In Part 1, I described the trajectory of my thinking over the past four decades as an evangelical Christian on the scientific aspects of creation. Here I describe the personal and theological aspects of this journey.
Hard Questions and Cold Shoulders
As I started to get closure on the scientific issues regarding the formation of the earth and its biosphere, this raised some disturbing questions. If all Scripture is inspired by God, and God cannot lie or make a mistake, then it would seem that all Scripture must be inerrant. But then, how could the Genesis creation story, which is affirmed in the New Testament, be factually inaccurate? Was this a slippery slope, leading to the denial of the historicity of the Resurrection?
Besides my own inner turmoil, I had to contend with reactions of my family and friends. There were few people with whom I could usefully explore these issues. My non-Christian friends could not relate to my concerns over the Bible. Nearly all my Christian friends were so committed to biblical inerrancy that I could not readily talk with them about it. The few times I brought it up, the conversation got so chilly so fast that, for the sake of ongoing relationship, I had to quickly drop the subject. With some family members, as well, their response to my concerns was a reflexive affirmation of scriptural inerrancy which did not invite further dialogue. My undergraduate college roommate (the one I mentioned in Part 1, whom I had persuaded of young earth creationism), who has been a very dear friend for decades, now regards me as a sort of apostate. My wife and I get along quite well in general, but when the topic of Genesis came up, a defensive anger would rise up in her. (Her story is told here).
Perhaps my strongest supporter at that time was my mother. She was in her eighties, but still sharp. She studied geology in college in the 1940’s, long before she came to an evangelical faith, so she was under no illusion about the age of the earth. I have since found a friend at my church who reads and thinks broadly, with whom I can explore topics like evolution.
My wife eventually became reconciled to the fact that the Genesis depiction of creation is not scientifically accurate, after I was able to demonstrate to her satisfaction that this did not impugn the overall authority of the Bible. The key points that helped her are discussed below. I have shared with her my resolution of the matter, which is that we can still visualize and learn from the Genesis story, treating it as a parable rather than a literal chronicle.
My wife has a heart for all Bible-believing parents who struggle as she did with raising and teaching Bible to children in a way that produces life giving faith. She was impressed by an article in Christianity Today which addresses the key issues of Who created men and women in the image of God rather than getting blindsided by issues of how God did this. Carolyn Arends writes:
It demands a careful delineation between the theory of evolution (which describes a process) and a philosophy of naturalism (which assumes that the process is all there is)…But there’s no point in hiding these difficulties from our children. The world—and our understanding of God’s ways within it—has always been full of mystery and challenge. Our task is to raise up believers willing to affirm the authority of the Bible in all its fascinating and culturally situated complexity. We need kids who are unafraid to ask the sorts of tough and exciting theological, philosophical, and scientific questions you can only ask when you know that, however this world came to be, God did it.
I live in the northeast United States, where fundamentalism is poorly-regarded on the whole. Most of the people who attend my church are college-educated professionals. Nevertheless, they are nearly all hostile towards evolution. Since my wife and I assist in the ministry to youth, this has led to some difficulties.
Two years ago, the youth pastor started to show in Sunday school a series of videos from the “Truth Project“, which was produced by Focus on the Family. The intent of the Truth Project is to define and defend a “biblical worldview” to help Christians stand against the prevailing secular consensus. The Truth Project makes a number of worthwhile points. Unfortunately, two of the biggest planks in its platform are that evolution is factually untrue, and it is necessarily anti-religious and thus is to blame for various social evils and unbelief. The evidence proffered for the untruth of evolution consisted mainly of obsolete and out of context quotes from scientists regarding transitional species in the fossil record. (see here and here for critiques of the Truth Project). After I had seen a couple of these episodes shown in the class, I urged the youth pastor to drop this video series, since it was scientifically inaccurate and was setting kids up to lose their faith if they later realized evolution is true. To his credit, while he did not agree with me on evolution, he did stop showing these videos and moved on to something else.
Knowing the subject to be controversial, I generally avoided bringing up the subject of creation with the church youth. However, there were times when I was leading small group discussions when a boy would confidently pass along some scornful remark about, say, the Big Bang origin of the universe, and the other young heads would nod in agreement. Presumably they had heard these anti-science comments at home. Since they were airing falsehoods, I felt obliged to let them know that there were differing opinions on this subject among bible believing Christians, and that I found all the physical evidence to show that the Big Bang and evolution were the means through which God had chosen to form today’s world.
