And God Saw That It Was Good
Note: Yesterday and today, we're 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.)
How could God call creation good if it included destruction, pain, and extinction?
Genesis 1 doesn’t say, but the book of nature provides some insights. Negative things like destruction, pain, and extinction appear differently when considered as part of a bigger picture. For example, the explosion of a star (a supernova) is extremely powerful and destructive. Yet in its death the supernova scatters through the galaxy the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms necessary for life. Without the supernova these atoms would be trapped in the core of the star and would never be available to build new stars, planets, or living creatures. God uses the destruction of stars to create and distribute the ingredients for life.
Consider the second law of thermodynamics that says that entropy is always increasing. Entropy is a technical term used to measure the disorder of a system. The fact that disorder is always increasing sounds like something that might have been caused by the Fall. But a study of physics and chemistry tells us that it is actually an inevitable consequence of all the other laws of nature plus the fact that the universe has many, many atoms in it. When we look at the larger system, we see that this increase of entropy is built into all sorts of good processes that God has created. Entropy increases when
- the sun converts nuclear energy into light.
- ice melts.
- a flower opens up, and its scent diffuses into the air so that the whole area around the flower is perfumed and bees can be guided to the blossom.
- winds blow.
- rain falls.
- we breathe, and oxygen passes from the lungs into our bloodstream.
- we see and hear things and store memories in our brains.
So on closer examination the second law of thermodynamics also appears to be part of God’s good creation and not a consequence of the Fall.
Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are some of the most violent natural disasters on earth. Yet earthquakes are an inevitable consequence of plate tectonics. (The earth’s continental plates slowly move and grind against each other.) In turn, plate tectonics is an inevitable result of the motion of magma under the earth’s crust. And the motion of magma is an inevitable result of the fundamental laws of nature. As plates collide, they are pushed into high mountains, and as they separate, they create ocean depths. Over time, this system creates a variety of environments like rolling hills, flat plains, watersheds, and ocean shoals. These environments provide a wide range of habitats for life to fill, promoting a diversity of living things. In addition, the motion of the continental plates brings nutrients up to the surface from deep within the earth, nutrients on which all life depends. Without plate motion to replenish these resources, rain and wind would erode all nutrients into the ocean, and life could not exist on land. Thus, while earthquakes and volcanoes are destructive, they are a natural side effect of the important system of plate tectonics.
Mosquitoes annoy us. But consider how well they are adapted to their ecological niche. They live and adapt just like butterflies and ladybugs. Similarly, weeds that grow through cracks in sidewalks annoy us and make our property look ugly. But consider lichen and moss clinging bravely to bare rock on cliffs where nothing else will grow. By living on that bare rock, they slowly turn barren soil into fertile ground. Whenever we see lichen living on bare rock, we celebrate how robust and hearty life is. Crabgrass sprouting up through narrow cracks in the sidewalk displays that same heartiness and robustness of life, all of it operating by the same laws of nature.
The symbiosis between flowering plants and pollinating insects seems beautiful to us—each provides the other with something it needs. On the other hand, parasites, like wasps that lay their eggs inside other animals so that their larvae eat the host animal, seem nasty to us. But exactly the same laws of nature make both possible. Barring some miraculous interventions into natural processes, if we’re going to have symbiosis, we’re going to have parasites.
Genetic mutations can be harmful and cause painful disease, but they can also be beneficial and increase the diversity of life forms. Genetic mutations are an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics and chemistry acting on DNA molecules. It looks like a package deal. Simply because the laws of nature are what they are, if we’re going to have DNA, we’re going to have mutations, including both beneficial and harmful mutations.
The author Philip Yancey has written about pain as a good and necessary system that God created. In his book Where is God When It Hurts Yancey describes how pain alerts us to parts of our bodies that are in danger or need attention. Animals and humans who can’t feel pain (for example, patients suffering from certain forms of Hansen’s disease) injure themselves and are not aware of the injuries, leading to further medical complications. Yancey and others who study pain conclude that pain was created as part of a finely crafted system to help us avoid injury and treat illness. The following is an excerpt from an article Yancy wrote for Christianity Today:
Pain is good. Pain is bad. Pain can be redeemed. . . . My work with leprosy specialist Dr. Paul Brand has convinced me beyond doubt that the pain system is one of the most remarkable engineering feats in the human body. Take away its exquisitely tuned warnings, and you get people who destroy themselves—the problem of leprosy, precisely. Yet pain is also bad, or “fallen.” Working in a hospice, my wife sees daily the ravaging effects of pain that no longer has a useful purpose; to the dying patient, pain warnings may seem like the jeers of a cosmic sadist. Even so, pain can be redeemed. The dying, individual leprosy patients, and people like Joni Eareckson Tada who live with permanent afflictions have demonstrated to me that out of the worst that life offers, great good may come.
What shall we make of all this? We need to be cautious about what things in nature we attribute to the Fall. It’s too easy for us to take our conception of how we would make a good creation and assume that’s how God made it. By studying God’s creation, we might learn that some of our ideas are wrong. A careful study of nature shows us abundant evidence that supernovas, plate tectonics, and the mechanisms of evolution were in place long before humans existed. These things have a destructive side, but they are part of a bigger system that is beautiful, complex, and fruitful. One way to interpret all of this is to see that God has made and used natural systems that are good and productive on the whole, but these systems contain elements that are painful or destructive. And part of what it means for us, as humans, to subdue the earth is to be stewards of these good systems while overcoming the challenges that they present.
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.