Jul 13, 2022
The Bible isn’t a science textbook. And we shouldn’t expect it to operate as one.
When I was ten years old, our church library ordered a book called Dinosaurs and The Bible. I couldn’t have been more excited. Like most ten-year-olds, I was a huge dinosaur nerd. When I grew up, I wanted to be a paleontologist, and I could rattle off the Latin names for all my favorite dinosaurs.
The week the book arrived at our church, the pastor told the congregation their children needed to read the book – especially if they were receiving “public school education.” I was, of course, the first in line to borrow it from the church library. The crux of Dinosaurs and the Bible hinged on the idea that since God created everything in six literal days (about 10,000 years ago), dinosaurs and humans definitely co-existed at the same time in history. I devoured the book. It was filled with wild artwork, colorful charts, and scientific explanations of key Biblical passages.
However, the more I read Dinosaurs and the Bible, the more uneasy I became.
The first red flag was the book’s chapter about Noah’s Ark, which claimed that in order to fit dinosaurs on the ark to save them from the Great Flood, God probably helped Noah by either shrinking the dinosaurs or giving him dinosaur eggs.
Okay, weird, I thought. But I can go with it.
But it was the book’s final chapter about my favorite dinosaur – the Tyrannosaurus Rex – that finally tipped me over the edge.
Deemed the “King of the Dinosaurs,” the T-Rex was a ferocious predator the size of a school bus. But, the book claimed that since pain and death didn’t exist prior to The Fall, the T-Rex was originally designed by God as a plant-eating reptile. The chapter even included an illustration of the T-Rex using its fearsome jaws to crack open and eat watermelons.
I distinctly remember closing the book, glancing over to the plastic T-Rex toy on my nightstand, and thinking, There’s no way.
I returned the book, disappointed and more than a little confused. But, like most young Christians, I buried my questions and split my scientific worldview in half.
On one side, I had Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark, and the Tower of Babel. And, on the other, I had dinosaurs, cavemen, the Ice Age, and extinction-level asteroid impacts. A secret bargain was struck between my opposing worldviews: they could peacefully coexist as long as they never overlapped.
That compromise was easy to maintain in small-town East Texas. In Sunday school (and most of my high school science classes), the “theory” of evolution was regularly ridiculed and dismissed. In college, things got a bit more complicated. My degree track required a couple of science classes, so I signed up for the two easiest courses I could find – Oceanography and Geology. In my science classes, my scientific preconceptions weren’t so much as challenged as they were simultaneously and completely ignored and obliterated. Suddenly, the questions were coming at me faster than my theological framework could handle.
If we have fossilized evidence of interactions between Wooly Mammoths and early humans, how come we don’t have the same evidence for people and dinosaurs?
If most of the fossil record is a result of a worldwide flood, why are fossils stratified across geological layers that seem to imply distinct periods of ecological diversity? Shouldn’t the bones of dinosaurs, mammals, and humans be all mixed up in the same rock layers?
It takes the light from some distant stars hundreds of millions of years to reach Earth. Shouldn’t the universe be at least that old?
And, as a Christian, am I supposed to ignore all the pre-human remains and artifacts we’ve uncovered that pre-date human civilization by tens of thousands of years?
The two halves of my scientific worldview had finally collided and revealed several irreconcilable differences. Would I trust the infallible Word of God? Or would I backslide into the cold embrace of modern science?
When it comes to Christianity’s relationship with science and creation, there are three primary points of view (though variations exist within each):
Young Earth Creationism: God created life, the universe, and everything in six literal and sequential days. The age of the Earth can be determined by counting and tracing back the genealogies in Genesis.
Old Earth (Progressive) Creationism: God created everything in six literal days, but large gaps of time passed between each of the “days.”
Evolutionary Creationism: God created everything, but did so through the testable and observable natural laws and processes He designed.
One of the most prolific advocates for Young Earth Creationism is the evangelical ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG). Young Earth Creationists spin an alternative view of human history in which the Earth is only 10,000 years old (a date derived from counting back on the Biblical genealogies found in Genesis), but the catastrophic effects of the worldwide flood (as depicted in Genesis 7) creates the appearance of an old Earth.
