The earth was a chaotic void,
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while the Spirit of God hovered over the face the waters.
Then God saw everything made, and, Wow!, it was really good.
Genesis 1:2, 31a (my translation)
The title is a rather controversial one in the history of Christian theology. Many suggest the original creation was something akin to Platonic perfection, which resists any change because if one changes what is perfect, then it is no longer perfect. This kind of perfection has no room for change or development except devolution. One cannot improve on perfection.
However, this view actually undermines important features of creation within the biblical narrative. It fails to recognize the presence of chaos within the creation, the dynamic reality of creation, and the goal (telos) of creation.
From Chaotic Void to Really Good
When God finished creating, the creation was deeded “really good” (Genesis 1:31). However, the question to ask is, “Good compared to what?” What is the meaning of the word “good”? This can have moral, aesthetic, and functional connotations. Perhaps it means all three. God created good—not evil, God delights in the beauty of the creation, and God created the cosmos with a patterned regularity that works. Nothing in that language intimates perfection but only the fulfillment of God’s intent in creating.
Genesis 1:2 offers a clue to the meaning of the term. Taking Genesis 1:1 as a kind of section heading, Genesis 1:2 describes the earth before God begins to “make” the world as God intended. At that point, the earth is “without form and void” (tohu wabohu). Whatever the origin of this state, it is chaotic.
These words are only used together in the Hebrew Scriptures here, Isaiah 34:11 and Jeremiah 4:23. Isaiah records a divine threat to devastate Edom (“a haunt of jackals and an abode for ostriches” in 34:13) and Jeremiah prophesies the desolation of Judah. In both cases the land is rendered inhospitable to life, an uninhabitable wasteland. These are “uncreation” texts where Yahweh threatens to undo creation and render a good land uninhabitable, that is, to return the land to a chaotic void
Genesis 1, then, describes the process by which God turned earth’s chaotic waters into good, habitable space suitable for life. God orders the chaos in such a way that life is potentially fruitful and creation may blossom into its full potential. Creation is “good” because it is suitable for life with all its diversity, regularity, and habitable space.
Creation is Good, Not Perfect
Tohu wabohu characterizes the disordered state of the cosmos before God begins the creative work of building and filling, which is one way to describe how God made the world. This is the pattern of Genesis 1:1-31.
Days Built Habitable Space Days Filled Space for Life
1 Light 4 Sun, Moon, Stars
2 Sky 5 Birds, Fish
3 Land and Sea 6 Land Animals
God creates space and then fills it, which is the essence of wisdom in creation theology (compare Proverbs 3:19-20 with Proverbs 24:3-4). In this way, God ordered the chaos by making habitable space and then filling it with light and life. This is what God describes as “good.”
Though the creation is good, it is not perfect. Chaos still exists within the creation. God did not eliminate the chaos but rather limited it. For example, in Genesis 1:4 God calls the light “good,” but not the darkness. It is a different formula than what appears in Genesis 1:10b, 12b, 18b, 21b, and 25b. Light is contrasted with darkness. Darkness is already present in Genesis 1:2, and it is part of the chaotic void. When God creates the light, God calls the light “good,” but the darkness is not called good. The light does not eliminate the darkness but puts a boundary on it. But in the new heavens and new earth, as pictured in the Apocalypse (22:5), darkness will no longer exist because God and the Lamb are the light of the new world: “night will be no more.”
Another example is how God bounds the waters rather than eliminating them (cf. Job 38:8-11). Just as God separated light from darkness, so God separates the waters from the dry land (Genesis 1:9). The watery “deep” in Genesis 1:2 (tehom) is part of the chaotic reality. The presence of the “deep” is a threat to the functionality of creation, and its destructive capacity is present in the Flood narrative where the “deep” is the source of the flood waters (Genesis 7:11). It is an act of “uncreation” and reverses the creative work accomplished in Genesis 1. But the new heavens and new earth envision a home where there is no more sea (Revelation 21:1).
At the end of the sixth day, chaos is still present within the creation. The world is not idealistic or perfect. Chaotic forces are present. They are not evil; nor are they necessarily hostile. Rather, they are the “stuff” out of which creation emerges, develops, and is dynamically ordered.
Chaos still exists within God’s good creation, and part of the dynamic process of God’s continuing work in the world is bounding, ordering, and ultimately eliminating that chaos.
Creation is Dynamic, Not Static.
God intended creation to grow, mature, adapt, and change. Creation was intended to develop into a future fullness—to become all it could be or to reach its potential. Genesis 1 is only the starting point; it was not the goal. Consequently, creation is always in process. Under God’s sovereign care and in partnership with humanity, the creation would emerge, grow, and develop till the divine telos was reached.
One indication of this divine intent is that humanity, like other creatures (Genesis 1:22), is blessed to “be fruitful and multiply and fill.” Humanity, like other creatures, is to populate the earth and the whole earth, as Isaiah confessed, God “formed to be inhabited” (Isaiah 45:18). As every parent knows, having children changes things. Indeed, everything changes. Filling the earth is a process replete with change, development, and the scattering of human beings (and other creatures) across the planet—in much the same way Yahweh scattered humanity at Babel, scattered Israel through exile, and scattered the church through persecution.
Another indication of this divine intent is how creation participates in its own development. God created “light” by commanding it into existence, “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3). In contrast, God invited animal life to participate in their multiplication—not only in the command to “multiply” but also in addressing how the waters and the land “bring forth” living creatures (Genesis 1:20, 24). Unlike “let there be light,” which is an imperative command, let them “bring forth” is a jussive, which signals a participatory process.
These indicators, among others, suggest creation is a dynamic process rather than a static perfection, and creation participates and contributes to its own development. God and creation cooperate in the development of creation’s potential.
There is a Goal, a Telos
Creation’s dynamic character assumes God has a goal for the creation. God created with a purpose, and, therefore, creation has a telos. God, in partnership with humanity and in cooperation with creation, sovereignly and actively pursues that goal.
This pursuit is the outworking of God’s mission. Broadly, the missio Dei (mission of God) is to draw humanity into the circle of the Triune fellowship, unfold the full potential of the creation, and fully enjoy what has been created. Ultimately, creation’s goal is to become the home of the Triune God, in which God dwells and which God fills with divine glory.
God delights in, rejoices over, and communes with the creation, both humanity and everything else. The divine mission is to fill everything—the heavens and the earth—and everyone with glory so that God might rest in the creation where God will delight in the creation and the creation will delight in God.