A few months ago the pastor of children’s ministries sat my wife and me down and told us that there had been complaints from some parents of these children; if we wanted to continue serving, we had to agree to not discuss the subject of evolution with the youth. Under the circumstances, we did consent. By then I was accustomed to taking flak from my brethren on this subject, and I could sympathize with the pastors’ desire to avoid controversy over a non-core issue.
Ways to Deal with the Genesis Creation Story
A number of approaches are used to relate the Genesis creation account to the physical evidence. I cycled through several of them in my beliefs over the past forty years.
In mainstream Young Earth (YE) creationism, Genesis 1 is taken at face value. The universe was created in six, presumably 24-hour days, about 4000 B.C. as calculated from Biblical genealogies. Most sedimentary rock layers were laid down in Noah’s Flood about 2500 B.C. This event was a world-wide catastrophe in which all land was submerged, and all humans perished except for the eight members of Noah’s family on the Ark. This viewpoint is still widely-believed in the evangelical Christian community in the U.S. and elsewhere. YE creationism lost its appeal for me once I realized it was not true to the physical facts. A scriptural problem I see with YE creationism is that obvious evidence of a 6,000 year old creation, with rock layers from Noah’s Flood, would constitute a widely-accessible supernatural “sign”. This would contradict Matt. 16:4, where Jesus stated that, as a general rule, no sign would be granted unbelievers except the “sign of Jonah”, i.e. Jesus’ resurrection after several days in the “belly of the earth”. (Although the reports of the Resurrection are relatively well-attested historically, it still requires faith to embrace those reports.)
There are several varieties of “Old Earth” creationism, where it is accepted that the earth is billions of years old. These approaches may or may not accept evolution. The “Gap Theory” was popularized a century ago in the Scofield annotated Bible. Here, the Earth was created eons ago (Gen 1:1), but became “without form and void” (Gen 1:2) 6000 years ago, in a catastrophe associated with Satan’s activity. The fossils we find are mainly from this pre-Adamite world. The remainder of Genesis 1 describes God’s reconstruction of a habitable world in six days. Superficially, this allows for an old earth, but doesn’t fare much better than YE creationism in matching the physical evidence.
The Day-Age or Progressive approach has been highly developed by Hugh Ross as part of his Reasons To Believe ministry. Here, each of the six “days” in Genesis 1 represents an age lasting millions or billions of years, in consecutive, chronological order. Noah’s Flood is seen as a local affair, not involving all mankind; this explains why we find no evidence of a recent global deluge. Ross rejects macro-evolution.
I bought into this point of view for over a decade. However, after I found that the physical evidence actually confirms macro-evolution, I re-evaluated the Day-Age approach. As noted earlier in Part 1, this form of Old Earth creationism cannot account satisfactorily for the nature of the fossil record. If life did not develop over the ages by evolution according to ordinary physical laws, then the Day-Age proponent is forced to say that God supernaturally created species after species after species, millions of them over hundreds of millions of years, to populate the rock layers in an order that mimics evolutionary expectations. That is just not credible.
Furthermore, indefensible interpretations must be forced on the Genesis text in order to conform the Days to known physical chronology. For instance, in Genesis the sun and moon and stars were not made until Day 4, which in the Day-Age approach is millions of years after the earth’s atmosphere and dry land formed. That is not physically realistic. Day-Age proponents attempt to finesse this problem by proposing that for the first three Days the earth’s atmosphere was nearly opaque with thick clouds. During Day 4 the atmosphere cleared, such that for the first time the sun and moon became distinctly visible from the earth’s surface. However, that is not what the text says. The Hebrew words describing the events of Day 4 clearly mean that the sun and moon were “made” then, in the sense of formed or created, not that they “became visible.”
Also, the Day-Age attempt to minimize Noah’s Flood as a local incident does not comport with the Genesis account of the Flood and the subsequent re-population of the whole world, or at least the whole Middle East, from Noah’s three sons. Old Earth Ministries, a fine source of geological facts that counter YE creationism, presents a more flexible version of the Day-Age theory, and is agnostic about macro-evolution.
