“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, September 6, 2010

Does God Need Creation?

...Let's investigate this remarkable doctrine of creation. What does it mean for God to be Creator, and for the reality we know to be created? If we are careful to think about God in the right way, we may find unexpected beauty in this simple idea of creation.

It is often stated by theologians that God does not need creation in any way. He is just as well off in a reality where there is nothing but himself - just as happy, content, complete in his divine glory, etc. This is true - it is simply what it means for God to be God. A "God" who depends on things other than himself in order to improve his state of being (whether through emotional satisfaction with creation or in some other way) is not the God that Christians have believed in for millennia. No, the God we worship, the God portrayed in the Bible, the God whose face we glimpse in Jesus Christ, is perfect and complete in himself, lacking nothing.*
*Cf. Acts 17:24-25, "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything."

If we are not careful, it will seem as if we are forced to say that God cannot take pleasure in his creation. But this is at odds with nearly every page of the Bible, according to which God clearly loves, cares for, and delights in his creation.* But if God does take pleasure in creation, does he not receive something good from it that he would not have otherwise? Even if God was ultimately joyful in himself, without creation, would he not be even more joyful with the additional delight of loving his creation? And does he not therefore need creation in order to "better himself"? It would seem so.
*The Old Testament prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah describe a God who feels compassion for his people, delights in being close to them, and laments their suffering (Hosea 11, Isaiah 62:4). The New Testament describes a God who loved humanity enough to give himself for their redemption (John 3:16, Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:4).

Let me pose another question before giving a possible answer. What do we mean when we say that God created us for his glory? The theme of God's glory saturates all of Scripture - the whole of human history is being drawn into the larger purpose of God's honor and glory and praise. But this praise can only come from creatures. If so much glory and honor comes to God only through his creation, would he not be diminished if we did not exist to praise him?

It seems, then, that God depends on creation in order to increase his joy and bring himself greater glory. How are we to make sense of this conundrum? (It is the same question stated in two different ways - God's glory and joy are inseparable and overlapping.) The answer to this conundrum lies, I think, in a proper understanding of who God is - in a theology that is rich and deep and strong, both imaginative and accurate.

First, it seems to me that these questions make a rather audacious assumption, namely that creation is basically on the same level as God, that whatever joy or glory God derives from creation is really the same kind of thing as the joy or glory he has in himself. But God is on a level of existence unutterably and unfathomably higher than that of creation. Are we to presume that anything we as his creatures can give him through our existence could even be compared to all that he is in his self-sufficient supremacy? A raindrop adds to the ocean because it has some finite volume of water - while vastly different in quantity, it is the same kind of thing. But the goodness of creation is not the same kind of thing as the goodness of God. We must remember Who we are talking about. A million lines cannot be stacked up to make a plane - a plane is a different kind of thing, in a higher dimension. In the same way, creation cannot add to what God has in himself. He exists in a dimension of being, as it were, that cannot be shared with creation. The difference between God and creation is immeasurably greater than the difference between the ocean and a raindrop.

That is one way to address the issue. At least as important in our understanding of God as Creator is the idea that it is in his nature to create. Let me explain what I mean and how it is relevant. Responding to the problem that we are considering here, Jonathan Edwards wrote in his book The End for Which God Created the World that God is like a fountain - of life and joy and all good things - and that "it is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain that it is inclined to overflow." God creates, says Edwards, just as a fountain overflows - is his nature to create, to express himself by shining forth his light in new things other than himself and sharing his goodness with those new things.*  Creating worlds out of nothing, making people in his image, revealing himself through word and image and story - this is what God does and what he delights to do. Like water from a fountain, new things overflow into existence from God. And this creative part of God does not need to be expressed in order to exist: before creation happened, God was the Creator. Creativity is fundamentally part of who God is.

In a sense, you could say that God "needs" his creation because he needs to create, but this is only because he needs to be himself. To use Edwards' excellent analogy again, God is bubbling over like a fountain - his beauty and glory and love must be expressed. That he is inclined to overflow in creation is no argument to his deficiency without creation.  Think for a moment - how absurd, in a way, this objection is. It demands a God who makes and does nothing, a God who must keep his perfection to himself, a God who withholds existence from countless wonderful things that could be - a sterile God. What a lack of imagination one must have to think of God in this way - as a spring of water that can only attain perfection by being inactive!

We need not worry about the fountain of existence being indebted to that which it brings forth. God gives, creation receives. Because he is good, God shares his own love and joy and beauty with things other than himself. All the richness and beauty of creation is and always has been present in its Maker. Nothing comes into being which is not a reflection or expression of the Creator. Creation is his grand design, his majestic work of art, and it is no argument to the deficiency of an artist that he is inclined to make beautiful art and delight in his work.

This understanding of creation should enrich our vision of God. In recognizing his inherent inclination to create, we can grow in our ability to grasp the heights and depths of God's power, beauty, and brilliant imagination. That God should be so creative and make so much and shine so brightly in his creation is a beautiful truth.

*But we must not let this "fountain" analogy mislead us into thinking that God creates involuntarily, or that he is constrained by something other than himself. God creates because it is in his nature to create, and while we humans may be constrained by our nature because it is influenced by outside forces, God's nature is not influenced by anything outside of God. He is who He is, the I Am. Since God alone is the cause of his act of creation, we can still think of it as a voluntary choice. C. S. Lewis describes God as freely "uttering" creation into existence.

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