On February 23, in a limited selection of theaters around the country, thousands of people flocked to watch the debut showing of Compass Cinema’s Is Genesis History? This well-produced documentary—written, produced, and directed by Thomas Purifoy, Jr.—features Del Tackett, a former Senior Vice President of Focus on the Family and former president of the Focus on the Family Institute. Tackett is best known for creating The Truth Project (2006), a 13-hour, DVD-based small group curriculum widely used in evangelical circles that attempts to communicate a Christian worldview when engaging topics such as philosophy, ethics, theology, science, sociology, and politics.
Seven years ago, I watched The Truth Project with a local Bible study group. In the sessions that touched on science, Tackett almost exclusively used material produced by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, an Intelligent Design (ID) advocacy group mostly staffed by old-earth creationists (OEC). Some ID advocates (such as biochemist Michael Behe) even accept the basic principles of evolutionary theory and common descent. Given what I knew of Tackett’s ID/OEC sympathies, I was genuinely curious to see how different the movie’s arguments would be from those he used in The Truth Project.
I sat down in the theater packed full with church groups and watched Tackett, over the course of nearly two hours, interview more than a dozen scholars and scientists (including one Discovery Institute Fellow), all of whom possess legitimate doctoral degrees from respected institutions in the fields of study for which they were interviewed. Instead of a rehash of ID “theory,” I witnessed Tackett’s full embrace of the “flood geology” model popularized by the late Henry Morris and the anti-evolution arguments of young-earth creationist (YEC) ministry Answers in Genesis. While the purpose of this article is not to provide the reader with a blow-by-blow refutation of the scientific, biblical, or theological claims made in the movie, I do want—as someone who’s made the journey from young-earth creationism to evolutionary creationism—to highlight some of the movie’s missteps.
Failure to Interact with Other Views on Science and Faith
The movie’s marketing tagline is “Two Competing Views … One Compelling Truth.” To Tackett’s and the interviewees’ credit, they generally describe mainstream scientific views regarding geology and evolution without the typical ad hominem overtones found elsewhere. However, mentions of mainstream scientific views are brief, serving only as a point of contrast to young-earth creationism and never substantially engaging the voluminous evidence that undergirds them. In essence, the movie serves as an exercise in putting the godless “conventional paradigm” of an evolving 13.78-billion-year-old cosmos against the “historical Genesis paradigm” of a cosmos created fully formed in the recent past.
Moreover, Is Genesis History? (hereafter, IGH) fails to represent scientists and theologians within the broader evangelical Christian community who hold alternative views on science and faith. Not only did Hugh Ross’ Reasons to Believe ministry fail to obtain a hearing for its acceptance of a 13.78-billion-year-old cosmos, but the movie’s producer ensured that the sole Discovery Institute representative, Paul Nelson, did not publicly acknowledge his role as a Fellow of this organization in either the movie or its accompanying e-book. In fact, rarely throughout the movie are alternative views on science and faith even discussed. The most substantial exception is the panel discussion tacked onto the end of the movie, but even then, the “theistic evolution” view is grossly misrepresented.
Tackett’s second interview, with Paul Nelson, sets the tone for the rest of the movie. “In the conventional paradigm,” Nelson asserts, “you’ve got deep time, 13.7 billion years along which this gradual process beginning with primal simplicity ending in what we see today. All the complexity in life has to be built bottom up by strictly physical processes where no mind, no creator, no design is present.” Contrast this with Nelson’s description of the “historical Genesis paradigm”: “Everything starts with a divine mind, a creator, an intelligence that plans and superintends and brings into existence reality. Events are happening on a much more recent timescale. The universe, the solar system, our planet, life itself, all of that begins fully formed as a functioning system.” Do you see the problem here?
Tackett’s unquestioning affirmation of this false dichotomy completely (and conveniently) ignores the fact that both OEC and EC adherents wholeheartedly affirm the existence of a divine mind, the very same one fellow Christ-followers believe endowed the universe from its very beginning with design1 and continues to uphold its existence by the word of His power (Heb 1:3). Why perpetuate a false dichotomy? Why portray all other perspectives on origins as essentially atheistic, even those held by devout Christians? This glaring straw-man fallacy allows the movie to repeatedly insinuate that it presents the only viewpoint that really believes in a Creator. This misrepresentation is so glaring that Nelson himself disavowed his role in the film just prior to its release, strongly critiquing the producers for failing to accurately portray the origins conversation among Christians.
