The Work and Ministry of Physics

Hubble mosaic of the majestic Sombrero Galaxy

Earlier today I was thinking about the theory of cosmic origins known as the Big Bang theory. I’m no cosmologist, but the theory seems to correlate very well with what we observe in the universe (in three key ways: cosmic expansion, microwave background, and the abundance of less-dense elements). Many Christians seem unduly nervous about giving any credence to many of the insights of modern science, even where science is trying to interpret empirical data. Perhaps another quote I came across today will be surprising. It’s from Jean. Yes, that one.

Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind…. He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (Institutes 2.2.16)

How we need to recover the expansive idea of Common Grace as Calvin construed it, and indeed the partnering concept of a Law of Creation.

The Power of the Created World

Last Sunday evening I was preaching the third of three sermons on Genesis 3 – the last few verses of that chapter. It’s the part of the Story of Adam & Eve where they’re driven from the Garden of Eden, that place of fruitfulness and beauty in the presence of God. The Garden is the place where they function as God’s Image, human beings of god-like character able to relate fully and joyfully to one another and to all the riches of the created world. But they’re driven out, because this isn’t enough for them. In a way, they want to be gods. It’s a deeply poignant story which speaks about loss to all of us, that speaks about the realities of human nature.

I often reflect on the incredible power of the created world to stir deep longings in our souls. A few Saturdays ago, George Monbiot wrote eloquently about it:

I believe we possess a ghost psyche: a set of capacities that helped secure our survival in more dangerous times, but that now are vestigial. I picture this as a seam of intense emotion, buried so deeply in our minds that we can seldom find it. I believe this because, on rare occasions – in all cases when immersed in the living world – I have been confronted with a set of feelings that are so rich, raw and thrilling, so different from anything else I know, but at the same time so strangely familiar, that I have had no way of reconciling them with the rest of my emotional life. I believe that on these occasions I have inadvertently triggered a kind of genetic memory, an ancient adaptation to the circumstances that once shaped our lives.

You’ve probably experienced it yourself. I’ve experienced it encountering a deer in the woods (like Monbiot) in the early morning light; or travelling in a small boat surrounded by leaping dolphins; or crouched on a high mountain ridge watching an eagle ride the updrafts. I’ve experienced it in the solitude of a remote glen, or of a mountain summit, but mostly it’s been in encounters with other creatures.

Does Christianity offer an account of this? An account of these rich and raw emotions, which are strangely familiar? Something more substantial than a ghost psyche? Or perhaps a Christian understanding of this ghost psyche…? I believe it does. The lost Garden represents a lost reality to humans – something yearned for and understood in our deep (sub)consciousness as being lost.

The opening lines of the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures tell us that we are created for relationship, not only with our creator, not only with one another, but with the natural world. We are created to live alongside, and to relate to, all of God’s creatures. The first man is Adam (the Hebrew for ‘soil’ is adamah), and he’s formed from the earth. This simple truth sets a trajectory for all of the scriptures – that human beings are inextricably bound up with the earth, with the natural world. This is our home, it’s where we belong. That fact that many Christians will baulk at that statement (thinking thoughts such as ‘where’s that Bible verse that says that heaven is our home?’ Let me save you some time – it’s not there), only shows how far we have travelled from this anchor of truth.

The sense of primal joy (and sometimes primal fear) – that deep, seemingly genetic memory – recalls something fundamental to our being human. And yet it is, in some deep sense, lost. We’re unable to grasp the wholeness we are created for, to hold in our minds the value and beauty of the natural world. And we’re unable to live lives which ‘fit’ into this beautiful world, that ‘fit’ in love, joy and peace alongside these amazing creatures. We are created to Image God – to represent him – in his world. Yet, we can’t.

