What Genesis Actually Teaches

How are the first three chapters of Genesis relevant to how we see the world today? Over four short essays I’ll introduce how and why I read them – not as an expert on the texts, but as a scientist working in evolutionary genetics and as someone trying to be an ordinary follower of Jesus. Putting these things together without being seen to be watering one or both down is widely considered impossible, but I am happy enough with how I manage it. In this first piece, I consider the big-picture of Genesis 1. In the second, I focus on how I see the text, and the teachings of the Bible more generally, relating to biology. Finally, I’ll consider the place of human beings in this created cosmos.

As theologian Fred Sanders has recently and very helpfully said, “Relating science and the Bible is important and inescapable. For most educated people, this connection is pretty much an index of whether your faith is real or imaginary.” For those in Christian leadership of some form reading this, I’ll pause to let this sink in. … Are you helping those you lead to develop in this area, or leaving them to muddle their own way through? Similarly, this relates to people who hold to other worldviews; if you’re, say, an atheist or a Muslim, have you considered carefully how science relates to your faith?  Have you grappled with some of the claims and counter-claims contending with your worldview in the marketplace of science-related ideas?

Introducing Genesis

Genesis 1, as I read it, poetically describes the forming and filling of a universe suited to be a place of worship for the God who made it. Beginning, implicitly, with nothing except God, we get a bird’s eye view of the shaping and purposing of this world. There has been debate over whether the text describes creation out of nothing or not. My take is that it assumes creation ex nihilo in the very beginning (and that is found elsewhere in the Bible anyway), but that the focus here is on God preparing the universe as a dwelling for humans, and as the cosmic temple where He will be worshipped.

A straightforward first reading of the text suggests that God made the whole universe and all the creatures in it in the space of six 24-hour days. Mainstream science however (whether practiced by evangelical Christians or atheists), shows the universe to be much older, through multiple measures including light from distant stars, geological processes such as the deposition of layers observable in various formations, and processes of radioactive decay. I take the science to be clear regarding deep time. But, how clear is the text – have people even always read it the same way? Are there other texts which at first appear to teach something, but on closer attention are silent or teach something else? I think there are many such texts, and that they’re best found by reading the whole narrative of the Bible as one coherent story. Clues from the Bible itself gave me pause for thought as I investigated this challenge to its reliability and authority.

Clues from the Text

Exodus 20 draws an analogy between the Hebrew working week and God’s creation week. The work week is clearly (sometimes painfully) literal – was the creation week necessarily also? Perhaps not. For instance, the seventh day of God’s week in the Genesis text is not closed with an evening. Perhaps God’s ‘rest’ has not ended? In fact, it seems that that rest was still available, at least hypothetically, to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sinai (Psalm 95:11), and the New Testament teaches that this very same rest is available to us today too (Hebrews 4:3-4:11). The argument of Jesus in John 5:17, that God is ‘until now’ working, so Jesus as the Son can do the same, makes best sense to me if God’s seventh day Sabbath rest is taken to be continuing until now. The Sabbath rest promised to the Israelites is something we all desire – and it turns out this rest is found in Jesus Christ (Col 2:17), who is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8). So, it seems that the seventh day, the basis for the Sabbath command and yet continuing today, was not an ordinary day – and so I see little reason for the others to be taken to be. Similarly, in the first chapter of Genesis the sun is created on ‘day’ four; but then what were the first three ‘days’ with no sun as reference point? This anomaly for a literal-days account was noted early in the history of the church, for instance by Origen and Augustine (helpful discussion here).

Overall, rather than giving a detailed chronology of Creation, the text appears to be focussed on God’s forming and filling what was originally “without form and void” (Genesis 1:2). There is a parallelism between days one, two, and three being broadly concerned with forming or distinguishing one region from another (creating the day, the sky, and the land with its vegetation, respectively) and the other three days with filling those regions with creatures or functional objects. Also interesting is that God delegates creative power, rather than creating everything ex nihilo, e.g. ‘let the Earth bring forth’ (v. 24). The clear emphasis is God purposefully forming the Earth and its creatures.

What Genesis Really Teaches

This quick dip into Genesis 1 shows that the text is much more complex than often assumed. But is there any reason to take its main themes seriously? Are they of any use or interest to us? As a scientist I can give an emphatic yes, for Genesis provides crucial groundwork for a scientific worldview.

