On December 24 1968, Apollo 8 came round the moon and for the first time, human beings saw the earth rise over a horizon. On that mission they read over the radio from orbit above the moon Genesis chapter 1. We’ve just heard that story of Creation from Genesis Chapter 1. What did you think when your heard it? Was it as you picture how it must have happened, or is it so far removed from what you understand that it’s completely irrelevant?
Science tells us that the universe is about 13.2 thousand million years old, and the earth is about 4.5 thousand million years old. This is based on many different scientific observations and calculations, and on the assumption that the scientific processes that enable our complex world to function are consistent. The same scientific laws that mean the lights come on, and I weigh 11 stone 6 have applied and worked throughout the life of the universe and give us that evidence.
On the other hand, if we go with the Bible’s timescale, it’s all much more recent than that. Bishop Ussher of Armagh once calculated from the Bible that the world began in 4004 BC. Some have calculated it as a bit further back than that, but the point remains that a literal reading of the Bible means the world could only be a few thousand years old at most.
How widely is the Bible’s timescale believed? In 2012 a Gallup poll recorded that 46% of Americans believed that God created humans in their present form sometime in the last 10,000 years. Many also believe the earth to be only a few thousand years old. There are now schools in the UK, where creationism, as it is known, is taught on the curriculum alongside scientific analysis as an equal theory. You can even go to a zoo and animal park in Somerset called Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, which is run by people who believe that the earth is recently created. It gets 130,000 visitors a year.
Meanwhile, there is an increasingly vocal humanist and atheist voice in the media who not only accept the scientific data, but see the discoveries and insights of science as final proof that religion is nonsense. Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion won’t even bother debating with people who take Genesis literally.
"Just as I wouldn't expect a gynaecologist to have a debate with somebody who believes in the Stork-theory of reproduction, I won't do debates with Young Earth creationists," he said.So where does that leave us? Does thinking about these things worry or disturb us? Perhaps we would prefer not to think about it, in case it unsettles the faith we have. The problem is that both extremes – the atheists and the creationists end up arguing with each other as if their views are the only two you can hold. And we end up squeezed between people who are downright hostile to our faith, and people whose beliefs defy all the scientific evidence, but say we should believe them to be proper Christians.
None of this is new, of course. Once scientists started making discoveries that challenged the Bible’s account of things the debate started, and we see it most sharply with Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection, or evolution as we usually refer to it. As Christians, we know that without the Bible, our faith makes no sense. It gives us the big story that helps us understand why we are here. Are the only choices to discard the Bible because of science or to discard science by putting blind faith in the Bible? Do you have to be an atheist to be a good scientist?
Speaking as someone with a degree in chemistry, I want to say an emphatic 'no'! Many eminent scientists in a range of expertise have a deeply held Christian faith. The two don't have to be seen as contradicting each other.
So here’s 3 starting points to answer the atheists on one side and the fundamentalists on the other about Genesis 1.
1. Genesis 1 wasn’t written as a scientific text book.
Scientific thinking and method as we know it didn’t exist until fairly recently. At the time Genesis was written, possibly up to 3000 years ago, people understood the world very differently. The world was in a dome, with water above that sometime came through as rain, or rose as floods. So Genesis wasn’t written to answer modern science’s questions. That means that if we go to the Bible looking for things it never set out to tell us, we get funny answers.
Genesis 1 addresses questions about God and about the world, and about human beings and their place within it. It isn’t about the modern disciplines of physics, chemistry or astronomy - it never intended to be. People who know about these things say it’s written in the form of a poem. It’s painting a picture, not recording a documentary.
The Great War - World War 1 - is in the news a lot at the moment. If you want history, you read history books about the war (and some are busy re-writing those at the moment). But if you want to know what it felt like, or the how it impacted the big questions of belief or faith, you need to read Wilfred Owen or the other war poets. Don't read poetry for science, or science for poetry.
2. Genesis 1 is about God.
Other cultures at the time had stories that look like Genesis. There are other creation and flood stories - one was in the news recently, describing the ark like a huge coracle. But the other cultures had gods who got in a mess, who didn’t always have control. Some of them essentially lived inside creation, and struggled within it. But Genesis 1 speaks of a God who is involved in the universe but beyond it. Look at the text: "In the beginning, God… God said…, God said..., God made... etc.
The God described here isn’t tangled up and held captive by the chaos, He turns it into created order. This is about one God, a supreme God, and a creative God who shares his creativity with creatures he can have a relationship with. This is new stuff in the ancient world, but the author of Genesis tells about the God of Israel in a form familiar to the people of his day.
3. Genesis 1 is about us.
This passage contains one of the most dangerous ideas for the Western world. It could bring down capitalism, and revolutionise the way the world works. Know what it is? It is that we are stewards, not owners. God is generous here – he gives food, skills and abilities, the beauty of the earth and its wonder, the amazing possibilities of being human. But when he places human beings in dominion over creation it’s not “here’s the keys, do what you like”. This earth is somebody else’s property, and the people are accountable.
Our world works on a different basis. Economies are based on people earning, buying, owning and consuming. It relies on people acting as if the only criterion is whether they can afford it, or at least can they find the money from somewhere. But stewardship asks different questions. How would I explain my decisions to spend? Would I share? Do I understand the earth’s resources as on trust? Do I see myself as accountable to God? That’s called stewardship. Ironically the Greek word for stewardship is 'oikonomia' – the word we get economics from.
If we get obsessed with proving things literally in Genesis that defy science and logic, it’s a dead end. Worse, if we get bogged down in that, we forget what it is really trying to say to us.
In Genesis 1 the writer is saying that we need to understand our God, our place in the world, in the order of things, and the wonderful privilege and responsibilities of living within that world. If we could only appreciate that more, perhaps the world would be a safer, more just and more equal place for all to enjoy.
- Mike Peatman