Professor William Reville examines two truths that do not contradict
The biggest rift between Christians who interpret the Bible exclusively in literal terms (creationists) and science relates to clashing explanations of the origin of the world and the origin of life.
These origins are described in the Book of Genesis as acts of creation summarily executed by God over a period of seven days about 6,000 years ago.
On the other hand, science explains the origin of the world as a spontaneous explosion (Big Bang) that occurred about 14 billion years ago, and the origin of life as the spontaneous organisation of inanimate chemicals to form the first living cell about 3.8 billion years ago.
Life then evolved with innumerable species gradually arising and subsequently dying out until we arrive at the flowering of life seen on Earth today.
I am a scientist and also a Christian. I believe that science reveals the truth about the natural world and the Bible speaks the truth about the spiritual world, and I believe that, as Pope John Paul II and many others have pointed out, two truths cannot contradict one another.
Creationists take the Bible very seriously, which is why they insist that it should be understood literally.
But I believe that in order to take the Bible seriously you cannot interpret everything it says literally — you must take account of the type of literature typical of the time the Bible was written and decide whether the particular passage you are reading is a factual account, a story intended to illustrate a moral, or a poem, and so on.
My remarks about interpreting the Bible are those of an amateur, and so, with that health warning, here is how I understand things.
The Bible was written for readers of the time when it was written, using the then current forms of literature. Certain parts of the Bible are obviously not meant to be interpreted literally.
For example, when Jesus says — ”If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you” — he surely does not intend this to be taken literally.
After all, the sin starts in the mind and the blind person can still sin. Jesus means that we should not tolerate sin as a part of our lives and a sinful habit must be overcome even if the process is as painful as gouging out your eye.
And when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, he is not repeating a news item but teaching a moral. And so on.
The Old Testament was written between 1500BC and 500BC in the Near East. Literature didn’t change much over that period and creation stories (myths) were common in that area.
These creation stories were all written in figurative and symbolic language. God always revealed himself in the Judaeo Christian tradition in a particular culture at a particular time and we would expect that God inspired the author of Genesis to write in terms of the culture and literary forms of the day.
I interpret Genesis as a story with an embedded truth. This truth tells us that God planned and structured the universe in an orderly fashion.
The primary shapes of the world were created in the first three days and content was added to the shapes in the next three days.
The story appears to be a week’s work, but this is just a figure of speech to indicate that this is a planned world.
God created humans ‘in his own image’. We somehow reflect God in our personality and we are here as God’s representatives on Earth. God looked at His creation and ‘saw that it was good’, which means that He created a world fit for purpose.
A non-literal interpretation of Genesis goes back as far as some of the first Fathers of the Church such as Origen (185AD-254AD) and St Augustine (354AD-430AD).
Origen noted in Genesis that the Sun and Moon were not made until the fourth day of creation and yet morning and evening existed on the first three days. Origen concluded that this cannot be taken literally and Genesis is a figurative narrative.
The Biblical creation story differs from the other creation myths that were widespread in the ancient Near East.
There is only one God in Genesis but there are many gods in the other myths. The other myths describe a struggle between the gods and the forces of chaos and victory of the gods over chaos may only be temporary.
In Genesis, there is no struggle with chaos — God speaks and things happen and the world He creates is stable.
In Genesis, humans are created in God’s image and are expected to behave with dignity. In the other myths, humans resemble playthings of capricious gods.
In overall terms, science shows us a world that has spontaneously developed from the Big Bang all the way up to self-conscious humanity. It seems that God, by choosing the basic properties of matter and the laws of physics, designed a world that can build itself.
The uncompromising literalism of the creationists forces them into a hopeless confrontation with science. Scientific explanations of origins are based on massive and converging evidence from various sources.
To counter this, the creationists flail about seeking evidence to contradict mainline scientific evidence.
I will only deal with one example — the evidence for the age of the Earth.
When creationists add up the chronologies in the Bible, they get an age of about 6,000 years for the Earth.
On the other hand, science tells us that the Earth is about five billion years old. Science measures the age of the Earth by noting the current activities and ratios of various radioactive elements in the Earth’s rocks.
These radioactive elements break down and disappear at precise rates that are characteristic of the individual radioactive species. Physicists can use this information as a ‘radioactive clock’ to estimate the age of the Earth.
Several independent radioactive dating methods all give the same answer — the Earth is about five billion years old.
Confronted by scientific evidence that contradicts their literal interpretation of the Bible, the creationists resort to criticising the scientific methods used.
For example, the creationists claim that the rates of radioactive decay, assumed by science to be constant for each particular radioactive species, vary over the longer term and that, because science does not take this into account, its calculation of the age of the Earth is wildly inaccurate.
However, the phenomenon of radioactivity is fully understood by physics and there is no scientific reason to doubt the accuracy of the radioactive measurement of the age of the Earth.
Creationists are beached on the rocky shore of literalism. The creationist stance tends to tar Christianity in general with the labels of anti-science and anti-intellectualism in the eyes of many non-Christian observers.
Consequently, many outsiders unfortunately think that the quality of the wisdom in the Bible is on a par with the wisdom of the most ardent and vocal supporters of the Bible, the creationists, and are put off taking the Bible seriously.
William Reville is a professor in the biochemistry department and public awareness of science officer at UCC.