Where Did This World Come From and What is Happening Here?

Where Did This World Come From and What is Happening Here?

This world of ours is obviously a strange mix of good and evil. There is astonishing and inspiring balance, harmony, vision, and beauty on display alongside devastating and utterly irrational suffering, loss, blindness, and incompletion. So much is left unseen and unfinished in every moment, and yet every moment also carries a depth of significance that suggests an eternity lurking within each passing instant of time. What is happening in our world, and where does it come from? This topic of cosmic origins is one that I’ve written about a half-dozen times in the past decade or so, and I’ll most likely keep trying to write about it over and over until I die.

Amidst my reading,1 I find it helpful to return again and again to the most basic concepts that I can express. In a nutshell, all of empirical history (our entire cosmic history as we are experiencing it now) is a realm of collective repentance so that we might start to learn thanksgiving and creative participation in divine life. We are born into a world where we only slowly learn to realize both the astounding gifts that we have received as well as the terrible wounds that we have inherited. Most would agree that these great treasures and heartbreaking disorders are both shared across people and times and that they are beyond any one of us personally. We are bound together in a life that demands patience, endurance, careful attention, and ongoing repentance for ourselves and for our shared situations. This is more than a personal repentance, but is one that we each must take up independently for the shared brokenness that, with some modest observation, we will find ourselves to have been born into. Despite the centrality of prayerful repentance as the purpose of our cosmos, this is not simply a life of collective contemplation but also of fragmented discoveries, endless creative labors, and a wondrously overwhelming (although disjointed) cascade of shared joys, laughter, awe, and even peace.

One of the fundamental questions that I like to ask of a thinker as I read their works is if they consider empirical history to be rational or irrational. C. S. Lewis famously insisted that fallen history defies any rational grand narrative, and this was a point on which his friend Owen Barfield differed with him (see Barfield’s essay “C. S. Lewis and Historicism” published in the book Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis as well as the essay by Lewis that Barfield is criticizing). Of course, even Christian thinkers who speak of fallen history as irrational will point out that there is a divine rationality upon which (or within which) our fallen history is somehow grounded. One of my favorite living authors, David Bentley Hart, often points out that history as we know it is fallen and irrational so that we can only see the Kingdom of God by means of prayerful contemplation and that, even so, “for now we see through a glass, darkly” as Hart likes to cite often from Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (or as Hart himself translates it: “for as yet we see by way of a mirror, in an enigma”).

So to return to my nutshell: our entire cosmic history is a realm of collective repentance. We are within a contingent world of creatures who depend upon each other for our self realization and who have collectively chosen to become ourselves via a pathway of resistance and of attempts at false sub-creative efforts. Therefore, God has allowed us to come to be within a world characterized by bodily death and dissolution, where our fleshly death puts continual limitations on our evil during our shared process of becoming ourselves. This entire picture is especially complicated and messy due to our human function as the priestly methorios (hub, hinge, or point of contact) that binds all of creation together as the image of God (see The Doors of the Sea page 63 for one place where Hart talks about this as a key idea in Maximus the Confessor). Because humanity is connected together as one body (the body of Adam and of Christ) and because we are in this position as a link that holds all of creation together in its task of showing forth God’s image, all of creation suffers with us in our contingent and rebellious path of self-realization.

It is not that God cannot create a world without sin and fallenness. Some creatures among our angelic kin do become themselves without any period of resistance to their own eternal life as divine manifestations. However, God cannot create a world in which we do not have to take up our own calling for ourselves. As those becoming free rational spirits, we therefore have the initial option of resistance (although ours is only a finite resistance in the face of an infinitely good and patient offer). Once we talk of God’s patience, of course, we are speaking of the infinite and kenotic love of Father for the Spirit and the Son and for this love reciprocated, as all three are the ever fully-accomplished outpouring, manifestation, delight, and mutual exaltation of each other. Out of this timeless life of self-giving and all-powerful love, God is eternally the one who creates, and creation is the temporal and finite, yet forever new, manifestation of God’s infinite image. However, God’s creation contains no evil at all, so we are brought back to the question of our current world.

As I’ve already outlined above, evil is the result of our collective capacity to resist our own creation or—to perhaps express it more helpfully—our capacity to become something false and destructive of the synergistic work of God with us in creating (but only within a finite and contingent frame of time and space). So our world is one where the profound limitations of death and of fallen time are placed upon our becoming and our self-creative responsibilities so that we might learn and grow and discover the goodness of our capacities while foolishly building false and evil things amid the incomplete openings of potentiality within God’s perfect and entirely good creation.

