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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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”—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).