Genesis and the cosmos: A unified picture?
How should the Bible and natural science be related, explained, or studied? At least two positions seem possible. On the one hand, there are those who hold that a conservative understanding of the Bible and the findings of science cannot be harmonized. On the other, there are those who believe that conclusions drawn from the two disciplines can be harmonized to fit into one overall view of the world. Many in the second group base their belief on the conviction that God is the Creator both of the Bible and of the natural world, and that both have a role to play in our understanding of God’s creation.
This essay attempts to present a scientific and a biblical model of the origin of the inanimate natural world and explore how these can be brought into harmony with each other.
The scientific model
Science today claims that it understands how the Universe originated and developed. The claim is one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of modern cosmology. It is the story of the Big Bang.1 According to this theory, the Universe originated almost 14 billion years ago. One of the attractive aspects of the Big Bang theory is its explanation of the source of the basic building blocks of everything, including life. Whereas the chemical elements formed in the first three minutes of the Big Bang were simple (mostly hydrogen and helium), the more complex atoms were produced much later. They were synthesized inside stars as the product of the nuclear reactions that make stars shine.
This theory, therefore, requires that stars form so that they can produce the basic chemical elements out of which everything else is made. For stars to form and produce the various chemical elements, the Universe’s physical conditions and basic physical parameters need to have very precise values. For instance, to make atoms out of the nucleons formed in the very first minutes after the Big Bang, the numbers of protons and neutrons must fall between very narrow limits. If not, the required atoms would either not have formed, or all stars in the Universe would have collapsed into neutron stars and black holes long ago.
Further, unless the number of electrons in the Universe was equal to the number of protons to an accuracy of one part in 1037, electromagnetic forces would have overcome gravitational forces, and galaxies, stars, and planets could never have formed. And, without stars there would be no complex chemical elements.
Also, for stars (and galaxies) to form, the Universe must not expand too rapidly (for that would tear matter apart before stars are formed), nor too slowly (for that would cause the collapse of the Universe long before stars have had time to produce the more complex chemical elements). To achieve this, the cosmic expansion needs to be fine-tuned to one part in 1060. A very high precision indeed!
In fact, the number and the precision of the fine-tunings2 of the various physical and cosmic parameters are so incredible that one must consider that our Universe was made with the express purpose of being able to support human life. Here we find evidence for the existence not only of design, but also of a Designer. This is the argument from design for the existence and activity of God. He reveals Himself not only in His love letter to humanity, the Bible, but also in the work of His hands, nature (Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 40:26).
The Big Bang theory also offers an explanation for many processes that would have occurred after the Universe was more than 300,000 years old. The best models of what happened at yet earlier times also seem to explain the Universe as we know it today. However, since none of these processes can be verified observationally, they remain in the area of speculative model building.
A more fundamental difficulty with purely scientific models is that science declares that all phenomena can only have natural causes. Thus, God, as the Sustainer of His creation, is discarded as an active agent in the history of the Universe. For the Bible-believing Christian, however, there are many phenomena for which science has no explanation. Consider, for example, floating axe-heads, feeding more than 5,000 people from five loaves and two fish, resurrection from death, and a virgin giving birth (2 Kings 6:1-7; John 6:1-13;11:38-44; Luke 1:26-38). Can we really expect that science will one day be able to explain exactly how these happened?
The answer to this question is important. For the Christian, God’s existence is a given, and scientific laws may be seen as our current description of how God directs His creation.
The biblical model
The first chapter of the Bible seems to provide the account of the origin of the Universe. While human curiosity may not be fully satisfied, the very first verse of the Bible does answer four of the five basic questions. “When?” is answered with “In the beginning.” “Who?” is answered with “God.” “How?” is answered by “created.” “What?” is answered by “the heavens and the earth.” The “why?” is answered in the rest of the book. We need to say a bit more about these words.
