Last week we wrote about the text, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). This paean of praise from David’s lips was underlined by Paul’s words, “what may be known about God is plain … for since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and his divinity – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). Paul makes a very sharp point here that God himself considers the natural revelation sufficient for all people to grasp his existence as Creator, and not to do so is reprehensible. We endeavoured to show what his creation reveals about God and to encourage meditation on it.
Thinkers in the modern world, however, have enthroned scientific rationalism and have not been slow to challenge such a perspective. The creation, they point out, has a very dark side to it and that dark side speaks not of a God of love or beauty, but speak of violence and pain, uncertainty and vulnerability. The very universe speaks of fire and destruction, collisions and explosions. The very earth on which we live, and particularly its living creatures, presents a picture of predatory violence as an inherent and marked feature. This perspective was “immortalised” in Tennyson’s much quoted poetic words, “Man, who trusted God was love indeed …. though Nature, red in tooth and claw …shrieked against his creed”. Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest was the scientific basis for such poetic agnosticism. He produced the most lurid and accurate instances of creatures distressingly feeding off each other, both on land and sea. The conclusion seemed obvious – there was no moral law at the heart of creation, only violence and a vicious struggle to exist.
This attitude and perspective is still very much with us and has been highlighted in particular by a number of recent television nature programmes. These seem to have a double focus; either the hunter/killer instincts of animals which, with the use of incredible filming techniques, are portrayed in a manner which leaves the “red in tooth and claw” aspect very “red” indeed! Or, if not violence, then there is an alternative and lurid focus on the reproductive activities of the creature world (also often violent). Violence and sex are, of course, deemed to be “attractive” to audiences and good for ratings, but the underlying philosophy remains a suggestive, “How can there be a God?”.
These observations of scientific rationalism are of course based on fact; nature is indeed “red in tooth and claw”. And we could add to the violence of living creatures the natural world of earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, famines etc. Nature kills – randomly it seems. So we need to say something about this negative observation on the created world, and the first thing to be said is that whilst it is a true picture it is only half the picture. The other half is just as important and cannot be brushed out, namely that there is much in natural creation that speaks volubly of love and care. A starving male bear may eat its offspring, but the elephant family will show incredible patience, care and solidarity with an ailing baby elephant. One observer noticed a male bird faithfully feed its chicks for many days after the mother had been taken by a bird of prey. Cubs may fight but will also enjoy each other’s company with much affection etc. The idea of nature being “red in tooth” and claw applies as much of course to human beings as it does to the animal world. Some parents will abuse and throw out their children; but then other people will foster them at great personal discomfort and sacrifice and love them and give them a new start in life. The soldier who has been pouring murderous fire at his opponents by day will none the less crawl out to “no man’s land” by night at great personal risk to rescue a stranded wounded companion. The world is awash with selfish aggression and self-seeking covetousness, but it still remains full of acts of love and kindness between people. So human beings are indeed capable of great cruelty but they still retain something of the image of God in acts of love. It is not all death and violence.
What is properly required, therefore, is a perspective which reconciles both aspects of creation’s witness, the dark side and the bright side. It is important to recognise that whilst encouraging a thorough grasp of the glory of creation, Biblical Christianity has never denied the dark side. On the contrary it is precisely this dark strand of creation that it has been most concerned with. The very first chapters of the Bible engage with the coming of this dark strand into the world and the rest of the Bible is engaged with dealing with that problem. The overall theme of the Bible message is that God’s purpose with this world is to restore the creation to the full beauty which it had in its original state and to remove the dark side, and it indicates the way in which it will be done. The scientific rationalist’s view is that the “chaos” of creation is intrinsic to the creation and essentially part of it. The Christian view is that the dark side is an imposition on it and an imposition which will ultimately be removed.
The starting point of the biblical message is humanity itself, the crowning glory of the creation, created in God’s image and intended to express the beauty and righteousness of God himself, with the creation providing all its needs. It states unambiguously that it was humanity’s disobedience and continued rejection of God that opened the door for darkness (violence and covetousness etc.) to enter into his being. More than that, it opened the door for darkness to invade the rest of creation. The earth became “cursed”. It would no longer be fully friendly and it would know death. Thus Man “fell” but the earth fell with Him – that is, it became pervaded with natural violence and uncertainty, though its beauty and provision was nevertheless not entirely eliminated. Put in other biblical terms, man’s disobedience to God and his desire for forbidden things opened the world up to the malign influence of dark, satanic, destructive forces. Thus the problem with the natural world is not that it is a blind, random, evolutionary development groping for some purpose, but essentially a spiritual problem centred in the relationship of humanity and God the Creator.
Any plan for the restoration of the creation must start, therefore, at the point where it first fell, namely with humanity itself. As it unfolds God’s purpose for creation, the bible message, therefore, centres on the restoration of man. Humanity needs to come back to God, find forgiveness and a way in which it can serve God as was first intended, with love, righteousness and truth. It is precisely this that is provided for us uniquely in Jesus. He died for the forgiveness of humanity’s rebellion and to provide a way back for repentant humanity to walk with the blessing of God as was first intended. Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and is now gathering a great multitude of redeemed people. Jesus will return to this world and at that point the redeemed “sons of God” will be presented to Him and receive a new body. At the same time the material creation will be restored even though it be by fire.
This ultimate denouement is clearly and beautifully portrayed by Paul in Romans 8:19-21 where he says ”the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed”, and “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”. But this concept of a spiritual interaction between nature and man’s disobedience is something that constantly weaves its way through the Old Testament, and is very instructive even for our present living. The well-known text, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, turn from their wicked ways and pray, then I will hear from Heaven and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14) is an example of precisely the same thinking: where people turn to God in repentance, it is “the land” that is “healed”. There are many similar texts, but most strikingly the great Mosaic covenant promises that God made to Israel state quite categorically that obedience to his ways will bring the nation fruitfulness in its land and its cattle etc. whereas disobedience will bring natural troubles and shortages of all kinds. The later prophets brought home this principle and were all very quick to point out the connection between Israel’s disobedience to God and famine and such like affliction that Israel experienced. It is not, therefore, a minor concept biblically: it is a fundamental proposition. What happens in nature is profoundly connected with the behaviour of humanity.
It is well worth noting that in recent intercessory prayer activity this principle has been noticed in remarkable ways. Where people in fullness of faith have humbly sought God for their “land” (and their businesses and other possessions) a new prospering has occurred. Similarly where repentance for past sin has been offered, places which have known only barrenness on account of the evil that has taken place there have been released into a new prosperity. The children of God, though not totally or fully redeemed as yet, are still able even today by the measure of grace which is on them to bring release to the natural creation.
Whilst the scientific rationalist might well be inclined to mock such biblical concepts (as the Athenians mocked a resurrection), it might be much wiser to ponder on God who is the creator and has laid some fundamental principles for his creation. The most fundamental of these is that faith and obedience toward God bring blessing to humanity and to the creation that sustains it; rejection of God, on the other hand, brings increasing alienation between humanity and its environment, a factor that is hugely relevant in our modern era in which humanity seems have fallen foul of its environment in a frightening manner.