Why should we trust the Bible if it gets the origin of life so wrong? – Part I

Simon Angus

23 September 2014

The following article represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the City on a Hill pastors more broadly.

A. Credibility in the Dock

What kind of book is the Bible? An unusual book? A useful book?

No, the extraordinary claim of the Bible is that it is a God-authored book (2 Peter 1:21).

The implications of this claim are enormous.

If the Bible really is a God-authored book, then it has God-knowledge in it, it has God-plans and purposes in it, it has God-emotion and character in it; moreover, it would be God's chosen specific communication to you and me.

I said 'extraordinary claim'. And it is.

But can we believe it?

Lots of religious texts claim to be inspired by 'god', why should we believe the Bible's bolder claim of God-authorship?

In this series of posts, I want to explore perhaps the most prominent expression of why we shouldn't believe the Bible's God-authored credibility. Let me state it clearly:

The Bible is not credible because its account of the origins of life doesn't square with what Evolutionary theory suggests actually happened.

For example, prominent evolutionary biologist, and atheist, Richard Dawkins has devoted a considerable part of his intellectual life to arguing this claim in one form or another. His conclusion on the Bible is that, 'it is fiction, myth, poetry, anything but reality.

To be clear, this is a debate about methods or mechanisms. There is no disagreement about, say, the existence of complex living things today, but rather about how (methodologically) they got here. Of the primitive question words, we are dealing with the 'how' of life.

Clarifying note: we'll only focus on the 'origins of life (living things)' here, not on cosmology. Evolution is not a theory of the origin of the universe, but of the origin of complex living things.

B. What's at stake?

For Christians, the stakes couldn't be higher.

Suppose that the conflict between the scientific theory and evidence for the creation of living things so contradicted the Bible's account that we had to admit that the first chapter of the Bible was wrong. And if it were wrong, it surely couldn't be 'God-authored'.

But if the first chapter is not God-authored, what about the second chapter (don't look now, more creation!), or the next book, or...

If we can't trust one major part of the Bible, then how can the Christian be sure about any of it?

But if you don't have confidence in the Bible, then you can't be sure that God has communicated anything to us in it.

We could look at the night sky, at the universe around us, we can assume this is all made by a metaphysical being but we would be left with so many un-answered questions: who is this God? Is this God kind or malicious? Is he single or multiple? Is he engaged or disengaged with our world? Is this God like us or entirely different to us?

Perhaps most starkly, in our dark night, we would wonder, does this God care? About me? About our world?

But equally, for many skeptics the stakes are also of the highest order since for many, the 'Evolution makes the Bible in-credible' idea is the key stated reason why they do not believe in God. Richard Dawkin, again, provides exactly this perspective,

"Thanks to Darwin, we alone of all species know that each and every one of us is a thread in the evolved fabric of life. Darwin showed us that the world is beautiful and inspiring without a God, he opened our eyes to who we really are and where we've come from." – R. Dawkins (2009), The Genius of Charles Darwin, Episode 1.

Which means that if somehow we could diffuse the conflict over the origins of life, then the intellectually honest atheist evolutionist should rightly reconsider their position.

Perhaps the Bible would be worth a second look.

Let's turn now to the debate at hand, first by considering the Atheist Evolutionist's perspective, then by looking at the theatre of conflict (Genesis 1) before making some concluding observations.

C. The Atheist Evolutionist's Perspective

Most people will likely be aware of the essential elements of Evolution, but just in case, let's do a quick re-cap.

The scientific problem that Evolution addresses is how complex living things could have come about in a world where in general, structured/ordered/complex things tend to be dismantled over long time-scales.

Or put simply, how do you get complex living things on Earth? The Evolutionist's answer is: biased natural selection. Also called 'Evolutionary theory', or 'Darwinian Theory', or just 'Natural Selection'.

There are three key elements to the theory: replication, novelty and biased selection.

First, you need an entity which is capable of replicating, that is, of transmitting some information about how to live from one generation to the next. There is another debate about how you get a replicating entity, but for now, let's just assume we have one.

Second, you need the daughter entities from the replicating parent to be slightly different to their parents. That is, you need a source of novelty. If this were not true, then a poorly performing entity would beget poorly performing entities and you'd never witness better solutions.

Third, you need some way of promoting the better performing entities and conversely, demoting the poorer performing entities. This ensures that over time, the population of living things gets 'better' at solving whichever 'how to live here' problem they are trying to solve at the time (normally called 'fit' to an environmental 'niche').

The wonderfully simple premise of the theory of evolution is that the promoting and demoting job is done simply by who has more offspring. This is what is meant by 'evolutionary fitness'. To the evolutionist, 'fitness' is not (directly) about your calves, resting heart-rate or bench-press, but rather, simply about how many reproductively able kids you can have.

If you take away any of these essential elements (replication, novelty, biased selection) you will break the method.

So what are the key implications for the atheist evolutionist of this theory?

Key claim 1: Evolution is undirected

Crucially, the theory of evolution posits that random changes are made, at a tiny frequency, in the information passed between parent and daughter. And to the atheist evolutionist, this implies that the process is undirected.

