In this post I wanted to write about how I understand the creation and fall story in Genesis based on New Testament teaching on light, darkness, and the trajectory of God’s relationship with humanity and His creation.
As scripture unfolds, Christ (and the rest of the NT) gives new insight and clarity on how to properly interpret the Old Testament, and I want to understand Genesis through this lens. First, 2 Timothy 3:16 indicates that scripture’s purpose is in showing us righteousness. But more centrality, the gospel of John provides a very direct commentary on Genesis. John 1 very directly echoes Genesis 1, bringing a sharp focus on the concept of light and darkness as how we are to understand God’s righteousness revealed in Christ. Light and darkness is incredibly powerful metaphor because the nature of light and darkness reveal so much about the nature of righteousness and sin. Specifically, the defining characteristic of the relationship between light and darkness is in their asymmetry. Darkness is the absence of light. Light is not the absence of darkness. Applying this to righteousness turns our typical notions of sin upside-down. The traditional Old Testament pattern of thinking is to see righteousness as the absence of sin; we are righteous by avoiding a set of condemned behaviors. The New Testament brings a new revelation and focus on seeing sin as the absence of righteousness; we pursue righteousness in actively loving others and God, and passively failing to do so is sin.
Let’s apply this key metaphor and teaching to Genesis. Again, Genesis 1 is a perfect fit for this metaphor, from the beginning (vs 2) the focus is on light and darkness and the parallel with John 1 seems unmistakable. But first, I want to list a few commonly held descriptions of Genesis that I believe are incorrect and that this metaphor corrects:
- Creation was perfect and complete.
- Sin began at the fall and undid the perfection of creation.
- At this point disease, natural disasters, and other calamities began.
- We are seeking to restore creation to its original state.
I don’t believe this an accurate Biblical account of creation. This interpretation may seem somewhat reasonable from the lens of the religious assumptions of those described in the Old Testament, but from the New Testament, we can gain a much more accurate understanding.
First, the creation account begins with darkness. Again, we may be tempted to see this as a neutral or unspoiled universe, but the NT definition of “sin” is described as darkness. Now obviously this universe has no active evil from men, but with NT understanding, this is a universe that is devoid of justice, grace, love, beauty, compassion, and redemption. It is unrighteous until God introduces light into it.
From here, God declares “Let there be light”. Here goodness and beauty is introduced into a moral universe of darkness. God is setting in motion the beginning of all that is good against a backdrop of universe that was devoid of any good (and He declares that it is good after each step). But this is just the beginning. The is the first sparkle of goodness into our world.
Next, God declares that the “light was good”. In fact after each act of creation, God echoes this declaration that it “was good”. Indeed this light and all that God has created was definitely good and introduced beauty into our world. However, this word does not indicate completion. And this isn’t for lack of a better word. The Hebrew word “tâmı̂ym” is used frequently in scripture and means perfect or complete. I believe there is critical importance to the fact that that word is not used here. God is not declaring that creation is done, perfected, or completed. I believe a reasonable analogy would be a composer working on a great symphony that has finished composing the melody that will dominate this symphony. This melody can be a beautiful sequence of notes that forms the backbone of the whole work and can possess tremendous potential, but the symphony is far from finished, there is still much harmony and intricacies yet to be written. Likewise creation was good in that it formed the backbone of all continuing creation. It was brimming with potential for all future creation. Creation was good. But it was not complete, and would and does continue to this day.
After the story of creation comes the fall, the familiar story of Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree and being banished from the garden. Romans says that “sin came into the world through one man” (5:12). Here we must notice the critical distinction between the beginnings of sin, and its entrance into our world of humanity. Again, the story begins with the backdrop of universal passive “sin”, a universe in darkness, yet to be filled with goodness. And even with the narrative of the fall, the originator of active evil, the devil, predates the temptation, fall of humans, and entrance sin of into humanity. Quite clearly, at least evil existing in the devil before it came to man. This represents not the beginning of evil or darkness, but the introduction of sin to man.
