O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
The earth is full of your creatures.
— Psalm 104:24
The psalmist was amazed at the variety of God’s creative works. The earth is full of God’s creatures, all of them made “in wisdom.” The psalmist would be even more amazed at recent discoveries concerning the universe. The earth and its present creatures are only a tiny part of God’s creative work.
Scientific evidence indicates that our universe has been developing since an initial event some 14 billion years ago. Our sun and its planets are part of a huge galaxy of stars, and there are a huge number of galaxies at immense distances from us. “O Lord, how manifold are your works!”
Our earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Scientific evidence (fossils in ancient rocks) indicates that life forms have been developing since at least 3.5 billion years ago, starting with very simple forms. These simple forms developed into many complex forms suited to diverse environments. Over billions of years, an immense variety of creatures have lived and passed away. The creatures living today are a small sample. It seems that wherever there is an environmental niche that could support life, some fitting creature will appear.
I am suggesting that we should join the psalmist in celebrating this evolving universe as God’s creative work. Modern science has given us a view of God’s creative work that far exceeds any possible human conception before recent times.
The revelations of modern science suggest how God creates — bit by bit, over billions of years, so that each type of creature has its time before it is replaced. We must say, I think, that God loves diversity (“How manifold are your works!”), and that God is not yet finished creating.
We humans appear very late in the story of the universe. The creator is evidently interested not only in us but in the whole long parade of creation through vast time and space.
We can appreciate the beauty of some of God’s creatures, but some seem odd, ugly, or threatening to humans. Many of these creatures may have a benefit to other life that we do not appreciate, but they are not necessarily beneficial to humans. Yet they are given their time and place. The psalmist says, “In wisdom you have made them all.”
Evolutionary change takes place through “the survival of the fittest” in competition with other life forms, scientists tell us. Random changes take place in life forms, some of which give an advantage to a particular genetic line. The disadvantaged line dies out. This seems a brutal process, a process that fits badly with the statement that God is a God of love.
However, if we think broadly about evolution, there are insights that ease the problem. First, competition is not the whole story. The ability to cooperate with other creatures can also be an evolutionary advantage (in a process called symbiosis).
Second, the competitive advantage is often marginal, and the disadvantaged line is only gradually replaced. It has its time. Furthermore, the result is good in the sense that the advantaged line is more fully able to use the available resources in a particular environment.
One other insight: If we accept this view of God’s creative work, then we should also recognize the usefulness of death. Unless old individuals die, there would eventually be no room for new individuals. Unless there is a constant stream of new individuals with new genetic traits, evolution would stop. Conditions on earth would continue to change, and remaining life forms would not fit.
Through modern science we are beginning to understand the vastness of God’s creative work and the amazing variety of life forms through the ages. This bigger vision should lead us to praise God for this truly awesome universe.
Rev. Robert C. Tannehill, Ph.D., is an ordained minister and a retired professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.