In the “Proclamation Days” approach to Genesis 1, the six Days are days (possibly before creation began) on which God proclaimed the next phase of creative activity; the actual outworkings may take place at some unspecified, possibly overlapping time after each proclamation. In the “Visionary Days” view, the Days of Genesis 1 are six days during which God showed visions of the creation to Moses. The ordering of these visions may or may not correspond to the chronology of the actual creation events. According to the “Literary Framework” approach (fleshed out here), the Days of Genesis 1 are organized thematically, not chronologically. Days 1-3 define realms formed by separations (day/night; sky/sea; dry land), and Days 4-6 describe the rulers or occupants (sun/moon; birds/fish; land animals) of these respective realms. There was no intention in Genesis of presenting a physically accurate order of creation events. This is the viewpoint that seems most realistic to me. All of these approaches can smooth away the differences between the order of events in Genesis 1 and physical reality, but leave open the interpretation of the Adam and Eve creation/fall story. However, folks who try this hard to protect Genesis 1 from the accusation of historical inaccuracy usually have difficulty in letting go of a special creation of Adam and Eve, since that is presented in such detail in Genesis 2.
Some interpreters accept the ancient, evolutionary origins of mankind, but still want to link Genesis 2-3 to some real historical events. Maybe Genesis 2-3 are referring to some real couple, perhaps in the early Neolithic Middle East. These were the first humans to whom God revealed Himself explicitly, as God later sovereignly revealed Himself to Abraham and made covenant with him. Abraham’s choices affected both his genealogical descendants and the rest of humanity, so the same sort of covenantal transaction might have transpired between the primal Selected Couple and God. This concept has some theological merit, but cannot readily be squared with the graphic descriptions of Eve being specially created from a bone excised from Adam’s body in Genesis 2, or the indication in Genesis 3 that prior to the Fall weeds did not compete with food crops.
The “Intelligent Design” position promulgated by the Design Institute falls into the Old Earth/anti-evolution category. Stephen Meyer and his colleagues generally accept an ancient earth, but typically do not proclaim that clearly and up-front (perhaps to avoid alienating their YE creationist allies), and do not propose any specific reconciliation between science and the Days of Genesis 1.
A common perspective among my evangelical friends is the “Appearance of Age.” The notion here is that the world was created only a few thousand years ago, but it was created in a mature or developed form, so it appears to be ancient. Thus, a star a million light-years away was created along with the starlight occupying the line of sight from that star to earth, so that we can see that star now instead of waiting a million years for its light to reach us. Adam and Eve were created looking as if they had been born twenty years earlier, with navels. The rock layers look as if they formed over the course of hundreds of millions of years.
What my friends fail to appreciate is that observations of rocks and stars show not just old-looking objects, but a whole detailed, interlocking history of events dating back billions of years. The fossil record shows a succession of species over the past half-billion years, as if they developed via evolution. The human genome contains many chunks of DNA that look as if they were injected by viruses millions of years in the past; chimpanzees share some of these same retrovirus sequences with us, making it look as if humans and chimps had a common ancestor. A supernovae was observed in 1987 , from a star 186,000 light-years away. This looks as if a real star really exploded 186,000 years ago, with an expanding ring of gases now visible.
Also, the deception here would have to extend well past the initial “week” of creation. God would also have had to erase all traces of a world-engulfing Flood which killed all but eight humans and most terrestrial species and scoured the crust of the earth. This global cover-up would entail reworking all the surface rock layers to erase traces of the Flood; rejiggering the human genome to make it look as if the human race did not go through such a severe population bottleneck; transporting a bunch of marsupial mammals to Australia to make it look as if they evolved in place on that isolated continent; creating levels of apparently human artifacts, complete with sequential carbon dates, to make it look as if civilizations continued uninterrupted right through the Flood epoch (c. 2500 B.C.) in China, India, Egypt, and Mesopotamia; and thousands of other acts of duplicity.
This “apparent age” viewpoint seems to solve the any conflict between the Bible and science, since it allows for a literal interpretation of Genesis while not disputing the physical evidence that points to an old Earth. It appeals to Christians who want to minimize contention over the subject of origins, and is less harmful than some other creation views. However, it makes God the author of deception on such a cosmic scale that we are left not knowing what is real. Maybe the whole universe, including our underlined Bibles, and us with our scars and our memories of things that never really happened, was all created just last night – with the apparent age viewpoint, you cannot tell.
Christians who accept the findings of modern science, including evolution, typically view the Genesis creation story as being allegorical or pedagogical, rather than historical. This is technically a form of Old Earth creationism, but is usually broken out separately as “Evolutionary Creationism” or “Theistic Evolution.” This is the main viewpoint within Roman Catholicism, and an accepted one in Eastern Orthodoxy.
