Why I’m not a Young Earth Creationist… and Jesus isn’t either. (1/3)

This little tractate started out as a Facebook comment the other day by which I’d intended to explain why I so emphatically reject the notion that Jesus was a Six-Day, Young Earth Creationist. I got a little carried away, though, and the discussion moved on before I could finish this and post it. Since I find myself having this conversation so often anyway, though, and since I created this blog precisely so I could collect all of these mini-lectures I find myself inflicting upon people, I thought I may as well post it here, so when it comes up in conversation again I can just say, “I wrote a blog entry about that,” and spare the person a lengthy impromptu sermon, while still providing an option to read about it at their leisure at a later time.

Again, the discussion was about Christianity’s relationship to modern science, and why I’m so emphatic that Young Earth Creationism isn’t actually taught in the Bible, and that the Theory of Evolution is, not only a more-or-less indisputable and proven scientific fact, but the most biblically-correct model of biology on the market.

I should further qualify my use of the word “indisputable,” though. I use it, of course, as a relative term, because any and all scientific theories exist for the purpose of being disputed. That said, I know there are flaws, gaps, and as-yet unexplained inconsistencies within the Theory of Evolution, and the work of scientists is to either figure out how to reconcile those apparent discrepancies with the broader principle on which the theoretical model is built, or to come up with a better scientific (not philosopical, but scientific) model to account for them– a model that provides more consistent and accurate predictability with regard to the phenomena under study than the  current model.

It does no good, then, for YECs to point out apparent problems with the Theory of Evolution, any more than it would be worthwhile to point out that Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion don’t apply to questions of electromagnetism, or that the Theory of General Relativity doesn’t agree with Quantum Mechanics. The real scientists already know all that, and that’s why the search for a single, comprehensive model of the universe has dominated the study of physics for the past 100 or so years.

In the field of biology, there is no significant controversy over the Theory of Evolution, because there is no other theory on the market to compete with it. Intelligent Design, while true, does not qualify, because it’s not a scientific theory. There is no way to make a testable hypothesis on the basis of Intelligent Design, because it can’t be used to make any kind of predictions whatsoever about what it purports to explain. It can’t be used to develop better drugs or preserve endangered species or anything else for which a sound theory of biology is used.

But, that’s all beside the point where Young Earth Creationists are concerned. I’ve heard plenty of people quote Phillip Johnson books, Darwin’s Black Box and other works of evangelical propaganda packaged as shrewd and sober scientific challenges to the prevailing model of biology, but it’s specious (and a bit pretentious) for Christians to claim that they dispute the Theory of Evolution on its scientific merits. Never mind the fact that most evolutionary skeptics aren’t even remotely qualified (any more than I am) to step foot in that arena, because if it weren’t for our religious commitment to uphold the Bible, most of us would never have any reason to question or comment upon the Theory’s scientific validity.

But… here’s the main issue at work here: a great many churchgoers spend the first few years of their lives being told by others what the Bible teaches, long before they’re in any position to read it for themselves with any meaningful comprehension. Their understanding of God and the universe and the origin of man is absorbed in early childhood and shaped in large part by cartoon depictions found in coloring books and children’s Sunday school literature. Having been told so often by well-meaning but thoroughly indoctrinated Sunday school teachers what the Bible supposedly teaches, the typical churchgoer is conditioned to hold a certain collection of preconceptions long before he or she ever learns to read. In general, they learn that God is an elderly Caucasian man with a flowing white beard who, about six-thousand years ago, rolled up the sleeves on His white robe before He reached into the mud with His two five-fingered hands to sculpt each individual species of animal life, two-by-two, in the precise form in which they exist today, as an add-on to a brief, week-long project of constructing the universe by much the same hands-on method. jesus_dinosaur  This nursery-inculcated worldview is packed with colorful ideas about talking animals as commonplace features of the original state of creation, biblical figures coexisting with dinosaurs, and prehistoric man believing and worshiping on much the same terms as a modern American evangelical.

