Parable of the Prodigal Son
One of my favorite parables is that of the lost son. There’s a lot to it. Basically, it’s a story that Jesus told about a young man who insulted his father by demanding his share of the inheritance early, then ran off to spend that money on wild living, and found himself destitute when the money was gone. In desperation, he returned to his father, asking to work as a servant. But instead of being angry, his father joyfully embraced his lost son and threw a huge feast to celebrate his return. It is a great story that Jesus tells to help us understand God’s amazing grace.
How many of you know this story? Raise your hand, if you would. Okay. Now I want to make sure I’m clear…that’s a lot of you…I don’t mean just like, you know it because I just told it to you. I mean you know it because you’ve heard a sermon on this before, or maybe you’ve read it on your own. Raise your hand high if that’s true of you. Wow, still a lot of you. That’s perfect because I actually have a couple of questions maybe you can help me with. You see, it says that the father saw the son while he was still a long way off. Can anybody tell me how far off was the son at that point? Anybody know that? Because, you know, they didn’t have glasses back then, and the father was really old, so how far could he really see? It just doesn’t really add up for me. Can anybody tell me about that? Nobody? Okay. Well I have another question. Maybe this one’s easier. What town did that family live in? Does anybody know that? No? Nobody? What town they lived in? People, this is one of the greatest stories of all time! This is a story that has changed thousands of lives, including many of yours! How can you say that you know this story, that you understand this story, if you don’t even understand these basic facts? Okay, well maybe this is easier. Speaking of family, the Bible’s into family values, so I want to know—where’s the mother? Can anybody tell me? Is this family not intact? What’s wrong? Did they get a divorce maybe? And how come the father ended up with the custody of the sons? And why did they only have two? Families back then had much bigger families. Maybe they just got divorced too early? But I mean he seems so nice—why do you think she left? Anybody know these things? I mean I just don’t get it. You all tell me you know this story, and yet you don’t understand just these simple things about it.
Obviously, my questions miss the whole point of the story. There was no mother, or for that matter, no father or son either. This never actually happened. It’s just a parable. It’s one of the many marvelous stories that Jesus told in order to help us understand something that was hard to see. Now does that make it so that this story isn’t true? No, it is true. This story communicates some of the most important truths in the universe—about God’s nature, and the way that we relate to him. There are many passages in scripture that promise God’s love, or praise God’s love, or even try to explain God’s love. But this passage helps us grasp that truth in a way that’s much more effectively communicated than just through direct reporting. This way helps us feel it. This event never happened, but it’s one of the truest stories in the world. And what a shame for someone to dismiss it as irrelevant because it’s not literal history, or miss the point by asking the wrong kinds of questions.
Now I bring this up because just like my questions miss the point of the lost son parable, so, I fear, many of us ask the wrong questions about the beginning of the book of Genesis, which we read from just a few minutes ago. Not only does this generate needless confusion and division, it also makes us miss the point, miss the life-changing truths that we could see if we asked the right questions. Right now we’re in a sermon series studying the Apostle’s Creed, an ancient declaration of faith in the God of the Bible. And today, we’re considering the word “creator.” So, Genesis seemed like the right place to go.
Like the story of the lost son, most of you know the basic outline: God created the universe in six days and then napped on the seventh (so those of you who nap through my sermons every Sunday, you’re in good company!). But by adding up all the names of the people mentioned in Genesis, and throughout the rest of the Bible, seventeenth century Bishop Ussher determined that the creation of Adam and Eve, and everything else, happened in 4,004 BC—about 6,000 years ago. And that’s great. But you’re probably also aware that this creates some tension with contemporary scientists who suggest a different timeline. Considering the evidence offered by the size and expansion rate of the universe, plate tectonics, fossil evidence, and genetics, their best guess is that the universe was created by a big bang about 13 billion years ago, the earth appeared about 4.5 billion years ago, and the earliest humans existed about 200,000 years ago. In the past 300 years, this has become a very heated debate. Apparently, we need to choose whether we believe in science or in scripture. At least that’s the claim made by the most strident voices on each side, so the general population seems to have accepted that if you believe in God you can’t believe in evolution, and if you believe in evolution then you can’t believe in God.
