Embracing Ambiguity

In the 3rd century BC, a man you’ve probably never heard of had a revolutionary idea. His name was Aristarcus of Samos. As an astronomer and a mathematician, he believed that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. He gained little attention for his idea and the geocentric theories of contemporaries like Aristotle and Ptolemy were favored. Though he was right, it took nearly 2,000 years and the observations of Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei, for Aristarchus’ heliocentric model of the universe to become the accepted model.

We know now that Aristarcus of Samos was right. You would be hard pressed to find a person in the modern age who disagrees with Heliocentrism, but this was not always the case. In fact, Aristarcus was ridiculed for his idea by his contemporaries. One of those dissenters was Cleanthes of Assos. Cleanthes was a stoic philosopher who believed Aristarcus should be charged with sacrilege for his heliocentric idea[1]. Along with Aristarcus, Copernicus was ridiculed for this same idea. In 1539, Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, reduced Copernicus’ ideas to the ramblings of a fool seeking to make a name for himself. According to Martin Luther, “The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth”[2].

The following passages of the Bible speak about the earth. Chronicles 16:30 states that “the world is established; it shall never be moved”[3]. Psalm 104:5 states that, “He [God] set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved”[4]. Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved”[5]. Psalm 93:1 states that “… the world is established; it shall never be moved”[6].

When a person reads these verses with the pretext that the earth is the center of the universe and everything revolves around it, it is not hard to see why many had a problem with Aristarcus’ idea. The Bible seems to be clear, given their interpretation. However, based on the evidence that we see in the universe, we now see that these verses explain something different about the earth. Perhaps they speak about the enduring nature of the earth or the power of God to place the earth where it is. In any case, we cannot logically conclude Geocentrism. Scientific evidence will not allow such fallacious interpretations. In such a case as this, we must embrace an ambiguous interpretation and reject an absolutist one.

In recent times, the issue of the placement of the earth has faded into obscurity and a new conflict has arisen. This conflict rests on our understanding of the creation of life and the universe. The Big Bang theory, Abiogenesis, and Evolution are among some of the scientific theories that many Christians seem to have the most issues with. These issues arise because of the apparent conflict with these scientific understandings and the current interpretations of the Bible.

Due to the length of this discourse (my apologies), there are certain things I do not have time to go into explicit detail. These topics include the reliability and divine authorship of the Bible, the existence of the God, the complete Biblical account of Creation, the scientific evidence of the Theory of Evolution, The Big Bang, or Abiogenesis. That being said, there are a few crucial things that I will explain as concisely as possible. I will also outline the assumptions that I hold as we delve into the discourse.

I hold that God is a perfect being who is infinite and immaterial. I believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God. I believe that it is inerrant in its original form. Based on archeological evidence we know that the Bible we read today, is the same one they read at the time they were written. There are more than 10,000 copies of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament and more than 5,000 copies the New Testament in Greek. In comparison, there are 7 copies of Plato’s writing, 49 copies of Aristotle, and 643 copies of Homer’s Iliad. The Bible records that God created the universe and everything in it. The specifics of that process we will discuss further.

A scientific theory is an explanation of the natural world that is well-substantiated by evidence. The Big Bang is a theory that states that the universe originated from a single point in the universe and then expanded. It is the prevailing cosmological model for the universe. Abiogenesis is the theory that living matter arises from non-living matter. The Theory of Evolution is the theory that organisms change over time, passing down inherited traits creating diversity. These theories are generally undisputed in the scientific community.

There is a false dichotomy in modern society between Science and Scripture. The understanding is that, if a person believes the findings of modern science, they must reject the Bible and things that it teaches about Jesus, morality and sin, and the created order. On the other hand, if a person believes in the Bible, they must reject all scientific findings that contradict the prevailing understanding of the Bible. Many of these people, as I once pridefully did, out rightly reject Evolution, The Big Bang Theory, and many other widely accepted findings. This poses a problem because it creates polarization and two mutually exclusive options; 1.) God does not exist, the Bible is not a reliable source of truth, and modern science is the only source of truth. 2.) God does exist, the Bible is the only source of truth, and modern science is not an accurate source of truth. Both are wrong.

In the book of Proverbs, the Bible states that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”[7]. Pride is defined as “a feeling that you are more important or better than other people”.[8]. If we take this concept of pride, and apply it to a worldview, the result is absolutism. An Absolutist claims to have all the answers. They claim to have an infallible understanding. This is dangerous, and leads to destruction. It is pride that leads to intolerance, intolerance to absolutism, absolutism to persecution.

