I didn’t go to church even once in high school, nor during my freshman year in college. As a lower-middle class kid from L.A., I had arrived at Harvard as an agnostic. Meeting my kind and impressive roommates only confirmed that I had entered the future, and it was unrelentingly secular. It was not that they were militant atheists, who often talk more about God than most Christians. Instead, belief in God was simply off the table as a matter for serious consideration.
But the summer after my freshman year, I got to hear a series of presentations on the composition and reliability of the New Testament. I found it fascinating, because I had assumed that the New Testament had been written centuries after the fact, another made-up religion in a world that didn’t seem to lack for credulous people or myth-mongering authors of religious texts.
I was astounded to learn that the 27 books of the New Testament had been written by eyewitnesses, or those who had talked to eyewitnesses. Just as important, the authors of the books of the New Testament had paid for their truth-telling by losing their social standing and in many cases their lives. So I began to read John’s gospel again—I’d read it before as literature—but this time knowing that I was reading a forthright attempt by regular people to report on what Jesus had said and done.
It was not long before I realized that the God whom I encountered in the written texts about Jesus was the same God now calling me. I responded by repenting and believing the good news about God in Christ reconciling the world, including me, to himself.
Those who had introduced me to Christ also let me know that, by the way, true followers of Jesus do not believe in godless evolution. That was even more good news to me, since I had been a lousy science student in high school and never dreamt of taking a science course in college. What a great religion: your sins are forgiven AND you don’t have to pay attention to science!
But as I began to study Greek and Hebrew, I realized that there was a problem with some of the anti-evolution arguments I had happily accepted. One example is that the word “yom” in Hebrew, meaning “day,” is used in Genesis 1 to count off the days of creation, leading to the seven days of creation that have become fixed in the popular imagination. But in Genesis 2:4, we read about “the day [yom] when the Lord created the heavens and the earth.” And then one notes that the sun is not created until the fourth day, but all along the author has counted off the days of creation by using the phrase “evening and morning, the ____ day.” I am no astronomer, but it seems obvious that you cannot have evening and morning without the sun.
What is going on here? Is the author of Genesis so stupid he didn’t see this? In fact, interpreters of Genesis from the Church Fathers on have noted these facts, and have argued that God has put these clues in the text. This ensures that we will understand that the text is not giving us a recipe for making our world. Instead, God is making a series of unique claims about the Creation in a very humorous way.
For example, the nations surrounding Israel worshipped the sun and the moon. They had temples and priests dedicated to these supposed deities. And they believed the stars were divine and had power to control the destinies of people. Contrast that worldview with Genesis 1, where the sun and moon are said to be mere creations of the one true God. While the nations surrounding Israel venerated the sun and moon as deities, in Genesis 1 they are not even named! It just says that God made “the big light” and “the little light.” To top it all off, the text adds as almost an afterthought, “...and he made the stars.”
The sad thing about trying to turn Genesis 1 and 2 into scientific texts is that we miss the point of why God inspired the writer to write them. They are a frontal assault on any understanding of the world that would view the creation as somehow infused with divinity. Israel, and later the Church, understood this. It is a key reason that science grew on Christian soil and not in places where animistic or quasi-animistic worldviews held sway. Only if the creation is not divine can we study it without fear of engaging in blasphemy.
Read the rest of this post tomorrow, where Todd picks up the thread of biblical interpretation and weaves it into the narrative of how fundamentalism became equated with a young earth creationist view in the first place, and what Christians lose by perpetuating this rift and not engaging in conversation with their scientifically gifted brethren.