At the beginning of my crisis of faith, I was drawn to AiG for their hardline stances and conspiracy-like approach to “secular science.” But the deeper I dove in, the more I struggled. The Young Earth Creationism view appeared to be at odds with every major scientific discovery of the past century in the fields of geology, paleontology, astronomy, genetics, neuroscience, climatology, anthropology, and biology. It was a posture of constant warfare in a conflict that no one else seemed very interested in fighting anymore. In my mind, it was a battle between a middle-school Sunday School teacher who read a couple of articles on Answers in Genesis and a Geology professor with a doctorate and peer-reviewed research.
But what if the battle was completely unnecessary? And what if we could stem the flow of casualties — people, like me, who felt as if they had to make an impossible choice?
The Genesis Doctrine
Since the beginning of time, people have been telling stories about how it all began. In the Babylonian creation story, the god Marduk kills the goddess Tiamat and forms the earth from her corpse. Humankind is later created to serve the gods and take care of the earth. But, humans get too loud and most are wiped out by a giant flood sent by the gods.
In Norse Mythology, the All-Father Odin carved the first man and woman from two pieces of driftwood that floated ashore on a beach. He breathed life into the couple and named them Askr and Embla.
In the Mayan creation account, the Creator Gods wanted to preserve their image in a new race of lesser beings that would also worship them. They tried making humans out of mud, but they crumbled in the sun. They tried again with wood, but these people had no soul and had to be destroyed by a flood. Finally, they tried with corn – the staple food of the Mayan culture – and it worked.
In the Abrahamic religions, God brought the universe into existence and formed mankind from the dust of the Earth. The first human couple is placed in a garden paradise but is tricked by a talking snake into eating a magic fruit from a special tree.
Where and when you were born (and how you were raised) determines which of these stories you would view as myths and which one you’d approach as fact.
It’s important to remember that the Bible was not written with a twenty-first-century scientific worldview in mind. The idea that the earth is a globe spinning through the cosmos wasn’t on anybody’s radar for most of human history – especially during the late Bronze Age when Genesis was written and compiled by Moses.
Instead, ancient Near East Cultures believed the world was a flat disc with waters above and below the earth. The land was held in place above the ocean below by ancient pillars. They had little to no concept of outer space. All celestial bodies – the sun, moon, and stars – resided below the solid dome that kept the ocean above from flooding the earth. Windows or doors in the dome would allow rain to fall and irrigate the land.
To our modern ears, this sounds crazy. But, remember, these views were formed by people whose observations were limited by their geography and technology. And you can find the fingerprints of this ancient cosmological view in early Old Testament writings:
In the Flood story, we’re told the “springs of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of heaven were opened.”
In Job, the main character says God “shakes the earth from its place, and make its pillars tremble” and “walks on the vault of heaven.”
Of course, all of us read these verses as figurative or metaphorical now, but to an ancient Near East audience, they were references to a literal understanding of the natural world. So, instead of asking, “Is this story factually and scientifically correct?” a wiser and more helpful question would probably be, “What is this ancient story trying to say?”
The Storyteller God
Prior to the invention of reading and writing, tribes would pass their cultural history, myths, and wisdom from generation to generation through storytelling and oral tradition. Therefore, it was very important that these ancient stories were easy to remember and recite. And if you re-read the Genesis account with poetry (rather than science) in mind, a lot of things will start falling into place. Take, for example, the literary structure of Genesis 1:
On Day One, God creates the cosmos. On Day Four, God fills the cosmos with stars, the sun, and the moon.
On Day Two, God creates the sky and ocean. On Day Five, God fills the sky and ocean with birds and fish.
On Day Three, God creates land and vegetation. On Day Six, God fills the land with animals and people.
Do you see the pattern?
In the first three days, God creates specific habitats. And three days after He creates each habitat, God fulfills its purpose.
The lyrical cadence of the creation account in Genesis even includes a chorus (“and it was good“) and an easy-to-memorize verse structure (the days of the week).
