God’s Love for Creation

I’ve been engaging with the work of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What Is the Mission of the Church?  They are concerned that some missional writers have been identifying humanity too closely with the rest of God’s creation (p. 70).  They emphasize, on the other hand, the distinction between humanity and the rest of creation and humanity’s unique relationship to God that the rest of creation doesn’t enjoy.

Narrowly speaking, this isn’t entirely wrong.  Humanity does indeed enjoy a special relationship with God, being uniquely in the image of God.  This has much to do with humanity’s cultivating creation and overseeing, on God’s behalf, the spread of shalom throughout the world.

DeYoung and Gilbert, however, take up the narrow point of humanity’s distinction from the rest of creation and portray God’s work of redemption as having to do exclusively with the restoration of his relationship to humanity.  After reviewing the narrative of Scripture, they note the following:

The “whole story” is not, as one author suggests, about us becoming “conduits for him to bring healing to earth and its residents.”  It’s not about our call “to partner in a restorative work so that the torch of hope is carried until Christ returns.”  The story is not about us working with God to make the world right again.  It’s about God’s work to make us right so we can live with him again (p. 89). 

Now, we might cite this as one of a number of false dichotomies that characterizes their work.  But I just want to note that this reading of the biblical narrative undergirds their claim that the mission of the church has to do with gathering for worship and making disciples to the exclusion of concern for the rest of the world and creation itself.

Throughout the biblical narrative, however, God is regularly and consistently concerned about his world.  Just a few passages to make this point:

First, after God’s judgment in the flood, God promises never to judge the world in that way again.  What’s often neglected is that God does not only make this covenant with Noah.  In Genesis 9:8-17, God makes covenant with Noah and his sons and all creation:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth . . .  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.” So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

Second, Jonah demonstrates God’s pursuit of his creation—both human and non-human.  The story is familiar.  God calls Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim God’s impending judgment.  Jonah, standing in for all of Israel, hates the Ninevites and would love to see the God of Israel rain down judgment on them.

But Jonah does not want to go to Ninevah because he knows the God of Israel too well.  He knows that God’s posture toward the world is one of loving pursuit.  Jonah is angry after Ninevah repents and God relents from his declared judgment:

But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (Jonah 4:1-2).

Jonah then has a conversation with the God of Israel in which God reveals his heart of love for his creation.

But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals” (Jonah 4:10-11)?

Though Israel had come to crave the destruction of its enemies, the God of Israel, because he is the God of all creation, is still passionately committed to his original aims for creation.  He still wants humans all over the world experiencing flourishing by worshiping the God of all creation.

A third text.  In Revelation 11:16-18, John describes this vision:

And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
the One who is and who was,
because you have taken your great power
and have begun to reign.
The nations were angry,
and your wrath has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Empires that sustain themselves by raping the earth rather than caring for it according to God’s original intentions will be destroyed by the God of all creation. 

As the heirs of a worldview that assumes a range of dualisms (physical vs. spiritual, political vs. religious, etc.), we tend to prioritize the spiritual at the expense of the physical.  We assume that God’s concerns can’t be so . . . earthy.  Perhaps this only highlights how much we impose our dualisms on Scripture, and how different our priorities are from God’s.  To my mind, DeYoung and Gilbert fall prey to this at point after point throughout their book.

All of this is just to say that God is intensely concerned for his creation.  He wants creation to flourish and appoints humanity to oversee the spread of shalom on the earth and to experience flourishing along with the rest of creation.

God’s aims are indeed frustrated at the fall and with the entrance of Sin and Death into the world.  In the gospel, God aims to restore what was lost.  Because so much was lost, the gospel seeks to recover so much more than we might assume on a narrow reading of Scripture. 

There’s something wrong with a conception of the gospel and the mission of the church that sets aside what is so central to the heart of God.

I’ll have to treat other texts and issues to draw this out more fully.  For now, however, I just point to these passages to note God’s intense concern and love for his entire creation.

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14 responses to “God’s Love for Creation

  • dik

    Here, Tim, have another verse that succinctly conveys your point: Psalm 33:5b “the earth is full of his [YHWH's] unfailing love [hesed - covenant love]“. Not just any old love or a vague, general concern but deep, covenant-making, covenant-keeping love. The earth – this creation – is filled with it. Even during the days of Israel. Methinks: powerful.

  • greekUnorthodox

    I’ve always been drawn to Deut. 20:19-20 in which God tells his people that “when you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, YOU SHALLNOT DESTROY ITS TREES BY WEILDING AN AXE AGAINST THEM….Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?” (emphasis added).

    God cares enough about the trees that even in times of battle he instructs his people to have concern for them….

  • Dan Jr.

    I wonder what the authors believe God’s posture towards the world and humanity is? Does God hate the world and it’s inhabitants or does He love the world and its inhabitants?

    This theological lens has a direct effect on what followers of Jesus should primarily work towards. When the authors answer that question they don’t seem to make much of the beginning of the story, the end of the story, God’s commission to Abraham nor the incarnation of God into his own project.

    • timgombis

      It seems to me that they’ve overcooked God’s character in such a way that because of his righteous and holy character, he cannot have anything but moral revulsion at what has become of creation. The saved, then, are sort of an island within creation that is not under God’s judgment. So, it’s not that God hates the world, but because of what’s happened, he cannot be reconciled to it without judging and destroying and recreating it anew in the end.

