Does the universe exist for a purpose?

The human quest to understand the universe we inhabit begins with the question – does it exist for a purpose?   What force brought the universe into being?  And why?  Many belief systems have attributed purpose to a creator spirit, a God or gods.  For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the creation account in the book of Genesis is a major source of information concerning origins.  But how is it to be interpreted? Theologians, priests, ministers and pastors from six major Christian denominations provided the following answers.

 

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Paul Allen - Catholic

There is a lot of truth and a very good poem in the Genesis creation story. But a poem, by its very nature, is not giving a historical or literal account.  Yet it can be ‘true’.  For example, Augustine is willing to concede that the seven days of creation are not seven literal 24-hour days.

 

John Simons - Anglican

I would agree with Thomas Aquinas that God created the universe so that it can participate in God’s goodness and enjoy existence. Genesis is not a scientific text book. Once you accept that the Bible does not report the creation of the world in six literal 24-hour days, it is an open question how much time was involved. 

 

Dale Woods – Presbyterian

 I think that at the heart of creation is relationship.  We know about a relationship with God and with one another, but there is also a relationship with Creation. That is where the aboriginal peoples got it right. This is a new idea in Christian thought but not among the First Nations.  The relationship to the natural world is deeply woven into their theology.  If we understood the reality of that relationship better we probably wouldn’t be facing an environmental crisis.  

 

Brian Talbot - Baptist

The universe was created by God for his glory.  The first chapters of Genesis tell us that all of creation was perfectly good. Prior to the Fall, all of creation was in its pristine state of divinely intended goodness.   Earthquakes and tsunamis come to our attention because of the destruction they cause. Basically all we can say is that there would have been no suffering or death in the world prior to the Fall.

 

Jordan Wood - Pentecostal

Colossians 1:16 says, ‘For by him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created through him and for him.’   Genesis records that God created after a kind, or pattern. I believe that microevolution, meaning evolution within a given species is observable scientifically, in that you can take two dogs and breed a new blend of dog. I don’t believe, however, that there is any observable account of macroevolution, where one species evolves altogether into another, such as a dog becoming a bird. The fossil record doesn’t support such leaps.

 

Wendy MacLean – United Church of Canada

What do we mean by purpose?  Does that mean there’s a goal?  The universe is part of a vast evolutionary process. It was not until after the first stars died and exploded that carbon was released. Stardust is the source of everything we see.  I believe that God is using these processes to create the universe. It is difficult to conceive of so much beauty and complexity without a guiding intelligence behind it.  It’s all part of the holy mystery. When we put ourselves at the centre we feel we can describe a purpose and a direction. If we take ourselves out of the centre, then we are just part of something vaster.   

 

These six answers interpret the Genesis story in different ways.  For Paul Allen (Catholic), Genesis provides poetic insights but is not to be understood literally.  John Simons (Anglican) agrees that Genesis is not a scientific text book and is not to be interpreted literally.

 

For Brian Talbot (Baptist), Genesis provides a literal description of a universe that was initially perfectly good and was subsequently totally corrupted by ‘the Fall’ which was the origin of sin, suffering and death. Jordan Wood (Pentecostal) interprets the creation of each specifies as a direct, literal divine intervention as opposed to an independent process of evolution.

 

For Wendy MacLean (United Church), creation is an on-going evolutionary purpose which is a holy mystery.  Dale Wood (Presbyterian) emphasizes our relationship with Creation and the natural environment.

 

The non-literal readings of Paul Allen (Catholic) and John Simons (Anglican) contrast sharply with the literal interpretations of Brian Talbot (Baptist) and Jordan Wood (Pentecostal).  As we move through the 15 questions the source of this contrast will become clear.

Genesis describes creation as being ‘good’.  The first chapter of Genesis repeatedly states that ‘God saw that it was good’.  It is only in the second and third chapters of Genesis that things begin to go ‘bad’ for reasons explored in questions 2 (Why is the natural world plagued with catastrophic events?), 3 (Do human beings exist for a purpose?) and 4 (Why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?).    

 

In the era of Augustine, Christian theology began to attribute all sin, suffering, evil and death to a literal, historical ‘Fall’.  The corruption and depravity were transmitted to their offspring. The doctrine of Original Sin is so deeply engrained in Christian theology that all six interviewees defended it as a cornerstone of Christian theology.  Yes, all six define original sin in different ways.  Before proceeding with this investigation, it is essential to be clear about the language we are using and what it means.

