The book A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a fascinating overview of what scientists have learned about our earth and the whole universe. It covers everything, from the very beginnings 14.5 billion years ago (give or take a couple months) right on up to the present time. Bryson describes what scientists believe about the origins of the universe, about the birth and the death of stars, and about the vast number of far-flung galaxies. Bryson then turns his attention to planet earth and how it began, how we got our moon, how the seas and dry land were formed, and how, over immense periods of time, the continents have been moving around on the face of the earth like rubber ducks in a bathtub. He also describes how perfectly our world had to be placed and fine-tuned in order to allow for even the possibility of life. Then he describes current theories on the origins and evolution of life, in all its beauty and order and complexity. Bryson even has a few chapters on that little sliver of time we would call the entire history of the human race. Bill Bryson writes well, gives a wonderful account of what science has discovered about all these things, and adds a delightful human touch by telling amusing stories of the scientists who made these discoveries, and their odd quirks and eccentricities. And he does this all in less than five hundred pages.
Genesis chapter one could also be called ‘a short history of nearly everything.’ It also describes the beginnings of the universe and our planet earth, the origins and diversity of life, and the dawn of the human race.
But Bill Bryson and the first chapter of Genesis seem to tell two very different stories. So, now what?
This looks like a clear case of irreconcilable differences, and the last several hundred years has certainly been filled with plenty of nastiness by those on both sides of this great divide between science and faith. What side are you on? Christians do believe Genesis to be God’s inspired and Holy Word. But we know scientists are really smart people, and they have come up with some pretty amazing gadgets to make our modern lives easier. Could they be so very wrong about so many things? What are we to think?
This is what I think. I believe that the Bible is God’s Word from cover to cover, and if anything any scientist says goes against the Bible, I say forget the scientist, I am sticking with the Word of God.
However, this all depends on interpreting what the Bible really is saying, and it all depends on what scientists have really discovered. Good, solid, Bible believing Christians can and do disagree all the time on precise meanings of specific texts. And scientists, all the time, come to vastly different conclusions based on the very same evidence.
What does Genesis chapter one say? Well, there are three basic foundational truths there that set the stage for the whole rest of the Biblical story, and which are essential to understanding your life and where you come from and where you are going. I believe these three truths with my whole heart. First of all, it says God created the world. Second, it says God created it good. Third, it says God created mankind in HIS image. We are not just a more ‘fully evolved’ form of life, even if we share 96% of the same DNA as an earthworm. And just because a chicken can be taught to plink out ‘America the Beautiful’ on a miniature piano for a television program last week, and chimpanzees can be taught to understand a few words, that doesn’t mean we are the same except for being just a little bit smarter. We are different, we are special, we are spiritual, we are made in God’s image, and God created the world for us and us for Him, says Genesis. All Christians believe these three things, and that sets us apart from many people in today’s world. But we Christians can and do disagree on the rest of the details of the creation account.
In 1654, James Ussher, an Irish Archbishop using the Bible alone, calculated the creation of the world to have occurred on October 22, 4004 B. C. at 6:00 p.m., or, a little over six thousand years ago. There are Christians today who, while not insisting on that exact date and time, do however believe the world to be less than 10,000 years old. This is not my view, and I think it is very difficult to argue scientifically for such a timetable. I believe in the Bible from cover to cover, but these people are interpreting the Bible to say far more than what it was intended to say.
In my view, if Bill Bryson says the universe came to be over a period of 14.5 billion years, and the Bible says seven 24 hour days, we do not necessarily have a problem. I don’t know how scientists come up with 14.5 billion years, but I do know that the Bible uses different types of literature, including poetry, to proclaim the truths God wants us to know. And poetic imagery, while still telling the absolute truth, may tell it not with literal scientific facts, but with images and metaphors.
When in John chapter 10 Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the gate,” Peter doesn’t jump up and say, ‘Don’t try to fool us, Jesus, we don’t see any hinges or latches on you.” No, they knew, and we know, Jesus was using a gate as an image of the way to salvation; as Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever enters through me will be saved.”
But how about Genesis one and its seven 24 hour days; morning and evening of the first day, second day, third day, and so on? It does seem simple and clear enough. Morning is when the sun rises in the East, and evening is when the sun sets in the West. Sun up, sun down, seven days– and not 14.5 billion years.
But when we look closer at the text, we see that there are three days of mornings and evenings before the sun is even created on the fourth day. How did that work? No matter what your view of the Bible is, you are going to have to do some interpreting there. Some will stick with the seven 24 hour days, saying that is what is implied in the rest of the text. Others will say, no, it looks as if the seven day format is more like poetic imagery. And this is not disrespecting the text, or undermining the authority of the Scripture. It is still seeing the same solid Biblical truth of God’s Word, but simply seeing this as a different type of literary device to portray that truth. And Bible believing Christians can come to different conclusions on this question.
My faith in the truth of the Bible is not threatened if Jesus isn’t really a gate with hinges and a latch, nor is my faith challenged if scientists come up a different timetable than the poetic imagery of Genesis chapter one. That doesn’t mean Genesis is wrong in any way. God created the heavens and the earth, He created it all good, and He created mankind in His image. Period. But there is room here for Christians to disagree and come to different conclusions on precisely how that was done and what kind of literature this is in the Bible’s first chapter. We must not say, “Well, I think I’ll believe this part of the Bible, but not that part;” and there is far too much of that today. But we can disagree on how some parts should be read, and there is certainly room for differences of opinion on the creation account. On the religious side of this question, as Christians we must not insist too much on our own particular interpretations, and thus forcing the Bible to say more than it means to say. (continued…)
Genesis 1:1 — In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
Genesis 1:27a — God created mankind in his own image.
Genesis 1:31a — God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
–Apostle’s Creed, Article one
Earth seen rising above the moon on December 24, 1968. As Apollo 8 orbited the moon that day, in their broadcast back to earth the astronauts took turns reading from the first chapter of Genesis.