I like to call Genesis 1:2 creation’s “prelude” because it describes Earth in its primordial state and sets the stage for what happens in the subsequent creation days.
At this point in history, the Sun and stars already existed, but from the perspective of a hypothetical observer on the planet’s surface, a cloud cover enveloped Earth in darkness. Water covered the entire planet. Additionally, Earth was “formless and empty.” The Hebrew expression (tōhû wābōhû) connotes a sense of desolation. Deuteronomy 32 translates this phrase as “howling waste,” and Isaiah 45:18 and Jeremiah 4:23–26 translate it as “uninhabited wasteland.” Not only was early Earth a dark, watery world, it was hostile to life, too.
Yet in Genesis 1:2 we also see that “the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Hebrew word translated as “hovering” is used only one other time in Scripture and that’s in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses paints an intimate picture of God jealously guarding Israel like a mother eagle that hovers over her young.
If we carry that imagery into Genesis, it suggests God’s spirit was protecting something precious on the planetary surface. In Origins of Life, Hugh Ross and I argue that the something must have been the seeds of life. People ask, “Why would God create life that early in Earth’s history and in such a hostile environment? Why not wait for more benign conditions?”
The short answer is that unless life appeared that early in Earth’s history, then advanced life—and, ultimately, humans—would not have been possible later on.
For example, photosynthetic cyanobacteria emerged maybe as far back as 3.8 billion years ago. Cyanobacteria generated the oxygen in our atmosphere, but they wouldn’t have been able to produce enough if they hadn’t appeared on the planet surface as early as they did.
Early Earth’s crust contained iron in a reduced state, which reacts with oxygen to produce oxidized iron. The abundant reduced iron in the crust consumed oxygen almost as fast as the cyanobacteria produced it, thus, inhibiting the rise of atmospheric oxygen. But because cyanobacteria appeared very early on Earth’s surface, it engaged in photosynthesis long enough to “catch up,” transforming all reduced iron into oxidized iron in time to allow oxygen levels to rise.
I would argue that God created the first life-forms when he did because he intended them to play a key role in transforming the planet for the benefit of advanced life. He brought life through hostile circumstances all as a part of a bigger purpose: the eventual creation of advanced life and, ultimately, of human life.