That’s why, for so many people, these joyful and ecstatic encounters with nature are often accompanied with a sense of the transcendent. A sense of reaching for something, or someone, that’s out of reach. People of all kinds of belief (and none) often describe to me the spiritual feelings they get whilst in the outdoors. There’s not only a sense of a lost Garden, but of a lost God, our Creator, who we are also created to know. The hopeful message of Christianity is that there is a way back.

Thinking these thoughts brought to mind again a beautiful little film based on the writings of John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and environmentalist. Take a look, and hear words which resonate so much more deeply when heard as a Christian:

‘A lifetime is so little a time, that we die before we get ready to live. But here in the wilderness, surrounded by beauty beyond thought, the landscape carried me back into the midst of a life infinitely remote.’

Forgetting Our Shared Life…

gannetOn Sunday night in Kilmallie Free Church we were looking at Day 5 of the Drama of Creation as presented in Genesis 1. On Day 5, God pronounces a blessing of grace on birds and aquatic life, before human beings have entered the stage. The Creator relates to all his creatures. The flourishing and prosperity of all creatures is the Creator’s purpose. Anyway, I promised a quotation from Dave Bookless, author of Planetwise

If we forget we’re made in God’s image, we become only one creature among millions, nothing more than a highly evolved ape with no greater rights than any other species… The opposite danger from forgetting we are made in God’s image is to forget that we’re made from the dust of the earth. This is a much greater danger for Christians. Environmentalists have often blamed Christianity for our current ecological crises, using Genesis 1:26-28 to argue that Christians believe humans can exploit and destroy as they wish to…

If you speak to people in the green movement today, many will have accepted this view and consequently blame Christianity for the world’s mess. They have a point. It is not hard to find quotations from preachers saying that the world is there for us to use and enjoy as we like. Too often churches have remained silent when the forces of destruction have been at work. Too often Christians have been so other-worldly as to be of no earthly use. (p.33-34).

We share the gift of life with all God’s creatures. God relates to them, and he has delegated the task of care – to ensure their flourishing and prosperity – to us, created as we are as God’s Image. That’s why as Christians we ought to care about habitat loss, about pollution, about animal welfare. And we ought to care enough to act.

Heaven isn’t a Place on Earth

heaven2

I’ve just returned from Positively Presbyterian 2015 where, rumour has it, I was speaking on Heaven. Allow me to disagree! I was actually speaking on ‘Fighting for the Future’, because there’s a battle needed in the Church to recover a biblical theology of the future. One of my main points was that I had little to say about ‘heaven’ compared to my important subject, the new earth of God’s Kingdom. I’m not going to go over everything I spoke about (nor give the plethora of supporting references), but here’s an attempt to clarify a few things:

HEAVEN: In the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, heaven is always a place ‘up there’. That’s why in both Hebrew (שמים, shamayim) and Greek (ουρανος, ouranos), the word for heaven is also the word for sky. I’ll repeat for clarity: ‘heaven’ in the Bible is a place ‘up there’, defined in opposition to ‘earth’, which is ‘down here’. So, the phrase ‘heaven and earth’ is just a way of referring to all of creation, shorthand for ‘the cosmos’ (it’s something called a merism). Heaven ‘up there’ is also conceived as the dwelling place of God, located above the earth, above the stars. What defines heaven as heaven is not only that God dwells there, but more fundamentally that it’s ‘up there’. Of course, with our modern cosmological knowledge, we are forced to modify this conception. We have to stop imagining and speaking about heaven as ‘up there’. It’s probably better to envisage another dimension of reality. However, the idea that ‘heaven’ is not ‘earth’ remains fundamentally important.