So, when they’re old enough to then read the Bible for themselves, they wind up projecting many of these notions onto the text and feeding them back to themselves, convinced that what they’re walking away with afterward is “biblical teaching,” when it’s not.  (That is, if they actually do wind up reading it for themselves, because, let’s face it: most people filling church pews today—or even teaching Sunday school classes, for that matter—couldn’t answer basic questions about the wanderings of the Patriarchs, the Babylonian exile, or even basics about messianic prophecy, along with a host of other key concepts that collectively comprise “Christianity,” much less be able to answer questions about where the Bible came from and why it’s this particular book they uphold rather than others. None of that would be so bad, though, if we weren’t so insistent that everyone else run our shared public institutions according to our poorly-explored understanding of what constitutes Christianity. But, I digress…)

If we take the Scriptures on their own terms, though, without projecting our own ideas in-between the lines, they’re actually much more supportive—and, even, suggestive—of the Big Bang Theory, the relativity of space/time, and, even, progressive biological evolution.

I find it simultaneously exasperating and amusing when I encounter Christians who turn their noses up at the Big Bang Theory because they understand it only as an attack on the biblical teaching they purport to uphold. The physics community initially turned their noses up at it as well when George Lemaitre first proposed it, and for precisely the opposite reason: the notion of creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) was, at the time, regarded as a purely theological idea– a superstition, really– so when this Catholic priest/physics professor became the first to propose it as the logical consequence of Einstein’s new General Theory of Relativity, commonly-held anti-religious snobbery led them to  assume he must have been advancing a religious agenda under a flimsy guise of scientific respectability (given some our aforementioned tendencies to dress religious indoctrination up in a nice tuxedo, it’s easy to understand why they’d think that, though).

Lemaitre hypothesized the idea of an expanding universe suddenly appearing from an infinitely hot, dense singularity (or a “primeval atom,” as he termed it) one-third the size of a proton, which emerged inexplicably out of the darkness and void before it exploded in an immense flash of light that resolved itself into the matter and energy that comprise the universe in its entirety. The “Big Bang” Theory (a label originally meant as a pejorative before it stuck) has since been confirmed to be true several times over, but at the time, they dismissed it as nothing but a mathematical apologia for the scriptural passage reading, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”

At the time, conventional wisdom among physicists had it that the universe was eternal and static, and the idea of a cosmic beginning was regarded as a quaint religious myth. A curious reversal has occurred in the intervening century in that what was once regarded as a superstition to be derided by the intellectual elite is now axiomatic to scientists’ understanding of the universe, and so is often derided instead by the religious elite.

Of course, the final verse quoted is often taken to mean all of this happened within the span of a literal, 24-hour day… which would be a plain and obvious, albeit superficial and mistaken reading.

If light = “day” and darkness = “night,” and this was the first such occurrence of day and night, then of course it’s a literal 24-day, right?

Except, light and darkness on planet Earth are the consequence of rotating in and out of the illumination of the sun—something that wasn’t possible until the Fourth Day, when God set the sun, the moon, and the stars in the skyward view of the Earth. And, we read, He didn’t do it just to provide light, but to “serve as signs to mark times and days and years.” It reads that “God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness.”

Yet, God had already separated light from darkness before, thereby creating the day and night that marked the First Day. Two more days then elapsed according to the standard of time established on the First Day. But, it wasn’t until the Fourth Day that He “separated light from darkness” on earth, thereby creating the night and day that mark a “day” as we experience them.

So, whatever else the passage means, that original, primeval scale of time established on the First Day could not have been a literal 24-hour day as we experience them, but a different measurement of time entirely. It was the broader, cosmic framework of time by which the general stages of creation progressed, but not a “day” as we know them, and the Creation account was written in such a manner as to make that distinction explicit.

