It’s been sometime since I’ve put out an episode of Thinking Theology. I’ve been busy over the last few months working on a couple of books that will hopefully come out next year, as well as an article.
In that last episode of Thinking Theology we began to look at the actions of God, and we began with God’s act of creation. God created everything that is, on his own, without help from anyone else. He made the world for his own sake and purpose. He made it by speaking. He made it good. It’s separate from him but it depends completely on him for its continued existence. God’s creation of the world also establishes his authority over us and our obligation to him.
But what we didn’t get to consider is how the Bible’s account of creation fits with modern science. Genesis 1 says God created the world in six days but science says that the universe and earth were formed over billions of years. The Bible says God created Adam and Eve from scratch, but science says that human beings have come through an evolutionary process from bacteria.
What do we make of all that? How do the Bible and science fit together, especially with respect to creation?
That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology.
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I’m a pastor, theologian, writer, and Bible college lecturer. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
All Science is Provisional, The Science of Beginning More Than Most
One of the most controversial topics when thinking about the Bible and creation is how the Bible’s account fits with science.
In coming to terms with that question, it helps to first recognise some of the limitations of science.
First of all, it is worth pointing out that the situation with the science is more complex than most people recognise.
For example, one of the problems physicists face in looking at the universe as it is, is that galaxies in our universe appear to be spinning too fast. When you spin a weight on the end of a rope the weight wants to fly off in its own direction. What keeps it spinning is you pulling on the rope. What keeps galaxies together and from spinning out everywhere is gravity. But the problem for physics at the moment is that there is not enough mass in the galaxies we see to keep them together. To solve that, physicists have postulated something called dark matter. Basically, something that you cannot see but that still has mass. They think that the universe is made up of only around 4% of normal matter. The trouble is they have not been able to observe dark matter directly.
The situation bears a remarkable similarity to what happened at the beginning of the last century. At the end of the 19th century astronomers noticed that the orbit of M ercury was being disturbed by something. When classical physics could not explain what was going on, they also had to introduce the ideas of objects that they couldn’t see but that still had an effect. In that case they hypothesised things like an inner asteroid belt or an undiscovered planet to try and solve the problem. The problem was not solved until Einstein developed his Theory of General Relativity.
Scientists are hoping to observe dark matter. There is hope that the Large Hadron Collider in Europe will lead to its discovery. They may discover it, or they may not. The more time goes on without observing it the more it has to cast into doubt the present theory.
Similarly, a number of years ago an article appeared in Scientific American describing a potential crisis in physics regarding a related theory called “Supersymmetry”. Physicists at the Large Hadron Collider are also looking for supersymmetric particles, some of which may hold the key to dark matter. The article noted,
If superpartners are discovered in the next run of the LHC, the current angst of particle physicists will be replaced by enormous excitement over finally breaching the threshold of the superworld. A wild intellectual adventure will begin.
Yet if superpartners are not found, we face a paradigm rupture in our basic grasp of quantum physics. Already this prospect is inspiring a radical rethinking of basic phenomena that underlie the fabric of the universe.
Or consider this statement from another scientist,
All of our observations find a complete symmetry between matter and antimatter, which is why the universe should not actually exist….
The point is simply that there is more uncertainty in science than people often realise or admit. There are lots of things scientists don’t know. And there are lots of examples of science fundamentally rethinking its basic theories. That happened when Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity. It happened with the development of quantum physics.
All science is provisional. The science of the beginnings of the universe is more provisional than most. And that’s because we can’t create experiments to test our theories. Because they’re theories of how things developed over billions of years.
What we see is what Genesis 1 would lead us to expect to see
So the situation with the science is more complicated than is generally perceived, but there is still some useful things that can be said about Genesis and science without trying to say everything.
A particularly helpful approach come from Edgar Andrews in his book, Who Made God. There he presents what he calls the scientific method. That is, often in science you start with a hypothesis and then you test it to see whether the world that you observe fits that hypothesis. That is what the physicists are doing with supersymmetry. They have a theory about the world, a hypothesis about how the world works, and they are observing the world to see whether their observations fit with their hypothesis.
