Our purpose in what follows is to help answer the following question: what do Christians mean when they confess that creation is good? This question is both timely and difficult. Admittedly, creation’s goodness is not always self-evident to us. Evils in this world are often more apparent to us than its goodness, especially in times of war, famine, and plague, but also in more common experiences of pain, avarice, and isolation. These challenges offer boisterous counter-testimony to any confession of creation as a gratuitous gift.
Commonly, they lead many to despair of or deny creation’s goodness, turning instead to nihilistic philosophies that revel in purposelessness or pragmatism. Responses to these errors often enough run into opposite delusions, mistaking creation for God. Confession instructed by Holy Scripture, on the other hand, may speak plainly of the many problems besetting the world and its inhabitants while nevertheless affirming its basic goodness as God’s creation. Scripture thereby expands our imagination to see the world as Scripture depicts it: good, damaged, but under the promise of transformation. In this series, we survey some basics of this confession by looking at (i) the Goodness of the Creator; (ii) the goodness of created being; (iii) the relative goodness of materiality; and (iv) finally, the goodness of creation’s end.
The Goodness of Creation’s End
In our final post, we must now consider the goodness of creation’s end. That is, how does creation’s goodness inform its end and vice versa, in light of everything we’ve said thus far? Having surveyed the goodness that causes creation, that approves of its existence, and that characterizes our own material existence in the hierarchy of goods within the cosmos, we ask: will it all end good? Here we speak about realities beyond our view—“beyond all images, surpassing vision and hearing and understanding.”Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 7.11, from On the Difficulties of the Church Fathers, vol. 1, trans. Nicholas Constas. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 28 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Eschatology reminds us of the real limits of our imagination and the constraints within which we tend to understand God’s promises in lackluster ways. To hear that creation’s end is good is thus to be awakened to hope by God’s promise. “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,” writes Solomon (Eccl 7:8); and if this is true, then here we have to see how a good creation awaits a still greater goodness to come.
The End in Light of God’s Love
As with creation’s beginning, we learn about its end by learning again about God’s goodness and love. Augustine never tires of reminding us that our created goodness longs for the depths from which it came, such that nothing short of God’s own goodness ever satisfies us: “among the things that God has made, the rational nature is soThe goodness of our existence is ordered towards its fulfilment, and this fulfilment is always lacking something short of transformation in the fellow possession and enjoyment of the Trinity’s infinitely good life. great a good that there is no good but God by which it may be happy” (Augustine, De natura boni 7). More memorably: “you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you” (Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1). The goodness of our existence is ordered towards its fulfilment, and this fulfilment is always lacking something short of transformation in the fellow possession and enjoyment of the Trinity’s infinitely good life.
The reason for this has to do not simply with the transience and instability of all finite goods, but chiefly with the goodness, gratuity, and impassibility of God’s love. God so loves the world as to order it to himself as the summum bonum. As Aquinas explains, God “acts because of his goodness not as though he desires something he does not have, but because he desires to communicate what he does have: for he acts not from desire, but from love of the end.”Aquinas, De potentia 3.15.ad 14, from St. Thomas Aquinas: On Creation [Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei, Q. 3], trans. S.C. Selner-Wright (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011). God’s blessedness is here again instructive. Possessing and enjoying his own goodness, God creates from the fullness and fecundity of his own life in order to catch others up into it and so radiantly unite creatures to himself. Only an impassible love could draw all passible creatures further up and further into itself, ultimately granting them a share in its own eternal repose (Maximus, Ambiguum 7.7).
Since God’s love is of his own infinite goodness, then God’s love turned outward for creatures necessarily orders them to himself. This news is not always welcome. Misunderstandings of God often confuse this for some kind of self-aggrandizement, just as faulty conceptions of creatures could mistake God’s ordering of created goodness to himself as some violation of our self-determination. Such pathologies are corrected by Christ’s cross. There we find God’s love rescuing the creature through a transformative love that sets us free with both affirmation and obligation. According to Matthias Joseph Scheeben, God “is infinitely removed from the blind and feeble tenderness (Zärtlichkeit), which could sacrifice to the creature’s capricious desires its own salvation and God’s glory. Whoever describes God as ‘pure love’ in the sense of such an unworthy tenderness blasphemes God.”M. J. Scheeben, Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik, vol. 1 (Herder, 1873), II §98, n. 577. Scheeben means not to deny that God is pure love, but to deny sentimentalized or intuitive misunderstandings of this truth. The purity of God’s love is its holiness, which sacrifices neither God’s glory nor the creature’s salvation and glorification in Christ. The strength of God’s love is its impassibility, which frees even the dead unto life (Song 8:6).
