I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the British science-fiction series Dr. Who, but there’s a scene in one of the episodes where a policeman asks the Doctor where he’s from. He’s from another planet, as it happens, but he doesn’t want to say so; instead, he responds, “I’ve always found that the best way to find out where someone is from is to find out where they’re going and work backwards.” When his interrogator asks where he’s going, the Doctor replies, “I have absolutely no idea.” I love that line, but the Doctor is in fact reversing the truth: in order to figure out where we’re going, and who we’ve become along the way, we need to figure out where we’ve come from and work forward; and to do that properly, we need to go all the way back to the beginning, to the first part of Genesis. This is why, as we begin this very important year in the life of our congregation and our country, I wanted to begin at the beginning, by spending several weeks in Genesis 1-11, and particularly in chapters 1-2.
The problem is that these days, there’s so much sniping over the first two chapters of this book, it can be hard to hear what they’re actually saying over the din. We have this argument in Western culture, you’re all familiar with it, which is usually cast as “evolution vs. creationism,” as science vs. religion—and the reason it’s usually cast that way is that that way of framing the argument insures that the folks who are opposed to the Bible and Christianity will win. Plain and simple, it’s dishonest, and it’s a cheat, and unfortunately, too many Christians play into it and thereby aid and abet those who hate our faith. More recently, you have the folks in the Intelligent Design movement—I’ve had the chance to study under a couple of them, and I appreciate their work—who are attacking evolutionary theory on its own terms, pointing out the problems with the supposed evidence and the nearly infinite odds against any such thing as evolution happening as a natural process. I believe their scientific and mathematical arguments will ultimately carry the day; but as they themselves recognize, there’s more to be said.
You see, the real debate going on here isn’t “evolution vs. creationism,” but rather evolutionism—which is, by the admission of its own high priests, a religious doctrine founded on the assertion that God cannot exist and thus that we may only accept explanations for the existence of the world which totally exclude him—vs. various doctrines of divine creation. There is no one “creationism.” You have folks like Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis crew, the Institute for Creation Research with Henry Morris and John Whitcomb, who argue for creation in six 24-hour days, and you have folks like the Canadian astrophysicist Hugh Ross who argue that the days of Genesis 1 aren’t 24-hour periods, and thus that the scientific evidence for the age of the cosmos can be taken at face value. I’ve learned from all of them, I believe they’re all taking positions which are defensible and reasonable readings of Scripture, I think they all have contributions to make to the debate—and I really wish they’d spend more time making them and less time shooting at each other, trying to prove their position the only acceptable one.
The most important thing to get here is that this is a religious debate—on both sides. The position which argues that evolutionary theory disproves the Bible and disproves God is every bit as much religious in character and essence, it is based every bit as much on faith, as the position which argues that the Bible teaches that God created the world in a calendar week, and the more people understand that, the more they’re going to see what’s really going on in this debate. And, just as importantly, the more clearly we see that, the more clearly we’ll understand how Genesis speaks into this debate—because it isn’t a modern debate at all, it’s just the most recent version of a fight that was just as significant back when Genesis was written.
The key to understanding that is realizing that while Genesis speaks to us, it wasn’t originally written to us. This is something that folks who want to take down the Bible don’t get, and so they pick up Genesis and treat it as if it was written by somebody with a scientific mindset to make statements of a scientific character about the creation of the world; and it wasn’t, and that’s no criticism of it. You see, science tends to ask questions about what and how—what happened, and how, by what mechanism, was it done? Valid questions, but not enough, and really not the most important questions, on the whole. Genesis certainly doesn’t ignore the what, but it isn’t really concerned about the how; rather, its focus is on the who and the why, and its language and argument are geared to that end.
So if Genesis 1 wasn’t written to provide, in our terms, a “scientific” account of the creation of the world,* why was it written? There are several parts to that answer, but there’s one that’s most important and foundational to the rest: this passage tells us in no uncertain terms that God and only God created everything that is. We get that right from the opening statement: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In saying this, right away, Genesis distinguishes the God of Israel from the gods of other nations in two ways.
