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God’s Use of Time

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August 19, 2011 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time

Today's entry was written by Matthew Blackston. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

God’s Use of Time

I can still recall the first time I encountered a man performing as a living statue. His costume, body paint, and utter stillness made him very convincing. I also recall the eerie feeling I experienced upon first seeing him move. Ordinary statues are, of course, static, but if you hang around a living statue long enough you’re bound to see it move, if only to blink its eyes. I find that when many Christians think about the way God created our universe, our planet, and the forms of life that dwell on it, they often bring a static expectation similar to what we bring to an ordinary statue. It’s as if we assume the physical realm were merely a rigid three-dimensional sculpture, immovable with time.

But since time exists, change and development are possible. The sciences have acquired the tools to “look back” in time and explore our universe’s rich history, so we know that the universe and the life in it do indeed evolve. Through these observations in the natural realm, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that God typically prefers to do His work gradually rather than instantaneously. In what follows, I’d like to briefly explore some of the ways that our universe has been and is evolving over long periods of time and attempt to show that the concept of a God who makes use of long timescales ought to be familiar to us from the story of redemption in scripture. And like observing a living statue, by staring long enough (in this case millions and billions of years) we are able to see a world that is moving and changing, which hopefully deepens our appreciation for the wonder of God’s dynamic creative acts.

God’s use of time in the physical realm

The sense of enjoyment that comes from studying the dynamically evolving universe that God has created is similar to that of a gardener when he or she watches a seed grow into a mature plant. And when considering the history of the cosmos, the analogy of a seed in a garden is an apt one, with each branch of science reinforcing and corroborating the story that is told.

From physics we learn that all the matter and energy that now exists in our universe originated in a hot, dense state (something akin to a primordial seed) which burst forth and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Myriads of stars have gone through the process of forming, burning, and dying, with many exploding in what's called a supernova. These long stellar life cycles have been going on for billions of years and are responsible for "cooking up" and dispersing all the atomic elements necessary for forming planets like Earth and creatures like us.

Once our planet formed, we know from geology and its theory of plate tectonics that the earth's crust has been in a constant (but very slow) process of moving and changing, shifting even the continents around over many millions of years and forming majestic mountains, islands, and other geological features. The picture becomes even more fascinating when biology enters the landscape, describing how life has slowly developed, also over many millions of years, beginning from the simplest of organisms and progressing all the way to beings like us, of such complexity that we are able to reflect on and enjoy the entire display.

But how do we know all this, since our short lives don’t allow us to see these long drawn out processes in action? I see these same sciences as a great gift from God that allow us to explore beyond the bounds of our own time. For instance, when astrophysicists look up into the night sky, they see light that has taken millions or even billions of years to reach us, meaning that they are literally looking at what our universe looked like in the distant past. Geologists look back in time by studying layers of rock, sediment, or ice. They have even found evidence that the earth's magnetic field has flipped many times over the course of the Earth's history so that even the direction our trusty compasses point isn’t constant! Biologists have the fossil record and genetics as a means of exploring the rich and fascinating history of life, teaching us about the ancestors of modern humans as well as exotic creatures such as dinosaurs. All around us the physical world is shifting, changing, and unfolding in an extraordinary way, teaching us that God, the ultimate Gardener, is pleased to watch his creation grow and mature gradually.

God's use of time in redemption up to Jesus

A good number of Christians find the idea of God using long maturation times in creation threatening to their understanding of scripture. But what we learn about God from scripture is not inconsistent with a God who works over long timescales. We see this if we look at the grand meta-narrative of the entire Bible, of which I’ll cover a few highlights to demonstrate my point.

After humans made a mess of their intended role in the created order, God desired to restore it and put it right. And like what we learn from the sciences about the evolution of the universe, He decided to take his time about it. God began his redeeming work with a promise to use Abraham's family to be a blessing to the entire world (Gen. 12:1). This was a promise that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus nearly two millennia later. Now if God had been in a hurry, he might simply have allowed Sarah to conceive by the Holy Spirit and bring forth Jesus directly. But instead, he decided to take the scenic route, working through Abraham’s seed, including Jacob, Moses, David, and others until the time was right for Jesus.

