When Christians open the first book of the Bible we often ask, “Is the earth a few thousand years old or billions of years old?” That’s one of many questions to consider, but I think a more significant question to ask is, “Does Genesis say anything about the importance of relationships?”
For much of the last 50 years, when Christians have discussed creation or Genesis, the conversation has inevitably focused on the length of the creation days. I have always found this somewhat strange because when Bible readers ask what Genesis is talking about, the emphasis is not on a creation timescale. Rather, Genesis concentrates on who God is and what he has done—topics that most Bible-believing Christians agree on. In fact, one of the most fundamental aspects of God’s nature shows up in Genesis 1—God is inherently relational. The author also declares that we are created in that image, a point that recent scientific research affirms.
A Layman’s Look at Genesis 1
When I began studying science apologetics, one of the first things I did was investigate what Genesis 1 and 2 said. After a few times through, I noticed something interesting by reading the first few words of each verse:
In the beginning God . . .
And the earth was formless . . .
Then God said, . . .
God saw that the light . . .
God called the light “day,” . . .
Then God said, . . .
God made the expanse, . . .
God called the expanse “heaven.”
In fact, the 34 verses from Genesis 1:1–2:3 mention God explicitly over 50 times! Clearly, Genesis 1 is about God, and not just that he exists but also who he is. I noticed at least three things about God in this passage: (1) Since God created the universe, he is powerful; (2) There is an order to creation that reflects God’s purposefulness; and (3) God is moral because he declares the things he made good.
One of God’s attributes that I didn’t appreciate until years later was that he is triune. Of course, I knew that God was one essence in three persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it wasn’t until several years later that something additional dawned on me. God, in his essence, is relational! And that point is emphasized when God created humanity. As stated in Genesis 1:26–27 (NASB),
Then God said, “Let Us make mankind in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every crawling thing that crawls on the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them [emphasis added].
Even human beings reflect the triune nature by being one essence (human) in two parts (male and female).1 And the first charge given to humanity required relationship, namely “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28, NASB). Just as God is relational in his essence, relationship is baked into human nature.
What Does Science Reveal about Relationships?
A Harvard study more than 8 decades long reveals foundational insights into the importance of relationships. Starting in 1938, scientists studied the health of 238 sophomores attending Harvard University. The study expanded through the decades to encompass the offspring of all the original men (Harvard was all-male when the study started), and in the 1970s the participants expanded to include 456 Boston inner-city residents. Since 1987, more than 40 peer-reviewed publications were generated from the study.2
Some of the more intriguing results derived from the study relate to emotional and physical health in old age. One paper found that more time spent with others correlated with greater health and happiness. But the data shows something even more significant. Everyone who lives past 30–40 years will experience a decline in physical health—some more than others—and usually that decline brings a corresponding decrease in happiness. However, having a healthy marriage worked against that decrease, resulting in a happier life even as physical health declined.3 Another series of papers highlighted the importance of nourishing childhood environments for healthy adult lives. One paper concluded that “Results suggest that greater childhood nurturance relates to more adaptive defensive styles in early adulthood, which is then associated with healthier midlife functioning at work and in relationships.”4 Another paper added that nurturing family environments lead to greater marital attachment 60 years later, and a third paper noted the correlation of warm mother-child relationships with intact cognitive abilities (rather than dementia) at 90 years old.5
Former director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, George Vaillant, and the current director, Robert Waldinger, make some strong statements about the importance of relationships to mental health, physical health, and aging well. Waldinger declares that “when we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. . . . It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.” Similarly, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” 6 Vaillant echoes Waldinger’s conclusions and states that “when the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. . . . But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
A Union of Spiritual and Physical
These findings show that relationships are essential for our proper mental health, but the scientific data also shows that our relationships directly impact our physical health. And, while not addressed in the study, our physical health impacts our mental health and our relationships, too. This recognition that our physical and mental health are connected provides additional affirmation of the truth of Scripture.
Genesis 1 starts with God creating the heavens and the earth and that word for creating carries the idea of bringing something new into existence. The creation week ends with God creating humans, which raises the question: What new thing did God bring into existence with humanity? All the elements of our physical bodies already existed. Other life, including social animals, already existed. With human beings, God brought into existence life that is a union of physical and spiritual—we are the only creatures (at least on Earth) that bear God’s image and have the capacity to worship. Because God designed the proper focus of that worship to be himself, we again see the foundation of relationship. It’s no wonder that humans seem to be healthier when we’re in proper relationship with one another and with our Creator.
1. We must be careful not to push this comparison too far, but I find it interesting to notice the parallel.
2. For all the details, see Harvard Second Generation Study, Harvard Study of Adult Development, accessed September 27, 2023. The publication list is housed at Publications, Harvard Second Generation Study.
3. Robert J. Waldinger and Marc S. Schulz, “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Social Functioning, Perceived Health, and Daily Happiness in Married Octogenarians,” Psychology and Aging 25, no. 2 (June 2010): 422–431, doi:10.1037/a0019087.
4. Michael D. Nevarez, Melinda I. Morrill, and Robert J. Waldinger, “Thriving in Midlife: The Roles of Childhood Nurturance and Adult Defense Mechanisms,” Journal of Research in Personality 74 (June 2018): 35–41, doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2018.01.002.
5. Robert J. Waldinger and Marc S. Schulz, “The Long Reach of Nurturing Family Relationships: Links with Midlife Emotion-Regulatory Styles and Late-Life Security in Intimate Relationships,” Psychological Science 27, no. 11 (September 29, 2016): 1443–1450, doi:10.1177/0956797616661556; George E. Vaillant et al., “Antecedents of Intact Cognition and Dementia at Age 90 Years: A Prospective Study,” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 29, no. 12 (December 2014): 1278–1285, doi:10.1002/gps.4108.
6. Liz Mineo, “Good Genes Are Nice, but Joy Is Better,” The Harvard Gazette, April 11, 2017.