And It Was Very Good
Creation, death, and evil in nature
By Ronny Nalin
What was the world like when God created it?
The Genesis account provides a concise answer to this question multiple times: it was “good,” in fact it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
The word “good” appears seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, contributing to a textual structure of repetition of the number seven.1 It is not used once per creation day, as one might suppose, but rather, for six times, in reference to the completion of individual components of the creation: the light (day 1; Gen. 1:4), the sea and the land (day 3; Gen. 1:10), vegetation on the land (day 3; Gen. 1:12), the luminaries in the sky (day 4; Gen. 1:18), aquatic and flying creatures (day 5; Gen. 1:21), and land creatures (day 6; Gen. 1:25). The seventh appearance of “good” (at the end of day 6; Gen. 1:31) uses a different construction (it was “very good”) to describe the exceedingly good nature of the totality of creation.
The effect of this punctuated progression, with its climactic conclusion, is to convey an idea of order, perfection, and completion of God’s creative action.
“It was good” in Genesis 1 usually does not describe something God said, but something He saw. In general terms, a three-stage structure can be recognized for each of the “good” created entities: (1) God said, “Let there be”; (2) the entity was; and (3) God saw that it was good. While the “saying” precedes the making, and therefore expresses the intention in the mind of the Designer, the “seeing” is subsequent to the physical materialization of the created entity. This “seeing” of God does not denote a cursory and distracted look, but conveys the impression of a comprehensive evaluation, after which the expression “it was good” appears as a seal of endorsement.
This “certification of quality” is conferred not only on each individual component of the system but also on creation as a whole, pointing to the harmonious integration of efficient parts from the very beginning.
What Does “Good” Mean?
If the biblical text states so clearly that the original creation was good, it becomes essential to understand what that word “good” is meant to signify. Is it just a descriptor of the spotless efficiency of a divinely designed system? Does it imply the absence of what in philosophy is called natural evil (such as famines and natural disasters)? And what about death? Could God consider “good” a world that included some forms of biological death in its workings?
The immediate context of the text provides a clear answer. After the account of the days of creation, Genesis 2 introduces the idea of the “not yet,” talking about things that were not yet present in that world (Gen. 2:5, 6).2 This perspective creates a tension between the original good creation and things that appeared afterwards.
Then Genesis 3 provides us with a description of when and why things changed, as a result of sin. We learn that the consequences of sin included death (Gen. 2:17; 3:19), were associated with suffering and toil (Gen. 3:16-19) and affected in some ways the inorganic (verse 17) and the plant, animal, and human realms (verses 14-19). The very structure of the text, therefore, leads us to conclude that things such as death, struggle, pain, and violence were not part of God’s original “good” creation.
Two Contrasting Trajectories
Certain understandings of nature, such as the idea that modern forms of life are the result of millions of years of evolution, have acquired such scientific respectability that some scholars try to integrate these views with the biblical concept of a Creator God.
In these attempts, phenomena such as death, catastrophes, and the struggle for life are explained as necessary components of God’s original design. “Transience, dissolution, death, and the pain, suffering, and loss they induce have their roots in the underlying characteristics of nature,” says one evolutionist scholar.3 “Any universe which has its own internal integrity and dynamisms and is material, relational, interconnected, and evolving, and at the same time open to new possibilities, predictable, and potentially personal, will have to be this way.”4
Irrespective of how intellectually attractive these views may sound, they strive to present natural evil as a constituent part of how God operates. This is fundamentally opposite to the thrust of the Genesis creation account, which is clearly focused on distinguishing the originally “good” creation from the new economy of things after sin.
A Little Word With Big Implications
In the beauty of its simplicity, the sevenfold repetition of “good” shines as a lighthouse in the sea of modern philosophical and scientific views on origins.
When I ponder the origin of natural evil, I am reminded that God attested the goodness of even the inorganic components of the original creation. When I assess theological applications of evolutionary theory, I cannot help thinking of God’s explicit approval of originally created biological systems. When I read of the emergence and development of life as a long and painstaking trial and error process, I sense an abyssal distance from the biblical description of an integrated system, which, from the beginning, “was very good.” n
1 For a treatment of the use of the number seven in Genesis 1, see U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part One, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University/Magnes Press, 1961), pp. 12-15.
2 For a scholarly analysis of the “not yet” perspective, see J. Doukhan, “The Genesis Creation Story: Text, Issue, and Truth,” Origins 55 (2004): 22, 23. Available for download at http://grisda.org/origins/55012.pdf.
3 W. R. Stoeger, “Entropy, Emergence and the Physical Roots of Natural Evil,” in N. Murphy, R. J. Russell, and W. R. Stoeger, eds., Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), vol. 1, p. 93.
4 N. Murphy, “Introduction,” in Murphy, Russell, and Stoeger, p. xviii.
Ronny Nalin, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and lives with his wife, Elisa, and daughter, Gioia, in Mentone, California.
If You Want to Read More
For reflections on the possibility and theological implications of death and evil in biological systems before sin see:
L. Brand, “What Are the Limits of Death in Paradise?” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 14, no. 1 (2003): 74-85. Available online at http://www.atsjats.org/publication_file.php?pub_id=38&journal=1&type=pdf.
M. T. Terreros, “Is All Death a Consequence of Sin? Theological Implications of Alternative Models,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 14, no. 1 (2003): 150-175. Available online at http://www.atsjats.org/publication_file.php?pub_id=43&journal=1&type=pdf.
J. T. Baldwin, “Christ, Character, and Creation,” Adventist Review, Oct. 24, 2013. Available online at http://adventistreview.org/2013-1530-p14.
Additional online resources: