2013-09-11

Creation and Evolution, Science and Scripture




The following is an introductory essay I use in many of my classes to approach the questions raised by Science and Scripture. At the end I have included discussion questions based on the essay.

When studying the Story of God written in Scripture, one of the major questions that is often raised is: How does this Story relate to other stories that try to explain the world we live in? There are many stories found in other worldviews that seek to explain the world. But there is one other really big Story that has been accepted by most of the world since the 1800's: The Story of Evolution as told by scientific investigation. Both scripture and science speak of how humanity came to be, but they use different language to talk about it. Thus, what they say often sounds very different.


There are many modern religious believers (on one side) and anti-religious believers (on the other side) who say that these two Stories CANNOT relate to each other at all. They say one is false, and the other is true. In their view, you are either "for religion and against evolution" or you are "for evolution and against religion". For them, there can be no other position. However, perhaps there is a more helpful view that can make better sense out of this question. Perhaps the religious claim that "we are creations made by a loving Creator God" and the scientific claim that "we exist in our present state as the result of billions of years of growth and evolution" can both reflect truth about who and what we are.

In 1941, the great scientist Albert Einstein said "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." And in the 1200's one of the greatest religious minds in history, the theologian Thomas Aquinas, said that God has written "two books" we can learn from: The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. So, from both the scientific side and the religious side, there is agreement that science and religion need each other, and in some sense, complete each other. In fact, both science and scripture can be seen as gifts from God to help us learn about who God made us to be.

Since both science and religion answer important questions about the world and ourselves, we can better understand how they relate by looking at the KINDS of questions they answer for us. On one hand, science tends to answer "HOW" questions about the way the physical, observable world works. Science asks: How does a cannon ball fly through the air? How does hydrogen and oxygen make water? How did life evolve on this planet? On the other hand, religion tends to answer "WHY" questions about values and ideas that cannot be physically seen, touched, or tested. Religion asks: Why are some things good and others evil? Why is there meaning and purpose and beauty in life? Why would a God want to make a universe that where intelligent persons ask questions like these?

These are really abstract ideas, so let's use an everyday example of HOW and WHY questions. Think about a sport that you like. One question about the sport is: HOW do you play it? What are the rules? What is the playing field? What techniques work best? Another question is this: WHY do you like playing it? Why do you even care about it? You can know everything about HOW to play a sport, but if you don't have a reason WHY you like playing it, you will never play! How AND why are essential to being an athlete, and essential to answering the really BIG questions in life: Where do we come from? Why do we exist?

So we can see that Science basically answers HOW, and Scripture basically answers WHY. But they answer these questions using different kinds of language. This is partly because Christian Scripture was written between 1500 BCE and 100 CE, while modern Science only came along since about 1700 CE. Thus, there is a 1500 to 3000 year gap between Scripture and what we have learned from science in the last three centuries. That is a long time! Think of all that has changed in the last 300 years in terms of society, technology, transportation, communication, and how we understand the world. Now multiply that by 10! This is one of the reasons why science and scripture can sound so very different.

Scripture uses language that is often very symbolic, using lots of word pictures. Scripture speaks in poems, visions, laws, proverbs, and epic dramas. Even when talking about history, Scripture does not use simple, literal language. Scripture's language is filled with images of God and angels and glory and awesomeness. When Scripture describes an event that happened in history, such as a miracle or a mighty act of God, it is not doing so to tell us HOW it happened. Rather, it is done to tell us WHY it happened, and what that means for us and for the world.

Science, on the other hand, is "just the facts". Scientific language is very "literal" and deals with physical data that can be tested over and over again with our physical senses. Instead of being written in different kinds of literature, science is written as a "lab report": It is carefully researched, repeated, and documented. When reporting all these physical facts and explanations, science does not tell us WHY we should care, or even what to do about them. We have to draw on our personal reasons and religious convictions to make these decisions.

