondage (Neh. 5:5), force (Esther 7:8), subdue (Gen. 1:28; Micah 7:19; Zech. 9:15), subdued (Num. 32:22, 29; Joshua 18:1; 2 Sam. 8:11; 1 Chron. 22:18), subjection (Jer. 34:11, 16), under (2 Chron. 28:10). (See here.)
Genesis 2 speaks of a garden. Today we think of gardens as open places, but in the Near East at the time of the Old Testament, gardens were usually walled enclosures, places of refuge from the outside world. If the original creation did not include some danger, what need would there be for a walled refuge? While this is different than our human picture of “perfect,” it doesn’t necessarily conflict with the teaching that God created it good. God made a world that is a good and fitting home for humanity and commissioned us as stewards over it. This commission involves challenges to subdue as well as providing stewardly care.
To read more on these ideas, see the following:
Munday, John C. “Animal Pain: Beyond the Threshold?” Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. Keith B. Miller, ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003.
Snoke, David. “Why Were Dangerous Animals Created?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 56, June 2004.
Yancey, Philip. Where Is God When It Hurts? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1977, 1990, 2002.
For more questions like this one, see Chapter 13 of Origins, or see the online supplement on Faith Alive’s website. Tomorrow we’ll look at how God could call a creation that included pain and extinction “good”.
Excerpt from the online supplement to Chapter 13 of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Faith Alive Christian Resources), 2011. Reprinted with permission. To purchase a copy of the book or e-book, call 1-800-333-8300 or visit www.faithaliveresources.org.
Want a free copy of Origins? For a limited time, donations of $50 or more will receive a copy of the book!
Deborah Haarsma serves as President of The BioLogos Foundation, a position she has held since January 2013. Previously, she served as professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gifted in interpreting complex scientific topics for lay audiences, Dr. Haarsma often speaks to churches, colleges, and schools about the relationships between science and Christian faith. She is author (along with her husband Loren Haarsma) of Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (2011, 2007), a book presenting the agreements and disagreements of Christians regarding the history of life and the universe. Haarsma is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.
Loren Haarsma earned a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University and did five years of postdoctoral research in neuroscience in Boston and in Philadelphia. He began teaching physics at Calvin College in 1999. His current scientific research is studying the activity of ion channels in nerve cells and other cell types, and computer modeling of self-organized complexity in biology and in economics. He studies and writes on topics at the intersection of science and faith, and co-authored Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with his wife, Deborah.