Reconciling Genesis and Modern Science
There are deep divisions among Evangelicals today over Creation. Some (“evolutionists”) fully accept the scientific account of origins (big bang and evolution), and interpret the Bible according to this. Some (“six-day creationists”) take the Biblical account literally, and interpret scientific data according to this. Some (“progressive creationists”) take the appearance of “intelligent design” in organisms to indicate that God specially created these at the points at which they appear in earth history. All three positions have their problems. For example, evolutionists have to take “death” in Genesis 2–3 to be only spiritual; six-day creationists have to argue that the ages of rocks given by radiometric methods are all completely wrong; and progressive creationists have to explain why God should specially create animals that kill and eat other animals. As Gwyn Jordan argues in a recent letter to “Science & Faith”, there is a great need for Evangelicals to produce a better way of reconciling Genesis and modern science.
Here I outline two possible ways of doing this, and bring them together. (For further details, see my book, “Big Bang, Small Voice”, ISBN 978-0-9928256-0-7.)
I shall assume that the scientific account, subject to the assumptions on which it is based, is broadly correct. I am not saying that it is correct. The evidence for this is patchy.
I shall take Genesis 1−3 to be authoritative (Mat. 19:4−6), with Chapter 1 describing the creation of the universe, Chapter 2 the creation of the first man and woman (amplifying 1:26−27), and Chapter 3 their disobedience and punishment.
I shall further take these chapters to constitute a theodicy, i.e. an explanation of how there can be evil in a world created by God. Chapter 1 affirms that there was no evil in the world when God created it – it was ‘very good’ (v. 31). Chapters 2 and 3 explain how evil came into it – through creatures (Adam, Eve, and the Snake) abusing the freedom God had given them. He punished them for this, and changed the natural order to make their lives less pleasant for them. In particular, he cursed the ground, and brought physical death on human beings (cf. Rom. 5:12−21, 8:18−23).
Genesis does not say whether animals died before the Fall. I shall suppose that they did not, but my treatment can be adapted if they did.
I first take Genesis 1−3 figuratively (I take it literally in the second method). I do this on the basis of the Biblical principle that God calls us to live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). He accordingly reveals himself sufficiently clearly for faith to be possible, but not so clearly as to make faith easy. This principle is evident, for example, in Jesus’ use of parables (“that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand”, Luke 8:9−10). If God created the universe in the way scientists describe, and revealed this in Genesis, then scientists would be able to verify this account, and remove the need for faith. Making Genesis figurative ensures that it would always be a matter of faith that “the worlds were formed by the word of God” (Heb. 11:3).
If, then, the scientific account of the origin of the universe is correct, Genesis 1−3 teaches, firstly, that God (the God of the Hebrews) created it. He designed it and brought it into being. In particular, he chose the laws according to which it operates, the configuration of the components in the big bang, and the sequencing of what are to us random events (cf. Prov. 16:33). In other words, he determined how the universe evolved.
Genesis 1−3 teaches, secondly, that, before God brought the universe into being, he changed its design. On his first design, everything was ‘very good’. However, he foresaw that human beings would disobey him, just as he foresaw that he would have to send his Son to rescue them (Eph. 1:4). He accordingly changed the design to make the world less pleasant for them, and brought the universe into being in this form.
According to this design, death is part of nature. God’s reaction to the disobedience of human beings is seen everywhere. Such is the seriousness of sin.
God created the first modern humans, either by pre-programmed mutations in archaic humans, or by special creation, with a constitution that fits in with the natural order. Genesis 2 teaches how he wants men and women to relate to each other (Mat. 19:4−6, 1 Tim. 2:11−15).
In my second method of reconciling Genesis and modern science, I relax two of the basic assumptions of the latter. These are (1) that there is continuous correspondence between theory and reality, and (2) that the natural order is fixed. Relaxing these assumptions allows Genesis 1−3 to be taken literally without pre-empting faith.
Genesis 1 then describes the creation of the universe in six days. At the end of the sixth day, it was a going concern – next morning, the sun rose, plants grew, animals fed. It was, in other words, in a mature state. It accordingly appeared to have a history that it did not in reality have – trees had rings, pebbles were smooth, stars shone at night (despite the length of time it takes for starlight to reach the earth), and so on.
While the concept of a mature creation breaks assumption (1), it does not conflict with science. Any system that runs in an orderly way inevitably appears to have a history when it is set in motion, unless it is from a special state. A pendulum, for example, when set swinging, looks as if it has always been swinging. Not even God can create a mature universe without the appearance of age.
Genesis 3 describes the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as a result of which [contrary to assumption (2)] God modified the design of the universe to make the world less pleasant for them. If he carried this through consistently, so that all parts of the universe conformed to the new design, then the universe would again have been in a mature state, and would again have appeared to have a history it did not in reality have. This history would necessarily have been different from the one it appeared to have before the Fall.
To see what this means for fossils, let us suppose that, on the original design of the universe, only simple organisms and plants died. The original creation, being in a mature state, would therefore have contained fossils of these. Otherwise, it would not have conformed fully to its original design.
On the same supposition, when God redesigned the natural order after the Fall, he brought into it the death of animals, along with predation and disease. To be consistent with this new design, he accordingly refashioned the rocks, and incorporated fossils of animals, including predators and sick specimens. He had to do this to make the cursed earth conform fully to the new design. Otherwise, the biosphere would have conformed to one design and the lithosphere to another. God will make similar radical changes when Jesus comes again (1 Cor. 15:51−52, Rev. 21:1).
Examining the rocks, scientists conclude that animal species evolved over a long period of time. If their analysis is correct, this relates to the cursed design of the universe, and accurately reflects this. It does not, however, relate to the original design, and only represents the actual history of the earth back to the Fall.
Most scientists are unaware of assumptions (1) and (2). Their account of the origin of the universe does, however, depend on them.
According to Genesis 2, God created Adam from dust from the ground and Eve from one of his ribs. After the Fall, they became mortal. In this condition, they correspond to the first fully modern humans in the scientific picture. The evolutionary origin of human beings is a work in progress. Scientists currently believe that modern humans evolved 150,000 to 200,000 years ago, in Africa, from a small population of archaic humans. They do not envisage the small population to be a couple, but the uncertainties in their methodology do not rule this out.
If the genealogies in Genesis are complete, the Hebrew version of the text dates creation to around 4000 BC. This is difficult to fit into archaeological history, and suggests that the genealogies are incomplete. Genealogies that gave a verifiable date for the first humans would, in any case, pre-empt faith. There are examples of incomplete genealogies in the Bible, though not with ages at the birth of sons.
That Genesis and modern science can be reconciled in the ways I have described eases the tension between them. There is no need to distort one to make it fit the other. We do not have to contend, for example, that “death” in Genesis 2−3 is only spiritual, or that the ages of rocks given by radiometric methods are all completely wrong. Rather, we can appraise evolutionary and anti-evolutionary ideas on their merits, and ask non-Christians to do the same.
That there is more than one method of reconciliation means that we do not know precisely how God created the universe – whether in a programmed big bang or a mature state. This is not as unsatisfactory as it may seem. If, as we study nature and the Bible, we find ourselves groping, this is no bad thing. There is no greater need in the modern world than for men and women to humble themselves before God. “The fear of the LORD,” says Proverbs, “is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10).
As Christians, we should not feel ourselves to be under pressure to have answers to all the questions people ask. Our message to the world is that God has spoken, not that he has told us everything. Moses referred to God’s “secret things” (Deut. 29:29), and Paul to our seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12 AV). We need not be ashamed of what we do not know. Our humble “not knowing” glorifies God as much as our thankful “knowing”.