Of course, when it’s read under a universally-held assumption that “a day” is just a day, and can only mean a day—because time is known to be static and linear and absolute and non-negotiable—the error is understandable. It ignores an explicit distinction within the text, but it’s still an understandable error, given the limits of our common perception of time. In the age after Einstein, though, we know better, and so, evidently, did the author of the Creation account. We know now that time is relative to the observer’s frame of reference, and that variables like mass and gravity and the curvature of space will affect the rate at which time flows, just like a boulder in a river will affect the flow of water around it. A person standing inside something as massive as the Great Pyramid of Giza will be subject to time at a slightly slower pace than a person standing in the open, but much faster than someone who might be standing on the surface of a planet the size of, say, Jupiter (I know, I know—Jupiter doesn’t have a surface, but use your imagination). If a person were unfortunate enough to be caught at the event horizon of a black hole, observers in the distance would see the cascade of events play out practically instantaneously, but to the person himself, the episode would take hundreds of years to play out, and it would appear to the person that he was frozen in place at the black hole’s edge, because time itself would slow to a crawl in the midst of its immense gravity.

What we needed Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking and others to teach us about time, other biblical writers were able to figure out on their own somehow: time is relative to the observer’s frame of reference, so an observer from, say, God’s frame of reference could experience a day to be as long as a thousand years, or a thousand years to go by as quickly as one day. God created time, and so He stands outside of it, beyond it, so millions of years to Him are as brief as the moments between the tick of a clock, and the moments between a clock tick are as long as the age of a universe. We don’t know exactly how long, from our frame of reference, the Six Days of Creation were (nor is that the point), but a plain comparison of Genesis 1:17,18  with vs. 3-5 should tell us that it’s not a literal 24-hour day in view when the six stages of creation are referred to as “days.”

The days of creation, then, couldn’t have been the brief, comparatively instantaneous episodes we understand them to have been from our childhood indoctrination, but would have been cosmic epochs in which the progress of creation gradually came into place.

And I say “came into place” because, we read (contrary to the depictions of our childhood), at no stage of creation did God ever directly intervene. Rather, He expressed His will, and creation carried it out. He said, “Let there be…” and then it was. He commanded, and creation obeyed. He issued the command, the law, the principle, the pattern, by which the universe would operate, and He issued it in a specific orderly, progressive manner.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than on the Sixth Day, when He created animal life; or, rather, when He commanded that the earth create animal life:

“And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so.”

According to the Scripture itself, God did not reach into the mud and shape each species with His own two five-fingered hands. Rather, He merely commanded, and the earth brought it forth, of itself, according to His will, according to natural laws dictated by God. The earth—which previously was not “alive” in any biological sense—produced life of itself, and it emerged from the planet “according to its kind.”

So, if life emerged from the earth according to the natural processes set in place by the Creator, it stands to reason (and fossil record observation) that it was more like the material already present in the earth when it started out, so it emerged in a simple, basic form, then reproduced with degrees of variation and complexity in successive generations “according to its kind,” i.e., its taxonomy, eventually separating into phyla, classes, orders, families, genii, species, subspecies, etc.

Eventually, near the conclusion of the epoch known as “the Sixth Day,” a completely unique and unprecedented species of life arose—a species unlike any previous “kind”—a species made uniquely “in the Image of God.” It was a species with a power like that of God: the power to speak—to think and communicate in symbolic terms, and to thereby create with that speech.

Clearly, Man could not create ex nihilo as could God, but he could create systems of symbols by which God’s creation could be organized, understood, and subdued: Man’s first work was to name the animals, and so he participated, in a fashion, in God’s process of creation (Genesis 2:19, 20).

Of course, an obvious objection to this line of reasoning is that the Scripture reads, “God formed man from the dust of the earth,” so (some reason), Man could not have evolved as “just another animal,” but was specially created by God.

Specially created we were, for sure, but there is no elaboration in Scripture of the specific process by which God made us. The only specific mention is of the material used: the dust of the earth, which is the same material of which the rest of the animal world is composed, having been “brought forth from the earth” on the Sixth Day. The Scripture says nothing about how many degrees of removal Adam was from the earth, nor the specific process by which his physical material was transformed from mere dust into the cells of his body.

There is a strong suggestion of the general process, though: Mankind emerged at the end of the Sixth Day, which began with God’s command that the earth bring forth living creatures. The creation of man began with the emergence of that first single-celled, self-replicating organism, which fed on the nutrients of the earth and reproduced itself over trillions of generations for millions of years, gradually transforming through mutation and natural selection, taking on new powers of movement and awareness and communication, and the ability to manipulate its environment to its advantage.

