Reconciling Genesis and Modern Science: a New Approach


(Peter G. Nelson) #1

Reconciling Genesis and Modern Science

P.G. Nelson

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.)

Preliminaries

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.

First Method

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).

Second Method

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.

Conclusions

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”.


(Jon) #2

True faith doesn’t require us to “relax” our acknowledgement of reality. This proposal of yours removes faith from the world of reality, which is suicidal to faith.


(Jon) #3

This is divine deception.


(George Brooks) #4

@P.G.Nelson,

You make a fine O.P. ! Quite comprehensive. That is my first general reaction.

My second is a point of clarification: you cite Romans 5 and 8 on God bringing death on Adam. I presume that you are clear that this was not some metaphysical pivot triggered by sin, since in the Eden account God himself says that Adam and Eve would still become immortal if allowed access to the Tree of Life.

You might say this is the very heart of any workable theodicy. It is something God has brought about because of his preferences… not because the Universe got knocked off kilter.

My third and last reaction is what an incredible amount of human creativity is triggered by the need to accommodate just a few chapters of Genesis. What to millions of mainstream Christians is a simple matter of setting aside a rather transparent collection of legend and myth - - becomes a giant slog to comprehensively adjust all the eccentricies of one or more scribes: …

  1. To fit Genesis to a coherent history;
  2. To fit it to a coherent metaphysics;
  3. And to fit Genesis to a coherent theology of redemption.

The irony here is that Genesis itself is virtually silent on salvation and redemption. No general resurrection is discussed, let alone offered. Nor is the nature of Heaven discussed.

And in the process, the YEC form of Christianity becomes quite the unwieldly union of the Sublime with the Sureal.


(Ray Bailey) #5

Peter,
I echo @gbrooks9 in appreciation for a comprehensive OP. Of course, you’ve had time to digest this by completing a book. I’ll look into it. Thanks for posting!

[quote=“P.G.Nelson, post:1, topic:36470”]
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).
[/quote] Bolded Mine (Post edited for clarity and to add Breath of Life aspect)

I question the “changed the natural order” statement.

If you are willing to accept the death of animals before the fall, then there need not be any “change to the order”. The “very good” statements may operate as very good including death, as long as there is no moral value judgement being made on the operations of such deaths.

You have not mentioned the “Breath of Life’s” role in the story. It is the one thing that make humankind different, in that the choices made afterward are the result of that breath being operative in humans, hence a fall.

Therefore, the “change in the natural order” need be nothing than expulsion from the “privileged garden” where food was provided gratis and no work other than tending said garden in the obedient (loving by choice) service of God required.

Being cast out of the garden introduced the idea of “work for food” as a value rather than “forage for food” of a non-value judgment making being (re animals). Humankind after the breath of life and out of the Garden needed to “farm and shepherd” in an organized way, rather than hunter/gather style. I assume this from the Biblical record of the growth of civilization in Chapters 3-6.
This also comes from the words “…now the fields” didn’t have dew, or crops, or animals named until “adam”, because there were no fields yet! (not because rain never fell). This implies the theodicy of Genesis 1-2 as well as establishment of roles required after “the breath of Life”. Hence the naming of animals “beasts of the field” (domesticated) for farming/shepherding.

You are making an assumption from “and brought physical death”. No need to assume that if death was operative is, as you premise, not objectionable from the position on animals. Death was already in the natural order before, and mankind still under the natural life-cycle. The Tree of Life (as I and many believe) is the symbol for Christ, and applies only to a spiritual life which they did not have, and would not until after choosing which tree they decided to eat from. Having chosen wrongly, they must rely on God’s provision for that choice (sacrificial until the cross). No everlasting life at the “breath of life”, just the moral ability to make that choice.

There is no such thing as “Evil” (moral choice) prior to the “Breath of Life”. Therefore, no Evil and everything was “Good” until “The Choice

I do not see this as in any way reducing the validity of Method One.
I find many objections to Method Two.

Interested in your reply.

