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by Austin L. Hughes
In the last century, new discoveries in geology and biology created a crisis for both academic and popular Christian theology. The evidence suggesting that the earth is very old and that organic species have an evolutionary relationship to one another appeared to contradict the account of creation given in the first two chapters of Genesis. Many Christians gradually came to believe that modern science can be reconciled with the Christian faith. Others reacted by upholding a traditional, literal interpretation of Genesis, apparently believing that such an interpretation represented the only alternative to “liberal” theology.
In our own century, one consequence of this reaction has been the development of an elaborate theory of the earth’s history known as “creation science.” Its proponents claim that this theory is the only account of the earth’s history that is compatible with Scripture and that is supported by an unbiased reading of the scientific evidence. I believe, that, contrary to the claims of its supporters, “creation science” does not represent a literal biblical account of the earth’s history but rather a heretical departure from historic, biblically centered Christianity.
“Creation scientists” have devoted much energy to searching for inconsistencies in evolutionary theory and for anomalies in the fossil record. While I believe that they might have found more constructive ways to spend their time, it is not my intention to review here the evidence for and against the conclusions of mainstream scientists. I do want to mention briefly one line of evidence for evolution which seems largely to be unknown to the “creation scientists.” This is the evidence from molecular biology, which is my own area of research. In the past fifteen years, molecular biologists have discovered a whole new world of evidence that the earth is millions of years old and that humans share ancestry with other animals. This evidence is far more convincing than any fossil, and furthermore each one of us carries it with us in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies.
The heritable characteristics of all organisms are determined by genes, which are stretches of nucleic acids; that is, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or, in the case of some viruses, ribonucleic acid (RNA). The sequence of the chemical building blocks of genes (called nucleotides) contains a code, which directs the synthesis of RNA and protein molecules. Furthermore, the genomes (full sets of chromosomes) of higher organisms such as ourselves contain vast amounts of DNA that plays no role in directing the synthesis of any other molecule and thus has no effect on the phenotype (that is, on the biochemical, physiological and anatomical characteristics of the organism). It is now possible to determine nucleotide sequences quite rapidly, and the sequence of the entire human genome will probably be known in another decade or two. Since evolutionary change is nothing more than change in the sequence of nucleic acids, comparing genomes of different species we are able to examine evolution at first hand.
A Christian, believing that God created the heavens and the earth, must ask himself or herself this question: If God really made humans and other animals and the universe itself only 6,000 years ago, why did he make us so that each of us carries the apparent evidence of a much longer past in every cell of our bodies? Recall that this evidence is found not only in coding DNA that affects the phenotype of the organism but also in non-coding DNA that has no phenotypic effect and thus cannot simply be explained away as reflecting a divine plan to create phenotypic similarities among organisms. To resolve such a dilemma, we must turn to the Scriptures, primarily to the accounts of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis.
Human Origins and Human Nature
In reading Genesis, it is instructive to ask ourselves how much common ground there is between the scriptural account of the creation and the scientific evidence. First, we notice that the Bible and the scientific evidence are in agreement that humans originated on this planet. “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:6) In Hebrew, the earthly origin of the man is emphasized by the similarity between the words for man (adam) and ground (adamah).
This may seem a small point of agreement, but in today’s world it is not trivial by any means. Where I live, public school instructors teaching biological evolution are much less likely to be challenged by Christian advocates of “creation science” than by adherents of New Age paganism, who believe that our species originated form colonization of this planet by inhabitants of some other galaxy. Genesis is adamant that our origins are earthly, a position that scientific evidence amply confirms.
The Scripture states that God made man from “the dust of the ground” and that he “formed out of the ground” other animals (Genesis 2:19; see also 1:24). Clearly, the Bible teaches that our physical natures have the same origin as other animals. Their bodies are made from the earth; or as we would express it today, they are composed of chemical elements commonly found on this planet. Thus Genesis agrees with evolutionary biology in seeing that our physical natures have a common origin and a shared substance with other animals.
