QUESTION: With all the evidence for the Big Bang, the moon coming from the earth or some other planet, humans evolving from an early ape-like ancestors, etc, how should I view Genesis? The bible says nothing about God making dinosaurs or other planets, it seems to portray Earth as the center of the universe. It says that humans all came from two humans that had no earthly parents or ancestors, and a lot of other things. Noah’s Ark was also nearly an impossible event with a lot of “plot holes,” as well as the tower of babel and several other events. It seems one can't seem them as fact, so should I look at these events as merely stories or epic poems, like Jesus’s metaphorical stories and hyperbole?
RESPONSE: You're choosing between fact or poem, but this leaves out a third way to see a story: myth. Myth can be both poetical and factual without it also being in all places literally true. It's important to define "myth" properly, because in our vernacular, myth often means “fictitious tale” and even more strongly we sometimes mean, “a lie”. Like when we say, the “myth of a flat earth” or the “myth of Bigfoot”. We mean, something opposite of the truth.
But in literature there are many cases where myth is actually pointing at truth. In two ways: First, myth could be like the parables of Jesus, which you mentioned. These are non-historical stories which nevertheless reveal a “spiritual” truth. These stories didn’t happen, they were non-historical events made up out of Jesus head, but they convey divine truths.
If you look at Genesis this way, you are at least showing some respect for the text, but you wind up vacating it of any historical veracity at all, and (as I'll explain below) that runs into problems for the veracity of the global Christian story.
So I think you should open up to another kind of myth genre for some parts of Genesis. Namely, a true event that really happened, or refers to people who really existed, but the facts are conveyed using non-literal settings or incomplete data or using exaggerated language that if taken literally would be inaccurate, but if taken in its proper context or genre (like exaggeration, or metaphor, or poetry, or dream) is conveying actual facts.
Speaking of lenses, it is not a test of Christian orthodoxy to look at Genesis through the lens of strict, 6 day, young earth creationism. And I concede this, not because of the pressures of modern scientific discoveries. The Church Fathers Augustine and Origen both thought that the days of Genesis were non-literal. IE: not 24 hour solar days. Writing in the 300’s they were obviously not influenced by modern geology or astronomy!
Augustine’s view was affected by philosophy and by the text. He believed God to be timeless, so, he asked, why are there any days of creation at all? These must reflect some kind of creative potencies inside of God himself, he thought, and not convey actual time passing. Also he noted the text itself suggested that the “days” were non-literal. He noticed, as all Bible students do in a surface reading of Genesis one, that the sun shows up on day 4. How can one have 3 solar days before there’s even a sun?
Other reasons the text suggest a non-literal understanding of Genesis one: the text says, “let the earth bring forth fruit/seeds” and the original audience would understand that plants take many days and months, sometimes years to produce their seeds and fruit. This can’t be a literal day, even to the first readers.
Also “let the land bring forth…” sounds strangely like some kind of natural development is happening without God directly bringing things into existence out of nothing. Ironically, if you take this very literally, it looks like vegetation somehow comes out of the land by an ability God infused into the land. There are serious Christians who are theistic evolutionists who take note of this. There are biblical literalists who here might say, but everyone knows that God is bringing forth these creations instantly. Yes, but that's not what it LITERALLY says. Even a young earth perspective does not view the text literally at every turn.
Once Genesis is unhinged from strict literalism for good reasons that Christians have cited for literally millennia, we’re sort of free to follow the evidence wherever it leads. If we find out the universe is old, can Genesis accommodate that? Yes. Could God have imbued nature with some creative properties? Genesis can accommodate that too. Ironically, I think there are more serious scientific problems with thinking that inert matter can do all the work of making the complex bio-diversity of planet earth, than there are theological problems because of Genesis 1.
God could have used the natural processes and laws which he built into creation at the outset (the fine tuning of which powerfully suggests design), OR he could have interfered in creative acts by infusing new information into the system over time. These creative epochs, could be what’s meant by the creation days where each one is set apart with: “Then God said…”
Here, I would just caution against thinking that because Genesis 1 may be non-literal it must therefore be a “mere story”. Even if non-literal, Christians believe Genesis is communicating enormous truths – and not merely theological truths:
For example, Big Bang cosmology is a massive confirmation of Genesis cosmology. Think about it: for centuries ancient pagans believed in an eternal universe, that the primal titans were forces of nature that preexisted everything else including the gods and men. In other words, matter came first, mind came second. Modern atheistic thinking repeated this model with steady state theories of eternal universes without beginning or end. But when the universe was found to be expanding, suddenly Moses, a Bronze Age nomad turns out to be the only ancient who got his cosmology right: “in the beginning”.
In fact, here are five truths that come out of the creation “myth” of Genesis One if you look beyond the “literal” level. Each of these revelations disagreed with pagan mythology and modern cosmology until Einstein, and yet now are all considered unchallengeable facts:
- The universe has not always existed but began at a finite point in time.
