Why did God create the world? In his monumental The End for Which God Created the World (1765), Jonathan Edwards sought to answer that exact question. Today the work remains a captivating and awe-inspiring exploration into perhaps the most ultimate question on the planet.
Edwards begins the work by distinguishing between a chief end and an ultimate end. An ultimate end is that end which is sought for the sake of itself, and not for the sake of a further end. A chief end is that which is most valued and therefore “most sought after by the agent in what he does.” According to Edwards, “men’s last ends are commonly their highest ends.” By “last end,” the author means that which is regarded and sought by an agent, desired for its own sake. What is obvious to most is that God possessed some good in view before He created the world, inclining him to bring it into existence. What was this “last end”? His love of justice and hatred of injustice were not the motivating impetuses. Therefore Edwards distinguishes between two sorts of ultimate ends: original/consequent and consequential/dependent. The original ultimate end is alone that which induces God to give occasion for consequent ends.
God’s last end in creation cannot imply any insufficiency or mutability in God. On the contrary, as Edwards notes, “whatsoever is good and valuable in itself, is worthy that God should value it with an ultimate respect.” Therefore God has respect to himself as his last and highest end because he is worthy in himself to be so, being infinitely the greatest and best of beings. If God has respect to things according to their nature and proportions, he must necessarily have greatest respect to himself! His moral rectitude likewise consists in a due respect of things that are objects of moral respect – Himself being that which commands most regard. This regard is in proportion of existence and proportion of excellence. Edwards writes, “As he is every way the first and supreme, and as his excellency is in all respects the supreme beauty and glory, the original good, and fountain of all good; so he must have in all respects the supreme regard.” The whole universe should hence proceed with a view to God as the supreme and last end. Whatever is good and valuable in itself, absolutely and originally, must be regarded ultimately – as an ultimate end of creation. This is God, who does nothing inadvertently without design. By creating the world, He gave expression and exercise to His attributes. Edwards provocatively states that it is “fit” that “the glorious perfections of God should be known, and the operation and expressions of them seen, by other beings beside himself.” Therefore eternity should consist in increasing knowledge of God. If perfections are excellent, knowledge of these perfections is likewise excellent. The love of his excellency is to be esteemed just as He loves and esteems His own excellency.
God’s fountain of holiness flows out in communicated holiness. Edwards calls this “emanation,” like a fountain flowing ad extra, or “without himself.” This emanation is the ground for creation: “a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world.” God’s love to Himself ensures that He delights in the use, end, and operation of His attributes. Expressions of himself are manifestation of His delight in Himself. Therefore love itself cannot be said to be the “inciting cause” of creation because love presupposes the existence of the object beloved, in idea or expectation. Rather, God’s propensity to diffuse Himself and emanate His glory-fullness was the inciting cause. Edwards provocatively declares that “God looks on the communication of himself, and the emanation of his infinite glory, to belong to the fullness and completeness of himself.” The church, for example, is called the “fullness of Christ.” The divine fullness is then communicated in terms of divine knowledge, virtue and holiness, and happiness. The end of all knowledge is the knowledge of Him. Our holiness is participation in His holiness. All true happiness consisting in enjoying and rejoicing in Him. For this reason, Edwards considers that the more divine communications increase in the creature through eternity, the more it actually becomes one with God. This is conforming to God by the perfection of union with Him.
Edwards begins his possible objections with that of God’s seeming mutability. However, he clarifies, “God may have a real and proper pleasure or happiness in seeing the happy state of the creature; yet this may not be different from his delight in himself.” As the sun receives nothing from the jewel that receives its light, so God receives nothing from the creature. However, if God did not take pleasure in the expressions of His beauty in creation, he would therefore not take pleasure in His own beauty! Secondly, God does not depend upon his creatures for happiness. After all, holiness and happiness are things that God gives to them. God’s joy is dependent upon nothing but His own act. Edwards affirms, “God is absolutely independent of us.” Nothing from the creature alters God’s happiness to augment or diminish it. The author affirms that all things are of Him and to Him. He is all in all. Thus all His desires and pursuits originate and terminate in Himself. By seeking Himself as His highest and last end, God is also not selfish. In created beings, self-interest may properly be set in opposition to the public welfare…but not so with God. Edwards calls Him the “Supreme Being…the fountain of being and good to the whole.” His happiness is our happiness. He alone is “fit” to be the highest end.
