God, Science, and Faith
Scriptures: Genesis 1 (selected verses); Hebrews 11:1-3
As I said in the church eNews this week, one of the children in our church recently said to his mother, “I’ve been thinking. If Santa really exists, why doesn’t he show himself and prove it.” Then he added, “I wonder the same thing about God.”
Which just happens to be almost word for word a question asked in a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. It’s Christmas time, and Calvin says to his pet tiger Hobbes, “This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn’t make sense. Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery? If the guy exists, why doesn’t he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn’t exist, what’s the meaning of all this?” Hobbes says, “I dunno. Isn’t this a religious holiday?” Calvin says, “Yeah, but actually, I’ve got the same questions about God.”
In our recent high school confirmation class I showed a movie called Contact. Jodie Foster plays an astronomer named Dr. Ellie Arroway who uses large arrays of radio telescopes to listen for transmissions from intelligent life in distant galaxies. She is befriended by an ex-priest name Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey, who now writes books on science and religion. Early in the movie they attend a dinner party at which they begin a running conversation about science and God.
Ellie: What’s more likely, an all-powerful God created the universe and then decided not to give proof of his existence, or that he does not exist at all, and that we created him so we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone.
Palmer: I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where God doesn’t exist. I wouldn’t want to.
Ellie: How do you know you are not deluding yourself? For me, I’d need proof.
Palmer: Proof. (Pause) Did you love your Father?
Ellie: Yes, very much.
Palmer: Prove it.
In our first scripture reading, Hebrews 11 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is not something you can prove. It is more like the question, “Do you love your father? Or your spouse? Or your children?” It is not a matter of proof, it is a matter of commitment, a commitment that changes your life precisely because you make it.
Let me illustrate using the story of creation in Genesis 1. For some the Bible creation story is itself a barrier to faith. One of the questions of faith submitted this spring asks, “How does the Old Testament creation story connect to science?”
On the back of the bulletin insert are some scientific descriptions of creation. According to science, the world came into being over billions of years, but the Bible says it happened over seven days. For some that is a contradiction disproving the whole Biblical idea of creation.
But only if you don’t read Genesis carefully. Because if you read Genesis carefully, you will see that the reference to “days” in Genesis 1 is symbolic. It is not meant to be taken literally; it is meant to be taken symbolically. The proof is in verses 14-19. These verses describes the creation of the sun and moon, and it says they were created on the fourth day! What does a day mean, if the sun and moon are not created until the fourth day? Clearly, the word “day” in Genesis 1 has a symbolic meaning. What does it symbolize? I will come back to that in a minute.
But notice how Genesis describes creation as a process. Verse 11: “Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind that bear fruit with the seed in it.” This is not all that different from the biology text book quoted on the back of the insert. The middle paragraph says,
Just how atoms and smaller molecules are assembled into the intricate patterns of organic molecules is a matter of great interest to biochemists today. Somewhere in this maze of cell chemistry must lie the key to life.
In Genesis, God says, “Let the earth put forth vegetation….” There is nothing in Genesis that excludes the idea of a process by which inorganic material—the earth—becomes organic material, and then a living thing that grows and reproduces. The Bible in no way requires that we turn our back on science.
But science does not give us the whole key to life. Despite what the biology text book says, you won’t find the key to life in the maze of cell chemistry. Science can try to explain how we got here, but not why. The Bible deals with why we are here. You may be the result of a process that took billions of years; you may even be the end product of millions of years of evolution, but that is not the whole story. The Bible says you are here on purpose. You are not just an accident, a random collision of molecules that after enough tries finally produced a human being. You were put here by Someone who wanted you here, someone bigger than your family, bigger than your school, bigger than the whole world. You are here, because the Creator of the universe wanted you here.
Why? That brings me to verse 26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness….” There have been many interpretations of what it means to be created in the image of God, but the best explanation, I think, is that we are created with the capacity for a relationship to God. I have no problem with the idea of evolution, but somewhere in the process God made human beings capable of knowing God and loving God. That’s what I think it means to be created in the image of God. It means we were created with the capacity to experience God’s love for us and share that love with others.
Now back to the question of why creation is described as happening over 6 days, culminating in the 7th day? By describing it this way, the Bible makes clear that creation is unfolding toward a goal. According to the Bible, nature is not an endlessly repeating cycle, which is how nature is portrayed in many other religions. Many religions portray nature as an endlessly repeating cycle. But the Bible sees life as an unfolding plot, a story moving toward a goal or climax. And that goal is symbolized by the 7th day of creation, which in the Old Testament is called the Sabbath, the day of rest and worship.
One of the confessions in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism. A catechism is a confession of faith in the form of questions and answers. The first question asks, “What is the chief end of man?” Or to put it another way, “What is the goal of human life?” Answer: “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
That is why the Bible describes creation symbolically as unfolding over seven days culminating in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the day of rest and worship. It is the day for glorifying God and enjoying God’s gifts along with the whole creation. All the hopes for life in the Bible—for peace, fulfillment, joy, hope, right relationships, and blessing for all people—all these hopes are symbolized by the seventh day of creation: the Sabbath. That, according to Genesis, is the goal of creation: to glorify God and enjoy God forever.
You won’t find that in any science book. Did you notice how Genesis repeatedly says that the world is good? You won’t find that word in a science text. Science may try to tell us how the world came into being, but it cannot tell us that the world is good, because that is a value judgment. It is not an empirical observation; it is a statement of value by the world’s Creator. Unlike science, the Bible explains why we are here, where we are going, and why we matter to Someone who is greater than we are.
In the movie Contact Ellie Arroway finally makes contact with radio signals from deep space. Eventually these radio signals are decoded and found to contain complete drawings for making a space craft capable of traveling to a remote part of the universe and making contact with the intelligent beings who sent the radio signals. So NASA builds the space ship and Ellie is chosen to fly it. She makes the trip, but because the travel involves a time warp, it appears that she never left. From the point of view of observers on earth she is gone for no length of time and has no proof that she went anywhere. But she did go somewhere, and it was a life changing experience.
Near the end of the movie Ellie is summoned to testify about her trip before a committee of Congress. And here is the scene where Ellie has to explain and justify what she has experienced. A counsel of the committee accuses her of being deluded, and the committee chair says to her, “Are we supposed to take all this on faith?” In response Ellie says,
I had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything I know as a human being, everything I am tells me it is real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever: a vision of the universe that tells us how undeniably tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are, a vision that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves, that none of us is alone. I wish I could share that; I wish that everyone even for a moment could feel that awe and humility and hope.
I cannot prove to you that we were created by God. But I can offer you a vision of how small and insignificant and rare and precious we are, a vision that tells us we belong to Someone greater than ourselves and that we are not alone. I wish for every one of you that awe and humility and hope.