However, one cannot just say, “The Genesis creation story is allegorical,” and walk away as if that has resolved all the difficulties. The New Testament writers refer to Adam and Noah as real individuals. Furthermore, in Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15, Paul links Christ’s redemptive work to the figure of a sinless, then fallen Adam. If humans as a group developed gradually from earlier primates, that seems to undercut Paul’s teaching on how the first man’s first sin set up the need for, and method of, redemption.
Thus, it is entirely understandable that most evangelical Christians have deep reservations over releasing the historicity of the Genesis creation story. I found a perspective that addressed my concerns in this area, but it took me a while to get there.
Reckoning with Ancient Science
By the time I engaged these issues (2008-2010), a number of recent, relevant books by evangelical Christians were available. These included Darrel Falk’s Coming to Peace with Science (2004), Gordon Glover’s Beyond the Firmament (2007), and Denis Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creationism (2008). Falk’s book has a particularly readable and thorough explanation of the evidence for evolution. All of these books argue that we must recognize that the ancient Israelites had existing notions of the physical universe, and that God accommodated His revelation to the science of that day. Paul Seely’s Inerrant Wisdom (1987) explores in depth this divine accommodation, and exposes the fallacies involved in literal inerrancy.
People in the Middle East in the time of Moses “knew” that the earth was immovably fastened to its foundations, the sky overhead was a solid dome, and animals reproduced strictly after their kind (no evolution). God could have corrected this ancient science, but chose not to. This was not a mistake or “error.” Rather, God wisely and graciously accommodated His spiritual revelation to the existing physical understanding, in order to facilitate communication of vital spiritual and relational concepts. It would have been pointless and confusing if the Israelites had been given a creation account in terms of today’s science (Big Bang, supernovae, plate tectonics, dinosaurs, etc.).
I realized that I, like many Bible-believing Christians, had an unbiblical view of the scope of authority of the Bible. All Scripture is inspired by God – but for what purpose? The Scripture is inerrant, but in respect to what, exactly? Paul spells it out very clearly in II Tim. 3:15-17 [NKJV]:
…from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Likewise, Jesus said that the function of the Old Testament was to testify about him and his saving work (John 5:40; Luke 24:44). Peter (I Pet 1: 10-12) wrote that prophets spoke of the sufferings and glory of Christ. This is all theology and morals. There is nothing here about authoritatively teaching geology or biology. This is a biblical view of the Bible’s intent, which differs from some evangelical statements about inerrancy which mistakenly over-extend the Bible’s sphere of authority into general science or history.
The Genesis account provided a means to powerfully communicate key concepts about God, humans, and the world. While employing the categories of ancient Near Eastern “science”, it completely overturned the pagan theology. In contrast to the quarrelling, needy gods of the pagans, the Genesis story depicts the Hebrew God as sovereign, calmly and freely choosing to create the universe, and delighting in his work.
In pagan thought, the celestial lights represented gods which held power over men. The Israelites themselves had a hard time shaking off worship of the sun and moon (Job 31:26-28). Genesis 1 thoroughly subverts this idolatry: the sun, moon and stars are totally demythologized, being mere created objects. Ironically, instead of humans serving them, the celestial luminaries are (in Genesis) to serve humans by providing light and marking off the days and seasons.
The closest parallel to the Genesis story is the Babylonian creation myth known as Enuma Elish. There humans are created out of the blood of a slain god in order to be slaves, working so that the gods could be relieved of their labors and be at ease. In Genesis, mankind has a far more dignified status. Adam is created from ordinary matter and then infused with the breath of life from God, being “in the image of God.” God does not need Adam’s labor or sacrifices. Instead, God works for the benefit of mankind, graciously giving them authority over the whole earth (Gen. 1), and making a fruitful garden and a suitable mate for Adam (Gen. 2). God does “rest” at the end of the Genesis creation epic, but this is because He is satisfied with what He has sovereignly spoken into being, not because some flunky is fanning Him with a palm leaf.
Thus, the pre-scientific Genesis creation account effectively accomplished what II Tim 3:15-17 says is the purpose of the Scriptures. It vividly conveyed a high doctrine of God’s goodness and power, and His authority to give moral direction to humankind. It was thus “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Retaining the ancient physical concepts (instead of trying to correct them) was essential in accomplishing this divine purpose for the people to whom this revelation was given.