While seeking to sketch this out, it is critical to hold onto the fact that we are in this together. We are each coming to be within fallen time, but all of us collectively are the reason that fallen time exists at all. Here we come up against one of the most incomprehensible aspects of this entire way of understanding our world. How can we all make some kind of a choice together before any single one of us has started to become ourselves? It is widespread among the church fathers to say that the first references to God creating Adam (most of the references in the first of the two creation stories) are references to God’s creation of the entire human race as one body. This same use of Adam shows up in the New Testament as well with the old Adam being put into direct parallel with the body of Christ which is also obviously a collective body made up of everyone within the Kingdom of God. This old Adam must be put to death so that we might be transfigured into who we are in Christ as his body, the church and the bride.

So we have this concept of a single body made up collectively of many individuals, and this collective Adam is the one that falls before any of us have personally come to be within temporal creation. Here, however, we’ll need to pick up the question of time and temporality before coming back to wrap this all up. To conceptualize this picture that I’m trying to paint requires some consideration of the nature of time. Most theologians agree that God relates to time from outside of it. Sergius Bulgakov writes:

The “creation of the world” should be understood, first of all, as a supra-eternal act of God’s self-determination, an act that belongs to God’s eternity. This creation is not subject to time (contrary to the de facto view of theology).2

Bulgakov argues for a classical understanding of God as the source of temporality and as possessing a life beyond any experience of time. Several philosophers use the term temporality to express the way in which creation exists with an openness to growth and positive change while reserving time to describe the particular or discrete experiences of temporality as one instance of life measured in relation to another. All creatures, says Bulgakov, live within a shared temporality that is experienced by different creatures as different kinds of time. He even describes a specifically fallen kind of time that is flattened and characterized by incompleteness and death. However, our current experience of fallen time exists only in a contingent dependency upon unfallen kinds of times. Bulgakov says that there are probably as many different kinds of time as there are types of angels. In this understanding of time, our current fallen experience of our cosmos is an intentionally limited, partial, and fleeting passage through a life that fully exists outside or alongside this life within another realm of time but to which we do not yet have full access. We are currently only skimming along the surface of our own potential existence as we collectively come to be within this fallen world.

Each event within time, as we currently know it, also exists within other forms of time that are in a perfect relationship with the temporality of God’s creation. In this life, we are only experiencing an incomplete part of each moment, but each moment is not lost to us and to the rest of creation simply when it moves into our fallen past. By learning to attend, repent, and give thanks in God’s presence during each present moment, we can recognize how each moment of fallen time is participating with the infinite life of God. Because fallen time is filled with gaps of incompleteness, we also often try to fill up these gaps with lies and with false incarnations of ourselves. We often mistake these lies and false incarnations by ourselves and others as reality. However, our learning to see clearly, our changes of heart, our increased openness to the love of God and others, and our deepening desires to make and to give and to create in response to love—all of these things allow us to see and to participate with as much as is possible of what is true and real.

In contemplation and prayer, current moments may even open up in some sense to other moments that to us are past but that are not actually over or finished from the perspective of more complete kinds of time and of creaturely temporality. Even in this current lifetime, we can begin to heal our incomplete and broken pasts: tearing down idols, rejecting lies, and recognizing the life and potential that we have enjoyed but largely missed. This is not at all to say that our suffering and abuse and the evils that we have perpetuated are not real. They are contingent but terrible realities that must be destroyed, burned away, and then replaced or transfigured entirely so that new and eternal life takes the place, ultimately, of what has been. This is all a task and a responsibility that we can only just start to learn in this lifetime. What comes after bodily death is very likely to be more labor and more healing and more pruning and purgation but with bodies and in realms of time that we are not currently capable of conceptualizing.

With this idea of a collapsed or flattened time, we are both currently inside of it and coming to be while also in participation with more complete kinds of time where moments and events remain in living and open relationships even when they are past to us in this world. With this understanding in view, we can return to the idea of our collective embodiment in Adam and Christ outside of the fall. Bulgakov, in keeping with several church fathers (as noted), describes the creation of Adam in the first chapter of Genesis as the creation of the entire human race in one body without our coming into being yet as individualized people. As one collective body, we chose a dead end path toward coming to be as each of our individual selves. In a moment outside of fallen time as we know it, in our first calling into being as humanity, we all blindly lurched away from the life on offer to us, and we were graciously given the realm of death toward which we had blindly lept. We chose death, and death was given to us as a place where we might begin the life that we had initially rejected and where we might encounter God himself as a man who we would kill. God’s incarnation as the intent of creation was not forestalled by our choice of death. Instead, God entered death and met us at the bottom of it, at the furthest reach of our flight from him.

