Important Fallacies in the Origins Debate

Thesis: The creation-evolution and the young-earth/old-earth debates are interesting, but are a distraction from what is more important: our moral accountability to God. And the irrationalities that pervade the christian sides of these debates blind some people to the Gospel that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their offenses to them. We christians stand before God, condemned of having let this debate distract us from speaking clearly the word of this reconciliation.

The Apostle Paul's cosmology was, "All things are of God" (1 Corinthians 5) and "The God who has made the world and all things which are in it,...himself giving to all life and breath and all things;and has made of one blood every nation of men...that they may seek God; ...and find him, although he is not far from each one of us:for in him we live and move and exist;...For we are also his offspring." (Acts 5)

But the reason Paul preached was that "Therefore, God having overlooked the times of ignorance, now commands all that they shall everywhere repent, because he has set a day in which he is going to judge the earth in righteousness by the man whom he has appointed, Christ Jesus, giving the proof of it in having raised him from the dead." (Acts 5)

This essay on cosmology is, ironically, motivated by a strong feeling that we cannot know how life and the cosmos originated or the means of creation. Human unwillingness to acknowledge the unknowable and our insistence on creating an answer has caused an unnecessary and often debilitating debate between cosmologist and creationist about the age of the universe, between evolutionist and creationist about the origins of life, and among christians about the meaning of Genesis.

In writing these things, I don't intend to cause controversy or emotional upset. But I do recognize that some individuals have very strong opinions about exactly how creation took place, and a few of these well-meaning people become rather unhappy if a differing opinion is encountered. If you are one of these, please, before you react, consider thoughtfully what I have to say on this matter.

I am interested in what we can know, from nature through science, and from the Bible through faith, about origins. If you are a believer and doubt that science can "inform" revelation, read Psalm 19 thoughtfully: The heavens declare the glory of God;...night after night they display knowledge. God reveals Himself through nature without words just as profoundly as He reveals Himself through scripture using words, though not as explicitly.

I have concluded, from years of intermittent study of this matter, after reading various Opinionated Authors, two things:

First, whether evolution is "true" or not, and whether the cosmos is ancient or recent, has no bearing on whether God exists and whether we humans are accountable to Him.

Second, there isn't a clear and final answer on these issues. (Ironically, this is the main reason that there is controversy about origins: if it were clear, there would be little debate.) I am not claiming that everyone's opinion is equally valid! But it is clear that no one is able to know just how God went about establishing this cosmos which we inhabit during our short life.

God has hidden from us His actions of the past as well as His actions of the future. In scripture He gives us a very brief summary of the historical events cited in scripture, which is chiefly written for our salvation and to help us understand God; and He gives us a scant outline, through prophecy, of future events, which is offered to give us hope and caution and to underline His sovereignty.

It is easy for an unlearned or narrow man, contentedly unaware of the complexities of real fact, to be confident of his opinions, and to be confident that others are wrong. Nowhere is this any more evident than in the study of origins. And it's easy for the learned man to forget that the validity of his intelligently thought-out conclusions depend as fully on the validity of his presuppositions and assumptions as they do on the accuracy of his facts.

Even though there is no final answer, I do not believe that we should be ignorant of the issues and positions in this debate, because the debate is so important to the politics of education, and we need to be intelligent about education. More important, it is important to understand the shape of this debate and the validity of the major positions because the origins question affects faith for some people.

This happens in two ways. To oversimplify, we have these:

Fallacy One: If evolution is 'true,' then God does not exist (or a personal God does not exist). Atheists (and those who prefer to disbelieve in the personal redeeming God of scripture) have falsely claimed that if the cosmos is old, or if evolution was the means by which complex life emerged, then God does not need to exist. (See accounts of Thomas Huxley's campaign for Darwinism, for example 1Chapter 10, 'A is for ape, B is for Bible', in John Waller's "Einstein's Luck.")

This is false because the means by which God created has no bearing on whether God is the creator. But many believers have fallen into the trap laid by these atheists because they rigidly adhere to one or another interpretation of scripture that conflicts in some way with rational and well-buttressed scientific theories.

The net result is that we have solid scientific observations upon which are erected imaginative atheistic theologies -- which we can call the religion of "atheistic scientists." And in the other corner of the ring we have believing theologians, holding the Word of God, upon which they have erected various well thought out but equally imaginative philosophies -- which are, after all, the thoughts of man and the wisdom of men.

It is not especially surprising that the carefully worked out imaginings of atheistic scientism happen to conflict at many points with the carefully constructed imaginings of believing theologians.

What *is* surprising is that some people think that these two groups are actually debating. They are not, for the most part. They are talking past each other, as they are using diametrically opposite presuppositions, different sets of facts, and different language (they use identical words to connote rather different ideas, for example).