Indeed, in its holiness, God’s love devotes other things to himself in fulfilment of his command and promise: “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Any love that merely accepted and affirmed us as we are could not convert us to even greater good. It’s not simply a weak love that never perceives extraordinary possibilities in the beloved and challenges them to attain them, but something else entirely, something bordering on disdain or indifference. God’s love creates our goodness and orders it beyond all mundane goods so that we discover our highest dignity in loving God and loving other things in God. Thus, God is “not only the object of full, unclouded, and unwavering joy, but also of an essentially noble and ennobling love” (Scheeben, Handbuch der katholischen Dogmatik II §84, n. 327).
The End in Light of God’s Goodness
That last thought is worth pausing over. How is it that God’s goodness ennobles us when we draw near to it and possess it? How does it give us abiding joy? If it’s difficult to feel the force of these statements, it’s partly because we’re so easily mired in the distractions of present and available goods, partly again because these distractions inevitably disappoint us. We lack imagination for “full, unclouded, and unwavering joy.” Like the reality it points to, the thought is too much for us to bear. Faith working through love names these distractions and pushes past them ascetically:God’s goodness must be perceived and loved to bring us beatific enjoyment. What might we say about such perception? “if then you can put them aside and perceive good itself, you will perceive God. And if you cling to him in love, you will straightaway enter into bliss” (Augustine, De trinitate 8.5). God’s goodness must be perceived and loved to bring us beatific enjoyment. What might we say about such perception?
Capturing the full truth of this is important for a coherent doctrine of creation and its transformation. One of the chief difficulties facing Christian theology throughout the centuries has been the error that in some sense creation coincides with the fall into sin. According to one persistent version of this error, souls pre-existed their embodiment and fell after God’s goodness left them in a state of overindulgence or “satiety.” The torpor that seized these souls precipitated their downward journey into the flesh. At the heart of the many difficulties with this view is an inadequate theology of God’s goodness. Maximus the Confessor suggests the experience of such listlessness is only possible after desiring and pursuing trivial goods, or things that were “base and repugnant.” However, “neither of these can apply to God, who by nature is infinite and infinitely attractive, and who rather increases the appetites of those who enjoy him owing to their participation in that which has no limit” (Maximus, Ambiguum 7.28). In short, God’s goodness isn’t something “so narrowly circumscribed and ignoble, as if it could induce a kind of satiety and provoke a rebellion among those whose desire it could not satisfy” (Maximus, Ambiguum 7.29).
Maximus thus goes on to describe the end of God’s rational creatures: “God in His fullness entirely permeates them, as a soul permeates the body…filling them with His own glory and blessedness, graciously giving them eternal, inexpressible life, completely free from the constituent properties of this present life, which is marred by corruption” (Maximus, Ambiguum 7.26). This state will be marked by pleasure, but above all by joy, for “joy neither remembers former sorrows, nor fears the possibility of any future satiety” (Maximus, Ambiguum 7.27). When God’s goodness is thus perceived, it begets love, which in turn begets ecstasy, the great intensification of our desire that doesn’t rest until it embraces its beloved (Maximus, Ambiguum 7.10).
Creation’s end is therefore good because its end is God. He is the reason “you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isa 55:12). When all the good things around us lose their appeal and dry up, there is an inexhaustible Fountain of Goodness that “remains in itself” (Augustine, De trinitate 8.4). Turning to it, we find refreshment of the sort that quiets all desire, as Jesus promises: “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14a). But this is no ordinary quenching of thirst or desire. From the infinite depths of his goodness, the Spirit perpetually adapts our capacity and desire for greater depths: “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14b). In the end, the joy of the Lord will indeed be our strength for enjoying the Lord (cf. Neh 8:10). For now, we walk by and receive these promises in faith—faith in God who is good, that God has therefore created us good, and that our end will be better than our beginning.
Symeon the New Theologian concludes us:
For the end will be eternal progress,
the condition of additional, endless fulfillment,
and shall make an attainment of the Unattainable, and God
of Whom there is no surfeit, shall become satiating to all.Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns on Divine Eros 1, lines 180-183, in Divine Eros: Hymns of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, trans. Daniel K. Griggs (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), translation slightly altered.