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The Goodness of Creation

What does it mean to say creation is "good"?

Editor's Note: This article is being released with a partnership with the Center for Pastor Theologians Conference. The theme for their 2018 conference is: The Art and Science of Spiritual Formation. This conference will explore the cluster of topics related to neuroscience, mental health, and how these topics have changed the conversation in the church about mental health. The 2018 CPT Conference will bring together the best insights of three fields of study—theological anthropology, spiritual formation, and modern psychology—with a view to articulating a whole-person theology of the mind, heart, body, and brain, as well as exploring how best to love and care for victims of abuse and neglect. Register now to reserve your spot at this year's conference!


Perhaps the clearest thing in Genesis 1 is the affirmation of the goodness of creation. We find the key refrain that runs through this passage of Scripture: "God saw that it was good." Six times, after day one (v. 4), day three (v. 10, 12), day four (v. 18), day five (v. 21), day six (v. 25) and a second time after the creation of humanity, with the addition of "very" (v. 31).

Clearly, one of the main themes of Genesis 1 is the goodness of creation.

And yet this seems like one of the most difficult things to affirm about creation. Why do I say that? Not because of natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes that can be so devastating. No, it seems hard to affirm the goodness of creation when you take a close look at the normal workings of nature. When you take a close look at the creation, what do you actually see? So much that is either ambiguous (and not obviously good) or that seems less than good: even harsh, cruel, indifferent.

Perhaps you'll take a walk this afternoon through a park. It'll be lovely. But if you stop and look more carefully at what's going on, you'll notice there's a world at war. Everything is eating everything. Everything is consuming life to stay alive. The grass is just trying to be green, but it's constantly being eaten by the bugs. And the bugs are trying to do their thing, but they're constantly being eaten by the bigger bugs—and the bigger bugs by the birds, and the birds by the all the cats in the neighborhood. And so it goes.

The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson reflected on this reality about nature in a famous poem, in which he confessed that nature is "red in tooth and claw."

I remember leaving very early in the morning several months ago. Our cat was outside, and its nightly exploit had delivered a mouse. But it didn't have the mouse in its mouth. It was playing with the mouse—rather, toying with it. Cats seem to do that to mice, and it seems like they always have. What is a cat but an animal with claws and teeth, seemingly designed to hunt for prey?

I remember being in college and seeing a striking picture on the door of one of my professor's offices. It was a National Geographic-type picture: a cheetah chasing down a gazelle. It almost has the gazelle, dust flying up. On it, the professor put these words: wayyarʾ ʾᵉlōhı̂m kı̂-ṭôḇ. It's the Hebrew phrase found multiple times in Genesis 1, which, when translated means, "And God saw that it was good."

Some have referred to this not as the problem of evil, but the problem of goodness. The question for those of us living in the twenty-first century is not how we explain the presence of evil in the world, but where do we find any goodness in the world? What does it mean to say creation is good?

Who is this sermon (primarily) for?

Now, I recognize that not every Christian struggles with this issue or even has this problem. Some Christians ascribe all of the cruelty of nature—both human and animal death, all biological suffering and death—to the Fall described in Genesis 3. That has been the classic approach to this question, going all the way back to Augustine. And it may well be the right approach. It certainly solves this particular problem.

If you're a confident young earth creationist, then I recognize this isn't a huge dilemma for you. This isn't your issue. But there are many who aren't young earth creationists, even within our body. And yet we need to make sense of the Bible's teaching about the goodness of creation. I have three types of folks primarily in mind in this message: the confused biology student, the conflicted nature lover, and the convinced evolutionist.

The confused biology student. You've learned about the mechanisms that almost all scientists think drive forward biological diversity on planet earth—natural selection. And it may strike you as feasible, but pretty merciless.

The concerned nature lover. You love nature—its beauty, its elegance, its grandeur. You see it reflecting the glory of God. And it's easy for you to find your spirits lifted when you're taking a walk in the park or going for a hike or sitting by a lake or admiring a sunset. And yet it bothers you that cats chase mice … or that lions eat gazelles … or that parasites have no other purpose but to be parasitic and feed off other things. You love nature, but you recognize there is an astonishing amount of bloodshed in the natural world, in God's good creation.

I also have in mind, thirdly, the convinced evolutionist. You may be a Christian, and you're trying to figure out how the science might reconcile with your faith in Jesus. Or you may not be a Christian, and evolution is one of the things that keeps you from taking Christianity seriously. Either way, you may struggle with how the teaching of the Bible could be true if an evolutionary account of the world is true—not least because the Bible seems to say that the creation is good.

This was Darwin's struggle, you know. He struggled with cruel nature. In fact, his deep reflections on the nature of nature ended up eroding his confidence in the goodness of God and the goodness of creation. As he famously said to a friend, "What a book a devil's chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature!" He was particularly bothered by a kind of parasitic wasp that lays its eggs not on a tree or in a little hole in the ground, but inside a caterpillar. And when the eggs hatch, the little larva end up consuming the caterpillar from the inside out. One has life by consuming the life of another. "Nature red in tooth and claw."

