What We Know

Our last several posts highlighted some of the challenges with synthesizing our faith and our science.  The specific topic has been the process of creation.  When I said last post that Genesis is not a science textbook, it may have raised the hair on the back of your neck since for years that quote has been code for joining “the other side” in the creation/evolution debate.  With the baggage that comes with the term “evolution” and the contentious history of the debate, it behooves me to make sure some points are clear.

  • I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and everything recorded in it is true, including where it touches science and nature.
  • I personally do not have a firm opinion on the length of God’s creative process, but join with all Christian scientists and Old Testament scholars who believe that no matter the length, it is not a naturalistic, random, unguided process.  We affirm the God of the Bible is the Creator.
  • I believe God created the world out of nothing.
  • I believe God created man and woman in His image, distinct and separate from the rest of His creation.
  • Theological humility is not, “We can’t know anything.”  It is recognizing that there is more to God than He has chosen to reveal.  It is recognizing He has given us everything we need for “life and godliness.”  It is using sound interpretation principles to expound God’s Word without addition or deletion.
  • In case anyone thinks that even my consideration of a long, progressive creation is somehow caving in to peer pressure within the scientific community or an attempt to “accommodate” our culture, you don’t know me very well.  I am at that magic age where I have no interest in letting what people think of me sway my opinion.

I guess what I have been trying to say is that as Bible-believing followers of Christ, we have plenty of issues that separate us from the cultural norm (Our appropriate insistence that Jesus is the only way to eternal life with God, the Father, comes to mind).  So why add unnecessary conflicts that only confuse young believers and unbelievers alike.  Let’s stick to the things we know – of which there are plenty – and let the pursuit of science continue to unlock the mysteries of this incredible world God has created.  There are no guarantees, but I believe this path is true to the faith and in answering our young people’s questions with this kind of theological humility, we may move them one step closer to embracing for good the faith of their childhood.

Genesis Chapter One

Moving now to the biblical record of creation, many attempts to “fit” evolution into the Genesis record have led to the “gap” theory, the “day-age” theory, or other progressive creation theories.  These efforts, in my opinion, are unnecessary exegetical and scientific gymnastics.  Instead, we need to step back and recognize that Genesis chapter 1 does not give us an exhaustive record of God’s creation of the world.  A common theme I was taught in my student days was, “Everything the Bible says about God is true, but when we know everything the Bible says about God, we still do not know everything about God.”  It is an accepted theological principle that there is more to God than He has revealed.

Similarly, it is not much of a jump to conclude that there could be more to the creation story than God has chosen to reveal in Scripture.  Therefore we do not need to shoehorn everything we have learned from science into an exact match with Genesis 1.  Genesis is not a scientific textbook.  Genesis is not a western style history book.  Genesis is, at its core, a book of theology.  Moses is describing some, but not all, of the attributes and acts of God the Creator.  There is no reason to think that Moses is giving us a specific point-by-point, play-by-play creation account.

So if creation was progressive, how do these long time spans fit the order of Genesis chapter 1?  How, for example, could the plants, created a “day” before the sun, survive if these “days” are millions of years?  This illustrates the problem I am trying to highlight with tying evolution too tightly to the “days” of creation.  I don’t think the order (sequentially speaking) is critical because we are not looking at Genesis chapter 1 as a detailed timeline.  Is this somehow placing science above Scripture?  May it never be!  It is only saying, I believe there is room for interpretation in the creation picture that God has revealed.

So what can we be sure of?  Based on Genesis 1, there are two extremely important points about God that we can know for sure:

  1. God created the world from nothing.  How long God took to do it, God only knows, literally.  Because God exists outside of space and time, a billion year process could seem like a blink of an eye to Him.
  2. God created man and woman in His own image.  We carry within us some form of the very image of God, something that separates us distinctly from the rest of His creation.

Let’s be clear to teach these two indisputable truths to our children.  God created the world from nothing.  God created us in His image.  On the specifics, let’s let the science take us wherever it leads.  There is no reason to wring our hands about where it may take us.  It will never change the two facts of Genesis chapter 1.  In fact, the history of science and faith is replete with examples of scientific discovery initially perceived as a threat to faith that in the end only expanded our knowledge of and awe over this incredible universe that God has created.

Out of the Box

Last post, we left our college student and fledgling biologist at a crossroads of tension between the faith of his childhood and the science of his current study.  We have basically placed our student in a box of our own making.  A box that, in my opinion, is entirely unnecessary.  The box we create for young people, or inquirers of any age, is the “either or” approach to faith and science that we have constructed.  Will our college friend follow the scientific evidence wherever it leads or will he conclude that to keep the faith he must turn his back on the science?  Many students faced with this needless dilemma will jettison the faith.

One of the ways we help our young people navigate their way out of the box with their faith intact is to practice our theology with humility.  To recognize the limits of what we know for sure.  To set aside the “us vs. them” mentality and look at the bigger picture.  Let’s start with the topic of evolution.

