#HamOnNye, the recent debate at the Creation Museum between Ken Ham and Bill Nye “the Science Guy”, made a lot of headlines, and not necessarily a lot of sense. Though I didn’t watch it, I’ve heard enough about it to affirm that, like most public debates about religion between Christians and atheists, it missed the point entirely (at least in my opinion). That said, debates like these have one positive function: they start conversations. This debate started a lot of conversations about Genesis, human origins, and science, and I’ve been part of several such conversations this week. Conversations are great ways to figure out what you believe, because it forces you to articulate it. So here goes: Why I Am Not a 6-Day Creationist.
First, some disclaimers: I used to be a 6-day creationist. Big time. I understood the whole debate to be grounded in competing assumptions in scientific method, and tried to become an armchair scientist. This led me to embrace Intelligent Design, which seemed to take science more seriously and didn’t appear to start with Genesis and work backward toward science, as Young-Earth or 6-Day creationism sometimes seems to. Getting deeper into science was beginning to be a lot of work that I didn’t have time for, though, so I went back to my studies in theology and biblical studies, and it was there – in Genesis, not in the underlying assumptions of science – that I found a satisfying solution. Now I’m happily agnostic on the whole debate about human origins: I no longer find any tension between Genesis and science, and find scientific approaches to human origins mildly interesting at best. All that to say that I’m not going to argue for Creationism or Evolution (theistic or otherwise). I’m not going to argue about any scientific evidence, which is beyond my expertise and seems to be where the debate gets bogged down: issues of missing links, faults in carbon dating, theories of sedimentation, longer lifespans and global floods, are all vaguely interesting and completely immaterial to my understanding of Genesis. As I told one friend this week, I’m far more interested in the type of theology that these views espouse than in their scientific validity.
I loved this book, back then. I’m sure I still have it somewhere. I’m sure it makes some decent points, but I think that it misses the biggest one.
Another friend framed the issue for me pretty well, so I’ll try to paraphrase him: if Genesis 1-11 isn’t factually true, then the fall didn’t happen; if the fall didn’t happen, then humanity isn’t born in sin, and death is not a result of sin; and if humanity isn’t born in sin, then we have no need of a saviour. I hadn’t heard it phrased in (roughly) this way before, but that’s basically how it was presented to me growing up: if Genesis isn’t true, then the rest of the Bible isn’t true. So here’s why I disagree with each of those points, in turn.
1. Is Genesis 1-11 True?
Creationists sometimes argue that if Genesis isn’t true, then the rest of the Bible isn’t true either. That’s actually very reductive of their own position, but I’ve heard them argue it, so let’s explain it, starting with what they mean by “true”.
Often, the word “literally” shows up here: Fundamentalists (in the sense of the 19th-20th century theological movement, not “radicals” or “ultra-conservatives” as the media uses the word today) believe that Scripture should be read literally wherever possible. Many take this to mean that it should be read as factually true, in the sense that the Bible is read as true historical accounts that are factually accurate, having been passed down to us from the most reliable eyewitness, God himself. (After all, if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, he was the only eyewitness!) The downside of this approach is that to read the Bible this way, you must completely disregard the notion of genre. If you take the genre of the different books and sections of books in the Bible seriously, I don’t believe that a single word of it would fall into this (thoroughly modern) category. Put simply, ancient peoples didn’t read that way, let alone write that way. Even the “historical books” are highly interpreted, with absolutely no concept of “objectivity” on the part of the writers. They told their story of what happened, and often rearranged events to make their point more clearly, because their primary purpose was not to be an eyewitness but to provide a theological understanding of their history as a people – as the people of God. To read even these “historical” books as “factually” true is to misread them. A truly “literal” reading of a text must take its genre into account.
The genre of Genesis 1-11 is myth. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the events in those chapters didn’t happen, but only that they were written in a particular genre that highlights truths that are much deeper than the mere facts. The facts are that God created the world, but the details of these chapters focus on revealing God rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of what he did to create the universe. The structure of Genesis 1, for example, is borrowed from other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths, notably Egyptian creation myths; this was done deliberately to show how Israel’s God is different from Egypt’s gods. Genesis 1 is therefore not only myth, but a polemical document designed to compare and contrast with other documents from the same region. The flood account of Genesis 6 does the same with many Ancient Near Eastern flood accounts, the most famous being the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known stories in human history (far older than Genesis). When you read Genesis in the context of the older mythologies from Israel’s region, it becomes clear that their purpose is far from scientific, and entirely about showing how Israel’s God is distinct from, and greater than, all other gods.
So yes, Genesis is deeply, “literally” true – but not necessarily factually true. It could be factually true, but that would have no bearing on whether or not it were true in the sense of whether or not it reveals true things about God – which is its true purpose.
