“I just can’t believe that.” So said an older gentleman in a small group I was leading several years ago. We were discussing the first three chapters of Genesis. Fast forward a few years, and on the same day someone over 70 and someone under 17 expressed similar doubts about the story about the beginning in the book of Genesis.
The truth is if we have trouble believing in the Genesis accounts of the beginning, we’re very likely to have trouble with John’s account of the same, which includes the Word who was in the beginning with God and, indeed, was very God, through whom all things without exception, as John so emphatically states it, came into existence, who also became flesh, fully human, and died and rose again to save the world he had created from sin (John 1:1 …).
Much of the time the problem is the assumption that the Genesis accounts must be interpreted in an absolutely literal or an absolutely symbolic way. There’s also sometimes the assumption that one has to choose between the Genesis accounts of origins and modern scientific accounts. The later is no doubt in part due to many in the scientific community who pit science against Christianity; but also, in reaction to those who choose to use science as a weapon against Christianity, some in the Christian community buy into this dubious dichotomy as well.
It’s also not a choice between either a simple literal interpretation and a symbolic figurative one. Sometimes people will insist that they only take the Bible literally, others will insist they don’t take it that way at all, they read it all metaphorically. In both cases, perhaps a bit ironically, neither party is likely to be speaking wooden literally about how they actually read Scripture; or they are confused or simply not telling the truth. This is another false choice. What is meant to be read literally should be; what is meant to be read figuratively should be as well, although discerning which is which can be tricky.
Sometimes when something is indeed taken figuratively, it seems some assume that means it doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Actually, the opposite may very well be the case. Figures of speech, of which the Bible is filled with many dozens of different kinds, often add even more emphasis to what is being stated. For example, when Jesus says “if your right eye causes you to sin, cut it out” (Mark 9:47), he’s not speaking literally, but he is speaking quite emphatically by way of a form of hyperbole about the seriousness and danger of sin and how his disciples should respond to temptation. Because something is figurative doesn’t mean that it doesn’t refer to something very, very real, whether it be something concrete like the human body or something more abstract like love and mercy.
So we shouldn’t assume the origin account must be read in a rigid literal way, but neither should we assume the figures of speech and symbolism mean there are no referents in reality, physically, metaphysically, or historically.
Neither should we assume that Genesis intends to tell how the universe was created in the same way a modern astrophysicist or biologist might. Story telling is an art, but the way a story is told will depend on who is telling it and for what purpose they are telling it. I might tell a story about how my wife went to the grocery store a bit differently from how an automotive engineer might tell the same story, depending on the purpose for telling it, especially if the engineer was telling it for a documentary on how cars and combustion engines work. Similarly, the late ESPN commentator, Stewart Scott, might tell the story of how the Duke-UNC basketball game turned out, differently than the coaches might tell it. You probably wouldn’t hear the later use the word, “booyah”, “dadgum” maybe, from Roy Williams at least, but not booyah. Scott would focus more on top plays and use more colorful expressions to describe them; coach K and coach Roy, might refer to more subtle statistics in much less dramatic fashion, at least on TV, but no one would doubt they were all talking about the same game, which actually happened.
Just because Genesis tells the story of the origins of the universe and life on earth differently from the way an astrophysicist or biologist might in a scientific documentary doesn’t mean they are telling contradictory stories; indeed they may be much more complimentary than some would like to admit. The intent and the focus may be different, but that doesn’t make them contradictory or competing. In general terms, the Genesis account of origins focuses on the who and why of creation, and modern scientific accounts on the what and how, even though this is not to say there is no overlap between them.
What is interesting, in spite of the belief among many today that science and religion are in a fight to the death, at least in terms of the creation-evolution debates, before the 1920’s and the Scopes trial, prominent Christian scientists and evangelical Biblical scholars and theologians were not as alarmed by theories of evolution as some may suppose. Harvard professor Asa Gray, the most prominent Botanist of the nineteenth century, saw in Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, which he helped to get published in the United States, evidence of God’s grand design and purposes, even though he had qualms about the suggestion of randomness in natural selection and rejected transmutation of species. Darwin insisted to his helpful colleague that his theory in no way demanded atheism and believed himself that one could be a theist and an evolutionist.
Neither did some very early prominent fundamentalists have a problem accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution. Alister McGrath, theologian and former Marxist atheist, who holds three doctorates from Oxford, one in molecular biophysics, reveals that even a classical fundamentalists like Benjamin B. Warfield believed “the Darwinian doctrine of natural selection could easily be accommodated by evangelicals as a natural law operating under the aegis of the general providence of God.” The twentieth century evangelical theologian, J.I. Packer also followed Warfield in this regard, insisting that he saw nothing in the first chapters of Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible that would bear one way or the other on the theory of evolution (McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, p. 382). Some of my conservative evangelical friends have been surprised to find out that conservatives like pastor and theologian, Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York (read Keller’s take HERE), have similar beliefs, as does renowned biblical scholar N.T. Wright, and as did C.S. Lewis.
