The Christian Post’s series “Leaving Christianity” explores the reasons why many Americans are rejecting the faith they grew up with. In this eight-part series, we feature testimonies and look at trends, church failures and how Christians can respond to those who are questioning their beliefs. This is part 7a. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7b, and 8.
The Christian Post received numerous testimonies from those who were raised in largely conservative churches but eventually left Christianity. All of their experiences and questions were considered as we put this series together, and particularly for part 7, which features eight common questions and concerns in objection to Christianity.
We reached out to various theologians and experts to respond.
My Christian school taught that the earth is 6,000 years old but what’s taught in public schools is that the earth is millions of years old. Evolution also seems to contradict creationism. How do I reconcile the two? Is it a matter of choosing science over the Bible?
April Maskiewicz Cordero: At first glance, evolution and creationism do seem to contradict each other. But if we dig a bit deeper, we often find that people are making incorrect assumptions about both evolution and creation. Therefore, it is important to start this conversation by clarifying exactly what we mean by these terms.
If we define “creationism” as God creating the universe and all living organisms in six 24-hour days, and “evolutionism” as an explanation for the diversity of life on earth that rejects a divine creator, then yes, they are contradictory. But these two specific terms, both ending in “ism” are not the best ways to talk about or understand the emergence of earth’s biological diversity or God’s role in creating it.
I find that the best way to begin thinking about the evolution and creation issue is to focus on the fact that all Christians agree that God created and it was “good”. In this way, we are all “creationists” because we believe in a divine power who created. What we may disagree on, however, is how God created — the mechanism of God’s creation.
Was it one week, or billions of years? This question, while not as important as acknowledging the Creator, leads many to wonder about a conflict between Genesis and other creation stories and the findings of science.
I appreciate and value most theologians’ and biblical scholars’ perspectives that many parts of the Bible are often interpreted in ways that were not necessarily intended originally. For example, many biblical scholars agree that Genesis was not written as a scientific explanation of creation. This is supported by the fact that the order of creation given in Genesis 1 and 2 are quite different.
Brad Kelle Ph.D., an Old Testament scholar and author of Telling the Old Testament Story: God’s Mission and God’s People, believes we need a shift in our thinking. Instead of asking what Genesis 1 and 2 have to do with science, he says we need to ask what Genesis 1 and 2 are about. On their own terms, what is the message these chapters are trying to convey?
Kelle’s basic conclusion is that we should not expect the Bible to speak authoritatively about geology or geography, because that was not its function when (and for whom) it was written. Rather, the Bible’s function is to be a guide to salvation. Scripture tells us about who God is and God’s relationship to us.
As Christians, we must acknowledge that different books of the Bible were written at different times for different groups of people and that when viewed within their context, the messages from these books are more beautiful and profound than without this perspective.
If we can learn to take the Bible on its own terms — not forcing it to answer questions or provide information it is not intended to address — than we have the freedom to take science on its own terms.
With this in mind, we return to what the biological theory of evolution really asserts. In its most simplistic form, biological evolution is a well-tested and well-confirmed explanation for the incredible diversity of species we have on earth.
The central idea of biological evolution is that all life on earth shares a common ancestor through the process of descent with modification. (I encourage you to spend time understanding what evolution really is and is not. See: this article.)
Biological evolution is completely neutral about a higher power. When some people claim that evolution “proves” there is no creator, they are overstepping the boundaries of science. Science cannot answer such metaphysical questions like whether or not there is a God.
It's important to recognize that accepting consensus scientific findings like biological evolution does not require one to adopt a philosophical naturalist’s view of life: that nothing exists except the natural world.
Rather, Christians who boldly pursue an understanding of science are doing so with a confidence that what we learn from studying creation will ultimately reveal more about the Creator. Just because we can describe or explain something in scientific terms does not leave less room for God in the process.
Science gives us the mechanism by which life develops and religion gives us the agency behind the mechanism. When Christians speak about God as the creator, we are speaking about the agency behind that cause, not the causal mechanisms themselves.
The author of the original question in this series asked if accepting evolution means we have to choose science over the Bible. The answer is no! If we believe that God created, then scripture and creation cannot be in conflict. Instead, our interpretations of scripture and our interpretations of nature are what are in conflict. If we see a conflict, we may need to reevaluate our interpretations. Doing this, however, requires courage.
Pursuing an understanding of science may require us to uncouple our personal theology about creation from our trust in God. In other words, we need to maintain our trust that God is the creator and savior while re-examining our beliefs about how God created.
