By Miriam Y. Perkins, Ph.D.
I recently participated in an evening event hosted by Globalscope (Christian Missionary Fellowship) in Tübingen, Germany, for university students curious but skeptical about Christianity and Christian theology. After some introductory comments about how theology can assist people on the journey of faith, we spent the rest of the evening discussing difficult questions around doubt, interpretation of Scripture, violence in the Bible, and religious diversity. After an hour or so, when the conversation had come to a natural close, a young French exchange student quietly and pensively asked, “Yes, but why are we here? Why did God even create the world in the first place?”
The first important response to this question, “Why did God create the world?” is a difficult admission. We don’t actually know. The reasons why God created the world and placed human beings in its midst lie deep within the mystery of God’s being and are beyond human comprehension.
The second response to the question is equally important: for God so loved. God’s love is not so much an explanation as it is a long and still unfolding story about God’s fidelity and generosity and our participation in this story as God’s cherished partners. This unfolding story shapes our opportunities to live lives of wonder and humility.
There are beautiful accounts of creation not only in Genesis (1–3), but also in Job (26, 38), Psalms (8, 33, 89, 95, 104, 148), Proverbs (8, 30), the prophets (Isaiah 44, 45; Jeremiah 51, Amos 9), the Gospels (John 1), and the epistles (Romans 8, Colossians 1, Revelation 21). These Scriptures focus not on why the world was created, but rather who created and sustains it.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God created and called, saw and separated, gathered and gave, breathed and blessed, set and swept, put and planted, rested and rejoiced. The psalmists say God “gathers the waters of the sea,” “sets all the boundaries of the earth,” “rides on the wings of the wind,” “stretches out the heavens like a tent,” and “created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalms 33:7; 74:17; 104:2, 3; 139:13). In every movement and moment of composition, it is God who is acting. All of it, from the smallest grain of sand to the farthest reach of the cosmos, is the fruit of God’s loving labor.
The same Scriptures also describe the aftereffects of creation for God, human beings, and the cosmos. God takes delight in all that has been created, and God’s pleasure extends into a day of celebratory Sabbath rest (Genesis 1:31–2:3). Human beings share in God’s joy when creation gives rise to similar rejoicing: “Oh Lord, how manifold are your works!” (Psalm 104:24, New Revised Standard Version). Even the expanse of creation shares in God’s joy: “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars” (148:3).
It is no wonder, then, that who created the world is central to Jewish and Christian faith and worship.
Shared Sabbath rest is a weekly sign of covenant between God, God’s people, and creation in reverence for God’s authorship of all that exists (Exodus 31:16, 17). Early Christian preaching included proclaiming “the God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). In Christian worship, Sunday table fellowship celebrates renewed creation in Jesus by offering, blessing, and sharing the fruits of earth as bread and wine, body and blood.
In the Christian tradition, who created the world is more important than why. The motivations of God are shrouded in mystery, and not knowing can be surprisingly life-giving. It reminds us that we are humans and not divine, intellectually curious rather than proud know-
it-alls, and spiritual seekers of a God who cannot be
possessed within the limits of human understanding.
Because all that exists on earth and in the heavens is the handiwork of God, there is an intimate connection between creator and created. This connection is characterized by the nature of God, who is love. Love is how the world was created; the cosmos exists as a gift and grace of love. God did not create the universe out of need or loneliness. Instead, God created the world in relationship and collaboration with the Son and with the Spirit. The early New Testament hymns describe Christ as God’s partner in creation: “he was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made” (John 1:1-3). Together they brought creation into existence from a place of creative freedom and generous love.
As human beings created in the image of God’s relational love, we are creatures who long for meaningful companionship with God, the world, and one another. Though we do not have God’s ability to call forth something from nothing, our creative use of our gifts and resources for the benefit of others reflects the relational and creative nature of God. This same creative impulse has the capacity to reflect, or sometimes unfortunately obscure, the love within God’s own being and God’s love for all creation.
Since every human being bears the imprint of God’s relational nature and love, we each owe every human being dignity, respect, and attention (Genesis 9:6; Mark 12:29-31). The Christian ethic of love for neighbors and strangers is intimately tied to the conviction that we are all children of the same Creator God.
How God created the world in love, and God’s continuing love for all of creation, is one of the most important story lines throughout Scripture. Love for the world is how God sealed covenants with Abraham and Sarah, Noah’s family and the animals of the ark, the tribes of Israel set free from Egypt, and the young shepherd (later king) David and his sons and daughters. Love for the world is why God sent the prophets to speak out on behalf of the poor, widowed, and orphaned. Love for the world is why the Spirit of God fell upon a young woman considered of no repute to gift the world with the presence of God through Jesus.
Most importantly, love for the world is why God longs for our partnership in making creation a place of shalom and welcome. Love is the world’s future held in the grasp of a devoted God who desires the salvation of all creation, a new Heaven and a new earth where tears and death will be no more (1 Timothy 2:4; Revelation 21:4). Though the Scriptures say little about God’s motivations in creating the world, thoughtful theological reflection on this mystery speaks of the self-giving and creative nature of a God whose character is relational love.
Wonder & Humility
All of this was in mind during my conversation with students about why God created the world. Yet I sensed the French woman was not satisfied emotionally or intellectually. Her countenance made me wonder if her question was not, “Why did God create the world?” but rather, “Why am I here? Why was I created?”
I believe God brings us into the world as an invitation into wonder and humility. In Genesis 1, the man and woman awaken to creation already underway and already “good.” They awaken not to an environment or habitat but to a cosmos of sky, land, water, sun, moon, stars, vegetation, and animal creatures: a paradise. God’s connection to them is through the intangible yet physical ruah, or breath/spirit, of God. Their relationship with God is physical and earthy, and their worship is delight in their creator’s handiwork. Wonder culminates in a day of shalom rest together with God. Each of our spiritual journeys is an invitation to awaken to God in curious and creative wonder in company with all of creation.
In Genesis 2 and 3, Adam and Eve also awaken to humility. Humility is recognizing one’s place within the whole of creation. Adam and Eve discover that they are only one meaningful part of creation. Their relationship to the earth requires mutual hospitality, resourcefulness, and tending. There are limits to what they can take and possess. Their relationship with God requires trust rather than insecurity or fear, and they discover the disappointment of reaching for security where it cannot be found. They stumble into a cascade of unintended consequences, shame, and displacement that tear at their relationships with one another, the earth, the animal kingdom, and God (Romans 8:22, 23). Discovering our limitations and giftedness from within our place in the world is vital to life-giving faith.
Asking the most difficult questions of faith draws us into the faithfulness of God who yearns for the creative cooperation of the human spirit in restoring creation. Spiritually speaking, we are here to participate in the unfolding who, how, and why of God’s world. To experience wonder and humility with any profoundness, we need to live in deep communion every day with the mystery of God.
Miriam Y. Perkins, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology & Society at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College and teaches courses in theology both in residence and online.