Our family hosts an impassioned debate over which of the nine Star Wars movies is best. The recent movies receive zero votes (which I think is a little harsh). The originals receive one vote (that would be me, obviously). And the prequels receive three votes, from my three boys, who really should know better. And my wife, Heather, mostly stays out of it. But on this we all agree: the prequels have their place in the Star Wars universe. You can’t understand who Darth Vader is without first meeting Anakin Skywalker. And the same goes for Obi Wan Kenobi and the rest of the gang.
Our origin stories are really identity stories. Stories that tell us where we came from inform who we are. In fact, everyone has a functional origin story. You may not think about it that way, but the fact is, everyone assumes some explanation for how we got here—and that working explanation, that functional origin story, profoundly shapes our identity. The only question is: what is your functional origin story?
Maybe you know exactly what that is. Maybe you’ve never really examined what your origin story is. The Christian origin story, found in Genesis 1, is the true and better story we need, because only it adequately makes sense of who we are, and only this origin story gives us what we need to flourish: meaning, beauty, and authority.
First, Genesis uniquely provides us a sense of meaning. If we take the time to read the creation accounts from other religions and cultures in the Ancient Near East—whether it’s the creation story from Babylonia, Assyria, or elsewhere in the region—we find that, across the board, they are horrific stories. You would not let your kids watch the Babylonian creation myth mini-series on Netflix. Because these stories, every one of them, are a cross between Games of Thrones and The Bachelor. With sex and violence and betrayal—and that’s just the way the gods behave—we surely would have an HBO hit in the making. The humans in these stories are either a cosmic accident or created for the sake of serving the gods as slaves.[i]
In the Ancient Near East, Genesis stands alone. Not only is it a true story, it is better. While other religions depict the gods bickering and arguing like the Real Housewives of Mesopotamia, in Genesis God creates calmly and powerfully, with a word. He creates an orderly world, not one born out of chaos and confusion. He creates life, not death and destruction. He creates out of love, not a power struggle. And he creates human beings in his image, with dignity, not peons to be his slaves.[ii]
Okay, great. This would be a powerful apologetic for 3,000 years ago. But today we are not toying with Babylonian creation stories. True, but there is one creation account you might be toying with. At the very least, it is one we have to reckon with in our society—and that is the creation account of secular humanism or scientific materialism. The late scientist Carl Sagan famously summed up this viewpoint, saying, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” Similarly, the historian Carl Becker claimed that the human race is “little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn.”[iii] And Stephen Jay Gould stated, “We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age…We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer—but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating.”
That’s not just a theory. It is a story, a story of who we are (or, in this case, who we are not)… One might even say it’s a faith story—because it takes a lot of faith to believe that matter has always existed and will exist forever. And like any origin story, this story not only attempts to tell us where we came from—it also tells us who we are, as a result.
Creating our own meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe may be liberating for Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, or Ricky Gervais, but I think for most of us the prospect of living in a meaningless universe, where nothing we do ultimately matters, isn’t liberating at all. It’s just depressing. Not to mention terrifying: because it means that we are forced to ask, every day of our lives, “Am I doing enough, giving enough, successful enough, kind enough, happy enough?” It is signing up for a mid-life crisis for life. For that reason, may I suggest that most people don’t really live in that story. No—most of us live as if we are more than a “chance deposit on the surface of the world.” The question is, “What story can give that to us?”
Genesis can. Because, as it says in Gen. 1:26, we have been made in the image of God—to live a life of purpose and significance.
So, the true and better Story of Genesis tells us that our lives have meaning—but it also gives us a reason to appreciate beauty. Reading Genesis 1 is sort of like watching a Great Artist at work. Except there is one major difference: every human artists creates out of existing material, whether paint or stone or wood. Yet, God created everything out of nothing. “In the the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” is another way of saying, “In the beginning God brought all things into existence out of nothing.” And yet all things didn’t arrive in completed form. Gen. 1:2 tells us that the earth was “without form and void.” So, day 1, God gets to work, forming what was formless and filling what was empty. For the first three days of Genesis 1’s account, God forms the seas and skies and earth into a habitat where life will flourish. And then for the next three days, God fills this magnificent place with a diversity of plant life and flowers and trees and creatures, culminating in the creation of the first man and woman.
Even though this was an orderly process, it was hardly boring or bland. God didn’t run out of ideas in the middle of day 6, saying something such as “Let’s just throw in some more chickadees and call it a day.” He formed and filled the world with everything from plantains, to pelicans, to pandas.
The fact is, God really didn’t have to go through all this trouble. He could have simply created a world that was a suitable environment for us to survive in. But, apparently, God really likes pandas. And who doesn’t like pandas? (It’s said to see them go from the National Zoo.) Because the giant panda is sort of an odd beast. It has the teeth and digestive system of a meat-eater—but it only eats bamboo. It’s big and strong—but it’s not a predator and it doesn’t have a natural predator preying on it. And its fur is coarse and wiry—which means no one is shearing pandas for panda coats and slippers.
Does this not all raise the question, “What are giant pandas good for?” I have a friend who is a big panda fan, and she puts it like this, “I’m sure there are good ecological reasons giant pandas exist. But I like to think that the main God created pandas is simply because they bring delight—not just to us but to Him!” Genesis 1 tells us she’s onto something. Because, in this passage, we can literally hear God enjoying the beauty of His Creation. At the end of each day, what does Genesis say? “And it was good.” “And it was good.” “And it was good.” And when His work is complete, what does Genesis say in verse 31, “It was very good.”