      I just don’t think that’s a responsible depiction that takes account of all that we see in Scripture. And yes, this has a HUGE impact on how they configure the role of the church in the world.

  • Jaime Hancock

    I have to echo Dan Jr.’s question. What do they think is the attitude of God towards the world?
    I believe that Jesus teaches us (i.e. – Matthew 5:44-48) that God is gracious and merciful even towards the wicked. We are called to extend this Love (and yes, dik, it definitely is hesed), to reflect this image of God to all creation.

    • timgombis

      Yep, I agree. God isn’t very “effective” with his love — he showers even the unjust with his magnanimous goodness and love. Now, there is indeed more to be said on that, but …

  • Dan Jr.

    I love the scriptures and I love the authoritative wisdom it speaks into our world. So as I read this book “What is the Mission of the Church?”, I struggle greatly with the hermeneutic lens they import onto the text. The bias seems so strong that at times I wonder if we are reading the same bible.

    • timgombis

      I’ll get to that down the road. It’s important to understand their rhetorical frame. I don’t think they’re writing to Christians in general, but to that Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd. If you’re part of that “culture of agreement,” you’ll nod and say, “Amen.” If you’re not, you’ll scratch your head and wonder how they can say what they say.

  • jonathan mcgill

    Let’s not forget that whole Sabbath thing, either. The whole Sabbatical system was designed to symbolically represent God’s joyful rest and reign over creation on the “never-ending” seventh day. Sabbath laws applied to people, including slaves, as well as work animals and even the ground. Part of Israel’s exile was to give the land itself a sabbath from the debauchery of Israel. That Jesus’ specifically restored people physically during the Sabbath is also not insignificant. He didn’t walk around on the Sabbath with a plate of justification by faith for people, he made their withered hands strong and gave blind eyes sight. It seems that God is quite concerned about creation all the way through scripture, not just at the beginning and the end.

    I guess I’m still scratching my head, too…

  • Brendon Gibson

    Tim,

    I want to say how much I appreciate your blog, both content and tone. You have stimulated and stretched my thinking in many ways. I recently read The Drama of Ephesians and found your understanding of the principalities and powers and spiritual warfare to be incredibly helpful and needed in our world of militant Christianity. So thanks a lot.

    Now, a question: Could you point me to a good resource (text or online) that explores the question of Satan’s fall and his introduction into creation?

  • John Thomson

    I agree with the main thrust of this – that God cares about creation. Re the Noahic covenant I would add that God removes the curse on the ground and seems to bless even beyond Adam. The basis of this blessing is the satisfaction he finds in the burnt offering (Christ’s sacrifice). (Gen 8).

    Yet I would add some qualifiers.

    1. God did wipe out creation in the flood. Peter points out that this is a reminder he will do so again. He promised there would be no further universal flood judgement but not that there would be no judgement.

    2. The sheer number of animal sacrifices demonstrates that God cares more about man and his sin than he does about the creature (and that redemptive concerns trump creational concerns). This I think is backed by Paul’s comment

    1Cor 9:9-10 (ESV)
    For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop.

    The giving of animal life to eat suggests hierarchy of concern. Sin has in all sorts of ways changed the relationships that exist in creation. The judgements of God (as in the flood) extend to creation. In the exile the land not only has the blessing of jubilee but it also takes part in the judgement. The images of reverting to chaos and emptiness reflect this (Isa 24). Though chaos and emptiness is not his final word (Isa 45).

    The truth IMO is that creation shares in the fortunes of its head. Like man (and because of man) it is polluted and must be reborn through judgement. Like man that rebirth has continuity but radical discontinuity.

  • John Thomson

    Tim

    A reflection. It is worth noting the cruciform means of restoration (or better renewal/regeneration). Christ came healing but that healing drained him. His deep familiarity with suffering humanity and the in some sense vicarious bearing of others illnesses (on one occasion perceiving virtue had gone out of him) caused deep personal sorrow and suffering; his miracles were no mere works of power. The taking of others burdens was no easy matter. He was harrowed.

    Isa 53:3-4 (ESV)
    ​​​​​​​​He was despised and rejected by men; ​​​​​​​a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; ​​​​​​​and as one from whom men hide their faces ​​​​​​​he was despised, and we esteemed him not. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Surely he has borne our griefs ​​​​​​​and carried our sorrows; ​​​​​​​yet we esteemed him stricken, ​​​​​​​smitten by God, and afflicted. ​​​

    The flourishing he was introducing meant he himself did not flourish. He had of course his communion with his father and his delight in obedience, but this very obedience meant deprivation and oppression. (Isa 53). It is the same for his people. We are considered as sheep for the slaughter. We have through the Spirit that same communion as Christ and in our hearts we can rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, yet all of this is in the paradox of cross-bearing and death. Like Paul we are (or ought to be)

    1Cor 4:9-13 (ESV)
    … like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake… We are weak… we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

    There is a time for flourishing as the people of God but it is not now. Christ would again see the light of life. He would see his offspring. God would give him a place among the great. He will divide the spoil with the strong. First the cross and then the glory; the enduring and then the flourishing.

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