By Hope McGovern '19
The modern atheist claims that religion is a cultural artifact of ancient history. When ancient peoples spoke of “God,” they imagined a personification of natural processes that modern science has long since rendered obsolete. Like the Ancient Greeks inventing Zeus to explain lightning, the Ancient Hebrew people crafted their god, Yahweh, to explain the supernatural origin of the cosmos. These myths were necessary to their understanding of the natural world because they did not have the proper conception of evolution or cosmology, and should now be promptly discarded. They continue today only in the hearts of those who prefer to cling to fantastical fairy-tales rather than scientific facts about human origins.
These claims have incited rebuttals from many fundamentalist Christians. Although this group expresses a spectrum of beliefs, the loudest opinion in this arena belongs to six-day Creationists such as Ken Ham and Doug Phillips, who espouse a literalist view of creation (that the “days” described in Genesis are actual 24-hour periods) or a semi-literalist view (that they describe different eras of pre-human history). Their opponents are the self-dubbed “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, who believe that statements about God’s existence as revealed in the biblical texts can be tested (and disproved) by the scientific method and, in doing so, adopt a metaphysical stance that exceeds the bounds of scientific inquiry. There is also a third path, Intelligent Design, to which we will come presently.
Since the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of the 1920s first vaulted the issue into the public eye, it has become clear that both those in scientific communities and in fundamentalist religious communities increasingly view science and faith as deeply irreconcilable. In this landmark court case, the Tennessee legislature upheld a state law which, on religious grounds, banned the teaching of evolution in state-funded schools. This same tension is painfully evident in the 2014 film, God’s Not Dead, in which a college student defending his Christian faith before an atheist professor feels he must first cast doubt on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution before he can argue for God’s existence. The evolution-creation debate has become so incendiary that it has become the “third rail” of faith for modern Christian intellectuals. The tense atmosphere surrounding these topics has created a dichotomy for people in communities of higher learning who consider themselves both scientists and Christians: they either learn to suppress what they believe the Bible claims about human origins while learning evolutionary biology; or, finding the task of intellectual reconciliation to be too great, they live as if they’ve found out Santa Claus isn’t real but must play along so as not to ruin the younger kids’ world of make-believe.
This is a brittle faith that will invariably lead to either impenetrable ignorance or utter disillusionment. It is central to the Christian worldview that the God of the Bible is a creator God--if humanity is not made in God’s image, not only does any Christian argument for intrinsic human value fall away, but there would be no need for a Savior if humanity as a whole has not been cut off from its source of life and creative power. Therefore, seeing that this topic is of utmost importance, I urge those of faith to boldly pursue answers to questions of human origins for the simple reason that if we believe that the biblical message holds up to scrutiny, we must allow it to be scrutinized. Put another way, if we find the story of God’s redemption plan for humanity through the person of Jesus Christ to be more beautiful and more compelling than any other explanation of the human condition and ultimate purpose, then we should not live in fear of new revelation from scientific or historical evidence. If there is anything unshakeable in our faith, it will remain when our false interpretations are stripped away.
At the heart of the perceived deep rift between modern science and ancient religion is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy -- the idea that the Bible is without fault or error in all it teaches. Some in fundamentalist communities today understand the doctrine in terms of an arbitrary inerrancy, especially when it comes to the topic of human origins -- that the biblical texts are authoritative not just in matters of faith, but in matters of science and history as well. But biblical inerrancy should not be taken a statement about science or history. Rather, it means that we can know with certainty that God is as He has revealed Himself to humanity in Scripture and that He is faithful to fulfill the promises He makes therein. This is not a modern opinion, but an old one: St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived nearly 1600 years ago, cautioned the early church against “throwing [themselves] head over heels into the headstrong assertion” of a literalistic interpretation of the story of Genesis, lest they be proven wrong by modern astronomy and geology and, in their foolhardy fixation on proving their own interpretations correct, would turn others away from the hope of resurrection promised in the Gospel story. In 1963, Dr. Richard H. Bube, a Providence native and Brown-educated scientist, wrote an essay very reminiscent of Augustine’s argument for an association of evangelical Christian scientists in response to claims that its members were rejecting biblical authority by accepting modern science:
“If it is assumed, without due Scriptural support, that the purpose of revelation is to give mankind a source-book of information on all phases of physical, mental, spiritual, sociological, artistic, and scientific life [...] then we have the greatest difficulty in maintaining the doctrine of an inerrant Scripture. If, on this stand, we adopt the position of ‘arbitrary inerrancy,’ we essentially jeopardize the whole truth of Christianity by attempting to balance the great wealth and weight of God’s revelation in Christ upon our ability to show that the words of Scripture can be judged inerrant even when we examine them on the basis of criteria they were not written to satisfy.”
