Genesis 1 and Modern Science

Throughout its history, America has been a magnet for people from every other country on Earth who were looking for a better life. Most of the things that make life in America so much better than life in other places and times are the direct result of Christianity. It is a historical fact that a republic based on inalienable rights, rule of law, the free market system, the abolition of the ancient practice of slavery, the rejection of a rigid class structure of society, and the optimistic belief in progress that has always driven America to ever greater heights are the political, economic, social, and psychological consequences of Christianity.

Science must also be included as one of Christianity’s many gifts to humankind. Modern science had its beginning in the devoutly Christian societies of Europe, because science as a sustained endeavor was based on a uniquely Christian faith and world view. No other religion or philosophy in all of human history has provided the general beliefs and powerful motivation that were necessary for the scientific revolution to occur. This  is why it is so ironic that science is being used against Christianity.

Christians have been fighting a losing battle against atheists ever since Darwin published his works on evolution one hundred fifty years ago. Starting with Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s self-appointed “bulldog,” opponents of religion have been increasingly successful in misusing science to undermine Christian beliefs and influence in society. They have been so successful that the once devoutly Protestant and Catholic nations of Western Europe converted to secular humanism generations ago. A similar conversion took place in Canada in the last half of the 20th century. Now, the battle rages in a highly-polarized United States, the last bastion of Christianity in the developed world.

Christians are not at fault for allowing science to be used this way. After Darwin, science did, for a while, appear to support the atheistic belief in an eternal universe, in which infinite stretches of time and the laws of probability could account for everything. It seemed that even the greatest wonder of all, the development of conscious life from the basic elements, could plausibly have occurred without any necessity for what atheists call “supernatural” explanations. It was this stage in the development of science that allowed atheists to gain the scientific high ground.

But there were limits to what they could do with science: for instance, it was not possible for them to use science to prove that God does not exist (nor can one use science to “prove” that God does exist). But, atheists have over the years achieved the next most effective (and worse) thing: by the early 1900s they gained the upper hand with the argument that science “proves” that the notion of God is not necessary to explain the way our universe functions. They used this “rational” argument in their efforts to achieve effective control of many American universities. From there they were able to extend their authority over the U.S. public schools and much of the media. All of this has resulted in great influence over public opinion, the courts, and other branches of government.

This success encouraged the New Atheists to continue to use scientific arguments as part of what has become a general, all-out cultural war against Christianity. Recently, a number of their books have become influential best-sellers: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. As the end of the first decade of the 21st century approaches, atheists have effectively positioned themselves in the popular culture as the modern, rational, and scientifically sophisticated “Brights” and characterized Christians as the hopelessly dogmatic and unscientific dims.

American Christians are not just on the defensive in this scientific debate; in boxing terms, they are on the ropes and taking a beating. While no knockout blow by the atheists is possible (again, they cannot prove that God does not exist), Christians are certain to lose the fight by decision if they do not learn to defend themselves better. The sad truth is that more and more young Americans are being persuaded by the atheists’ scientific arguments, just as previous generations of European and Canadian youth were. However, important new developments in science have occurred recently that will allow Christians to fight back and win the struggle, if they take a little time to inform themselves about important discoveries in physics and biology.

What Christians can be faulted for is allowing atheists to alienate them from science to the point where they are not aware of these important and favorable developments. The good news for Christians is that all of the important scientific discoveries since the early 1900s have turned the tables on atheists. Science can’t prove that God exists or that the Bible is correct, but the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang cosmology, and the findings of geneticists and paleontologists, have so completely changed our scientific understanding of the universe that it now favors the biblical account of creation.

Big bang theory says that our universe is not eternal, but had a beginning in what was clearly an instance of creation. Relativity tells us that since that moment of creation, time has proceeded in a way that makes a literal interpretation of the six days of creation scientifically credible. Fossil and genetic discoveries have cast great doubt on two of the three basic principles of Darwinian evolution. With a little bit of time and effort, Christians can regain the scientific high ground and turn American youth back to their faith.

Here’s an example of how it will work. Consider one of the most important and damaging arguments of the New Atheists, as expressed by Sam Harris,

The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. (“Reply to a Christian,” Council for Secular Humanism).

This statement is completely false; it displays a tremendous ignorance of what the Bible says and what science has discovered. Any scientifically-informed Christian should be able to easily, immediately, and effectively refute it, but most Christians don’t have the necessary knowledge. Contrary to what Harris says, atheists believe, and many Christians fear, the Bible does in fact make amazingly accurate scientific statements that are far beyond the limits of understanding of anyone living in ancient times.

A brief scientific analysis of Genesis 1 will demonstrate how wrong Harris is. Genesis 1 makes at least twenty-six statements about the creation of the universe and the development of life on Earth that can be tested against current scientific understanding. The twenty-six statements are listed below in the order in which they appear. After each statement is a brief comment about the current state of science related to each of these statements.

