How do you explain the Old Testament story of creation with your scientific methods? — Adam Elkin, Edina, Minn.

Paul Wallace is a Baptist minister with a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University and post-doctoral work in gamma ray astronomy, along with a theology degree from Emory University. He teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. Faith-science questions for consideration may be submitted to [editor@nurturingfaith.net]().

Paul Wallace is a Baptist minister with a doctorate in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University and post-doctoral work in gamma ray astronomy, along with a theology degree from Emory University. He teaches at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. Faith-science questions for consideration may be submitted to editor@nurturingfaith.net.

In one sense I don’t. The Genesis accounts of creation (there are two) were not written with modern science in mind, and scientific accounts of origins cannot be made to match up in any specific, chronological ways with biblical stories.
Not that people don’t try: Some look to 2 Peter 3:8 that says “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” to warrant their claim that the six days of creation match up with six particular periods of cosmic history.

In this view, God’s words “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3) correspond to the flood of photons that emanated from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the separation of the earth from the waters (Gen 1:9) corresponds to the formation of the planet 4.5 billion years ago, and so on.

Others go further. They appeal to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which tells us that time is relative. This means, for example, that six days from one perspective — or “frame of reference” — is equivalent to billions of years in another.

This is true. Time is relative and does not flow at the same pace for all people at all times.

This effect is not obvious to us in our daily lives, but if we routinely zipped around at speeds close to that of light — or if the speed of light were much less than it is — this strange flexibility of time would seem commonplace to us. And it is in fact possible to find two frames of reference such that a certain set of events lasts six days in one and 13.8 billion years in another.

But just because it’s possible to look at the Bible through the lens of relativity doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. This kind of thinking places a strange and uniquely modern strain on scripture.

By forcing ancient texts to fit into the categories of contemporary science, it distorts them beyond their breaking point. The text becomes a code to be cracked rather than a reality to be lived.

The real point of the Genesis stories is theological and relational: they tell us how God, human beings, and the cosmos are interrelated. They tell us who we are and what the cosmos is in the context of divine creativity and love. And it does so using the primary medium of the age: prose and poetry, not the abstractions of modern physical science.

It is unwise to apply specific scientific theories to the interpretation of scripture, yet I find deep and broad resonances between the Old Testament and scientific accounts of creation. For starters, Genesis actually encourages the practice of science.

Ancient Israel, unlike other ancient civilizations, considered the world to be neither divine nor corrupt. To the west, the Egyptians thought the sun and the moon and the soil and the Nile River — among other parts of the natural world — manifested aspects of gods and goddesses; these parts of creation were themselves sacred.

To the east, the Babylonians viewed the material world as essentially corrupt; their creation account said that the earth and sky were constructed from two halves of a goddess’s ruptured corpse and that human beings were made to be slaves of the gods.

Israel took a middle way. This is evident in Genesis, which describes the cosmos as a thing of great goodness and integrity but not sacred of itself: the sun and moon are lights, not gods. Also creation is not intrinsically debased: the heavens and earth were produced not through violence but through a series of ordered and deliberate divine words.

Also, for ancient Israel as for us, human beings were viewed as free and worthy creations, not slaves of God or gods.

According to Genesis, matter is valuable and worth studying in its own right because it’s pronounced good by God. And because it is not divine, we are free to study it on its own terms. We who have inherited Israel’s creation story are free to do science!

There’s more. The Bible describes the cosmos itself as having the capacity to generate life. It is integrated and robust, just as biology tells us.

I cannot help but hear overtones of evolution in God’s command for the sea to “bring forth swarms of living creatures” and for the earth to “bring forth living things of every kind” (Gen 1:20, 24).

I don’t mean that the authors of Genesis foresaw evolution in any meaningful way. But the writer(s) must have observed just how vigorous and sturdy and life-producing the world is, and how creation itself holds the potential — drawn out and realized through the divine word — to create.

But Genesis is not the only book in the Old Testament that addresses creation. This is a point often missed in discussions of science and scripture. Distinct perspectives on the cosmos may be found in Psalms, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Job and others.

Perhaps the strangest such perspective is found in the book of Job. When the character Job is beaten down by a series of terrible losses despite his morally unimpeachable life, he pleads to God for justice, and God eventually responds with the longest divine speech in the Bible.

In this speech God does not explain or defend Job’s suffering, nor does the Lord offer an apology. Instead, God takes Job on a most unexpected tour of the cosmos, a hard ride through the cosmic outlands.

In one of the most unusual passages in the Bible, God sweeps Job up off the ash heap upon which he mourns, draws him down to the roots of the earth, shows him the expanse of the sea and the fountains of the deep, and catapults him through the constellations. But this is just the beginning.

Job is treated next to a series of close looks at individual wild animals. Almost without exception these creatures inhabit the barren and dangerous wilderness at the periphery of Job’s world — the mountain goat, the wild ass, the ostrich, and the vulture are central exhibits. Finally, God brings Job face-to-face with Behemoth and Leviathan, mythic and terrifying creatures that represent cosmic chaos.

Goats and ostriches do not seem cosmic to us. Here in Atlanta we have these animals in the zoo, some in the petting zoo even, along with vultures and other creatures mentioned in Job. But for Job these beasts were marginal, never thought about, gamey and embarrassing and bloody dots on the outer fringe of his consciousness.

But in the light of God’s tour they are seen to be beautiful and free creatures living in their own communities, communities from which human civilization itself appears peripheral and unimportant. God, it turns out, loves more than us human beings.

In Job’s cosmos we are the marginal ones. Job therefore has much in common with contemporary scientific views of the universe in which we seem to be an afterthought at best: we are recent additions to a vast and ancient and evolving cosmos that has no center and no edges, that favors no planet and no star and no galaxy, that has a remote and violent past and is expanding ever-more-rapidly into an uncertain future.
If the book of Job were written today, God would show Job all of this: evolution both cosmic and biological, the disorienting scale of things, and maybe even extraterrestrial life.

Again, there are other Old Testament takes on creation. Psalm 104 celebrates the same cosmos as Job but from the perspective of joy and not loss.

The author of Ecclesiastes, ever the cynic, casts the cosmos as cyclical and pointless. Isaiah 40-45 imagines a new creation to accompany the end of exile and the return of Israel to their homeland.

(For more on the varied perspectives on creation in the Old Testament, see William Brown’s outstanding book The Seven Pillars of Creation [Oxford, 2010].)

The relation between biblical creation and the cosmos as we know it today is not simply a matter of finding scientific concepts buried like so many secrets in the text of the Bible. It is much deeper and broader — and much more interesting — than that! NFJ

By Paul Wallace