Is Genesis 1 opposed to modern science?
Written by Andy Stirrup, Children’s ministry and family ministry at Youthworks College.
I have been reading You Lost Me by David Kinnaman. The book presents and evaluates research that the Barna Group have conducted to find reasons behind the discomforting fact that so many young people are becoming disconnected from church in the early years of adulthood. One of those reasons, Kinnaman suggests, is that they have been told that faith and science are incompatible.
Chapter 7, which is simply called “Antiscience”, investigates the observation that “Millions of young Christians perceive Christianity to be in opposition to modern science” (p 131). Next semester, I have the privilege of teaching a course on Genesis 1-11. One of the things we will be discussing is whether or not Genesis 1 (since this chapter seems to serve as the magnate for 'faith vs science' concerns) is indeed antiscience.
Where to begin...
My starting point for developing an answer to a question like, ‘is Genesis 1 opposed to modern science?’ is to try to work out what the author was trying to communicate when Genesis 1 was written, and what the original audience would have heard. The trouble is with these ‘purple passages’ of the Bible is that they are so familiar to us. We have the sense that they are part of the furniture, they are at home within our worldview, they fit neatly within our world. This is both good and bad. It's good that we are familiar with them, that we have a sense that they belong to us and we are somehow connected to them. But what we need to remind ourselves is that they come from a different time and different place, and that while they have a lot to say to us, they may have been written primarily to address an agenda which is not at all on our radar.
I was watching an Open University programme on perception (Is seeing believing?) on SBS the other day. I was fascinated to be told that we see with our brains much more than we see with our eyes. I receive information on my retina, but the brain brings a whole lot of other information to the table as it attempts to decode that information. Optical illusions bear testimony that there is something in the suggestion. So too does the way that I can see a battleship in that cloud over there, but all you can see is a pig eating a parsnip. But here’s the rub: what happens when I’m looking at my radar and I’m thinking that this cluster of streaks and dots has arranged itself in a pattern that seems to tessellate well with Genesis 1? I know the issues that are on my radar. But how can I possibly know what was on the radar of the ancient author of Genesis? How can I distinguish what I want to get out of Genesis 1, from what the author wants me to get out of Genesis 1?
Fortunately it’s not an insurmountable problem.
Understanding the author's intentions
First of all, the author of Genesis wants us to understand Genesis 1 in the way that he intended. So the more we give ourselves to read it (setting aside our preconceptions), the more likely we are to pick up on what it has to say. But secondly, there is something else that we can do too. The more we become familiar with the author’s own time and place, culture and expectations, the better placed we are to tune in to hear exactly what it is he is saying.
Israel did not live in splendid isolation from the world around them. They were connected through trade and commerce. We often come across non-Israelites within the pages of the OT. When the law talks about ‘the alien’ it is concerned to make sure that they are valued and that their rights are respected. All of this means that it wasn’t just produce and embassy staff that went back and forth across frontiers - ideas did too. Those ideas are represented in the literature of ancient Israel’s neighbours. The more we become familiar with ancient texts like the Enuma Elish, the Atrahasis Epic and the Sumerian Creation Text, the better able we will be to recognise the challenge that Genesis 1 issues to its first hearers.
What we begin to notice is that Genesis, like those ancient texts and others besides, is more concerned with describing our place in the world, than it is to detail the mechanics of how we got here. It is more concerned to assign a role to us and to other parts of the creation, than it is to itemise every single step and process involved in how we arrived at this point in time. When we read Genesis 1 in the light of what those other texts say, one of the things that especially stands out is the honour and the dignity that is afforded to the man and the woman, an honour that is elsewhere only given to the king. When we read Genesis in the light of the thoughts and expectations of the ancient Near East, we can properly say that Genesis is concerned with the “why?” of creation, not with the “how?” When read as a product of that time and that place, we can safely say that there is no need to think that Genesis 1 is opposed to modern science.
Questions that need answers
So when I am asked, “how long is a day in Genesis 1?” I am trying to train myself to look behind the words to try to work out the question behind the question. Do you want to know if it is intellectually feasible to continue to affirm Genesis? Or do you want to know if it is compatible with biblical faith to embrace modern science? In other words:
- Do you find contemporary accounts of how things were created rather compelling as a description of how things came to be, and you want to know if Genesis can be fitted into that scheme?
- Are you convinced by modern scientific versions of how things began, but uncertain of where that leaves Genesis 1?
- Do you want to know if it is intellectually feasible to continue to affirm Genesis? Or have you embraced Genesis 1 as an account of our material origins and are uncertain what to do with those scientific accounts that seem to posit a much, much longer period from the initial beginnings to the first appearance of humanity?
- Are you committed to and convinced by Genesis 1, but wonder where that leaves those cosmologies that talk of billions and billions of years?
To sum all of that up, do you want to know if it is compatible with faith to embrace modern science?
My answer to both those questions behind the question is, “Yes it is.” And what, then, do I say in answer to the original question, “how long is a day in Genesis 1?” Well, I tend to find that once the question behind the question has been explored, and the concerns that lie behind the question attended to, and when Genesis is read as a description of God’s intention in the beginning and of the roles that he decreed for his creation, then questions like, how long is a day in Genesis 1?” suddenly seem less important. Questions like, “How honoured are we, that God should think so highly of us?” and “How can I be found faithful?” seem to squeeze them out.
A more detailed discussion of this line of thinking can be found at on youtube beginning here and continuing over six parts.