It is not that we each existed before this contingent world as individual persons. We only existed collectively in a time more complete and alive than our own fallen time. However, within our fallen time, we are each coming to be as individuals and beginning our journeys through death and into communion with God in Christ. In this journey, we each depend upon each other so that this labor is both a personal labor and a shared one. On the other end of it, many false persons who we have tried to create will have been burned away in the unquenchable fire of God’s patient love, and we will have all finally become capable of creative and loving contributions to our shared world and life together so that all of unfallen time will be filled with only good and eternal things that we have fashioned together.

The more that I read and consider this topic of cosmic origins and the nature of our fallen world, the more clearly it lines up with the scriptures and with both the contemplative and the active life. At the same time, however, the more difficult it becomes to share my thoughts. For example, I recently created the Wikipedia article on the meta-historical (or atemporal) human fall. This turned out to be much more difficult than I anticipated because some extremely senior Wikipedia editors tried to have the article deleted (for various reasons that did not hold up such as “pseudo science” and “original research”). With several more solid sources and some help from a few other very senior Wikipedia editors, I was able to answer the critics and to preserve the article (with some improvements).

This essay has been my own poor attempt to synthesize and simplify the works of several others (principally Hart and Bulgakov as seen among others in the first endnote below). As one of the more lively examples, I recently tried to read The Theory of the Big Bang and the Faith of the Holy Fathers by Bishop Basil (Rodzianko) from 1996. The text of this book is available digitally in Russian but has never been translated into English, so I read it in three automated translations (Google, ChatGPT, and DeepL). This was a confusing and messy way to read, but it at least suggested that the book contains some wisdom that resonates with several other respected authors who could provide me with some points of comparison. Nonetheless, it is a way of understanding the world and God that is very difficult to relay within contemporary thought categories. Bishop Basil was born in Ukraine to a landed and well-connected family, but his family was forced to flee their homeland, and Basil spent most of his childhood in Serbia where he received a theology degree from the University of Belgrade. His career as a priest included imprisonment and an appeal by the Archbishop of Canterberry to free him. After this career and the death of his wife, Basil accepted an appointment to serve as a bishop in the new American Orthodox church. After over a decade as an American bishop and near the end of his life, Bishop Basil spent about six months studying at one of Russia’s most revered monasteries (the Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius) and delivered a series of lectures there that became his book The Theory of the Big Bang and the Faith of the Holy Fathers published 1996 in Russian. Only a brief portion of the introduction has been translated into English by Marilyn Swezey and posted to a website memorializing Bishop Basil. This book is dated with regard to science (as is always the case with science in a few decades), but the theology and modes of engagement are both bold and pastoral. Altogether, it is unlike anything else that I’ve found in English.

To give a sense of its punch, the first words of Bishop Basil’s book are: “This world in which we live was not created by God.” All three digital tools agree on this translation, but the brief portion of the book translated by Marilyn Swezey gives a different reading: “The world in which we now live is not the way it was when God created it in the beginning.” Swezey clearly took some of the theological shock out of the bishop’s opening statement.3 This is understandable. For a distinguished Orthodox Christian bishop to say that “this world in which we live was not created by God” gives the impression that he has departed from the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” Surely, only heretical gnostics would say that God did not create this world. However, as we have seen above, this fallen world is made up of both false incarnations and creations of God, and the visible earth that is created by God and that is ultimately united to heaven is what we must learn to see as all of the falsehood is overcome by repentance and prayerful service.

In closing, I want to point out that a very similar claim to the one in Bishop Basil’s book was made just over two decades later by Russian paleontologist Alexander Khramov in a 2017 article for the International Journal of Orthodox Theology. He argues that the Big Bang should not be interpreted as the “first creative act of God” but instead as the “first cognizable manifestation of the human fall.” Khramov cites Bishop Basil’s book among many others although he has noted in an interview that his own thinking comes primarily from the church fathers themselves and from some of Russia’s great religious philosophers. David Bentley Hart—a writer, philosopher, religious studies scholar, and New Testament translator with Yale University Press who is also an Orthodox Christian—noted in a 2022 email to me about this article by Khramov, that Khramov is “on the right path.” With a PhD and an impressive CV as a paleontologist, Khramov is currently pursuing his second PhD focused on the history of evolutionary theory, and he has published one book on human origins in Russian. However, most of Khramov’s work on this topic is still unavailable in English.