It is here that I begin explaining the third option.

The scientific evidences we find in the study of nature are not in conflict with the Bible, but instead in conflict with our interpretation of it. If God created the universe and divinely inspired the Bible, then both must be consistent in their message. If an inconsistency is found between Science and Scripture, then the inconsistency is not in Science or Scripture, but in our interpretation of them. On the one hand, the “book” of nature involves all of the scientific theories and everything existing in the universe. Unbiased and reproducible scientific findings are truths of the “book” of nature. On the other hand, the Bible is the “book” of God’s explicit revelation to men. In this book we find truths about human nature, the moral reality of the universe, God’s supernatural plan of salvation, and the historical narrative of His dealings with the human race. When rightly understood, scripture reveals truths about the universe.

It has become apparent that some truths are found in one source and not the other. It is scientifically impossible to prove that God, being infinite and immaterial, exists because by definition He cannot be proved through finite or material means. It is possible for science to explain how came into existence, but it cannot explain why. It is also impossible for the Bible to explain the existence of fossils, for it is silent on the subject. The Bible is also silent on the exact nature of the details of particle physics. There exist subjects that are mutually exclusive.

On the other hand, there are subjects that both sources make claims about. It is at the intersection of these two sources that we will focus on. The first subject we will examine is the creation of life and the universe.

According to modern scientific findings, although there are variations, the Big Bang was the initial starting point. “The universe was born during a period of inflation that began about 13.7 billion years ago. Like a rapidly expanding balloon, it swelled from a size smaller than an electron to nearly its current size within a tiny fraction of a second.”[9] There is the belief that dark energy, could be the underlying explanation for the Big Bang. This is a simplified version of that understanding and the subject is highly debated as new evidence is found. There are also theories that allow for the existence of an ageless universe as well as a multiverse. For many scientists, the subject is a subject of great interest and many hold differing opinions.

The Bible also makes claims about how the universe came into existence. The biblical account claims that the universe was created from nothing by God. Genesis 1:1 states that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”[10]. John 1:3 states that “All things were made through [God], and without him was not anything made that was made”[11]. Psalm 33:6 states that “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made”[12]. Lastly, Colossians 1:16 states that “by [God] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or authorities, all things were created through him and for him”[13].

These passages from the Bible, as well as the general explanation of the universe is an example of an area where the two do not appear to be in conflict with each other. At this level, the explanations do not provide explicit details about the origin of the universe. As we will see, it is at the point that traditional views must be reevaluated.

The theory of Evolution is that from the beginning of life and the first organism that the accumulation of traits passed on from one generation to another is the explanation of the diversity of life on planet earth. When an organism accumulates enough traits that distinguish it from its ancestor, it becomes a new species. Given enough time, it is easy to see the divergence of species from a single organism over vast amounts of time. The abundance of evolutionary evidence in the fossil record and the study of current biology support this conclusion. It is from this evolutionary chain that we find our origin. According to this theory, humans evolved in the same way that every other organism does, through gradual change. There is a plethora of evidence to support such claims.

The Bible has a differing account in the creation of humans. Genesis 5:1–2 states that “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created”[14]. Genesis 2:7 states that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature”[15]. Genesis 2:21–22 states that “the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man”[16].

The literal interpretation, which is widely held by most Christians, interprets this event as happening very concretely. God created the universe and everything in it in 7 24-hour days. God literally made humans look like him physically, they bear the “image of God”. God literally molded Adam into a man from dust and breathed literal oxygen into his lungs and he became a living person. God literally put Adam to sleep and surgically removed a rib from him and fashioned a woman from that rib.

The literal interpretation of these passages poses some problems. We will see that a non-literal interpretation makes much more sense in light of what we see in the natural world. The first problem is with the fact that humans bear the “Image of God”. If God is immaterial, then it may be wise to redefine what “Image of God” means. It cannot mean that we physically look like God, because every person looks different. This would suggest that humans with deformities or physical alterations somehow do not bear that image. It could suggest that the “Image of God” refers to our ability to reason, engage in communication, and have rationality. This poses a problem because animals communicate with each other, reason, and have other forms of rationality similar to ours. It is at this point that we see that the image of God probably refers to our capacity for personal relationship with God or a kind of immaterial spirituality. The “Image of God” could also be explained as the role we are given by God. The Israelites were prohibited from creating an image of God because an image could not contain the essence of God materially. This was considered a sin and a was explicitly prohibited in the Ten Commandments. It is perhaps here that we can understand that God divinely appointed humans to be ambassadors for him. The immaterial spirituality and the providential role seems to be the most probable explanation for the “Image of God”, however other options are debated.