It is unreasonable to demand that a creation story that spoke to a pre-scientific people in their familiar terms must also be amenable to modern readers with 21st century physics. To mediate between ancient and modern worldviews is a regular part of the task of translation. We do it with the views of women and slaves, covenants and kings, shepherds and sheep, and Hebrew and Greek idioms. It is thus faithful and appropriate for us to glean the essential teachings about God and nature from Genesis, without getting trapped into defending its physical details.
The Master Storyteller
Hollywood screenwriter Brian Godawa notes:
In the Bible the dominant means through which God communicates his truth is visually dramatic stories—not systematic theology, or doctrinal catechism or rational argument. A survey of the Scriptures reveals that roughly 30 percent of the Bible is expressed through rational propositional truth and laws, while 70 percent of the Bible is story, vision, symbol and narrative. Sure, God uses words, rationality and propositions to communicate his message. But modern evangelicalism has not always recognized how important visual imagery, drama and storytelling are to God.
To really “get” the Bible requires an appreciation of the role of story in communicating worldview. Regarding Genesis, Falk writes,“There is no other way that God could tell the story of his love and desire for the church than to show us the imagery of his reaching into Adam’s side, removing it, and creating Eve. It points forward to the new creation, for this is exactly what he did to his own Son when he reached down into the Son’s bleeding body and at the expense of that body created the church….the bride of Christ.” To provide covering for Adam and Eve’s nakedness, God Himself gives them animal skins. Presumably the former occupants of those skins were killed in the process, illustrating the principle of sacrifice to cover the transgressions of others. The prediction (Gen 3:15) that the “seed of the woman” would crush the serpent’s head, yet be wounded in the heel, may have foreshadowed the day when a man born of woman would defeat the ancient tempter at the price of having spikes driven through his wrists and his heels. The imagery and story-line here communicate more pungently than could a set of dry doctrinal statements.
Jesus’ primary mode of communication was to tell stories that never really happened: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mark 4:33-34, NIV). To argue over whether there really was a Good Samaritan is to completely miss the point of the parable. The same goes for arguing over the historicity of Genesis.
I found that telling stories that didn’t really happen was a well-established device for the Israelites, especially when the occasion involves calling someone to account for their sin. For instance, in I Kings 20 a prophet wants to rebuke King Ahab for sparing an enemy king. The prophet does so by disguising himself with a headband and telling a made-up story about having let a captive escape. After he got the king to agree that that sort of irresponsibility deserved judgment, the prophet whipped off his headband and revealed that this story was really about the king’s actions. But note, the story itself, like the Genesis creation narrative, was not literally true.
When the prophet Nathan confronted David over killing Uriah and taking Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, Nathan started off with telling a story about a rich man robbing a poor man of a lamb. Nathan presented it as a true story, even though it was not. After David himself pronounced judgment on such behavior, Nathan rounded on him and said “You are the rich man in this story!” It would have been inappropriate for David to brand Nathan as a false prophet for telling a story that was not literally true. Likewise, it is inappropriate to criticize Genesis for being factually inaccurate or to criticize evolutionary creationists for pointing out this inaccuracy.
For most of Jesus’ parables, the hearer is expected to figure out that the story is not really about some son who ran away and fed pigs or about some unfortunate traveler who got mugged on the way to Jericho. The hearer needs to enter into the story and see that he or she is represented by one or more of the characters in it; that was the point of the parable, not whether the story itself ever actually happened.
So it is with the Eden narrative. After first reading it as a story about someone else, and clucking over the arrogance, faithlessness and blame-shifting exhibited by the First Couple (and maybe even blaming them for our failings), the alert reader should realize that “I am that man and that woman – I have done the same things, and I, too, am in need of divine covering.” We are all Adam (“Adam” in Hebrew means “man” or “mankind”), choosing to doubt God’s goodness and to blame others for our mistakes.
I have dealt with the theological implications of the Fall here: Adam, the Fall, and Evolution. That essay also deals with the “slippery slope” argument, by noting the fundamental differences between the Genesis story and the more or less eyewitness accounts of the New Testament events.
I won’t rehash all those arguments here. The bottom line is that a literal Adam and a literal Fall are not essential to the gospel. Paul develops the universality of sin in Romans 1-3 with no mention of original sin. He moves from, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness… although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (1:18-21) to “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) quite apart from Adam. In all the gospel proclamations to both Jews and Gentiles recorded in the Book of Acts, there is not a single reference to Adam’s sin. The Fall is never mentioned in the sayings of Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus directed people away from religious speculations or blaming others, and towards a consciousness of their own shortcomings and their personal need for mercy.
