Arguments have raged for generations about how to reconcile the first chapters of the biblical book of Genesis with current scientific thinking regarding evolution, the age of the Earth, and human origins. I’m as interested in these debates as anybody. Maybe more so, since I’ve read a number of books on the subject.
Likewise, readers of the Bible have clashed for many centuries about how best to understand the book of Revelation — the Apocalypse of John — with its difficult prophecies about the end times and the winding up of Earth’s history. I’m interested in such matters, too. The future fascinates me, because I expect to spend the rest of my life in it.
But I’m also firmly convinced that the specific details of Genesis and Revelation are of only secondary importance and that they can distract us from the books’ primary intent.
In its essence, the principal message of the book of Revelation is that, no matter how bad or how challenging things may become, God is in charge. He will triumph in the end, and those who trust him will be vindicated.
Analogously, the principal message of the book of Genesis is that, whatever the relevant scientific details, the placement of life on Earth was a deliberate and purposive act, not a matter of random, pointless chance. This message is so enormously important, in fact, that it has been reinforced for Latter-day Saints by the revelation of two parallel creation narratives (Moses 2-3 and Abraham 4-5) in addition to that given in Genesis, to say nothing of the creation story’s central importance in modern LDS temple worship.
An important component of that message of Genesis is its explanation of why the universe is a “cosmos” rather than a “chaos.”
We use the word “cosmos” very commonly today, and we call the study of the origin of the universe “cosmology.” But we should not overlook the implications of that word, because they’re not only fundamentally important but deeply mysterious.
The Greek word “kosmos” originally meant “order” or even “good order,” and then, eventually, “adornment,” “ornament,” “glory” and “honor.” (The modern English word “cosmetic” still reflects its ancient etymology rather well.) The derivative verb “kosmeo” always retained the primary meaning of “putting something in order.” It could be used, accordingly, to describe the setting of a table, the preparation of a meal, or the organization or finishing of a work. When the virgins “trim” their lamps at Matthew 25:7, it’s the verb that’s used. When 2 Chronicles 3:6, speaking of Jerusalem’s temple, says that King Solomon “garnished the house with precious stones for beauty,” the ancient Septuagint Greek translation uses the verb “kosmeo.” When the “unclean spirit” of Jesus’ parable returns to its previous dwelling place and “findeth it swept and garnished,” both Matthew 12:44 and Luke 11:25 use the same verb.
Why is this significant? The scriptural creation stories repeatedly represent the Lord as declaring his creation “good,” and even “very good.” It is glorious and beautiful, yet there is no obvious reason why it should be so. Moreover, there seems no obvious reason why the universe should be a system — a cosmos, rather than a chaos — why it should be law-like, why it is rational, why orderly physical laws were in place within a tiny fraction of a second of the Big Bang from which it emerged. And yet it is so.
“It remains a deep puzzle,” writes the eminent British mathematician and mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose in his 2004 book “The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe,” “why mathematical laws should apply to the world with such phenomenal precision. Moreover, it is not just the precision but also the subtle sophistication and mathematical beauty of these successful theories that is profoundly mysterious.”
“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible,” Albert Einstein famously remarked. "The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle."
In a similar vein, the mathematician, physicist and 1963 Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner, in a famous essay titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” declared the mathematical rationality of our cosmos “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”
Genesis offers an explanation for that mysterious gift. And, with John’s Revelation, it points to God: “I am Alpha and Omega,” says the Lord at Revelation 22:13, “the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”