Creation groaning

Many Christians think you don’t need theology.  I read recently that a theologian is someone who gives unintelligible answers to questions no one is asking! That’s funny, but it’s not true: good theology can help you to understand the world at a deeper level.

Let’s see if some good theology can help us to understand COVID-19 a bit better.

In Genesis chapter 1, God made humanity – uniquely out of all creatures – in his own image. Gen 1:26-28 says:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
   in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

To be a human being, putting it crudely, is to be a kind of halfway house between God and creation. Only us humans have the incredibly privileged position of bearing the image of God. The most God-like thing you will encounter today, or any day, is a human being, made in God’s image. And yet, we are not ‘gods’, but God’s creatures, part of this creation.

In the second creation narrative in Genesis 2, one key verse – Gen 2:7 – draws out this dual aspect of what it is to be human:

7 then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

We are made from the dust of the ground, made on the same day of creation as the other terrestrial creatures. And yet, it is not said of any other creature that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”.

And to be human, as Gen 1: 28 above makes clear, is to be made for rule: benevolent rule, under God, over creation, as God’s image-bearing representatives. It’s as though there’s a chain of command: God over humans over creation. We were meant to rule over creation as ‘gods’, bearing God’s own image, but in a God-like way: as servant-leaders.

But Adam blew it in Genesis 3, and rebelled against God’s rule. The chain of command was broken: and the creation, as part of God’s judgement against Adam, rebelled against Adam’s rule (see Gen 3:16-19). Neither we humans, nor the creation, are now as God intended.

Adam’s sin was, in essence, self-centredness, rather than God-and-other-person-centredness. The essence of our sinfulness then is that we are ‘incurvatus in se’ – turned in on ourselves, in self-love rather than outwards, as lovers of God and neighbour (see Mk 12:28-34). Neighbour here could include the creation.

Now humanity, rules creation harshly, selfishly. We exploit creation. We were meant to shepherd it, to nurture it: but we have oppressed and exploited it for our own selfish ends.

God’s intention was always for us to rule over creation in a Christlike way.  Colossians 1:15 says of Christ “He is the image of the invisible God”. Jesus is the true human being: he is what God is like, and he is what we are meant to be like.

And since his resurrection and ascension back to heaven, Jesus truly rules over creation. Ephesians 1:20-23 says:

… he [God the Father] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Christ is the firstborn of the new creation, where now, at last, a man, the Last Adam, rules over the new creation in a Christlike way, as the first Adam was meant to, but failed.

So let’s pull all these ideas about the creation, Adam, and Christ together, and apply them to thinking about COVID-19.

This creation, as Paul says in Romans 8:22, is groaning as in the pains of childbirth. It’s groaning because it’s broken, and fallen, and suffering at the hands of its oppressors: broken and fallen humanity.

In the last 20 years or so, two creation-related troubling facts have come to our attention:  one slowly, and one rapidly. They suggest perhaps, that creation is hitting back at human oppression, our harsh and un-Christlike rule.

Slowly, it seems to be becoming clear that human activity is causing global warming. It seems that we are close to a tipping point. If urgent action is not taken, we are told, we risk tipping into a catastrophic, irreversible warming, in only a few years. This could be creation’s first strike at our Western culture’s assumed worldview – one of secular, materialist, capitalist, consumer-driven, progress. If we really are close to an irreversible climate tipping point, things will have to change drastically, and soon. Maybe this is creation whispering to us “all is not well with the world.”

More recently and much more rapidly, COVID-19 is making it very clear, shouting “all is not well with the world.” Perhaps this is creation’s second strike at its human oppressors.

There are suggestions that COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans in the atrociously cruel markets of China. We may never know for sure. But as I watched a TV documentary showing the horrendous conditions in which chickens were kept in those markets, dozens of them packed into tiny cages and then pulled out and immediately butchered, it made me think.

With all of this biblical truth about creation and humanity as described above in the back of my mind, it would actually make sense. God intended us to rule as his representatives over creation, benevolently, in a Christ-like way, shepherding it, caring for it, not butchering it. How appropriate, I thought, if our grievous treatment of his creation is now coming back to bite us: a malevolent chicken coming home to roost.

Our Western worldview of prosperity and progress: “things can only get better”, has been out of touch with the Bible’s worldview for some time now. The Bible says this world is ruined and broken, because we humans are ruined and broken. It’s groaning, as in the pains of childbirth.

Maybe global warming and COVID-19 are two of those early pangs of childbirth.