- The universe began in an explosion of light.
- The universe evolved from chaos, emptiness and formlessness to order, filling, and form.
- The unfolding of creation did not happen all at once, but gradually over time.
- Youngest of all creatures on earth is mankind who is made, not out of nothing, but out of preexisting material, all of which can be found in the earth itself (dust).
This is uncanny! Mythical? Sure. Untrue? Nope.
Then we get to Adam and Eve. Here again, the fact that they are made “from the dust” can be an open door to harmonize the evolutionary picture with Genesis if we think that’s where the evidence points. How exactly did God “form” them from the dust? Genesis doesn’t say, so we’re free to investigate that problem and suggest theories. Christians are deeply divided as to the “how”. Some will insist we need two persons made without preexisting forms. Some suggest Adam and Eve (literally "man" and "mother") could be titles for a group of individuals set apart somehow from the rest of the animal kingdom. If we turn to science, the idea of a two person “bottle neck” in human history is debated based on modern genetics, but science hasn’t ruled it out either.
But why even bother to try to prove Adam and Eve might be historically plausible? What’s really at stake in the Adam and Eve story? Well, there is at least one thing theologically at stake that matters for the WHOLE Christian story, without which Jesus work on the cross just doesn’t make sense. So what is indispensable about this story to Christianity and therefore to you if you become a Christian?
Simply this: Man, as God made him, was completely good and completely happy, but he disobeyed God and became what we now see. A creature in need of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration back to his creation design. That is a bare minimum of what we must believe to be true about Genesis or else Jesus is out of a job.
Now, many people think even that simple premise is proved false by modern science. They take Darwinism to imply that a “Fall” is the opposite of what science allows. That rather than fall from a primeval state of virtue and happiness, people have slowly risen from brutality and savagery.
At this point, I would simply point you to CS Lewis' Problem of Pain where he offers up a very convincing harmony between Darwin’s account of the rise of mankind, and the Bible’s account of the fall of mankind. Significantly, what he rejects about Darwin is Darwin's "unguided" philosophical underlay. Common ancestry, change over time, preexisting hominid forms? To Lewis, none of those things refuted the fact of creation, or the discontinuity of people with the rest of the animal kingdom, nor an actual, historical fall from harmony into sin.
I'll include a link where you can read this below. Start reading the chapter “The Fall” on page 41, but jump to his Creation Myth on page 46. He begins with: “For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself…”
I think his is a legit way Christians can read Genesis in view of natural history, a true creation myth. Along with Lewis, I invite you to read the books of the Word and the World honestly and in harmony, with the assumption the same Author has written both. If they seem to be in conflict, it's not because one is telling us lies, it's because we are reading one or both of them wrongly.
Regarding the Bible and Geocentrism, yes, there are suggestions of this, like the language about the sun rising and setting, and about the earth being “laid upon unmovable foundations”. No Christian today thinks this language contradicts modern astronomy – because no Christian takes those passages literally. Just as we never took “God will hide you under his wings” to mean that God actually has literal wings.
Obviously at the time of Copernicus, those verses were cited as proof texts of geocentrism. But the irony is that the Church believed it not so much because the Bible overtly teaches it, but because Greek philosophers – whom they admired – did! Ironically, while finding passages to confirm the science of the time, they completely ignored several prescient passages that suggested heliocentrism: Isa 40:22 and Job 26:7.
This old controversy speaks volumes to us about how to handle the new controversy about the days of creation. It’s OK that natural science gives us insight to modify how to understand certain Bible passages – provided we understand that science’s readings are provisional. So just as we should avoid knee jerk rejections of the Bible based on provisional scientific theories , we should also avoid tying the Bible’s statements too strongly to any scientific theory (and again, that should include Darwin's insistence that biology develops solely by mutation/selection).
Finally how to read Noah’s ark… For Christians to reject this as in any way historical puts severe strains on the reliability and authority of any part of the Old Testament which Jesus endorsed. So I think we have to approach it as historical by default, since it is clearly not meant to be mythical in the “it’s just a story” sense. And it's also not metaphorical of anything.
However, its language can be understood to be hyperbolic. The Bible often uses "the whole earth" to mean, "alot, but not necessarily the whole." So we don’t have to believe that the flood was global. There is evidence against a global flood that makes the story hard to accept. But, there is actually key evidence that would lend credence to a formative, catastrophic flood event in the Ancient Near East, which may have seeded the flood legends carried literally around the world. Also, at roughly the right time-frame, there’s geological evidence for a great Mesopotamian flood.
So, good bible study allows us to identify hyperbole and metaphor, then we don't have to be resistant to scientific insights. But also, we don't have to reject the fundamental truth claims either, which are critical to the Christian worldview being coherent and being true.