GOING TO HEAVEN: In the Bible we find very few solid data about what heaven is like. That ought not to surprise us. According to the Bible, heaven is not where we as human beings belong. Heaven is the dwelling place of God. Human beings belong on earth. That’s the fundamental theology of Genesis 1 and 2. Psalm 115:16 puts it succinctly. Nevertheless, the New Testament indicates that the souls of the righteous reside in heaven with the Lord between their death and resurrection. Again, there are very few data on how souls experience heaven. Without a body, how are experiences mediated to our ‘consciousness’ (especially since human consciousness seems to be a function of the brain)? We don’t know. Our experience of heaven certainly won’t be identical to our experience of life. There’ll be no ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ as we understand them. However, we don’t need to worry about it: Paul doesn’t (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). Instead, our entire hope is to be fixed on the day of the resurrection of God’s people. At the return of  Jesus the Messiah the righteous will be raised to dwell again on earth, an earth renewed (Rom 8:11,18-25). Let me repeat: however much we wish (like Paul) to be released from the sufferings of this life, we do not (as Paul says) want to be ‘unclothed’ (2 Cor 5:3-4). We shouldn’t want to be without a body, to be dead. Our hope is rather to be focussed on the return of Christ (1 Pet 1:13), when death will be defeated (it’s not defeated until then, 1 Cor 15:26,54) and we will live again. The Bible does not teach that the goal of our salvation is to be in heaven.

GLORY: The New Testament never speaks of human beings being glorified in heaven. Paul is clear: our being glorified occurs at the resurrection. The Westminster Confession uses ‘glory’ as a cipher for heaven (WCF32.1). This isn’t ideal: God’s glory in the Old Testament is fundamentally linked to the earth as well as to heaven. Nevertheless, we might refer to the deceased as having gone to glory, if by that we mean gone to the place where God is envisaged as ‘dwelling’. But we ought not to talk about the deceased as being ‘glorified’. That directly contradicts both Rom 8:21 and Heb 11:39-40. Human beings cannot be glorified without a body; Psalm 8 (which is important to Paul) shows us that human glory is understood in terms of our discharging the threefold function of the Image of God (relating to our Creator, to one another, and to the rest of created life) in a God-like and righteous manner. That’s why Paul has so much language about Image (Rom 8:29; Col 3:10). As we bear the Image of Christ, we find our humanity as the Image of God fully restored. For Paul, that’s glory (2 Cor 3:18). Without a body, and being present on earth, glorification can’t happen. Glory, and human glorification, happens on earth. That’s how Habakkuk saw it anyway (Hab 2:14; Cf. Num 14:21).

EARTH: In the Bible, earth is where human beings belong. It’s our home. The entire hope of the Bible is that the creation will be redeemed, rescued, cleansed. Our great hope is not heaven. Our great hope is a new earth by God’s redemptive power in Jesus the Messiah. Resurrection will bring us back to the earth to live not as disembodied souls, but as fully human, as the Image of God. In one of Paul’s most important insights, this world (the world in which Abraham lived) is our inheritance (Rom 4:13). Mind you, in saying that, Paul’s simply affirming Jesus’s own words (Matt 5:5; 6:10 Cf. Ps 37:29,34). Going back to where I began, talking about the new earth as ‘heaven’ is not only confusing, it doesn’t reflect the biblical language. Also confusing, and unhelpful, is talking about the new earth as if it was a magical fluffy kingdom of fantasy dreams. Will we be flying, walking on the sea, running up waterfalls? Talking to fluffy pink unicorns? No! It is this world, redeemed. All of the language in the Bible points to this creation being set free from what has spoiled it. Our imaginings of the new earth, which often are quite fanciful, ought really to be rooted in what we experience of God’s good gifts now. If we’re going to imagine, let us begin by imagining this world (and a humanity) set free from war, from injustice, from abuse, from hunger, from poverty, from illness, from sin in all its forms. Let us imagine a world like that, where the People of God will dwell together, enjoying God’s gifts to us. That kind of imagining brings us missional energy today! And let us imagine that world as a place where our communion with God is perfect, and where we will meet Jesus face to face. In that world we will eat and drink with him in the Kingdom of God. That world is this world, redeemed. Which is why we find we have the ‘now’ as well as the ‘not yet’. It’s why we are Living Between Two Worlds.

