My Dear Christian friend,
Thank you for your email about Creation and evolution. You and I share a deep faith in Jesus, and a strong commitment to Scripture. We affirm the grand opening statement of the Bible, accepted by Jews, Christians and Muslims: ”In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) But we differ widely in how we read the Creation story in the first three chapters of Genesis in the light of science.
As a doctor obliged to practice “evidence–based medicine”, and as a faltering follower of Jesus for over fifty years, I want to integrate my commitment to Jesus and to the Scriptures with my knowledge of the world God has made. To do this, I go back to Jesus’ own example.
Jesus clashed head-on with the religious teachers of his day over the application of Scripture in everyday life. (His strongest critics were those who claimed to be expert teachers of the Scriptures!) The issue for them was not science and creation, but how God intended us to live. Yet the principles he taught and lived will guide us today.
- Jesus had a high view of Scripture, and depended on it in his own life in his period of severe temptation. (Matthew 4:1-10, Luke 4:1-12)
- He knew Scripture could be misused and he learned to discern how different Scriptures were to be harmonised and applied appropriately, eg . Matthew 4:5-7
- He affirmed the ever-lasting significance of the Scripture, but he claimed that he himself was the fulfillment of it. In the Sermon on the Mount he spoke with authority, and set a higher standard than the Law of Moses. He said, ”Moses said, ‘Don’t murder.’ but I say, ‘Don’t hate!’ Moses said, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ but I say, ‘Don’t even look at a woman lustfully!’ Moses said, ‘Don’t lie under oath.’ but I say, ‘Don’t lie at all!’” (Matthew 5:17-37)
- Jesus showed that all parts of Scripture were not of equal importance. He said, “You tithe your mint and other herbs, but you neglect the more important matters of the law, like justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23-24)
- Jesus did not take all Scripture literally! For example, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return before the Day of Judgment. Jesus said, “Elijah has come!” but he was referring to John the Baptist. (Malachi 4:5-6, Matthew 17:10-13)
- Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for failing to integrate their knowledge of Scripture with the world they lived in, both in current events and in their personal lives. He said, “You can predict the weather tomorrow by looking at the sky today, but you cannot discern ‘the signs of the times.’” (Luke 12:54-56) They failed to recognize that the Scriptural prophecies were being fulfilled in their own day in the life of Jesus. Again he used their own practice to argue how to interpret the Scriptures concerning working on the Sabbath. Any one of them would lead their donkey to water, or rescue a sheep fallen in a pit on the Sabbath. “So why do you say I am breaking the law if I heal on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:14-16, Matthew 12:9-14.)
- Jesus showed that knowing the words of Scripture was not enough! He showed how the Pharisees had so changed the meaning of Scripture with their interpretations and regulations that they were no longer conveying God’s message, but teaching “merely the traditions of men.” He quoted Isaiah; “These people honour Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. They worship Me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.” (Matthew 15:1-9)
- Jesus said, “If you had understood the Scripture correctly, you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:1-8.)
Four hundred years ago, the invention of the telescope allowed Galileo to make new observations of the planets. His discoveries confirmed the theory of Copernicus that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. His observations were confirmed by other astronomers. This new understanding contradicted the current world view of that time based on Aristotle, and the teaching of the Church. The Church condemned this new theory as “false and contrary to Scripture”. The theologians quoted verses like Ps 104:5 “He set the earth on its foundation; it can never be moved.” to confirm the status quo, and prove that the earth was the centre of the universe. In 1632, Galileo was charged with heresy! Today we accept the scientific evidence that the earth is a planet orbiting the sun. We read those passages of Scripture as poetic figures of speech without scientific significance.
I am challenged and concerned to interpret Scripture correctly in my own generation. The same science that benefits our lives, and forms the foundation of my daily work, provides evidence that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, that the earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago, and that life on earth has developed slowly over hundreds of millions of years. This is in direct contrast to a literal reading of the creation story in the Bible. Yet, the current understanding of science, that the entire universe had a beginning in a single instant of time, rather than existing forever, is in line with the overview that the Bible gives.
As I come once more to read for myself the sacred text, which I think I know so well, I am confronted with some hurdles to a literal reading. These cause me think that perhaps the original story was never meant to be taken literally!
