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.