“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
One of the first things that confronts us in reading the book of Genesis is that God created the universe. It’s easy to take for granted, since this has been the default position of our culture for so long. But that’s not at all how the story had to go. Many cultures have taught that the world itself is eternal and uncreated. That was even considered a live possibility by modern science until the Big Bang became the established theory. Others have taught that time is cyclical, always returning in the end to the same place where it began, and passing once more down the same path, again and again, through all eternity.
But Genesis says God created. Creation is something that once did not exist, but now it does. And this act of bringing into being was the active decision of a personal Being, a God described as having purpose and intent, as interacting with his creatures. Which leads us to an important question—why did God create?
The classical understanding of God is that he is all-sufficient. Indeed, a creator God almost by definition does not need anything in his creation. One verse that makes this point is Acts 17:25, where Paul argues that God does not dwell in temples, nor can mankind offer him anything he needs, since he is the source of all creation. Psalm 50 applies a similar line of reasoning to sacrifices, pointing out that the Lord owns all creation, so why would he need our bulls and goats? The very idea that he can create whatever he wants implies that nothing in creation is truly necessary for him.
But the classical understanding of God goes even beyond this. It’s not just that individual parts of creation are unnecessary to him, but so is the entirety of creation itself. God existed in eternity past without creation, so how could we say that creation is necessary to him? So much of the Bible pushes the idea that God is not simply “very powerful,” like a glacier that carves through stone, or exploding stars, or the volcanism that gives birth to mountains and tears them apart. God is all-powerful, the source of everything that has power or authority or significance in creation. Saying that he is somehow missing something if he does not create undermines that idea.
But if God does not need to create, then why do it at all? The Psalms are certainly full of the idea that the earth sings his praises. God derives glory from the mountains, the seas, the sun and stars in their courses, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. All creation, from mighty Leviathan to the flower that is here today and gone tomorrow, testifies to the wisdom and power of its Creator. I think this is as good a suggestion as any—God made the world to express his character, and so to glorify himself.
At one point I think people might have taken this as a bit egocentric. I would have responded with some sort of appeal to the fact that God is something like Plato’s One—the ultimate good, the very definition of goodness, and the source of all that can be called good. Good glorifying itself is hardly egocentric, and honestly does a favor to everything else in creation, which is striving to reach The Good.
But I’m not sure that’s as much of an issue as it used to be. This generation seems to have an intuitive sense that creativity and self-expression is an inherently a good thing, and so I don’t think as many folks would begrudge God that activity. My tendency would still be to emphasize the differences between God Almighty creating to bring glory to the very standard of all that is worthy of glorifying, and a guy who writes slam poetry to work out the tangled emotions that have been trapped inside since the last time he set pen to paper.
One interesting angle on this problem looks at creation from a trinitarian perspective. Sometimes I think people can try to draw too many lessons from the doctrine of the Trinity, especially considering how much of the doctrine is only left implied in God’s Word. If you really want to understand the strangeness and wonder of God, you might start by talking about him the way he talks about himself, rather than emphasizing a construction, however true and good and necessary, we use to explain the way he talks about himself. Anyways, grain of salt.
The thinking goes like this: God, being trinitarian, is indeed self-sufficient, but he also exists as something like a community. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dwell in eternal fellowship and perichoresis, each living in and for the other through all eternity. Our God is a God who loves the other. Creation is therefore an expression of something already present in God from all eternity—that love of the other. He creates the other, that he might love it.
This view is then contrasted with that of a unitarian deity, usually the Allah of Islam. Allah truly does not need creation, but neither can he love it. Love of the other is inherent in the Trinity, but in Allah there is no such thing. Creation, and love of creation, is consistent with the character of the former, but not the latter.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. There’s a certain appeal to the idea, as it does offer a good explanation for why God would want to create. It also takes the Trinity and uses that teaching to probe deeper into things that our fathers before Christ could not have. I admire that spirit. But at the same time, I worry that it’s playing with something a little too deep for such speculation. The Word doesn’t make that point, and the Trinity is a doctrine notoriously easy to abuse. Does this bend the doctrine of the Trinity into something not quite orthodox? Not to mention that it creates a flattering contrast with someone we disagree with, which always a little too convenient to be true. But perhaps I’m too cautious.
So what can we take away from this? We started with classical theism, appealed to the Psalms, alluded to Plato, made speculations based on the doctrine of the Trinity, and none seemed to give a fully satisfying answer. At least, I am not fully satisfied.
I think the biggest takeaway is just to acknowledge that the text does not directly answer this question. We are not given an easy answer to it. This reminds me of Job, where we get a peek into the workings of the heavenly court, but by the end of that story the heavenly courts are forgotten. What is important is not precisely why God does what he does. In a serious way, we can never really know that. But we do know what God has done, and what he has said to us. Whatever his purposes in creating the world, the fact remains that he created. As a starting point, at the beginning of the story, that’s good enough.