“The heavens and the earth.” The phrase is a so-called merism,3 i.e., a term that includes everything between the two extremes of heaven and earth. It can be understood to indicate the totality of all created matter.
“In the beginning.” In Hebrew, one explanation of “in the beginning” is that it can denote a period of time preceding what follows; i.e., a period before the Genesis creation week. “In the beginning” gives us some—maybe considerable—time before the start of creation week.
“Created.” The Hebrew bara (“created” in Genesis1:1) always has God as the subject; only He can truly create. The Hebrew word asah is usually translated “made” in Genesis 1 and in more than 70 other ways elsewhere in the Bible. God is the only One who can create (bara); humans can make (asah). In Genesis 1, the word bara is used in verse 1 when God creates all matter out of nothing, in verse 21 when He creates fish and birds by giving them breath of life as only He can, and in verses 26 and 27 for the creation of Adam and Eve when He creates them in His image.4
On the other days of creation week—depending on the Bible version consulted—, God “separates,” “produces,” “brings forth,” or “makes.” On all these occasions, God shapes new forms out of previously created matter. When bara is used, there is usually an “out-of-nothing” element, something entirely new that was not there before in any shape or form.
So, “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth” (KJV) means that God created out of nothing all matter in the Universe before He did His creative work starting from Genesis 1:3. In His creation of all matter, God provides Himself with the materials for further construction work. This way of working is similar to His using the dry land to produce vegetation (vs. 11), animals (vs. 24), and Adam (2:7).
Of course, we know that a certain amount of creation had taken place before creation week. Angels and, most likely, other (inhabited) worlds were created before the Genesis creation week (Job 38:7). Another way of showing that the Earth existed already before creation week has been suggested by Gordon Gray.5 He calls it the “subtraction method.” By starting at the end of Genesis chapter 1 and going back in time, now eliminating things as they were created, one arrives at what was already in existence at the beginning of Day 1.
So, starting on Friday afternoon, Eve, who came last, is eliminated first, then Adam, and so on. Proceeding like this, what do we find on the eve of the first day? At no time during our backward journey did we read about the creation of planet Earth, or of water. The Earth, then, must have been made before creation week. However, it is dark, wholly under water, and lifeless. This is exactly the description of the Earth in Genesis1:2. It seems that this unformed and unfilled Earth has been created before Day 1, and that the very short account of that creation and the condition in which it was then left, are given in verses 1 and 2. Interestingly, when God reveals His creative power to Job, He refers to the Earth as wrapped in darkness by thick clouds (Job 38:9). This verse offers the possibility to say something more definite about the creation of the Sun, Moon, and stars.
In Genesis1:16 (“the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars” [NIV]) the word for “made” is not in the Hebrew text. In fact, this passage can also be translated, “the lesser light to govern the night together with the stars.” The record of the fourth day simply says that the stars were to “govern the night” together with the Moon. This reading eliminates the argument for believing that the stars were created on the fourth day, and also avoids the problem of the light from distant stars reaching the Earth within the lifetime of the Universe. There is, therefore, no need to have recourse to the artificial construction that asks us to believe that the stars were created with their light already filling the whole Universe.
To explain how the Earth could be in darkness while the Sun already existed, it is sufficient to read Job 38:9 again. The cloud cover before the first day was so thick that it was dark on Earth. Then, on Day 1, God says, “Let there be light.” The thick cloud cover is lifted enough to bring light to the world. At the same time, it remains thick enough to keep the Sun hidden from view, much as we don’t see the Sun on a densely-clouded day without there being any doubt about whether it is day or night. Then on Day 4, the clouds are lifted further and the luminaries are presented in their full glory.
As far as the creative work of the six days is concerned, I believe that that was accomplished in six literal, consecutive 24-hour days. Others have provided ample evidence that the way the Hebrew language numbers the days in Genesis 1 can only be understood as denoting periods of 24 hours each.6 About the time frame preceding creation week—the time between “In the beginning” and “the first day”—the Bible gives no firm answer.
