This blog is the sixth in a multipart series arguing that science should not be considered a secular enterprise that needs to be integrated with Christian faith, but instead—if understood and utilized correctly—should be used by Christians as a tool for ‘reading’ the Book of Creation. This is because, as I argued in a previous blog, both scripture and Christian tradition clearly call for us to consider both scripture and creation as complementary ways (historically referred to as ‘books’) through which God speaks to us. The key is that we read them both correctly, and in previous blogs I have outlined considerations we must make as we approach our reading of both scripture and creation.
Most importantly, I have argued that scripture is complex and revealed within a variety of social and historical contexts and using a variety of literary styles. Therefore, in order to understand what God is saying in scripture we must take account of both the context and genre in which a particular passage was revealed. When it comes to science, the key is to distinguish the different meanings used when we use the term science, especially the distinction between absolute naturalism (or scientism) and methodological naturalism. The former contradicts Christian faith, but the latter is not only commensurate with Christian faith, but naturally flows from the orthodox Christian belief that God created a good, ordered, and knowable universe. It remains for us now to show how the Books of Scripture and Creation might be read together in helping us to understand the creation of the universe and human origins. Although there are many passages in scripture we may look to, for the sake of brevity, I will generally confine discussion to Genesis 1.
At first look, it would seem that the books of scripture and creation cannot be read in a complementary fashion. The standard theory embraced by most scientists seems to affirm that the universe came into being as the result of a random explosion (Big Bang) some thirteen billion years ago, the fundamental physical laws that govern the universe becoming randomly established in the first microseconds after the initial explosion. Out of this naturally flowed the emergence of galaxies, stars, solar systems, and at least one planet capable of sustaining life. On that planet, the scientific evidence would seem to indicate, life randomly appeared about three-and-a-half billion years ago, and through the natural processes of evolution (which include random genetic mutations, natural selection, etc.) things evolved to the current state of life on earth.
Scripture, on the other hand, seems to indicate that everything came to exist because God spoke it into being, perhaps like a magician who waves his wand and magically makes the world appear. Rather than billions of years, God took only six days. God starts by separating light from darkness and creates day and night on day one; then he works on day two with the apparently pre-existing waters that cover the deep, splitting them in half, using the ground to hold back water below and a solid dome in the air to hold back the water above. Then, on the third day, God gathers the terrestrial waters into seas, and fills the earth with vegetation. Day four, God finally creates the sun and moon and places them in the sky, indicating that the light of day does not come from the sun, since light has been around already three days. Day five God creates all of the creatures that live in the sea and fly in the air. Lastly, he creates humans and creatures of the land on the sixth day.
These two accounts would seem, again, to be in stark contrast in many ways, as Genesis seems to affirm many things that the contemporary scientific consensus would disagree with, including but not limited to the following: the cause and source of creation (God versus Big Bang and random and/or natural processes), the length of time for creation (billions of years versus six days), the place of earth in reference to other celestial entities (earth is at the center according to a plain reading of Gen 1:14-17, which places the sun, moon, and starts ‘in’ the firmament, which is a solid dome, while scientists universally affirm that the earth goes around the sun.), the order of creation (day and night and vegetation come before the sun was created, according to Gen. 1:4-5, while current scientific theories would state that without light from the sun, there would be no day and no vegetation on earth), and whether or not there is or was a solid dome somewhere above the earth which is holding back the primal waters.
This is the kind of contradictory situation we find ourselves locked into when we embrace a problematic understanding of science (viz., that methodological naturalism necessitates absolute naturalism, which it clearly does not!) and a problematic reading of scripture (viz., it can only be read in a simple, literal, plain reading fashion, which it clearly should not). Indeed, in affirming the truth of scripture in this way, not only are we left rejecting all of the geological and genetic evidence that substantiate evolutionary theory and suggest that the earth is billions of years old, but we also are left affirming that the sun circles the earth and the reality of a solid dome in the sky that holds (or at some point in the past held) back enough water to cover the earth. All this despite a massive stockpile of evidence to the contrary!
But, what if we read this passage of scripture differently? That is, what if think of Genesis 1 as something similar to a parable or an allegory, for instance? I do not mean to suggest that Genesis 1 is exactly a parable or allegory, but that there might be similarities between them, and that considering these similarities can help us move forward to reconsider how this passage might be read together with contemporary scientific consensus.
Parables and allegories, as we know, are stories told to convey deep and powerful truths. It is not the literal correspondence between each detail in a parable and actual reality that matters, but the central message and meaning of the parable. This is why Jesus often finished his parables by challenging his listeners to have ‘ears to hear’ what he was saying. It was not that there was necessarily an actual farmer who sowed seed on various types of soil (Mark 4:3-9) or an actual king who gave his servants various amounts of talents (Matt 25:14-30). Such details only mattered inasmuch as they communicated a central message about the gospel to Jesus' audience. And this central message was what Jesus was calling them to have the ears to hear!