Note, however, that the accounts of the creation of man and the other animals differ in significant ways. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) Humans are thus endowed with a spiritual nature, in the image of God, which they do not share with other animals. Our physical nature is shared with other animals, however; therefore, nothing in Genesis contradicts the origin of our physical natures by an evolutionary process.
The distinction the Bible makes between our physical and spiritual natures is a very important one, and one that is overlooked by advocates of “creation science.” “Creation scientists” often argue that if we accept that humans share an evolutionary origin with other species, then there is no basis for morality, and “anything goes.” This argument is not really biblical or Christian at all. The Bible clearly teaches that we share the same physical nature as other animals, and yet this certainly does not mean that there is no basis for morality. According to the Bible, the moral law does not derive from our physical nature but from our relationship with God (Genesis 2:16–17); Deuteronomy 5:2–3). The idea that humans must have a unique physical nature and that this physical nature is the origin of the moral law really is a heretical view: it improperly exalts humanity over the rest of creation.
Both Genesis and scientific accounts of the earth’s history emphasize an orderly process by which different life forms appear at different times and more complex forms tend to appear later than simpler forms. This is not true of the creations myths of many peoples. Often in such myths, the animals that are found on earth today, including ourselves, are degenerate progeny of some higher life forms found in a previous golden age. This type of view is perpetuated by many New Age pagans who hold that humans are the degenerate progeny of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.
Ancient and Modern Science
When emphasizing common ground between science and Genesis, we must avoid assuming that Genesis’ account of the earth’s history is a scientific account. This is one error of the “creation scientists.” The first chapters of Genesis give a theological account of the origins of the universe and of humankind, rather than a scientific account. Although Genesis is not science, I would argue that it is at least in part about science. A major purpose of its first two chapters is to give us a theological framework for understanding any scientific account of the earth’s history.
Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the human author of Genesis was aware that scientific theories change constantly. As long as scientific activity is taking place, then the scientific view of the material world is always changing, always being refined in the light of new data, always becoming a closer approximation of the truth (though never reaching the goal of a completely accurate explanation of all material phenomena). Science has obviously changed greatly since the ancient Babylonian science known to the author and original audience of Genesis, and it will change still more in the future. Because science is always changing, the task of theology is to create a framework in which the latest scientific knowledge can be accommodated without abandoning or watering down the fundamental and unchanging truths about God’s role in creation.
Genesis teaches us how to frame such a theology; it uses current Babylonian ideas about the origin of the earth as an example of how we are to see God’s role in the material processes of cosmogony. It is a mistake for us to make the details of the creation accounts in Genesis that derive from Babylonian science binding on us today. Rather, we are meant to substitute for these details the scientific accounts of cosmogony current in the secular world of our own day, while maintaining the scriptural emphasis on God’s role in the creation process.
One Babylonian scientific idea was that water is the origin of all things—a natural conclusion for a society dependent on irrigation. This idea truly can be called the first scientific theory, the first abstract scientific concept of the nature of material things. Furthermore, it was the idea that gave rise to Western science. It was introduced into Greece by Thales of Miletus in the sixth century B.C. and directly stimulated the development of Greek natural science, leading eventually to the atomic theories of Democritus and others, which in turn are distant ancestors of modern atomic theory. If we are looking for one idea that can serve as a stand-in for all of science, this ancient Babylonian idea would be an excellent candidate.
This idea of water as the origin of all things was certainly known to the author of Genesis. But what is his theological response? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” (Genesis 1:1–2) The water—the basis of all matter according to the Babylonians—is subject to God, whose Spirit hovers over it. Clearly, this means that whatever physical principles current scientific theory uses to explain the origin or development of material things—the Babylonian’s water, the ancient or modern atom, the big bang, natural selection, or random genetic drift—God’s Spirit rules over that principle. God rules over the physical process and directs it according to his plan.
The most remarkable similarity between Genesis and Babylonian ideas is the close parallelism between the events of the seven days of creation recounted in Genesis 1 and the events of creation recounted in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish. This well-known parallelism has led skeptics to dismiss Genesis as a poor piece of hackwork, a mere rehashing of heathen mythology, hardly deserving the attention of a serious person.