Failure to Engage Other Hermeneutical Views
IGH also ignores the existence of other (arguably more faithful) interpretations of Genesis 1, such as those proffered in Deborah and Loren Haarsma’s Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design and John Walton’s Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. Hebraist Steven Boyd, who serves as the movie’s hermeneutics expert, claims that a linguistic analysis of Genesis 1 proves that it is “obviously” an “accurate historical account” that “speaks of real events.” In fact, Boyd goes so far as to claim that “all Hebraists affirm Genesis [chapter 1] as historical narrative” (emphasis mine). Never mind that linguistics supplies only part of the meaning behind any ancient text, that a close cultural study of Genesis 1 is necessary to obtain a fuller understanding of that chapter’s original intent. It is as if Dr. Boyd is unaware that the last century-and-a-half has uncovered a vast trove of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) manuscripts, literary treasures that have allowed biblical scholars to shed considerable light on the meaning of Genesis 1. Such discoveries turn onto its head Boyd’s claim that considering alternative views “only works if you impose a foreign idea onto the text.” Likewise, taphonomist Arthur Chadwick believes organizations like BioLogos are “imposing a foreign paradigm on the [scientific] data.” I am convinced it is the other way around: Treating the Bible as a science textbook and dismissing Scripture’s theological relevance to its original audience within their own cultural context makes both Boyd and Chadwick fall prey to the very thing of which they accuse evolutionary creationists: imposing modern ideas on an ancient text.
The tenacity with which the movie defends a highly literalistic interpretation of Genesis stems, I believe, from a fear that considering any other approach would destroy the Bible’s entire message. The “historical implications of rejecting scripture are immense,” Pastor George Grant cautions in the movie. “Ridding the Bible of a literal interpretation changes everything.” If Genesis is not strictly “historical” (i.e., read at face value in a YEC fashion and assembled into a sequence of literal events), the entire Bible’s truthfulness is negated. But if Grant is right here, how does one explain the fact that some of the Bible’s most able defenders of the last 150 years—including B.B. Warfield, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, John Stott, and many others—did not consider it necessary to read Genesis in this fashion?
In the aforementioned panel discussion at the end of the movie, Tackett fails to show any real command or have an appreciation for the scientific or theological nuances of an evolutionary creationist approach. Instead, Tackett is incredulous that “theistic evolutionists” (as YECs always call us, despite endless appeals to be addressed as “evolutionary creationists”) can even invoke the existence of a Creator, especially when such views make God out to be the origin of death and evil and “cuts out the legs from underneath the gospel message.” Theistic evolution, Tackett warns, strikes at the heart of the concept of a compassionate God, whom Tackett can’t imagine would delight in watching animals painfully trying to evolve wings and lungs over long stretches of time (a characterization which, by the way, demonstrates a very shallow understanding of evolution).
The ease with which Tackett claims to know what gives God delight or displeasure, in the context of natural history, is breathtaking. Never mind that the Bible consistently reveals a God whose ways do not align with human ideas of what is best or most expedient. For example, a number of Davidic psalms cry out against God’s apparent silence in the midst of tragedy, and Job remains befuddled by Yahweh’s mysterious ways as it pertains to moral justice. The Bible also reveals a God who delights to partner with His creation to accomplish His purposes, even if it means a messier or less expedient narrative. While Tackett’s concerns about why a “compassionate” God would ordain creation through evolution are important, they are not categorically different than the bigger questions of why God allows death and suffering in the first place—questions with which both Jews and Christians struggled long before Darwin appeared on the scene. Faced with ever-present death and suffering in God’s creation, the best any of us can do is put our faith in God’s plan that he will make use of suffering by means of Christ’s redemptive work on the Cross and in the hope His resurrection represents. I would suspect that this answer is, ultimately, not much different than the beliefs of Tackett and the other panelists. Championing a woodenly literal interpretation of Genesis does not recuse them from these tough questions. Thus, Tackett’s theological uppercut delivered to the “theistic evolutionist” position is puzzling at best and divisive at worst.
It’s a Wrap!
To be fair, I completely understand the paradigm that IGH advocates. I was raised in an environment where the false dichotomy between mainstream scientific consensus and faith reigned supreme. I had no idea that there were other legitimate ways to reconcile modern science with my Christian faith, and when I did discover that these other views existed, I remained mystified that devout Christians could believe in evolution and an ancient universe and not become godless! It took years for me to even look at the evidence much less gaze at it for fear that I would end up a hopeless case. Eventually, however, I concluded that I had to set my incredulity aside and, without sacrificing my faith, consider the idea that divinely-instituted natural processes can truly result in the evolution of solar systems as well as complex genomes. Concluding I was looking at the evidence from too great a distance to find a safe intellectual haven, this Jesus-loving pilot purposefully descended toward the data for a closer look. In the process, I recognized that I had inadvertently made the Bible and the doctrine of creation “subservient to scientific discussion,” placing them “at the beck and call of the latest empirical evidence and interpretation” rather than properly understanding Scripture in its historical, cultural, and literary context (to quote the late, great Conrad Hyers).2 I found a safe landing zone: a sturdy approach to faith, science, and hermeneutics that allowed me to both fully embrace the scientific method (with its never-ending, humbling refinement process) and affirm sacred Scripture’s timeless and universal message of God’s sovereignty over all creation.
Not wanting to end on a critical note, I must admit that I find significant common ground with IGH’s creators. When both sides look at our marvelous universe and the planet on which we reside, we are compelled to contemplate the nature of the Creator in addition to the nature of the cosmos He created. Both sides believe that “the heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV). Both sides believe the Creator’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20 ESV). Both sides fully affirm the historicity and salvific importance of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth. Within my paradigm, everyone involved in IGH’s conception, creation, and marketing is my brother and sister in Christ. That being said, let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18a).
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