  1. [Gen. 1:1] In the beginning God created heaven and earth.1
    The ancient Hebrew language had only about 3,000 words and did not have a word for ‘universe’ so it used the phrase ‘heaven and earth’ instead. B
    ig bang cosmology says the universe had a definite beginning from nothing. In other words, it came about through an act of creation. Science can’t tell us if the cause of the creation of the universe was conscious (God) or unconscious (super-nature).
  2. [Gen. 1:2] The earth was without form …
    Just after the creation of the universe, there were none of the cosmic structures we see today. There was no Earth just after the big bang.
  3. … and empty, …
    There was no matter at this time.
  4. … with darkness on the face of the depths, …
    Light was trapped by free electrons in the universe at this time.
  5. … but God’s spirit moved on the water’s surface.
    Current scientific theory says that something called ‘inflation’ happened that is currently not understood in terms of the laws of physics. It was a one-time event, consistent with what Christians call a miracle or divine intervention. It is interesting that both physics and the Bible say that something unique happened at this point in the development of our world.
  6. [Gen. 1:3] God said, ‘There shall be light,’ and light came into existence.
    Up until this point photons of light have been trapped by repeated collisions with free electrons. Once the universe is cool enough to allow electrons to combine with atomic nuclei to form neutral atoms, photons become free to roam the universe.
  7. [Gen. 1:4] God divided between the light and the darkness.
    The Bible is saying that ‘darkness’ is a thing in and of itself. Modern astrophysics now agrees that darkness is more than just shadows or the absence of light. Modern physics is struggling to understand this with concepts such as dark matter and dark energy.
  8. [Gen. 1:6] God said, ‘There shall be a sky in the middle of the water, and it shall divide between water and water.’
    There is evidence that our universe may have been formed by the interplay of two fluids — something called quarks and what we think of as ‘empty’ space.
    For example, the December 2005 issue of Scientific American includes an article, “An Echo of Black Holes,” by Theodore A. Jacobson and Renaud Parentani, that hypothesized that spacetime is in some ways like a material fluid. Another article from the May 2006 issue, “The First Few Microseconds” by Michael Riordan and William A. Zajc, explains how the “quark soup” that came into existence at this stage of the universe acted like a perfect fluid. 

    In regard to Gen. 1:6, Maimonides explains, “It has been declared by our Sages that the portion above the firmament is only water in name, not in reality … the account of the firmament, with that which is above it and is called water, is as you see, of a very mysterious character.” The problem once again is that ancient Hebrew had a relatively small number of words. Because it had no word for ‘fluid,’ the word ‘water’ was used instead. This did not prevent ancient and medieval scholars of the ancient Hebrew from gaining important scientific insights by carefully reading Genesis. Refer to Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, Chapter XXX for a truly thought-provoking and scientifically-compatible explanation of this passage.

  9. [Gen. 1:7-8] God [thus] made the sky, and it separated the water below the sky from the water above the sky. It remained that way. God named the sky ‘Heaven.’
    Galaxies comprised of stars, including the Sun, were formed.
  10. [Gen. 1:9] God said, ‘The waters under the heaven shall be gathered to one place, and dry land shall be seen.’
    The Earth was formed and
    continents appeared through the process of plate tectonics.
  11. [Gen. 1:10] God named the dry land ‘Earth,’ and the gatherings of water, He named ‘Seas.’
    The oceans formed around the continents.
  12. [Gen. 1:11] God said, ‘The earth shall send forth vegetation.
    The first life on Earth was vegetation, and it appeared right after the oceans formed.
  13. ‘… plants and fruit trees that produce their own kinds of fruits with seeds shall be on the earth.’
    Plants with seeds and fruit came later, after the first primitive one-celled vegetation.
  14. [Gen. 1:14] God said, ‘There shall be lights in the heavenly sky to divide between day and night.’
    Plants changed the atmosphere of the Earth so that it became transparent.
  15. [Gen. 1:15] ‘They shall be lights in the heavenly sky, to shine on the earth.’
    Enough (unscattered) light was eventually able to reach the surface of the Earth to allow the Sun, Moon, and stars to become visible.
  16. [Gen. 1:20] God said, ‘The water shall teem with swarms of living creatures.’
    Animal life appeared first in the oceans in an amazing and scientifically unexplained abundance during the Cambrian explosion (also called the ‘biological big bang’).
  17. ‘Flying creatures shall fly over the land, on the face of the heavenly sky.’
    Insects, including winged insects, appeared next.
  18. [Gen. 1:21] God [thus] created the great sea monsters, …
    The Hebrew words “gadolim taninim” translated here as “great sea monsters” has also been translated as whales, crocodiles, serpents, and dragons. Without doubt the word “gadolim” means “great” or “large,” but over the centuries, people translated the difficult word “taninim” in terms of their own experience. That’s why the
    King James Bible, translated by a person from a sea-faring nation, translated it as “whales.” In his book, The Science of God, Dr. Gerald Schroeder argues that the correct translation of the ancient Hebrew word “taninim” is “reptiles.” Therefore this passage could be translated as, “So God created the great reptiles.” Those would be the dinosaurs.
  19. … along with every particular species of living thing that crawls, with which the waters teem, …
    New forms of animals appeared, that developed the ability to crawl and walk on land.
  20. … and every particular species of winged flying creature.
    Winged dinosaurs and eventually birds appear.
  21. [Gen. 1:22] God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and become many, and fill the waters of the sea.’
    Millions of species of animal life eventually appear.
  22. ‘Let the flying creatures multiply on the land.’
    A number of species of animals develop the ability to fly in different ways, including bats, which are flying mammals.
  23. [Gen. 1:24] God said, ‘The earth shall bring forth particular species of living creatures, particular species of livestock, land animals, and beasts of the earth.’
    Mammals appear which eventually become of special interest and use to humans.
  24. [Gen. 1:26] God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’
    The physical ancestors of humans appear in the form of smart animals (hominids).
  25. [Gen. 1:27] God [thus] created man with His image. In the image of God, He created him, …
    At some point, humans acquired the mysterious quality of consciousness.
  26. [Gen. 1:28] God said to them, ‘Be fertile and become many. Fill the land and conquer it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land.
    Humans come to dominate the Earth in ways no other life form has.