This topic arouses passions and anxieties in many people, including some in this room. No matter what your perspective is, I’m probably going to say something that you’ll disagree with, and might even make you angry. There’ll be plenty of time for you to set me straight in the coming weeks. But for the next half hour, in order to allow the possibility that we might hear something new, or even learn from the Holy Spirit, let’s lay aside our defensiveness so that we can at least consider why we are so attached to whatever ideas we have, and evaluate whether our devotion to one truth may be blinding us to others. As scientists have discovered more and more evidence supporting the basic evolutionary theory outlined in Darwin’s Origin of Species, Christians have responded in a variety of ways.
Science has been right about so many things, so some Christians have embraced evolution and felt forced to abandon their trust, not only in the truth of Scripture, but also in the God it describes. Other Christians, including many renowned scientists, have fought back by pointing out the many flaws in evolutionary theory and proposing alternative theories of their own. These include Young Earth Creation, which asserts that the earth was created in six days six thousand years ago, and offers thoughtful explanations to reconcile the findings of science with the words of Genesis 1. Old Earth Creationists do the same thing, but contend that each of the days in Genesis could represent an epoch, or a million years, or whatever amount of time, instead of just a 24-hour day. This is linguistically legitimate—it’s a fine interpretation of the Hebrew word “day” in Genesis—and it recognizes that it’s hard to measure a day before the invention of the sun in day four, anyway. So, Old Earth Creationism opens up many possibilities to reconcile scientific claims about the age of the earth with a literal interpretation of Genesis. Theistic Evolution takes further steps to accommodate evolution while still honoring God as the one who created heaven and earth and everything in them through the evolutionary process. This is attractive because it eliminates the conflict between science and scripture, but it requires a very different way of reading Genesis. They suggest that, like I did with the parable of the prodigal son earlier, perhaps we’re asking the wrong questions about Genesis so that we’re inventing an unnecessary argument, and even worse, we’re also missing what the first chapters of Genesis really are all about.
The First Chapters of Genesis: Absolutely, but not Literally, True
Open your Bibles up and let’s look together at Genesis chapter one. Sadly, I think that most translations of the first words of the Bible get us started on the wrong foot. “Bershit barah Elohim. Hashamiim vahaaritz” is the Hebrew introduction to the Bible. It’s usually translated, at least the traditional translation going back to the King James Version in 1611, is “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” But a better translation of that sentence may be, “in the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and empty.” That means that instead of claiming to be the first point in creation, this story opens up at an early stage in creation, which makes sense because the earth, although still a wet mess, already exists. This opening has much more of a, “once upon a time,” or, “back when kings still roamed the earth,” sensibility about it, and it’s less precise about an exact moment. And this kind of opening is used for a very different kind of literature, which we’ll get to more of in a moment.
Verse 3: “And God said ‘let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw the light was good and he separated the light form the darkness. God called the light ‘day’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ There was evening and there was morning, the first day.” As you can see, the entire chapter follows this same pattern. If you’re looking at it, you just see this repeated over and over again—these same phrases over and over again—and God said let there be a vault, and God said let there be water, and God called the vault ‘sky’ and the dry ground land, and there was evening and there was morning, the second day, and the third day, and so on it goes. It’s interesting to note, however, the odd order that we see here. God created light on the first day, but no sun or stars to generate light until the fourth. He created vegetation on the third day before there was any sun or rain to nourish it. Of course God can do anything he pleases, but it’s strange that in the very next chapter, Genesis 2:5, we read, “now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground.” We could point at many more similar problems, and it should raise questions that two incongruent creation accounts are written back to back.
