On holding to a literal reading of Genesis in our scientific age

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In response to a friend:

Hi Pastor, my theology is so boring and old. I think the best writing on this is by Augustine, but the best theology is by Calvin and Luther.

Though I was raised by Christian parents (even in ministry) I was raised to hold to the scientific interpretation of antiquity and it’s hermeneutic of Genesis. I was raised with the presumption of an old earth and theistic evolution, of some kind. God revealed himself through scripture and nature but the latter was the best interpreter of the former.

Strangely, it wasn’t until I was an adult, in college, studying with a major of Philosophy of Science, that the issue became of serious interest. So I understand the evolutionary theory and it’s concomitant geological and astronomical theories very well, from the inside out. Still, if the serious study of philosophy of science shows us anything it’s that the sciences are often used in ways contrary to their proper boundaries; that things we think we know, we don’t; that faith and bias are powerfully integrated into the scientific findings; and that the world is very probably incapable of human interpretation at the most fundamental levels.

As Albert Einstein said about these things, “Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things easily achieve such authority over us that we forget their earthly origins and accept them as unalterable givens.” and “It appears to me that the “real” is an intrinsically empty, meaningless category (pigeon hole), whose monstrous importance lies only in the fact that I can do certain things in it and not certain others.” and “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this ideal limit the objective truth.”

These kinds of thoughts freed me a bit to consider that God might actually be telling the truth about the things that he says he does in the Bible. It’s disturbing to some of my Christian friends that room for my conversion arrived largely through the failure of “science” but that might be because their understanding of science is so much a part of their faith; perhaps to an inordinate degree? Everything from the creation to the resurrection became possible once the sciences took on their true form and place, as mere human experience writ large. What we do with our eyes we do with our telescopes. What we can’t do with math we can’t do with our minds, and telescope and microscope do not carry with them an interpretation of the universe; they’re just a bit of curved glass and metal. Once the people built a tower to the sky; it did little for their spiritual well being.

So my reading of the Bible is painfully literalistic. When I see it read that Jesus Christ has physically risen from the dead, I take it as teaching what it is saying. I don’t have a poetry that can carry that event without some real blood and asphyxiation. Without a real death and resurrection I could not be a Christian, the way some cannot be a Christian with it. I don’t, contrary to many, have any good reasons to think that something like that cannot happen, even if I have good reason to understand that it does not usually happen. There are no rules of the universe that say, “people can’t rise from the dead.” Those kinds of rules are limitations drawn from the narrow breadth of human experience and common habit. There is no evidence for them. Also, there can be a God. And if there can be a God, he can raise people from the dead, and if people do rise from the dead, there is a God that raises them, and if there is a God, then the creation of universes would be, perhaps not a small matter, but eminently possible. “With God, all things are possible”. In other words, there being a God, and even, in my more mature understanding, God being absolutely and necessarily there, makes the creation of the universe in whatever days, moments, minutes, or an instant, a relatively easy matter to believe. The details are merely practical.

At the same time, if He says he did it in 6 billion years that’s fine with me. I don’t have any reason to hold a grudge because it doesn’t align with my theology. I have no vested interest in Him limiting his creative works to 6 24 hour periods. He can do it however he sees best and I’m willing to have a 60 billion year old universe, and man created through an ugly, painful evolutionary process that eventually gurgitates out a man at some chosen time in history, if Adam was even a thing at all. I can’t call Him a liar or tell Him he’s wrong. I can’t question Him and say, “What have you done?” “Why didn’t you do it like this…?” I’m just going to take it as it is; so in the issue of origins and creation days and the rest, I feel like I just don’t have a dog in that race. I’m OK with whatever happened, truly.

