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Breaking Away from a False Dilemma

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June 11, 2013 Tags: Biblical Interpretation, Evolution & Christian Faith project
Breaking Away from a False Dilemma

Today's entry was written by Steven M. Smith. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today’s post comes to us from Nazarenes Exploring Evolution, a project from BioLogos’ Evolution and Christian Faith grants program. The website, exploringevolution.com, and the post below, is one of the first products from the ECF program.

False dilemma - a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted.1

Despite having been raised since birth in the Church of the Nazarene, I never encountered the ideas of Young Earth Creationism until I was almost 17. That’s not to say that my church teachers accepted evolution, but none of them seemed to have a problem with the age of the earth. Much has changed in our church during the last 40 years.

I first encountered Creationist thought during high school in 1974 when I read the book Scientific Creationism2 by Henry Morris, the acknowledged father of the modern Creationist movement. This book explained how the earth was created about 6,000 years ago during six 24-hour days, how all of the fossil-bearing rock layers were deposited during Noah’s Flood, how biological evolution was impossible, how scientists had conspired to make up theories that denied the evidence of Creation, and how true science confirmed a literal reading of the book of Genesis. Each chapter addressed an issue as a simple choice with only two answers (e.g., Evolution or Creation?, Accident or Plan?, Old or Young?, Apes or Men?), and those choices were summarized in the conclusion with the following statement:

“There seems to be no possible way to avoid the conclusion that, if the Bible and Christianity are true at all, the geological ages must be rejected altogether.”3

With a high-school level understanding of science and theology, I was convinced by this “either-or” argument and, to my knowledge, became the first Young Earth Creationist in my local Nazarene church. I knew the enemy and the enemy had a name. It was Evolution.4

After high school, I enrolled at Olivet Nazarene University. Initially, I had no goal in mind other than possibly studying science. I was placed in the Chemistry program and spent the first year getting required courses out of the way. One of those required courses was Old Testament Bible, during which I frequently argued with the professor whenever ideas were presented that didn’t support a literal reading of Genesis or a Creation event only 6,000 years ago. By the end of my freshman year, I felt led to change my major to a combined Geology-Chemistry degree. I had always loved collecting minerals, rocks, and fossils and dreamed of a career where I could travel to remote mountains and wild places. But geology also presented another challenge. I had heard that the geology professor didn’t necessarily believe the earth was young.

I remember going to that first Geology class armed with every available Creation Science argument, ready to do battle for the faith. Yet despite my preparation, it was for naught. I found myself walking the same path as the earliest geologists, who, starting from a perspective of a Biblical Creation about 6,000-years in the past, saw evidence in the rocks for so many different events and environments, which convinced them the earth was much older than a few thousand years. I saw how rock layers could be grouped into larger “geologic ages” based on their depositional environment and fossil content with boundaries defined by major environmental changes or an extinction event. I was shocked to discover that these geologic ages had been identified and named, not by God-denying Evolutionists, but mostly by Christians and even ministers who saw their work as glorifying to God. Not only were the geologic ages real and the earth older than 6,000 years but the fossils within them told a story of change: starting in the oldest rocks with strange creatures unlike anything seen today, followed in order by the earliest appearances of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammal-like reptiles, dinosaurs, birds, and placental mammals and with the youngest rocks containing fossils of extinct animals that closely resemble those extant. Thus, the rocks even supported one of the lines of evidence used by Charles Darwin in his argument for descent by modification (now called evolution).

Although I was fascinated by geology and had found a scientific field that I loved, my faith was in shambles. Based on what I had believed and read in the Young Earth Creationist literature, if the geologic ages were real, if the earth was old, if evolution had happened then the Bible was false, Christianity wasn’t true, and Christ’s death on the cross was meaningless. So what was left? I felt betrayed and seriously considered leaving the church. In retrospect, two factors kept me from leaving: (1) the support of a strong Christian family (and a young lady soon to be my wife) that gave me the freedom to question without condemnation; and (2) the strong witness of my Olivet geology professor, who had not only faced all of the same scientific evidence but was one of the most Christ-like men I had ever met. But before I could move on, I had to recognize that I had been snared by a false dilemma and that the Bible didn’t need to be read as a scientific treatise on how to create a world. That was a time of turmoil and what I needed most was theological support that would allow me to reconcile what I read in the Bible with what I saw in the rocks.

