God’s Master Plan
In this post we will be looking at the work of God, what he has done in creation as well as what he is currently doing. I believe it is safe to assume that God has a purpose for his creation. A purpose that guides all that he has done, is doing, and will do. If that is indeed the case, then the better we can understand his purpose, the better we can understand how he is working it out.
Some understand that the purpose of creation, and humanity in particular, is to bring glory to God. While it is true that the creation does, and humanity should, bring glory to God, that is not the same as saying that the purpose of creation was for his glory. And it would seem to imply that for some reason God needs us to glorify him. I do not believe though that God has any need that we can meet, including bringing glory to him.
Other people see God as creating because he needed an expression for his love. But I believe this also implies a need on the part of God that is unwarranted. Ultimately, I believe that God created because he chose to, not because of any need on his part. So why did he choose to create?
I do not believe that the Bible contains a fully developed purpose statement from God, it does at least shed some light on the subject. The opening of Paul’s letter the the Ephesian church gives us one of the biggest clues.
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory. – Ephesians 1:4-14
Notice in this passage the reference to us being chosen before creation as well as the consequences of that choosing. At least a part of God’s plan in creation, and the part that most directly concerns us, is to create children and to develop them as his own. We should be careful not to equate our adoptions as sons with Jesus status as Son; it is different. But God has created us to be holy and blameless, to be partakers of his grace, to be his children. Knowing our place in God’s plan will be helpful as we turn to God’s activity in this world, starting with creation and continuing on with its maintenance. A redeemed humanity is central to God’s purpose, and thus his working in the world.
The Extent of Creation
The Bible declares that God created the universe from nothing rather than recycling preexisting materials. Hebrews 11:3 says that “by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” This verse affirms that the universe was created by God ex nihilo, or out of nothing. Everything, from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galactic supercluster, was produced by God, from nothing. Other passages, like Colossians 1:16-17, give further definition to the scope of creation; “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Not only was the material universe created by God, but much of the spiritual realm was also created by him; excluding himself of course. That spiritual realm is largely a mystery to humanity, but does include all of the angels, whether they are serving God, or serving Satan, who himself was created by God. It seems that all that is, apart from the triune God, is a product of God’s creative work.
Creation and Science
The Bible has an account, actually two of them, of creation that, if taken literally, is at odds with current scientific theories. How we view the apparent conflict between the biblical account and the scientific account is based, at least in part, on our understanding of inerrancy. For the strict inerrantist, the Bible is right and science is wrong, at least when it comes into conflict with the Scriptures. A more limited view of inerrancy will seek to reconcile the differences between the two. And one who does not hold to inerrancy at all will generally reject the Bible when it is at odds with science.
While the Bible would seem to indicate that the earth is only a few thousand years old, the geological record seems to claim that it is around 4.5 billion years old; the gap between these two estimates is enormous. The record of life on earth and of civilization also argue for an earth that is much more than ten thousand years old. What follows is a brief description of some of the attempts that have been made to reconcile the two accounts.
The gap theory is based on a specific reading of the first two verses of Genesis. In verse one God creates the heavens and the earth, while in verse two the earth was formless and empty. Proponents of this theory argue that when God creates it should be perfect, but verse two seems to imply something less than perfect. Something must have happened between these two verses to mar the perfection of creation. The remainder of the first chapter of Genesis then goes on to describe, not the original creation, but a re-creation of the earth. What caused the chaos described in verse two? Some would speculate it was Satan’s fall from heaven to earth. In this theory the re-creation of the earth, and the life on it now, is fairly recent in time. All of the evidence that points to an old earth is based on the original creation and development.
This theory argue for a relatively young earth, but one that was devastated by the global flood described in Genesis 6-8. This flood and the devastating storms that accompany it are responsible for the geological evidence that many interpret to indicate a very old earth. This theory is one that is used in support of a relatively young earth.
This is another theory that argues for a relatively young earth. In this theory, sometimes known as the apparent age view, it is argued that when Adam was created, he was created with an apparent age; he was not a newborn, but rather a grown man. In the same way the trees created on the third day were full grown trees having tree rings that would indicate an age of multiple years. From this is drawn the conclusion that all of creation was produced with an apparent age of billions of years, although in reality it was much younger. This includes light created in transit from distant stars and other evidence of an old earth.
