In missionary college, we were asked in the last year of a 3-year BA course if we believed in a recent creation, evolution or if we are unsure. Just a few believed in creation, a handful in evolution, and well over 80% raised their hands when the ‘unsure’ option was due.
In first year of the BA however, the vast majority believed in a literal, recent, 6 day creation. I found this an interesting observation: the more you study theology, the less you believe in creation. However, my fellow students did not comfortably say they believed in evolution either. Apparently this was a big topic of confusion, and was rather avoided than engaged head-on.
In my life it seemed that the more I learned about the Bible, theology and science, the less easy it was for me to join these all together into some harmonious form (literal or liberal). With hindsight, I would even say that I was feeling uncomfortable because the story of Biblical creation is crashing heads-on with the Big Bang Theory and evolution, not just on the literal level, but also on the deeper metanarratives that they carry.
So how did I “evolve” myself?
I don’t want to get into the details of the whole debate right now. I have been a fervent defender of creationism in my teens, and believed that evolution was just mathematical nonsense: the chances were infinitely small. Over the years, a few key arguments have helped me see evolution as a feasible alternative:
- The age of the light travelling towards us. Einstein said E=MC2, meaning that C (the speed of light) is pretty much a constant, or else all material energy would increase enormously. Therefore, we see galaxies far, far away for which the light must have spent billions of years to reach us. To say the universe is only 6000 years old is completely at odds with this.
- Chances of evolution. It turned out that genes are not like computer code, and there are only a few mutations needed per gene to radically transform the functionality of the enzyme. In other words, evolution turned out to be much more likely than I had assumed in my Peter Scheele ‘Degeneration’ days (the Dutch readers will know what I mean…)
- Fossil record, ice-layers, earth layers, dinosaurs, the formation of other planets, it all proves that earth and the inhabitants are much older than 6000 years.
Studying theology can have a similar effect. Many theologians do not believe that the creation myth was literal history. Hence the decline in support of creationism in missionary college (I guess).
OK, so maybe Genesis 1 & 2 aren’t literally true. From my early 20s the whole creation-vs-evolution debate seemed less important to me. I was in the ‘I don’t know’ camp, like most of my missionary colleagues.
Looking back at it, I think it was a bit of a cop out, really. If you would have asked me, I would have said that I felt comfortable with either evolution or creation; but that wasn’t the full truth. To think long and hard about the consequences of the Big Bang, evolution, the vastness of the universe, is really hard on the Christian worldview. I just didn’t want to think about it too much. So where does it collide?
- Death did not come by the sin of man: If evolution is true, then the Adam and Eve story probably didn’t happen. Big deal? Yes! The New Testament argues that death came through Adam (the first man), and life came through another firstborn (Jesus). However, death has been with us for millions of years!
- No original sin: (‘inherited sin’ in Dutch) is a key concept in Christian theology, yet it hinges on the idea that there was this first man who sinned and now creation has fallen in dismay.
- People aren’t special. If the Big Bang and stellar evolution is true, then we are not the crown on the creation of God. We are just on a speck of dust in an unimportant part of a minor galaxy, where life just happened to have come into existence by mere random forces. There are an estimated 100,000,000,000 planets in our galaxy, and there are about 100,000,000,000 galaxies. We aren’t even noticable on a cosmic scale.
- God is very wasteful. The vast, vast, vast majority of the insanely large universe we are in is just an enormous empty waste. Some may say this shows the greatness of God. Well, we have learned there are an unknown number of galaxies that accelerate away from us faster than the speed of light. In other words, we can never, ever see them. For a God who created all of this for humanity to enjoy: that is extremely wasteful.
- Last but not least: God was not intentional in creating us. We were not designed in Gods image; we were selected by natural selection. It seems highly unlikely that God created the Big Bang with the intent of creating me, specifically, billions of years later, through a process that seems thoroughly random with no intelligent input whatsoever.
I have noticed this unease with an old earth, big bang and evolution in many other Christians and missionary colleagues. It is a topic we rather avoid, than to embrace it. Some go heavy into the defense of creationism, because they see the results that evolution has on their theology. But then one really has to close their eyes to massive amounts of counter evidence. Others embrace evolution, but I have rarely heard anyone speak about the positive spiritual consequences of the Big Bang and evolution.
Rather, people take a stance such as:
- OK, so the earth is really old, but God still guided evolution.
- Yes the universe is very old, but men was only created 6000 years ago
- OK, evolution is true, but God breathed a spirit into man, that is what makes him different.
From my point of view, that just shows the unease that many Christians have with this whole debate. We need to pull God into the picture somewhere (a guiding hand, creating man, spirit-blower) while science keeps on telling us that the natural laws since the Big Bang are enough to explain the world around us.
When I was still a Christian, I was just the same. In the end, all I could say with any level of certainty about God was:
- God is the ground of all being
- God set this universe in motion (cosmic fine-tuning)
But I knew that was still only a God of the gaps, only to have “God” as an answer to something we don’t understand. Our increasing understanding of the world has pushed “God” back from the creation of thunder, to creation of the animals, to creation of the world, to creation of the universe. And finally, I realized that even the creation of the universe does not need “God” as an answer. “I don’t know” is much more applicable.
It was only after my deconversion to agnosticism that I was truly at ease with the universe and scientific discoveries. I discovered that I now love astronomy much more, looking at the vastness of the universe, seeing how we are made of stardust, etcetera. My 4 and 6 year olds ask me questions about it almost every night as well, we love to discover things together.
And my awe for the universe has been magnified at least tenfold. I feel truly at an intellectual peace, knowing that my observations are no longer in conflict with those things I have to believe according to the Bible: that man is the crown of God’s creation, that man is special, that somehow sin has caused suffering.
What I have learned is that the universe is not just something out there, we are the universe. It is probably the biggest mystery and miracle of all: we are the universe experiencing itself. As we launch into a new year, my resolution is to stand in awe of the mystery of life, and not be swayed anymore by cheap answers to things that are (of yet) far beyond our understanding.