But we encounter a very different type of problem if we skip a few chapters ahead. We learn that Adam and Eve were the first couple, and they had two sons. Fair enough. But in chapter four, after Cain kills his brother Abel, who was he so afraid would kill him in revenge? Who are all these people he’s nervous about? And in verse 17, whom exactly did he marry? Well, you think maybe the Bible just didn’t happen to mention that Adam and Eve also had a bunch of daughters. Maybe it didn’t say that, and so maybe Cain married one of them, which is a little freaky, and something the Bible specifically prohibits. But then the two of them moved to a city. A city? I mean, there’s only one family on earth! Right? And his brother’s dead! Perhaps this is why so many early Christians, long before Darwin, didn’t read Genesis in the same way that modern Christians assume we should. For example, following many people before him, the great church father Origen, born in the 2nd century, revered the scriptures, but didn’t believe Genesis 1 to be a historical or literal account of the creation of the cosmos. The colossal scholar, Saint Augustine in the 5th century, shared the same view, as did Thomas Aquinas, the leading voice of Christian orthodoxy in the 13th century.
These are all very conservative Christian scholars who believed the Bible was absolutely true. And yet, long before Darwin, all of them warned that misreading Genesis 1 and 2 literally might make us miss what they’re really all about. Just like arguing about his mother might make us miss the main point of the prodigal son parable. Just a few years before Darwin published The Origin of Species, John Wesley, the 18th century Anglican minister who was the pioneer of the Methodist movement, also rejected a literalist interpretation of a 6 day creation. In the 19th century, perhaps the most influential defender of biblical inerrancy was Professor B.B. Warfield, who also accepted evolution as the proper scientific account of human origins.
It’s commonly assumed that we must choose between science and scripture. And yet long before Darwin, Christians who believed in the absolute truth of scripture did not believe that Genesis described a literal 6 day creation any more than we think that Jesus was describing a real family in the parable of the prodigal son. Both Genesis 1 and Luke 15 are absolutely true—but not literally true. There’s an important difference. And demanding a literal meaning may make us miss the critical truths that they convey.
What is the beginning of Genesis really about?
So what is the beginning of Genesis about? It explains who God is and who we are and God’s relationship to the world and our relationship to the world and God’s relationship to us and our relationship to each other. It addresses sin and work, temptation and pride, and suffering, and the deepest longings of our souls. I’ve preached hundreds of sermons from Genesis 1-3, and I could preach a hundred more and still not cover all that’s in here. So, I’m not going to examine any of the individual ideas, but I want to help you see the overall structure of Genesis 1.
The first thing to notice is that Genesis 1 is a poem. As evangelicals, we affirm that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. Therefore, we believe that the Bible is totally accurate. But that doesn’t mean that we take it all literally. Consider the following passage—Isaiah 55: “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will burst into song before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands.” If we take the Bible literally then we’re forced to contend with the problem that trees don’t even have hands. So is this passage untrue? No! We easily understand this passage is poetry. It’s expressing great truth in a genre that’s not literal.
I can appreciate the desire to interpret Genesis 1 like it’s a chapter from some history book. But the poetic, repetitive style suggests it’s not merely a list of facts. Let me show you how many Bible scholars read it: “Initially, the earth was formless and empty.” As this chart illustrates, the first three days correct the formlessness of creation, and the next three fill the emptiness of creation. In the first three days, God established the great domains of light, darkness, sea, sky, land, and plants. In the next three days he fills those domains with sun, moon, stars, fish and birds, land animals, and humans. If you look closely at the order of creation you see that the first three days and the last three days of creation correspond perfectly to each other. Many people turn to Genesis 1 to ask questions about the age of the earth or the order of creation. But maybe it’s not here. And those are the wrong questions that might even make us miss the main points. It would be like a modern lawyer looking to the prodigal son story to learn how to do estate distribution. The account of creation makes many points about God’s power, his ownership over creation, that he made us in his image and he invited us to live in his world, and then commanded us to take care of it. Things the other local cultures tended to worship, like the sun, moon, animals and birds: they’re all clearly depicted as God’s handiwork, not gods themselves. See, this is not intended to be a precise scientific description of the way God made the world, but a poetic hymn about who made the world and the relationships of everything in it. So it’s not necessary to also assume that the order of the events in this poem also match the historical events. And that’s why the writer of Genesis sees no contradiction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Now some people think Genesis 2 is where actual history begins, and others see it as just another poem highlighting a different important truth about humanity. Does this mean that Genesis 1 is not true? No. It only means that it’s not literal.