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright puts this more eloquently in his book Surprised by Scripture:
“The Genesis account is a highly poetic, highly complex narrative; it’s main thrust has nothing to do with the number of 24-hour periods in which the world was made, and everything to do with the wisdom, goodness, and power of the God who made it.“
In other words, the Bible isn’t a science textbook. And we shouldn’t expect it to operate as one.
The early Biblical authors didn’t live and write within a cultural vacuum.
Remember, the most important historical event to happen to the Hebrew people was their deliverance from Egyptian slavery by Moses. The Hebrew people spent more than 400 hundred years enslaved in Egypt, and the Egyptian people had their own religious beliefs and mythologies.
One of these Egyptian mythologies involved Apep, a large serpent who was known as the “Lord of Chaos” and an “Eater of Souls.” And then there was Wadjet, an Egyptian goddess who took the form of a snake. The Pharoah would wear a symbol of Wadjet on his crown, which indicated divine authority.
So, when the Hebrew people listened to a story about the first couple being tricked by a snake, they did not think, “Oh, that’s the Devil!” Instead, they associated it with what they knew – the snake was symbolic of chaos, death, and – most importantly – slavery under the Egyptian Pharoah.
Do you see how taking a story literally can actually strip it of its cultural significance and narrative power? (And that’s only one small example).
What if focusing on the “How” and “When” of creation is just a textbook example of missing the point?
The Gift of Science
Saint Augustine of Hippo was an early Christian philosopher from Africa who lived in the fourth century. He is considered by many to be one of the most influential Western theologians of all time. Like many intellectuals at the time, Augustine believed the world to be flat. However, one of his most famous works is The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, a commentary on the first book of the Bible.
In the commentary, Augustine warned Christians against denying future scientific discoveries just because they didn’t line up with their interpretation of Scripture. He wrote “it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [non-Christian] to hear a Christian, while interpreting Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics” and that Christians should “take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation.”
In A Flexible Faith, Bonnie Kristian writes, “Augustine worried that if Christians deny science, non-Christians will not be able to take our faith seriously. He warned against tying our theology too tightly to scientific theories that may become outdated as new discoveries are made.”
In other words, Augustine thought that if Christians held onto pre-scientific ideas in the modern era about the natural world, it could literally prevent people from coming to know Christ. And that’s coming from someone who lived in the fourth century and thought the earth was a flat disc!
To be honest, I really don’t think it matters much what Christians think about the first few chapters of Genesis (says the guy who just wrote a 3,000-word blog post on the subject). It holds little to no consequence on how we live our day-to-day lives.
However, a Young Earth Creationist worldview can pre-package the assumption that science was out to undermine my faith. I thought all of “secular science” was propelled forward by the demonic goal of erasing God and spitting in the face of Christianity.
And it led to a completely avoidable crisis of faith.
“Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul—and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms.”
You can have a high view of science and the Bible. We just have to tweak our expectations of each. It’s true that a lot of modern scientists hold atheistic or agnostic worldviews. But could that be a consequence of how Christians negatively portray the scientific community to their children?
We need Christians to be at the forefront of quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, cancer research, ecology, dietary nutrition, space exploration, climatology, and neuropsychology.
Science is a gift. Along with art, it allows us the opportunity to become co-creators with God. But it is shackled with a heavy weight of responsibility. With the tools at our disposal, what type of world will we choose to create? Will we use our scientific progress to invent new ways to kill each other, pollute our planet, and exploit our natural resources for our own consumerist gain?
Through science, we can heal the sick, feed the hungry, and repair the world. Through faith, we can mend the souls of the broken-hearted and the poor in spirit.
United, we can bring light into the darkness – both physical and spiritual.
So, let there be light.
This is a republish with permission from Joe Terrell and Instrument of Mercy, a progressive Christian blog created and written by Joe Forrest. Featuring in-depth and long-form articles regarding complex and controversial issues about faith, culture, politics, and the church, the goal of Instrument of Mercy is to foster informed and constructive dialogue and encourage radical empathy among citizens of Heaven and Earth.