Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?

Week 5: If Science is Right, is Genesis Wrong?

March 19, 1999

Loren and Deborah Haarsma


Scientific timeline of natural history:

Time Event Quantitative model? Dating Techniques
13-15 billion years ago Big Bang somewhat cosmic microwave background and galaxy recession
(+3 minutes) first nuclei yes ratio of elements
(+300,000 years) first atoms yes cosmic microwave background
(+100 million years) first stars somewhat simulations and high-redshift observations
(+ 1 billion years) first galaxies no high-redshift observations
12-14 billion years ago our galaxy forms no globular clusters
5-12 billion years ago stars in our galaxy make heavy elements yes stellar evolution
4.5 billion years ago our sun formed somewhat radioactive dating (RD)
. earth formed somewhat geological strate (GS)
. ocean, atmosphere, and land formed yes cooling rate of earth
3.8 billion years ago first life (prokaryotic) no fossils (F), RD, GS
2 billion years ago eukaryotic life no F, RD, GS
1-1.8 billion years ago multicellular algae no F, RD, GS
600 million years ago Ediacaran animals no F, RD, GS
530 million years ago "Cambrian explosion" no DNA dating, F, RD, GS
450 million years ago life on dry land no DNA, F, RD, GS
300 million years ago dinosaurs no DNA, F, RD, GS
140 million years ago early mammals no DNA, F, RD, GS
70 million years ago dinosaurs wiped out yes evidence from meteor
40 million years ago early primates no DNA, F, RD, GS
5 million years ago Mediterranean Sea forms yes RD, GS
4-5 million years ago early hominids no DNA, F, RD, GS
2.5 million years ago stone tools no/yes F, RD, GS
500,000 years ago "archaic" homo sapiens no DNA, F, RD, GS
120,000 years ago modern humans no F, RD, GS
10,000+ years ago agriculture etc. . carbon dating, F, RD, archeology
7,500 years ago Black Sea fills yes F, RD, GS
5,000 years ago continuous written history . .

- This is not an exhaustive list of dating techniques. Different techniques can be used to check one method against another.
- The formation of nuclei and atoms in big bang and the evolution of stars are extremely well understood.
- The early stages of the big bang, the formation of stars and planets, and the formation of earth's atmosphere, ocean, and dry land, are generally understood, with lots of details being worked out.
- The formation and evolution of galaxies is not well understood.
- Biological history is less quantitative because biology itself is less quantitative and more complex. Dating techniques good. Fossil record good in some parts, not so good in others.
Beware "nothing but-tery": A good scientific explanation of an event in natural history does not exclude God. God can choose to create via the natural mechanism he designed.

Interpretative frameworks for Genesis 1:

Young Earth Theory
The text describes a succession of miraculous acts which occurred in six 24-hour periods a few thousand years ago.
Implications for science: either science is wrong, or God made the universe appear old.

Gap Theory
There is a long gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Earth became "without form and void" in recent past, perhaps due to the fall of the angels, and then God re-created it in six days.
Implications for science: astronomy okay, geology and biology must be wrong

Local Creation Theory
Text describes creation of a land for Israel. This is an old rabbinical interpretation which ties Genesis 1 to the rest of the Torah (first five books of the Bible).

Day/Age Theory
The Hebrew word yom can mean "day" or "age," and is translated both ways in the Old Testament. The text describes a succession of miraculous acts spread out over a long period of time.
Implications for science: enough time for the scientific picture, but order of events is wrong.

Visionary Day Theory
Text describes successive days of revelation to writer.

Literal Day Theory
The day is literally 24 hours, but occurred at the beginning or end of an epoch.

Proclamation Day Theory
Text describes scenes in God's council chambers (narrator shifts to scene on earth in Gen 2:4), as God declares his creative intent. Days occur outside of Earth's time and space, so "day" should not considered part of Earth's historical chronology (neither as 24 hours or an "age").