And Edgar Andrews says, what if we start with the hypothesis of the Bible, that the world is as the Bible describes it, and then we test that hypothesis against the world that we experience. If we do that, the world that we find is surprisingly similar to the one the Bible describes.
We can look at the Bible, we can look at Genesis 1 and although we may not be able to answer every how question, we can see that the world we observe is in many ways the kind of world that Genesis 1 would lead us to expect.
So let me give some examples of that.
The Universe Had a Beginning
First, Genesis 1 leads us to expect that the universe had a beginning.
That might seem obvious, but until about a century ago no one much except Christians believed that the universe had a beginning. The reigning paradigm was of an eternal universe.
In fact, Steven Hawking called the idea that the universe had a beginning “probably the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology”. Most non-Christian religions think that the universe is eternal, mysterious, inconsistent and unpredictable. Aristotle thought that the idea of the universe having a beginning as unthinkable.
It wasn’t until last century that astronomers and physicists began to think that the universe had a beginning. Two scientists, Humanson and Hubble, discovered through observations that the universe appeared to be expanding. Separately, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity suggested something similar, though Einstein initially rejected the idea. The idea of an expanding universe led to the suggestion that at one point all the matter in the universe exploded from some point. In other words, the universe had a beginning.
It took decades for many to accept the idea. Sir Arthur Eddington wrote in 1931, “The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me….” Sir John Maddox, a former Editor of the journal Nature, described the idea of the universe having a beginning as “thoroughly unacceptable”. Now the idea that the universe had some kind of beginning is widely accepted.
But on the basis of Genesis 1, that the universe had a beginning is exactly what we would expect.
As Arno Penzias, a physicist and Nobel Prize winner, wrote,
The best data we have (concerning the Big Bang) are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, and the Bible as a whole.
Genesis 1 leads us to believe that the universe had a beginning and there is considerable scientific evidence to show that is true.
The world is structured
Second, Genesis 1 leads us to expect a universe that is structured.
Again, that might not seem particularly revolutionary because science has led us to conceive of the world as ordered and structured. But in comparison to ancient creation myths the Bible’s account is surprisingly clearheaded.
For example, in one ancient creation myth called the Enuma Elish, creation is the result of a kind of cosmic war between various gods. The earth is created from the body of a slain god called Tiamat. Half of her body becomes the sky. Things are constructed in her belly. Her eyes become the source of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Her nostrils are plugged up for some reason. Human beings are made from the blood of another god who was killed. And the main reason they are made is because the gods are lazy and want someone to do their work for them.
In comparison, the account in Genesis 1 of the beginning of the world is highly structured as we saw last time. It is structured in the way the days are arranged. So, on one day the space is prepared and then on a corresponding day the things that inhabit that space are made.
Not only that, the way each particular day unfolds is very methodical. Take day 3 for example. First God separates the water and the land. Then he causes the land to produce vegetation. There are plants bearing seed, and also plants bearing fruit with the seed in it. It is all very methodical and, in some ways, quite uneventful.
The world that the Enuma Elish leads us to expect is a world which is turbulent and nonsensical. In contrast, the world the Genesis 1 leads us to expect is a world which is highly structured, a world which is ordered and consistent. That is precisely the kind of world that we find. A world which follows physical laws and physical constants. A world which can be described with mathematical precision.
That in itself is quite remarkable, as the Nobel Prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner noted is his famous paper, The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics. Why should it be that the world should be describable by numbers and equations that we seem simply to have made up in our heads. Why should there be a correspondence between human thought and mathematical truth and physical reality. That is quite unexplainable from the viewpoint of philosophical materialism. But makes a lot of sense when we start with the hypothesis of the Bible and the idea of a world designed by God and carefully made and ruled by God.
The creation is just that—the creation
Third, Genesis 1 leads us to expect that the creation is just that—the creation. It is not divine. It is created.
As we saw with the Enuma Elish, ancient creation myths often presented a world that was made from the various parts of gods. Things like the sun and moon were gods to be worshipped. In Egypt, the sun was the god Ra. But here in Genesis 1 the sun is just the sun. It is literally “a source of light”. It is hardly a rigorous scientific description that we might expect today, but it is certainly a true one. In fact, it almost seems boring compared to something like the Enuma Elish were so much of the world there is the bits and pieces of various gods.