This theory is based on the Hebrew word yom that is translated as day in the first chapter of Genesis. A 24 hour period of time is the most common rendering of this word. But yom is also used to refer to other periods of time, including a long epoch. The day-age theory uses this longer period of time to argue that creation took, not six days, but six long periods of time. The Genesis account describes, not how long creation took, but the general ages of creation history.
In this theory, also called the literary-framework view, the six days of creation are not referring to physical time, but rather to logical groupings. It sees in the six days of creation two logical groupings. Days 1-3 are building the domains of the heavens, the waters, the sky, and the earth. Days 4-6 then populate these domains, lights into the heavens, creatures into the waters and air, and creatures onto the land. Rather than being a physical description of creation, the first chapter of Genesis is a poetic description of creation.
While there are multiple supporters for each of these theories, as well as other theories, I find that the pictorial-day theory is the most satisfying, mostly because it eliminates the challenges posed by the strict ordering of events in the other theories such as light before the sun and stars, and trees before the sun or fish.
Development within Creation
Was creation complete after the initial creation period or has creation been an ongoing process. In particular, how did we end up with the great variety of life that is now present on earth, as well as what we find in the fossil record. There are four distinct views on how life came to be as it currently is.
In this view God created all of the species of life present today, as well as throughout history, during a brief period of creation. While there has likely been some minor diversification within species since then, there have been no new species produced. This is the predominant view of those who hold to a creation event in the past few thousand years.
This view is the opposite of direct creation. Naturalistic evolution believes that all existing life today originated from a common ancestor and, over great periods of time, has evolved into the wide variety of life present today. Naturalistic evolution holds that all of the changes in body structure have occurred via the naturalistic process of evolution without any intervention from a creator. This is the dominant view in the secular world, but is also common among Christians.
This view is similar to naturalistic evolution in believing that life evolved from a common ancestor. But it differs in seeing the hand of the creator involved in the production. Just how extensive that involvement is will vary; but in all cases God is guiding the natural process of evolution, using it to shape his creation to his intended destination.
This view, like the previous one, is a more moderate view than either of the initial two extremes. In progressive creationism God does directly create all of the existing species of life, but it does it gradually. While the direct creation view sees all species created in a brief span of time, progressive creationism sees them coming into existence over a very long span of time. Minor diversification within species may occur, but they do not evolve into new species.
Direct creationism accounts very well for the biblical record, but is at odds with the findings of science. Naturalistic evolution, on the other hand, accounts well for the findings of science, but is at odds with the biblical account. Both theistic evolution and progressive creationism are compatible with the biblical account as well as the scientific account. Progressive creationism accounts best for events like the Cambrian explosion while theistic evolution accounts best for the similarity in body plans and DNA across life. Theistic evolution seems like the best view to me, but progressive creationism also has a lot to offer. They both offer a good compromise between God’s revelation in the Bible and his revelation in the creation.
Implications of Creation
There are several implications of the doctrine of creation. If the universe, this planet, and the life on it are simply a fortuitous accident, then none of it really has much value. On the other hand, if it is all the purposeful act of an intentional creator, then it has value, both to the creator and to the creation.
A naturalistic explanation for our existence can give no explanation for why we are able to observe the creation and understand it. But a universe created by a God who wants us to be able to discover him in his creation would be orderly and discoverable; just how we see things to be.
And, finally, if creation was a fluke, what purpose could there possibly be in my existence. I am on the scene for a brief period of time and then gone, and nothing I can do or say will have any lasting impact. But if God created me for a purpose, then I have a reason for being, and who I am and what I do matters.
The doctrine of creation deals with God’s bringing into existence all that is. Providence, on the other hand, is the continuing action of God to maintain creation and guide it to his intended purpose. Providence takes two forms; preservation and governance.