Now that we have talked about the kinds of questions and the kinds of language that science and scripture uses, it is time to talk about what each actually says about our world. We can start with a brief overview of the scientific description of evolution. Evolution is confusing or scary to many people, but it is actually a very simple concept. Evolution simply means "growth and change over time". Individual humans "evolve" from a fetus to a baby to a child to an adult. Societies "evolve" over time to develop more advanced and complex forms of government, culture and technology. And, in a similar way, the whole universe "evolves" to develop complex life forms that possess intelligence, language, and creativity.

The literal, scientific description of the world's evolution begins around 14 billion years ago with the "Big Bang", when all matter, energy, time and space exploded from an infinitely small point to create our massive universe. Around 4.5 billion years ago, gas clouds condensed to form our sun and its planets. Over millions of years, the third planet from this sun (our Earth) cooled and condensed, and came to orbit in just the right place, so that atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen could combine into complex molecules to form the first single-celled life forms.

Over millions of years, these life forms adapted to their environment through "natural selection". This means that those organisms that worked well in their environment thrived and multiplied, while those that didn't died off. This led to the development of multi-celled organisms where cells shared resources, and worked together for the good of the whole. These multi-celled organisms developed into organisms which had multiple organs (such as brain, eyes, digestive organs, skin, etc.). These in turn multiplied and adapted to specialized environments such as water, land, and sky. And some of these land creatures developed into mammals, and some of these mammals developed into intelligent humans.

And in evolution, we see a certain trend: Over time the more successful creatures are made up of cells (and communities) that work together, sharing resources and abilities together. These creatures develop in complexity and intelligence. And the more complex creatures become, the more they start to use tools and even language to adapt their environment to their needs. So, evolution seems to trend toward creatures that are complex, communal, conscious, communicative and creative. Now, WHY should that be the case?

At this point it is helpful to listen to what Scripture says about WHY we exist. One of the first rules in interpreting Scripture is to read what it says IN CONTEXT. This means paying attention to what was going on in culture at the time it was written, and what happens before and after the passage you are reading. Above all, it means paying attention to what kind of language Scripture is written in. If you are reading a historical story in Scripture, you shouldn't interpret it as a Law. If you are reading a poem or a vision, you shouldn't interpret it as history or science.

For instance, the poem of Psalm 36 speaks of God sheltering us under his "wings". Does this mean God is a cosmic bird? No! It is a word-picture of God's care and protection. In a similar way people often read the Creation stories of Genesis as if they were scientific lab reports (which wasn't invented for another 3000 years!). Yet, neither are scientific descriptions. Genesis 1 is a poetic vision and Genesis 2-3 is a legendary, imaginative story. Both were given to tell us WHY God created us, but neither scientifically tell us HOW God did it.

The first Creation story in Genesis 1 was written to people who grew up around cultures that worshipped multiple "nature gods": Gods of the sea, of the sky, of the animals, of the harvest, etc. Even the Sun and Moon were worshipped as gods. And for ancient people, these gods were to be feared and sacrificed to, otherwise bad things would happen! Genesis 1 is a poetic vision that says "You don't have to fear nature or treat any part of it like a god! There is one God who made everything else: The skies, seas, stars, plants and all creatures! This God made you special, and you only have to serve Him!"

Genesis 1, it turns out, is a very well structured creation poem. Even the "days" of Genesis 1 are poetic, used as a symbolic way to divide up the creative activity. In verse 2 it says that the big problem before creation was that everything was "formless and empty": It had no structure, and nothing filled the universe. So, on "days" 1-3, God creates a structure for life, with heavens, sky, seas, and land. That fixes the first problem. Then, on "days" 4-6, God fills the structure so it is no longer empty. God puts stars in the heavens, birds in the skies, fish in the seas, and creatures on land. Then, to top it off, God made the human community- female AND male- to take control of nature and take care of it for God. Humans are given the special job of being God's "managers" of the world, and caring for it as God would.