Fundamentalists can apply their notion of literal or factual truth to the entire Bible because of their view of inspiration. The Bible is inspired by God, which implies that it is fully true – but the sense in which it is true depends on the sense in which you say that the Bible is inspired. Fundamentalists hold to “verbal inspiration” – meaning that God told the writers of the Bible exactly what to write, word for word. I believe that the Bible is inspired, but I don’t believe that it was verbally inspired; I believe that God speaks through human beings when human beings tell the truth, and that human beings participate with God by telling the truth at his prompting, and that this doesn’t require God to write it for us. This leaves me free to interpret Scripture in many different ways, seeing it as a collection of human-written books over a few thousand years in many different contexts and genres, and still find God within it. I should point out that a doctrine of verbal inspiration doesn’t require people to interpret the Bible as factually true, but even so, without the doctrine of verbal inspiration a factually-true interpretation of the Bible doesn’t hold up. The point here is that if you hold to this combination of verbal inspiration and a factually-true reading of the Bible, then if Genesis isn’t true the entire Bible is undermined; God must either be a liar, or not exist. I don’t think this is actually the case, but it certainly explains why some people argue for this view so tenaciously: their entire faith hinges on it. Thankfully, mine does not.
The Fundamentals. There’s a big difference between Fundamentalism as a Christian movement in the early 1900s and “fundamentalism” as we hear about it today, which usually means ultra-conservative radicalism. It was an important response to theological liberalism, but it wasn’t without its problems. Start here if you want to know where creationism as we know it today came from.
2. If Genesis 1-11 Isn’t (Factually) True, then The Fall Didn’t Happen
If Genesis 1-11 is factually true, then Adam ate a magical fruit (and I don’t mean beans) which gave him knowledge of good and evil and at the same time cursed all of humanity to sinfulness. This is incredibly problematic to me, and seems to lay the blame for all human sinfulness and misery at God’s feet: why would God even create a tree whose fruit was so incredibly deadly poisonous? Surely he’s smarter than that. That apple was more powerful than all of the weapons of mass destruction of history, because it (indirectly) created all of them. Yes, the sin was Adam’s (and Eve’s), in that they disobeyed God, but I’m not sure that a factual reading of Genesis 3 in a court of law wouldn’t end up with God being found guilty of criminal negligence causing Death.
If we are free to read Genesis as myth, though, everything changes. Adam (whose name in Hebrew actually means “human” or “humanity”) is representative of all human beings. It becomes a story that describes the human condition, rather than positing a single cause of the human condition. We’re all sinful, with Adam rather than because of him. Adam represents us all, in the same way that Christ represents us all: Adam represents our sinfulness, Christ represents our redemption. The fact that Paul makes this direct comparison in Romans has been used to support the existence of a historical Adam; I think it does the opposite, highlighting Adam’s representative function – a function that does not require him to be historically real as an individual human being.
If this is the case, and Adam wasn’t a real individual human being, then The Fall didn’t happen in a factual, historical sense. I’m okay with that; the implications of the Fall remain true, even if the event wasn’t factual, and a mythological reading of the text actually makes more sense because it implies that human sinfulness is the fault of humanity, and that we weren’t set up for endless torment by magic fruit. A mythological reading of Genesis 3 allows for the tree to be representative of human choice, a freedom that carries with it difficult consequences; God is responsible for giving us free choice, certainly, but that makes far more sense than God being responsible for giving us free choice and arbitrarily creating magical fruit. If the tree is supposed to be an actual, factual tree, then its presence is unexplained, and appears unwise; but if the tree is representative of choice, its presence is symbolic, and God is not responsible for giving us weapons of mass destruction.
Housecats in the garden of Eden? This artist (Hendrik Gultzius) must have been a creationist…
3. If the Fall Didn’t Happen Magically/Factually, Death Isn’t the Result of Sin
This is a slightly more serious objection. Scripture repeatedly links sin and death together, not least in Genesis 2 and 3. Adam and Eve are sent out of the garden, because if they were able to remain they would be able to eat from the tree of life and life forever. If we read this mythologically, as I believe the text requires, then the case for linking death to sin is even greater: mythologically, the tree of life is symbolic of relationship with or connection to God, who sustains our very being. This makes more sense than referring to more magical fruit, as though if someone were to find this tree they would still be able to live forever (like the “fountain of youth”).
In the Creation/Evolution argument, evolutionists must deal with the notion that evolution requires a continual cycle of death called natural selection – the idea that beneficial genes are passed on because creatures with less beneficial traits don’t survive, or the so-called “survival of the fittest.” If death didn’t exist before sin, then Adam couldn’t have been the product of evolution. Let’s keep in mind, though, that Genesis doesn’t say that there was no death before Eve ate the fruit; God merely said “if you eat of it, you will surely die.” Even then, this is only referring to Adam and Eve – the rest of the animals, even though they’re apparently all herbivores, aren’t mentioned in connection to the tree of life. There’s nothing anywhere saying that they can’t die, or that they weren’t dying for a very long time before Adam’s sin. So while this objection may appear troubling for evolutionists, I don’t think it’s as strong as it’s made out to be.