Even though “good” is the best translation of the Hebrew word, I like to think of God saying, “Good stuff!” I just like that expression. But it’s also an expression that reminds us that what God is rejoicing over is the beauty of the physical world, not just the spiritual world.
In 1 Timothy 4 the Apostle Paul writes to his protege, Timothy, pastoring in Ephesus. Some Christians in Timothy’s church were encouraging their members to abstain from marriage, as well as sex within marriage, and to abstain from certain foods that were ‘unclean’—as if “spiritual” is good and “physical” is bad. Paul instructs Timothy to ignore those people. Why? Because they’re annoying? No: because “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).
In other words, the Story we are living in, as Christians, is one that accounts for the ordinary beauty of “good stuff.” And for that reason, Christians ought to be the most grateful people around. Because we really believe that this is our Father’s world. And if He delights in the beauty of what He has made, so should we.
Now, you might thinking, “Apparently, Ryan has never watched a National Geographic nature documentary! Or the the Planet Earth series! Or visited an art gallery. Because there are plenty of people who reject Genesis—but really appreciate beauty and marvel at nature!” Good point. But it is worth asking how far such an appreciation can really go if we are living in a meaningless universe.
The Oxford professor and writer, C.S. Lewis, made this point in an essay, where he addressed the atheist like this:
You might decide simply to have as good a time as possible. The universe is a universe of nonsense, but since you are here, grab what you can. Unfortunately, however, there is, on these terms, so very little left to grab—only the coarsest sensual pleasures. You can’t, except in the lowest animal sense, be in love with a girl if you know (and keep on remembering) that all the beauty of that person are a momentary and accidental pattern produced by the collision of atoms, and that your own response to them is only a sort of psychic phosphorescence arising from the behavior of your genes. You can’t go on getting any very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it. You may still, in the lowest sense, have a “good time”; but you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you really live.[iv]
Here’s what Lewis is saying: atheistic secular humanism cannot fully account for the beauty of romantic love or the beauty of a piece of music. But Genesis can. Just look at the joy God finds in Creation as He creates! And you are made in His image. We are hard-wired to admire beauty, even the “useless” beauty of pandas.
Okay, but what about authority? Because of these three—meaning, beauty, and authority—we innately understand how we need meaning and beauty to flourish. But authority? Nonetheless, we cannot take Genesis 1 seriously without recognizing God’s unrivaled authority. We see this in the repetition of God speaking. Verse 3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” That’s the pattern: God commands. Instant obedience. God gives orders. Boom! It happens. That’s how complete God’s authority is: He speaks reality into existence. And that authority has not diminished, even if we live as if it has.
Most of us aren’t atheists: 90% of Americans say they believe in God or a higher power of some kind.[v] That makes sense to me, because I think most of us are not big fans of the bleak origin story told by secular humanism. As much as we might talk a good game in college biology class about natural selection, most just don’t think of themselves as “lucky mud,” as one person put it.
So, if natural selection is not the functional origin story of choice, what is? I think for many people it’s simply this: God made the world (I guess)…and then tossed us the keys: “It’s all yours.” That origin story is traditionally known as Deism—in which God makes the world like a watch, winds it up, and walks away.[vi] But here’s the problem with that: about two chapters more into Genesis, in chapter 3, our first parents, Adam and Eve, tried that Story on for size. They treated God like He has no jurisdiction over their lives—as if they were the final authority—as if they were in charge. But it didn’t go well. Sin entered the world and, with it, violence and division and death. Why? And how? Because they forgot their true origin story.
In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Magician’s Nephew, three of the characters are transported from our world to Narnia. Specifically, they are transported to the beginning of Narnia, when Aslan the Lion created the world. Everything is dark and empty. Then a beautiful voice rises up. And, in an instantaneous flash, the dark sky blazes to life with stars, constellations, galaxies. The stars themselves join in the song of the first voice, who sang the stars into existence, and together they sing. One of the characters who is there is a man named Frank, who drives a cab in London. And when he hears this creation song, and sees the beauty of what Aslan has made, by the power of his voice, he cries out, “Glory be! I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this.” [vii]
And yet, despite being rejected, God did not reject Adam and Eve, nor does he reject us. Instead, He promised to win back everything they had lost (and us along with them). In the New Testament, Colossians 1:20 says that through Jesus, God has reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. All things. Including you and me.
What is your functional origin story, that tells you where you came from, how you got here, and who you are. God offers us a true and better story – that we live in His world and bear His image to glorify and enjoy Him forever.
[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atra-Hasis. Chris Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory, 55.
[ii] Jack Collins, Reading Genesis Well, 137
[iii] Tim Keller, Questioning Christianity, “Meaning.” More recently, philosopher Richard Dawkins, has explained that “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
[v] Watkin, Creation, 31, quoting Don Carson.
[vi] [Apatheism] is distinct from theism, atheism, and agnosticism. A theist believes that God exists; an atheist believes that God does not exist; an agnostic believes that we cannot know whether God exists; an apatheist believes that we should not care whether God exists.. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/athens-without-a-statue-to-the-unknown-god/. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/05/let-it-be/302726/. https://randalrauser.com/2018/09/a-defense-of-apatheism-sort-of/.