One of the ways that God’s providence works is in maintaining the creation. In Colossians 1:17, Paul says that “in [Christ] all things hold together.” Also in Hebrews 1:3 we are told that Christ is “sustaining all things by his powerful word.” Christ is the sustaining power of the universe. You might see that the elementary forces of nature, gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, are God’s sustaining power in the universe. Where he to remove them the universe would simply cease.
While preservation is primarily a passive activity, governance is the active side of providence. In governance we see God actually directing the affairs of individuals and nations; willing, directing, and causing. There are at least four areas where we can see Scripture making reference to God’s governance.
One aspect of God’s governance concerns the natural processes that provide for life on earth. Acts 14:17 reflects this when Paul says “He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” God does this for all life on earth, not just his own people. We understand the physical processes that produce rain and that grow crops, yet it is God who is responsible for those processes; they are not just an accident. While I do not believe that God purposefully sends every rain shower, I do believe that he maintains the processes responsible for them. And I do believe that at times he withholds the rain and at times causes it. James 5:17-18 reflects on Elijah’s experience with the rain as he attempted to lead the nation of Israel back to the worship of God.
At a National Level
In Acts 17:26 Paul says that “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.” Here God is actively involved in the rise and fall of nations and people groups and in the limits of their influence. God is pictured here as the great orchestrator of history.
On a Personal Level
In 1 Corinthians 4:7 Paul says “For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” I am the way that I am, not because of anything I did, or that my parents did. Instead, I am uniquely crafted by God.
And, finally, in Proverbs 16:33 we are told that “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” The implication from this passage is that even the decisions that I believe I make are actually from God. I may think that I have free will and the ability to make choices, but that would seem to be an illusion.
Governance: General or Specific
God, in his governance, does affect the course of this life. But how involved is he in it. Some will argue that he is mostly concerned with the big picture, marching creation along toward his intended purpose. Others will argue that God’s governance extends down to the small details; that nothing is too small for him to be involved in and directing.
Those who hold to general governance believe that God has created a humanity that truly has free will and can make decisions that are contrary to God’s will. In particular, humans can choose to serve God, or to rebel against him. We also have free choice concerning our spouses, jobs, how we spend our money, and what we do with our time.
Repeatedly in the Scripture we find passages that call on us to believe or have faith in God (Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9-10). We are also called to share the gospel of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8), to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:15-16), and to love one another (Matt. 22:39; John 13:34-35). Would there be any need for these instructions if God was in control of all of the details of our lives? Would we not do these things regardless?
Those who hold to general governance will also argue that specific governance, making God responsible for all that we do, also makes him responsible for the evil that we do. If I do not have the ability to make free choices, and am programmed to carry out the actions of God, then he is responsible for everything that I do, including my sin.
In contrast to general governance is specific governance, the belief that God is involved in all the details of my life, including all of the decisions that I make. We choose God because he first chose us, and we cannot not choose him. In this view free will is really only an illusion.
Ephesians 1:11 offers support for this view saying, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” God has a plan for us and is making sure that everything conforms to that plan. While there is no explicit indication of a detailed plan in this passage, it is clear that God’s plan will not be thwarted; things will happen the way that he wants them to.
Psalm 139:16 is more explicit concerning God’s involvement in day to day life: “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” The easiest way to read this passage implies that my life was planned before I was ever born; I have no opportunity to vary from that plan.
Hard and Soft Determinism
There are two variations of specific governance, also known as determinism. In hard determinism there is no such thing as human free will; any appearance of free will is merely an illusion. Everything that happens to me and every decision I make was predetermined by God. The hard determinist will even generally take the logical step of acknowledging that God must also be responsible for sin and evil in the world.
Soft determinism, on the other hand, while holding to the sovereignty of God, does not see that as being incompatible with human free will. In this view the sovereign God works in our lives in such a way that we freely make the decisions that he wants us to make. This is frequently called compatibilist free will, or free will that is compatible with God’s sovereignty.
Reconciling Sovereignty and Free Will
The Scripture is clear that God is sovereign, but it also seems to indicate that humans have at least some limited form of free will. On the surface at least, it would seem that God’s control over nature and humanity would conflict with human free will. There are a number of ways that people have reconciled the two.
