Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Biblical Account of Creation

I recently re-read Genesis to clarify the Biblical account of creation. My effort coincided with the discovery of the farthest galaxy last week.

080212-galaxy-art-02

As a person who enjoys learning more about the physical world, I find myself tiring of blanket religious negations of scientific evidence.

I have no doubt that those belonging to the creationist, evolution and intelligent design schools of thought have become so polarised and entrenched in their positions that my interpretation may well be dismissed as invalid by all parties to the debate. I will still endeavour to present scripture that demonstrates that the biblical account can support some aspects of modern thought which traditionalists assume to be at variance with the scriptural view of the universe’s origin.

We read: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep’ (Gen. 1:1,2)

We have no idea of the time span between verses 1 and 2, nor a complete description of the process. Paul states, ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.’ (Heb. 11:3) Paul explains the context of ‘framed’ (Gk. kat─ôrtisthai, meaning prepared or fitted, i.e. ordered);  that simply the chaos of the universe required a non-physical unified intervention of supreme power to bring it into an order that could sustain life and promote man’s well-being. The physical universe came into existence and order out of nothing less than the will of God.

Consistent with this idea of initial chaos, physicist Adilson Motter has used rigorous mathematics to prove that this was indeed the state of the early universe. Specifically, the earth, in its infancy, is described by scientists as a rotating cloud of dust, rock and gas. So ‘without form and void’ is an apt description.

Genesis 1: 3 establishes transition of the universe’s energy into the visible spectrum: ‘And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.’ My initial assumption was that surely this is a problem: since light has always existed. However, physicists refer to a specific primordial epoch as the Dark Ages of the Universe.

When the Universe cooled down after the Big Bang, about 13.7 billion years ago, electrons and protons combined to form neutral hydrogen gas. This cool dark gas was the main constituent of the Universe during the so-called Dark Ages, when there were no luminous objects. This phase eventually ended when the first stars formed and their intense ultraviolet radiation slowly made the hydrogen fog transparent again by splitting the hydrogen atoms back into electrons and protons, a process known as reionisation. This epoch in the Universe’s early history lasted from about 150 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang. (Galaxies during the era of reionisation: http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1041a/)

So, ‘Let there be light’ refers to the later period of star formation and intense UV radiation that ends this phase of dark gas by splitting it into positive and negative particles. The sun and solar system eventually form and the rotation of that early accretion of material called Earth gives rise to the first terrestrial day and night:

‘And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.’

The meaning of Genesis 1:6 – 8 has always seemed very specific and yet obscure: ‘And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day’

The Hebrew word is for firmament means ‘a spreading outwards’. From the standpoint of the earthly observer, the sky is a canopy surrounding the earth in all directions. As the earth cools, water collects forming oceans, on one hand and on the other, spreading outwards or evaporating as vapour and clouds in the sky. A dense atmosphere now surrounds the earth.

Evaporation continues as dry land appears, separating the oceans:

‘And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good’ (Gen. 1: 9 – 10)

Verse 11 is startling. It should be contrasted with the creation of man. It firmly indicates that the earth is permitted to generate and sustain life naturally, rather than requiring a supernatural intervention. It does not say, ‘And God said, Let there be grass, the herb yielding seed…’ Instead it says, Let the earth bring forth…’ We can deduce that God has by the previous events established the conditions for nature to do its work under His providence. It only needs his permission for a natural, rather than supernatural, chain of events to occur. If God had said of childbirth, Let women bring forth children, should we assume that any such offspring are born supernaturally?

The same is said of the oceans: ‘And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.’ With the right conditions for life in place, the waters have the capacity to bring forth all kinds of animals, from simple organisms to fishes, reptiles, amphibians and birds.

In the next verse, the focus turns towards the dry land again, as the agent of land-based mammalian life. So the clear biblical teaching is that creation, beyond the initial chaos appearing out of nothing in Genesis 1:2, is God initiating a sequence of natural events. This does not deny the Big Bang or evolution entirely, it is the ordering of existence from chaos. Although the natural sequence was now complete in six days, scripture gives no detail on the full mechanics of the universe’s origin. We only understand in Genesis 1: 28 – 29 that the whole process is the culmination of a gift of providence towards man.

The only exception to God’s employment of earth and water as intermediate agents is Man. God Himself fashions man from frail dust to bear the imprint of God. He comes to life by supernatural intervention ‘the breath of life’, rather than by natural means.

