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The Literal Meaning of Genesis and the Cross of Christ

This is my seventh and final posting in our series wrestling with Genesis and the ideas of important Christian and Jewish thinkers throughout history. Over the course of the week, several readers have asked the question: Why not write about Ellen White? These same readers may have hoped that White would be the climax of the series. I have decided not to end with White, though, because I think her approach to reconciling faith and science is more or less identical to Jonathan Edwards’ hermeneutic of “sanctified reason.” Readers who want to explore the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to Scripture should refer to my posting on Edwards. One of the impulses I also want to resist is the one that says that White must be the final answer to all of our questions. I will write about White and the other Adventist pioneers another day.
There is another challenge some readers have raised, however, that is a much weightier matter and one we must now directly face. It is in fact the question on which all of our theological ponderings and arguments must either find their rest or be shattered. It is the question of the cross.
Instead of offering another account of how a great theological or philosophical mind helps us think through epistemology and hermeneutical questions, I would like to end this series by offering some personal and tentative reflections on the creation in Genesis in the light of the cross of Christ in the New Testament.
Creation in the Book of Job
To begin, I have been thinking about the final chapters of the book of Job, which is also an authoritative account of God’s creative activity. God’s reply to Job from out of the whirlwind may be the Hebrew Bible’s clearest answer not only to the problem of human suffering but to the literalist’s refusal—no less than the atheist’s—to allow that the creation might have been more terrible, free, and at the same time glorious than anything we have previously thought or are even capable of thinking.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks the literalist and the non-literalist alike in the book of Job. “Have you seen the gates of deep darkness?” The Creator God we find in the book of Job “caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it” (38:12). Wickedness, by any straightforward reading of the text, thus existed before the dawn. It had to be “shaken out of” the earth. The creation, the book of Job strongly hints, may have involved not simply creation but redemption—a reclaiming of a universe already in rebellion.
We may find this thought—that the creation has been groaning and in travail from the very start, and that God creates as he redeems and redeems as he creates—deeply unsettling. But the book of Job warns us not to presume what God has and has not permitted to unfold from the beginning of time.
In the book of Job we find that God is present and at work even in the wildness and ferocity of the natural universe—in lions as they “lie in wait in their lair”; in wild donkeys who the Creator has helped to escape so that they might have “the wilderness for a home”; in the ostrich who “treats her young cruelly, as if they were not hers” because God “has not given her a share of understanding”; in flashes of lightening and in the Behemoth and the Leviathan. God commands the eagle to “make his nest on high”—the eagle that “spies out food” from afar so that “his young ones also suck up blood” (39:30).
These declarations may leave us perplexed and dismayed. But lest we question God’s ways in the face of what Barth called the “shadow side of creation”, we should ponder the verse that immediately follows this vivid description of animal predation. “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” God asks Job.
Is the Cross of Christ the End of a Quadratic Equation?
But if we simply stopped reading the Bible here we would still end up with a distorted picture of God’s character and creation. The final chapters of Job may help us to better understand the terrible grandeur of the creation and realize that God is good but he is “not a tame lion” (as the beavers say in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia). But where in this account is the cross of Christ?
Literalist’s have asserted that their way of reading the Bible is the only way that upholds the cross and the importance of Christ’s sacrifice. But the way they sometimes speak of the cross one would think it was nothing more than the final proof in a long quadratic equation. Following a strictly legal-forensic understanding of Christ’s atonement, they argue that a six-day creation is the only possible way to maintain a clear theology of the fall and so of redemption. Adam’s sin must be isolated as the exclusive causal variable for the entrance of destruction and death into the natural universe. Christ’s death on the cross then pays the penalty Adam deserved, deflecting God’s wrath from humanity and opening the way to a new creation after the present fallen one is destroyed by God in lakes of fire.
But we must ask what this account really does with the cross of Christ in the name of honoring and upholding it. Is this really what it means to read Genesis in the light of the cross of Christ? Or does this narrative in fact keep the cross as far away from the creation as possible? The standard legal-forensic model of Christ’s death may in fact be a desperate attempt to isolate the creation story in Genesis in a way that allows us to read it without any reference to Christ at all.
A striking illustration of this is the book Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary: Why a Global Flood is Vital to the Doctrine of Atonement (edited by John Baldwin), in which much is said about geological columns, radiometric dating, and the Hebrew language but very little is actually said about Calvary or the person of Christ, despite the book’s title. Calvary here is a kind of theological abstraction tagged to the conclusion of our scientific and linguistic reasoning and our systematic theology. The implication of creationist arguments such as these is that Genesis 1 actually tells us everything we need to know about the creation without any reference to the cross whatsoever, which only becomes necessary once we arrive at Genesis 3 and the human fall. Literalism of this kind is creation without the cross.
Is God a Suffering Creator?
But how would our understanding of Genesis change if we took seriously and literally the statement in Revelation that Jesus is “the lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world”? Literalists have helped to guard against one kind of theistic evolution that makes God the active designer of animal suffering and death, a deity who uses the pain of some creatures to maximize the pleasure of others like a grand utilitarian (or Grand Inquisitor). But literalists have failed to think deeply enough about the creation in the light of the book of Job and in the light of the cross of Christ. The cross is not the final proof in a mathematical theorem. Nor is it simply God’s contingency plan. It is the complete revelation of who God is as both Creator and Redeemer.
There comes a place where our imaginations stagger and we must confess that God’s ways are greater than our ways. We see through a glass darkly. This is why the question of whether or not the days of Genesis 1 were literal 24-hour periods is one I cannot answer. I do not know. Thankfully, certain knowledge of the deepest mysteries of the creation is not what the life of faith depends on.
If we are serious about reading all of Scripture in the light of Christ’s cross, though, we must think carefully and openly about the possibility that there are principles of freedom at work in the natural world no less than the human which we are not aware of, and that this freedom could have much to do with the evidences for evolution scientists have recorded. God does not design or create using tools of suffering and death. But when a rebellious universe undergoes suffering and death, God is still present and at work, even in the midst of that suffering. If the creation suffers—and if this suffering began before Adam joined the rebellion already underway when he was formed—there is one thing we can know with absolute certainty. Christ suffers with it.
Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments throughout the week. The Sabbath is near. I wish everyone Christ’s peace and Sabbath rest!

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