I contend that there’s more truth—about theology, anthropology, and ecology, and spirituality, and human dignity, and human responsibility packed into this short chapter than a hundred normal books could describe on their own. Like the parable of the lost son, that’s why it’s so powerful. It’s truthful, it’s just not historical. But don’t get tricked into thinking that’s the only kind of truth. But if Genesis 1 is not literal history, then how do we know that the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24 is literal history? Is that just another poem? How can you tell the difference? Usually it’s pretty obvious from the context. If I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me to the store,” you understand I mean something very different than if I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me up a wall.” One is clearly literal and the other is clearly symbolic, but they both may be one hundred percent true. Jesus and the gospel writers poked fun at the ignorant literalism of the people who didn’t understand the obvious metaphors when Jesus said things like, “You must be born again” or, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally. They should have been able to distinguish between things that are symbolic and things that are scientific. One is not more true than the other. They’re just different ways of expressing truth. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take Genesis 1 seriously. To the contrary, I’m suggesting we fail to take it seriously when, like a parable, we insist on taking it literally instead. When we make it about six days, when we make it simply a recipe for baking a galaxy. In contrast, in Luke 1, Luke insists that he’s reporting historical events carefully checked against the testimony of eye witnesses. That’s an unmistakable sign that he expects to be taken literally.
The point I’m making is that we still may reject elements of evolution on scientific grounds. But a high view of scripture does not necessarily preclude accepting evolution as the way God created the cosmos. Many contemporary evangelical leaders have affirmed this view, including Tim Keller, and C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham, John Stott, and N.T. Wright, and John Polkinghorne. When we get to Genesis 2, things are less clear. Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence. But scholars are divided about chapters 2 to 10. Most evangelical Christians assume, insist, that God literally created the first man out of the mud and made the first woman from his rib. Others suggest this looks a lot like poetry again, and being too literal misses the main point. The great evangelical author John Stott suggested there may have been thousands of hominids already formed through an evolutionary process and Genesis 2 simply recounts the moment God breathed his spirit into them, giving them the uniquely human traits of self-reflection and moral reasoning. C.S. Lewis went much further, arguing that Adam and Eve weren’t intended to be thought of as real people at all, but archetypes who represent all of humanity. This story is not about an actual event, but about the sin nature in all of us that causes us to pull away from God because we want to be like God ourselves. So we disobey his commandments and we make ourselves miserable in the process. This explains why we all feel alienated from God and from one another, and it also explains why we all need Jesus to save us. The fact that Adam’s name means—literally in Hebrew—humanity, and Eve’s means life, lend themselves to an archetypal interpretation. This doesn’t mean the story never happened; it means it happens over and over again in every human who’s ever lived. So rather than just being a historical account of some ancient ancestor, this is a true story about you. Do you hear the difference? See, this solves the biblical riddles about who Cain might have married, and what city they moved to, and it leaves plenty of room for God to have created humans over any time scale he wanted.
Maybe you know the old joke about a scientist who told God that he’d figured out how to create life just like God did. So God asks to see it, and the scientist reaches down to grab some dirt. God says, “Hold it—get your own dirt!” See, in creation God packed the dirt with all the atoms and elements required to create life. And then, in Genesis 2:9 and 19, he used it to create all kinds of trees and animals and birds, and in verse 7 he used it to create humans. Did God create them directly or through a long evolutionary process he planned from the beginning and will write into that amazing dirt that he created? I can’t know which of these interpretations is correct. Many contemporary scientists use fossil records, and archaeology, and genetics, to insist that humanity is much older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow, and could not have come from a single human couple. Others disagree. I don’t know. No one knows. Maybe Genesis isn’t trying to answer that question.