In Genesis, the Hebrew word “yom” is translated as “day”. For the literalist interpretation, seven “days” poses a few problems. If we measure a day by the amount of time it takes for the Earth to make a complete rotation on its axis, how then could a day exist before the earth did? The answer lies in the fact that the Hebrew language is much simpler than the English language and thus has a smaller vocabulary. The word “yom” can be translated into English as a twenty-four hour period, a year, or as a general finite period of time. It is therefore possible that God created the universe in seven “general finite periods of time”[17]. When understood in light of this meaning, it does not conflict with our scientific understanding of the universe. The Bible seems to echo this understanding when 2 Peter 3:8 urges its readers to “not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”[18].

The third issue arises from the assumption that God must have miraculously made humans differently from the rest of the created order. Although the account of man’s creation appears differently in Scripture, it seems that this special creation of man stems from a prideful assertion that humans could not bear the image of God if they were created by the same biological processes as an ape, or fish, or a worm. This is inconsistent with the previous understanding of the image of God. Is it not possible that God selected Homo sapiens and gave them the “Image of God”?

It seems that after close examination that the logical conclusion when approaching these passages is to understand them in light of what is called “The Accommodation Theory”. This theory states God’s revelation about the creation of the earth was accommodated to the understanding of the ones it was revealed to. That is, the creation story was revealed in such a way that the people at the time could understand it. It seems unlikely that God would have tried to give the complexities of the Evolution or The Big Bang to people who could not yet understand. Another theory states that we should read the Genesis account as a literary account of creation instead of a scientific one because Genesis is not designed to give such an answer. Either of these non-literal interpretations seems to be the more humble and logical response.

It is at this junction that an absolutist understanding of the scriptures seems foolish. To say that we know exactly how God created the universe in all its complexity is an exaggeration of the details given in the text. The scriptures do not seem to provide an exhaustive answer for the material means in which humans, organisms, and the universe were created. It is at this point that Scripture becomes silent and Science makes a powerful argument.

In the order in which things were created, Genesis 1:24–26 states that “God said ‘let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds’…then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”[19]. Based on the ordering of the creation, it seems that the Bible indicates that other life forms were created before humans. This is consistent with the Theory of Evolution. Homo sapiens are introduced at about 125,000 years ago, nearly 4 Billion years after the first prokaryotic cell appeared.

Is it not possible that God could use the process of Evolution to bring about his purposes in the created order? If God existed before the material, he must therefore be immaterial. If God is immaterial, then it is through material processes that he created that he interacts with the material universe. It is therefore possible that God directed diversity and actively created through processes like evolution. Can an immaterial God govern the material aspects of the universe and exist unbeknownst to the material creations existing within it?

It is with my understanding of the natural world and understanding of scripture that I present the third option explicitly.

The Universe exists. It exists with calculable laws and principles that are finely tuned. Gravity, Matter, and Energy exist. These things are clearly seen by myself and by people the world over. God exists. He exists from the logical deduction that everything which exists is caused by a preceding cause, and that at some point there exists a beginning of that chain of events, that is; an uncaused cause. He exists in the truth that is evident in His revelation through the Bible and the supernatural revelation I personally experienced at the moment of salvation. Both contain the truths about the universe, but I do not understand everything that they encompass. I can say with absolute certainty ,that I know nothing absolutely. It is at this crucial moment, that I should realize my inability to be absolutely correct, and choose the humble path of Embracing Ambiguity.

[1]http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Moralia/The_Face_in_the_Moon*/A.html#T923

[2]http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/Unit3/response.html

[3](Chronicles 16:30, English Standard Version)

[4](Psalm 104:5, English Standard Version)

[5](Ecclesiastes 1:5, English Standard Version)

[6](Psalm 93:1, English Standard Version)

[7](Proverbs 16:18, English Standard Version)

[8]http://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/pride

[9] http://www.livescience.com/1774-greatest-mysteries-universe.html

[10](Genesis 1:1, English Standard Version)

[11](John 1:3, English Standard Version)

[12](Psalm 33:6, English Standard Version)

[13](Collosians 1:16, English Standard Version)

[14](Genesis 5:1–2, English Standard Version)

[15](Genesis 2:7, English Standard Version)

[16](Genesis 2:21–22, English Standard Version)

[17] http://lexiconcordance.com/hebrew/3117.html

[18](2 Peter 3:8, English Standard Version)

[19](Genesis 1:24–26, English Standard Version)

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