Yet, in another way, I was fortunate. I had only lived with this false dilemma for three years before having to deal with scientific evidence that shook my faith. Unlike my own youth, today many young people in our churches have been inculcated since birth with these either-or statements through Sunday School, VBS, homeschool textbooks, and church-sponsored schools. How much harder is it for these students to study sciences like geology, astronomy, anthropology, paleontology, or biology and still preserve a faith that has been supported by a false dilemma? I have seen students break down into tears as they stood on an outcrop of rock and saw evidence that contradicted what their church had taught them. I have comforted my own daughter when she was told by a Sunday School teacher that she couldn’t be a Christian if she accepted evidence for evolution. I have talked with scientists who were once raised in a church and are now bitter agnostics because the church “lied to them” about science.

My hope in these discussions is not that we all come to the same scientific or theological understanding of evolution or age-of-the-earth issues but that we can move away from the false dilemmas forced by an exclusive and rigid mode of Biblical interpretation. God is too great and majestic to be confined in man’s theology. We have to allow Him to inspire and even surprise us from all of his Creation and not just from the Bible.


  1. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/False_dilemma
  2. Henry M. Morris, Scientific Creationism (General Edition) (San Diego, CA: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974).
  3. Morris, p. 255
  4. For many Christians today, the term evolution doesn’t just refer to the concepts of common ancestry, descent with modification, or natural selection; it has been expanded to include issues with the age of the earth, geology, cosmology, nuclear physics, paleoanthropology, and a host of other scientific ideas that are perceived to be in opposition to Young Earth Creationism. As one wag put it, “Evolution is all the science I don’t believe in.”


Steven M. Smith earned a B.S. degree in Geology/Chemistry from Olivet Nazarene University in 1981 and an M.S. degree in Geology (specializing in Exploration Geochemistry) from the Colorado School of Mines in 1985. He has worked as a Mineral Exploration Geochemist and Environmental Geochemist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, Colorado since 1982. This work has included mineral resource assessments of U.S. National Forests, BLM Wilderness Areas, and Indian Reservations; research in new geochemical exploration methodologies; and geochemical studies on the impact of mineral deposits and mining in the environment. Steve’s projects have involved fieldwork in remote mountains and wild places from Alaska to Mexico and from Virginia to California. Currently, Steve is the Project Chief for the USGS National Geochemical Database. Steve has served 21 years as the NMI president in his local church and currently serves as Worship Leader.

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PNG - #80892

June 11th 2013

On the subject of this post, I happened to see a post and comment on another blog recently that is very relevant:


The blog post is interesting, but the comment by Tertius on May 15 is even more interesting.

Lou Jost - #80957

June 12th 2013

Yes, the last of his comments was very interesting. I’d heard the same from atheist debaters of Gish etc, but hearing it from an apparent insider is powerful.

Lou Jost - #80958

June 12th 2013

This is a nicely written article, but from an atheist’s perspective, I wonder why the author felt the need to restrain himself from giving up his faith. Giving up all that baggage is exhilirating and eye-opening. The Bible makes a lot more sense once you realize it is not divinely inspired; nothing resolves the contradictions and apologetic contortions faster than that simple realization.

Merv - #80973

June 12th 2013

This is a nicely written article, but from an atheist’s perspective, I wonder why the author felt the need to restrain himself from giving up his faith.

Probably for the same reason that a science enthusiast doesn’t throw science out the window the moment she encounters or uncovers a problem or falsehood with some scientific view.  There is so much of each system that is beautiful, valuable, true, and desperately needed (particularly in the case of many religions), making it foolish for anyone to discard everything the moment they discover somebody was wrong-headed about something.

Lou Jost - #80980

June 12th 2013

Merv, but what keeps someone from realizing that this is a product of culture an dhuman wisdom, not revelation? It could still have every one of the properties you ascribed to it. The naturalistic hypothesis of the Bible’s origin actually explains the data (the very imperfect, obviously culturally biased content of the book) better than the hypothesis of divine revelation.

Steve Smith - #80988

June 12th 2013

Lou. My first thought when I read your comment was almost exactly that given so well by Merv [#80973].  (Thank you, Merv!)  My second thought was that you might, perhaps, believe that the false dilemma I described was actually a true, logical statement.  Thus once the scientific evidence for an old earth or evolution became overwhelming, the only alternative was to abandon my faith.  Well that was a possibility that I considered … especially when I thought all my choices were black or white.

First I decided to study as much as I could about the Bible, theology, science, and relevant philosophies.  Instead of giving up my faith, I gave up the belief that I could understand the Bible by rigidly reading the book using a literalistic, English-speaking, 21st century, Western Euro-American cultural perspective. Trying to read the Bible through the perspective of the original recipients resolves a lot of those “contradictions and apologetic contortions” that plague faith and science conflicts.