Over 1,500 years ago, Saint Augustine (A.D. 354-430) gave advice for all Christians faced with the task of interpreting Scripture in the light of scientific knowledge in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis. According to Augustine, our trust in the revelation of Scripture should not blind us to the revelation we can gain from the study of nature. Both areas of knowledge are worthy of full development. I firmly believe that following the path of truth, whatever its source, is a profound act of faith for the Christian.
April Maskiewicz Cordero is a professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University in California. Her research focuses on developing more effective approaches for teaching ecology and evolution. She is also a member of the BioLogos advisory council.
SeJin Koh: Any serious attempt to answer the questions in the evolution-creationism debate calls for multi-disciplinary studies of the Bible, geology, biology, history, archaeology, theology and even philosophy.
As an archaeologist, one question in the evolution-creationism debate with which I am often confronted concerns the age of the earth. No human being witnessed the beginning of the earth, and the Bible’s “photograph” of that moment was not recorded to teach us the age or chronology of the earth and all its living creatures.
Nevertheless, Christians have often tried to use the Bible as if it were written as a science textbook, resulting in unsatisfactory conclusions.
For more than a century, Christians have vigorously debated theories of a young earth versus an old earth. In some circles, anyone who supports the idea of an old earth is labeled an atheist and anyone who is open to evolution is treated like a pagan.
In places where Christians have active involvement in social and political issues, like the USA and South Korea, pastors, theologians and pious scientists (including geologists, biologists, and astrophysicists) teach as dogma the young earth theory that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
This young earth dating can be found as early as the fourth century in the writings of the early church fathers. Eusebius and Jerome proposed that the earth was 4,000 to 6,000 years old. In Martin Luther’s commentary on Genesis, he wrote that the earth did not exist until 6,000 years ago.
Widespread belief in the young earth theory was triggered by James Ussher, a pious Irish priest and scholar in the 17th century. In his book Annales Veteris Testamenti published in 1650, he concluded that the earth was created on October 22, 4004 B.C., thus giving a total history for the earth of 6,000 years. This was then printed in the margin of the King James Version and was treated as if it had the same authenticity as the biblical texts.
In 1961, John Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, neither of whom were geologists, published The Genesis Flood. This book sensationally promoted the theory of a 6,000-year-old earth. It is still an influential text in South Korea, a country that may have elevated young-earth creationism to the level of dogma more than any other country. This movement has created a huge controversy and division between churches and schools, and between people of faith and scientists.
In my work as an archaeologist, it is difficult to accept the theory of a 6,000-year-old earth. Material culture shows that an agricultural sedentary lifestyle began 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Techniques used to fashion earthen vessels (pottery) were invented around that time or a little later. This dating is not consistent with a young earth theory.
Young earth theoreticians oppose or deny the validity of scientific results which are based on Carbon-14 dating and modern geological techniques. Frustrated by the opposition, Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley published The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth in 2008. This book is the most comprehensive treatment of the subject, utilizing research from four different fields: history, the Bible, geology, and philosophy. The authors are Bible-believing Christians. Their findings do not support the young earth theory and yet they do not find it in conflict with the Bible or their Christian faith.
The dating of the earth is just one issue in the evolution-creation debate. The issue is complex and controversies, as well as disagreements, exist even among scientists.
The theory of evolution fails to provide some of the critical missing links between the species or to provide answers to questions regarding the meaning of life or the presence of evil. There are also valid questions by scientists as well as biblical scholars regarding the Genesis account of creation.
Struggling with the conflict between evolution and creationism, 25 Christian scientists, pastors, theologians and philosophers published the book How I Changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science. This book would be a worthwhile investment for Christians who want to understand the evolution-creationism debate. But readers should be aware that the authors accept evolutionary creationism, which means evolution was a method of God’s creation. This may sound more like a compromise than a solution.
The pioneers of evolution, such as Alfred R. Wallace who wrote The Malay Archipelago and Charles Darwin who wrote The Origin of Species spent enormous amounts of time, energy and resources for their research. Diligent Christians should do the same, examining all sides of the issue to determine the strengths and weaknesses of various theories and arguments, not simply looking for facts to support what one already believes.
The authority of the Bible does not depend on human arguments and a sincere search for truth should never be feared as a threat to one’s faith.
SeJin Koh is director of Aksum Archaeological Expedition in Ethiopia, and former president of Asia United Theological University, Korea.