Firstly, we learn that Creation is contingent. This explains the empiricism of science – God is free and could’ve created in all kinds of ways – we must discover how it was done empirically rather than purely rationally.  It also coheres well with cosmological arguments. My favourite class of this diverse set of argument for God’s existence can be summarised as: things which could’ve been otherwise call out for an explanation – the universe of time and space which we experience is such a thing, and by its nature calls for an explanation beyond itself.

Secondly, Creation is ordered at a deep level. This underlying order grounded in God’s character allows for the predictive aspect of science. It also fits the raft of arguments available from the order or laws of nature, sometimes called ‘eutaxiological’. There are various forms of this kind of argument; we can for instance infer from the prescriptiveness of laws to God’s governance, from the stunning universality of regularities of the universe to a deeper non-physical explanation, or from the awkward combination of ‘fundamentality’ and contingency in the basic laws on the physical scientific picture to something more fundamental which is personal and genuinely explanatory.

Thirdly, Creation was a rational project. This gives hope for scientific optimism. We have some reason to expect the world to be comprehensible. This corresponds to arguments from the comprehensibility of the universe, the applicability of mathematics, and in particular, the applicability of the mathematical structures that we have developed based on human aesthetic criteria.

Lastly, Creation is purposed. This gives a motivation for doing science. It also gives a basis for modern and ancient design arguments, including the cosmological ‘fine tuning’ arguments, as well as arguments from Earth’s arguable status as particularly well suited for life, and the fine tuning I personally suspect is required for the evolutionary process to end up in something like humans.

The Purpose Driven Universe?

We could explore each of these more, but I want to draw out another aspect of this last one – Genesis tells us that the natural world is purposed, or intended. Throughout Genesis 1 we see this, and we also see a normative aspect to creation. Some things just ‘are’, while other things have something more – they ‘are good’. This aspect is tied in with God’s choices or intentions. God made it in such a way that it was good. When humans were also added, it was not just good but very good. In other words, the ideas of Genesis help us to say why there is a split in the world between things or actions which just ‘are’, and things which are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In a universe which is ultimately a product of chance and necessity, it seems harder to find a place for such things as value and duty.

Of course, there are many difficult questions raised by the claim that God really does exist, made this world, and acts in history – in particular, the question of why there is still so much suffering in the world. We live in a tension between man-made and natural evil and suffering, and goodness, beauty, and joy – this is a tension which the Bible takes seriously, and I believe can help us to make sense of. In this lifelong existential and intellectual project in which we are all engaged it helps to have the right foundation – I recommend starting with Genesis, the book of beginnings.

Further reading:

Is There a God? – Richard Swinburne
Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism – Alvin Plantinga
What the Heavens Declare: Science in the Light of Creation – Lydia Jaeger
Seven Days That Divide the World – John Lennox
Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics – Roger Trigg

Part 1   |   Part  2   |   Part 3   |   Part  4

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Brenda von Ahsen
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Brenda von Ahsen

How did plants exist before there was a sun?

J.D. Heard
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J.D. Heard

Genesis 1:3 God says “let there be light, and it was good” God provided His light to sustain the plants. He created the Sun later to mark the passage of time.

gary
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gary

How do you know this?

gary
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gary

It is certainly possible that when the original author of the Genesis Creation Story used the word “day” he did not mean a literal twenty-four hour day. It is also possible that when the author of another book in the Pentateuch lists all the generations of human beings since Creation down to the sons of Jacob, he didn’t really mean to infer that the earth and humans have only existed for six to ten thousand years. It is also possible that the author of the Gospel of Matthew who lists the generations of the ancestors of Jesus all the way… Read more »

gary
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gary

In my discussions with Christians I have often found that objective evidence is not the primary reason for their beliefs. So debating the evidence for Creationism vs. Evolution is never going to get anywhere. If your beliefs are primarily based on subjective evidence, then that is where we should focus our attention. I would suggest that Christians seriously evaluate the reliability of giving so much weight to personal feelings, perceptions, and experiences to confirm or reject universal (objective) truth claims. This short video gives a fantastic insight into this issue: