Friday, October 12, 2018

Genesis and Science Reconciled


There seems to be a common belief by both Christians and non-Christians that modern scientific discoveries about the origin and development of the universe contradict the biblical account of creation in Genesis. Many people from both groups claim that any attempt to reconcile science and the Bible is a forced alliance that compromises the integrity of the Bible, science, or both. In the last few blog posts I have presented a coherent narrative that naturally reconciles the Bible and science without distorting either. I first cautioned us as Christians against using poor science to try to support the Bible. I then warned against making the same kind of biblical interpretive errors that led to the trial and persecution of Galileo. Third, I pointed out that the proper interpretation of any literature requires an examination of the language, culture, and literary context of the text. Finally, I showed from the Bible itself that the story of creation must be understood from the reference frame that is presented in Genesis 1:2, on the surface of the primordial earth. From that perspective both scientific findings and the biblical narrative agree that the environment was formless, empty, dark, and watery.

Most of the supposed discrepancies between the biblical account of creation and the scientific observations about the origin and development of the universe and our solar system are reconciled once it has been established that the creation story is told from a perspective on the surface of the earth. As such, Genesis 1:1, the creation of the heavens and the earth, takes a little over nine billion years from the big bang origin of the universe to the forming of the primordial earth. Starting in Genesis 1:2 and throughout the rest of the chapter, the story of earth's 4.5 billion year history is conveyed. In the brief description given here, we'll simply touch on how some of the alleged discrepancies are resolved by affirming that the perspective of the story is on the surface of the earth.

The "problem" of light being created on day one "before" the sun is created is resolved when considering the point of view on the surface of the earth. As described in the previous blog post, the early earth was dark because the atmosphere was very thick and atmospheric and interplanetary dust and debris blocked all light from the sun and other heavenly objects that already existed. On day one of creation, the light that God creates on the surface of the earth is the light from the sun that penetrates to the surface of the earth as the atmosphere thins and the dust and debris settle. Although the sun, moon, and stars existed in the sky and their light would now be visible, the objects themselves would still not yet be visible on the surface of the earth.  Much like on a cloudy day, the light from the sun would be visible, but not the sun itself. The atmosphere would be translucent but not transparent.

On day two the water cycle begins, with clouds in the sky and oceans below. The "waters above" do not describe some ancient idea of a firmament or solid disk of water above the sky, but the usual appearance of clouds, as explained by the biblical scholar J. H. Sailhammer:

It would be unlikely that the narrative would have in view here a “solid partition or vault that separates the earth from the waters above” (Westermann, p. 116). It appears more likely that the narrative has in view something within the everyday experience of the natural world, in a general way, that place where the birds fly and where God placed the lights of heaven (cf. v. 14). In English the word “sky” appears to cover this sense well. The “waters above” the sky is likely a reference to the clouds.1

On day four, the sun, moon, and stars finally appear in the sky when viewed from the surface of the earth as the atmosphere continues to thin and dust and debris continue to settle. The atmosphere finally becomes transparent and the heavenly bodies that were already there are visible from the surface of the earth, as I explained in a previous blog post and supported by quoting evangelical biblical scholars. The Hebrew verb tense implies that the sun, moon, and stars had been made before day four, in the beginning, and that they appear and are given meaning on day four. Thus, the "problem" of the sun, moon, and stars being "made" on day four after the earth exists is resolved. The biblical narrative is not describing the creation of these objects, but that they become visible and are given a meaning, to mark days and seasons.

Finally, the "problem" of land animals being created on day six after all fish and birds on day five is resolved by examining the Hebrew word that is used for the animals created on day six. Because the purpose of the creation account is to describe how God prepared the earth for human habitation, the animals described as being created on day six are confined to those animals that humans would interact with by either hunting or domesticating. This is confirmed within the text itself in two ways. First, the Hebrew word used to describe the animals created on day six is nephesh. This word technically means "soul" and although it can refer generally to any living animal, it can also refer specifically to mammals with "soul," those higher mammalian life forms that humans hunt or domesticate. The latter idea is affirmed in the text where the animals created on day six are further described as "the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals" (NIV). Since the language and context indicate that the animals described on day six are simply advanced mammals, then there is no discrepancy between the biblical account and the archeological record of animal life on earth.

