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.
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 bookWhere 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.