This article is partly a response to a recent one on Medium.com by Joe Love, which was in turn a commentary on an article by Steven Ball, a Christian physicist. It is closer, however, to being my own thoughts on the topic under discussion, which is the supposed conflict between the modern scientific understanding of the universe, and the biblical account.
Love believes that this conflict is illusory, and is aiming to reconcile the Bible with science by arguing for Old Earth Creation. He says: “I have great news for believers in science and believers in God. You are on the same team”.
Old Earth is a sensible alternative to Young Earth Creation which, working on the assumption that the Bible is infallible, and counting up the years of the genealogies recorded in the Old Testament, comes to the conclusion that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, whereas science has arrived at the figure of about 4.5 billion years, and approximately 13.5 billion years for the universe as a whole. The most famous example of this nonsense was the calculation done by Bishop James Ussher who, despite being a prolific scholar and Primate of All Ireland, therefore presumably intelligent, nevertheless decided that the creation had taken place on October 22nd 4004 BCE.
Merely agreeing with science that the Earth is much older than the Bible appears to claim, does not of course resolve the dispute. Love’s argument, following Steven Ball, runs something like this:
- the Bible is the inerrant Word of God as revealed to humanity
- science aims to discover the laws and principles of the universe, which originated with God
- therefore the Bible and science must be in agreement
- if they appear to be in conflict, it must be because we are failing to understand something.
All we have to do, therefore, is to make sure we understand correctly. That is what I shall attempt to do in what follows, although I may arrive at conclusions different from those of Love.
There are two major problems in his argument, the assumption that Christians have actually understood what the Bible is saying in the first place and, more obviously, the assumption that both the Bible and science are correct and therefore have to be reconciled. Why not at least consider the possibility that one or both might be wrong?
Before I get round to some of my own thoughts, it’s worth noting that Love says some strange things, and I’m glad I didn’t have the Christian upbringing that he did.
- He describes the supposed conflict thus: “Battle lines have been drawn. You either stand with the bible, and with God, or you stand with those seeking to tear down belief in God’s Word”. Do the majority of scientists, even if some of them are atheists, really think that their primary motivation is “to tear down belief in God’s Word”; surely they are merely trying to draw conclusions about the universe from the available evidence, as they see it.
- Do we really have to stand either with the Bible, or with (atheistic) science? Why can’t we criticise both?
- “You are easily convinced; the bible is either all truth or all false”. Why are you so easily convinced? Why not say, the Bible was written by human beings, therefore contains their thoughts and beliefs; there may be some truth in it, provided you interpret it correctly, alongside things that are possibly false?
- “Suddenly you find yourself struggling to reconcile the faith you’ve been taught with the evidence you are presented”. Why should you have to do this? Why can’t you challenge the faith you’ve been taught? Why do you assume your teachers are infallible? Why not start from a clean sheet, with no preconceived ideas, and attempt to assess the evidence, and perhaps come to the conclusion that the Bible is sometimes wrong? Or even, why not consider the possibility that both your faith and science might be sometimes wrong, instead of right?
Love tends to quote the Bible as if it were ultimate truth, instead of the thoughts and opinions of potentially fallible human beings. If the Bible is ‘infallible’, and ‘the word of God’, why have Christians felt the need to mistranslate it?
For example, as any biblical scholar will tell you, the Hebrew word translated as God in Genesis 1 is Elohim, which is a plural word. It is less often stated that the verb which follows it is singular. So an accurate translation might be ‘God in its plural form’ (It’s difficult to know which pronoun to use, because the later, most confusing section 26–30 says “God created humankind in his image”, even though his command had said “in our image, according to our likeness” — plural again.) Some time ago, however, I read a preface to a translation of the Bible (from memory I think it was an edition of the Good News Bible), where the translators said that they were aware that Elohim is plural, but that they had translated it as ‘God’ in order to conform with the Christian monotheistic tradition. They obviously meant well, but what they were actually doing was deliberately mistranslating the original text, in order to help Christians feel comfortable, and not have to face problematic questions about their beliefs.
Historically, the Church has a bad record when it has tried to challenge developments in science — remember Copernicus, the trial of Galileo, the sun orbiting the Earth. As a consequence, it seems that some Christians are now frightened by science, panicking at each new development, and thinking that it has to be accommodated within their worldview.
