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

Simon Angus

23 September 2014

In this post, we continue our exploration of the atheistic evolutionists perspective that we summarised last time as, “the Bible is not credible because its account of the origins of life doesn't square with what Evolutionary theory suggests actually happened.”

In the last post we outlined the atheist evolutionists position and identified the key points of apparent conflict with origins of the universe as described in the opening pages of the Bible.

In this post, we explore the conflict, while upholding the credibility of the Biblical account.

A comparison worth making?

It seems to me that for the atheist evolutionist, and the conflicts that arise from this position, Genesis is being read as a literal description of the creation mechanism of God. To be clear, there are two assumptions being made here: a) that Genesis 1 is intended to be read literally; and b) that Genesis 1 provides a comparable description of the methods God used in His creative act.

The Literary Type of Genesis 1

On the first, post-modernism teaches us (at least) that we should be sensitive readers of any text.

Indeed, this is the modus operandi of the Biblical writers themselves. It's not a new method of reading as some would suggest.

For instance, the poetry of King David in the Psalms is read and used in accordance with its poetic type by the writers of the New Testament hundreds of years later. The first Christian sermon gives a good example of this (Acts 2) -- Peter applies a song of David, Psalm 16, to explain the resurrection of Jesus. A literalist would have trouble separating the personal pronouns of Psalm 16 and the person of David. Peter's speech on the other hand points out that this is a prophetic (not literal) text about the true King, Jesus who would defeat death. Peter is reading the Old Testament with literary glasses on.

Alternatively, Stephen's speech, a few chapters later in Acts (Acts 7), recounts the history of Israel by providing a summary of the historical sections of he Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). His reading approach to these sections is not challenged. This time he is rightly taking the cues of the Pentateuch and reading them as literal renditions of what actually happened.

Finally, both of these moments appear within Luke's account of the times of Jesus and the first Apostles. Unlike the poetry of Kind David, or the historical sections of the Pentateuch, Luke is writing a first-person account of the facts addressed as a letter to 'Theophilus' (Luke 1:1-4), another form of literature.

Our approach to the first chapters of Genesis should be no different.

So what kind of literature are we dealing with? The atheist evolutionist finds conflict with the text since they assume Genesis 1 is a historical description (or textbook) that should be read as such.

However, even a reading of the translated English challenges this idea. It is obvious from the repetitive structure in Genesis 1 ('And God said,' 'And it was so,' 'and God saw that it was good, and there was evening and there was morning, the N-th day.') that we are most likely not dealing with a straight historical text.

Furthermore, if we peel back the translation and look at the original Hebrew, we find that Genesis is most definitely poetic. This is demonstrated by both the parallelism (repetition of the same concept or idea in couplets) and the chiastic structure (a meta symmetrical literary form) of the text.

Jeff Benner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center captures this distinction and its implications,

"It must be remembered that modern western thinkers view events in step logic. This is the idea that each event comes after the previous forming a series of events in a linear timeline. But, the Hebrews did not think in step logic but in block logic. This is the grouping together of similar ideas together and not in chronological order. Most people read Genesis chapter one from a step logic perspective or chronological, rather than from the block logic so prevalent in Hebrew poetry." – Jeff Benner, The Poetry of Genesis Chapter One.

It is for this reason that I find the creationist perspective less persuasive. The atheist evolutionist applies an unwarranted literal reading to Genesis 1.

Note: some might use the above to contend that there is no writing of a historical nature in the Bible. This is not true (as already shown). Furthermore, the point is not that we can learn nothing from Genesis (see below), but rather, we should be careful to read Genesis (like any text) sensitively according to its literary type.

The lack of method in Genesis 1

Second, the notion that Genesis provides a comparable account of the mechanism of creation should be challenged. The atheist evolutionist lines up the theory of evolution alongside the account of origins in Genesis and finds disagreement. However, the primary assumption of such a comparison is that the two texts are intended to provide the same information.

For whatever reason, when we read Genesis 1 we learn very little about the method of God's creative act. Genesis 1 just does not seem to be written with detailed method in mind. Rather, Genesis 1 seems far more concerned to convey the who ('God created...') and why (e.g. Gen 1:28-31) of the creation act, rather than the 'how'.

And to be clear, it is not that the Bible never does 'detail' on methods. Try for example, the description of the temple in Ezekiel chapters 40-43 -- the account goes for over 3,500 words and describes in fine detail the size of each room, door-way and lintel; or one could read the description of the legal system of Israel in Leviticus; or one could turn to the details of how Jesus was arrested, flogged, made to carry his cross and then was crucified in Luke's account (Luke 23). There are numerous places in the Bible where for God's good reasons, detailed events, instructions, laws and descriptions are given.

For whatever reason, Genesis 1 does not seem to be one of those places.

