George Lucas and Indiana Jones couldn’t have made a better story. In a library that had not checked out a book in several millennia, archeologists discovered stacks of clay tablets in an ancient language.
In the early 1850s, archeologists excavated the library of a Babylonian king (Ashurbanipal) in the ancient city of Nineveh. The trove of clay tablets was treasure. There were records of laws and administration. There was literature. And in the religious texts, there was a story of creation.
In the story, order is created out of chaos.
In the story, light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.
In the story, the sequence of creation is division of waters, dry land, creation of lights, creation of humanity – all followed by a time of rest.
This Babylonian creation story is called Enuma Elish (from the opening phrase “When on high”). Enuma Elish is dated at 2000 BC, but it appears to have originated in even older Sumerian stories (3000 BC).
It was a bombshell at the time. Enuma Elish was far older than the Genesis creation story. Until the discovery of Enuma Elish, the Genesis creation account was unique. Not only was Genesis not unique, it wasn’t even original.
And to top it off, just a few years later (1858), Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.
Stop the ride, we’re getting dizzy.
Genesis After Darwin
Just as mid-nineteenth scholars/theologians were grappling with Enuma Elish, here comes Darwin. Popular lore presumes that all scientists immediately discounted everything about Genesis, while fundamentalist Christians (who were not bright enough to understand the science) held to it.
Reality was a bit more complex. There were churchmen and scientists who rejected Darwin’s claims for a variety of reasons which were not always religious. At the same time, a group of 717 “gentlemen” – many of whom were leading scientists of the day – signed a document affirming “science as a gift from God” and that “the author of both (science and scripture) would not allow them to ultimately contradict” (David Wilkinson, in Reading Genesis After Darwin).
As far back as the time of Isaac Newton, British scientists questioned a 6,000 years-old earth. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, geologists had demonstrated that the earth was far older than the 4004 BC start date popularized by Bishop Ussher. Scientists and theologians in the nineteenth century debated the specifics of geologic history, but Christian writers who believed in a young earth were the exception, not the rule.
Even Darwin did not set off an immediate religious firestorm – Darwin was not the first to suggest the idea of evolution. Darwin was ground-breaking because he described the mechanism of evolutionary change (natural selection).
Most nineteenth century Christian leaders and scholars were not all that upset about the evolution of plants and animals. They weren’t all that upset about a very ancient earth. They were not even upset about a non-literal reading of Genesis. The upsetting part was the idea that human beings were in the story, too. To many Christians, the idea of humans sharing a common history with all life diminished the dignity of humans. How could man be a moral being if he shared history with the common animals?
Even so, B.B. Warfield, founder of the Princeton School of Theology (which birthed the American fundamentalist movement), said this:
I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need to be opposed to evolution.
Other scientists, including the noted botanist Asa Gray, saw God in the elegant process of evolution.
In the Christian world contemporary with Darwin, evolution was not collectively panned. There was a sense that because God was revealed ultimately in Jesus, the Christian faith was not dependent on the design argument (D. Wilkinson, Reading Genesis After Darwin)
A Tale of Two Books
The publication of Darwin’s Origen of Species on the heels of the discovery of Eluma Elish forced a conversation on Biblical interpretation like never before.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and again the concurrent publication of two books is driving a conversation among Christians.
Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and go-to guy for contemporary atheism, published his best-seller The God Delusion in 2006. Dawkins makes no bones about it – “scientific creationism”, “intelligent design”, and of course, a literal Genesis, are complete nonsense and unworthy of attention, except for ridicule.
That same year, another best-seller – The Language of God – was published by an American who will go down as one of the premier scientists of our generation – Francis Collins. Dr. Collins led the Human Genome Project, now heads the National Institutes of Health, and is a frequent public voice for all that is cutting-edge in science. Dr. Collins is also a committed and vocal Christian.
Like Dawkins, Francis Collins has no interest in making Genesis a science textbook.
Unlike Dawkins, Francis Collins believes that the Bible enriches our understanding of science and science helps us better interpret and understand scripture (Reading Genesis After Darwin).
Dawkins argues that modern science is completely incompatible with belief in God. Ironically, many Christians agree with him.
Collins (and many scientists like him) are authentic examples of why that isn’t so.
In a twenty-first century conversation, Christians have three options for reading Genesis:
Option One – Reading Genesis Literally and Historically. Option one reads the opening chapters of Genesis and interprets exactly as written. The entire cosmos was created in six 24-hour days. All life was created separately and specially. The earth is about 6,000 years old, based on genealogies in Genesis. No additional considerations are needed because the text is taken at face-value. There is a sense of security in believing “what God says and not what man says”.
But for those who read Genesis literally and historically, there are things that cannot be ignored. A literal belief means a stand against the vast, vast majority of modern science and scientists. It means a stand against the science that is trusted for medical care, disease research, agriculture, aviation, engineering, and energy. The science concepts that explain the origin of the cosmos and development of life on earth are the same concepts that support our modern lives. If young-earth creationism is true, modern science collapses. Literalists have to own the contradiction.
Option Two – Forcing Modern Science into Genesis. Option two wants to find modern science in the Genesis creation story. In order to account for an old earth, some have suggested that there is a huge gap of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Others have proposed a “day-age” solution where the days of creation are actually millions of years. “Intelligent Design” is a well-organized, well-funded movement that recognizes a very old earth, but holds to special creation of living things in the sequence found in Genesis.
This option attempts to take science seriously, but still treats the Genesis creation story as a scientific account. This option has both theological problems and scientific problems. For example:
- most agree that the meaning of “day” in Genesis is a real, 24-hour day
- the order of appearance in Genesis of different kinds of living things conflicts with genetics and the fossil record
Option Three – Making Peace with Genesis and Modern Science. In Reconciling the Bible and Science: A Primer on the Two Books of God, Lynn Mitchell and Kirk Blackard explain that nature and the Bible are God’s two books – his two revelations. Both books reveal truth about God. Here’s Mitchell and Blackard:
No conflict exists between biological evolution and the belief that God is the source of all there is, with a creative plan that includes natural consequences and divine governance over a continuing and ever changing process…the theory of biological evolution, based on empirical evidence, makes no claim as to why life originated or who was or is the moving force.
Next up in this series on reading Genesis:
How do the ancient Babylonian creation stories differ from the creation story in Genesis? Why is it important?
How was Genesis intended to be read and understood? How would the original hearers have heard the creation story?
I believe that the heavens declare the glory of God.
I believe that day after day the cosmos pours forth speech and
night after night the cosmos reveals knowledge.
I trust that the evidence and knowledge that is revealed is true because
the Creator of the cosmos is Truth.