And there are good reasons to take such an allegoric and contextual reading to Genesis 1. Indeed, we find many Ancient Near Eastern cultures to have held similar creation stories. For instance, in the Babylonian Enuma Elish we find the god Marduk having created the cosmos by cutting the dragon Tiamat (symbolizing the primal chaos similar to the way that the waters and the deep [tehom, sharing the same linguistic root as the word tiamat] represent primal chaos in Gen. 1) in half, and using one half for the (solid) sky and the other half for the earth. Ancient Greeks told a similar story with Zeus ordering the world by conquering the Titans and their chaotic beast, the Tryphon, while the Egyptians told of Atum defeating Nehebkuah and the Canaanites told of Ba’al defeating Yam to bring order to the world.
Similarly, in the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest known written text, also popular among Mesopotamians, Akkadians, and Assyrians) depicts a world with a dome-like sky holding back water against which the gods huddle while destroying the world with a great flood. This is to say that the peoples of the ancient world who were neighbors of the ancient Hebrews all believed that the world was created by divine beings who had separated and pushed back primal chaotic forces to create an orderly cosmos. Many also believed that the sky was a solid dome which held back water, which would have explained, for instance, the source of rain.
Now, just as it makes sense for God to have revealed himself in ways that first century Jews, Greeks, and Romans could understand, it also makes sense that God would have revealed himself in the time of ancient Israel in the ways that they and their neighbors could understand—that is, through the basic cosmological worldview that they would already understand. Looked at in this way, we may then begin to ask the question of what we can find that is different between the scripture and these heathen cosmogonies, and we begin, I think, to get a sense of what is truly at the heart of the biblical story of creation.
First, it tells of a God who creates. Not a bunch gods, each responsible for one aspect of the world. Not the king of a divine pantheon. One God. THE God. Variously known in the Bible as Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai, El Shaddai. This God is the only true God and the source of all that exists.
Second, this is a good, moral, and just God, completely unlike the petty and capricious gods worshipped by unfaithful Israelites and their pagan neighbors. We need to expand a little beyond Genesis 1 to see this fully unpacked, but we already see the roots of these ideas in this chapter as God affirms that creation in good, stating this a total of seven times in the first chapter alone (six before humans have even been created, indicating that all of it matters to God!).
God also creates human beings with the divine image and likeness. This is in stark contrast to similar claims being made in other ancient creation stories. In the Enuma Elish, humans are formed when a treacherous god is destroyed by the other gods and his blood drips onto and enlivens the dust of the ground. Humans then become the slaves of the gods, tasked with feeding them through ritual sacrifices.
Likewise, in Gilgamesh, the gods decide to destroy humanity simply because humans have become so numerous that their noise is now bothersome to the gods! How different from the story of Noah in which God brings the flood in judgment against human violence and wickedness (Gen 6:5, 11). In The Epic of Gilgamesh, one man (named Utnapishtim the Faraway) survives with his family and some animals by building a raft only because one god, Ea, rebels against the others and secretly warns him in a dream of the impending disaster. Again, how different from the God of scripture who chooses to save Noah because Noah alone has proven righteousness. There is a moral purpose—the preservation of justice and righteousness in creation—behind the biblical God’s actions that is completely lacking among the gods of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples.
Moreover, the God revealed in the Bible is a God of love and care for all creation. He desires the well being of all of his creatures (Gen. 1:22; see also Gen. 9:8-12), and especially the humans, whom he provides care for even when they have responded with acts of disobedience and disrespect. So, God clothes Adam and Even after their well-deserved departure from the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:21); God provides protection for a penitent Cain after he has murdered his brother, Abel (Gen. 4:15); God forges covenants again and again with his people, despite their continual rebelliousness, clearly pointing the way forward to God’s ultimate act of love and covenant formation: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross!
If we allow ourselves the room to see Genesis 1 as something similar to a parable or allegory, rich in symbolism and metaphor, spoken in a language and assuming a worldview that ancient Near Eastern people could understand, we are freed from having to defend the Bible against what otherwise appear to be disagreements with current scientific consensus…about the current structure of our solar system, about how the universe came into being, and even about how human beings came into the world. Nor do we have to speculate wildly about the past existence of ice domes in the sky, primal light in the sky before the formation of the sun and moon, or dinosaurs roaming the earth with humans, all for which there is absolutely no credible evidence and which ultimately only serves the purpose of aligning our current understanding of the world with that held by people thousands of years ago who simply could not understand the world as we do because they did not yet have the tools to observe and study it that we now have. To fail to use these God-given tools is ultimately to surrender science to the secular world!
Nor do Christians, using scientific tools, need to buy into Satan’s lie that a universe that appears to function in an orderly, natural way came into being and functions as it does all by itself. We Christians know better. We believe and scripture affirms that God created this good world, that God created its laws, principles, and elements. We need not, therefore, fear science. It is a gift from God given to the church to understand God’s handiwork in the world, to worship God for God’s majesty and wonder as its creator, and to serve God’s purposes as caretakers for the people and the creation that God loves. THIS is what it means to refuse to surrender science to the secular world. So let’s claim it as our own and start reading BOTH of God’s Books as God intended: together!