Why Christians Resist Evolution
So why do some Christians fight so vigorously against the very idea of evolution? I suspect that one reason is confusion between evolution and atheism. The real battle is not between God as creator and evolution as process. Whether God created in the way that the Young Earth Creationists describe, the Old Earth Creationists, or the Theistic Evolutionists propose, none is incompatible with the Bible’s insistence on God as our creator. The real debate is between theism, the belief that there is a God, and atheism, the conviction that there is not. And beyond, well, there’s nothing. Beyond what we can see, detect, or measure with the tools of science. Those two convictions—that the God described in the Bible, revealed in Jesus and experienced by the Holy Spirit exists or does not—cannot be reconciled. You have to choose. But the fact that many atheists affirm evolution does not mean, therefore, that evolution is inherently atheistic. Many atheists also probably think that we should help the poor, and may enjoy getting pizza when they get together. That doesn’t mean that helping the poor and eating pizza is inherently atheistic. We should resist atheism, not evolution.
Even worse, some Christians have overreacted by becoming suspicious of all science. But if we believe that God created everything then all truth leads to him. He is the way and the truth and the life. So faith doesn’t begin when science fails, the so-called “God of the gaps” approach. Some Christians are afraid that evolutionary theory might one day get so good that it will eliminate the need for these periodic interventions by God to keep the process going. But is that really all God does? Intervene every few hundreds of thousands of years to correct the creation that he made when it falls short? No! Maybe God made it right in the beginning so he doesn’t ever have to intervene to repair it: he intervenes to relate with us. So it’s really not intervention. It’s involvement in creation.
The Bible teaches us many essential things, some of which we may miss if we’re looking for answers about the age of the earth or the process of creation, which I don’t think are there. Opposing elements of evolution can be done on scientific grounds, but the scriptures themselves don’t demand it. So while we must reject an atheistic world view, there’s no reason to reject science. Of course, one reason that so many Christians have been lured into this faulty position is in reaction to some scientists who overreach and overpromise. They ignorantly suggest that science offers an alternative to God. Science can describe what is, but not why or where it all came from. So, while science is an incredible tool for uncovering all the marvels god created, scientists need to have appropriate humility about what they know. But if the data don’t demand we deny God, why do some scientists do it? It’s not a scientific issue. It is a spiritual issue that goes all the way back to Genesis. The ability to create implies the authority to command. And just like Adam and Eve, there’s an impulse in all of us to deny that there may be someone more powerful and authoritative than we are. We don’t want to worship God, we want to be gods. The stories in Genesis about pride and sin are as true today as they have ever been.
Science and Faith Complement Each Other
When well understood, science and faith should not conflict. They should complement each other because science can allow us to see even more of the majesty, complexity, and beauty that God created. On Monday, I showed my kids an amazing video that scales out from the surface of the earth in these powers of ten, going beyond our atmosphere and our solar system and our galaxy to the edge of the visible universe, and it was amazing! As we talked about it I said, “this is what our almighty Father created! I mean just think what that means about how big he must be if he can do all of this.” The times where it seems black is just because there is so much space, and it goes and goes and goes and goes…and I want you to hear Romans 1, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
See! That is why historically, scientific discovery thrived wherever Christianity went because scientists were assured that the universe was intelligible and worth investigating and reflected God himself. That is why most of the world’s great scientists in history have been Christians. Psalm 19 celebrates, “the heavens proclaim the glory of God; the skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard, yet their message has gone throughout the earth and their words to all the world. Science is a spiritual calling, so let us love God and embrace science as a way to know him even better.
Some people worship God with science just like some other people worship God with a guitar. That is why so many scientists are also believers. Among university professors, surveys find the highest percentage of Christians in the hard sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics—perhaps because they are the ones who best know the limitations of science and spend the most time exploring the vast wonders of creation. Francis Collins, America’s senior scientist as the director of the National Institutes of Health and the head of the human genome project, is also a strong Evangelical Christian even though he used to be an atheist. His outstanding book The Language of God describes how science helped lead him to Christ. He wonders if DNA might not be the logos or the language through which God spoke life into existence.