 

For Augustine, Eden was both literal and historical. The Fall was the pivotal event which corrupted the perfection of creation and was the direct cause of all sin, suffering, evil and death.  God was not responsible for any of these things. Adam and Eve (with prompting from the serpent) destroyed the perfection of creation. For this first and greatest of all crimes they were justly condemned. The Fall fundamentally changed Adam and Eve. For Augustine, Original Sin was transmitted via concupiscence to the entire depraved human race and so every human being was born condemned.

 

None of the people interviewed agreed with Augustine that the inherited sin of Adam and Eve is the source of condemnation for every baby, yet they all defended the ‘historical’ doctrine of original sin while altering its definition.

 

The Bible speaks of sin and describes it as universal. Sin is a problem that affects the entire human race and is the principle cause of suffering.  Jesus offered salvation from sin, which meant deliverance from evil and provided for the transformation of the human nature. These ideas will be examined in questions concerning sanctification, life after death and the eternal state.  Let us be clear that ‘universal sin’ is not synonynmous with ‘original sin’.

 

Augustine was adamant that even new-born babies were condemned until salvation was secured by baptism. This provided a powerful incentive for parents to have their infants baptised within days of birth. Original Sin made Christianity a source of condemnation for all non-Christians, including unbaptized infants of Christian parents. Subsequent generations of theologians transferred babies from Hell to Limbo, which provided partial relief.  

 

Luther and Calvin revived Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin in the 16th century. The universality of sin made the universality of condemnation a demonstration of God’s perfect justice.  Protestant Reformers took the power of salvation out of the hands of priests and away from the sacrament of baptism.  God alone, by grace alone, would choose the elect. This unmerited gift of grace for undeserving sinners demonstrated God’s immeasurable love.  The Reformed Protestant Christianity of Luther and Calvin was based on divine election, which could best be explained via predestination.

 

Not one of the people interviewers shared the ’traditional’ interpretation of Original Sin as defined by Augustine or Luther and Calvin.  Two of them - Brian Talbot (Baptist) and Jordan Wood (Pentecostal) – believe that sin (along with suffering, evil and death) originates in literal, historical event in Eden, which was situated at about 4,000 BC.  The principle change in the contemporary understanding of original sin is that salvation is a free choice.   It is not predestined for the elect and cannot be passively secured via infant baptism. This creates enormous theological problems regarding the condemnation of non-Christians, which will be examined in considerable detail in subsequent questions.

 

Paul Allen (Catholic), John Simons (Anglican), Dale Wood (Presbyterian), and Wendy MacLean (United Church) all rejected the traditional Augustinian/Calvinist definition of inherited original sin.  They all agreed that Genesis was not to be interpreted a literal, historical event. They all agreed that it is inconceivable that multitudes of nations could have been condemned to eternal torment simply because they never knew Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour.  However – and this is most important – the systematic theology that has been inherited from Augustine, Luther and Calvin makes no provision for the salvation of non-Christians who do not have Jesus Christ as personal Saviour. How is salvation possible without Jesus? This is the question that defines modern Christian theology.

 

Evangelical Christian denominations such as Baptists and Pentecostals build their theology on two cornerstones. The first is that everyone is a sinner who must be saved to escape eternal hell. The second is that the only possible hope for salvation resides in Jesus Christ.  No salvation is possible without Jesus and therefore no non-Christians can be saved.  

 

Non-Evangelical Christians reject the universality of condemnation (while acknowledging the universality of sin) and reject the exclusivity of Jesus as Saviour. It is a short step from rejecting the exclusivity of Jesus as Saviour to questioning his divinity, resurrection and his necessity as Saviour. From there it is a short step to questioning the meaning of sin, salvation, heaven, hell and life after death.  Some people within the Anglican Church and United Church of Canada consider themselves post-Christian. Their God is mystical, nebulous and perhaps fictional.  Life after death is at best a possibility and so the principle object of faith becomes a social gospel of good works which could be practiced with equal fervour by agnostics and atheists.

 

All of the contemporary forms of Christianity are responses to the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin.  This will become increasingly clear as we move through the 15 questions.

 

Question two examines the cause of natural evil. 

 

 

 

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