As time went on and God’s people developed into a nation, David rose to the throne and God made another promise -- that of perpetual kingship to David’s line (2 Sam 7:13). This was another opportune time for Jesus to be born, take the throne, and fulfill the promise. But again we find God taking his time, allowing the kingdom to be divided and eventually conquered, and God’s people sent into a long exile, until the time was right for Jesus, nearly a millennium after David.

God's use of time in redemption after Jesus

The Christian faith holds that in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) God sent Jesus as the individual in whom all the promises of God ultimately converged. Just as God's physical creation developed slowly and eventually brought forth our earth and life and humanity, so God's purposes slowly unfold and culminate in Jesus, the descendant of Abraham and David who becomes the blessing to the world.

But here again is another case that demonstrates the point I’m attempting to make. Even the blessing that Jesus comes to announce and inaugurate develops slowly and dynamically – God, the Gardener, continues to slowly cultivate. Jesus himself teaches us to expect this to be the case in parables about the kingdom such as that of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32). Thus, the world isn’t automatically cured of its ills after Jesus’ resurrection. Both then and now, evil, sin, and injustice still exist and there is much that remains to be redeemed. The church is called to continue living in this meta-narrative until we reach the second climax: when Jesus reappears and ushers in the fullness of the new heavens and new earth.

A similar point can be made about God’s redemptive work in the lives of individual Christians as well. God forms each of his children over time through our relationships, our experiences, the trials we encounter, and the service we render. “I am the vine, you are the branches”, says Jesus in John 15:5. God is “growing us” as individuals and as every Christian knows from experience, the maturing process often seems very long indeed.

In conclusion, this brief survey has shown a consistent picture of how God works in his creation. In the cosmos, in the evolution of life, in the redemption of the world, and in the redemption of individuals, God sees fit to use long timescales for accomplishing his purposes. Moreover, with the similarities between what we learn of God from nature and from scripture, Christians needn’t react defensively to what science tells us about the history of the cosmos. Instead, we can indulge in the opportunity to marvel at the ever continuing work of God the Gardener, both in His dynamic creation and His dynamic acts of redemption.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ToniVC.


Matthew Blackston is a nuclear physicist working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory performing research on new technologies for detecting and imaging nuclear and radiological materials. He earned his PhD in experimental nuclear physics in 2007 from Duke University. Prior to his graduate work in physics, he spent a year studying theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.


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Karl A - #64119

August 19th 2011

Great article!  The Scriptures repeatedly emphasize God’s patience and LONG view. “With the Lord… a thousand years are like a day.”  But I hadn’t connected that with scientific conceptions of great time depths.

It also gets me wondering about the new heavens and new earth.  Will we start over with another Big Bang?  God may have that much patience, but I don’t!


Matthew Blackston - #64129

August 20th 2011

Thanks for your comment Karl.  What the new heavens and new earth will be like is exciting to consider.  Jesus’ resurrection was God’s first act of new creation—a foretaste of what is to come.  From His resurrection, we learn that while physical things will be changed and transformed, there will also be physical continuity (Jesus still bears the wounds from the cross, for instance).  Thus, I don’t expect another big bang for our universe since that would seem more like God discarding the present creation and starting over, something I don’t think God intends to do. 


What’s interesting is that some physicists are postulating the existence of universes other than the one we inhabit, called a multiverse.  I find this to be a fascinating possibility when thinking about what we might get to experience in the new creation.

Jon Garvey - #64136

August 21st 2011

Matthew,

The point of God’s apparent slowness is well made, and of course repeatedly stated in Scripture as a call to patient endurance. “The Lord is not slow to act, as some count slowness” “With him a day is as a thousand years.” “Until the times had reached fulfilment” etc.

Yet that’s only one half of the Bible picture. One has also to take into account that the deliverance of Israel was accomplished in one night (40 days at night for the whole shoot from Passover to Sinai). Babylon was overturned in a day. Christ’s work of salvation took just 3 days and nights - 3 years if you count the whole ministry. Christian pilgrimage is a long journey, but anyone who believes “has crossed over from death to life” - an instant transition. And finally, of course, we shall be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” when Christ returns “as the lightning flashes from east to west.”