This distinction as the pinnacle of creation is borne out the reference in Genesis to man’s God-given authority over all other creatures.

In summary, any careful reader of Genesis is left to wonder how the biblical account is so remarkably consistent with the discoveries of modern cosmology. The only plausible explanation for this unique accuracy in such a primitive record is divine inspiration.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The Pearl Trader’s Dream

In Christ's parable of the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46, perhaps His shortest spiritual illustration), He describes an avid merchant. For this man, trading precious stones not a hobby, it's a livelihood. We can also understand that his greatest ambition is to discover that once-in-a-lifetime Pearltreasure, the pearl of great price. One important point to make is that, unlike other gems, the value of a pearl can’t be substantially improved upon by human effort.

As an aside, Jesus also had a lot to say about treasure. For instance, 'lay not up for yourselves treasure on earth which moth doth corrupt and thieves break in and do steal' (Matt. 6:19). Treasure is a store, reserve or fund. Of course, God wants us to be free from daily worries over our bodily need for warmth and nourishment. However, the build-up of material reserves for ourselves beyond our daily requirements is conducted at the expense of the more pressing needs of others, who may be stricken by calamity, or sickness. It's all too easy to accuse the afflicted of improvidence, saying, 'it's not my fault that they didn't they take out a bigger, better insurance policy' (as if only guilt, rather than love, justifies ending selfish behaviour).

Accumulating funds for long-term individual financial stability is similar to the Israelites who tried to store up the manna from one day, just in case God might neglect to provide for the next. The behaviour smacks of distrust in His providence and no fund (however large and well-managed) is ever safe from erosion, devaluation or dispossession.

Even relationships can be corroded over time. A young love, that starts out as fresh and exciting, can lose its appeal through neglect, beginning a vicious spiral of serial monogamy, or worse still, thoughtless promiscuity.

Back to our merchant and one day he chances upon a most extraordinary find: a single perfectly spherical pearl with astounding blemish-free lustre and massive carat weight. He wants it.

After considerable negotiation with the owner, he realises that his trade account cannot nearly meet the agreed purchase price. He's haggled as far as he can, and yet this bargain will cost more than he has in cash and securities.

Then he has an idea: liquidate everything. 'what if I also sold you my whole collection, everything I've examined and amassed over my 40-year jewellery career?' Under tight security, he fetches his precious assets to be valued and waits for the verdict...still short by hundreds of thousands.

Desperately, he asks, 'But what if I sell my house and its contents?'... 'still not enough.' the owner replies...'Clear my emergency fund?'…'Maybe?'

The owner adds it all up and finally delivers the good news. The merchant beams with satisfaction, though stripped of his worldly possessions, he has what it takes. The precious pearl is his forever.
Later that day, another gemologist examines the pearl asking 'How much did you say you paid him?’ The anxious merchant tells him the figure, his heart sinking at the thought that he's been sold a dud. 
The feeling is short-lived. 'Well, it's quite frankly the best in the world, it's unique and worth millions more than you gave up for it...is the pearl’s former owner a best friend, or something?!''

Christ used the parable to describe the eternal Kingdom of God. Salvation may be freely given by the Owner, but it's not void of personal sacrifice. Paul, in response to God's forgiveness of his former life (that included persecuting Christians), realised he had to abandon the comfort and privileges of his Jewish roots in order to fully embrace his Christian calling. He describes what happened, ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ’ (Philippians 3: 7,8)

So which aspects of my current lifestyle are on the auction block in order to win Christ? How many of those things relegate an all-consuming passion for Christ to second place or worse? What legitimate pursuits will you or I, like Paul, abandon to gain Christ?
'For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also'  (Matt.6:21)

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Rest for the weary

Moses reminded the Israelites that the one God, who liberated them from impoverishment and thereby owned them, was the Origin of all things. Paul says, ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear’ (Heb. 11:3) All existence was created by God out of nothingness.

Creation is the first act of divine providence, building a universe filled with awe and wonder (see Psalm 19). Let’s be clear: There is no discussion of the time span between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1. Some creationists refer to Isaiah 40:22: ‘He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.’ The stretching of space is considered by some as the ultimate display of omnipotence in controlling relativity: He who can make the sun stand still, can accelerate time on earth, completing creation in seven days and dilate time elsewhere. ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.’ (2 Pet. 3:8) (see Dr. John Hartnett: Starlight, Time and the New Physics)

What we do know is that God enjoyed the reward of His completed creation. He called on Israel to do the same in imitation and acknowledgement that they owed God (as we do) the fruit of their labours.