In the first place, of course, there’s the claim that he, not they, made the world; thus the God of Israel is the only true God, and the gods of the nations are all false gods with no right to the title. Just as important, however, is the assertion that God made everything. No other god made that claim; in other religions, the gods shaped the world as we know it, but they didn’t make it—they were a part of it. Only Israel’s God claimed to have made everything that is, a point driven home in verses 14-18. To the nations around Israel, the sun and the moon were major gods, and the stars ruled people’s fortunes. Moses, in writing this passage, doesn’t even name the sun and the moon—he just calls them “the two great lights,” and throws in the stars as an afterthought. No power, no influence, no nothing—not gods of any sort, just lights, that’s all. You remember when we looked at Colossians, and Paul was talking about Jesus setting us free from the elementary powers of the world? It’s the same sort of thing here. Genesis makes the claim very clear that God is absolutely superior to every other power in this world, no exceptions, and no challengers.
Now, let’s carry this forward into our own time. For the last several years, there’s been a recurring flap over the Intelligent Design movement. When President Bush was asked for his opinion on the issue, he said that “part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” including those which challenge evolutionary dogma; from the howl that arose, you’d have thought he’d advocated book-burning. More recently, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin took a similar stance, and was ruthlessly mocked by the liberal elite—since of course (as I know well coming from Washington state) if you live west of the Mississippi and you’re not from LA or San Francisco, you’re a dumb hick by definition. In the responses to their statements, do we see a scientific openness to inquiry and new ideas? No, we don’t. Do we see rational argumentation and careful explanation of the evidence? By and large, no. Rather, what we see is the insistence that no one is allowed to challenge the dogma of godless evolutionary theory, and that anyone who does so must be shouted down as quickly as possible by any means necessary.
In other words, we don’t see a scientific theory of evolution that can be questioned and challenged and that its holders will happily throw away if the evidence doesn’t support it; rather, we see the religious doctrine of evolutionism to which its adherents are committed as a matter of faith. Put another way, we see the gods of the nations in their new form; just like the ancient pagan gods, they did not make the world, they are a part of it, and they refuse to admit the existence of anyone who did. This comes through clearly in the famous declaration by Richard Dawkins that “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”; but perhaps the strongest statement on this point was made by the Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin. In a review essay in the New York Review of Books, Dr. Lewontin wrote this:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.
Note: “materialism” here means the belief that there is nothing but matter, no spiritual element to reality, and certainly no gods of any sort. He continues,
That materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
Translation: we’ve already decided that we don’t want there to be any such person as God, and so we’ll take whatever explanations for things we can find that don’t involve him, regardless of whether we have the evidence to support those explanations or not—as he and other eminent scientists admit we don’t.
The idea of a God who might upset our nice, neat little systems—and, worse, who might have some claim on our lives—is simply too intolerable to be accepted, says Dr. Lewontin elsewhere in this article, and so they dedicate their efforts to coming up with the best answers they can that don’t require God, whether or not they are in fact sufficient, or even supported by the evidence. This is a religious position, not a scientific one; so is the definition of science held by most scientists which says that science must begin by presuming that God doesn’t exist.
It’s this religious worldview, which uses science to prop itself up, which is the root of most of the “science vs. religion” clashes in our time. One good example is the academic temper tantrum we saw some years ago when the Cobb County, Georgia school board some years ago put a disclaimer on their textbooks saying that evolution is only a theory, not proven fact. Scientifically, it’s a completely inarguable statement; but it’s a challenge to the worldview, to the religious beliefs, of the scientific establishment, and so it got the same response that such challenges so often do: a howling mob with pitchforks and torches crying “Death to the heretics!”