In the one corner you have a philosopher who will not admit into his thinking any concept that acknowledges the existence of an active, interested God -- in the other corner you have a theologian who will not admit into his thinking any concept that differs with his firm notions of how God acted in the unrecorded past (based on his assumptions about how to 'properly' interpret scripture).

It is frustrating that in this "debate" there is much truth on both sides, but their conclusions aren't trustworthy, and it's necessary to ignore all the emotional noise they're making.

The scientific atheist very much needs to acknowledge that there is nothing in his observations that disproves the existence of God. His deeper need is to understand that the existence of God is not only plausible, but that the existence of right and wrong proves his need for a moral Creator, who is Jesus of Nazareth as we christians believe.

Evolutionary theory has the technical difficulty that there has been found no credible natural laws or cellular mechanisms by which macro-evolution must occur. It is not enough to demonstrate phage-mediated gene transfer of antibiotic resistance (for example); it is necessary, for example, to show how complex, overlapping, intact, functional endocrine systems can emerge de novo and are self-refining -- and with components that are located across several chromosomesand are functional in more than one system. We not only do not know the answers to this and other questions of cell biology, we do not yet know how to phrase many of the investigative questions.

The young-earth believer needs to take off his theological blinders and accept the fact that his interpretation of scripture will not alter the facts of the cosmos as they exist. Microevolutionary events assuredly do happen, although we don't know the mechanisms by which they occur in higher species. But beyond this, there is no reason, in principle, why God may not have used evolutionary processes in developing life. Might not the God who created reproduction -- which in its sexual version creates a single fertilized ovum and from this develops, through complex processes, an infant and then an adult individual -- might not this God have analogously imbued His cosmos with properties and natural laws, yet undiscovered, that produce evolutionary progress?

The scientific problem for the young-earth creationist is that if his opinion is correct, then he must become a greater than Einstein and rewrite subatomic theoretical physics, must rewrite inorganic chemistry (regarding rock formation), and must explain convincingly why a righteous God would create a hundred thousand annual layers of ice in the Greenland Ice Cap when the cosmos is only six thousand years old.

The theological disagreement between atheistic scientism and believing christianity is not, whether evolution is conceivably true. It is whether a personal creator exists, or whether the cosmos is self-originating. (Nothing in the idea of evolution logically requires the absence of a personal creator.) The theological argument against evolution requires a particularly idiosyncratic interpretation of the early chapters Genesis that is moot because it's at the presuppositional level, and therefor should not be propounded as if it's a demonstrated fact.

More importantly, Christians have done themselves a lot of damage in accepting the false proposition, "If evolution is 'true' then God does not [need to] exist." This has led christians into the wrong argument, and damages their credibility when they reject soundly established scientific observations while rejecting various evolutionary theories. To do so hinders the salvation of those unbelievers who find evolutionary theory credible.

Fallacy Two:A 'literal' interpretation of Genesis One must mean that the cosmos and an inhabited earth were created in six 24-hour days. Even ignoring the 'gap theory', it is just a plausible that its best 'literal' interpretation is as metaphor. The continual insistence by some christians, the "young-earth creationists," that their particular view of creation and Genesis is the correct and only true one, makes the gospel seem ridiculous in the eyes of unbelievers who do understand the validity of the scientific method and respect the truths revealed through it -- which include abundant evidence for an earth greater than 6000 years old and a cosmos billions of years old. God is eternal; why might not His cosmos be ancient? Any age for the cosmos is a meaninglessly small fraction of eternity.

The the tragedy of the creation-evolution and the young earth - ancient earth debates is that the young-earth creationist hinders faith when he says, "Unless you believe that God created the heavens and the earth in 7 literal 24-hour days as described in Genesis, you disbelieve God's Word, and therefore cannot truly be saved." (I have seen this stated.)

What happens to our faith in the Redeemer when the careful observations of science seem to contradict our interpretation of the creation story? Consider, for example, the simple fact that Greenland ice cores have more than 110,000 annual rings, with no evidence among them for any period of melting that would have occurred in a planet-wide flood. (See, for example, "The GISP2 Ice Core", Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol 55, # 4, pp. 252-260, or, more accessibly, 2"The Two-Mile Time Machine" Richard B. Alley Princeton University Press, 2000, Princeton and Oxford, ISBN 0-691-10296-1.)

This implies two things: first, that the earth (well, at least Greenland!) is much more than 6000 years old; and second, that the Noachian flood did not cover the entire earth. This contravenes the conclusions of young-earth creationists and those who believe in a planet-wide flood.