So, to recap: Christianity is definitively not about us ‘Going Up There’ to be with God. It’s about ‘God Coming Down Here’ to be with us. To correct the well-known hymn (‘It is Well’, which is one of many that send us off in the wrong direction): the earth, not the sky, is our goal.

Belinda Carlisle was wrong. Heaven is not a place on earth.

The Kingdom of God and New Creation

laddHere’s a good quote from George Eldon Ladd on the Kingdom of God and new creation, from the last pages of his Theology of the New Testament

The final state of the Kingdom of God is a new heaven and a new earth. This expresses a theology of creation that runs throughout the Bible. The Old Testament prophets picture the Kingdom of God in terms of a redeemed earth. This is described in terms of a new heaven and a new earth even in the Old Testament… [A] fundamental theology underlies these expectations, even though they must be clarified by progressive revelation: that man’s ultimate destiny is an earthly one. Man is a creature, and God created the earth to be the scene of his creaturely existence. Therefore, even as the redemption of man in the bodily aspect of his being demands the resurrection of the body, so the redemption of the very physical creation requires a renewed earth as the scene of his perfected existence. Man never ceases to be God’s creature. The New Testament does not outstrip this theology… Jesus spoke of the regeneration of the world, and Paul spoke of the redemption of the created order. The new earth of Revelation 21 is the final term in revelation of how this redemption is to take place…

And so the Bible ends, with a redeemed society dwelling on a new earth that has been purged of all evil, with God dwelling in the midst of his people. This is the goal of the long course of redemptive history. Soli Deo gloria!

G E Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, 631-2 (emphasis mine).

The New World and the Old

nt-wrightOver the past few months, from time to time, I’ve been using the phrase ‘Living Between Two Worlds’ to highlight and to teach the distinctively Reformed view that the world in which we live is God’s world, is good and is the subject of God’s renewal in new creation. We live in a fallen world, yes, but it is God’s good world that is fallen. New creation has begun in the Church through Jesus the Messiah. This new creation brings redemption, and we await the complete renewal and redemption of all creation. This view is not just doctrine; when grasped, it transforms our lives and mission as God’s people.

I’m mining Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T. Wright’s magnum opus on Paul for gems for my thesis at the moment. Here’s a couple of quotes on The New World and the Old that I needed to share…

It is this robust version of the Jewish monotheistic doctrine of creation that underlies Paul’s equally robust affirmation that the present world of space, time and matter is itself good. That is why marital union is good in itself (1 Corinthians 7), why all meat is good in itself, even if offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 8, 10), why all time, all days, are basically the same in the sight of the one God (Romans 14.5). Here we see the creational element of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology. One might have imagined that, if the new creation had already been launched, everything about the old one would become not only irrelevant but somehow shabby, tarnished, shown up as in some sense actually evil, so that Paul would be advocating escape. Not at all. For Paul the old creation has, of course, been relativized. It no longer assumes cultural, or even cultic, significance. But it remains good, and can be enjoyed if received with thanksgiving. The new world, already launched with Jesus’ resurrection, reaffirms the essential goodness of the old one even as it relativizes its ultimate significance. As with the biblical texts on which he drew, Paul understood the entire created order not as a static entity to be observed but as part of a narrative, a narrative which had now, he believed, entered its long-awaited new phase.  PatFoG, 1368.

And again, Wright emphasises the two poles of Paul’s eschatology of creation: continuity (God’s covenant commitment is to this creation) and discontinuity (this creation will be renewed, and set free from everything that spoils it)…

For Paul, the renewal of the existing creation was just as important as the renewal of the existing creation. Without the second, one would be trapped in a world of inevitable entropy. Without the first, the idea of new creation would collapse into some kind of gnosticism. PatFoG, 1372.