However, this is an area where science may have something to say. The Big Bang theory, for example, places the origin of the universe at almost 14 billion years ago. The Bible places creation week about 6,000 years ago or a little more.7 By all accounts, even when we have our reservations about various aspects of the Big Bang theory, there could have been a lot of time before creation week in which God could work with His created matter to make many galaxies, stars, planets around other stars (some even inhabited), and even the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth.
We are now in a position to gather the foregoing into an overall description of how the creation process may have unfolded, taking into consideration some aspects of the Big Bang theory. At some unspecified time “in the beginning,” God created all the matter and energy the Universe contains today. In doing so, He was not indebted to matter already present, and His word was sufficient to speak everything into existence in a moment (Psalm 33:6, 9;148:5; Hebrews 11:3).
God worked with the primordial matter to form, first, elementary particles, and then the simple atoms of mainly hydrogen and helium in the first three minutes. According to the Big Bang theory, when the Universe was 300,000 years old, galaxies were formed, and, in those galaxies, stars. In the Universe, it seems that God had a special role for the stars to play. They were the cooking pots where He prepared most of the chemical elements He later used in the formation of the Earth. Together with the stars, planets formed. Again, according to the Big Bang theory, some 4.5 billion years ago, this led to the formation of the Sun and its planets. Planet Earth was composed mainly of the more complex chemical elements important for life. However, the Earth was unformed and unfilled, covered with water, and enveloped in dark clouds.
Then, approximately 6,000 years ago, God visited the Earth to accomplish His plan for this planet and its inhabitants. He took six literal days to form the Earth as a habitat for the life He then created to fill it. The firmament, vegetation, fish, birds, land animals, and our first parents were brought into existence. Some of these were brought forth from terrestrial matter, others were treated in a more specialized manner when they were imbued with special characteristics. The difference is reflected in the use of the Hebrew words bara and asah.
Of course, the above scenario is only one possibility. It is neither definitive nor complete. There are many unanswered questions simply because we were not present to witness what happened. This scenario is the best I can think of that harmonizes our current understanding of science with biblical faith—both contribute to a unified picture.
In all this, the overriding importance of a correct paradigm is clear. The conclusions scientists draw from their observations of nature change radically when a different paradigm is used. God does make a difference to the Universe! This is no surprise, because He is not only the Creator, but also the Sustainer. Not only does God make a difference to the material Universe, He asks for the privilege to make a difference to our lives as well. Comparing the eternal future with God with the limited lifetime of the Universe, it cannot be too difficult to say “Yes, please!”
Mart de Groot (Doctor of Natural Sciences, University of Utrecht) spent most of his life as a research astronomer and later served as an Adventist minister in Northern Ireland. Recently retired, he continues to research, lecture, and write. His e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mart de Groot, “The Big Bang Model: An appraisal,” College and University Dialogue 10:1 (1998), pp. 9-12.
- Hugh Ross in The Creator and the Cosmos (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 2001) lists 35 evidences for the fine-tuning of the Universe (p. 154) and another 66 for the fine-tunings of the Galaxy-Sun-Earth-Moon system (p. 188).
- Gordon Gray, The Age of the Universe (Washougal, Washington: Morning Star Publ., 2000), p. 172.
- I am indebted to Dr. Carlos Steger for the initial suggestion about the uses of bara and asah in Genesis 1.
- Gray, pp. 28, 30.
- Richard M. Davidson, “In the Beginning: How to Interpret Genesis 1,” College and University Dialogue 6:3 (1994):9-12; Gerhard F. Hasel, “The ‘Days’ of Creation in Genesis: Literal ‘Days’ or Figurative ‘Periods/Epochs’ of Time?” in John Templeton Baldwin, ed., Creation, Catastrophe, and Calvary (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 2000), pp. 40 ff.
- L. T Geraty, “The Genesis Genealogies as an Index of Time,” Spectrum, 6 (1984):5-18.