Some turn to Romans to make this argument, referring to Paul’s comparison of the old Adam and the new Adam (who is Christ). Paul says that through Adam we’ve received sin and death, and through Christ we receive forgiveness and eternal life. As I mentioned before, this compare/contrast doesn’t necessarily imply that Adam was a specific, historical individual, as Paul was trying to highlight him as representative of humankind; in the same way, I don’t think that this comparison implies that Adam’s sin invented death in a general sense, but only that Adam’s sin caused death, and even set a pattern of death, in contrast to Christ who brings life.
Eating the fruit didn’t cause immediate death, and nowhere is it implied that there was no death before the eating of the fruit. (Surely there was at least plant death, as all of the animals ate plants. Did any eat insects? Do they count?) Does that mean that sin is unrelated to death? By no means! Death is very, very often the result of sin – and sin very often leads to death, indirectly if not directly. Human conflict comes from sin, always. But did sin create viruses? Did sin create harmful bacteria, allergic reactions, natural disasters? Genesis says that God kicked humans out of the garden to cut them off from fruit that would sustain them forever, implying they’d never get old – but what if Adam fell off a cliff? We’ve traditionally interpreted Genesis as saying that all “natural evil” (illness, natural disasters, etc.) were part of the ground being cursed, that nature itself (including human nature) was somehow tainted by a single choice of disobedience. That’s a pretty big logical leap from what the actual text says (it relates the “curse” to the difficulty of farming, not the advent of earthquakes and viruses). The text itself is so vague that it ought to suggest to us that it wasn’t intending to factually retell the beginnings of all painful or damaging things. It doesn’t really comment on “natural evil”, because it’s focused on moral evil – sin and disobedience, and the hardship that they cause. So again, reading the text with the text, picking up its cues and emphases, leads us away from the problematic argument and toward a more simple and theologically sound exploration of the nature of God rather than the natural world.
In short, then, I’m okay with there being death before the Fall. It doesn’t make sin less sinful, or less harmful, to say that not all death is caused by sin.
“Take off, eh?”
4. If Humans Weren’t Born In Sin, Then We Don’t Need A Saviour
I think that this is a big logical leap. I’m sinful, whether Adam was a real guy or not: I don’t need to have been ‘born in sin’ in the sense of having inherited a sinful nature from a specific historical person who ate magic fruit in order to need a saviour. I need to be saved because of the choices that I’ve made, and even because of the choices that others have made, whether or not a historical Adam ate fruit. It’s been argued that if we weren’t born with original sin, which seems to be some sort of spiritual-genetic predisposition to sin, then it would be possible to be perfect and therefore wouldn’t need a saviour. I say that it is possible to be perfect (the Bible actually tells us to be perfect, several times), but that doesn’t mean that anyone (other than Jesus) is! We have enough food to feed everyone on the planet, but people still go hungry; we have the resources to eliminate poverty, but there are plenty of poor people; we have the technology to live sustainably, but we still burn coal and indulge in excess. Due to the systematic nature of the effects of sin, even if a lot of people were perfect they’d still need a saviour! I think that this objection only works with a very specific notion of salvation (individual spiritual salvation from hell), which only reflects a tiny bit of what God is working at in this world: a whole new creation, new society based on reconciliation and new relationships and structures, a place with no more sin and death. If you see salvation in a more holistic light, it becomes clear that the most perfect person in this imperfect world still needs a saviour.
To sum it up: I think that if we read Genesis in light of its genre (myth) and context (ancient near eastern myths and cosmologies) we have no basis for scientific theories in it. It’s simply not about creation science, which makes it a very shaky foundation for creation science. The implications of this are only theologically threatening if we hold to a certain type of hermeneutics (modern Fundamentalist notions of reading all texts as woodenly “literal” in the sense of objectively and historically factual), a position which is exacerbated by its combination with a certain approach to the doctrine of inspiration (verbal inspiration). It doesn’t necessarily have any negative effect on our doctrine of sin and death, and certainly not on our need for a saviour and our doctrine of salvation. Far from being problematic for other doctrines, I think that reading Genesis mythologically makes much more sense in light of the world as we know it, relieving tensions caused by reading the text in light of certain philosophical assumptions (determinism, etc.) and leading to a more holistic and integrated theology that allows for greater input from other fields, including science. In other words, if we stop trying to turn Genesis into science, we can allow Genesis to speak for Genesis, science to speak for science, and God to speak in all things.