Christmas 1976 was exciting for me, since I tore open one of the wrappers, revealing a book I had long desired: Henry Morris’ and John Whitcomb’s The Genesis Flood. For days I sat rocking in the living room, poring over the book, fascinated with its “reconciliation” of science with the Genesis account of creation. I was a full-fledged convert to flood geology, the view that the fossils and geological formations today were primarily formed by the destructive action of the Genesis flood. The earth was only a few thousand years after all, dinosaurs lived along with man before the Flood, and my Christianity was at peace. I joined the Creation Research Society and considered getting a science degree to do “Christian Apologetics” by defending flood geology and finding alternatives in astronomy to the idea that the universe is several billion years old.
Seminary shattered my world, but not primarily because of the bad geology behind flood geology and young earth creationism. Rather, it was a method of studying the Bible to which I had not been previously exposed in the Churches of Christ except in courses designed to attack it. A historical-critical approach to the Bible convinced me that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Rather, there were “sources,” J, E, P, and D, which were responsible for the Pentateuch. These sources were not necessarily single documents, but also included oral tradition–they might be considered different approaches ancient Jews had to editing the Pentateuch. But if Genesis, the first book of the Pentateuch, had to make sense to the ancient Hebrews, J and P had to write material that was understandable to the people of the time period. So Genesis 1 reflects the ancient Hebrew cosmology–the flat earth, the dome of the firmanent in which there were holes for the fixed stars and a path for the sun and moon. Below was Sheol, the realm of the dead. This mythological picture was borrowed from the general culture of the Ancient Near East, with parallels in Sumerian and Babylonian narratives. Genesis reinterprets the ancient cosmology in a monotheistic way; the sun and moon become “great lights” created by God instead of gods. But the purpose of Genesis is not to give a scientific account of creation. The seven days of creation (since God’s rest is also part of that creation week) symbolizes the goodness and perfection of creation. Contemporary debates about the length of the days miss the point; the days are in mythological time, not time as we experience it. There is no good reason, then, to think that the Bible says anything about the age of the earth, the nature of geological processes, or whether God worked through direct creation or through an evolutionary process. Since the best science of today says that the earth is around four and a half billion years old, and the universe is over thirteen billion years old, the reasonable course for the Christian is to accept these dates unless science proves them faulty. And since the best scientific theory of life’s development is evolution, which is unmatched in explanatory power, the rational thing for Christians to believe is that God worked through an evolutionary process. The young-earth creationists, by their adherence to an outmoded theory of Biblical interpretation, hinder the efforts to reach Christians who are also interested in science. If these Christians believe that young earth creationism is the only alternative to atheism or agnosticism, they may give up their faith. But that is unnecessary. Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project is a devout Christian who accepts evolution. So is John Polkinghorne of Cambridge University, who is both a physicist and a theologian. The geneticist Francisco Ayala is a Christian who is also an evolutionary biologist. There is no need for Christians to through out their faith when they accept the findings of contemporary science. Young earth creationists are well-meaning, but in the end they are more destructive to faith and to science than they are helpful.