The eventual result was the vast complexity of life we see around us today—something the earth produced of itself,  according to natural laws of chemistry and physics decreed by God, as we read in scripture.

Of course, it doesn’t say that in so many words. It reads only that “God said, ‘Let there be…’ …and it was.” It isn’t much of a leap, though, to read it to mean that, implied in the command “Let there be…” were the instructions “Let the natural laws of chemistry and physics be such that this outcome occurs.” In fact, there is no material difference between these two wordings—they are different ways of saying the exact same thing.

Naturally, though, such an explicit description would have been lost on a Bronze Age readership, as would an explicit description of creatio ex nihilo.

After all, it never reads “creation out of nothing” in so many words either. In fact, the only explicit mention in scripture of God creating the universe “out of nothing” is found in the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 7:28), written centuries after the Genesis account.

That concept might have been a bit advanced and alien for its time as well—as alien as describing the development of life in terms of the laws of thermodynamics, genetic variation, and natural selection. The number zero wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries, and most cultures at the time believed that the gods had fashioned the world out of some pre-existent material (usually the carcass of a giant dragon or sea monster, or on the back of a giant tortoise, which stood on the back of another, larger giant tortoise standing on the back of a stiller larger tortoise, ad infinitum). The account in Genesis seems to play to that expectation, even as it undercuts it: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

All language is based on symbols, and symbols have to be recognizable– they have to be based on objects and experiences common enough to be easily referenced and recalled by the people who share the language; otherwise they’re just gibberish. And, Bronze Age Hebrews had a much less varied range of common experiences to reference than modern English speakers. Consequently, there are fewer than 9,000 unique words in the Old Testament, which speaks to an ancient Hebrew vocabulary that was much more limited than the more than one million words we have in the English language today.

Yet, the writer of Genesis had to somehow describe something that happened beyond and prior to any human experience– something for which no human being had ever had to come up with language to describe before, using only the limited range of shared experience represented in those 9,000 words. 

All things considered, one can only admire the unrivaled genius at work in the economy of language found in the book of Genesis, as well as the prescience in describing realities we take for granted today, yet were inconceivable to anyone living at the time.

They had no concept at the time, and therefore no words– no direct symbols for “zero” or “nothing” or for the vacuum of space. So, the sea—with its dark, unknowable depths and unpredictable, turbulent motions—was typically employed as a descriptor in pagan creation mythology for the primeval chaos of the universe prior to the formation of the earth. Genesis seems to use that expectation as its starting point, but qualifies it by describing the earth as being, in Hebrew, tohu—without form or shape, and bohu—without substance or content, and covered in darkness—the absence of light or appearance. In a culture with no number zero and no concept of “nothing,” this was as close as the writer, in near eastern Bronze Age terms, could get to saying, “there was nothing prior to creation.” But, the writer of 2 Maccabees and others at the time seemed to catch on, and creatio ex nihilo became the standard interpretation of Genesis 1:1-5, long before there was any scientific justification to believe the universe had a beginning in time, prior to which there was nothing.

Likewise, it doesn’t read in so many words that God created life by saying, “Let the laws of chemistry and physics and biology be such that complex animal life emerges from the planet,” but I think we can safely infer that from what is written. That reading, at least, depends far less upon our preconceptions than the cartoonish, anthropomorphized version offered by children’s Sunday school literature.

As life proliferated and adapted and struggled and took on new powers and forms, the evolutionary Great Leap Forward finally happened late in the epoch referred to in scripture as the Sixth Day: a single specimen of primate was born, which appeared in all respects to be like every other member of its species. It was mostly hairless, could walk erect, had opposable thumbs—just like all the others of its kind. But, it understood things in a way others couldn’t, and tried to communicate what it understood, but to no avail: it was isolated in its understanding, for it alone carried the mutation that made the crucial difference between anatomically modern humans and behaviorally modern humans. It had inherited its large cranium from its forebears, which they developed by having learned the magic of fire, which enabled them to cook and digest meat in order to fulfill the massive requirements of protein demanded by their larger brains. But, this new specimen could do much more than conjure fire with dry wood or with flint and brush. It could develop a vast array of symbols in the form of sounds, which it could use to try to communicate with others of his kind… if only there were any others of its kind.

