Cancel

Unless you are of Jewish descent, your ancestors were pagan before they ever heard of Jesus Christ. Somewhere down your family tree, you might find Romans who worshiped Jupiter, Mercury, and Apollo; Celts who worshipped Toutatis, Esus, and Taranis (practicing human sacrifice); Scandinavians who worshipped Odin and Thor; or Africans who worshipped Doondari and Shida Matunda. And those are just a few of the countless gods of the gentiles. Our pagan ancestors, whom Paul calls “Gentiles in the flesh,” were “without God in the world” and “far off” from the Father (Eph. 2:11, 12, 17).

When the message of the gospel from the Scriptures first fell upon the ears of our pagan ancestors, they heard a different—indeed, the only true—story of redemption. But they were also introduced to an altogether new story of creation. The Scripture’s emphasis on creation ex nihilo as the work of one God (not many gods) sets the first two chapters of Genesis fundamentally apart from pagan myths. But there is another significant, and less recognized, aspect in which the scriptural account of creation stands remarkably juxtaposed to the myths of our ancestors. Whereas the pagan creation myths feature conflict as a driving force in the process of creation, the Scriptures, in extraordinary contrast, do not. Consider a few examples.

According to the Babylonian creation narrative (Enuma Elish), Apsu, the fresh water, and Tiamat, the saltwater sea, came together when there was not yet land or heavens, but only water. From their convergence were begotten a family of gods who, in simplest terms, struggled to get along. The time comes when one of their descendants, Marduk, squares off against Tiamat—when Marduk let his arrow fly, “it cut Tiamat in half.” In his victory, Marduk “raised one half of her on high. He made it the heavens. The other half of dead Tiamat he made the Earth.”1 Marduk then goes on to make the days of the year and the order of the planets, and for the purpose of freeing the gods from their labor, he makes man to serve the gods. Conflict and struggle give rise to the world as we know it.

According to Norse mythology, three half-gods, half-giant brothers (Odin, Vili, and Ve) slay a hermaphrodite god born of the chance meeting of ice and fire (Imir). They then “carried the dead Imir to the middle of Yawning Gap. They made the world from his body. The earth was shaped from his flesh. Mountains were formed from his bones. . . . The three brothers lifted the skull of Imir and made the dome of the sky.”2 In this creation myth, our world is born from death.

In Greek mythology, we learn that “in the beginning there was only Chaos.” Then the creation account—almost like a play—begins with various gods and goddesses being birthed into the scene. Out of their love and hate, jealousy and rage, conflict and deceit, the world as we know it came to be. The conflict of life that we experience here below thus mirrors the instability and infighting of the gods above.

Several pagan creation myths culminate in uncertainty and suspense. For instance, the creation myth of the Minyong people in northeastern India (a non-Hindu people) presents a world with earth and sky, and with men and animals dwelling in between. But fear takes hold of the men and animals when earth (Sedi) and sky (Melo) decide to marry. The prospect of earth and sky coming together provokes the men and animals to convene “to consider how they could save themselves from being crushed between them.”3 Likewise, the Cherokee, the largest tribe in the southeastern United States, viewed the earth as “a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock.” However, this arrangement is fraught with tension, for “when the world grows old and worn out, the people will die and the cords will break and let the earth sink down into the ocean, and all will be water again. The Indians are afraid of this.”4 There is no culminating Sabbath in these accounts, but rather anxious suspense.

Why does conflict play so prominent a role in pagan creation myths across time and space? We need only remember how conflict plays such a prominent role in our lives. A reasonable person must explain why life as we know it brims with discord, why history seems to advance only through the clashing of swords, and why deep within we feel tossed and blown by countering winds. In a world so saturated with conflict, it would make sense to suppose that conflict was the instrument through which the world came to be. One cannot help but wonder whether this explains in part the allure of Darwinian evolution, which shares this basic feature with pagan mythology. In explaining the origin of all life forms by the mechanism of natural selection—“red in tooth and claw”5—evolution enthrones conflict as the most defining force in life, operative in the very origins of life itself. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and the postmodern philosophers extend this regard for conflict into the economic, psychological, and socio-intellectual spheres of life, where force must be answered by force.