Lou Jost - #81002

June 13th 2013

Thanks very much for responding, Steve.Your concluding statement is actually the same as mine, if we change “recipients” to “authors”. What prevented you from making the final leap to seeing this book just as you see all other holy books, as written by sometimes-wise, sometimes-parochial humans? The evidence for this is much stronger than the evidence for divine revelation. Humans are quite capable of writing insightful literature about the human condition. The OT is so clearly an origin-myth for the Israelites, with many dramatic distortions that are easily explained under that hypothesis, but very hard to explain if it were really divinely inspired by a loving, universal god. The secular hypothesis does not deny that some parts of the bible are “beautiful, valuable, true, and desperately needed”, as Merv said. Humans are capable of writing books with these qualities too.

Listen to how Muslims talk about the Quran. Undoubtedly you have heard them praise the timeless, poetic language, and heard them use this as an argument for divine dictation. You probably rightly attribute their opinion partly to their cultural bias; you probably believe it was written by a poetic human being.

glsi - #80991

June 12th 2013

It seems to me that the false dilemna commonly appearing in this forum is that between Neodarwinism vs. ID or any other alternative science on how life came to be what it is.  Mutation/Selection must answer all questions lest the scoffing, belittling and admonishments begin.  Very rigid.  Very exclusive.

Merv - #81014

June 13th 2013

Thanks, Steve.  And thanks for your essay here; it is always encouraging to hear of the journeys (and continuing journey) of those who have gone through some hard changes.

Lou, I know you addressed your last post to Steve, but since he hasn’t had the chance to respond yet I’ll jump in with an easy response.

It sounds like your impression of the Christian claim over Scriptures is that God dictated to hapless secretaries every last word which they dutifully recorded.  Many Christians do in fact believe something very nearly like this.  But in this they join you in something like the very false dilemma that Steve is describing.  Either God wrote the Bible then, or humans did.

Many of us accept that God used humans to write the various books now in our Bible.  That means that he used their wisdom, their cultural knowledge, their colloquialisms, passions, emotions—-the whole package to teach us about God’s people and how God has worked with them, through them, and in spite of them through all history.  That story has become our story as Christians.

So you are right:  the Bible was written by many human authors.

Lou Jost - #81019

June 13th 2013

Thanks Merv. But you haven’t really answered the point of my comment. Why bring god into it at all? There is no good evidence of divine inspiration. There is plenty of evidence of parochial thinking and bloody origin-stories and self-glorification of certain tribes. Why not accept it for what it seems to be, a book written by many human authors. Period. No god in the background. 

beaglelady - #81020

June 13th 2013

Very good Merv.  

Muslims believe that the Quran was dictated by an angel to prophet Mohamed, and that it supercedes the Bible, which, they claim, has been corrupted.  

Mormons believe that Joseph Smith found the original Book of Mormon buried in New York State,  translated it by divine dictation with magical seer stones,  and that it is the most correct book on earth, much more accurate than the Bible  which, they claim, has been corrupted.  

Christians believe that the Bible is inspired, not dictated. Real people did the writing, inspired by the Holy Spirit.  We aren’t shaken by issues, problems, questions, etc.  that come up; we prefer to work through them. We aren’t looking for a new, improved Bible.   

Lou Jost - #81033

June 13th 2013

But why do you see god behind the bible at all? Its content is much better explained as a strictly human invention.

Merv - #81042

June 13th 2013

Why bring God into it?  Because of the uniform testimony of those many human authors that it was and has always been God at work.  And the cloud of witnesses has grown since those times and includes many more today.  Your “strictly human invention” theory requires a whole host of editors/redactors/prophets/martyrs/ ... etc.  to all be not just misled or lying, but to be liars with an eerily coherent theme running through  dozens of centuries—and many of them willing to die for their convictions.  I don’t believe Occam’s razor is your friend here, Lou.

Lou Jost - #81056

June 14th 2013

Merv, actually Occam’s razor is still my friend.

Much of the OT was written hundreds of years after the fact, by nameless authors who were writing down the myths glorifying and justifying their own culture, their own battles, and their own history. Standard stuff, similar to origin myths elsewhere. No need for conspiracies or lies; there is no doubt that the writers believed their myths, just like writers of other early myths believed theirs. The myths written in the OT often contain anachronisms, incredible miracle stories, etc clearly indicating their mythical status.

In the NT, the earliest accounts of Jesus are from Paul and are based on visions and later meeting with real eyewitnesses. As I have said before (though you disagree), it is understandable that Paul, a decent man whose job was killing innocent people, might have some deep conflicts about what he was doing, and a powerful   life-changing vision under these circumstances is not all that surprising and does not require a supernatural explanation. No one doubts Paul’s sincerity.