But I also know that (I think pretty obviously) the Bible teaches that the Earth was created, and life cultivated, and man created and loved by God, as the height of the creation, all in the space of 6 days, and He rested on the 7th. Now, really, I’m uncomfortable with that, not from the perspective of “how dare you?” or because it’s contrary to something else I believe. It’s not. But in the way of, I don’t know how that could be done. It’s beyond me, and stunning, and overwhelming to the heart and intellect. It stretches the bounds of credulity and requires faith to believe God because He is a God of power and miracle and not just a God of the math and equations, but I do in fact believe it. Because that is what He has revealed to be the case. It’s not even hard for me to believe. There is, after all, a universe here, why shouldn’t he have done it that way as opposed to some other way? Because Darwin says so? Who is he? So when the scriptures say “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” I see that. I experience that. The eyes of faith are clearer than the eyes of science or supposed “reason”.

If there were a God, wouldn’t he do what he wanted to do, the way that he wanted to do it? There is a God, and He does what he wants to do, with the Heavens above and with the Earth beneath and who can say to Him, “What have you done?” So what of all of these Christians that think they can read Genesis in ways that would ruin Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? I don’t know. People believe all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons. I’ll just let God take care of all of that, but if people want to read the Bible as the Bible without a lot of unnecessary gymnastics, they are going to come to different conclusions. The simple reading of the Bible is almost always the best reading. The writers, I think, could not have had in mind, nor intended, the meanings that contemporary readers can impose on the text. It is, at the end, just a book, and intentionally so, so that it can be read by normal human people, and no one with a PhD in near eastern languages is a normal human person. Sometimes I think advanced graduate education and professional degrees serve only to obfuscate the obvious.

But, I do understand that perspective and why people hold to an interpretation that seems far from the words and sentences of the text of the Bible, because I myself, did. I get that, I don’t like it but I do indeed, get it. And with that, I don’t worry about it. I certainly don’t think that I was not a Christian when I held to evolution and an old Earth, and I don’t think that about my fellows now. I do though think they’re wrong, in that kind of way that I’m comfortable with God giving us powerful clarification on the last day. He will say, here’s why you were wrong: you didn’t take into account this and this and this, and you ignored that and that and that.

Our understanding is so blurry and ignorant in this life. I’m looking forward to the next when these matters won’t bother mind or soul, but until then, I believe the world was created in 6 very literal 24 hour days, clearly, with conviction, and without apology. And I’m willing to take whatever consequences might accrue from an unbelieving public, and a harsh Christian community, because God is good, and I would rather offend the world by being wrong than offend my friend by infidelity.

Whatever we are convinced of in Christ, let us live as if we do.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.


One thought on “On holding to a literal reading of Genesis in our scientific age

  1. “Without a real death and resurrection I could not be a Christian, the way some cannot be a Christian with it. I don’t, contrary to many, have any good reasons to think that something like that cannot happen, even if I have good reason to understand that it does not usually happen. There are no rules of the universe that say, “people can’t rise from the dead.” Those kinds of rules are limitations drawn from the narrow breadth of human experience and common habit. There is no evidence for them.”

    If we follow this line of thinking, NO claim, regardless of how fantastical, should be dismissed by modern, educated people. Science says that the earth revolves around the sun, but that isn’t what Joshua seemed to believe. Maybe the sun DOES revolve around the earth; the apparent evidence suggesting heliocentricity is simply a mirage, created by God to humble and confuse the wise. Maybe we should force NASA and other governmental space and science agencies to abandon heliocentricity based on the literal reading of this biblical text.

    How can a modern society function with such a mindset? Imagine if all US government agencies were forced to yield to those who hold a literal interpretation of the biblical story in which Joshua ordered the sun to stop revolving around the earth for 24 hours. Life would be chaos. We would revert to a primitive people, afraid of walking into the woods, filled with witches, goblins, and evil fairies.

    No one can claim that the Scientific Method is the one and only truth. But we can claim that it has proven to be the most reliable method of discovering how our universe operates to date…far better than the literal interpretation of the Bible or any other ancient holy book.

    As for me and my house: We will stick with science.


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