However, as more orthodox commentators have pointed out, the Genesis account does not merely rehash the Enuma elish, rather it alters key details in order to completely change the meaning of the whole story. In the Babylonian account, there is primeval chaos, apparently without any oversight or control. In Genesis, God is in charge even of the earth’s chaotic beginnings (Genesis 1:1–2). The many gods of the Babylonian myth are replaced in Genesis by one all-powerful God. In the Enuma elish, the gods throw a party after the creation of humankind, whereas in Genesis God rests and blesses the seventh day (Genesis 2:2–3). Thus, what was in the Babylonian story an essentially selfish act of celebration by the gods in Genesis is a providential act of kindness toward humankind by the one God. For the Sabbath, as Jesus reminds us in Mark 2:27, was made for man.
Thus, Genesis is telling us that whatever our scientific authority—the Enuma elish or a 1993 physics or biology textbook—we must always remember that the physical processes it describes were directed and ruled by God according to his plan. And the heart of his plan was his providential love for us, the creatures made in his likeness. If our textbooks teach us anything contrary to these great truths, we are to change their accounts in exactly the same way that Genesis changes the account of the Enuma elish.
The New Gnostics
One of the most important messages of the creation account in Genesis is the following: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) It is important for us to remember that creation is good, particularly because this scriptural teaching has been repeatedly rejected by heresies in the Church’s history. When Christianity began to penetrate the Hellenistic culture of the first- and second-century Mediterranean world, it encountered a Greek philosophical tradition that held exactly the opposite view of creation. One result was the rise of Gnosticism—a peculiar blend of Christianity with a sort of pessimistic philosophy. The Gnostics held that this world is evil. Many believed that it was not created by God but by a subordinate and evil demiurge (Greek for “craftsman”).
Gnostic ideas plagued the Church for her first three centuries, and throughout history they have reappeared under new guises. Indeed, many of the ideas of the “creation scientists” have a distinctly Gnostic cast. This is particularly true of their interpretation of geological evidence. For example, in his famous book Omphalos, the Victorian naturalist Philip Gosse argued that God created the world in 4004 B.C.—just as Bishop Ussher had deduced from his reading of the genealogies in Genesis—but he created a world that appeared to be much older. The world was created with fossils built into it, thus giving the appearance of a whole previous flora and fauna that in fact never existed. God did this to try our faith, to test whether we would believe the Bible or the deceptive evidence of the rocks.
Gosse’s basic idea—that the earth was created recently but with the appearance of much greater age—is still very much a part of the worldview of “creation scientists.”1 Yet this idea is clearly Gnostic since it regards the creation—or at least some parts of it—not as good but as inherently and purposefully deceptive. It will be interesting to see how proponents of this view will respond to the evidence of evolution now being provided by molecular biology. It is one thing to say that some rocks contain deceptive formations, quite another to propose that God has built an elaborate deception into every cell in our bodies.
Some writers less philosophically sophisticated than Gosse have adopted a more Gnostic view and have argued that fossils are of diabolical origin.2 A variation on this theme is the theory, still advocated in some “creationist” literature, that fossils represent the remains of a pre-Adamic creation that fell under the dominion of Satan, was thereby corrupted, and had to be destroyed by God.3
Of course, many contemporary “creation science” advocates avoid such heavy handed schemes, but most still are profoundly distrustful of science and of scientific evidence. They have a Gnostic tendency to view creation as untrustworthy. Like the Gnostics of old they have developed an arcane gnosis (Greek for “knowledge”) unknown to others outside the circle of “creation science” initiates. It consists of bizarre theories on such arcane topics as bombardier beetles,4 acceptance of which defines Christian orthodoxy in their eyes. The Bible warns us against such trivializing of God’s creation: “Since they show no regard for the works of the LORD and what his hands have done, he will tear them down and never building them up again.” (Psalm 28.5).