In the Old Testament, the keeping of the Sabbath was enforced rigorously: (Num. 15:32 – 36). Of course, there were offerings for unintended personal errors, but, if Israel was to fulfil its singular mission as the medium of God’s salvation to the world, open, flagrant rebellion had to be put down immediately.

In the New Testament, Jesus demonstrated that Sabbath-keeping could easily descend into a ritualised externalism that contradicts the immediate, internal promptings of practical love from the Holy Spirit. Paul considered its observance discretionary: ‘One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.’ (Rom. 14:5). In other words, empowerment by the Holy Spirit should inform individual consciences and allow for a level of discretion that the Old Testament didn’t. Paul was sure that all Old Testament externalisms had been cancelled on Christ’s gibbet of crucifixion. ‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.’ (Col. 2:16)

So what rest is there for the Christian? After all, there is nothing quite so frustrating as pointless effort. You can walk through a busy city seeing hundreds of purposeful citizens rushing to and fro, but what if their pay or working conditions didn’t measure up to the efforts they expended?  They would soon lose motivation.

This is no less true of Christian endeavours, but it doesn’t come down to financial rewards. Relentless labour and material accumulation for its own sake always ends in dissatisfaction. There are eleven instances in which the writer of Ecclesiastes refers to this focus on ‘things under the sun’ or temporal pursuits as ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’. As humans, we need relationships and assurances that transcend material transactions and stand the test of time.

Paul elevates the idea of Christian rest beyond the Old Testament promises. In Hebrews 3 and 4, he explains that the unbelieving Israelites were condemned to die in the wilderness for their unbelief. They missed out on the rest provided in the Promised Land. Let’s be clear, God didn’t demand blind faith. These people had seen God’s mighty acts of deliverance from Egypt, but, at the first hint of hardship, they still accused God of, at least, indifference, if not pleasure in seeing their frailty : ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’ (Ex. 17:3). They could have chanted, ‘We know that the God we serve can do anything, He gives us manna from heaven. He can turn this desert into an oasis. Is anything too difficult for Him?’ But they didn’t.

David recounts this incident in Psalm 95 as a warning to us. ‘Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come’ (1 Cor. 10:11)

The verdict upon the ungrateful was then as it is now: ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ (Ps. 95:10). They would never understand how divine power always exposes human frailty before intervening in loving mercy, that God will not share credit for His accomplishments with anyone. Indeed, He declares unequivocally that ‘no flesh shall glory in my presence’ (1 Cor. 1:29). God’s strength and human weakness are a perfect match.

In the same psalm, God declares another rest, a rewarding conclusion to the outworking of redemption beyond the land promised to Abraham’s descendants. ‘There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.’ (Heb. 4:9,10)

Scripture reassures us on countless occasions of this ultimate reward that can’t be measured in human terms: the goal of a life devoted to God. For example, Paul reminds ‘Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due time we shall reap if we faint not’ (Gal. 6:9)

‘To those, who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life’ (Rom. 2:7)

We are also encouraged to look away from temporal distractions and focus attention upon the eternal goal. As Paul said, ‘So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’. (2 Cor. 4:18) We should all be discussing the book of Revelations every week to understand our sacred inheritance: ‘but in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.’ (2 Pet. 3:13)

Consider the hardships that Paul endured in spreading the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of God’s final and eternal restoration of the universe: ‘Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,…’ (2 Cor. 11:25). Yet, for all this, he also explains, ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ (2 Cor. 4:17). He reminds the Corinthians of Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"-- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.’ (1 Cor. 2:9,10)

What Paul saw in his visions of the omnipotent God united with humanity in the ascended Messiah and in the final victory of His people was so astounding that he needed a counterbalancing affliction to keep his pride in check. (2 Cor. 12:7) If you spend a few nights reading the book of Revelations, you’ll get some idea of what the apostles saw in the Spirit. It gave them a different perspective on their troubles. It gave them insight. Indeed, we are guaranteed this same level of insight in our single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.’ (James 1:5)

This unseen future for which we labour on earth, our Promised Land, is our steadfast hope when all earthly hopes are removed. Without it, for all of the comforts of our daily lives, we are reminded that ‘if we have hope in this life alone, we are of all men most miserable.’ (1 Cor. 15:19).

‘For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb. 13:14), ‘…a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ (Heb. 11:10).

Instead of a worldly empire of social equality, this city, the New Jerusalem is surely the eternal rest for which we toil in this world.