Clay Carlson

With Gentleness and Reverence: My Journey Out of Young-Earth Creationism

When she said, “Carbon dating is a crock!” I had to walk away before I said something mean. I was a high school senior, an AP Biology student, and somewhere between agnostic and antagonistic towards God. She was the Christian girl in the freshman art class with me. In math class, we talked about math, but in art class there was time and space to talk about anything—so we discussed the origin of the universe. I just couldn’t understand how anyone could believe in the Bible when science had already explained how the world had come to be.

Months later, as a new biology major at a public university, the Holy Spirit took over my life. It involved a longhaired pastor in full robes handing me a Bible at 10:00 PM on a Saturday night—a sidewalk conversion—and a new commitment to live a life that honors God. I decided that since I was now a Christian I had to believe the Bible and I guess that meant I had I better read it.

The Bible seemed to say clearly that God had made the world—and all life forms—quite recently. As a biology student, I had to learn how to engage science that seemed to say otherwise. My education came from the work of Kent “Dr. Dino” Hovind, a young-earth creationist (YEC) apologist. I consumed as much young-earth creationism as I could. My senior project in the biology department was titled, “A Scientific Challenge to the Dogma of Evolution.” I obliterated every question and shook the worldview of a room full of college seniors—or so I thought at the time. I was “ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). After graduation, while working for a pharmaceutical company, I met another believer. My first question for her was, “How old is the Earth?” She claimed to follow Jesus, but I needed to know if she was really a Christian.

As I set off for graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry, I prayed that God would send people into my life who could help me know Him more. Shortly after arriving, I met two people who wanted to meet weekly to discuss God, life, and interesting books. One was a Presbyterian youth pastor and the other was completing a Ph.D. in ancient Hebrew. These friends gently prodded at my YEC beliefs. They reminded me of the rest of the sentence from 1 Peter 3:15, “yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” We read books together like John Sailhamer Genesis Unbound and John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One. While I was ready to fight any scientific challenge to the word of God, I was completely unprepared to learn that what I was arguing for may not actually be claimed by Scripture. If the Bible does not demand a young Earth, or recent creation of life, then why was I fighting so hard against everything I had learned in all those science courses?

It has been the work of biblical scholars and theologians all along that has guided my development in science and faith. First, through N.T. Wright, and then later through a better understanding of Reformed Theology, I came to see the story of Scripture as a whole. The Bible is not about what my God has done for me so that I can go to Him in heaven. The Bible is about God, and what God is doing in the world. Scripture teaches that this world is God’s good world, made and sustained by the creator God, but that this world is a twisted and fallen version of what it should be. However, in Christ Jesus, all things are being made new and all of creation yearns for consummation in the Kingdom of God.

This larger view of Scripture helps to shape how I can function as a Christian and a biology professor. When I study biology, do I see evidence of God’s good creating work? Of course! A cell lives because of an uncountable number of molecular interactions that are all temporary, blind, and unguided. Our bodies function because billions of these cells communicate, share, and cooperate without our direction or knowledge. Praise be to God!

At the same time, when I study science, does it seem like the world is less than it should be? Of course. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus is so busting with life that with just nine genes it is able to copy itself billions of times per day. But all of that potential for reproduction is twisted toward death, corrupting our most intimate relationships (mother-child, sexual partners) and using them for death and suffering instead of life and life flourishing.

Yet by the grace of God, death does not have the last word. All things are being made new. When researchers studied the structure of HIV protease leading to the development of the protease inhibitor that changed HIV from a death threat to a chronic condition, they were doing the redemptive work of Christ. Through scientific and medical miracles God is bringing life where death aims to reign. It is the responsibility of all Christ followers to do the work of God wherever He has placed us. That is true whether that is by making new HIV drugs, studying cell communication, or teaching biology majors at a small college.

I have spent my entire adult life studying biology and biochemistry, but it was my lack of theological understanding that clouded my ability to recognize the work of God in science. When I felt like I had to fight against scientists who were disrespecting the name of God, I saw scientific knowledge as ammunition in an intellectual war. Now, with gentleness and reverence, I am able to see every scientific revelation as a “beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” (Belgic Confession).

Dear BioLogos reader ...

In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.

If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.

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Clay Carlson
About the Author

Clay Carlson

Clay Carlson is an associate professor of Biology at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL. He sees God’s beauty in the stars, microscopic worms, college students, and his family. He enjoys making music, hiking with kids, road trips, and making jam. His work is sponsored by a grant given by Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities II, a project run by Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford, the UK subsidiary of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, with funding by Templeton Religion Trust and The Blankemeyer Foundation.