What sense does it make, then, to talk about the goodness of creation? Let me offer five brief affirmations, ways of thinking about the goodness of creation. What does it mean when it says, "And God saw that it was good"? When we say creation is good, we mean it is (1) reflective of God, (2) conducive to life, (3) suffused with purpose, (4) enriched by beauty, and (5) clarified in Christ.

Reflective of God

First, creation is good in that creation is reflective of God. That is, creation reflects or reveals God—his nature and his character, his goodness.

We need to remember that everything that happens in Genesis 1:2 and following—the creation of the world—depends upon the God who creates in verse one. We've focused on the "days," but the focus is on the "God" who speaks, who reveals, who creates. Creation ultimately reveals God.

We want to say that creation is good because God is good. Even though creation isn't God, it is still good, just like God is good—because God, in his goodness, made this creation.

God has so gifted creation that it reflects not only God's nature, but also his character. Creation reveals the nature of God—his power, his wisdom, his intelligence. This is Paul's point in Romans 1:20 about creation telling us about "God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature." But creation also, even more importantly, reflects the goodness of God—his kindness, his generosity, his graciousness, his love.

Creation is a gift, not a given. We see God's power and genius as the architect and maker of creation. But we also see God's care and goodness for creation. As Jesus says, he dresses the lilies of the field, he feeds the birds of the air, and he causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.

All the interconnected operations of this world around us speak to the power of God, yes, but they also speak to the goodness of God. We see his wisdom, yes, but we also see his kindness, his goodness.

Creation is good because it reflects and reveals the goodness of God.

Conducive to life

The second affirmation is this: Creation is good in that creation is conducive to life.

Perhaps the most obvious thing about the opening chapter of Genesis is its structure, in terms of six days. But if you look closely, you notice the days aren't just in some linear sequence: day one, day two, day three, as though that were the only point.

No, they're carefully arranged in two groups: days one through three, and days four through six. On the first three days of creation, God creates habitats or environments, then on the next three days of creation, he fills these habitats or environments. Day one, day and night: He fills with heavenly lights on day four. Day two, he creates sky—then on day five, he fills it with birds. And last but not least, on day three, he creates the land and sea (with vegetation), and then naturally, on day six, he fills the land and sea with land creatures (including human beings) who live on that land and feed on that vegetation. It's habitation (days one to three) and then inhabitants (days four to six).

This is summarized in Genesis 2:1: "Thus the heavens and the earth were completed [i.e., the habitation of days one to three] in all their vast array [i.e., the inhabitants of days four to six]." We could also think of this in terms of forming (days one to three) and then filling (days four to six). The forming is good. The filling is good. And the whole thing, with man included, is very good.

Now the point of all of this is that this good creation God has made is conducive to life—all biological life (plants, fish, birds, animals) and especially human life. Or to put it this way: This creation we find ourselves on isn't Mars or Mercury or Venus or Pluto. It's not as hot as Mercury, where there's also (by the way) no oxygen, no water, and no air. But it's also not like Mars, where the temperature and atmosphere don't work for life. And we're not like Pluto, which I heard is really cold and dark and lonely.

Scientists sometimes refer to this as the "anthropic principle": the idea that our planet—indeed, our solar system, our galaxy—is uniquely conducive to life.

That's one of the main things we can say in light of Genesis 1. Creation is good in that creation is conducive to life.

Suffused with purpose

Third, creation is good in that creation is suffused with purpose. Everything in creation is oriented around a purpose—even if it's not always obvious to us or useful or beneficial. There is a functional integrity to creation. Things, generally speaking, work well and are well-ordered.

Or to put it this way: There's not much pointless stuff or wasted time in creation. Everything is working toward a goal, end, purpose. You don't find a pack of wolves loitering in a parking lot somewhere. They're busy. You haven't run across a flock of geese that have nothing to do. You never see an army of ants not hard at work. The only exception to this may be the cat. I recognize that cats seem to always be on vacation and enjoying a nap in the sun—but I think this is because they sleep during the day and start their work when I go to sleep.

The word tov in Hebrew, which we translate "good" in Genesis 1, has a wide range of meanings, but it basically refers to being fit for a purpose. Something is good for some purpose. That is what Genesis 1 is primarily about: God ordering the world and forming it for a purpose, for life, for humanity.

You will notice the theme of separation in this chapter; the verb appears five times in Genesis 1. It's not about pulling things apart, but rather putting things in their proper place so they are well-ordered. It's like the old adage "everything has a place, and everything in its place." This is the idea. When God sees that his creation is highly ordered for the purpose he intends, he can say that it is good.

Perhaps the best way to get at the meaning of the word "good" in Genesis 1 is to look at something that is described as not good. And we have one very good example.