In this view either God is not actually sovereign, at least concerning human free will, or free will is just an illusion. This ideal of illusionary free will is one than many non-believers hold to as well. Hard determinism is advocated by many who see the universe operating according to strict laws from which there is no freedom. to the unbeliever, or seeming ability to make free choices is simply something programmed into us by genetics and environment. To the believer with this view, it is God who is directing all of my decisions. The decisions I make are the ones he wants me to make.
God is sovereign, but that does not mean that he always exercises that sovereignty. God could voluntarily choose to limit his sovereignty to allow humans to exercise real free will. That would not detract from God’s sovereignty, but would allow us a certain amount of autonomy, up to the limits God chooses to allow. This view, at least in my opinion, best explains the scriptural descriptions of God’s sovereignty and human free will. This view is also a higher view of sovereignty, since God is able to accomplish his purpose even when taking into account other autonomous free will agents.
In this view God is sovereign and has created a world where people freely choose to do what he wants them to. Given the choice between prime rib and liver, I will always choose prime rib. I have the option to choose either one, but I will never choose liver. Environmental and genetic factors have made me so that I always choose against liver. But how many of those factors were manipulated by God to ensure that I dislike liver and thus freely choose any alternative?
Another aspect of God’s activity in the world concerns miracles. Miracles are generally considered as something that God does; something that either cannot, or would not, happen apart from his direct action. If there is a creator who is interested in moving his creation toward some specific end, then the existence of miracles should be expected. And real miracles would be conclusive proof for the existence of a purposeful creator. But just what is a miracle?
Manifestations of little known laws: There are some would believe that miracles are actually natural occurrences, the working of natural laws that we are currently unaware of. Some day we will likely discover these laws and be able to harness them ourselves.
Breaking the laws of nature: Others see that miracles are violations of the natural laws. When a miracle occurs, God suspends the laws that would prevent the miracle long enough to perform the miracle, and then reinstates the laws. If God is not transcendent to the natural laws that control the universe, then miracles would not be possible.
A countering supernatural force: Gravity is a force of nature that I cannot break. But I do, in a limited sense, counter the force of gravity when I pick something up. In the same way God supernaturally counters natural laws when he performs a miracle. The laws are not broken, just overridden. This explanation seems the best to me.
What about Evil?
A challenge we often face when talking about God’s interaction with the creation concerns evil. Why does evil exist today? If, as we believe, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if he is good, then how does evil manage to exist? Surely an all-powerful and all-knowing God should be able to figure out and implement a creation where evil was not possible. And if he was good, surely he would want to do this. So, the argument goes, either God is not all-powerful, or not all-knowing, or not good. Or, evil does not really exist; it is just an illusion. Evil seems to be pretty real though, impacting everyone on this planet as well as the planet itself. So how can we understand the relationship between God and evil?
We can roughly break up the topic of evil into two categories. The first of these is natural evil; evil whose cause is not derived from humanity. Earthquakes, storms and disease are examples of natural evil. This form of evil seems to be inherent in nature, the way the earth works. It would seem like God could have easily created a world where the earth was stable, the weather always sunny and disease was non-existent, but clearly he did not. Or at least that is not the conditions that currently exist. Much of what we identify as natural evil is easy to explain as necessary or to be expected if the earth is very old, but more challenging for a young earth that was created as it currently is.
An Old Earth Perspective
If, as science suggests, the earth is a few billion years old and developed by natural processes, then plate tectonics is actually important to life on earth. Without the movement and collision of plates creating mountains, erosion would long ago have reduced the earth to a watery world. Plate tectonics is also responsible for burying many of the heavier elements that, in excess, are harmful to life. These elements are buried within the depths of the earth where they cause us no harm.
Storms are also a natural part of the world we live in. Storms are essential for circulating layers in the ocean, mixing colder deep water with warmer upper layers. This mixing of nutrients is essential for the health of our oceans. Storms also, along with plate tectonics, shape the surface of the earth. Without the weathering that comes from erosion the surface of the earth would just be rock.