Taken together, a literary (rather than literal) reading of Genesis 1 and the lack of mechanistic detail we find there, a direct comparison between any method (natural selection included) of creation and the Bible's account seems inappropriate.

As such, conflicts 2 (a mismatch of time length) and 3 (a problem of order) seem to fall away. Both conflicts are only conflicts if one takes a rigid, literal, like-for-like reading of Genesis to bear on the method of evolution. Outside of this reading, there is no conflict.

Unfortunately, it is exactly the literal reading of the text, which Dawkins and other atheist evolutionists seem to take to Genesis. It would seem there is already some room for a reconsideration of this position.

This God is too small

So what of conflict 1? That God could not be part of an 'undirected' method of forming complex living things.

To my mind, this is just too small a view of the power of a Creator God.

Consider what attributes a being would need to have to influence in some way the direction of the timing and position of mutations that would lead to more complex forms over time:

* The being would need to have an awareness of, and ability to affect, one of the smallest levels of detail of our universe.
* The being would also need to be able to prosecute this program in near-contemporaneous timing and in multiple places at once.
* This being would need to understand the logic of the mechanism so well as to be able to direct it towards forms which it knew (presumably through its unparalleled combinatorial prowess) in advance would come about in not just the next step, but millions or billions of steps into the future.

The fact is that the God of the Bible is presented as this kind of being.

Indeed, the basic assumptions about any being who claims to be 'God-like' is that they possess these kinds of attributes – all-knowing, all-present, active and engaged in the macro and micro details of reality. A being who stands outside of space and time, yet works within space and time. A being who existed before anything else that we know of existed, who could bring things into being 'out of nothing'.

The Bible is full of demonstrations of, and claims by, this kind of God. Jesus speaks of a God who clothes the grass and makes the fields grow (Luke 12:27-28), Paul writes in Acts of a God who appoints the times and boundaries of the nations of mankind to live on the Earth (Acts 17:24-26), whilst King David in the Psalms wonders of the God who flung stars and moons into space (Psalm 8:3-8), to name just a few examples.

Perhaps in Job, the full force of the power of this God comes to bear as God responds directly to questions of his nature,

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place," – Job 38:4-12 (ESV)

The fact is, if the God of the Bible, with his power, majesty, intelligence, sovereignty and creativity wished to work through apparent combinatorial complexity of the evolutionary selection operator, he alone is perhaps well qualified to do so!

This is a primary feature of theistic evolutionary thought: that the atheist evolutionists mis-read 'randomness' for the absence of God, rather than recognising the work of an awesomely powerful being.

David Lack, Fellow of the Royal Society, and who was Director and President of a number of learned scientific societies for his insightful and highly respected work on 'Darwin's finches' puts this point with a double-edged sword:

"Behind the criticism that Darwinism means that evolution is either random or rigidly determined lies the fear that evolution proceeds blindly, and not in accordance with a divine plan. This is another problem that really lies outside the terms of reference of biology. It is true that biologists have inferred that, because evolution occurs by natural selection, there is no divine plan; but they are being as illogical as those theologians whom they rightly criticize for inferring that, because there is a divine plan, evolution cannot be the result of natural selection." – Lack, David. Evolutionary Theory and Christian Belief: The Unresolved Conflict. Methuen & Co., 1957: 67. quoted from a biography of David Lack by Burnett, T., 'David Lack: Evolutionary Biologist and Devout Christian' published on The BioLogos Forum.

Lack is right to criticise the believer and the atheist on this point. We could both learn from his integrated insight. His fundamental point remains, however: there is no reason why apparently 'random' natural selection should not proceed from the out-workings of a suitably divine divine!

To summarise, we have seen that a literature-sensitive reading of Genesis 1 cautions against a literal interpretation, and in harmony with this point, the account has few details about mechanism anyway. Taken together these points should caution against making a direct comparison between any posited creation mechanism and Genesis 1, natural selection included. And further as we have just seen, it is illogical to move from an observation of apparently random events at the micro-scale within the evolutionary operator to a conclusion that God couldn't possibly be directed these events. This view of God's power and control is too small and essentially strips any divine of their essential divinity.

Of our three apparent conflicts, none remain.

This conclusion is unsurprising as we see many prominent evolutionary biologists or geneticists who are strong Christian believers (e.g. previous head of the Human Genome Project, now head of the US's peak medical sciences authority, Prof. Francis Collins or Prof. Simon Conway Morris, chair of evolutionary paleobiology, Cambridge university). These scientists do not have a 'partitioned' brain, they have concluded with the same critical mind that both evolutionary biology and the Lordship of Jesus are not in conflict.

In the final post in this series, we'll discuss some residual tensions for the atheist evolutionist.

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.