Meditations on Creation

Early last month, I spoke at the Scottish Christian Outdoor Centres’ All-Team Gathering down at the wonderful Glencoe Outdoor Centre. Over three days we thought about creation in God’s purposes, creation and Jesus Christ, and our place in creation. Here are some brief meditations based on those talks.

forestLiving Between Two Trees. Sitting in a forest, listening to its life, we gain a sense of place. The trees themselves speak of longevity, of permanence. Many generations of animals have come and gone. Yet, these trees have remained, their trunks and branches weathering storms, connecting the life-giving leaves to the life-giving earth year after year. To sit amongst the trees in a forest is to breathe in a sense of time as well as place. As Christians, we are living between two trees. The tree of life appears in Genesis 2, reminding us of God’s intention for a world without death. To us, it is a lost world. But, the tree of life appears again in Revelation 22. It reminds us of God’s purpose to redeem, to bring back the world of God’s intention, a world without sin, without death. Trees stand at the beginning and at the end of our Holy Scriptures. Trees, speaking of the permanence of God’s intention for life. And speaking of the permanence of this creation. We will walk and sit in these forests again after Christ’s return, and remember that the trees pointed us to this.

gannetOur Place in God’s World. We startle the deer in the woods. They pause, their eyes meeting ours briefly. They run, leaping, to find solitude again. Our hearts leap with them. We feel joy… We watch gannets hunting, their keen eyes spying their prey from high up. Then diving below. Graceful, efficient, beautiful. Our hearts swell – these birds are amazing… God’s creatures bring such meaning into our lives. A sense of well-being. All is well… We belong in this world, here with these creatures. God made us from the same earth, on the same day. As the image of God, we humans are not only related to our Creator, but to the rest of his creatures. This is fundamental to our identity, and to our place in God’s world (Gen 1:26,28; Ps 8:3-8). Adam names the animals (Gen 2:19-20), an intimate act. We name our children because they belong with us and we help them, care for them, form their identities. We are to care for God’s creatures. This world is our home, God’s creatures our companions. All is now spoilt, struggling under the burden of the lostness of humanity in sin. But God will set us, and this world, free in Jesus Christ (Rom 8:18-25). Our home will be very good again.

M42 Orion Nebula, M43, and NGC 1977 complexA Speaking Cosmos. The stars speak, and the sun and moon, in every place, every day and every night (Ps 19:1-6). We look up, and we are amazed: at galaxies, nebulae, the milky way. Here below the living creatures alongside us, and the plants and trees, even the landscapes in which we find our roots, they all speak of the Creator. Of his eternal power, his divine nature (Rom 1:20). Why are we not listening? We daily open the Holy Scriptures to hear them speak to us of our God and our Saviour. Yet our ears are less-exercised in hearing the speaking cosmos. Let us each day hear the voice of the sky and the earth. The world was created through the Word, the Logos (John 1:1-3). Before he became one of us, and spoke in human language, he spoke in what he made. Timeless words, woven within a world of intricacy, a world replete with patterns of beauty. This speaking cosmos is made through the Word, and belongs to him, to Jesus, who is Messiah and Word. It is his inheritance (Col 1:15-18), and he will gift it to us finally and fully on the day of his return. Then we will hear the voice of the speaking cosmos more clearly, and the voice of our speaking Lord with our own ears.

Pushing Forward our Horizon of Hope. Do we hope for death? For an end to the burden of a lost world, of war, of lies, of disability? We do hope for an end to these things. Yet, death is unnatural for us. We are created for life. Do we hope to be without the bodies that carry our identity, our human consciousness? To be without the eyes that looked, the ears that heard, the hands that touched – the experiences that made us who we are? To be unclothed is deeply unnatural (2 Cor 5:1-9). Jesus is not unclothed: he died to redeem us and the whole cosmos – to bring salvation of soul, body, time and space – and then he returned from the dead in resurrection life. To be with him is to be safe, in life and in death. Safe, until that day, when we will be clothed with life again, eternal life. To live in our home set free from the burden of sin. Our Horizon of Hope is not the day of our death. Heaven is not our home, or our ultimate goal.  Our Horizon of Hope is the day of our living again, our own resurrection (Rom 8:18-25). To be true to the teaching of Holy Scripture we must Push Forward Our Horizon of Hope. Let us set our hope fully on the grace to be revealed when he comes (1 Peter 1:13). Let us follow Christ in wholehearted faith, and meet him and each other once again here – and know the place for the first time.