So if we were to apply the Bible picture to the natural world evenhandedly, as opposed to cherry-picking just the bits we want to apply, we’d have to expect a mixture of almost imperceptible change and sudden advances. So the Bible supports saltationism or punctuated equilibria, right? Or maybe Genesis is literally true, and creation is one of the sudden crisis events, followed by thousands of years of gradual movement towards God’s purpose. Day-age Old Earth creationism also has that mix of slow and rapid. Interventionist forms of ID fit the bill too. Hey, this is fun.

The least likely expectation is of the erath as a living stautue, but in all honesty in over half a century I’ve never met a Christian who thought that way - most see history as hastening, or plodding, towards the second coming of Christ, and have all kinds of goals for social change, the evangelisation of the world, or the reformation of the Church. That’s supposed to be how Christianity differs from the Eastern religions. There couldn’t be a straw man here, could there?

So the Biblical timescale is quite capable of supporting any position from Young Earth Creationism to Darwinian gradualism and everything in between, provided you only choose the bits that support your case.

Too many sermons plans begin with “What do I want to say - now where does the Bible say it?” Too few from “What is the Bible saying here - how does that change what I wanted to say?” Personally I’d be hesitant to draw unwarranted inferences from the Biblical use of time into the realm of nature, but if I did, and certainly if I was drawing inferences about spiritual life, I’d want to do adequate justice to both the role of time and the role of crisis.


Merv - #64138

August 21st 2011

Jon wrote:  “Personally I’d be hesitant to draw unwarranted inferences from the Biblical use of time into the realm of nature, but if I did, and certainly if I was drawing inferences about spiritual life, I’d want to do adequate justice to both the role of time and the role of crisis.”/a>

span class=“Apple-style-span” style=“color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; line-height: normal; font-size: medium; “>
span class=“Apple-style-span” style=“color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; line-height: normal; font-size: medium; “>Point well-made, Jon.  So what would unwarranted inferences be?  I’ll cherry-pick a particular story to show how the writers themselves refer to time use different words to refer to time, since this piece appears in a couple different gospel accounts.
span class=“Apple-style-span” style=“color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; line-height: normal; font-size: medium; “>
span class=“Apple-style-span” style=“color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; line-height: normal; font-size: medium; “>Jesus, in an apparent fit of frustration, curses a fig tree.  Matthew tells us it withered “at once”.  Mark (who doesn’t shy away from using the word “immediately” in other parts of his gospel) nevertheless elaborates further that they noticed it had withered the next morning after it had been cursed the night before.   For a tree to wither overnight—that is still pretty “immediate”.  But it does show how flexible these time words can be even among the Biblical authors themselves.  Modern geology should help us appreciate a new depth of understanding of a thousand years being but a day.
span class=“Apple-style-span” style=“color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; line-height: normal; font-size: medium; “>
span class=“Apple-style-span” style=“color: rgb(0, 0, 0); font-family: ‘Times New Roman’; line-height: normal; font-size: medium; “>—Merv
br>

Jimpithecus - #64178

August 23rd 2011

The biblical timescale might be capable of supporting any position from young earth creationism to Darwinian gradualism, but we know (from what Matthew and others have written) that the earth and the universe don’t support a young earth timescale.  Matthew isn’t cherry picking here.  He is taking what we know of the universe and examining the mind of God and how he creates.  


id1234 - #64144

August 21st 2011

Matthew


There is a very detailed article by Mark Driscoll on the topic of creation (link below).  In it he outlines the 6 plausible theories of creation that could possibly hold up under the scripture (the first two of which are mostly plausible).

1. Historic Creationism
2. Creationism
3. Gap Theory
4. Literary Framework View
5. Day Age View
6. Theistic Evolution

In the article, Driscoll says, “As Christians we are free to accept the seemingly self-evident fact of micro-evolution that species can and do adapt to their environments. However, as Christians we are not free to accept the yet unproven and highly suspect thesis of macro-evolution that one species can evolve into another species entirely.”

You seem to be supporting the Big Bang theory and therefore macro-evolution which is not included in any of the above 6 biblically sound possibilities above.