Another concern I had was whether evolution threatens our status as bearers of God’s image. I was offended at the thought that we came from apes, but I realized the biological reality is even more humiliating. You and I come, not from monkeys, but from single-celled eggs. We, today, are all made from chemicals, starting from egg and sperm. This is true of all humans now living, and their parents and grandparents. Therefore, how God physically made the first human bodies (whether from dust or from other primates) is completely irrelevant to the status of us today – – our humanity or value or image of God.
How a conscious, responsible soul becomes associated with the localized net of neurons in our skull remains mysterious. It cannot be the case that God simply assigns a soul to an egg as soon as it is fertilized: identical twins result from the division of an egg after it is fertilized, yet presumably they each have their own soul. It seems wise to remain humbly non-dogmatic on this matter.
What Was I Thinking?
How was I persuaded as an undergraduate that the earth is only 6000 years old? Although I was a liberal arts major at that point, I had a decent grasp of general science and a techie bent. YE creationism was not a position I came to on my own steam. Rather, I was persuaded by the efforts of young earth advocates, who wage an energetic campaign for the hearts and minds of conservative Christians. Several YE creationist organizations (e.g. Answers in Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Science Ministries, etc.) are still going strong, publishing magazines (often with some engaging animal photo on the cover), a “technical” journal, and daily features on their websites.
By insisting that a young earth perspective is the only faithful reading of the Bible, they set up in me a strong desire to believe in it. Also, they wove a comforting, inspiring meta-narrative around the details of a literal six-day special creation of a beautiful paradise which was later ruined by man’s sin. That was much warmer and fuzzier than the evolutionary picture of hundreds of millions of years of cold-blooded animals eating each other.
For physical evidence, the YE creationists presented a number of observations which supposedly could not be accounted for within mainstream science. These included fossilized trees poking through many feet of rock layers, the amount of salts in the ocean, the decay rate of the Earth’s magnetic field, the rate of recession of the moon, rock layers apparently out of order and discrepant radioactive dates of rocks. Today there are many books and websites that debunk, with precise detail, all these young earth science claims. You can google the subject and in minutes find these refutations conveniently tabulated on sites like TalkOrigins, the anti-pseudo-science RationalWiki , and the Christian Old Earth Ministries. That was not the case in the 1970s. It was much more cumbersome back then to locate specialized information.
By the 1990s I had cooled towards the YE viewpoint, as a result of more science exposure and encounters in seminary that opened my mind to the plausibility of non-literal Bible interpretations. Nevertheless, it was bothersome that I did not have clear explanations for those purported young earth examples. In one of Hugh Ross’s books, he listed and debunked a set of leading evidences for a young earth. Reading that helped to settle my mind. It was particularly convincing coming from a fellow Christian, who offered an alternative Bible-honoring system of interpretation.
That still left me in the anti-evolution camp. By the mid-late 1990s, literature from Intelligent Design (ID) movement was available. Most of the ID proponents (e.g. Meyer, Behe, and Dembski) had legitimate academic credentials, seemed reasonable and sincere, and were telling me what I wanted to hear. The ID folks (centered in the Discovery Institute in Seattle) publish an ongoing series of books and on-line articles, packaged to appeal to educated Christians such as me. They motivate the faithful by claiming that belief in evolution is not only intellectually unfounded, but leads to various social and moral ills.
By failing to appreciate the historic doctrine of God’s providence in natural affairs, ID proponents actually buy into the atheist misconception that development of the earth and its life-forms according to natural laws excludes God or morality. This is why ID is driven to find gaps in evolutionary history that cannot be explained by natural processes, and can only be filled by some Intelligent Agent (who must be, for all practical purposes, eternal and omnipotent in order to be intervening with complex genomes at key points over geologic timescales).
The evidence for an old earth is obvious to anyone with an open mind. For instance, one good look at an angular unconformity in the rocks such as this , followed by a few moments of reflection on the physical steps it would take to produce such a formation, should be enough to dispel any notion of a one-year worldwide Flood being responsible for the sedimentary rock layers. Geologists (most of them Christians) had figured this out by the 1830′s, long before Darwin or radioactive dating. Ditto for contemplation of buried coral reefs or thousand-foot-thick limestone layers .