The Expendable Backdrop

A must-read quote from George B. Caird…

“Too often evangelical Christianity has treated the souls of men as brands plucked from the burning and the world in general as a grim vale of soul-making. It has been content to see the splendour of the created universe … as nothing more than the expendable backdrop for the drama of redemption. One of the reasons why men of our generation have turned against conventional Christianity is that they think it involves writing off the solid joys of this present life for the doubtful acquisition of some less substantial treasure … the whole point of the resurrection of the body is that the life of the world to come is to be lived on a renewed earth … Everything of real worth in the old heaven and earth … will find a place in the eternal order” G.B.Caird

“The Christological Basis of Christian Hope”, in Caird et al., The Christian Hope (London: SPCK, 1970), 22-24.

God Loves the World

johnJohn 3:16, one of the most-neglected parts of the Bible (although just last weekend I heard an excellent sermon on it). At least, the first part of it is. This part of the verse is so often skipped over en route to the ‘gospel in miniature’ (Luther) in the second part.

For God so loved the world…

God loved the world, the kosmos. God didn’t merely love the people of the world, as if kosmos here just means all people, whoever they are. God loved the kosmos. In John’s Gospel, the term kosmos is used with a degree of ambiguity (sometimes the weight of the term is on the world of human beings, sometimes it carries a negative connotation reflecting the fallenness of the world), but here in 3:16 it has to mean ‘world’ in the sense of 1:10: the kosmos was made through him. This is where this Gospel itself begins, with the theology of creation:

In the beginning was the logos…through him all things were made.

It ought not to surprise us that God loved, and still loves, the kosmos. Sometimes Christians struggle to explain God’s motivation for acting in salvation for a lost world: ‘why would God love such a sinful world? why would God go to such lengths for rebellious, sinful people?’ It must be just down to God’s gracious character… Yes, of course it’s in God’s character to love (‘God is love’ is one of the most profound statements in the Bible), but John’s Gospel points us to a more immediate answer, one rooted in the creation theology of the Old Testament. A proper appreciation of human sinfulness and the fallenness of the world must be balanced by a proper creation theology. The Bible as a whole begins with the same two words (in the Greek) as John’s Gospel…

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Here is the foundational truth, expounded in Psalm 24: ‘The earth belongs to Yahweh’. After the creative activity of God, in Gen 2:1 the whole kosmos is finished. God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good. The goodness of the kosmos is not extinguished by the Fall. God’s delight in, and love for, the kosmos does not cease at the Fall. God’s love for the kosmos persists, burning just as brightly. God loves the kosmos: its complex matter, its beauty, its long-fashioned geology, its intricate climate; its flora, from giant sequoias to the purple heather; its creatures – birds, mammals, fish, insects; and humans themselves, created to rule – their God-like qualities seen in creativity expressed in the arts and in design, and in their relationships. God loves the world, despite its fallenness. And God’s love for his creation is fundamental to his action in salvation. John’s Gospel begins with these fundamental truths: all things were made through the logos, and God so loved the kosmos which was made through the logos, that the logos himself became flesh, became a human being and came into the kosmos. Not in order to condemn the kosmos, but so that the kosmos might be saved through him.

φθορα and Creation

phthora1A few days ago, on The Life Scientific (BBC Radio 4), there was a discussion on biological ageing. Professor Jim Al-Khalili said this:

Ageing is one of the biggest mysteries in science. We still don’t understand what makes our bodies age.

