Editor’s Note: Last week, John Stonestreet and I decided the Christian worldview chapter of Understanding the Times needed to be substantially rewritten to include the basics of Christian theology, not just an apologetic for its truth. As an amateur theologian at best, I wasn’t looking forward to the task. But John wrote up a great outline and I started writing on it today. Here’s a section I enjoyed working on today, contrasting the Christian view of the goodness of creation with the Secular view of its purposelessness. Let me know what you think!
Many philosophers are skeptical about whether human life has any special meaning. If you want a depressing example of this, attend Samuel Beckett’s play The Breath. According to the stage directions, the curtain opens to a stage “littered with miscellaneous rubbish,” and a birth cry, then the sound of breathing, and then another cry. Twenty-five seconds after it opens, the curtain closes. The message: life begins with a cry and ends with a cry, and everything in between is garbage. Lest you think this is some kind of one-time prank, a 2006 book claims that The Breath has been performed 1,314 times and attended by 85 million people, making it Beckett’s most viewed play. 1
Christianity rejects the reduction of human life to an “episode between two oblivions” as Ernest Nagel memorably phrased it. 2 “Good” is the word repeatedly used in the biblical creation account to describe all of creation, especially the creation of humans. Our English word “good” simply does not convey the goodness of this kind of good. The Hebrew word for good, tôwb, means good in every way possible: in potential, in beauty, in convenience, in joy, in fruitfulness, in economics, in wisdom, in sensuality, in happiness, and even in morality. 3 God himself saw that the world was good. He was pleased with it and called forth its flourishing: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28, ESV). God’s creation was not a micro-managed event. He unleashed it with an expressed desire to see it teem with life.
God’s creation of humanity receives special attention in the biblical creation narrative. The first several verses of Genesis 1 describe the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of the animals. In each step of the creation God said “let there be” and it was so. In verse 26, which describes the creation of humanity, the language takes a dramatic turn. Instead of “Let there be” the text specifies, “Let us make.” The passage concludes with God reflecting on the creation of humanity and humanity’s purpose on the earth and saying it was “very good.” In the Hebrew, the phrase is meod tôwb. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the resonant awesomeness this phrase is to convey. It literally means exceedingly, heartbreakingly, abundantly, richly, loudly, immeasurably good in a festive, generous, happy, intelligent, kind, precious, charming, splendid way. Those who dismiss creation and view humans as a plague on the earth are not, from God’s perspective, being wise and brave. They’re being stingy, small-minded and bitter. Scrooges on a cosmic level.
It is not only Secularists who undersell the important mission of humans on earth, though. Christians themselves often miss the true significance. Lesslie Newbigin invested his life as a missionary and theologian in India. He relates a conversation with a Hindu friend who said:
I can’t understand why you missionaries present the Bible to us in India as a book of religion. It is not a book of religion — and anyway we have plenty of books of religion in India. We don’t need any more! I find in your Bible a unique interpretation of universal history, the history of the whole of creation and the history of the human race. And therefore a unique interpretation of the human person as a responsible actor in history. That is unique. There is nothing else in the whole religious literature of the world to put alongside it. 4
A significant part of being responsible actors is work. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (ESV). Work is not a product of the fall; it is very much a part of the fabric of God’s very good created plan for us, so much so that we as human beings should work for the love of the work itself, as Dorothy Sayers says, “for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.” 5
Another significant understanding, from the standpoint of the Bible, is God’s pronouncement in Genesis 2:18, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” A relational God created human beings for relationship — not just for companionship, but for work. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Spreading order across the chaos is a task so large, and so joyful, that it is a pity for it to be done alone.
The Christian story of creation is this: a relational Creator made human beings in his image to relate and to create. This is the foundation of everything — the basis of the social order, the ground for marriage, and the framework through which we are to understand the good life for ourselves individually and for all of civil society.
So what went wrong?
- C.J. Ackerley and SE Gontarski (Eds.) The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p 73.
- Ernest Nagel, Logic Without Metaphysics: and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science (New York: Free Press, 1956), p. 17.
- Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, (Chattanooga,Tennessee: AMG Publishers, 1990).
- Lesslie Newbigin, A Walk Through the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p. 4, quoted in John W. Miller, How the Bible Came to Be: Exploring the Narrative and Message(Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), p. 113.
- Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?” in Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (Eds.), Leading Lives that Matter (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), p. 192.