There’s a belief among conservative Christians that accepting the tenets of scientific study, especially concerning the origins of the world, is tantamount to rejecting the authority of scripture and, indeed, the resurrection of Christ itself. Obviously, I disagree. We’ve already discussed here the idea that an ancient, pre-scientific religious text is simply not trying to answer scientific questions about the origins of life, but rather the theological questions about how we got here. God created us in his image. That’s all the Bible is really trying to say. The exact how and when, that’s not really important to scripture’s message.
Meanwhile, there’s a tendency among theistic evolutionists to say something similar in the opposite direction, that science doesn’t have anything to say about matters of faith. That these worlds are “nonoverlapping magisteria” to use a fairly popular phrase (hey, I’d heard of it before!). I don’t think this is quite right either. It’s true that science itself does not make theological or moral conclusions, but we’d be remiss as Christians if we did not view our theology in light of what we discovered about the world God chose to create.
As RJS, summarizing John Polkinghorne, says at Jesus Creed:
Science is not the religion of the 21st century – but a theology that ignores, or even worse denies, the revelations of modern science will fall short in its attempt to understand and explore the nature of God.
I’d go further and say the revelations of modern science, thus informing our view of God’s nature, must therefore influence our view of God’s word – not just in areas where the text “contradicts” the scientific evidence but in its entirety.
I’m speaking specifically of how we view the God who would decide to create a species in which he would place his image and then uses the incredibly slow process of evolution to do it.
Think about this:
Astrophysicists estimate the universe is about 13.75 billion years, give or take a few hundred million. Geologists, meanwhile, estimate the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Biologists, further, estimate the first animal life appeared 600 million years ago, while the genus Homo, from which evolved modern man, appeared just 2.5 million years ago. Homo sapiens, our particular species, appeared just 200,000 years ago.
In other words, God set in motion a long chain of events that took about 9 billion years just to form our planet, then another 4.5 billion years just to get to us, the people in which he wanted to place his image. If the entire history of the universe were compressed into a single year, modern humans would appear at 11:54 p.m. on Dec. 31.
What kind of God, who has the power to create the world however he wants, does that? Why would he wait so long when he could have instant gratification?
Maybe because God isn’t a God of instant gratification. We know he is outside time, so these long periods don’t mean that much to him, but in strictly human terms, I can only conceive of this as testament to his incredible patience and love. He is willing to endure much imperfection to achieve his goals. He is willing to wait literally billions of years to see you and me, the ones he loves.
How should this affect our reading of the Bible?
Well, we’ve discussed before how God uses evolution in multiple contexts. As Rachel Held Evans (and many other people, including me) have discovered, our faith journeys are comparable to evolution. God frequently uses gradual change over time to draw people closer to him. It’s not his only means of doing things, but it certainly seems to be his primary method.
In our previous discussions about what the Bible gets wrong about God (an intentionally provocative and not altogether accurate headline, but not altogether inaccurate either), I’ve tried to show how insupportable some Old Testament portrayals of God seem to be, particularly the genocide passages of Joshua and 1 Samuel, but also some unpleasant portrayals in Ezra, Nehemiah and Proverbs.
The Bible, rather than being a single document, is really a collection of ancient texts, written and compiled by an unknown number of authors over thousands of years, and many times these authors and editors disagreed with each other, creating tensions, contradictions and conversations within the scriptures. To me, this is in no way inconsistent with the patience and mercy of a God who would set in motion his plan on Jan. 1 and wait all year to see it fulfilled. He is a God of evolution, of gradual change, of conversation and dialogue, of seeking and finding.
For example, why does 1 Samuel portray the rise of the monarchy as a rebellion against God and an unquestionably negative event, when Judges argues precisely the opposite, that the lack of a king led to horrific crimes and brutal violence?
Or why does Deuteronomy reject the notion of worshipping God anywhere but “the location the Lord your God will select from all your tribes to put his name there,” while Samuel is recorded as offering sacrifices all over Israel without condemnation?
Why is marrying foreigners described in the darkest terms in places like Ezra and Nehemiah while viewed positively in Ruth and neutrally in Genesis and Exodus? Why are Gentiles to be slaughtered in Joshua and saved in Jonah?
Perhaps there is an explanation that can account for all of these questions while maintaining the literal inerrancy of the text. But the simpler answer for me is that the respective authors simply didn’t agree with each other. They saw God differently. And their view of God changed as their circumstances did. As they began to repopulate their homeland, it became necessary to recover their traditions and preserve their memories before they were eradicated totally by the surrounding Persian culture. But which ones were important, and what lessons did they teach? For different scribes, the answer was different, and that diversity seems to be reflected in the words they wrote.
The creation of the Bible is a story of evolution. Oral traditions written down over centuries, edited, compiled, edited again, redacted, pieced with other texts and eventually recognized as a canon. Its stories, commands and prophecies reflect a similar evolution in the view of God.
After all, archaeology indicates the creation of Israel also occurred through evolution, as Canaanite tribesmen banded together for protection and eventually assumed a cohesive identity that led to monarchy. And, if that’s true, doesn’t it make sense that their awareness of a single God should also be a gradual process? How else can we rationally explain the ongoing Israelite struggle with idol worship in the monarchy? These were a polytheistic people evolving into monotheism. As such their view of that single God would have been influenced by their knowledge of the gods they had previously worshipped and which formed the basis of their traditions and memories.
My argument is that sometimes this view was wrong. Just because the polytheistic culture in which they lived saw gods as violent brutes who waged war on humanity did not mean Yahweh ordered the slaughter of all men, women and children in the cities he wanted Israel to conquer. Just because the political class of Jerusalem wanted all citizens to centralize their worship, and therefore their commerce and taxes, within the city did not mean Yahweh was inaccessible outside its walls. Just because the monarchy was unable to stop the Assyrians and Babylonians from overrunning Samaria and Jerusalem did not mean Yahweh had failed, and it did not require the creation of a sin-judgment motif from which to explain their suffering.
God is extraordinarily patient, and his love for us is the kind that will wait billions of years. Millennia after the first attempts to figure God out were recorded in the Hebrew Bible, we haven’t succeeded yet. And that seems to be just fine with him.