1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
The cosmic story begins with God. In the very beginning, when nothing else is, God is. Who is this God we meet in the beginning of the story? God is the infinite and incomprehensible foundation of all else that is. The prophet Isaiah is asked by God, “to whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (40:18). The church father Augustine wrote, “What can anyone say when he speaks about you?”. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, says that God is “incomprehensible in all things and above all things.” Another mystic, John of the Cross, states, “God’s being cannot be grasped by intellect, appetite, imagination or any other sense.” Theologian Anselm of Canterbury says God is “That Than Which Nothing Greater can be grasped.” God simply is. God is not a being among other beings within the natural order. To the question, “who created God,” we answer, “God was not created.” God is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. God is the Ultimate Reality. God is the one in which we live and move and have our being, as the apostle Paul says in Acts 17.
God’s first act, we read here at the beginning of the story, is the creation of space and time. God creates the entire cosmos, calling light out of darkness and bringing order out of chaos. As we read the Genesis creation stories, we cannot help but have our minds drawn to the questions surrounding modern science and the theory of evolution. We swim in our culture like fish swim in the water and the cultural water we breath shapes how we experience the world. We cannot help but look at creation, the natural world, in a mechanical or technological sense. We imagine God as building a piece of technology, like an iPhone or a watch. When we imagine God’s creation as akin to a watchmaker making a watch, then we look for evidence of the watchmaker. This is the argument from design, famously made by William Paley in the 1800s as well as many others since. But the danger in imagining God as merely a designer is that we separate God from the universe. We imagine God making the world, as one makes a watch, and leaving it. We run the risk of imagining a Deist God – a God who builds the technology, sets the world machine in motion, and leaves. Perhaps God returns from time to time to perform a miracle or answer a prayer. If we view God as too separate from God’s creation, we run the risk of imagining an absent God.
From a more classical perspective God’s creation is constantly infused with God’s presence. The natural realm and the supernatural realm, or the physical and the metaphysical, are unified. Creation is more like a song being sung by God (which, for you nerds, is how JRR Tolkien portrayed it early on in the Silmarillion). Creation is a symphony that declares God’s glory. If you want to dive deeper into this, I highly recommend checking out the Mysterion podcast episode on creation.
Thinking of God’s creation as a symphony declaring God’s glory, as constantly infused with God’s presence, points us to Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
5 It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
6 It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.
God is the author of the story, the creator of the song, and God is present in the story every step of the way.
I do feel it is probably helpful to spend a little time looking at those questions of science and evolution, because I know they are on many of our minds when we read Genesis. The truth is, interesting and enlightening as those questions are, the way we answer them is a secondary question. Christians affirm that God is the Creator, that in the beginning, there was only God. Affirming God as Creator does not force us to affirm how God created but only that God created. In other words, evolution explains how the natural world changed and developed but does not address how the natural world got here in the first place.
That said, personally I will admit that I find the theory of evolution to be quite compelling. The question of Darwinian evolution never challenged my faith as it does for many. I have investigated it (a few books I found helpful will be in the notes) and at this point, I would say I am a theistic evolutionist. I believe God created and I believe the theory of evolution is true. Like millions of other Christians, I see no contradiction between believing in evolution and being a person of faith. There are numerous popular level books, as well as plenty of podcasts, out there that discuss the history of the world prior to humans coming on the scene (which is about 99% of the history of the cosmos, according to science) and the interested reader ought to check those books out.*
The story of scripture is not concerned with the science of how God created or how the present-day universe came to be. Instead, it is a story about God and God’s relationship with humanity as well as the entire cosmos. Who God is and what God is like, who Jesus is, what it means for God to be Trinity and questions of human meaning and purpose all lay outside the realm of science. Science is limited to what is going on in the natural realm. With questions of God and meaning and purpose we move into the metaphysical. Modern science is wonderful, but it is simply not equipped to answer these questions.
Laying aside the natural questions of science and evolution, let’s return to the story of creation. The story of scripture begins in Genesis by asserting that creation is good; the world is a beautiful and amazing place. God places humans in this good world and deems them very good. Humans are created in God’s image. This means that humans stand in a unique relationship with God. We are in some way incomplete without living in relationship with God, other people and all creation. Humans are also created with a mission or purpose. Genesis 1:27-31 has been called The Cultural Mandate for here we see God’s original purpose for humans: to continue the work of creation (God is Creator, we are creators) and to care for God’s creation (cultivate):
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
Unfortunately, the first humans turned away from all of this. Genesis 3 tells the story of Adam and Eve failing to obey God. Again, whether or not Adam and Eve were literal historical humans or when they lived is peripheral to the point of this story. The point is that Adam and Eve, like all of us, turn away from God’s purpose for us and pursue self-centered sinful ideas. This rebellion leads to a break in the relationship both between God and humanity as well as between the humans with one another. Another word for this rebellion against God is sin. Sin, like a virus, grows through the next few chapters of Genesis till we see humans building a tower to try to become gods (Genesis 11). Further, the rebellion of the first humans has repercussions in all of creation, as now the whole world is broken.