The first hurdle concerns the timing of the creation of the sun. In Genesis chapter one, I read that when the earth was dark and unformed, God spoke light into existence, and separated the light from the darkness. “And there was evening and morning, the first day.” On the second day, God formed the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below. On the third day, the dry land was separated from the waters of the sea, and plants and trees were created on the dry land. But it is only on the fourth day, that God made the Sun, the Moon and the stars! (Gen 1: 2-19) I ask myself many questions. How can there be evening and morning, the first day, without a sun? How can vegetation flourish on the third day, before the sun has been made? (And what was the nature of the light that God created on the first day?)
A second hurdle is the existence of the two quite different accounts of creation. The first, in chapter one, is the story of the creation of everything in six days, followed by a day of rest. The second account, in chapter two, tells the story of the Garden of Eden. In this account, God formed the man, then the plants, then all the animals, and finally the woman to be his companion! The sequence of creating is quite different from the first account.
The late Dr John Thompson was a scientist, archaeologist and Hebrew scholar. He posed the question, “Genesis 1-3: Science? History? Theology?” In his classic 1966 lecture of the same title, he showed that Scripture has many different types of literature; poetry, history, prophecy, parable and allegory. He argued that the creation accounts of Genesis 1-3 can be read as a poetic or metaphorical account, written in a pre-scientific era, from which people in every age of history can learn the timeless truths about the origins and meaning of life, and man’s relationship to his Creator.
Contemporary Old Testament scholar, John Goldingay, suggests that the two creation accounts can be seen as two complementary historical parables. In the first, the Creator is pictured as a workman completing the creation of everything in six days, before resting on the seventh day. In the second, (discussed under the heading, “To put it another way… ,”) God forms the man, Adam, from the earth, then plants a garden for the man to tend. God creates the animals, seeking a companion for the man, then makes the woman companion, Eve, from his rib. Goldingay compares and contrasts the two accounts, showing how they convey various truths about God’s creation, and our role in it as humans.
In relation to the days of Creation, he observes a pattern; “The way the days of creation pan out is that God spends the first three days laying the foundation for the work as a whole, and the second three building on this foundation. To use an artistic metaphor, God spends the first three days sketching the outline of a picture and the second three filling in the details. So on Sunday God separated light and darkness, and on Wednesday, God set up the entities that actually shine light on the earth. On Monday God erected the dome to separate the water above and the water below, and on Thursday God filled the lower water with its creatures and commanded into being the birds that fly across the dome. It was all very organised.” (John Goldingay; Genesis for Everyone, part one. Westminster John Knox Press 2010, p 15.)
In his book, “God, actually.” (ABC 2008), Australian lawyer Roy Williams argues from science itself for the existence of God. He shows how the existence of the universe and its complexity suggest a creative purpose. His argument is that, while Darwinian evolution may explain the development of different species, many aspects of the observed world remain mysteries for which science has no believable answer. These include the origin of life itself, the amazing complexity of a single living cell, the self-replicating structure of DNA, and the vast data store encoded in the DNA of every living cell. Moreover, science is not able to answer the fundamental questions of the meaning of life, and the origin for example of love, beauty and conscience. (See also “Awesome Universe”)
Today, Dr John C Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, is a leader in this debate concerning science, Christianity and atheism. (He has publicly debated Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer.) His arguments are well informed and clear, presented with “charity, humour and humility.” He has addressed these issues very helpfully in “Seven Days that Divide the World.” (Zondervan 2011) (johnlennox.org)
My faith does not depend on proving any scientists wrong. My faith rests on the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus, and the change he continues to make in lives and communities, including mine. God’s truth is not divided! We believe God reveals Himself in His Written Word, (the Bible), the Natural Word, (the universe He has created) and the Living Word, (Jesus Himself.) Of course, if there is an apparent contradiction, we must humbly review our understanding until we find the harmony. Christians who are leaders in many fields of science have provided resources for this task, such as ISCAST, – Christians in Science and Technology. (www.iscast.org)
As we think about how Jesus challenged the traditionalists of his day, it is sobering to remember that in every generation, from the early church until today, Christians have had trouble adapting to change and to new knowledge of God’s world and have misused verses in the Bible to justify oppression of Jews, Muslims, slaves, black-skinned people, women and homosexuals. Jesus’ life showed a different way of seeing the love of God. Today we wrestle with new issues, including the nature of God’s creative work.
Jesus calls us to “love God with our whole mind” (Mark 12:28-34), and to work through the issues raised by new knowledge, listening to each other with respect, even when we differ, (“speaking the truth in love.”)
Let us have courage to follow Him together, with open eyes, open hearts, open minds, and open Bibles!