In this poem we also find that there are various rhythms and words that are repeated, much like many songs and poems you have heard. "There was evening and there was morning" is used six times, almost like a chorus to the song. God declares that creation is "good" seven times, once for each creative act. None of this tells us HOW God created, but it does tell us WHY God created: God created a world that is "good" as an environment to share God's goodness with us. This is done so that people could mirror God's creativity by filling the world with our creative actions (that is why we are told to "be fruitful and multiply").

The second Creation Story of Genesis 2-3 is a legendary story that uses many symbols and word-pictures to talk about what it means to be human. It is not literal history, because if it was literal it would literally contradict Genesis 1 (notice that things are created in a different order in each story). This story features magic trees, snakes that can talk, and people with symbolic names. The humans are named Adam (which literally means "the one from dirt") and Eve (which literally means "life" or "the one that life comes from"). All of this points to a Legendary story of great imagination, not a history book.

Yet, just because it is a symbolic story does not mean it is any less true or meaningful. The story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" shares a true message about the value of hard work, even if it uses symbolic language. Dr. Seuss' book "The Lorax" shares a true message about caring for the environment, even if truffula trees do not exist in our world.

In the same way, the Second Creation Story of Genesis 2-3 shares true messages of what it means to be a human in community, how evil tempts and ensnares us, and WHY this matters for humanity. It even tells us symbolically that humanity was formed by a process of God shaping dirt into a living being, who was finally able to be filled with God's own "breath" (including intelligence, creativity, and language). This is a great symbolic picture of evolution! In fact, the first task the new human is given is to "name" all the other creatures: Almost like a modern scientist who names and categorizes the natural world!

The fact is that evolution is not an enemy of faith in God. It can actually be a faithful friend of religion. Evolution states that there is a rational, understandable process of development for life in the universe, and we can study it. Religion tells us that there is a rational, intelligent Creator who made a universe that can be rationally understood by intelligent persons. Science tells us HOW all of this unfolds across time. Religion tells us WHY God did it, using poems and visions and imaginative storytelling. All of this expresses God's goodness, and is part of God's invitation to us to learn how to mirror God's image.

Study Questions:

1. Why do some people think that Creation and Evolution cannot relate to each other?

2. How are the ideas of Einstein and Aquinas important for this discussion?

3. What kind of questions does SCIENCE ask? Give an example of this type of question.

4. What kind of questions does SCRIPTURE ask? Give an example of this type of question.

5. Scripture and science use different kinds of language to explain things. Name TWO ways that science and scripture use language differently.

6. How is the first Creation Story of Genesis 1 DIFFERENT from a scientific explanation of the beginning of the universe?

7. How is the second Creation Story of Genesis 2-3 DIFFERENT from a scientific explanation of the beginning of the universe?

8. Do you think that the stories of Creation and Evolution can work together? Why or why not?

More Information:
For more in-depth explorations of the Theological Implications of Evolution, here are a couple of other blog posts I have written.


A PDF Packet of Materials and Handouts I use to teach Creation through Evolution.

Science as an Act of Faith

Why Biblical Christians need Biological Evolution


On Soul as Emergent and Eternal


A Short Meditation on Evolution and Original Sin


The Crisis Point of Human Evolution


On teaching evolution in a world of creationism


Readings on the Philosophy of Science and Religion


In addition, Dr. Francis Collins, former head of the human genome mapping project, is a committed Christian and a proponent of teaching evolution as the mechanism God used to create humanity (which he calls "Evolutionary Creation"). He has started an organization called BioLogos, which is devoted to teaching Evolutionary Creation, and which has curriculum and engaging videos for all age students (more at biologos.org). Some Biologos videos I frequently use to introduce the idea of Evolutionary Creation can be found HERE and HERE. In addition, Dr. Collins has written a book about his own story of coming to faith in Christ through his work as a genetic biologist. It is called "The Language of God".

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.