In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God 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.
“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, you’re the tutor… what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.
“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google it and the young man rolled his eyes as he opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.
I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, no louder than a whisper, “That can’t be right.”
“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”
And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old…”
In the beginning there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. And in the midst of nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw the light was good; and God 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.
I can think of few verses in scriptures that have created more problems with interpretation than those found at the very beginning of the book. These words have vexed and inspired, they have built up and they have destroyed, they have been the start of faith for some and the very end for others.
Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.
So how did this collection of sentences lead to one of the largest debates from the last few hundred years? Why are these descriptions about God’s creation at the heart of the debate between science and religion?
Centuries ago there was a man named James Ussher who set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies and life spans, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to the work of Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.
However, with the advent of modern science, and carbon dating, and evolutionary biology, scientists have determined that the earth is rough 4.5 billion years old.
There is a huge difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.
For a long period of time, the Christian church established itself as the predominant distributer of information, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.
The war between Science and Religion has manifested itself in a great number of ways like the fight between Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.
And nowhere is the war more apparent than between the debate of creation and evolution.
“How old is the earth?” might sound like an innocuous question without too many ramifications, but how we answer the question comes with a lot of consequences.
A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.
It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.
I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.
I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?
However, around that same time a number of my Christian friends stopped attending church. While learning about evolution, their faith in church disappeared. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned the earth was older than what they heard from the pulpit, their faith was crushed.
I was fortunate to have pastors and mentors who helped me to see the bonds between science and faith, but my friends saw only the battle.
A lot of you wrote questions about the relationship between science and religion. And frankly, I wasn’t surprised. The so-called war between science and religion is one that has gone on for a very long time, and frankly it’s something we rarely address in church. It’s as if we let the world of science rule our lives Monday through Saturday, and the world of faith is reserved for Sundays, and never the two shall meet.
There is conflict between science and religion, and the conflict exists because of us. The fault is ours. We Christians who become defensive when scientists learn more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s strange and creative majesty; we Christians who are too quick to jump ship when we discover there is more to the world than what we can read about in the bible; we Christians who see scientific discoveries as works of the devil, and label them as such.
But the realms of science and religion are not as mutually exclusive as we think they are.
There are Christians out there called “Young-Earth Creationists” who believe, like Ussher, that God created the earth over six 24-hr days around 6,000 years ago. They dismiss discoveries like dinosaur bones as a way for God to test our faith.
However, there are ways of looking at the biblical account of creation such that it harmonizes with science, rather than creating yet another battle.
To start, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.
We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.
Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to become masters the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us the who and why of God’s creation.
Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the pinnacle of God’s creation, was us, humanity.
Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.
The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.
And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.
But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.
The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and whose we are. It is God’s Word for us. Amen.
Nicely done, Pastor Mertens. I had my first college science class (zoology) from an enlightened professor in 1965 – wow what a geezer – and this issue was first introduced to me as one of conflict. Until then it appeared to me that God did what he did in creation through his own processes and that science gave us insight into how it might have happened through discovery – remember, even science has had a variety of opinions on pieces of the puzzle. So, when Dr. Michael noted that evolution vs creation was a point of conflict with some, I was a bit surprised. Now I see this prof as very enlightened to have introduced the notion to us on day one of class one. His notion was that there was no conflict and he agreed with your statement above. Over time, I have come to learn that this is an issue largely in the United States and not the rest of the world, especially in other nations where Christianity is practiced. and the culprit is as one should expect is politics. As an aside, I bet that Mr. Darby had something to do with it as well. So, I liked your reflection above.
I wish all Christians or all people could and would read this. Maybe Ted Talk!