First, it is important to note that no statement in Genesis 1 that could be related to science has been deliberately left out of the list. In other words, nothing contrary to science has been dishonestly excluded. Only the references to the six days in which these things occurred have been left out, because this is the subject of another essay. Next, it is important to understand that each of these statements is, as indicated above, entirely compatible with our current understanding of the origins and development of the universe. And, lastly, the steps in the development of our universe as listed in Genesis are in the correct scientific order.

Before we begin to address the ultimate question of how someone could know all of this so long before modern science discovered it, let’s consider something simpler. Think about just the mathematical probability aspects of the last statement: Genesis 1 lists twenty-six significant steps in the development of the world in the correct order. To understand what this means, consider the following exercise in probability. Imagine that you were to take twenty-six uniform strips of paper, number them 1 through 26, place them face down on a table, mix them up, and then attempt to turn them over in the right order. Your chances of doing so would be one out of 26!. The number 26! is read as 26 factorial and simply means 26 x 25 x 24 x … x 3 x 2 x 1 . Written out in normal decimal form, the chances are

1 out of 403,291,461,126,605,700,000,000,000.

Read in English, the probability of turning all of the slips over in the right order by sheer luck would be

1 out of 403 septillion, 291 sextillion, 461 quintillion, 126 quadrillion, 605 trillion, 7 billion.

The odds against it are truly astronomical. The number 26!­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ is more than the highest estimates of the number of stars in the universe. But even stated this way, the number is very difficult to grasp.

We can gain a little better understanding of how greatly the laws of probability were stacked against the author of Genesis by imagining a lottery being held in your state each month in which exactly two million tickets are always sold. The chances of any ticket winning the big prize would be 1 out of 2,000,000. These extremely poor odds are such that no practical person would be foolish enough to count on it in order to provide for his or her family’s future. The odds of a person buying one ticket each month and winning the lottery four months in a row is about twenty-five times better than the odds of Genesis getting these 26 steps correct by chance.

If a person won the lottery just two months in a row, the authorities would undoubtedly launch an investigation, because they would be certain that some form of cheating had occurred. There can be no doubt that some kind of scientific ‘cheating’ took place in the writing of Genesis. Christians call it divine inspiration.

But now let’s consider more fully what Genesis accomplished. Imagine now that the author of Genesis must not only turn over the 26 slips of paper in the correct order, but as he does so, he must also write down on each paper what happened at that particular stage. All of this had to be accomplished about 30 centuries before science formulated the scientific history of our world. As unimaginably small as the probability of just listing the steps in the right order is, the chances of someone in ancient times guessing what these steps were is so much smaller that it is effectively zero. Genesis could not have been a lucky guess. Sam Harris is wrong about the Bible.

This does not scientifically prove that the Bible is true; but it is significant evidence that Genesis 1 is completely compatible with modern science. It would be fair for Christians to say that it is remarkably compatible. Christians who have conceded that Genesis 1 is not literally true are therefore wrong to do so. They must take the time to read Genesis more carefully (and free of preconceptions), review the current state of physics and biology, and reassess their faith. Those Christians who maintained their faith and fought back against people like Sam Harris by denying much of what science has learned are also wrong. They can be admired for keeping their faith in scripture in the face of atheist attacks, but their Young-Earth Creationism is scripturally incorrect and scientifically unnecessary. What every Christian must understand is that Genesis 1 is arguably the most remarkable scientific document ever written.

[1] Biblical text is from an English translation of the Torah. See here.

God [thus] created the great sea monsters

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