Many of the diseases we face are the result of other living creatures that prey on us, including bacteria and viruses. We live in harmony with most of these microscopic creatures, but there are some who have evolved in such a way that they prey on us, causing us harm. Other diseases are the result of our bodies not functioning properly or because of poor habits on our part.
A New Earth Perspective
If the earth is on the order of 6-10,000 years old and created as is, then there is no need for plate tectonics, weathering storms, nor time for the evolution of harmful bacteria and viruses. Instead, these are generally thought of as being a consequence of the fall. Because of Adam’s sin in the garden the whole creation was upended. And every ill is our world today can be traced back to this seminal event.
Romans 8:19-22 is the passage that is most commonly used to support this belief. “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” The thought here is that the creation is subjected to its bondage to decay because of the fall, and that at Christ’s return both redeemed humanity and the creation are restored to their original state.
But in either case, natural evil is not really evil in the sense that we typically use the word, with evil having a moral quality. Instead it is simply the result of the way our planet currently functions. While it causes harm to people, there is no malicious or even conscious intent to cause evil.
A second aspect of evil is that which is human generated. There is untold suffering caused by either human carelessness or poor decision making. The Bible has many terms that are used for moral evil with sin being the primary one. It seems there has been sin and evil in the world as long as there have been humans; we just seem naturally inclined to sin. But could not God have created a humanity that did not sin, where evil was not possible? And if he could, why didn’t he?
Solutions to the Problem of Evil
There have been many solutions developed over the years to try and address the problem of evil in a world created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and good God.
Dualism takes the approach that God is not omnipotent. There is another powerful being contending with God who is responsible for evil. This being is frequently thought of as Satan, or someone like him. The problem with this approach, besides arguing against God’s omnipotence, is that the Bible claims Satan is a created being; he is not an equal with God. While Satan is our adversary, he is subject to God’s authority and can do nothing that God does not allow.
A Result of the Fall
Some will argue that the creation was without evil until man’s fall in the Garden of Eden. Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, sin entered into the world with a sinful nature being passed down to all of their descendants. Genesis 3:17-19 describes God’s judgement against the first couple because of their disobedience while Romans 8:19-22 includes the rest of the creation in unrest because of their sin. This approach lays the blame for moral evil at the feet of humanity, unlike dualism that blames Satan.
God is Responsible
While some blame Satan for evil, and others blame humanity, there are those who place the responsibility for evil at God’s feet. Many of those who stress the sovereignty of God conclude that nothing happens in the creation apart from God’s directing hand. So, if evil exists, it is because God wants it to and causes it to happen. This is the position of some who hold to an extreme view of specific providential governance.
God Allows Evil
A fourth position is that God allows evil to occur for some purpose of his own. Humanity is responsible for evil, but God allows it to occur.
- Some see that God allows evil because if free will is to be real there must be the possibility of making poor choices that produce evil. If God is truly interested in producing a people who can freely choose to love and worship him, then he has to accept that there will be those who will chose not to, choosing instead to live self-centered lives that produce sin. Why God would want to give us free will may be related to the purpose he has created us for, a purpose that we do not yet see clearly.
- An alternative idea is that God is actually using the evil in this world to accomplish some purpose. Sometimes it might be easy to see some good resulting from evil, but more often it is challenging for us to find the good. However, we do not know the mind and purpose of God and how he might work. At least in the case of believers it appears like the troubles that come our way are used to purify our faith (1 Peter 1:3-9) and we can then endure through it. But in other cases, like child molestation, it is hard to see how any good comes to the innocent child.
Does God cause evil? I find it difficult to accept that God is the cause of evil. James 1:13-14 says that God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Instead our temptations come from within.
Does God allow evil? It seems clear that evil exists in the world today. It would also seem that God could have created a world where evil was not possible. If this is the case then it would also seem that God must allow the evil that exists in our world today.
Could God prevent evil from occurring? I do accept that he could prevent evil if he chose to. If so, then why doesn’t he? In part, I believe that he is not overly concerned about our happiness in this life. He is working to produce people that will be in relationship with him for eternity. This life is preparing us for that, and if learning to make correct choices and being purified by evil help to accomplish that purpose, then evil is accepted.
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