Summary: The Creation stories of Genesis 1-11 form an essential foundation for life in the Kingdom of God. They are true but are not part of human history. The enlightenment replaced these marvelous stories with the dull story of the eternal cosmos. The result is an emptiness that we all feel everywhere.
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Did Adam Ride a Dinosaur?
Many evangelical Christians (around 40%) believe that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, created in a universe that is less than 10,000 years old. The problem is that there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is much older than this and that Adam and Eve were not the first two humans. The geological record reveals a world that is more like 4.5 billion years old and the Human Genome Project has shown that there is no way the diversity in the human population could have originated from a single couple such a short time ago.
Many feel backed into a corner by this. To accept the findings of science means to abandon their faith. To cling to their faith means to live in the Dark Ages. You must choose science or religion. As Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary, put it, “If other Protestants want to accommodate science, fine. But they shouldn’t be surprised if their faith unravels.”1
But it’s not science or religion. This conflict is caused by misunderstanding the nature of the stories in the Bible, particularly Genesis 1-11.
Every culture has a creation story. The Greeks believed Gaia (earth) sprang out of chaos and gave birth to Uranus (sky).2 The Cherokee Indians say a water beetle came from the sky, dove into the water, and brought up earth. In a Hindu myth, four types of human beings emerge from the eternal Parusha. There are hundreds of stories like this.3
Creation accounts are not part of human history. They are the basis of it. They are the ground beneath our feet. They provide a framework for life as we know it.
Creation stories lie outside the realm of normal human existence. They take place in a far off realm in a distant age. They are filled with characters and events unlike anything we normally experience. They begin with phrases like, “a long time ago” or “in the beginning” which set them apart from human history as we know it.
Although creation stories are separate from human history, there are bridges between the two, otherwise what would be the point? In some stories divine beings interact with figures in human history. Genealogies are used to tie historical figures with pre-history. Towns and sacred sites are named for characters in the stories. Religious rituals commemorate events in the stories. Creation stories are of a different nature than human history but the two are vitally connected.
Are creation stories true? If by “true” you are asking if they can be placed on our timeline the answer is no. If by “true” you are asking if they provide the foundational truths of our existence, the answer is yes.
The Genesis Creation Stories
Genesis 1-11 contains five creation stories: two creation accounts, the story of Cain and Abel, the tale of a great flood, and the Tower of Babel. These are interspersed with genealogies that build a bridge with human history. They contain elements like talking serpents, enchanted fruit, gods who have sex with human beings, giants, and a boat that can carry every created animal. These characters and events lie outside the realm of normal human existence.
The Bible makes no sense without its creation stories. They lay the foundation of everything that follows. In them we learn that…
- There is one God who created all things.
- Creation is good but something has gone horribly wrong
- Human rebellion is the heart of creation’s problem
- God does not give up on his creation
- God can bring order from of chaos
- Judgment is tool God uses to redeems things
In Genesis 12, there is a shift. The mythical elements fade to the background and we meet Abraham, a man whose life can be dated to around 2000 B.C. There follows the story of his life and the development of his family into a nation. There are miraculous elements in these stories but miracles are in the background. In Genesis 12, we enter the realm of human history.
How the Enlightenment Destroyed Christianity’s Credibility
The Enlightenment brought a new way of looking at the world. Throwing salt over your shoulder would not ward off evil spirits. Black cats were not bad luck. Worms did not spontaneously generate in rotting flesh. We learned to explain things rationally and developed the heady sense that we would soon be able to explain everything. The world was a machine that we could figure out and control. Stories were for children who hadn’t learned to live in the “real world.” We replaced our imaginations with gears.
For five centuries we have lived in this age of modernistic optimism. We think because we now see more, we will soon see everything. We don’t need creation accounts. We need further research.
This is a naive assumption. There will always be questions we cannot answer. What lies beyond the visible realm? What came before it? Where is it headed?” What is its purpose? No amount of research will answer these questions.