When I graduated with my first degree in geology, creationism was something of a growth industry in this country.  Well intentioned Christian scientists took on the establishment regarding the theory of evolution and gained a substantial following in the Christian community.  Fast forward 35 years and the controversy remains just as deep.  However the evidence for evolution, rather than disintegrating as these prophets predicted, has been steadily and quietly growing.

One of the spokesmen for laying down our arms and reconciling our Christian faith with the theory of evolution is Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health.  Dr. Collins wrote The Language of God to put forth “a comfortable synthesis of what science teaches us about the natural world and what faith teaches us about God.” In short, a scientific and spiritual approach that are compatible.

In a careful reading of Dr. Collins argument, one finds that he actually sees evolution, in its own way, providing scientific support for his faith.  If the theory of evolution describes how life developed on this planet, and Dr. Collins believes that it does, then how did it all get started?  How did it progress to our current state of life so diverse, so complex, so orderly, and so useful?  For years, we have used the mathematical implausibility of evolution to produce anything useful to argue against the theory.  Dr. Collins turns that argument on its head.

He contends that a progressive creation that defies statistical probability actually supports a creator.  That is, given the mathematical implausibility of evolution by natural selection, and given the fifteen physical constants that support life on earth and have no scientific reason for being set as they are, only God could have set the universe up this way and infused the creative process.  Dr. Collins believes that all science, evolution included, points to a creator God.  Science cannot answer what kind of God and for that we turn to the Scriptures.  Science, as with all general revelation, only takes us so far down the path.  But it is not a divergent path from our faith journey.

Given my background in the evangelical church, this is kind of a mind-bender for me.  And I am still processing all the ramifications.  But one outcome that I am very comfortable with is this:  we need to give our students the freedom to pursue science, including evidence for a progressive creation, without putting them in an “us vs. them” box.  If we truly believe that God created it all and has given us a mind to observe and understand His creation , then let’s give our students the freedom and encouragement to explore science wherever it leads with their faith intact.

Science vs Faith

Imagine this scenario.  A young man raised in a Christian home and evangelical church heads off to college.  He has an interest in science.  In fact, he plans to major in biology.  His experience to this point with the theory of evolution has been a general antipathy.  He honestly doesn’t know much about the specifics.  He just knows, based on his upbringing, that it is not true.  His biology teacher at his Christian high school more or less avoided the subject for obvious reasons.  He has a sense that if evolution is espoused by his college professors, it will be because they are avowed atheists and part of a grand scheme to hide the scientific evidence from biology, chemistry, and geology supporting creationism.  He is pretty sure the Bible teaches that God created the earth in six literal days.  Maybe not 100% sure.

As our student progresses through his biology curriculum, he encounters professors who inspire him.  He encounters research from genetics and taxonomy that appears to support the evolutionary process for the arrival of various life forms in the fossil record.  In his introductory geology class, he is greeted with evidence for an old earth.  Is this all part of Satan’s deception or is there real science going on here and where exactly does the evidence lead?  His parents and youth leaders were well-meaning in their insistence that the biblical account of creation and the theory of evolution can’t fit together.  But what about the evidence he is encountering in his higher level classes?  And what about the professors, more caring and inspiring than he expected, and some of them believers just like him?

This scenario is not too difficult to imagine if you work with or are around college students.  How do we help our children maneuver in this environment?  One thing we do know is pat answers will not cut it.  These vexing crossroads our children face demand serious answers.  They demand a willingness to think on our part.  They demand love and humility, grace and truth.

Walking Away from Faith

When church leaders are asked about the growing trend of 20-somethings leaving the faith, their responses usually coalesce around lifestyle issues; that is, the lure of immorality has caused these young people to fall away.  I believe this is only a part of the story.  Yes, the Christian lifestyle can be difficult to maintain during the transition from the relative security of home to the new found freedom of college life, the workplace, and a new group of friends.  (As an aside, we often exacerbate this challenge when we have not trained our children thoroughly in the provisions of the new covenant for living the Christian life, but we will have to save that discussion for later.)

When “young leavers” cite a theological or intellectual crisis as the reason for leaving the faith, it may conveniently coincide with adopting a new lifestyle.  But to lump all departures into the lifestyle category would be to ignore the unique, complex, and often layered process that eventually led these folks to leave the faith.  Dr. Ruth Tucker has investigated this process in her book Walking Away from Faith.  She identifies five broad categories of reasons for people losing faith.  They are:

  • Scientific and philosophical issues, particularly evolution and naturalism.
  • Biblical perplexities and higher criticism.
  • Disappointment with God regarding personal and wide-scale suffering.
  • Hypocrisy and lack of caring among leaders in the church.
  • Lifestyle and perspective, including homosexuality, feminism, secularism, and pluralism.

Only one of these categories addresses lifestyle issues.  Some deal with intellectual concerns.  Some reflect the harsh realities of life in a fallen world.  But all of these issues have biblical answers.  The answers alone, however, may not be enough.  Delivering them with grace, love, and humility is paramount.  Join us for the next several posts as we take each of these concerns in order and explore where Scripture leads.