Throughout the Bible, we find language appealing to dated ideas of anatomy, cosmology, and biology. Verses about the “pillars of the earth” (1 Sam 2:8, Job 6:9), “the dome of heaven” (Gen 1:6-7) and “the face of the deep” (Gen 7:11) all reference a picture of the cosmos completely unrecognizable and irreconcilable to our own. Common among ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Israelites was a cosmology of a flat Earth surrounded on every side by cosmic waters and a solid, hard dome of the sky, which, in addition to housing the sun, moon, and stars, was the only protection against the waters above,. If scientific accuracy is taken as the metric by which we evaluate the Bible’s truth, it fails miserably. There is a mass of writings online and in print by people attempting to explain away these discrepancies, but the biblical texts never claim absolute accuracy in these statements--they never intended, nor need to. The Christian church has never taught a “divine dictation” view of the writing of Scripture; instead, it maintains that the divine inspiration of the biblical authors was not a heightened state of consciousness or omniscience, yet remains something that cannot be reduced to mere human insight5. The Bible is a collection of texts telling one unified story of God’s self-revelation and intervention in human history, culminating in the person of Jesus. It is a story of the Divine, transcendent of time and culture, told in the words of man, who is bound by both. Written by a decidedly pre-scientific society, the Bible has nothing to say of modern science and we cannot look to prove it on non-existent claims of enlightened scientific knowledge. As a result, attempts to either validate biblical texts with scientific evidence or to define the role God plays in biological and physical processes are fundamentally misguided, because scientific revelation is simply not the aim of the Bible.
Rather, the accounts of the creation of the universe found in Genesis chapters 1-2 belong to the Ancient Near Eastern literary genre of Jewish meditation literature,. Relying heavily on symbolism and poetic imagery, their main intent was not give a scientific account of how the world came to be, but rather to invite the reader to grapple with the nature of evil and the lived experience of human brokenness. Through intentionally vague and surrealist imagery, the authors illuminate the tragic irony that humanity was intended for paradise--harmony with each other, with nature, and with God--but instead creates for itself a world where the environment is consumed and widows, orphans, and foreigners live in persecution. Thus we see that, viewed within their correct literary context, the creation narrative cannot be appropriately understood along scientific lines. Instead, it is a statement of literature that offers less so an explanation about the past as about the present state of humanity.
To examine the story of Adam and Eve in more detail, consider the claim that Adam is formed from dust (Gen 2:7), and not clay, whereas biblical protagonists often refer to God as the Potter and humanity His clay (Isaiah 45:9, 64:8, Jer 18:2-6, Job 10:9). This linguistic contrast strongly suggests that neither material is meant to be taken literally--instead, what is important about the fact that Adam is formed from dust is that it is to dust he is destined to return. We see dust used in the metaphorical sense for physical death again in the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul contrasts our present earthly bodies with the transfigured ones promised by the hope of resurrection: “As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1st Cor. 15:48-9, ESV). For this reason, we can say that inasmuch as Adam was formed from the dust, so are we, and as he returned it, so too shall we one day return to dust. The narrative of Adam’s creation is clearly, at least to a degree, metaphorical. Nonetheless, by virtue of his inclusion in Jewish genealogies, we know that Adam was also held in Jewish tradition as a historical figure12. Ultimately, Adam functions both as a symbolic archetype of humanity and a historical figure in ancient history as one of the first humans to live in covenant relationship with God. The story of Adam and Eve in the Bible is not scientific. But in the same way that scientific inquiry exists to uncover the patterns that underlie the workings of biology and physics and anatomy, so too do these narratives invite us, from the outset of the biblical story, to dwell on the pattern of human fallibility and its tragic consequences echoed throughout human history.
At this point we must return to the “middle ground” of the evolution-creationism debate: Intelligent Design (ID). This view espouses that a supernatural designer is the only explanation for “gaps” in evolution theory. On the surface, this may appear a palatable alternative to the hardline positions of six-day Creationism or New Atheism, seemingly allowing for both a natural and supernatural explanation of human origins. One major objection (which, while being rhetorically simple enough remains tiringly controversial) is that ID is not a viable scientific theory, as it claims, because it fails to meet the definitional requirements of observability and repeatability, unlike the theory of evolution, which has passed many litmus tests across multiple fields including paleontology, biogeography, and molecular genetics,. Beyond this evident cause for dismissal, we shall go further to claim that such a distinction between natural and supernatural as is delineated in ID (and for that matter, New Atheism) was a concept alien to the society from which the biblical creation narratives sprung. Adam’s creation and fall from grace in the book of Genesis is not a claim of supernatural intervention in the natural world, nor is it merely a poetic description of a natural process. It is a literary statement conveying profound underlying truth about the experienced world -- that something in our relationship to the divine has been broken beyond repair. We have no need of a pseudo-scientific argument to force religion to accomodate a modern framework with which it was never in conflict in its source texts.