Ray :sunglasses:


(Kendal Howard) #6

Hey! I’ll admit that I only skimmed through so point me to or correct me if I misrepresent you. I feel that the premise that you begin with is faulty. Even your post title assumes that Genesis and modern science need to be reconciled. It assumes that it can and has to. But I would say that it doesn’t and can’t be. And that’s because it’s a cultural expression. For example, say for instance I had a friend named Bob who was really smart. What if I were to tell you that Bob is so smart, I’m pretty sure that he probably uses more percentage of his brain than the average human. We’ve come to find out (in neuroscience) that the belief that humans only use a certain percentage of our brains is a cultural myth. It’s something that many Americans believe because they’ve heard others say it, they’ve seen movies, etc. But though my expression is culturally sensitive, my point is that Bob is really smart. This is how I view early Genesis, especially the creation story. I feel that there is an issue that needs reconciling only if you view Genesis as supposing to provide groundbreaking scientific discoveries before it’s time.


(Benjamin Kirk) #7

No, they ignore the vast majority of the scientific data. The idea that both groups are interpreting the same data is a myth.


#8

In other words the Omphalos theory. Just call it what it is. And if it is true I always say then the universe was actually created last Thursday. We just don’t know it.


#9

Ah, last Thursdayism!


(Albert Leo) #10

Peter, perhaps you can help me. You have obviously put a great deal of thought into this post, but I got hung up on the introductory part that I have quoted above. According to Gen. 1, God created the Universe, including the non-human animals, and then created humans–“male and female He created them” (v. 17). Should we not assume this was concurrently? Yet, in Gen. 2, God creates the human male (Adam) first, and after creating other animals, He creates the human female (Eve). In my view, this, Gen.2, contradicts Gen. 1, but you say it amplifies it.

If you can explain this to me, without my “relaxing the rules of science”, then perhaps I can better understand the rest of your interesting post.
Al Leo


(Don Huebner) #11

Gosh, I couldn’t even get past your Preliminaries without having problems with your assumptions. Nowhere do you mention taking Genesis 1-3 in its ancient context and viewing it as its original author(s) intended and as the original listeners heard it. By assuming the creation narrative is a single, unified story - you are making an assumption in contrast to what the vast majority of biblical scholars, including most conservative evangelical scholars, believe. As a result, you ignore a bunch of problems just so you can get to the issue of trying to accommodate the text and modern science. The problem Al Leo mentions is just one of these issues.
You affirm there was no evil in the world when God created it - but this is in contrast to virtually all Ancient Near East creation myths/stories - including Gen. 1. The ANE believed that all originated in chaos (read that as ‘evil’) and what needed explanation was why there was order (read that as 'good). In Gen. 1, creation occurred with the pre-existing dark and primordial water (evil) and God created order (good) by his separation of the various layers of water, earth, and atmosphere. His use of ‘good’ at the end of each day indicates this view by contrasting his work with the original evil. Gen. 1 was written by the Priestly source around the time of the Babylonian exile when God was viewed as a monotheistic creator of the universe. In contrast, Gen. 2 was written by the J source during the time of the early united monarchy and describes a monolatrous divinity who was the god of the Israelites alone. For them, evil entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, their progenitors. These two different theodicies worked for different times in the history of the Israelites - when they were a local kingdom and a half millennium later when the diaspora found them spread throughout the known world. My point is that one cannot sweep a lot of scholarship under the carpet using questionable assumptions such as a single theodicy so that what appears to be a simple dichotomy can be pursued. Cheers.


(George Brooks) #12

@huebnerdon

Perhaps you could explore the seemingly obvious parallels between the Jewish etymological of chaos, troubles and evils that Pandora’s curiosity allowed to be unleashed … and Eve’s curiosity which unleashed a heap of unpleasantness in the Eden neighborhood?


(Don Huebner) #13

Good comment. The battle between chaos and cosmos was a widespread theme in the ANE and the Greco-Roman world, with chaos often represented by a (sea) monster who was slain by a hero god. An example is Python, protector of Delphi, who was slain by Apollo. I recall seeing somewhere the similarity you mention between Eve and Pandora discussed - but will have to do some research to re-discover where it was. There was a substantial amount of trade and contact between Bronze Age (and later) Greece and Canaan, so their myths and stories are often similar.


(Peter G. Nelson) #14

I am grateful to everyone who has commented on my posting. I am sorry that, for heath reasons, I cannot reply individually. For a fuller discussion of Genesis 1-3 as a theodicy, please see https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/nelson/theodicy_nelson.pdf For answers to objections to the idea of mature creation, see Faith and Thought No. 49 (2010), 22-29.