Science doesn’t make a nonsense of the Bible

by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Summer 1997

NOT LONG ago the press reported that the Pope had abandoned the traditional six-day creationist understanding of Genesis. It was represented as a sudden and dramatic switch in the Church’s understanding of the creation account.

The Pope’s statement was significant, not because it introduced a new understanding of Genesis chapter 1 (which it did not) but because he clearly took sides in the “creationist” dispute in the USA. Fundamentalist Christians there claim that the Bible’s six-day creation account is incompatible with the theory of evolution. The Pope declared that it definitely is not.

The beautiful creation story which we read year after year during the Easter vigil, does not describe literally how God created the world. It never was intended to. The author who composed the story under inspiration was a teacher who wanted to correct popular misgivings of the time. He did not claim to give an eyewitness account. He just wanted to set the record straight.

Throughout the Middle East at that time people universally believed in the existence of many gods. In the beginning the world was in chaos, with gods and goddesses fighting each other. The Sun aided by the Moon battled with the Sea and her ally the River, and so on. “Creation” happened when one macho god subdued all of them and put them in charge of their various jobs in the universe. “Creation” consisted in bringing about order and keeping an iron discipline.

The biblical author wanted to correct this picture. After all, he knew that there is only one God. All the others are just powers of nature. So in Genesis he brings this out forcefully. The sea is no more than a pond of water created by God. The sun and moon are lamps he hung up in the sky. Birds, fish and animals are not divine. They are just creatures God made to fill up various habitats.

Moreover, the author wanted to make sure people understood that creation really means creation, that is, making beings out of nothing. He keeps repeating the phrase “And God said, let there be so-and-so … and it was done.” The whole of the universe came about because God decided it should.

The author also wanted people to realise that worship of God on the Sabbath, upon the seventh day, is linked to creation. After all, when we worship God, we acknowledge God as the One to whom we owe everything. That is why the author put the story of creation in the frame of seven days – six days of work and the seventh day on which God rested. Did Almighty God need a rest? No, as a good teacher he tells us: “Every seventh day you must rest, to remember that you were created.”

Whoever looks closely at the first chapter of Genesis will immediately recognise its schematic arrangement. God first creates light (day 1), only afterwards the sun who is the source of light (day 3) . Moreover, how could there be “days” at all, with sunsets, before the sun was there? The inspired author was not stupid. He did not paint a sequence in time, but a sketch of the world of which God created both the spaces and beings which fill them.

From all this it is clear that the six-day account was not meant to be taken literally, nor was it so understood in the beginning. Just read the two contradictory accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2! It was only centuries later, when people began to overlook the poetic and educational purpose of the text that they started to read it as a literal description.

In the creation account the Bible teaches that everything owes its existence to God; that God created human beings, both man and woman, in his own image; that the world is basically good and that we have responsibility for its well-being. The Bible in no way contradicts the theory that, within the universe, things come about through evolution.

The modern sciences often seem to conflict with our Christian world view. In reality, there can be no conflict because both scientific truth and revealed truth come from God, as the first Vatican Council defined in 1870. At times scientists make spurious claims. At other times Christians have to rediscover what they really believe.

To help you sort out these and other puzzling questions, I designed a course entitled How to Make Sense of God. This explains how we can be sure that God exists in spite of evolution. It also deals with human freedom and conscience, suffering and love, and how we need new adult images of God in line with our psychological and scientific personal growth. Information on how to join the course is given on the insert in the centre pages. Our liberated scientific world needs our Christian faith as never before. But not in the form of a cramped and fearful fundamentalism. Faith means freedom.