The meaning of the Bible does not have to be distorted in order to reconcile it with modern science. It just requires a straightforward and careful reading of the text. The text itself describes the creation of the universe in Genesis 1:1, then focuses on the earth in the next verse. The text itself in Genesis 1:2 says that God's spirit is on the surface of the earth and implies that is the perspective from which the rest of the story is told. The Hebrew text and verb tense indicate that the heavenly objects described on day four were made "in the beginning" but are given meaning when they appear on day four. All of these ideas come from a straightforward and plain reading of the text within its literary and cultural context. It is quite remarkable that an account of creation written well over 3000 years ago meshes so seamlessly with what we have learned about the origin of the universe from scientific observations. One might wonder how the writer was able to get the details correct so long ago. One might surmise that there is divine inspiration behind it all.

1The Expositors Bible Commentary, Genesis–Leviticus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 59.

I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of Dr. Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe in helping me formulate some of my conclusions about how to most naturally reconcile the Bible and science as discussed in the last two blog posts.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Dr. Strauss. As a fellow Christian, would you mind if I asked you a question regarding how God created the Earth and the Universe?
    A usual argument against God is that, being that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, why did God wait so long to create humans?
    Is it possible that God could manipulate time to make the years go by faster (alot faster)? Is there anything in the laws of relativity that would allow him to do so?
    Sorry to bother

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    1. Thanks for your questions Nick.

      Dr. Hugh Ross's book called The Improbable Planet discusses the history of the earth and why 4.5 billion years is necessary to prepare a planet for intelligent beings like us. Of course God could have done everything in a moment, but nature provides a recorded history of how he did it within the natural world over that time period. As far as 4.5 billion years being long, how long is 4.5 billion years to a timeless God?

      Gerald Schroeder has proposed a mechanism in which the long period of time we observe is somehow only 6 days for God based on relativity. But in such a scenario it is still a 13.8 billion year old universe and a 4.5 billion year old earth as far as we are concerned. So his model is meant to reconcile Genesis with science, but it still has the universe as being almost 14 billion years old. I think a better reconciliation is that each day of creation is a long period of time. This is a common meaning of the Hebrew word yom translated as day.

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  2. Hi Dr. Strauss, perfect timing! just started reading the bible for the first time yesterday. I noticed that my version (new american catholic version) changed "and the ghost of god hovered above the waters" to "a great wind blew across the water", loosing the idea of perspective change.

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    1. Congratulations on starting to read the Bible for yourself. May I suggest that you read the gospels about Jesus, particularly Luke and John.

      It is challenging to actually balance all of the factors to make a good translation. Sometimes the literal translation doesn't convey the meaning well. For instance the Spanish "Como se llama?" literally means something like "How do you call yourself?" but the better translation is "What is your name?" Older translations of the Bible referred to the Holy Ghost, but newer ones use the Holy Spirit (thus the ghost of god in some translations.) The Hebrew word translated the "Spirit" of God hovering over the waters is related to the Hebrew word for breath or wind. Thus your translation is "wind." But the word for God is definitely in the Hebrew text, so "a great wind blew across the water" without referring to the wind of God or the spirit of God doesn't seem like a good translation to me.

      For a good modern translation that conveys meaning well I recommend The New International Version. For one that is a little closer to the literal meaning (which may or may not always be good), I recommend The New American Standard.

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    2. Thank you very much for the suggestion Dr.Strauss!

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  3. If there are a countably infinite number of universes each with a set of scientific laws and all created 14 billion years ago. then by definition of "infinite" there would be lots of universes capable of supporting lifeforms of some type. Among all those universes with life forms at least one would have creatures infinitely smarter that us and capable of interverse travel or at least communication, id not then our infinite is not truly infinite because infinite has to include all imaginable possibilities. At least one possibility is such travel or communication...which has not occurred except on coast to coast AM radio.

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