Relatively few people understood the Terrence Malick movie The Tree of Life when it came out a few years ago. That’s too bad, because it is a deeply theological movie that in the end shines with more hope for God’s restoration of all things than perhaps any other film ever made. The hint as to what the movie is about comes in the very first thing you see on the screen. Against a black background these words appear: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7).
The movie is clearly built on the chassis of the book of Job, replete with wrestling with the big question of why there is evil in the world. In the film, as in the biblical book, the answer to that vital question comes not when God gives a long theological lecture on the whys and wherefores of bad things happening to good people. No, God’s answer comes through a whirlwind tour of creation’s splendors.
Job asks, “Why do I suffer?” God replies with donkeys and storks, storehouses of snow and magnificent lions, hippos and the twinkling stars of the Pleiades. In The Tree of Life,Job 38-42 gets depicted by a wordless 15-minute sequence in the middle of the movie that displays God’s creation of the universe. On either side of that long sequence of majestic cosmic images is the story of a Texas family that wrestles with the sorrow and suffering they have endured. At least in part, the answer to their questions is contained, as for Job, in what we can see in God’s creation, in the glory theater of God that—as John Calvin reminded us—surrounds us daily.
Job is the Bible’s premiere example of something that happens frequently in Scripture; namely, the physical creation of God comes to the forefront when we were perhaps not expecting it. In the psalms, in the prophets, in the parables of Jesus, in the writings of the apostle Paul, and in the Bible’s final book of Revelation, creation keeps popping up. Apparently creation is an integral part of God’s Story, and nothing that happened in God’s redemption through Christ was ever meant to eclipse that creation or its central importance in the heart of God.
Through a lot of church history, the importance of creation may have been more obvious than it seems to be in more recent times. Perhaps that is why St. Francis of Assisi could write lyric odes to the creation like his “Canticle to the Sun” and not be accused—as some worship planners and I were accused some years ago when we used that canticle in a worship service—of succumbing to New Age worship of the goddess earth.
There are doubtless many reasons why after the Reformation many church traditions began to associate salvation in Christ with the redeeming of only human beings—and sometimes of disembodied human souls at that. Partly this can be attributed to the fact that when the key Reformed confessional documents were written in the 16th and 17th centuries, concerns about the physical creation were not prominent. Air pollution, species extinction, industrial chemicals in rivers, and carbon emissions were not remotely on anyone’s radar as a topic of theological or biblical reflection. Thus, although the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession do not ignore the value of God’s creation, neither do they spend much time celebrating it or recommending it as something believers should ponder and preserve and delight in.
After the Industrial Revolution, when concerns about ecology and the environment did become more prominent, some in Reformed circles chalked such a focus up to a more liberal theology, perhaps more “Social Gospel” in nature—and, as such, something to be avoided. Instead we sang songs that suggested that if we turn our eyes upon Jesus, the things of earth would “grow strangely dim.” We sang “fair are the meadows,” but we countered that sentiment with “Jesus shines fairer.” Meanwhile, some derided efforts to clean up oceans or save the spotted owl by likening such work to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic: the ship is going down, but that’s OK since we are all bound for heaven (and this earth just isn’t our home). So let it sink.
In the last half-century much has changed. We have come to see that the Bible depicts God as taking a deep and abiding delight in creation. We have come to believe the line from the traditional Christian prayer that says to God, “you hate nothing you have made.” And even deeply Reformed theologians like Anthony Hoekema remind us that if we conceive of “heaven” as anything other than a new creation that will include tadpoles and tiger lilies and Lake Michigan, then we concede defeat to the devil, because it has all along been Satan’s goal—not God’s—to destroy and sully God’s good work.
A Chorus of Praise
Creation is where the Bible begins. A New Creation is where it ends. In between that beginning and that new beginning, God’s Word again and again returns our thinking to delighting in the physical world. The psalms naturally praise God for the wonders God fashioned, even as those same psalms (and many passages in Isaiah and the other prophets) see the creation itself as forming a part of God’s ongoing chorus of worship. In God’s way of viewing things, clacking tree branches and clapping human hands form their own harmony of praise to him (see Isa. 55). Human choirs sing beautifully, but so do howling winds in snowstorms (Ps. 148). Majestic pipe organs can be used to praise God with glorious toccatas, but the Bible says God’s praise receives a giant exclamation mark when there is a deafening clap of thunder too (Ps. 29).
The creation, it seems, is never far from the mind of God. Maybe that is why when God filled the minds of prophets like Isaiah, the images Isaiah reached for over and again when describing God’s promised redemption included mountain streams, myrtle, and feasts from earth’s bounty.
And as all of God’s purposes for creation and redemption came together in Christ Jesus, people like the apostle Paul could not help but see the big picture that included a focus on creation. Romans 8 may be the New Testament’s finest chapter of human hope: there is now no condemnation to fear, we have been set free. Even in the face of hardship we can know that nothing separates us from the love of God, and all things work together for our good. This is the gospel at its finest!