This capacity for symbolic thought and communication amounted to the capacity to think in abstract terms, beyond just the grunts and gestures that meant “danger” or “food” or “let’s mate.” This capacity for abstract thought gave it the capacity—gave him the capacity, rather, to understand the existence of his Creator, and to worship Him.

Adam was made from the dust of the earth, but not directly—not by God’s direct contact with the dirt. He was made from the dust of the earth in the same way we all are: we’re conceived in our mothers’ wombs and then we grow from the material provided through the food they eat, which is made of nutrients from the earth, delivered by way of plants, or by the meat of animals that ate the plants. Adam was born of a mother and a father, but he was born with a particular mutation that made him unique in all the world: he was the first of his kind, made in the image of God.

This would explain, of course, where Cain got his wife, and it explains who all those people were of whom Cain was so terrified when God banished him to Nod: humanity—or, at least, proto-humanity—existed prior to the arrival of Adam. The writer of Genesis seemed to take it for granted that the human race existed in some capacity prior to God’s creation of Adam and Eve, and seemed to expect readers to understand that as well. No explanation was offered for who these people were who populated the city built by Cain, nor who it was that posed a threat to him in his banishment. Yet, every time a descendent of Adam was conceived and born, the writer was explicit about his origins: “Cain went in to his wife and she became pregnant…,” etc.

These earlier specimens of humanity were superficially and anatomically identical to Adam and his descendents, but they lacked the mutation gained in the Great Leap Forward—a mutation that gave them the power of abstract, symbolic thought by which they created systems of zoology and morality through which they were able to assign qualitative value to animals and objects and relationships and people. They were able to recognize beauty and truth and goodness beyond mere sensory input and gratification of appetite, which is how they, and they alone in all the world, were able to relate to their Creator, and to experience guilt and shame over immorality and betrayal.

The ancients understood the significance of this distinction. The relationship between speech and creation and it’s centrality in the condition of man as the unique bearer of God’s image was a major avenue of exploration in Jewish mysticism, long before evolutionary biologists and anthropologists came up with terms like “Great Leap Forward” and “behavioral modernity” to explain the same truth. Kabbalists expressed it through mantras like Abracadabra, which is Aramaic for “As I speak, I create.”

They, and the Greek philosophers with whom they exchanged ideas, understood humanity’s symbol-based rationality to be of the same quality as the Divine Mind that created the universe. The quality was the same, but the degree was but a miniscule fraction of the infinite Supreme Consciousness.

This basic understanding—that human rationality is of the same kind of Intelligence as the Divine Mind—laid the foundation for what would become the scientific revolution.

Of course, this cuts sharply against the narrative we typically invoke in Western society, which has it that the Age of Reason represented a shuffling off of the supernaturalism and superstition imposed on civilization by the forces of Christianity: we learned that bad weather and illness aren’t the result, necessarily, of witchcraft or demons or the wrath of God, but low-pressure fronts and germs. If someone falls prey to illness or natural disaster, we don’t consult an oracle or a priest to find out how to expiate their sin, we consult a medical doctor or a meteorologist.

But, that kind of supernaturalism and irrationality wasn’t actually indigenous to Judeo-Christian tradition. It was something that crept in from the paganism of our ancestors.

I might be getting ahead of myself, though. By now, I expect that there are some pretty loud objections to what I’ve written so far. There are, after all, more than a few problems with my effort to reconcile the teachings of Scripture with those of modern science.

They’re not insurmountable problems, but they do require the scope of another blog entry. So… to be continued.

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1 Response to Why I’m not a Young Earth Creationist… and Jesus isn’t either. (1/3)

  1. Katrin says:

    This is really interesting and a pleasure to read. Thank you!

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