Can you help me understand how you see that macro-evolution could further be supported in the scriptures and how it stands up against Gen 1:21, 1:24, 1:25, where it states that each species had offspring “according to it’s kind” and not another kind as macro-evolution postulates?



br>

Jon Garvey - #64147

August 22nd 2011

id1234

Cherry-picking Biblical Bible themes is one error. Over-interpreting single texts is another. Starting with what Genesis is actually, and obviously about, which is the prodigality of God in populating the earth, the verses you cite are clearly saying that all the kinds mentioned went on to reproduce bountifully.

If one wanted to micro-exegete the text, you’d maybe enquire what “kinds” means. And the text (rather than modern interpretation) would tell you: v21: “great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing”; v24-25 “livestock, creatures that move along the ground and wild animals”. So the most the text would allow you to say is that wild animals, for example, produced wild animals - so a fox could produce a lion and still fit the passage.

But of course, Genesis is not that interested in defining kinds from the reproductive point of view - one can infer that foxes won’t actually produce lion cubs simply because that doesn’t happen, as any fool knows. From that one might interpret the faithfulness of God in minimising surprises, but I don’t see why Genesis would have wished to teach that positively when it’s common experience.

Again, if one is strictly literal with the text, you will have no warrant to say that “kind” means “species”, “genus” or any other scientific category. If you insist that it means that like produces like, then you will have to insist that the idea that labrador retrievers come from the same “kind” as poodles is unbiblical, because the text does not say “after their kinds allowing for new varieties or microevolution.”

Moving to macroevolution, the text simply has nothing to say about it. If I say that a labrador was a healthy thoroughbed, and bred true through several generations, would that be any sort of evidence that new varieties of dog cannot be developed?


Jimpithecus - #64180

August 23rd 2011

The Bible doesn’t say anything about quantum mechanics or continental drift either.  That’s not its point.


beaglelady - #64194

August 23rd 2011

btw, the thoroughbred is a horse breed.


Jon Garvey - #64204

August 24th 2011

“btw, the thoroughbred is a horse breed.”

You’ve never met my labrador.


beaglelady - #64153

August 22nd 2011

In considering the use of time in Scripture, keep in mind that the number 40 has a qualitative as opposed to quantitative meaning. It’s a mystical number of completion.


Jon Garvey - #64160

August 22nd 2011

Quite right, of course - as seven is the number of perfection.


Jimpithecus - #64181

August 23rd 2011

Just as the original genealogies are not random in that they are base sixty to which five or seven has been added…


Jon Garvey - #64279

August 26th 2011

An interesting example, Jim, in that it goes against the trend of the discussion in describing what ought to be a short timescale as a long timescale, which modern scholars would quite reasonably like to shorten again.

The ages show textual variations in Hebrew, and the best explanation I’ve seen (though complex and therefore necessarily impossible to verify) is that the numbers were originally in an archaic decimal system which was mistranslated by somebody using a later sexagesimal system, ie by somebody from classical Mesopotamia (hence the results you mention). The Bible writers then translated these inflated numbers (correctly) into Hebrew as per the Septuagint text, but the Massoretic tradition massaged the figures for various plausible reasons to give what see today.

The bottom line would be that the original data, containing very normal age-spans and ages of procreation, are likely to come from an extremely ancient Mesopotamian document, presumbaly from an early city-state using its own numerical system. That would add weight to a basically proto-historical ANE source, whatever allegorical features may appear in the final text.

That certainly makes more sense than any “symbolic” or “inflated” ages, because the late age of parenthood makes no sense, and there is no parallel to the orders of magnitude either in the Bible or other literature - they fall right between normality and the astronomically large age spans in the Babylonian king-lists.

The popular creationist idea of an exponential drop in human longevity doesn’t actually fit the data very well, so it’s a linguistic explanation for my money.


Ronnie - #64195

August 23rd 2011

I’m not sure why the author has such a fascination with long timescales, I am more in awe that God made all things in 6 days instead of lumbering along for millions or billions of years. This fact is stated in Genesis 1, and Exodus 20:11 says:

“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them…”

God could have created all things instantaneously if He wanted, but took 6 days, with one day of rest as a pattern for us to follow, which we do to this day.

To claim that God “created” over millions and billions of years puts mans word above Gods, and rejects what God has so plainly and clearly said!


id1234 - #64211

August 24th 2011

But Ronnie, that would take faith to subscribe to.  


It appears some here would rather filter scripture through “science” as opposed to filtering “science” through scripture.