Darwinism has been perceived to be the main problem, the suggestion that living organisms have originated and evolved through natural processes without any divine, or otherwise supernatural involvement. This would obviously be a fatal blow to biblical literalism, if it were true, since it is in direct conflict with Genesis 1, where living creatures are said to have appeared because it was the will of God.
Because Darwinism has been widely accepted as scientific truth, the Christian Churches have felt the need to accept it without too much protest.
The Roman Catholic Church first addressed the issue in 1950 when Pope Pius XII stated that there was no conflict between evolution and Christian faith. Since then no Pope has said anything significant to distance himself from this position, and several statements have confirmed and indeed strengthened it. In October 2014 the current Pope, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, went so far as to encourage Catholics to believe in Darwinian evolution and the Big Bang. His statement seemed to leave room for a divine creator, but that role would have been restricted to before the birth of the universe. This is therefore tantamount to deism, even though the official name for the Catholic position is, I believe, theistic evolution.
Such statements have pleased some, believing that the Church should move with the times, and not challenge the scientific consensus. Others have disagreed, because they thought the Church was falling away from a literal interpretation of Genesis. I would argue that the scientific consensus and a literal interpretation of Genesis are both wrong.
The Church of England is no better. I was once fortunate to be able to pose the question directly to the top man Rowan Williams, at the time the Archbishop of Canterbury, on a radio phone-in¹. I had emailed my question in advance: “Richard Dawkins is fond of saying that even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope accept evolution. This seems slightly surprising since one would assume that a man of religion might favour something along the lines of Intelligent Design. Please would you clarify the extent to which you accept evolution with special reference to natural selection, and the random, blind forces which are assumed to lie behind it”.
He responded: “First of all, I have no problem at all with evolution. It’s a very credible theory about how things got to be the way they are. And I guess, like probably the majority of modern Christians, I’d say that God should make a world designed to evolve, designed to develop in that way, causes me no difficulties at all. You find that sort of view advanced even in the first centuries of the Christian Church — God makes the world that has the capacity to change, and develop”. Here, like Pope Francis, he would seem to be implying deism, which I found strange for someone in his position.
He continued by saying that “the Intelligent Design idea seems sometimes to talk as if the original design was a little bit faulty, and God has to keep on stepping in to make a little link, rather than putting it all into the works at the beginning”. I read a lot of Intelligent Design literature, and I don’t remember ever reading anything like that, therefore wondered whether he had really understood the arguments. He then continued by offering, in my view, a faulty account of some of the history of evolutionary theory. I was not impressed.
Without any inspiration forthcoming from their leaders, Christians have responded with books like: Developing a Christian Worldview of Science and Evolution, by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey², and Creation or Evolution, Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander³. A long time has passed since Galileo, however. Is it not time for the Churches to stand up and be counted, to be willing to challenge the theories of modern science, not passively accept its findings? On the question of Darwinism, the Discovery Institute in Seattle has taken up this challenge, with the theory of Intelligent Design. Their arguments may not be infallible, but they are far more impressive than those of John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, whose book Critique of Intelligent Design⁴ is one of the worst I’ve ever read of this polemical type. Their arguments are laughable, despite the praise heaped upon the book by several university professors quoted inside the front cover. Their subtitle Materialism versus Creationism From Antiquity to the Present, shows how clueless they are, not even being able to distinguish between Intelligent Design and Creationism.
The second problem for Christianity, although less damaging than Darwinism, is Big Bang theory. Because it has been almost unanimously accepted by cosmologists and physicists, again it seems that we have to have a Christian response in order to accommodate it. One example would be Genesis and the Big Bang: the Discovery of Harmony Between Modern Science and the Bible by Gerald Schroeder⁵.
I have written at length about the problems with Big Bang theory in previous articles⁶. I have absolutely no qualifications in physics or cosmology, so obviously I am wary of making definitive claims, and consider my point of view to be not conclusive, but worthy of further consideration. I believe the question is still open, and that, if Big Bang Theory is in any sense true, it would have to be accommodated within the spiritual understanding of how the material universe came into being. There are many accounts in the various traditions. Here I’ll use the version of Jonathan Black, who claims to represent the viewpoint of various secret esoteric societies down the ages⁷. I don’t believe that this differs significantly from other spiritual traditions and religions.