Edwards then addresses the objection that God performing acts of creation for the admiration of sinners is somehow beneath Him. According to the author, “Understanding and will are the highest kind of created existence.” The most excellent knowledge is knowledge and love to God. The most excellent exercise of will is esteem and love for His glory. Therefore God’s excellency and glory are worthy to be highly valued and delighted in. Love of God is that wherein all holiness chiefly consists, and God’s own holiness primarily consists in love to Himself. In short, “God is their good.” The excellency and happiness of creatures is nothing but the emanation and expression of God’s glory. This emanation in itself is excellent. Edwards identifies God as “in effect, being in general.” He comprehends universal existence. By flowing forth from His creatures, God makes them to partake of Him as He rejoices in Himself expressed and communicated in them!
Edwards next reminds the reader that revelation is the “surest guide” in these matters. He first goes to Isaiah 44:6 and Revelation 1:8 – texts that pronounce God as the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, first and last. According to Edwards, this language implies “that as he is the first, efficient cause and fountain, from whence all things originate; so, he is the last, final cause for which they are made; the final term to which they all tend in their ultimate issue.” For Edwards, as for Scripture, “the sum of God’s design in all, is declared to be God’s own glory.” Edwards finally states that God’s glory is the “end of the creation.”
Edwards continues to look at texts like John 12:27-28 in positioning God’s glory as the chief end of creation. For instance, Edwards insists that the plain meaning of John 12 is that God had glorified His name once in the work of Christ, and that He would glorify it again “to a greater degree” in what he would do further. In all, the author can conclude that the glory of God is not only the ultimate end of the work of redemption, but also the chief work of providence toward the moral world. All is put in subjection to Jesus Christ for this very purpose – that all things may be ordered by Him. Attested by texts like Psalm 8, God’s moral government has this similar last end in view.
The actual communication of good to creatures is that which Scripture records as pleasing to God (Ezek. 5:13, 33:11) Forgiveness of sin and salvation are spoken of, from time to time, as for God’s goodness sake. (Ps. 25:7) In fact, as Edwards observes, God’s judgments upon the wicked in the world are also done for the happiness of His people – to show the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy. (Isa. 43:3-4, Rom. 9:22-23) Edwards then goes on to explain the meaning of glory. Its Hebrew root signifies “heavy” or “weighty.” Therefore the noun form connotes gravity and greatness. Important for Edwards is that fact that this word “denotes sometimes what is internal…it very commonly signifies excellency, dignity, or worthiness of regard.” This world is also used in Scripture to express the exhibition, emanation, or communication of the internal glory. It also at times evidently signifies the “communications of God’s fullness, and means much the same thing with God’s abundant goodness and grace.” Therefore the emanations of glory from Christ are to be spoken of in quite the same manner. In addition to communication, the word glory also implies the “view or knowledge of God’s excellency. The exhibition of glory is to the view of beholders.” According to Edwards, it also implies praise and joy in God, rejoicing in His perfections (Ps. 33:2) In regards to the “name” of God, something is meant that is close to praise and the expression of God’s goodness.
In conclusion, Edwards remarks, “Now God’s internal glory, is either in his understanding or will. The glory or fullness of his understanding is his knowledge. The internal glory and fullness of God, having its special seat in his will, is his holiness and happiness.” These three things – knowledge, holiness, and happiness – comprise the “whole of God.’ Therefore the “external glory” of God consists in the communication of these three things. The communication of God’s joy and happiness, for example, consists chiefly in communicating to the creature that happiness and joy which consists in rejoicing in God. Knowing God’s excellency means loving God’s excellency and loving God for His excellency. God’s external glory, then, is only the emanation of his internal glory.
In a brilliant doxology, Edwards explains: “God communicates himself to the understanding of the creature, in giving him the knowledge of his glory; and to the will of the creature, in giving him holiness, consisting primarily in the love of God; and in giving the creature happiness, chiefly consisting in joy in God. These are the sum of that emanation of divine fullness called in Scripture, the glory of God.” When the creature knows, esteems, loves, rejoices in, and praises God, His glory is exhibited and acknowledged and his fullness is received and returned. According to Edwards, there is both “emanation” and “remanation.” The whole is of God, in God, and to God. The communication of Himself is thus returned to Himself. Because He infinitely values Himself, He therefore values the image, communication, and participation of Himself in His creatures. “And it is because He values himself, that he delights in the knowledge, and love, and joy of the creature.” Therefore God’s respect to the creature’s good and His respect to Himself are not mutually exclusive. “Both are united in one,” boasts Edwards. “The more happiness the greater union: when the happiness is perfect, the union is perfect.”