The physicist Stephen Barr in his book Modern Physics and the Ancient Faith writes,
It is often said that science ‘dis-enchanted’ the natural world, in the sense of depersonalizing it and desacralizing it [that is, making it non-mystical]. But to a large extent that had already happened with the Hebrew Bible. The universe was no longer alive with gods, but was a work of cosmic engineering.”
In short, we may not be able to answer every scientific question, but we can say, at least, that the world that we see is the kind of world that we would expect to see on the basis of Genesis 1.
I said before that Genesis 1 shows us, at the very least, that the world had a beginning.
What kind of beginning that was, is a more complex question.
There is considerable debate among Christians concerning the nature of the six days described in Genesis 1. The major views are:
1. The normal day view: 6 chronological days of 24 hours each.
2. The day-age view: the days are of indefinite duration, but still represent the chronological pattern of God’s creative process.
3. The Framework view: the days are a literary device and present topics more than a chronological sequence.
The best approach to my mind is the normal day view.
It’s sometimes argued that because Genesis 1 is so highly structured it must be poetic and therefore not literal. But Genesis 1 doesn’t contain any of the normal features of Hebrew poetry. And just because it is highly structured, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a true account.
Wilfred Owen wrote poems about the First World War. But the fact that he wrote about history in poetry doesn’t mean that his poems are not about real things.
So, too, the continual reference to morning and evening, while stylistic, tends to suggest actual days.
Moreover, later in the Bible God’s six-day pattern of work followed by one day of rest becomes a model for human work and rest suggests that the days ought to be understood as real days. Otherwise, it is not particularly clear in what way we are imitating God.
The biblical account, then, leads me to think of the days as 6 normal days, and I think there’s enough uncertainty in the science of origins to allow for that.
Perhaps more problematic than the age of the earth is the evolutionary view of the creation of mankind.
It is important to realise that a long-term view of the six days of creation does not necessarily entail an evolutionary view of the creation of human beings. That is, as the theologian John Frame points out, “a figurative view of the days does not as such warrant an evolutionary view of man’s ancestry. Nor does it compromise the literal historicity of the fall of Adam and Eve, or any of the truths concerning our new creation in Christ.”
Nevertheless, some Christians hold to an evolutionary view of human creation. But there are a number of problems created by that view:
1. It requires death before the fall. But Romans 5 says that death entered the world through the sin of Adam and Eve. And that sin brought death and decay not only to human beings but to the whole creation, as Paul says in Romans 8. In other words, death, even of animals, is a result of human sin which was not part of God’s original creation.
2. It potentially denies the existence of an historical Adam and Eve and the rest of the Bible clearly considers Adam and Eve as real historical figures. Some scholars get around this by maintaining that God created animals through evolution, but at some point in time intervened to identify or “create” in some way to unique individuals from whom the whole human race descended. So, for instance, the biologist Denis Alexander sees Adam and Eve as merely the start of a “spiritual family”. But as Frame points out, the creation of human beings in Genesis 2:7 is a special act of God, taking dust, rather than an already living creature, and giving it life.
3. The repetition of “according to their kinds” suggests that God established boundaries between species, rather than everything coming from the same genetic pool.
For that reason, it seems that an evolutionary view of human and animal origins is quite problematic because it undermines a number of important biblical truths.
In fact, an evolutionary view of origins is much more problematic, say, than a view of an old universe.
So how does the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 relate to science?
Well, we need to start by recognising that much science is provisional. Especially the science of the origins of the universe. Nevertheless, much of what science asserts affirms what we would expect on the basis of the Bible’s account of creation.
But while it’s helpful to understand how science and creation fit together. The most important theological truths are those that we covered in the last episode, that creation is the sole act of God; that God made it for his own sake and for his own purpose; that God made the world just by speaking; that the world is separate from God but depends on God; that God made the world good; and that God’s creation of the world establishes his authority as well as our significance, our purpose, the pattern of our lives and our need to trust God in the mystery of life.
That’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology.
In the next episode, we’ll be continuing to think about the actions of God. We’ll be thinking about God’s ongoing work of caring and providing for his creation.
Please join me then.