Ronnie - #64212

August 24th 2011

You’re exactly right.

What isn’t talked about is the faith that’s required to believe in the supposed long ages of evolution. Science as we know it is incapable of determining exactly what happened in the unobserved past. But we have the record of the One who does know the past. Every person here on Biologos has a copy of that record on their bookshelf, coffee table or night stand, its up to them to believe it or reject it.


beaglelady - #64218

August 24th 2011

Let’s try that again since this idiotic system rejects all html tags:

“Science as we know it is incapable of determining exactly what happened in the unobserved past.

Well, so much for forensics labs, reconstructions from skulls, solving murders, etc.


Ronnie - #64224

August 24th 2011

And 2 sets of lawyers, scientists, specialists etc. can “interpret” the same evidence in an effort to prove each ones case. What may seem like slam dunk evidence for one side can fall apart under close scrutiny by the other. Unless there is testimony from an eyewitness to the actual event, no one can say with absolute certainty whether something did or did not happen.


beaglelady - #64234

August 25th 2011

So fingerprints, DNA, lie detectors, etc. are worthless!  Since few murders have eye witnesses we shouldn’t be able to get convictions, right? 


Ronnie - #64243

August 25th 2011

Fingerprints and DNA are direct physical evidence which can be matched to one person using known processes (operational science).

Determining the age of the earth or what may or may not have happened in the (unobserved) past is historical science and is open to widely varying opinions and interpretations. Saying with certainty that the earth is millions or billions of years old, and that science proves it, is a false statement. Saying that God used these millions and billions of years to evolve the earth and life to what it is today is also not only false, but unscriptural.


beaglelady - #64244

August 25th 2011

If God can make the earth look old to scientists, who can measure the age of the earth, what’s to keep the charlatan from faking DNA evidence and fingerprints?


Ronnie - #64246

August 25th 2011

That’s a very bold statement to make, accusing God of trickery while giving blind faith to scientists who apparently know more than God concerning the age of His creation.

Tell me, what does a young earth look like? Has anyone seen a young earth? Have archaeologists unearthed photographs of the earth in its infancy? You have been indoctrinated in the school of ‘the earth is billions of years old’ and cannot fathom the biblical timescale of around 6000 years.

Your statement shows clearly the spirit behind the belief in billions of years, that Gods Word cannot be trusted, but man’s wisdom can. This has a purpose; to draw as many away from God as possible. I hope this is not you, Beaglelady, or anyone else reading this.

God loves us much more than the devil hates us!


beaglelady - #64253

August 26th 2011

Has anyone seen a young earth?

No, because the earth is not young, and humans weren’t around when the earth was young.

You have been indoctrinated in the school of ‘the earth is billions of
years old’ and cannot fathom the biblical timescale of around 6000
years.


Actually I am blessed with good schools, a great library, wonderful natural history museums, and a really good church with educated, orthodox clergy. What’s not to like?


Ronnie - #64255

August 26th 2011

***Has anyone seen a young earth?

No, because the earth is not young, and humans weren’t around when the earth was young.***

Exactly! So, tell me again how you know that the earth is NOT young? If no one was there to observe it when it was young??


beaglelady - #64256

August 26th 2011

radiometric dating of rocks, ice cores, etc.


Ronnie - #64258

August 26th 2011

Those fall under the historical sciences and are subject to interpretation since there wasn’t anyone there to record when the rocks were laid or ice was formed. Radiometric dating of rocks of known age (from Mt. St. Helens and other volcanoes) give dates orders of magnitude higher than their known age, seriously questioning the validity of these methods.

It boils down to this: do we trust man’s reasoning, or do we believe Gods Word. When the two are at odds, do we run with the crowd or take the narrow road?


beaglelady - #64264

August 26th 2011

My goodness, such silliness! You have been reading creationist garbage and I won’t bother addressing it.  Talkorigins.org has a nice index to creationist claims. Please refer to it.

There is one reality. I’ll go with that, thank you.


Ronnie - #64266

August 26th 2011

Have a nice day


beaglelady - #64216

August 24th 2011

<blockquote>Science as we know it is incapable of determining exactly what happened in the unobserved past.</blockquote>

Well, so much for forensics labs, reconstructions from skulls, solving murders, etc.


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