According to Big Bang theory, the universe began from nothing (an infinitely dense singularity), with the potential for matter to form. According to Black, however, “All religions taught that mind came before matter. All understood creation as taking place by a series of emanations” (p68). The material universe is therefore “a series of thoughts emanating from the cosmic mind”. Black says that these should be understood “as working downwards in a hierarchy from the higher and more powerful and pervasive principles to the narrower and more particular, each level creating and directing the one below it”. “At the lowest level of the hierarchy… these emanations… interweave so tightly that they create the appearance of solid matter” (p39, p40). These different levels are what we find in Genesis 1 — the higher and lower waters, and the dry land.
On the same page he said: “Pure mind to begin with, these thought-emanations later became a sort of proto-matter, energy that became increasingly dense, then became matter so ethereal that it was finer than gas, without particles of any kind. Eventually the emanations became gas, then liquid and finally solids”. These correspond with the three levels just mentioned.
The whole process is described as one impulse “squeezing out of one dimension into the next” (p30). This is consistent with Genesis chapter 1, where God makes dry land form out of the lower waters, and the findings of quantum physics. One could argue that Genesis 1 is in accord with science, but not necessarily with Christian thinking.
As Black said, his account is the viewpoint of all religions, and I believe it to be the truth. Two questions arise:
Can Big Bang theory be made to conform with this account? I don’t think it can, although it is strangely a kind of caricature of the spiritual understanding — the infinitely dense singularity expanding outwards needs only to be replaced by the infinite Cosmic Mind expanding outwards and downwards through the various levels. It’s also worth noting that many myths describe an original void, which is surely what the ‘universe’ must have been before the initial expansion, according to Big Bang theory.
Black says all religions. It is easy to see how his account would fit with Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, and esoteric systems like Theosophy or Rosicrucianism, for example, but not so easy to see how it fits with Christianity. However, we perhaps have to distinguish between Christianity as it once was, and what it has become, especially under the influence of modern Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. In the early days, there was a strong Platonic influence, and Plato would have subscribed to something like the account above. If one takes the biblical text literally, as Evangelicals and Fundamentalists tend to do, then a problem arises. If you believe that God created the material universe, as Genesis 1 appears to say, then you will believe firstly that the material universe actually exists, and secondly that this was an event which happened some time in the past.
According to modern science, however, neither of these two statements are true. Quantum physicists say that there is no such thing as matter — it is an illusion — and that the universe, as we perceive it, is being thought into existence, some saying many billions of times per second (I have discussed this idea in an earlier article).
If the Bible is God’s word, then surely it has to be interpreted correctly. Yet some Christians, so it would seem, have no idea what the Bible is saying. In order to demonstrate that point, I’ll go into one bizarre example at some length. Again we meet a familiar problem, taking literally something which is clearly not intended in that way. In what follows, this stupidity is taken to extreme lengths.
Genesis chapter 1 (v 6–7) says: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters’. So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky”.
Alan Hayward, in Creation and Evolution: The Facts and the Fallacies⁸, offers the following commentary: “It has become almost a recent-creationist dogma that ‘the waters which were above the firmament’ of Genesis 1.7 formed a vast canopy of water vapour above the earth’s atmosphere. This, they say, was all precipitated in the days of Noah, thus causing the Flood… The idea was popularized by Whitmore and Morris in their classic, The Genesis Flood. They have so much to say about it that there are about twenty page-references to it in their index. Yet they do not offer a single calculation in support of their idea. If they had, they would soon have discovered that it was insupportable”.
Hayward goes on to explain the scientific flaws in their argument. Far from shutting up the Creationists, however, this merely inspired another one to come up with a revised version of the theory! This was Dr. Joseph Dillow who “has appreciated these difficulties. He spent years trying to produce a detailed scientific explanation of the vapour canopy theory, and recently published his findings in a book of nearly 500 pages”.
Hayward then goes on to demolish his arguments, and concludes: “The supposed vapour canopy has been much talked about in recent-creationist circles, but very seldom thought about. A little thought soon shows there could never have been such a canopy, unless it was sustained by one long, continuing miracle. And that, of course, would be contrary to the teaching of ‘Flood geologists’, since they invented the canopy in the first place to explain how the Flood could have occurred by ‘purely natural processes’ ” (p151–152).