Some of you know that I gathered for dinner maybe five times last year with about forty or so professors (mostly from Harvard and MIT and mostly in the sciences), but from all kinds of faith backgrounds or non-faith backgrounds, and we met to discuss these intersections between science and faith. During one of those dinners, Howard Smith, the senior astrophysicist at Harvard and at the Smithsonian, explored the inexplicable coincidences required for a planet to sustain life, for example, the precise balance between the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force—the same thing with gravity and electromagnetism. Stephen Hawking, who was not at dinner with us, noted the rate of expansion of the universe…if it had been smaller or greater by just one part in one billion, the whole universe would have collapsed immediately. Dr. Smith suggested that all this indicates the hand of a purposeful creator, and as we discussed it around our dinner table that night, the other scientists admitted that the mathematical odds against random chance seemed almost impossible.
Why am I preaching this today? There are three things I am much more concerned about than any particular position on evolutionary science. First, there is a God who knows everything. Whether you are a seminary professor or a science professor, you are not him. We all need more humility because all of us are still learning about this. Let us learn all we can, but let us be appropriately suspicious of our own certainty before we go around trying to beat up anyone else. Second, in all the bluster of the science versus Scripture debates, I don’t want you to miss what Genesis 1 is all about: you have a Creator. Just like the creed reminds us, ‘I believe in God the Creator…” not, “I believe in this version of creation or that scientific theory…” and that Creator is our Almighty Father.
That is the real news of Genesis and the good news of the entire Bible. Someone knew what he wanted to make and whether it was 6000 years ago or 13 billion years ago, God had a purpose he wanted to accomplish so he created heaven and earth and everything in it. There is a reason you are here. If you ultimately think that you are just a random collection of chemicals, just lucky mud, then you have no purpose or meaning—but I want you to see that we have a God who knows us and planned for us, who has a plan for us, plans to give us a hope and a future, and a Creator who is watching us at every moment…who created us to do good things, and he will hold us accountable for that. This is where Genesis is as true today as it has ever been. We are not the Creator, we are just dirt, but we have been fashioned by God so that we can have true joy and peace in a relationship with God or we can have shame, and disappointment, and frustration and anger and murder and meaninglessness and death as we try to become gods ourselves.
When we try to become like God or pretend that we know everything, we lose the true life that only God can give. So, I am not nervous about the conflict between the truth of Scripture and the truth of science. Scientists are just discovering the complexity, the intricacy, the beauty of our Father’s creation and it is amazing. I am nervous that you will miss what Genesis is about which is the fact that you have a Creator who formed you and knows you and has known you from before the earth was born. So, do not get distracted (like I did in the parable of the lost son) by asking wrong questions: was it six days or seven days? That is not the point…was it six days or six eons? That is not the point; that was never the point. The point is that God created you. Therefore, there is a reason for your life and you don’t have to worry that you are on your own and that everything is random because you are not on your own. God has a grand purpose, and you are a part of it.
The final thing I want you to get from this sermon is to be unashamed of the gospel. So many of you love Jesus, I know that…so many of your lives have been transformed by Jesus. I know that! I have seen that transformation and it is incredible, and yet, some of you go into laboratories, classrooms, or companies where you work or into neighborhood cocktail parties with the smart people around here, and you are embarrassed to talk about the living God who created us…and about what he has done in your life. You are embarrassed to reach out and offer true hope. You are embarrassed to offer salvation for fear that people might laugh at you because believing in God means rejecting science, and so I want you to see that you are not rejecting science. You and the smartest scientist on earth are engaged in the same conversation, [and] asking the very same questions! So, do not be embarrassed when what we believe is the gospel. It is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.
I hope I have persuaded you that we can’t be shamed into silence about something so precious and life-changing. We have no reason to keep quiet about all the reasons for the hope that we have and the God that we met. We can tell them about our Creator and their Creator who is more than just the maker of mountains and microbes; he is our Almighty Father who revealed himself most clearly in Jesus so that we wouldn’t be afraid of him anymore. Jesus, who came, Jesus, who loved, Jesus, who confounded those who thought they had figured everything out already, Jesus, who was crucified, and Jesus, who was raised again from the dead even though it was impossible, Jesus, who is coming back to get us. This is our creator, and we cannot be ashamed to talk about him. I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
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