The first chapters of Genesis thus reveal two truths about the cosmos to us – creation is good and creation is broken. These two truths can both be affirmed by looking at our world today. There is so much that is beautiful in the world, but there is also so much that is messed up.
Think about the world around you: where do you see beauty that reminds you of the goodness of creation? Where do you see pain and suffering that reminds you of the fall?
There is a lot more we could say about Genesis 1 and what we can learn about God and God’s creation here. We could talk about how the creation of the cosmos in Genesis 1 is essentially the building of a cosmic temple. In the ancient world, gods lived in the temples. Eventually the Israelites would build a temple in Jerusalem for God. But Genesis 1 reminds us that God cannot be contained in a temple. Rather, the entire cosmos is God’s temple. We will get into this more when we get to the building of the Temple. We could also contrast the creation story in Genesis with other ancient creation stories, such as the Babylonian story where the god Marduk creates the universe out of the body of another god he killed in battle. Its a fantastic and wild story. Its a story that sees violence as inherent in the cosmos, evil and suffering are an implicit part of the cosmos. This is quite different from Genesis where God speaks and creation happens. Violence and evil and suffering are not inherent, they come in later as leeches or parasites into the good creation.
Yes, we could spend tons of time on the early chapters of Genesis. I am doing a Bible reading plan with students and we have had long discussions already on the mysteries and oddities of Genesis 1-11. Questions of history and science and mythology and interpretation abound. I simply encourage you to keep learning and thinking if you are interested, but also to not get so lost in the weeds as to miss the main point. For Christians, the main point is always Jesus.
Christian interpretation of Genesis 1 understands the God revealed here is the Trinitarian God fully revealed in Jesus. God is an eternal relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within this, God is Love, as 1 John 4:8 states. When we read about God in Genesis 1, we cannot forget our distinctly Christian understanding of God. John’s gospel intentionally parallels Genesis:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.
We see the presence of God in creation at the beginning of this story. Creation declares the glory of God. God’s creation reveals God’s glory. Christians see the God of creation, God’s glory, fully revealed in Jesus. God the Father, Son and Spirit are the one God there at the beginning and the one God who speak through scripture. Yes, darkness and sin and evil and suffering enter God’s good creation. But God is not surprised. God is and always has been self-giving love and this self-giving love is revealed in Jesus. God is the Creator of all and God is the Redeemer of all. God is the light shining and pushing back the darkness. God is the author of the story and we know no matter how bad things become – whether in the scripture story or the story of our lives – God is brining light and life out of darkness and death.
A few big questions have come up as we have begun our journey through the story of scripture. With such questions in mind, I encourage you to journal through what you think.
How do you reconcile the discoveries of modern science – the age of the universe, the evolution of all species from common ancestors, the possibility Adam and Eve were not literal people – with the first chapters of Genesis?
The second question is a bit more practical and a bit less heady. Humans were created to care for and cultivate God’s creation. Just as our Creator brings order and of chaos and beauty out of mess, so we are tasked with bringing order, beauty, goodness and light into this world. What practical actions can you take this week to increase the goodness of creation and push back the brokenness?
Prayer: God of the Cosmos, you were here before time and space. You are the foundation of all that is, was and ever will be. We praise you as Love itself – you are a never-ending relationship of love within yourself as Father, Son and Spirit. We praise you for creating us out of this love and we ask you to show us how to love others. Help us to see the beauty of your creation and give us the wisdom to know how to love those who see the answers to these big questions differently than we do. Give us humility and a listening ear. Help us to love Amen.
Note: Calling it the Old Testament has always bothered me, because “old” implies irrelevant or out of use. The Old Testament is, of course, relevant to our faith. Apart from that, our Jewish friends, who share these texts as scripture, do not call it “old.” I could have referred to it as Hebrew Bible or First Testament (as scholar John Goldingay endorses) but since most Christians are familiar with it as “Old Testament” I decided to stick with that, recognizing the issues with it.
Note: A few of my favorites are: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway Books (2004); Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, IVP Press (2011); Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, Harper (2007); Francis Collins, The Language of God, Free Press (2006). I would also recommend the work of scientists John Polkinghorne and John Haught as well as the Bible scholars Pete Enns and John Walton.
Note: When we speak of Adam and Eve, it is worth noting that accepting the theory of evolution does shift our understanding of the first chapters of Genesis. The question becomes, when did humans become distinctly unique in comparison to other creatures? Also, was there a first couple or are Adam and Eve in the Bible just a mythological story? I am not comfortable jettisoning them as a real first couple, though I am not sure how they fit into an evolution schema. Either way, their story is not primarily about the literal history (whether they existed) but about what it means for humanity (we are broken).