Hayward, having established that the vapour canopy is scientifically indefensible, goes on to show “that their scriptural justification for such a belief is also dubious”. This “is a new interpretation of those passages. Even the great canopy enthusiast Joseph Dillow admits that ‘the usual and oldest view is that the reference is to the clouds in the sky’. He mentions that Calvin’s commentary on Genesis teaches this. To forsake this well-established and obvious explanation of the passage in favour of a new and exotic one needs some justification. What other Scriptures are there which can be brought in as evidence? The fact is that there do not seem to be any” (p179–180).
All this prodigious time and effort spent on defending a ridiculous theory could have been avoided if the Christians concerned had interpreted the passage as it was intended to be understood, symbolically rather than literally. Even this earlier ‘obvious’ explanation of clouds would seem to be wrong, as it is also literal.
Even if we put to one side the thought that the text was once ancient Hebrew, and has passed through the hands of many interpreters and translators, so that we cannot be sure that the original intended meaning has been preserved, it still seems obvious that in Genesis 1, v 1–10, the words heavens, earth, waters, sky, dry land do not mean what we now understand by these terms. A clear indication of this is the very opening where it says that when the original ‘earth’ was created, it was ‘a formless void’. How could that be, according to any modern understanding of the world ‘earth’?
One thing we can all agree upon is that Genesis 1 is a very cursory account of what was presumably a very complicated process; it is not exactly a detailed thesis. Despite the brevity, it still manages to be confusing, and it is hard to find a coherent interpretation of the chapter in its entirety in the modern translations.
It seems to me that there are three distinct sections, verses 1–10 which describe the processes leading up to the emergence of the material universe, 11–25 which describe the evolution of the Earth before the appearance of humans, then 26–30 when humans arrive on the scene. They become progressively more confusing.
As one example of the inconsistency in the text, up to verse 10 the word ‘dome’ seems to refer to a boundary between different regions of the non-material realms (“the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome”). In verse 14, however it seems to refer to what we now call the sky: “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night..” These lights are presumably the stars, in which case the text then seems to contradict itself, “…and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth”. It can hardly be said that the distant stars achieve this feat, it is rather the more local Sun which does this.
In any case, it is verses 1–10 that are worthy of most attention, since they contain an important portrayal of the nature of the universe:
- a directing creative principle, standing behind everything
- light as the basic building-block of the multi-levelled universe
- different levels of reality: the higher waters (spiritual realms, the heavens), and lower waters (psyche, astral levels) separated by a boundary, a line of demarcation (the dome)
- the material universe (dry land), which emerges from the lower waters.
Let’s remind ourselves of the many hours wasted by those Creationists arguing for the water vapour canopy theory, because they failed to understand this obvious symbolism of the text. It is not the Bible that is false in this passage, rather the bizarre interpretation that some Christians have given to it. Thus the Bible and Christianity are not necessarily the same thing. There is the text of the Bible, and how it has been interpreted.
On that theme, I’ll conclude with a quote from Carl Jung, following a profound personal experience, describing his father, a Protestant clergyman, who had serious religious doubts, but seemed unable to discuss them with his son: “He had taken the Bible’s commandments as his guide; he believed in God as the Bible prescribed and as his forefathers had taught him. But he did not know the immediate living God who stands, omnipotent and free, above His Bible and His Church, who calls upon man to partake of His freedom, and can force him to renounce his own views and convictions in order to fulfil without reserve the command of God”⁹.
I hardly need to add that this God also stands above all scientific theories.
1. BBC Radio5live, interviewed by Simon Mayo, December 16th 2009
2. Tyndale House Publishers, 2001
3. Monarch Books, 2008
4. Monthly Review Press, 2008
5. Bantam, 1992.
6. See under ‘OLDER’ on the Science section of the Blog Index page.
7. The Secret History of the World, Black Quercus, 2010
8. Triangle, 1985, my copy with revisions 1994
9. The full story can be found in chapter 2, School Years, in Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Collins Fount, 1977. I have also mentioned this in another article, click here.