Sunday, March 11, 2012

Adam and the Dinosaurs

One of my students asked me this week if the dinosaurs lived along with Adam and Eve. She did not know it, but her question drove to the heart of a division among Christians and a point of attack for skeptics of the Bible. It was a question that deserves an answer.

The difference of opinion among Christians has to do with how we understand the first three chapters of Genesis. Are we to understand those chapters as literal description or as metaphorical, as one parent recently asked me, or as myth, the usual word skeptics use?

What is at stake? For the Christians who believe the passage is literal description, the veracity of the Scripture is at stake. To reduce these chapters from literal to metaphorical opens the door to all kinds of free and "liberal" interpretations. Ultimately, that would destroy the Bible as God's word.

For the Christian who see the passage as not exactly literal and scientific, the agreement between written revelation and the revelation of the creation is at stake. To see these chapters, especially chapter one, as literal description denies what seems to be unmistakable evidence for an old earth and makes the Christian position that the Bible is God's word seem empty-headed.

Both the literal description folk and the less-than-literal-in-every-respect interpretation folk believe in the veracity and integrity of the Scripture as God's word.

For the skeptic who honestly does not believe in the supernatural origin of the Bible or in the Supernatural at all, his atheism is at stake. If there is truth in Genesis, then the Naturalism of the skeptic is threatened.

I don't presume to have a definitive answer. I would, however,suggest a perspective on the question that might provide Christians a bridge to common understanding and diffuse the issue raised by the skeptic.

I suggest that we understand Genesis as an explanation to a displaced and disoriented people, the Israelites at the time of the Exodus, of their origins as sons and daughters of God (see Luke 3:38) and their calling to be God's people and witnesses in the world.

The first chapter of Genesis is best understood as a polemic against the gods of the Egyptians and Canaanites at the time of the Exodus. It answers the question which god is God. The answer is that God who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth is the one and only God.

The second chapter explains the unique nature of man and his calling to rule over creation as God's agent.

The third chapter explains what went wrong and the consequences of disobedience and sin. It also reveals God's character is both righteous and forgiving, ultimately leading to the hope of what has been called the proto-gospel of Genesis 3:15: God will redeem the creation that has been damaged by sin.

No Christian I know of disputes these truths expressed in Genesis 1-3. The question is whether these chapters describe literally the events of creation and the circumstances of the fall. My personal conviction is that it does not matter theologically. The core truths are the things that matter. But beyond that, the literal interpretation seems designed to defend against a liberal attack on the Bible as God's word, an attack that is rather recent in view of the whole history of Christian interpretation, and is therefore not a historic Christian interpretation. That should be a caution.

Secondly, the literal interpretation seems to answer questions no one in Moses' time, for whom these words were written, would have raised. It answers scientific questions rather than theological questions. That should be a caution.

But maybe the problem really is the words we use. Metaphorical sounds too literary. Myth is definitely rejected because it suggests fiction. None of us Christians are willing to consider Genesis as fiction - and we do not need to - nor do we want to consider Genesis as merely a literary work. We expect truth, and we have every biblical support for considering Genesis as truth. Is there another option?

Yes. I think so. If we accept Genesis 1-3 as a parable, a story with a point, a story that may not be a literal description in every respect of a historical event but nevertheless be historically truth, would that solve the problem? We can understand that God created the cosmos; that God created the first man and woman unique with a spirit, enabling them to relate to God, and placed them in a garden paradise; that man disobeyed God and lost his place as well as his innocence, and that God has a plan to recover his lost creation.

That, I think, would be something all Christian can agree to. It also allows the possibility of a creation far older than the 10,000 years a literal description and a narrow interpretation of the genealogies allow.

Now, I must address one more fear. Doesn't an old earth allow for evolution? The answer is no. Evolution as a theory of how living things today evolved from a common ancestor is not supported by evidence and has no mechanism that can account for the changes that Evolutionists must have to show that the theory is correct. It does not matter how much time there has been. But that is another issue.