How strange, then, does the creation story in the Scriptures strike human ears since the fall. When the gospel first came to our pagan ancestors, they were introduced to an account of heaven and earth created without a hint of struggle, violence, and death. A sovereign, unrivaled God spoke the creation into existence and basic form according to His beautiful (even poetic), sequential, and unhindered plan. Instead of culminating in tension, the biblical account of God’s creation culminates in the satisfying stability of Sabbath rest (Gen. 2:1–3).

The Bible’s conflict-free story of creation stands worlds apart from the conflict-saturated myths of our pagan ancestors.

It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once offered as a proof for the Trinity—that it’s “something we could never have guessed.”6 I would suggest the same is true for the creation account we find in the first two chapters of Genesis. The idea that this world of ours was created in whole—from the land and seas to vegetation, astronomical bodies, sea creatures, reptiles, mammals, and human beings—without so much as a dash of conflict strikes me as something that the fallen, conflict-saturated mind would never have guessed in ages past or hypothesized in present times. We’d only know it if God had told us, if the Creator had given witness to the world before the fall.

What, then, of the conflict and struggle we experience in life and which demand explanation? According to the Scriptures, conflict and struggle find their foothold not in the work of creation itself, but in the distinct and subsequent event of the fall. The story of Cain and Abel reads like a page out of a pagan creation myth, but in the Scriptures it has nothing to do with creation and everything to do with the aftermath of Adam’s sin (which sets up the need for a second Adam, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made, through whose obedience will come life and peace). What the Scriptures present as distinct—creation and then fall—pagan mythologies across time and space regularly mingle.7

What does this matter in the end? Among the several things we could say, we conclude with how this shapes our daily outlook in this fallen world.

If life is shaped ultimately by conflict, then our survival and success depend on managing and strengthening ourselves for conflict. We fixate on threats, search relentlessly for advantages, and ruminate on countless potential outcomes. This approach to life fosters a protective, pragmatic, and manipulating spirit in us that tacitly worships power. It’s how most of the world thinks, and it’s exhausting.

But if life is shaped ultimately not by conflict but rather by a transcendent Creator, then we have a singular driving concern: that we, through faith and repentance, act in harmony with God’s will. If He is against us, no refuge we make or plan we devise (monetary, military, political, relational) can protect us. But if He is with us, we can rest in the promise that no weapon formed against us will prosper (Isa. 54:17). When David prays, “May integrity and uprightness preserve me” (Ps. 25:21), he speaks as a man who knows that a righteous and transcendent God, not the ebb and flow of conflict, governs the affairs of men. Thus, he prays for the protection found in grace-given godliness instead of trusting his savvy, his shields, and his connections to do all the work of defending.

The Bible’s conflict-free story of creation stands worlds apart from the conflict-saturated myths of our pagan ancestors. It also nourishes our confidence to hold fast to God’s Word no matter the odds, leaving the consequences to Him. In the end, as at the very beginning, it is not chaos and conflict that shape the ultimate outcome of our lives, but the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who made heaven and earth.

 

  1. “Marduk, God of Gods: Apsu and Tiamat the Creators,” in Virginia Hamilton, In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (San Diego: Harcourt, 1988), 84. ↩︎
  2. “The Frost Giant: Imir the Creator,” in Hamilton, In the Beginning, 70. ↩︎
  3. “Minyong: The Separation of Earth and Sky,” in Barbara C. Sproul, Primal Myths: Creation Myths around the World (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 197. ↩︎
  4. “Cherokee: How the World Was Made,” in Sproul, Primal Myths, 254. ↩︎
  5. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam, A.H.H.” ↩︎
  6. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 4.2. Earlier in Mere Christianity, Lewis makes this same appeal for the truth of Christianity as a whole: “Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion that you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 2.2). ↩︎
  7. One might suppose that this universal tendency to confuse, rather than maintain as distinct, creation and fall, in the doctrine of creation parallels the universal tendency to confuse, rather than maintain as a distinct, justification and sanctification in the doctrine of salvation. ↩︎

Life Is Beautiful

The Shepherd Feeds His 5,000 Sheep