Furthermore, this story also centers around the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What does this mean? First, we can be quite certain that God’s prohibition from eating from this tree was not because knowledge of good and evil is itself bad. The Bible itself is largely about revealing, and giving us knowledge of, good and evil. It would be rather contradictory to conclude that God didn’t want us to know good from evil. He repeatedly reiterates that He does want us to understand this, and ignorance of good and evil is folly. What does this tree mean then? I think it is helpful to consider how the trajectory of God’s relationship with humanity as described in Galatians 3:24-26, where God is taking us from the children operating under strict law, to sons of God, given freedom to carry out his mission. Extrapolating backwards, I believe we can properly understand Genesis as the nursery or sanctuary stage of humanity (in the narrative, there is no reason to believe Adam and Eve were more than a few years old at the fall). As a parent, I want my children to grow up to understand evil and injustice and fight against it, but as infants we shield them from these realities, giving them a sanctuary of innocence for the youngest years. Likewise, I believe Genesis was showing God’s gift of sanctuary of innocence for Adam and Eve. Their fall and rebellion was not because God never wanted them to understand good and evil, but because they sought a premature loss of innocence. And unfortunately the loss of innocence was a one-way street. And perhaps this is a little tangential, I also don’t see any indication that if Adam and Eve had avoided the first temptation, that the devil didn’t have more temptations to offer, that may even be more alluring than apples.
So does this fall mark the beginning of disease, natural disaster, and calamity? The most direct answer is that this is just simply not taught in scripture. Now to be sure, the “curse” definitely introduced man to some bad stuff, and pains and frustrations that they (and creation) would encounter outside this sanctuary. But this curse did also have a specific scope, and I don’t think we should read into this passage more than it says. It does not describe a far-reaching alteration to fundamental behavior or mechanics of nature. To imagine nature of the entire earth (outside this sanctuary) without any of dangers of tectonic plate movement and earthquakes, weather without hurricanes, bacteria without any harmful effects is to imagine a nature very unlike the nature around us.
Romans 8:18-23 describes the broader state of creation that is “longing”, and experiencing “corruption”. I believe it goes well beyond what is described in this passage to conclude this all began at the fall. I believe the most faithful reading of this passage is that this “longing”, and “bondage” has simply existed as long as creation has existed without any specified demarcation. And this aligns with the metaphor of light and darkness that Genesis was the start light being introduced into the darkness, that it was beginning of God’s beauty unveiled, but it was not the end or the completion. The metaphor of childbirth point to how the initial act of creating nature was a start, it was created pregnant and full with possibilities that are to be realized in Genesis’ future, unfolding through history, and fully realized in an ultimate future. Creation did not “fall” into “pregnancy”.
Now, it is worth noting that we can draw analogy with “futility” and “pains of child birth” with the curse that have frustrated creation; the curse did affect creation and bring pain in some ways. But, it goes way beyond the Biblical description to assume this introduced disease and calamity into a creation that was somehow free of dangerous bacteria, awe-inspiring weather patterns, and tectonic forces. Furthermore, according to Genesis, the curse did not even begin the pain of childbirth. Rather it “increased” or “multiplied” it. Active sin and evil adds to the “bondage” and frustration to he longing and path of creation. And one does not even need to reach for some type of magical force to rearrange the laws of nature to see how that comes to pass. Our greed and disregard for the environment has created enormous burden and degradation to creation around us. That being said, even with frustrations, creation began on a trajectory: the fundamental state of the longing towards fulfillment and revelation and the metaphor of expectancy of pregnancy is not the curse, it is the path and trajectory of creation, as God intended to take it through.
Finally, this should shape our relationship to creation and the world around us. I think that it is a mistake to see our mission as essentially a restoration project. I believe a more Biblical concept is a story of God intentionally introducing and continually growing light amidst darkness, a continuing story of redemption that was intended from the beginning, and not just fixing up a broken story. I believe we are not called to be security guards in a museum or mausoleum of God’s static stale relics and remains, but rather we are called sons of God; we are called to join him in his workshop of creation, seeing the beauty and wisdom of how he builds, and joining him in his ongoing dynamic and creative work!
In addendum, perhaps it is questionable how I could attempt to discuss Genesis without any attempt to discuss young earth vs old earth. I have intentionally sought to look at Genesis with the focus of shaping our understanding of righteousness. But what of the physical mechanics of our universe’s development? I believe Psalms 19 gives direction for where we can look for this knowledge: “The heavens declare the glory of God… night reveals knowledge”. And what I see and hear from looking deeply into the heavens is the echos of 13.8 billion years of declaring the praise and glory of God.