Thursday, December 4, 2008

Toward a Biblical Cosmology

We have seen that II Peter speaks about the end of creation is very extreme terms, comparing the fiery end that God has in store for creation to the watery end of creation in the Noah story. If you take the Noah story and its memory within the Scriptures to be a worldwide, total annihilation flood, then the fiery end in II Peter looks like complete destruction with no ark. The significance of the ark was that when the flood was ended, Noah and is family would renew life on this planet. With no ark, there seems to be no promise of continued existence on this earth in II Peter, only sheer destruction.

I've also pointed out that Barbara Rossing argues that this view of the earth's total destruction is an anomaly in the Scriptures. That's what I'd like to explore for a spell. But, rather than playing "Here's my pile of Scriptures and there's your pile: Whoever has the biggest pile wins" I'd like to approach the question of the earth's fate by looking at the Scripture's "cosmology" in general. I am not arguing that there is only one other view of the earth within the Scriptures other than that of II Peter. There may well be as many views of the earth's final destiny within the Scriptures as there are within any historic tradition. What I want to show is a way of reading biblical texts regarding the earth that are different than the typical type of doom that Left Behind Theology usually assumes.

The Instrumental View of the Earth in Left Behind Theology
I would argue that most of Left Behind Theology has what we could call an 'instrumental' view of the earth. That is, the earth is depicted as a thing, a background almost, for the God-human drama of the end times. There is no inherent agency or dignity to the earth. Rather, it is simply the given scenario for the God-human drama that has no moral meaning in itself. While there is great drama over whether humans choose God or follow evil, the earth has no such moral character or meaning. It more or less just sits there until it is destroyed. Every now and then it might do something destructive, like an earthquake or something. But that's God's way of punishing people and the earth is simply the instrument. The real action, significance, morality, and meaning lies only in the drama that plays out between God and humanity.

The Earth as Good and Significant in Itself
There are two great creation stories at the beginning of the Scriptures. The first creation story is found in Genesis 1:1-2:4. The second is found in Genesis 2:4-25 (although the 3rd chapter should be read as an extension of this second creation story.) We can talk some other time if we must about whether these are two creation stories or just one creation story (as I was taught in Bible College), but the truth is ... they are two creation stories.

In the first creation story, I think two things are very significant: The order of creation and God's pronouncements about creation.

The order of creation is huge in Genesis 1. The whole story is built around what happens on this day, then what happens on the next day, etc. Even if you don't take this literally as signifying a 'new earth' that was actually created in seven actual days (as I don't), the significance of the seven days of creation is clearly important in the telling of this story. Each day has a wonderful and wonder-filled event that structures the world as we know it and everything ends with the Sabbath. It’s a beautiful story: One day, in the midst of the darkness of the primordial chaos, God says, "Let there be light!" and there was light! Our basic orientation of the world- light and dark, seeing and not-seeing, day and night- are given in this first act of creation. And now there is evening and there is morning, the very first of days.

The second day, God separates the waters below from the waters above and there is the distinction between the forming earth and the skies above. This is all beautiful, poetic, and powerful.

The third day adds something new to the story. Not only is there the separation of the lands from the waters on the earth, but God now calls on the earth to participate in the creative process by producing vegetation. On this day, when the earth begins to be a co-creator with God, there is the declaration that God saw it and it was good. That declaration is made twice on the third day.

Isn’t this beautiful story-telling? The significant thing is that humans aren’t even part of the picture yet and God is commissioning the earth to produce vegetation and God is declaring all of this marvelous arrangement ‘good.’ Theologically, what this first creation story gives us is a cosmology that the earth is good in and of itself, and not simply as an instrument of catering to human life. The earth, on that third day, with land and sea and sky above, producing plants and trees and vines, is good. God says so. It is good. God says so.

On the fourth day, we’re back to the sky where the sun and moon are given the task of ruling over the day and the night. The moon gets help from the stars. This too, God says, is good. The heavens, the milky way, the galaxies and expanding universe are good. God says so.

On the fifth day, God commissions the waters to start producing fish and even birds. And that was good. Then God blessed those creatures and commissioned them to join in the creative process by being fruitful and multiplying.

Then, on the sixth day, God commissions the earth to produce animals and humans. The animals are earthlings here; the humans are made in God’s own image and likeness. They are called to be fruitful and multiply. (Genesis 5 speaks of how Adam and Even did that when they produced Seth, who was in his own father’s likeness and image.) Then God steps back and looks at this whole of creation and “indeed, it was very good.”

The first creation story of the Bible does not portray and earth that is disposable or that simply has utility value. That’s the first thing I think we need to bear in mind when developing a biblical cosmology. But, there’s more…

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