Proclamation with Developmental Continuity
By His initial proclamation, God gifted nature with everything it needed to achieve the final form envisioned by God. The earth itself is commanded to bring forth life. The Hebrew word for "create" is bara, a word which is used only for God's actions, including both "creation from nothing" and "providential" actions.
Implications for science: fits well with evolutionary biology

Creation Hymn/Poem
Note poetic parallelism of days in Genesis 1:

Days of Forming: Days of Filling:
Day 1: separate light/dark Day 4: sun, moon, and stars created
Day 2: separate water/sky/water Day 5: birds and fish created
Day 3: separate land/water; plants created Day 6: animals and humans created
Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Psalm 104 seem to tell the same story, but have different literary styles, different chronology, and different emphasis. This suggests that the writers were more concerned with literary features than with the precise order of events.
Implications for science: we don't need to reconcile the Genesis chronology with modern science.

Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) Cosmology
Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures pictured the world as a primeval ocean that was split to form sky and land, with the primeval waters lying above the sky and below the earth. Many scripture passages refer to this cosmology. The Hebrew story differs from other ANE stories in its theological message.
Implications for science: we don't need to reconcile the Genesis chronology with modern science.

Understanding literature from other cultures:

We must take into account the knowledge, the culture, and the basic assumptions of the author and the intended audience. We have to put our minds into their mindset. What were their cultural assumptions? What was their basic knowledge and (often unstated) shared beliefs? Then we can ask, "What is the principle message which the original intended audience would have heard?"

Ancient Near Eastern Cosmology and Genesis

Genesis 1 shares the same cosmological picture of the world as stories from Egyptian, Babylonian and Mesopotamian cultures. But it sharply contrasts the other stories in its religious content.
-- The "gods" of Egypt or Assyria or Babylon did not create the world, but rather the ONE true God.
-- The "gods" did not arise from the primordial ocean; instead the Creator God existed before everything.
-- The earth, the sky, and the sea are not deities; instead they are themselves created things.
-- The cosmos did not start with the violent defeat of a chaos deity, but is good and orderly.
-- Humans are not slaves or pawns of the "gods," but bear God's image and are stewards of creation.

Why might God use an incorrect (but widely assumed) cosmological picture to teach correct theology?
--To not confuse the author and original audience about the real theological points.
--To aid communication to surrounding cultures and future generations.
--To teach us today not to look to scripture for things scripture is not intending to teach.
--To show us that God can use us today without having to first correct all of our mistaken beliefs.

Spiritual Lessons from Genesis 1 & 2 and Psalm 104

How God relates to world:
God made the world, not a pantheon (and not the "god" Chance). The creation is the orderly design of one God, not result of competition among many gods. The world didn't exist with God from eternity; it's here because God made it. Creation is utterly dependent on God.

The worth of creation:
Creation is fundamentally and originally good. The world is not an illusion, not partially good and partially bad, and not intrinsically bad or worthless that we need to overcome or escape it. The beauty of creation is described as God's clothing and glory.

The worth of human beings:
We are made in God's image. We are part of creation which God declares "good." We are intended to relate to God. (Salvation restores this.) We are given the responsibility and authority of managing creation.

The worth of families:
Marriage is good and is part of God's original design. People need other people. New families are made with marriage. Both men and women are made in the image of God.

The worth of work:
We are commissioned to do work, take care of creation. Adam was commissioned to name things. (Naming is very important in Hebrew thought) This a basis to study creation (the beginning of science!).

The worth of rest:
Our day of rest is based on God's rest from his creative work. It is part of the original good created order. Both work and rest are holy. God's rest is culmination of week.


Copyright 1999 Loren and Deborah Haarsma

See supplemental handout for this week:
"Hermenutics in Everyday Life"(humor)
For scripture passages used here (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, and Psalm 104), visit The Bible Gateway


Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?"
lhaarsma@calvin.edu, Last updated November 13, 2003