The evidence for evolution is just as pervasive, but it is more subtle. We don’t generally see radically new species, or radically new/improved genes, developing within the time-scale of human observations, and we typically don’t find a complete series of all the actual ancestral transitional forms in the fossil record. For a non-scientist audience, it may take many minutes of education on the fundamentals before an evolutionary explanation of a given issue can be developed. Because these explanations often involve chains of logic rather than a simple picture, they may come across as mealy-mouthed excuses rather than straightforward answers. Also, molecular biology is a much younger science than geology, tackling an arguably more complex subject, so there is much that is still unresolved. Thus, it is easy for ID proponents to seize on some recent journal article regarding some cutting-edge, controversial topic and claim, “See, even the mainstream scientists admit that evolutionary science is in hopeless disarray.” To unravel some of these controversies takes more than a 30-second sound bite.
For these reasons, the falsehood of the anti-evolution arguments was not apparent to me until relatively recently. When I did decide (as described in Part 1) to dig down to the truth here, it took me hundreds of hours to gain some elementary knowledge of mutations and population genetics and the fossil record, then trace the back-and-forth arguments on particular issues. In the end, I found that the Intelligent Design arguments against evolution are of the same general type as those for a young earth: they are all based on presenting partial truths. The success of these arguments depends on emphasizing a selected set of facts (or non-facts), while keeping the rest of the facts out of view. This is easy to do, since the ID audience consists mainly of non-scientists who are eager for grounds to support their skepticism towards evolution.
Every now and then, I get intrigued by some new ID argument against evolution, and work through the pros and cons to my satisfaction. This has led to some further blog posts here, such as Cambrian Contention: Disputing “Darwin’s Doubt” , Junk DNA, the ENCODE Project, and Intelligent Design: Facts, Hype, and Spin [debunking the ID claim that ENCODE results have overturned the notion of lots of "junk" in the human genome], and Gorilla, Orangutan, Chimp and Human Genomes: Population Genetics and Intelligent Design .
I’ll recap that last post here, as an example of how ID can be so effective at misleading its audience (including me, for many years). The sequence of chemical base pairs which make up human DNA was largely identified by 2003 as part of the Human Genome Project. Since then, the genomes of other animals have been sequenced. An analysis of the gorilla genome was published in Science by Scally, et al. in 2012. These researchers noted that about 70% of gorilla genes more closely resemble chimpanzees than humans, while 30% more closely resemble the forms of those genes in humans.
Using this study as a basis, Casey Luskin of the Design Institute published an article in Evolution News and Views titled “30% of the Gorilla Genome Contradicts the Supposed Evolutionary Phylogeny of Humans and Apes”. This article leads off “A whopping 30% of the gorilla genome — amounting to hundreds of millions of base pairs of gorilla DNA — contradicts the standard supposed evolutionary phylogeny of great apes and humans.”
He further states, “The standard evolutionary phylogeny of primates holds that humans and chimps are more closely related to one-another than to other great apes like gorillas. In practice, all that really means is that when we sequence human, chimp, and gorilla genes, human and chimp genes have a DNA sequence that is more similar to one-another’s genes than to the gorilla’s genes. But huge portions of the gorilla genome contradict that nice, neat tidy phylogeny.” In his article Luskin uses verbiage calculated to give the impression that something is deeply wrong with standard evolutionary theory: “contradicts”; “conflicts”; “discrepancies”; “fails to provide a consistent picture of common ancestry.”
The partial truth is that 30% of gorilla genes more closely resemble the forms of those genes in humans than in chimpanzees. The rest of the truth (as I explain in my post ) is that this 70/30 split is exactly the sort of ratio predicted by well-established genetics for speciations like gorilla/chimp/human, and thus confirms evolution rather than challenging it. However, Luskin’s readers are presented only with the partial truth (the 30% similarity to humans), which deceives them into thinking that this demonstrates some sort of failure for mainstream evolutionary theory. This is standard operating procedure for ID literature. Panda’s Thumb and the Christian site Biologos are reliable resources for correcting the inaccuracies in ID publications.