The most striking thing about Paul’s writing is that it includes virtually none of the stories later included in the Gospels, even when including them would have greatly strengthened his arguments for particular theological points.

The earliest Gospel is written by someone who was almost certainly not an eyewitness to anything he wrote about. He does not write about any post-resurrection Jesus. He could be writing a parable, or mixing oral histories with parables and elaborations. There are stories like this circulating even today about some Indian gurus. To take them literally is the least parsimonious explanation possible—-it requires swallowing a bloated ontology of demons and spirits and a truly crazy story about the creator of the universe needing to send his son(!) to earth to be killed for something humans had done thousands of years earlier. Come on. Occam would trim that story fast.

The other gospels have varying degrees of dependence on Mark’s, and become increasingly elaborated. A historian would suggest they probably became less reliable. Again they are not written by eyewitnesses.

The scholarship argiung for the veracity of things like the resurrection, as exemplified by Wright and Polkinghorne, both ordained ministers, does not seem very objective. If their treatment of the story of the women finding the empty tomb is any indication, they have such a strong will to believe this story that they seem unable to imagine and test alternate views. I discussed this at the end of this thread:


Christians make a big deal about martyrs. Martyrdom proves they were sincere, but doesn’t prove they were right. In another thread I mentioned religious fanatics today who die for quite bizarre beliefs. There were Mormon martyrs. Persecution of Mormons was intense in its early days. Does this add anything to its credibility? Today it is one of the fastest-growing religions. Does this matter? No.  People, even intelligent people, are apparently quite willing to swallow these kinds of stories. 

Your argument about clouds of witnesses, liars, etc would apply to any major religion. You don’t apply it to them, only to yours. Occam would trim them all; natural explanations based on processes we see today are adequate to explain them, we don’t need to accept the thousands of gods required if we were to take all these religions seriously for the reasons you gave.

If you could just step outside your beliefs for one minute, and see them from the outside, you would never go back into that bubble. 

beaglelady - #81053

June 14th 2013

Maybe because he is behind it?

Merv - #81043

June 13th 2013

I have a question for you, Steve.  Did you come to respect the Christian professor who had such an impact on you before you knew he did not share your young-earth views?  The reason I ask is because some may use this as a litmus test and therefore dismiss those who “fail” the test without even considering their testimony.  Either your respect survived the shock of learning he thought differently or grew despite your already knowing.  I’m hoping to tease out a bit more about how this happened if you are at liberty to share details.

Steve Smith - #81060

June 14th 2013

Sorry for the delay in responding.  I can’t keep up with the pace of the postings.  First of all, Merv, have you been channeling my thoughts?  Again, your excellent reply (#81014) was prescient.

Lou.  It appears that with my first ever BioLogos post I have just stepped into a conversation and argument that has been going on for some time. I doubt that my answers will satisfy you any more than those given previously by others on this forum.  But I will add my thoughts anyway.

Life is a journey and our path is, in part, determined by the choices we make.  But just why we made the choices that we did is not always easy to explain.  Even as a scientist that prides himself on the use of logic and rationality, I cannot always give a complete account for every choice I’ve made.  Why did I fall in love with the woman that I married 34 years ago?  What was it that attracted me to her when others thought (and some still do) that we were so different as to be incompatible?  And why did I fall in love with Christ, a life of faith, and with science?  What was it that attracted me to these things when others think they are so different as to be incompatible?

I can only list some of the reasons though I doubt they would be sufficient enough to compel someone of a different mindset to follow.  First there was the visual witness of many Christians living out their faith with humility, Christ-likeness, and a commitment to serving others.  That was a lifestyle that I found appealing.  Sure, I also saw some in the Church that were poor examples of true Christianity but I noticed that I most commonly saw the flaws in others that reminded me of my own shortcomings.  I also saw relationships repaired, addictions lost, selfishness and greed converted to selfless service & charity, and lives changed for the better. (Even if, as some atheists argue, those changes are just the power of belief, why would I then opt for a life of unbelief?)  And then there was the historical testimony of a few timid followers of Christ who became so radically energized by post-crucifixion events (i.e., the resurrection) that they changed their world.

I’m sure that there were less rational factors in my decision as well – culture, community, family – but that doesn’t bother me as much as you appear to think it should. Perhaps that’s because I don’t believe that I am 100% right and all other religions are 100% wrong.  I believe that the near universality of religious expression reflects a God that seeks to draw all humanity to Himself.

When my faith was shaken by scientific evidence that seemed to contradict my beliefs, I examined the alternatives of agnosticism and atheism.  I found little in atheism to be appealing.  First, it could not explain, to my satisfaction, the experiences and evidence that I listed above.  And secondly, though it seemed to offer an easy solution to my doubts and concerns, it put me squarely back into the false dilemma that I was rejecting – either science was true or the Bible was true, either the Bible was inspired by God or not, either God exists or he does not, either my faith was 100% true or 100% false.

