According to standard geological timeframes, we human beings are a thing of yesterday. I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember where) that if earth’s history were compressed into a 24-hour day, then all of human history would comprise roughly the last two seconds of that day (not two minutes). Amazing. From the perspective of sheer time, Planet Earth has had much more to do with sponges swaying in the ocean or spiders scurrying along the forest floor than human beings engaging in relationship and art and worship.
As a Christian theologian, I have really wrestled with this. Sure, our relatively recent arrival doesn’t prove an a-teleological view of history. But for a Christian, or any broadly anthropocentric worldview, it feels counter-intuitive. If we are the image of God and capstone of creation (Psalm 8), why did God take so long to bring us about? Most musicians don’t wait until the final crescendo to bring in the important instruments, and most coaches don’t wait until the final seconds of the fourth quarter to send in their best players. What has God been waiting for?
In the last few years, however, two things have helped reduce this tension for me. In fact, I’ve come to see the grinding stretch of eons and dinosaurs and volcanoes that precedes us as, far from evidence of God’s absence, actually an instrument by which He intends to communicate His power and glory and eternity to us.
Widening my Conception of “Creation”
First, it’s helped me to consider that many particular objects within creation show this same pattern of slow emergence through natural processes. This in no way implies any imperfection in God’s design, but on the contrary only magnifies his power and wisdom all the more.
For example, the tree in my front yard. On the one hand, God could have produced this tree de novo in an instant. One might intuitively feel that bringing the tree about in this way would be a great demonstration of God’s power and glory. But when it comes down to it, does it really take any less power, or showcase any less glory, to bring the tree about very slowly through intermediate means like a seed, water, sunshine, and soil? The fact that the tree is there at all is already 99% of the wonder, and has 100% of the same current relevance.
Second example: human beings. For all of us, there are innumerable moments before we are even aware that we exist. One can ask: if God wants to make a conscious moral agent who could worship him, why go to the trouble of conception, embryonic development, infancy, and early childhood? If the end goal is all that matters, that is a lot of “dead time.”
Evidently the end goal is not all that matters. Evidently God is not always in a rush, and his main interest seems to be something other than sheer efficiency. And if this is true of creation at the “local” level, why can’t it be true at the “global” level? If God can communicate his glory by bringing trees and human beings (and countless other things) into existence through slow, progressive, interdependent processes, why not also with the world in which trees and human beings exist?
To be clear: I’m not advocating full-scale evolution. Personally, I believe that God does his creative work through a complex variety of both “natural” and “supernatural” means, and the distinction between the two gets a bit fuzzy when you press into it. What I’m saying is that we should have a doctrine of creation that is wide enough to appreciate both kinds of creation, and that when God creates through natural and/or slow processes, it is no less a demonstration of his wisdom, power, and goodness.
I like the instincts of G.K. Chesterton on this point:
“If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.”
Why might God create through the world so slowly? Why might fish and lizards inhabit the world for hundreds of millions of years, and we for a mere blink of an eye in comparison? I don’t know. But there can sometimes be a strategy to putting in a good player in the fourth quarter, and there is a certain kind of beauty in the grand finale of a musical score. And childhood adds something important to our experience as human beings. There is a kind of beauty and fittingness in patience, in seeming “dead time,” in the slow, seasonal nature of things. I trust that God may have reasons for his timing that we cannot fully fathom.
Rejecting Geocentrism was Similarly Counter-Intuitive
I’ve also been helped by considering the size of the universe. Once again, the fact that we are a tiny dot in an endless ocean of stars doesn’t prove an empty view of space, but it can sure feel counter-intuitive to an anthropocentric worldview. Accepting our tiny place on the outskirts of the universe was, in fact, so counter-intuitive that it took the Christian church a long time to accept. Again, most artists don’t put the most important object on their painting in a tiny infinitesimal dot in the corner, and most architects don’t purchase several million acres in order to build a tiny house on the edge of it.
But, when I think about it, if God is infinite, why not make the universe huge? What better way to give a tiny inkling of His own immensity?
The more important thing is not how large the world is, or how long God took in bringing it about, but that a finite, space-time universe like ours exists at all. This is the great miracle–and whether it happened in 13 billion years or 13 thousand years, or whether it contains ten stars or ten trillion, should not disguise to us the fact that it is a miracle.