I continue to stay engaged in this area out of general interest, and because dispelling public misconceptions about science is a responsible contribution to society. I am also concerned about the effect on the church and its youth of inaccurate teachings about origins. Here is a telling lament from a missionary in the former Soviet Union:
The worst aspect of YECS [Young Earth Creation Science] teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church. .. How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? How much have we dishonored our Lord by slandering scientists and their reputation? How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them “dangerous” and “compromisers”? …Pastors need to rethink these issues as outlined above and teach a responsible Christian viewpoint with all humility…Christian radio and TV stations need to invite qualified speakers to wrestle with these issues in a responsible way…Finally, missionaries and evangelists need to get materials expressing other viewpoints translated to oppose the virtual monopoly YECS teaching has overseas. As I write this paper, I see YECS literature becoming more and more widely distributed in the growing churches in my corner of the former Soviet Union. We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already.
Perspective on Dealing with Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design
YE creationism and Intelligent Design engender strong passions. To some fundamentalists, only YE creationism can save the church and the nation from the abyss of amoral materialism. For instance, in his book Already Gone (critically reviewed here ) Ken Ham blames the lack of firm YE creationist teaching for the loss of teens from the church. To some secularists, YE creationism is holding the nation back on scientific progress. I have read comments online by atheists suggesting that the government should prevent parents from brainwashing their children with YE creationism. Both extremes are, well, extreme. It’s really not so bad.
To my fellow science-literate citizens, I can offer this solace: the very compartmentalization that allows YE creationists to hold nonsensical views on origins despite all the contrary evidence also allows them to function as responsible, tax-paying, technology-using citizens despite holding those nonsensical views on origins. One can be productive in practically any position, and almost all branches of science and engineering, without believing that humans evolved from other primates. For instance, I was no less effective in chemical research a decade ago when I was skeptical about evolution than I am now. Also, the courts have consistently ruled against teaching of intelligent design in public schools, so the ongoing efforts to introduce ID into the schools should not survive legal challenge.
To my Christian brethren who are worried about the impact of evolution on their children I offer this observation: Evolution has only as much power to destroy faith as you give it. It is tempting to pressure your Bible-believing child to reject evolution by telling him, “If evolution is true, the Bible is false.” However, you will then bear some responsibility if he (taking you at your word) concludes the Bible is false when he eventually discovers that evolution is true. There are poignant stories on the web from mothers reliving the day their son came home and told them that he had found evolution to be true, and therefore he saw no place for God. That sort of tragedy is totally unnecessary.
Although I was skeptical of evolution during the years I was raising my children, I did not make that an article of faith and did not pit the Bible against modern science. I exposed my children to a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books by C.S. Lewis. Lewis does not argue against the fact of evolution, but against the myths of evolution; he arms believers against the propaganda from both fundamentalists and atheists which portrays evolution as a threat to Christianity. Today my adult children are vibrant believers who can deal fearlessly with any academic subject. I hope the discussion above on Bible interpretation can help you back away from a literalism which is actually an unfaithful reading of Genesis.
Although I have bashed young earth and ID publications for being deceitful, in fairness we should note that there is a lot of other communication that is just as one-sided. Practically all advertisements, newspaper editorials, and campaign speeches, and whole magazines and books on the left and on the right, present only the facts that support their narrow point of view.
Most of these ardent advocates (whether creationists, new atheists, or political conservatives/liberals) actually believe that what they are writing is a realistic representation of matters. We humans have a strong tendency towards confirmation bias, i.e. we attend more to facts and opinions which confirm what we already believe. This is not the same as conscious dishonesty. The YE creationist who engages in internet debates, and who is maddeningly impervious to the factors that refute his position, is genuinely unable to admit into his consciousness those contrary facts (in their full implications) which are thrown at him by his opponents. This is a well-known psychological syndrome with YE creationists, known as “Morton’s demon”, which is discussed here. This sounds like a bizarre and horrible characteristic – - until you go to someone that you clash with and ask them sincerely, “Do I have any blind spots?”
While there will always be holdouts, not everyone who currently holds to YE creationism or Intelligent Design is unreachable. There are plenty of people like me who sat under young earth teaching in their youth, but later got free. (Quick thanks to the folks who labor at Panda’s Thumb and TalkOrigins and similar sites for helping me along the way.)
My suggestion to secular biology educators is to find appropriate ways to ease the religious fears of your students who are resistant towards evolution. That will likely be more effective than trying to beat them down with yet more examples of congruent phylogenies or shared retroviruses. I hope this post may be a resource to that end. Another, more formal resource is this Biologos article, “Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation?” , which includes a number of good links to further testimonies and articles.