So what do these Christian thinkers (a beloved bishop, a contemporary scientist, and a Christian philosopher) mean by saying that our universe is not simply God’s creation but is also the result of the human fall? Is this a legitimate Christian understanding of our universe, or is it some kind of a marginal and confused revival of pagan Platonic and heretical gnostic thought? David Bentley Hart has, after all, published many essays about gnosticism over the past several decades and even a 2021 novel titled Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale) that is about an evil demigod who creates a false universe in which many souls are trapped for long ages of suffering and confusion. Obviously, I think that these suspicions about Hart and others of his persuasion across history are ungrounded and are blinding us to a compelling means of understanding Christian teaching and human experience.

What would be problematic is any view of our world as cut off from divine life and lost to evil. This would be a true dualism where evil is coeternal with the goodness of God’s life. However, this is not what is being described. Mary’s yes to God and Christ’s incarnate presence even in death lie at the heart of a participation between God’s life and every moment and place within this fallen world. Objections such as pre-existence of souls are also off the mark as the idea, even in Origen, was never that individual souls existed in a time prior to our current time but that they exist collectively alongside this fallen time out of which we are becoming what we truly always were intended to be in the creative work of God. God is the “Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible” as the creed says, but God is not the creator of the false visions and the false incarnations that we strive to make real within this contingent realm of life that is coming to be amid death. When I neglect my wife and children to read or write another paragraph, this ugly me is visible to my wife and children but it is not a creation of God. In so far as they can see past my ugliness and engage with me as the person who I am created to be, they see the truth about me. This is what the creed means by “all things visible.” When I repent, stop neglecting my loved ones, and start to work for their thriving, I am fully manifesting the creature who God has made.

“All things invisible” in the creed, includes the realm of the spirit that gives rise to the fleshly realm but which can also be subject to terrible falsehoods, illusions, and abuses. Ultimately, heaven and earth unite and the embodiment proper to the perfect manifestation of spirit is what all flesh shall be transfigured and revealed to be—the currently visible and invisible all manifested in the resurrected spiritual embodiment that Paul describes so vividly in 1 Corinthians 15 as the glory of stars and angels, as a plant coming forth from a seed, as an ensouled body (sōma psychikon) that must be raised anew as a body constituted entirely by deathless spirit (sōma pnevmatikon) because, as Paul concludes, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; neither does perishability inherit imperishability.”

So it is for the sake of repentance that death is given to us as a gift to enable us to achieve. By repentance for ourselves and our entire race, we can learn to give thanks for all things and to see more and more fully the life that we will one day achieve together in the Kingdom of God and to which we are called in every moment of even this life within this mortal vale. Repentance offers us the world without end.


1.  My most recent thoughts on this topic of cosmic origins have come from a range of sources including scientists, theologians, and philosophers. Despite a variety of ideas involved, there are some strong overlapping themes: transcendental purpose, participation in divine life, fallenness, etc. Several other books got me started down this path (principally The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart), but here are some of the books that I’ve read most recently in relation to the origins of life and of our universe (recognizing that several of these titles were well beyond my comprehension at multiple points in each book):

  • You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature by David Bentley Hart (2022)
  • Purpose and Desire: What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It by J. Scott Turner (2017)
  • Can We Believe in People?: Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos by Stephen R. L. Clark (2020)
  • The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor by Jordan Daniel Wood (2022)
  • The Bride of the Lamb by Sergius Bulgakov (1939, translated 2001)
  • Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition by Olivier Clément (1959, translated 2019)
  • The Theory of the Big Bang and the Faith of the Holy Fathers by Bishop Basil Rodzianko (1996)

2. The Bride of the Lamb, page 51.

3. Here is a little more context on these opening lines with all of the translations that I have (alongside the original Russian for those who might find that helpful):

  • Google: This world in which we live was not created by God: God did not create evil, and in this world, as we all know, there is more than enough evil. Its source is not God, but “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11).
  • DeepL: This world in which we live was not created by God: God did not do evil, but in this world, as we all know, evil abounds. Its source is not God, but “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11).
  • ChatGPT: The world we live in was not created by God: God did not create evil, but in this world, as we all know, evil abounds. Its source is not God, but rather “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 16:11).
  • Marilyn Swezey: The world in which we now live is not the way it was when God created it in the beginning. God did not create evil and, as we know, there is more than enough evil in this world. God is not the source of that evil. It is the “prince of this world”.
  • Original Russian text: Мир сей, в котором мы живем, не был сотворен Богом: Бог зла не творил, а в мире сем, как мы все знаем, зла хоть отбавляй. Его источник не Бог, а “князь мира сего” (Ин.12:31; 16:11).