Lou, although you may prove to be the exception to the rule, most atheists that I had met were just as wedded to the same extreme black or white view of life as the most literalistic, fundamentalist Christian.  They were two sides of the same coin.  In fact, a large percentage of them were formally Christians that had not changed their philosophical positions but had simply switched sides.  I didn’t become an atheist because I was rejecting that entire extreme dualistic philosophical view of life.

Lou Jost - #81065

June 14th 2013

Thanks for your extensive answer; I appreciate it. Most atheists I know, including myself and even Dawkins, are not really stuck in a black and white world, though it may seem so from a Christian view. Most of us see belief in god as a continuum, depending on the kind of god under discussion. We strongly reject the personal gods of organized religions, but our certainty decreases as the god concept in question becomes more and more vague.

Nevertheless, some questions really do have yes-or-no answers. A particular kind of god either exists or it doesn’t. This isn’t quite the same kind of dichotamy as “The bible is true/the bible is false”. Parts of the bible can be true and parts can be false; parts can be interpreted in different ways, some true and some false, and some so subjective that one cannot assign truth values to them. But existence doesn’t seem to be that kind of quality. A personal god really might not exist, in any shape or form.

You said “Even if, as some atheists argue, those changes are just the power of belief, why would I then opt for a life of unbelief?” I think the answer to this question is fundamental. Most atheists cannot imagine choosing to believe something that is not true, even if it made life better.

Lou Jost - #81068

June 14th 2013

I think this is true of many religious people as well as atheists.

Steve Smith - #81061

June 14th 2013

Merv.  My posts do not seem to follow the comment to which I am replying.  This is in response to your question in #81043.

I had never personally met the Geology professor that I wrote of until the day, near the end of my freshman year, when I walked into his office and unexpectedly announce that I wanted to change my major to a combined Geology-Chemistry degree. At that time I did not fully know his beliefs but I was aware that his Geology 101 class did not teach Young Earth Creationist Flood Geology thought nor soft-pedaled fossil evidence for evolution. During the summer between that first meeting and the first geology class, I re-read and armed myself with every YEC argument that I could find.  I had previously confronted PhD theology professors and had no qualms about confronting a PhD science professor with my own beliefs.  I walked into that first class prepared to meet the devil.  However, my imagined adversary quickly showed himself to be one who (a) loved Christ; (b) loved his students; and (c) loved science in general and geology in particular.  His witness, patience, mutual respect, and teaching had a profound influence in my life, faith, and career.

I’m not sure how this affects my personal testimony but make of it what you will.

beaglelady - #81062

June 14th 2013

Your story sounds similar to that of Denis Lamoureux.  He was a staunch YEC, prepared to do battle with his teachers,   but gradually changed his views after studying both science and theology with caring professors.

Merv - #81069

June 14th 2013

Thanks, Steve.  I was only asking because as a teacher (not a college professor, but a high school science teacher) I hope to be part of the solution in all this that seeks to disarm unhelpful dilemmas, and more importantly exhibit a life of following Christ. 

As Lou said above, there are some things that will be either true or false, depending largely on how we craft the statement and define the terms.  We are called to make clear choices in life.  But there are other issues where the choice may be to walk away or to take “the third way” by replacing the “either/or” posture with the “both/and”.

That last seemingly simple challenge [both/and thinking] may be a well-worn groove of thought in my own mind by now, but I find that for a devout athiest friend of mine it is a very difficult mindset to understand (not meaning you here Lou—- though you might also qualify; and certainly I do also see you as a friend.)

Lou Jost - #81071

June 14th 2013

Merv, I also feel like I am discussing all this with you as a friend. I can easly imagine discussing things with you while hiking or over dinner, though I know we would disagree about most things.

Like your other atheist friend, I would have trouble with both/and thinking when it comes to existential questions, which seem binary to me if the concept under discussion is sufficiently clear. In scientific disputes, resolutions usually incorporate something from both sides, but this is not because reality is fuzzy but rather because our original ways of thinking were too simplistic. There is only one truth, but language often forces us into false dichotamies.

mikitta - #81854

July 14th 2013

Thank you for your article, Steve.  This is very much how I came to understand the issue between science and faith not very long ago (and around the time I discovered Biologos).  It was such freedom to realize that science and faith are not mutually exclusive at all, and in fact an old earth, evolotionary view of creation has strengthened my faith in far greater ways than I could have imagined.

I look forward to reading more articles from you.

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