Obviously not every conservative theologian would agree; and there are other very serious scholars and intelligent design proponents including the Christian, Stephen Myer, and the agnostic, Michael Denton, who have major qualms about Darwinism for scientific reasons.
Even atheists like Richard Dawkins and Fred Hoyle have admitted that the universe at least gives the very strong appearance and impression of design and purpose, yet insist that it only appears that way. But it can’t be science itself that leads them to that conclusion, despite the fact that so many scientists seem to believe that it does. That is their belief, not an established scientific fact, even though that belief is often misleadingly presented in terms of scientific fact. They have a commitment to, even a faith in, philosophical naturalism. But it is not irrational for one to conclude from the appearance of design and purpose that there is in fact real design and purpose and therefore an intelligent designer, who may or may not have used the process of natural selection leading to macroevolution to create biological life forms on the earth.
Francis Collins, who headed up the project to map the human genome, and also a Christian, believes in a personal God who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead and created life on earth through evolutionary biological processes. If the universe appears to be fine tuned with scores of physical constants being exactly what they should be to support life, and not just any life, but specifically human life, then why not believe that there is really a design and purpose, and therefore real meaning to life?
In public appearances militant atheist, evolutionary biologist, and author of “The God Delusion”, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, insists that the universe has“no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (as quoted by McGrath). Again this is not a scientific conclusion, but a philosophical belief, which is beyond the realm of scientific investigation. Alister McGrath says, “I suspect that the real problem for Dawkins is that he is worried that the universe might turn out to have a purpose of which he does not approve” (Surprised by Meaning, p. 4 Kindle).
Interestingly enough, in a debate with professor John Lennox, Dawkins conceded something that indicates McGrath’s hunch may indeed be well founded. In that debate Dawkins said to Lennox:
“You could possibly persuade me that there was some kind of physical, mathematical genius who created the expanding universe, devised quantum theory, relativity and so on. But that is radically and fundamentally incompatible with the sort of God who cares about sin, the sort of God who cares about what one does with one’s genitals, the sort of God who is interested in one’s private thoughts and wickedness. Surely, you can see that a God who is grand enough to make the universe is not going to give a tuppenny cuss about one’s thoughts and sin.” – Watch debate HERE. transcript HERE
The context of Psalm 14:1, which says, “The fool says in his heart there is no God” indicates a connection between the denial of moral accountability before God and immorality and sin itself. It’s easier for sinners to believe in no God at all or an impersonal God to whom they won’t actually have to give an account, than a personal God who cares about how we live, even what “one does with one’s genitals.”
Interestingly again, a pastor colleague of mine told about a conversation with someone who objected to a message he had given on the importance of traditional Christian sexual ethics, which precludes sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant of one man and one woman, the gentleman’s objections to what the New Testament says about sex in Romans and Corinthians ended up with objections to what the Bible says about the beginning in the first few chapters of Genesis. Ironically, though, New Testament sexual ethics is grounded in what is stated there in the first few chapter of Genesis, such as what Paul says in Romans 1 about homosexuality and what Jesus says about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, where he specifically references Genesis 1:26 and 2:24 to explain God’s original design and intent for marriage.
My own conversations with people in the church who doubt New Testament claims like the virgin birth and the resurrection when pressed usually reveal serious doubts about what is said in Genesis about creation. In one conversation when someone voiced disbelief in the virgin birth and resurrection, I simply asked if he believed that God created the heavens and the earth. Initially he said he did. Then I asked what would be more difficult for God, to bring about a virgin conception in the womb of one woman and give new life to one man who had been dead or to create all that is out of nothing. To believe the the later, but not the former would be like believing someone built the Taj Mahal, but the same person couldn’t have built a bird house. The truth is he was having a hard time believing in a God who created everything seen and unseen out of nothing in the beginning and who would one day judge the world. Thankfully, I believe this very intelligent gentleman eventually came to believe the gospel.
So faith in Jesus may very well be inextricably connected with faith in the beginning as recorded in Genesis. Faith in the beginning may be the beginning of faith. It is Genesis that reveals the single all powerful and sovereign God who simply spoke everything into existence without the cosmic battle between capricious gods and unruly matter that one finds in pagan myths such as the ancient Babylonian one, which was contemporary with Genesis. And this God in Genesis created humans not as an accident or an afterthought to be slaves of the gods in the heavens and their tyrannical counterparts on earth. Instead with deliberation this one God created human beings with tremendous dignity in his own image to have dominion and to rule and reign over the earth under his own authority as vice regents and stewards to spread God’s glory over the face of the earth. But something went terribly wrong, sin entered the world through human rebellion, a problem for which the whole creation still groans in disequilibrium for its ultimate solution (see Romans 8:18-30).
As Alister McGrath says, “Christianity does not simply make sense to us; it also makes sense of us.” (Surprised by Meaning, p. 114). It makes sense of where we came from, why we are here, what is wrong, what it takes to make us right, and how all things will eventually work together for the good of all those who believe in and love the God who made us and redeemed us. Indeed, faith in the end begins with faith in the beginning.