From Revelation Backwards

Daniel Harrell wraps up his book, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, with a reflection and a perspective that I don’t think we consider seriously enough.

Christians have always believed all truth to be God’s truth, implying that science and faith, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what. … Science matters whether we care about it or not. And because science matters, it warrants theological reflection. (p. 137)

Because science matters, it warrants theological reflection.

The point isn’t that science is an objective truth, that theology must conform or be lost in the dust of time. Rather the point is (1) that all truth is God’s truth and thus “as reliable witnesses of nature, we can only become more reliable witnesses to God.” And (2) for Christians at least, theology is the queen of the sciences … that is, it is the lens through which we interpret everything else. Because science matters it warrants theological reflection. The biblical narrative is the source and ground of this theological reflection because it records God’s interaction and relationship with his creation.

The final two chapters of Nature’s Witness (Sunday Lunch and Peach Pie in the Sky) walk through some of these theological reflections which center on death (biological and human), new creation, and the nature of time. The biggest issue is death. Science tells us that death is a necessary and natural part of the world. We can wonder a bit about the fate of mankind, but so far as plants, animals, and insects are concerned it seems an intentional and necessary part of creation. It is not that God had to use death in creation – but that he did use death in creation. Somehow, then, it must be and have always been part of his plan. This is hard for us to take and to understand.

Free will, free process, and the relational nature of God.A free-process creation results in a free-willed people.” (p. 105) This doesn’t tie God’s hands, he doesn’t just sit back an unfolding story. He interacts in relationship with his creation.

Frankly, there are too many places in the Bible where God defies creaturely freedom to suggest that his hands are ever tied. However, in most of those places, God’s defiance of creaturely freedom is in response to human abuses of freedom, such as when disease, weather, or earthquakes are employed as agents of divine judgment (e.g., Exod 9:3; 1 Kgs 17:1; Isa 29:6). (p. 106)

Ultimately God’s will will be done … he is a competent creator. It is not unreasonable to understand God as limiting his omnipotence for the good of his creation. The incarnation is but one such example – Jesus was not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent between his birth and death. This was a voluntary self-limiting act.

The flourishing of creation requires renewal – and in our present world renewal requires death and the recycling of matter and genetic diversity.

Life on this planet was never eternal. Aging and progress are not the result of the fall. The creatures were told to be fruitful and multiply, Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply. I’ve quoted Calvin before on this issue – but even Calvin did not think life on earth would have been eternal, rather Calvin thought that Adam and Eve would have moved to the next stage without the pain of disease, decay, and death. Harrell sums up like this:

Even Jesus aged. If Adam’s life on earth had been a sin-free paradise, it still could not have been eternal. Physics as we understand it could not allow earth to go on indefinitely. If we understand physics rightly, then God never intended earth to go on indefinitely either (since God is the author of physics). Eternal life is not about living forever on this planet. It’s about a relationship with God that transcends this world into new creation. (p. 113)

What then is our hope? Harrell suggests that rather than viewing creation as something good that went bad with a recovery plan to follow we should look at the Christian story and God’s creative design from Revelation backwards. God is pulling creation toward the age to come in accord with his perfect plan.

It’s as if redemption was the purpose from the beginning. It’s as if creation is being pulled, called toward that day when all things will become radically new in Christ. If perfection never was and is “not-yet,” the appearance of evil and suffering (including the suffering and struggle depicted by Darwinian science) is no longer inconceivable. That the serpent got into the garden may suggest that everything was not yet right with the world, even before everything went wrong. (p. 118)

Harrell also considers the idea that God is outside of time and unbound by time. Time is intrinsic to God’s good creation – but it is a part of the creation, it does not transcend creation. Evolution is a part of God’s creation – but it is not the means by which the completion of God’s good creation will occur. The consummation in new creation will have continuity with creation as we know it, but will also step outside of and transcend the limitations of our present creation in ways we can not begin to see but dimly. New creation, no death, decay, or giving in marriage (i.e. procreation) points us to something outside of the physics we know in our creation.

Evolution has a forward-facing orientation, propelled by the bang of energy that blasts it into motion from the beginning. However, theology that pairs with evolution works better, not by likewise looking for its energy from the past but by fulfilling its promises with energy from a definite future. … The evil experienced does not mar perfection but rather is being swallowed up in the victory that God has already won since the foundation of the world (1 Cor 15:54; Rev 13:8). This is why hope in God cannot disappoint (Rom 5:5). (p. 126)

Once again relationship is the key. God is intrinsically relational and creation is an outpouring of that relationship. Harrell puts it like this:

In the end it is my relationship to God through Christ, sustained and applied by the Holy Spirit, that is the real guarantor of my continuity from this life into the next. The Trinity, which created as an outpouring of its self-giving generosity, draws all creation back into themselves as an ingathering of its generosity. The movement is one of relationship, freedom that leads to embrace to the ever-giving and ever-beckoning power of sacrificial love. God’s love gives and gives up for the sake of creation and redemption. (p. 126)

Redirected Focus. The way Harrell redirects the focus of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is worth some serious consideration. Although it may force us to reshape some of our thinking – and the perspective we take on God’s creation, it is biblical. Being drawn toward the future rather than wandering along from the past, God’s plan takes shape. Teleology is, perhaps, only apparent with hindsight from our limited temporal view. The fall was real – there was a real breaking of relationship with the God of all creation. Jesus came to redeem mankind, but he did not come to correct a plan gone awry. He is “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev 13:8)

Does the idea of viewing creation from Revelation backwards make sense?

Does the Bible tell us that creation was perfect? Or was it just “good.” Is there a difference?

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