It is no surprise that the Bible’s creation stories were rejected as superstitions. The Bible places man at the center of all things but it isn’t true. Copernicus showed that the earth travels around the sun. Now we know that the earth is just a speck of dust in the vast sweep of the universe. Geology has proved that we are a speck in time as well. The human genome project has shown that there is no way that human beings could have evolved from a single couple less than 10,000 years ago. Clearly the Biblical accounts of creation are not true. What is needed is a scientific explanation, not a story. The opening line of the Cosmos series provides such an explanation:
“The cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be.”4
Look again. This is not an explanation. It is a creation story. It is a Trojan horse that disguises a creation story as scientific observation. Make no mistake: the Cosmos story is a creation story.
“In the beginning was the cosmos
Then there was the cosmos.
In the end, there will be the cosmos.”
The fact that this is a dull story does not change the fact that it is a story.
Science is wonderful. It expands our minds with new discoveries and deepens our understanding of the universe. But to tell us where the universe came from or where it is going is beyond its scope. When Carl Sagan says “the cosmos is all there is or was or ever will be” he is not making an observation. He is telling a story.
In any case, the Cosmos story has made its home in our culture and become the foundation of our existence. Most of us live by this story even though we may never stop to think about it. We consider ourselves to be purely rational people who live in the real world. Creation stories are fun but they are for kids. They were fine back when people were unenlightened but we have outgrown the need for them. The truth is we have swapped a really good creation story for a really lousy one.
Creation stories are the foundation of human existence. As a foundation for living, the Cosmos story stinks. It offers no answers to the things I most long to know. Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? What will happen when I die? Why bother to be good? What is good? If the cosmos is “all the is or was or every will be” there are no answers to these questions. My life is a meaningless blip in time and space. The only thing to do is make the best of a bad situation. I should make a bucket list and squeeze all I can out of life before it is too late. If you want to see the culture that grows from the Cosmos creation story just look around.
The Christian Response
The Christian response to this has been a disaster. The Cosmos story is a creation story masquerading as history. It claims not to be a superstitious myth like the stories in Genesis. We should have called it on this. We should have pointed out that the myth of the “eternal cosmos” is nothing but a very dull creation story which lays the groundwork for a desolate human existence.
Instead, we bought into the assumption of modernism and tried to pass off the Bible’s creations stories off as history. The Cosmos creation story masquerades as history much more easily than the Genesis stories. We find ourselves backpedaling before we even begin, trying to answer questions like
- Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?
- Where did Cain get his wife?
- How do dinosaurs fit into the picture?
- Why is there evidence of other ancient human beings?
- Who were the giants in Genesis 6?
- How did Noah fit all the animals on the ark?
Organizations such as the Creation Research Institute are dedicated to answering these questions. Others have gone as far as to build life-sized Arks (complete with theme parks) in an effort to make the stories believable as history.5 We speak against the evils of modernism but live by its tenets.
We do this because we fear that if Genesis 1-11 is not part of human history, Christianity will collapse. Evangelical leaders have warned of this. Mark Driscoll, former pastor of Mars Hill church said,
“… to deny this historical teaching of the church [that Adam and Eve were the first people] undermines the clear teaching of the Bible and fails to make sense of its storyline, as without a historical Adam and Eve, there is no fall and no need for redemption and no need for Jesus. The very basis of Christianity is effectively undermined.” 6
In an interview with National Public Radio, Albert Mohler said,
“Without [a literal] Adam, the work of Christ makes no sense whatsoever in Paul’s description of the Gospel, which is the classic description of the Gospel we have in the New Testament.” 1
Rather than embrace our creation stories, we insist on pulling them into human history. We wind up with the worst of both worlds: Science as religion and religion as science.
A Way Past the Stalemate
We read our morning newspapers with more sophistication than we read our Bibles. When we read a newspaper, we understand that there are different genres: news stories, political cartoons, opinion pieces, and classified ads. These must be read differently. To ask whether a political cartoon is true or not, is not to ask whether or not it “really happened.” Such a question makes no sense and reveals that we don’t understand the genre.
We accept that newspapers have different genres but when it comes to the Bible we allow only one: history. The fear is that if we admit anything else, the whole thing will dissolve into a fairy tale. But the Bible is a library. It contains a wide variety of literature: history, myth, poetry, prophecy, and apocalypses to name a few. Properly identifying the genre does not erode the credibility of the Bible. It establishes it.