These changes are called 'mutations' and as this name has been used in popular culture, mutations can have a variety of consequences for the functioning of the daughter. The mutations could do nothing. The mutations could do something that renders the daughter unviable or unable to reproduce. Or, the mutations could, in the rarest of cases, do something which causes the daughter to be more reproductively viable (fitter) than their parent. It is this last kind of mutation which will thus be 'selected' in the next generation since it will cause more replicates of the fitter daughter to arise.

The source of mutations can be from the replication process itself (errors in the copying process between parent and daughter) or from the environment (e.g. chemicals or radiation which cause mutations).

And this is the key point – because the timing and location of the mutations appears to have no pattern or rule to it, there is absolutely no way to predict which part of the information back-bone of life is going to be 'hit' (mutated). It is 'random' in the fullest sense of the word.

And so, the atheist evolutionist looks at this randomness and concludes that there is no 'central controller' of these mutations and so, no governor of the direction that the evolutionary process takes to produce new attributes or even new species.

Where once God was invoked to be the author of such complexity, now a natural random process, ungoverned and undirected by a supernatural being had been found which could produce the remarkable diversity and complexity of life-forms. Ergo, God is rendered redundant in the method of creation. Dawkins reflects,

"Darwin's theory explained how the diversity of life on the planet had evolved spontaneously without any interference from God." – R. Dawkins (2009), The Genius of Charles Darwin, Episode 1.

Key claim 2: Evolution takes billions of years

The second key, relevant, claim of evolutionary theory is that it takes a very very very long time.

As we've seen, since there is supposed to be no central controller in the direction of evolution, and that most mutations lead to unnoticeable, or even harmful changes in a creature, one could correctly infer that to get the beneficial (for reproduction) changes via the random mutation process would require waiting around for many many, many mutation events.

Time is the 'hero' of the random, evolutionary, process as George Wald summarises,

"Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time the ‘impossible’ becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles." – George Wald, The physics and chemistry of life. (1955)

And to be sure, since the Earth is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old, it would seem that time is in fact available for this process to run its course.

We might summarise the atheist evolutionist perspective as:

"The origin of complex living things is due to an undirected selection mechanism operating over 4 to 5 billion years on an ingenious natural novelty engine which leads to ever more complex entities, and complex ecologies of living things."

Let's now turn to Genesis, the theatre of the conflict.

D. Genesis 1: the theatre of conflict

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." (Genesis 1:1-2)

First, the Bible opens with a clear statement that not only is the central character God, but that this God creates. This repeated frame – God speaking powerfully elements of creation into existence is the overwhelming message of the Genesis account: the world was made, intentionally, wilfully, by a powerful creator called God.

Which leads to an obvious first conflict with the atheist evolutionary perspective:

Conflict 1: Atheist evolution concludes that living things arose without direction, the Bible suggests a clear role for a central controller, who commanded and directed the creation process.

Furthermore, if we follow chapter 1 of Genesis, we can see that God created living things on three out of the six days (days three, five and six), which leads to our second conflict:

Conflict 2: Evolution concludes that living things arose over 4-5 billions years, the Bible suggests a creation period of just three days.

Finally, if we go a little deeper into both evolutionary theory and the Biblical account, we'll uncover another conflict around the order of creation. In the Genesis account we have (day three) seed bearing plants, and fruit bearing trees, then (day five) water creatures and birds, and then (day six) livestock, 'creeping things' and beasts of the earth, and mankind.

This suggests a chronology of creation of: seed bearing and fruiting plants, fish and birds, land animals and mankind.

On the other hand, evolutionary theory suggests that the timeline for these living things should rather be: fish, seed bearing plants, land animals, birds, flower bearing plants, mankind.

Whilst both agree that humans are the ultimately complex (and so finally formed) living thing, the disagreement over order is obvious. For evolutionary theory this is important since the theory suggests a clear direction from less to more complex living things, in line with a movement from the water to the land to the air in environmental terms:

Conflict 3: Evolution concludes a set order to the formation of different kinds of living things, the Bible suggests a somewhat different order.

E. Addressing the conflicts

How should a Christian respond to these conflicts?

Traditionally, there are two options:

One -- reject not just the atheistic evolutionary perspective, but evolution as a potential mechanistic theory altogether, and affirm that Genesis is a literal description of the creation of living things. This position is known as 'creationism'.

Two -- address the supposed conflicts of the atheist evolutionist and affirm both the credibility of the Biblical account, whilst also accepting that evolutionary theory is a reasonable explanation for the method of God's creative act. This dual commitment is known as 'theistic evolution'.

Christianity is often mis-understood as a monolithic truth community. This is not true – since the times of the early church, Christians have lovingly agreed to disagree on all kinds of 'second-order' issues. I would put a disagreement over the creation of living things in this camp. A first-order issue, for me, is anything to do with the sufficiency, supremacy and finality of Jesus' death and resurrection to bring the New Kingdom and reconcile man to God. The rest we can talk about over a cup of tea.

In the second part of this three-part series I'm going to take the second option in response – address the conflicts and uphold the credibility of the Biblical account.

Simon Angus

Simon Angus is an Economist at Monash University, and in his spare time serves the City on a Hill Movement as the Strategy & Analysis Pastor, and Many Rooms Ltd as a Board Director. Simon is married to Susan and has 3 kids. He loves complexity and systems thinking, trail running and dreaming about the next Lego build.

Simon has qualifications in industrial chemistry, political philosophy and economics from the University of New South Wales and in Theology from Moore College.