"The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone'" (Gen. 2:18). What does this mean? That there was something imperfect about Adam existing without Eve? Or that there was something immoral? No, rather, what is being communicated is that there is something lacking, something not rightly ordered, something not put together in the way it should be.

This is why the opening chapter of Genesis reaches the high point it does in verse 31: "God saw all that he had made [everything had a place, everything was rightly ordered, everything had function], and it was very good." Creation is good because creation is suffused with purpose.

Enriched by beauty

Fourth, creation is good because creation is enriched by beauty. You realize the world didn't need to be as beautiful as it is. There is a surplus of beauty in the world around us. The heavens are indeed telling of the glory of God.

Some older visions of God, coming out of the scientific revolution and the influence of Isaac Newton especially, see God as a very sophisticated engineer, as a very skilled watchmaker. These views of God rightly emphasize God as a God of order, structure, and laws.

But while this world certainly is ordered, it is also enriched by beauty. God is not just left-brained, like an engineer or mathematician. God is also right-brained, like an artist or poet or musician. We see this in the text of Genesis. Notice how after God creates, he takes a look at what he has created and is delighted with it. "And God saw that it was good."

God, at heart, is an artist who simply enjoys making stuff. He loves materiality. He loves creation. Think about it. He created whole galaxies, billions of stars, that no one will ever see. But not only that—he also created creatures that no one will likely ever see.

What am I saying? That there is a kind of artistic wastefulness to creation, like the artist who just creates paintings or drawings because he loves to create and to see and enjoy beauty. Even if the paintings are never seen or sold, they delight the artist. So too with God.

Creation is good in that creation is enriched with beauty—to be seen and enjoyed by creatures like you and me.

Clarified in Christ

Fifth and finally, creation is good in that creation is clarified in Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who makes sense of creation. Why do I say that? Because, as the Bible says, Jesus Christ is the One in whom, through whom, and for whom all things exist.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:1-3).

"The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all 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" (Col. 1:15-16).

What does this mean? That we cannot rightly understand creation apart from Christ. He is the key to understanding the world rightly. His life, death, and resurrection make sense of the creation—not least the goodness of creation.

In his Incarnation, the Son embraces and endorses the fundamental goodness of creation. We cannot believe in the Incarnation—that God became a creature—and say that creation is anything less than good.

In his death, he reminds us there is something deeply broken with creation. The cross of Christ and the death of God incarnate remind us that this creation is fundamentally good—but it's also deeply broken, damaged by sin. As Paul says, the creation has itself been subject to futility, and that it now groans in eager expectation for the revealing of the sons of God.

Yet in Christ's resurrection, he reminds us there is a goodness to creation we have not yet experienced.

To say we believe in the goodness of creation is to affirm what we see with our eyes—its purpose and order and beauty. But it is also to speak with the voice of faith—to express hope in what we cannot see with our eyes, but what we can only embrace with our faith.

As Scripture says, "Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see" (Heb. 11:1). One of the things hoped for, and one of the things not seen, is what the Bible calls the new creation: a second creation that will be a lot like this creation, only entirely renewed and perfected, where there will be no more sickness or dying or death, where the lion will lie down with the lamb.


Many of you will remember the deadly tsunami of 2004 that erupted in the Indian Ocean. They say it released, in terms of energy and power, something like 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. At the end of the day, more than 150,000 people were either killed or went missing. It was massive devastation that left the world reeling—and it left many of us asking serious questions about God and, yes, the goodness of creation.

Theologian David Bentley Hart wrote a powerful reflection in The New York Times, where he tried to explain how Christians might respond to this kind of epic tragedy, this natural disaster that threatens our belief in the goodness of creation—and indeed, the goodness of God.

It was such a powerful article that he turned it into a book called The Doors of the Sea. In it, he talks about how the Christian affirms the goodness of creation not because they wear rose-colored glasses and can simply call bad things good. But they do so, in his words, as a moral and spiritual labor—an act of faith, a work of love, a hope in the goodness of God.

The Christian vision of the world, however, is not some rational deduction from empirical experience, but is a moral and spiritual aptitude—or, rather, a moral and spiritual labor. The Christian eye sees (or should see) a deeper truth in the world than mere "nature," and it is a truth that gives rise not to optimism but to joy.

He continues:

[T]he Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply "nature" but "creation," an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.

Friends, that is exactly right. Christ is the key to creation. Christ is the one who ultimately clarifies what it means to say creation is good. It's a truth we affirm, even when it doesn't always make sense. It's a belief we hold, even when there is seemingly strong evidence to the contrary. It's a hope we hold onto, even when nature itself looks cruel and harsh and indifferent.

The Christian eye sees (or should see) a deeper truth in the world than mere "nature." And it is a truth that gives rise not to optimism, but to joy.

Todd Wilson (PhD, Cambridge University) is Senior Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL, cofounder of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and author most recently of The Pastor Theologian and Real Christian.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Who is this sermon (primarily) for?

II. Reflective of God

III. Conducive to life

IV. Suffused with purpose

V. Enriched by beauty

VI. Clarified in Christ