What part does the material creation play in God’s overall purpose? What is the telos of the universe? Is it simply a testing ground? Is it a temporary playing field which God uses to refine future perfected spirits to live with him after he has disposes of materiality? Could it be there is some other intended end for creation? Does creation possess inherent worth, thus playing a part within God’s redemptive purpose? Or, is it disposable and ultimately meaningless? The discerning reader is faced with these questions from the outset of scripture: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).
It is my belief that God’s intention in creation was to dwell with humanity in unhindered fellowship as they co-reigned with him on the earth (“Have dominion,” Gen. 1:28). Thus, the hope of humanity isn’t to ultimately escape the world and materiality, but to exist with God in a redeemed creation, in a redeemed material body pictured within the resurrected Lord. It is my contention that the meta-narrative of scripture is the reunification of God dwelling with man in a renewed universe. This is based on the conviction that heaven and earth, while two separate and independent realms, will one day unify with the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Again, we see this witnessed within the resurrection of our Lord: resurrected to imperishability, but with embodied materiality. Or, as the apostle Peter puts it, “A new heavens, and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). This series will focus specifically on my belief that there will be, in fact, a “new earth” in which the redeemed will dwell with God for eternity.
My desire in writing this series of articles is multifaceted. First, I would like to be transparent in my beliefs. For some time now people have questioned my convictions on this topic and I—out of fear of causing division and losing friendships— attempted to adapt my terminology perhaps too much, such that my convictions were not as accurately articulated as they should have been. Yet, these actions have caused me great pangs of conscience with which I can no longer abide. If I am to be right with God in my pursuit of “faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:5) then I must be clear about my beliefs. For those who are reading this and feel I have been duplicitous in our conversations, I do deeply apologize; I have no excuse other than cowardice and fear.
Secondly, my desire is to write these articles for critique. My central desire is to know the truth and to know God; thus, I have no fear of critique. With each passing year I am more aware of my imperfections, failings, and blind spots and realize I can’t know the truth without the aid of other sincere truth seekers. I pray the critiques are given in a spirit of love and humility.
Finally, I hope in writing this series I will address, on a more holistic level, my beliefs (and the beliefs of many others). It seems that this discussion often falls into simply debating isolated scriptures without a view toward the overall context of scripture. Yet, a discussion of this magnitude extends far beyond any particular passage. For example, before we discuss God’s intended end for the material universe we must first look at his initial purpose in creation (thus the purpose of this first article).
I believe this discussion is a matter of importance. At the same time, I don’t believe that the view presented is worthy of drawing lines of fellowship within the Lord’s church. I believe there are intelligent, sincere and good brethren with whom I am in full fellowship who come to a different conclusion than I do. I respect their scholarship and their reverence for God’s word. While we may disagree on the nature of our eternal dwelling, we both agree that the ultimate hope of scripture is eternal life in the presence of our God.
At the same time, I do hope that we are challenged in some way to reevaluate our belief in creation’s ultimate purpose. God wants his people to have a clear understanding of their hope (Eph. 1:18). This will begin a series of articles on man’s relationship to the world and God’s plan to renew all things within his time (Acts 3:21). Nothing is above critique, but I pray all will be accepted with the spirit in which it is given.
A Good Act from a Gracious God
Our first introduction to the God of scripture shows an immensely powerful creative force. The divine fiat of “Let there be” is followed by “And there was” (Gen. 1:3). The story of everything begins with an explanatory statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1). The heavens are one thing (1:8) and the earth another (1:10) but taken together they represent the entire material universe. After declaring the what of God’s creative task, the text moves on the how.
The narrative shows God speaking creation into existence ex nihilo: out of nothing comes everything (Heb. 11:3). At this point in the story we are not given the motivation for God’s action. What moves this great intellect to clear his throat and hurl creative commands into the nothingness? We don’t know. We do know that it is of his own volition. If a being is powerful enough to speak Jupiter into existence, then nothing is forcing his hand. Yet the mystery remains at this point; the most powerful force in the cosmos speaks and creates and we are left to read and wonder.