This may be unsatisfying to some, but we must understand that fixating on “what role God plays in biology” is fundamentally the wrong question to ask of the Scriptures. The distinction between God and nature is not as clear in the Bible as we would like it to be because no society pre-Enlightenment (early 18th century) had such a distinction at all11,. While this view still differs from pantheism in an important way (namely, that the Christian God is transcendent above creation as well as working in it and through it), it’s also closer than we may be comfortable with. Ultimately, this is not a call for us to stop trying to find answers about the interplay between God and natural processes--but it should stop us from expecting to find them written out plainly in the Bible.
All this is to say that any scientific explanation of the origin of the cosmos and the human race does not preclude any truth from biblical creation narratives, or the biblical message as a whole. Plainly, accepting science does not require rejecting the Bible. Let us then swiftly denounce any attempt to base scientific theories on biblical texts. And let us rejoice in doing so, because when we cease trying to force science to validate or disprove the Bible and instead consider them as equally valid but distinct lenses for interpreting the world, we can see that they render strikingly beautiful parallels. A biblical worldview says that God created a good and ordered world ex nihilo, but it is always and forever decaying away from perfection; a scientific worldview may say that from the moment of the Big Bang, the universe has been rapidly expanding -- by the law of entropy growing in chaos every second. Painfully fitting, then, is the Bible’s saga of a humanity relentlessly searching for permanence and perfection in a cosmos bound to decay. Far from granting credence to claims of scientific enlightenment in biblical texts, these parallels should compel us to stand in amazement at how masterfully God has wrought all things in the world and in His written word to draw us to Himself. Therefore, let us approach the Scriptures in the way that Augustine begged of his fellow Christians -- with humility. We know that the Spirit of God moves even through imperfect people with flawed understandings in order to bring revelation.
If I have left the reader with the impression that the framework I have presented here is the only correct reconciliation of Christianity and science, then my point has been sorely missed. Indeed, if there is one thing I can claim with certainty, it is that some of the beliefs I hold today will be refuted and remolded by the knowledge I gain tomorrow. But just as certainly, there are things that our current understanding of science has gotten wrong and, dare I say, things that our practice of religion has also gotten wrong. The apostle Paul has said: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1st Cor 13:12, KJV). Thank goodness that the hope of our salvation doesn’t lie in the orthodoxy of our beliefs but in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we want to take seriously the claims of our Christian faith, we must be willing to sacrifice the idol of our perfect interpretations. For now, we see but a murky reflection of Reality as we peer through a thousand different lenses, but let us long for the day when we will see clearly.
Answers in Genesis, answersingenesis.com
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Mariner Books, 2008.
“The Monkey Trial.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association
Cronk, Harold, Willie Robertson, David A. R. White, and Shane Harper. God's Not Dead. 2014.
“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
Mark, Joshua J. “St. Augustine: from The Literal Meaning of Genesis.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 April 2019
Richard H. Bube, “A Perspective on Scriptural Inerrancy” (1963)
“Deep Space and the Dome of Heaven” BioLogos, biologos.org/articles/deep-space-and-the-dome-of-heaven.
Greenwood, Kyle. Scripture and Cosmology: Reading the Bible between the Ancient World and Modern Science. InterVarsity Press, 2015.
“Read the Opening to the Book of Genesis with Fresh Eyes.” The Bible Project, thebibleproject.com/explore/genesis-1-11/.
Solomon, Marty, host. “1: Trust the Story.” Bema, 08 Sept. 2016. https://bemadiscipleship.com/session1
Walton, John H. Lecture On Human Origins, February 2, 2016. San Francisco, CA.
“What Is Intelligent Design?” Intelligentdesign.org, https://intelligentdesign.org/whatisid/
Lynch, Michael. “Intelligent Design or Intellectual Laziness?” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 18 May 2005, www.nature.com/articles/435276b.
“What Is the Evidence for Evolution? - Common-Questions.” BioLogos, biologos.org/common-questions/what-is-the-evidence-for-evolution.
“Deep Space and the Dome of Heaven” BioLogos, biologos.org/articles/deep-space-and-the-dome-of-heaven.
Hope McGovern, “A Lesson in Thermodynamics,” Cornerstone Magazine, Spring 2017, Volume V, Issue 1