He was interviewing Linda Partridge who has conducted work on fruit flies and other simple organisms to try to understand the genetic basis for the ageing process. In the course of the programme, she highlighted the fact that ageing is an extraordinarily complicated process and yet, as she explained, it is a process that is seen in all organisms in a surprisingly similar way.

Many mechanisms are extraordinarily similar…You can take a human gene and place it in a yeast cell and it works extraordinarily well.

This fact highlights to me again the connection between humans and the rest of the creation. Often, in interpreting Genesis 1, the emphasis is placed on humans as separate from the rest of creation, due to men and women being made ‘as the image of God’, without any balance provided from the fact that humans are made ‘from the earth’ in the same way as other life. They are also the product of the same creative impetus that gives rise to the rest of the cosmos. Humans belong within the cosmos. Humans belong with other creatures. The incredible connection between humans and other life is seen in the functioning of human genes in yeast cells and in the fact that 80% of genes in mice and humans are like-for-like. When you consider only classes of genes, then humans and mice are 99% similar. The uniqueness of humans doesn’t consist in our being made of a different ‘stuff’ to other life.

When it comes to ageing, we also share this with other life. Ageing is part of the natural processes that are seen in the Genesis narrative even before the Fall of humanity. Plants are created with seed, so that they can reproduce fruit and other plants. The cycle of the seasons, where life ebbs and flows is part of the created cosmos. The cycle of life and death amongst animals is eulogised as part of the glory of God’s works (indeed, of the glory of God himself) in Psalm 104:27-30. And yet, Genesis 1 is clear: death is not God’s intention for humans. The Tree of Life in the garden represents God’s design for human life uninterrupted by death. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the way to that Tree is forbidden.  John Walton points out in his commentary on Genesis that the processes of ageing are fundamental to the human body itself, with skin being a product of the ageing process in cells. But he sees in the Tree of Life the presence of something only available to humans, something which counters the process of ageing and death which is present in all life – something that rejuvenates and restores. The idea to be derived from Genesis 1-3 is that the ageing process is part of the created order, operating in all creatures, including humans, but that in humans God’s design is for an on-going renewal of human life that counters this. But this renewal has been removed because of human sin. Humans are now subject to decline into death in the same way as other creatures.

The Apostle Paul addresses the ageing process, and its inevitable result in death in his letters. The Greek word that comes close to the idea of ageing is φθορα (phthora). Phthora is the corruption of something, whether food that gradually rots, or bodies that decay. In 1 Corinthians 15:42, the present human body is susceptible to phthora, but the resurrection body of humans will be raised aphtharsia, that is, not susceptible to phthora. It is released from phthora as part of inheriting a renewed creation that is itself aphtharsia (1C15:50). This idea of a creation released from phthora is explicit in Romans 8:21. Jesus Christ is the pioneer. In his resurrection, he has been released from death into that aphtharsia existence. As the divine man, he is the forerunner – the first-fruits of those who have died. Paul also describes the aphtharsia human body as pneumatikov (1C15:44). It is a body fundamentally reconnected to the creative, life giving power of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the chaotic cosmos at the beginning. Our reconciliation to the Creator is redemptive of body as well as soul.

In writing this way of the release of the cosmos from phthora, Paul is responding to Genesis 3, not only in terms of human death and God’s redemptive response to it in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also to the effect of the fall on the environment (G3:17-18). A renewed creation, freed from phthora, will not eliminate the wonderful life-cycles and ecosystems which so delight the psalmist and bring glory to God in Psalm 104. But it will fundamentally alter the relationship of humans with their environment. There will be a removal of the damage and despoiling that has come by our hands, a stop to habitat-loss and extinctions. The balance of the earth will be restored as humans discover what it means to live as the Image of God in Jesus Christ. And when scientists predict the extinction of all life on earth in 5 billion years because of the life-cycle of our sun, they are not accounting for the removal of phthora from the cosmos through the divine, restorative intervention of the creator-Christ, who holds all things together.

(Picture Credit: Erin Davies)