Please do not argue that this claim is untrue without examining the scientific evidence. To do so simply makes one look prejudiced and ignorant. But if this evidence shakes your interpretation of Genesis, you must not let this evidence shake your faith in God's word, which convicts one of sin and tells the good news of redemption in Jesus Christ. This evidence simply shows us that, in yet one more way, " we see through a glass, darkly..." (1 Corinthians 13)

This news about the ice cores, and other scientific observations, do not change our understanding of God's sovereignty, or our confidence in His redemptive power; they do not change the meaning of the cross. They simply mean that we are more ignorant than we thought. We may study Genesis and find that scripture does not claim that the Noachian flood covered the planet, only that it covered the 'eretz -- the ground, the land -- Hebrew has another word for the whole planet: tebel. And when we read that all the animals "in the dry land died," "dry land" is "charabah," desert. The animals that were in the desert died.

These details conflict with our traditional interpretations of these scriptures. But Genesis is not, "The Mechanisms of Creation and Early Man." The key message of Genesis 1-10 is, "Our God is the only God who exists; our God created the cosmos; our God is sovereign; our God holds us accountable for our moral actions toward other men and toward Himself; our God has found us morally guilty and has decreed a sentence of death upon us; our God has promised a redeemer and offers forgiveness for sin and guilt." This message is in Genesis independent of whether Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah.

Both atheistic scientism and young-earth creationism claim greater knowledge than is possible; both insist that they alone have the truth. Both positions may damage faith, in opposite ways.

Better that we should be "...determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." For our faith is in the moral truth of responsibility to God and His forgiveness of our sin; our understanding of God and our relationship to Him does not depend in any way on the specifics of inaccessible history.

A related mistake christians make is claiming "sola scriptura" -- "only scripture." They claim scripture, and their understanding of it, as the foundation of their faith. This sounds appealing, for scripture is God-inspired, and reveals the only path to salvation. But the scriptures are not our foundation: God is. To put this another way, our faith should not be in the scriptures and our specific understanding of the scriptures, but in the God who exists, the Creator, who inspired the scriptures; whom we seek through the scriptures.

The risk of believing these fallacies is that a person raised as a young-earth creationist isn't likely to have been taught that there's a difference between the plain words of scripture and the detailed interpretation that their teachers have built and taught. They then fail to realize that they may have put their faith in their particular interpretation of scripture, not in the underlying message, which may be misunderstood. Later, when they encounter a successful argument against their creationist beliefs, they feel that God's Word is being challenged, when in reality only the interpretations of their teachers is being challenged, but their faith is shaken or destroyed.

Jesus referred to this kind of thinking when He said to the Jews, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me." Our understanding of scripture is humanly vague and incomplete; our faith in the God behind them is what is solid. *God* is my rock and my fortress, not the scriptures.

The problem with the "scripture alone" approach is that for these christians, faith becomes wedded to their particular understanding of particular passages. Then, when some well-supported scientific or archeological evidence is offered with the purpose of contradicting their interpretations, and the evidence is convincing, their faith may be stressed or weakened because of leaning on their own understanding of scripture rather than leaning on God, who is beyond their ignorance. It's important to our faith that we understand its core.

For example, Job had some issues with God: he was suffering unfairly: he, a virtuous man, was bereft of all his possessions and miserably sick -- while at the same time there were wicked men he knew who remained prosperous and healthy. But even though he was frustrated with God for this inequity, he understood that the Almighty was his redeemer, that he would in a future life be personally in the presence of his redeemer, and that even now he had an Advocate with God in heaven. This is faith in the principles of God when the circumstances seem contradictory. God said to Job, "Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?" but He also said, "[Job hath] spoken of me the thing that is right."

Further reading:

1"Einstein's Luck: The Truth behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries" John Waller, Oxford University Press, 2003, ISBN 0198607199, especially Chapter 10. 'A is for ape, B is for Bible': science, religion, and melodrama.

2"The Two-Mile Time Machine" Richard B. Alley, Princeton University Press, 2000, Princeton and Oxford, ISBN 0-691-10296-1

For interesting readings on origins and on the relationship between science and faith, visit the American Scientific Affilation web site at

You will find some strange and interesting speculations there, as well as some reasonable-sounding essays. I recommend these, not because they contain "better answers" but because the variety of opinions -- which show how greatly reasonable, studious believers can differ on these matters -- illustrate the depth our human ignorance. When reasonable men disagree profoundly, the true answers are usually unknowable.

Specific collections of essays and links at that site:

On origins
Questions about Origins

On evolution:

On Cosmology and astronomy:

On the "interface" between the Bible and science:

On philosophical issues affecting science and faith: