If we were to boil wealth and poverty down to its core ingredient, it would be this: material needs, such as food, water, rest and shelter. The wealthy are able to meet their material needs. The poor, on the other hand, are not able to meet their material needs.
What does the Bible teach about material needs? Are they inherently good or bad? To answer this question, we need look no further than the first pages of the Bible.
The creation narrative is important for the topic of wealth and poverty because it yields this significant piece of information: God created humankind with material needs. Humans needed food (see Gen. 1:29; 2:9, 16), water (see Gen. 2:6, 10-14), companionship (see Gen. 2:18), rest (see Gen. 2:1-4; Mark 2:27), as well as presumably temperate climate and adequate shelter.
This observation means that the presence of material needs in the world, as well as the desire to meet them, cannot be inherently sinful. Therefore, while some tend to imagine perfection or paradise (or perhaps envision heaven) to be a state without material needs, this conclusion does not seem to be warranted by the text. Rather, for pre-fallen humans, paradise consisted of a divinely designed state in which men and women had the ability to meet their material needs.
The presence of material needs in the world, as well as the desire to meet them, cannot be inherently sinful.
The creation narrative reveals that not only were people created by God with material needs, but they also were placed by the Lord in an environment that was capable of meeting those needs — the same environment in which they dwell today, albeit now in a sin-tainted, fallen state. In other words, as image-bearers of God, people were set in an ideal world and assigned with working in order to satisfy their material needs.
Before sin entered the created order, humans were both laborers, charged with ruling and filling the earth (see Gen. 1:26, 28), and consumers, being given herbs and trees for food (see Gen. 1:29; 2:9). Presumably, if they were successful in their labors, they had the ability to satisfy their material needs and perhaps even to generate wealth. Conversely, had they neglected their material needs, it would have resulted in poverty, or at least in a continued state of want.
Adam was immediately faithful in his stewardship of the created order, dutifully naming the animals (see Gen. 2:19-20). Yet speculation about what would have happened over time if he had either continued or neglected to work becomes a moot point, for Scripture indicates that the tenure of the man and his wife in the garden was apparently short-lived. Immediately following the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2, the text records the fall of humankind in Genesis 3, an event that forever altered the lives of the first couple, along with the lives of those who would follow. While the fall of humanity was primarily a spiritual event, involving people’s attempt to usurp God’s authority, thereby worshipping themselves rather than their Creator, there were material aspects to the fall as well.
However, the fall did not create humanity’s material needs, nor does Scripture indicate that it increased them. The fall and ensuing curse significantly affected the environment in which people labor, as well as their desire to work in order to satisfy their own material needs.
The fall did not create humanity’s material needs, nor does Scripture indicate that it increased them.
As a part of the curse at the fall, the creation narrative records that the woman would no longer be a willing helper to her husband, the work for which she was created (see Gen. 2:18), nor would she find childbirth to be without pain (see Gen. 3:16). Likewise, the man would no longer be able to work the ground with ease in order to provide for and to protect his family, for the earth would now produce thorns and thistles, turning labor into toil (see Gen. 3:17-19).
Yet, despite the curse that the created order was put under and the hardships that it entailed, the man and woman’s duty to fulfill their material needs remained intact. Although they were placed under a curse for their sin, constitutionally speaking, they were (and still are) image-bearers of God — the fall did not alter this fact (see Gen. 9:5-6; 1 Cor. 11:7). Given that labor is one of the ways in which humankind functionally bears the image of God, the responsibility to work in order to satisfy material needs persists. This condition and duty are components of creational design.
Why did the Lord place the created order under a curse and make it more difficult for people to satisfy their material needs — inevitably increasing the potential for poverty? Paul addresses this issue in his epistle to the Romans. He explained,
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope. (Rom. 8:19-20; see Gen. 3:17)
It was not out of anger that God cursed the ground, nor was it an attempt to create material hardships for men and women as retributive punishment. Rather, the Lord subjected the created order to the effects of sin out of love, in hope that it would drive people back to the Lord from who they had fled, with the realization that God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Provider of all things.
Not surprisingly, as both Jesus’ teaching and life experience testify, it is he poor — those who most acutely feel the material effects of the fall — who come to Christ in the greatest numbers (see Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20).
This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Jones’ book Health, Wealth and Happiness. A version of this post originally published Jan. 25, 2016.