But smack in the middle of all that, Paul says we are not alone in yearning for redemption; the whole creation is doing that too. Indeed, in Romans 8:19 Paul employs a vivid and colorful Greek word not found anywhere else in the whole Bible: apokaradokia. It means “to crane one’s neck.” Paul says that the entire creation is standing on its collective tiptoes and craning its neck forward—the way we do when watching for a loved one to come off an airplane after a long absence—because the creation is that eager to see the coming of its own liberation from pollution and decay and suffering.
The same thing happens in Colossians 1:15-23, where Paul’s exuberance over the breadth of Christ’s saving work all but gets away from him. Paul goes on a verbal tear so infused with enthusiasm that he writes one single sentence with over 270 words in it! Like an excited child describing a day at an amusement park, Paul gushes on in such a way that he cannot find the end of the sentence.
Tripping over his words to convey how grand Jesus’ salvation is, Paul repeats multiple times the Greek words ta panta, which mean “all things.” Jesus created all things in the beginning; Jesus infused all things with meaning; Jesus has now saved all things in his death and resurrection. And so now all things hold together in him alone. Colloquially phrased, Paul is saying that the whole kit and kaboodle, the entire creation from A-Z, was made by Jesus and has been saved by Jesus.
The more the writers of the New Testament meditated on and thought theologically about what God had accomplished through Christ, the more it became clear that although human beings were saved in Christ, so was everything else God had made in the beginning. By the time you get to John’s vision in the Book of Revelation (and especially in those first songs from heaven that John heard in Rev. 4-5), it is no longer surprising to read that the first song John heard from the hosts of heaven was not the song that praised God for saving people.
No, the #1 song on the heavenly hit parade was the one that began, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11). The song that declares the Lamb worthy on account of redeeming persons from every tribe and nation comes next, of course, but praising God for his work of creation was the first order of business, even in the heavenly throne room!
When Neal Plantinga was my systematic theology professor at Calvin Theological Seminary, his lectures bristled with lots of memorable lines and striking insights. One thing I will never forget was the lecture in which he said that the upshot of the first and great commandment (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind”) is that we are, finally, lovers of God. When you have a human lover in your life, you are naturally interested in whatever brings your lover joy and delight. Is your spouse an art history buff? Then you go to art museums too, and you take joy in what your spouse tells you about Rembrandt or Monet.
The Bible says God loves all that he has made, that the creatures of God’s hand are a source of unending delight to him. As lovers of God, we are, therefore, invested in paying attention to and caring for those creatures too. Stewardship of creation, preserving a species when we can, soaking up creation splendors (and doing so more often than we soak up the wonders of some new website or the latest viral video on YouTube): these are all part and parcel of what it means to be lovers of God. What’s more, reveling in wildflower-dotted alpine meadows and giving money to organizations that preserve wetlands are not vain efforts like tending to deck chairs on a sinking ocean liner. True, people without faith—including some of the louder voices of the New Atheists—see only a universe on a crash course with entropy. That is, things keep winding down as the centuries and millennia pass, and the day will come when stars will burn out, whole plants will wink out of existence, and just maybe the entire fabric of space-time will collapse and disappear.
But as disciples of Jesus, we do not buy that bleak picture of creation’s future for the same reason that we refuse to see no future for the loved one whose body we just committed to the earth: the Bible tells us differently. We lay a loved one’s body into the soil of earth but then recite a Creed that ends with our belief in “the resurrection of the body,” including this body. So also we look at a planet with lots of problems related to climate change, species extinction, and pollution, but we refuse to believe all of that has the last word. Only God has the last word, and that word goes something like this: “Behold, I make all things new!”
True, fighting to preserve the habitat of a wood thrush or recycling a plastic milk jug will not in and of itself “save the planet” or bring God’s kingdom to bear, just on account of our efforts. We act as stewards of songbirds and coral reefs for the same reason we give money to inner-city soup kitchens and volunteer to spend time with a homeless person: not because we’re saving the world but because God in Christ already saved the world. And so our actions mirror our faith and how we believe God sees the world and homeless people and mountain streams and clownfish on a reef.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . while the morning stars sang together?” The answer is that we were not there to see that. Yet even when confronted with our most urgent of questions—as God was with Job’s questions—God’s mind still goes back to those singing stars. And he wants us to remember creation too. Because somehow the wisdom of God, the mighty power of God, and the truth that in Christ all things hold together such that all our deepest longings really will be met—all of that and so much more is visible in that majestic creation.
That is worth pondering today and even forevermore. Discussion Questions
- Throughout the Scriptures, says Hoezee, creation “keeps popping up”—sometimes in surprising ways. What does this suggest about creation’s place in God’s story of redemption?
- What does God’s evident delight in all creatures mean for our theology? For our worship?
- Our actions mirror our faith, says Hoezee. If this is true, what does this suggest for our stewardship of God’s creation? What are some ways we could be involved in bringing about renewal where creation groans?
- What is the connection between stewardship and justice with respect to issues like soil erosion or safe tap water?
- Find a psalm that shows God’s delight in all things (perhaps Ps. 147 or 148) and meditate on it. Ponder, as Hoezee invites us to do, the wisdom of God revealed in creation.