Genesis 1-11 is a collection of creation stories. The Bible makes no sense without them. We miss the point when we start asking whether or not these things “really happened,” just like we miss the point when we ask whether a political cartoon “really happened.”
Of course some disagree. Three main arguments are used to claim that creation stories should be placed on our human timeline.
1. Jesus Spoke of Adam and Eve
In an argument with the Pharisees, Jesus mentioned Adam and Eve.
But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh. (Mark 10:6-8; See also Matthew 19:4)
The claim is that because Jesus mentioned these stories he assumed they were historical events. But the fact that Jesus quotes the stories in Genesis tells us nothing about how he regarded them. He may have regarded them as history. He may have regarded them as stories. Either way he regarded them as true.
2. Paul Spoke of Adam and Eve
Paul also mentions Adam. For example:
Through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned. (Romans 5:12)
He made from one person every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth. (Acts 17:26)
Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. (1 Timothy 2:14)
Again, it is not necessary to assume that because Paul quotes the story of Adam he considered Adam to be a historical figure. His purpose is to show the triumph of Christ over human sinfulness. Whether he regarded Adam as part of human history or as a figure in a creation story makes no difference to his argument.
Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam. This is considered to be conclusive evidence that Adam was a historical figure. But Jewish genealogies were not like modern genealogies. For one thing, they were not intended to be used to build chronologies.2 They don’t give every last name, far from it. Instead, they showed connections. For example, Matthew traced Jesus’ roots back to Abraham to show he was the Jewish Messiah. Luke emphasized that Jesus was the Savior of all nations so he traces his roots back to Adam.
Luke’s genealogy may simply be a bridge to connect the pre-history of Genesis with human history. Either way his point is clear: Jesus emerged from the same human matrix that we did.
The Genesis stories are true even though we can’t place a person named Adam or a giant flood or a Tower of Babel on a timeline. The enormous energy spent trying to defend the pre-history of Genesis 1-11 as history actually does much to undermine the Christian faith. We should abandon the modernistic assumption that we do not need creation stories and embrace our rich heritage in Genesis. These lay the foundation for the coming of Jesus and an abundant life in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus: Another Myth?
One reason people fear reading Genesis 1-11 as creation stories is that they think it gives license to take the gospels as stories as well. The fear is well founded. Many have read the gospels as a collection of myths that grew up around a charismatic figure in history named Jesus.
But the gospels are not presented as stories. We do violence to Genesis 1-11 when we read them as history. We do violence to the gospels when we read them as myth. Call the gospel writers crazy but they really believed the things they described took place in human history. Admittedly this is a whopper. They say that God became flesh and entered history to redeem it. They describe of a person who had divine power and rose from the dead.
This sounds like the stuff of story but the claim that it is history is precisely their point. In Jesus, they say, the transcendent realm entered the human realm. We have every right not to believe this. We do not have the right to ignore their intent and relabel what they meant as history as story.
So do I believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old? No. Is the Bible’s creation story true? Yes.
Were Adam and Eve the first two people, created a few thousand years ago? No. Is the story of Adam and Eve true? Yes.
Was there an ark that carried all living things and saved them from a global flood? No.
Is the story of Noah true? Yes.
We need historians and scientists and geologists and astronomers and physicists. We also need poets and philosophers and theologians and writers and musicians. The resolution to the battle between science and religion will not come when one side defeats the other. It will come when they learn how to dance.
- In the 17th century, Bishop Ussher used this genealogy along with those in Genesis to calculate that the earth was created at nightfall on October 22, 4004 BC.It is hard not to smile at this claim to precision. I have a similar reaction when I read that modern scientists date the earth as 4.543 billion years. We humans certainly have a lot of confidence in our calculations!
- For a detailed list, check out this fascinating Wikipedia post. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_creation_myths
- The Deistic version is the same story with a tip of the hat to God. It goes like this: “In the beginning the Divine watchmaker created the cosmos, which is all that is, or was, or ever will be.”