After each decree God examines his work and takes delight in it (v. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21). This declaration of creation’s goodness isn’t simply a statement of the Creator’s personal pleasure, but a divine estimation of its inherent worth. Creation is good, because it is an act of the gracious God (James 1:17). This is the basis for Biblical theology concerning materiality: the material creation isn’t evil or useless but blessed by God with a certain inherent integrity. God has no malicious intent for the created world, but wants it to thrive, flourish, and expand (1:21-22). As we sometimes sing, “This is my Father’s world.” This is God’s new jewel; this beautiful blue orb hanging in the black abyss filled with wonderfully diverse and beautiful creatures. Every corner is filled with his glory; all of creation praising His name and testifying to the beauty and wonder of his character.
Yet again the question still gnaws at our curiosity: why is God doing this? If his desire is simply to create other spiritual beings like himself, why not do it? If we progress through scripture we realize that he does create non-corporeal spiritual persons known as angels (Heb. 1:14). His purpose then isn’t to create a testing ground to create, bodiless, spiritual beings to dwell with him eternally (for He already has this with the angels). Rather, it seems that He is working to create an environment where He can interact with an entirely new kind of creation where His sovereign reign will dwell.
The Purpose of Creation
If you are reading the story for the first time you may find yourself asking, “Who or what is God making this planet for?” When we come to v. 26-27 we discover the climactic act of God’s creative power: mankind. This new creation is unlike anything else thus far within the narrative. Instead of the usual “Let there be” there is the divine consultation which results in “Let us make.” This making consists of forming and breathing mankind into existence (Gen. 2:7).
Man’s humble origins create an interesting scenario. He is intrinsically intertwined with the rest of creative order—being created out of the ground itself—and thus his choices will directly affect the ground from which he came (Gen. 3:17-19). At the same time, while his origins inherently connect him with the animal and plant life, there is a distinct separation; Adam is not an evolved ape (or an evolved anything for that matter). He is God’s distinct and unique image bearer (the Imago Dei) and is called to reign as God’s co-regent over this newly created world:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”—Genesis 1:28
In this role, humanity is called to reflect God’s sovereign and good reign over all of creation. In fact, some have suggested the term “image of God” was often used in ANE cultures to refer to the king: he alone was the image bearer of God and the right to rule over his citizens. Yet, in the Genesis account, all people are kings and queens over God’s world (or at least they are meant to be). This is what makes Adam and Eve’s future rebellion so wicked: it isn’t simply that they broke a command, but they have distorted the image and character of God, calling His sovereign rule into question.
At this point in the story we have humanity right where God wants them: in relationship with Him, in the paradise of Eden, enjoying the pleasures of each other and God’s blessings, and stewarding God’s new creation. This is how history begins, and what God’s intention for all of creation was: to reflect His glory as King of heaven and earth, as he loves, sustains and blesses the material universe. Earth thus has become somewhat of a temple as God uses it as the place he chooses to dwell with humanity and Eden the central location of this covenant.
Who will Reign?
The tension arrives with the possibility of choice: will man chose to obey God and submit to his prohibition against the tree of knowledge? Or, will he rebel and attempt to usurp the throne? We will look at the answer to that dilemma more fully in a follow up article; but right now, the stage is set.
Ultimately that tension, and how we answer that dilemma, is our continued struggle today. Will we submit to God’s will and truth and walk with Him in the garden, enjoying the benefits of His presence and declaring the glory of His person to all creation? Or will we reject His love and sovereign purpose for self-rule? One makes us a son; the other, an enemy of the state.
Yet, we must not miss the main thrust of the beginning of this story: all is well in Eden at this point. God has spoken and created, and His assessment of his work is straightforward: it is good. Thus, our theology as Christians and our view of creation should reflect this foundational truth: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”—James 1:17