It’s really the same issue now as it was when Genesis was written—who is God, the LORD or the gods of the nations?—even if the gods of the nations look very different these days; and against the religious worldview which believes in evolution in order to deny the existence of God, Genesis speaks loud and clear: God created everything that is. He has the authority over all the created world, because he is its Author, and that gives him author’s rights—which is what “authority” is—over every part of it. You can argue about how he did it, but you cannot get around the thundering heart of this passage, on which it speaks with the voice of mighty waters: in the beginning, God.
For those like Dr. Lewontin who refuse to believe it, this must be avoided, denied, or explained away; but for those who are willing to accept it, it’s reason for praise. We praise God for the wisdom that made the world, and for the beauty which expressed itself in the beauty of creation; we praise him for the goodness of creation, marred though it is by our sin, and for the ways in which creation shows us his glory. We praise him because wherever we might go, he is there with us, guiding and caring for us. And in our praise, we summon all creation to do the same.
For the sake of brevity, I did not take time in the sermon to expand on my assertion that Genesis 1 should be read as a theological and literary text rather than a scientific one; but there are a few points worth making in that regard which may be of interest to some. The critical thing for any interpreter of Genesis 1-2 to understand is that reading it with a scientific mindset is anachronistic, because the mindset and conceptual framework of modern science did not exist in the ancient world; ancient peoples had a somewhat different set of questions and concerns, and so the focus of this text is different than it would be if it had been written by someone formed in contemporary Western culture. That doesn’t make it any less true or accurate in what it’s trying to say, but it does mean that it’s going to say it differently.
First, it doesn’t use words scientifically, but for literary effect. Thus, for instance, when we see the word “day,” we shouldn’t think, “24 hours”; after all, there wasn’t anyone standing around with a stopwatch timing God as he went about his work. This is especially true given that Genesis 2:4 refers to “the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” which clearly doesn’t mean a literal day. The word “day” is used deliberately in Genesis 1, but not to nail creation down to six 24-hour days; the author had a different purpose, one which was directed not to instruction in astrophysics and geology but to the teaching of truth about God.
Second, Genesis isn’t structured scientifically, but for literary effect. Modern science thinks in straight lines—first this, and then that, and then that; thus when we read this chapter through scientific lenses, we naturally assume it was written in chronological order. We understand it to be telling us that God first made light, then separated the waters, then made the land appear and put plants on it, and then went back and created the sun and the moon, then birds and fish, then land animals, and then people. If you find it implausible that God would make day and night at the beginning but not create the sun and the moon until three days later, you’re not alone; but there are two good reasons to believe that this passage was never intended to be read that way. One is that the word “day” doesn’t have an article until you get to the sixth day; before that, we have, “And was evening and was morning, day one,” or “day five,” or whatever. In other words, that fourth day on which God created the sun and the moon isn’t labeled the fourth day, but a fourth day; which suggests that these events were arranged in this order not because they happened in this order (except that day six came last), but for some other reason.
That other reason is that while this order doesn’t make scientific sense, it does serve a literary purpose. Hebrew poetry and rhetoric was based on various forms of parallelism, and so the biblical authors often used that to emphasize their points; this is a classic example. As you can see, the six days break up into two groups of three which are then set in parallel to each other, and which correspond to the description of the earth at the beginning of God’s creative work as a formless void—in other words, unformed and unfilled. You’ll notice that the first three days all have to do with God giving form to the raw stuff of creation, setting boundaries to give it definition—dividing light from darkness, creating day and night; dividing the waters, separating the sky from the surface of the planet; then setting boundaries on the waters, dividing the planet into land and oceans. In this way, he creates the various “realms” or “spheres” of creation. The next three days, we’re given the filling of these realms—the sun, to rule the day, and the moon, to rule the night; the birds to fill the air and the fish and other marine animals to fill the waters; land animals to fill the continents; and, ultimately, humanity to oversee the whole thing. The passage runs this way not to say that things happened in a certain sequence, but rather to emphasize the order and logic of God’s creative work.