One tragic consequence of militant “creation science” is that it has kept Christians raised in that tradition from choosing careers in mainstream science, particularly in biology, and thus from bringing a Christian witness into the scientific community. As a biologist, I have encountered few other Christians—especially at the cutting edge of research where major new discoveries are being made. Yet a Christian presence is urgently needed in these circles. For one thing, new discoveries in molecular genetics are expected to have profound ethical implications, and Christian input is sorely needed to provide guidance to ensure that the right decisions are made.
Furthermore, clearly many of the most deadly diseases can be understood only from an evolutionary point of view. For example, Plasmodium falciparum malaria is a disease that every year kills more people worldwide than AIDS has since the beginning of that epidemic. The parasite that causes this disease has evolved numerous adaptations that enable it to evade the host’s immune system; only by understanding how these adaptations have evolved can we hope to come up with a lasting cure for malaria.5 Yet in an intellectual climate in which the possibility of biotic evolution is denied, such understanding can never be achieved. For this reason it is no exaggeration to coin the slogan: “creation science” kills.
Before Jesus healed the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath, thereby provoking the anger of the Pharisees, he asked the onlookers a question: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) His enemies would not answer, but Jesus went ahead and healed the man. In doing so, he gave us an important principle for interpreting the Law—that is, the Five Books of Moses, including Genesis. However we interpret these books, we are not to do so in a way that keeps us from our duty to heal.
Jesus takes this duty very seriously for his disciples. Matthew’s Gospel especially emphasizes that Jesus’ compassion towards the physically and spiritually sick around him (Matthew 9:35–38) was the impetus leading him to call the Twelve, giving them “authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” (Matthew 10:1) As successors of the apostles, we should be wary of any interpretation of the creation that cuts out avenues of healing, as “creation science” does.
No doubt the idea that the earth is only a few thousand years old has been an implicit belief of many Christians throughout history. But until quite recently no one ever suggested that this idea forms a part of the central core of Christian belief. The historic creeds and confessions of the Church, which are meant to distill the essence of the scriptural message, are silent on this question. I have argued here that, in their zeal to graft the idea of a recently created earth onto the core of Christian orthodoxy, the “creation scientists” have begun to tamper with essential elements of that core. In order to counter such tendencies, we need to revive the ancient Christian tradition of reading and grasping the Scriptures as a whole with a single, coherent message for humankind. As Martin Luther wrote in his preface to the Old Testament: “If you want to interpret well and confidently, set Christ before you; for he is the one to whom all of it applies, every bit of it.”
1. Numerous examples are cited in T. McIver, Anti-Evolution: A Reader’s Guide to Writings before and after Darwin, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
2. A Victorian example is quoted in G. Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, New York: Norton, 1962, p. 237.
3. See McIver, op. cit.
4. The bombardier beetle is an insect that produces a noxious secretion, which it uses as a defense against predators. The “creation scientists” use this species as Exhibit A in their case against evolution because they claim that it is impossible to imagine intermediate steps in the evolution of the beetle’s defense system. The example is poorly chosen for this purpose, since in this case we know quite a bit about the intermediate steps that must have been involved. Many plants produce toxic chemicals; insects feeding on these plants can protect themselves from harm by evolving ways of storing the plant toxins in their own bodies. In some species, these stored toxins are used, perhaps with some chemical modification, as pheromones (odorants used to communicate with others of the same species, e.g., to attract mates). With only a little more chemical modification, such an odorant can be modified to form a secretion unpleasant to vertebrate predators (as in the case of the stink bug) or even caustic as in the case of the bombardier beetle.
5. See A. L. Hughes, “Coevolution of Immunogenic Proteins of Plasmodium falciparum and the Host’s Immune System,” in N. Takahata, and A. Clark (eds.), Mechanisms of Molecular Evolution: Introduction to Molecular Paleopopulation Biology, Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1993.
Austin L. Hughes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Biology at Pennsylvania State University and a member of Trinity Lutheran Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), State College, Pennsylvania. He has had several articles published in The Evangelical Catholic.