1In the beginning God created the heavens and the
earth. 2The earth was without form, and void; and
darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was
hovering over the face of the waters. 3Then God said,
“Let there be light”; and there was
light. 4And God saw the light, that it was good; and God
divided the light from the darkness. 5God called the
light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the
morning were the first day.
6Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” 7Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. 8And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.
9Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” and it was so.
24Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind”; and it was so. 25 And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind, cattle according to its kind, and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all F2 the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
I’d like you to think back, if you would, to the year 1968. This was a tumultuous year for many countries of the world and certainly for the United States. It was at the height of the Vietnam War, during which there were many protests in the streets of our cities. Following the poor results of the New Hampshire primary, the sitting President Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the presidential race. Bobby Kennedy ran that year and was assassinated. Martin Luther King was also assassinated that year, a tragedy that was immediately followed by urban riots across the country. The Democrats had what was probably their most tumultuous convention on record, with Chicago police greatly over-reacting to street protests around the convention. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon, who later won, ironically, on a “law and order” ticket and with a promise to end the war.
The year, however, ended on a surprisingly optimistic note. On December 21 NASA launched Apollo 8, which took a three man crew – Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders – to the far side of the Moon. They became the first human beings to voyage to another celestial body. They traveled through space for three days, arriving at the moon on December 24 and then orbited it ten times. On their fourth time around they witnessed something no one had ever seen before, Earthrise. They saw the earth rise up from the lunar surface as they came from the dark side of the moon. Anders took the famous photograph of it. On their ninth orbit they made a television transmission back to earth, which was watched in real time or shortly after by one of every four people on the planet. Each of the astronauts took turns describing the moon, and then on this Christmas Eve they read the first nine verses of the Book of Genesis, the story of creation. Borman finished the broadcast wishing a Merry Christmas to “all of you on the good Earth.”
When they returned, a stranger sent Borman a telegram reading, “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.” Time Magazine named the three astronauts the men of the year. In the following year the “Earthrise” photo was turned into a postage stamp, with the words “In the beginning God …” printed at the bottom. Some say that this stamp marks the beginning of the Environmental movement – the first Earth Day occurred in 1970. Borman went on a world tour that year. He met Pope Paul VI, who said, “I have spent my entire life trying to say to the world what you did on Christmas Eve.”
That trip around the moon, the photograph of the earth, and the words of Genesis seemed to strike a cord with many people at that time. Somehow the planet seemed more fragile and more precious and more special that it ever had before. And the religious note struck by reading the opening verses of Genesis reminded everyone that the earth didn’t just happen. It wasn’t an accident emerging out of the chaos of the universe. Rather it was the careful work of a loving God – a God who created a beautiful home for his children.
Not everyone, of course, agreed. The famous atheist Madelyn Murry O’ Hair brought a lawsuit against NASA for allowing the reading of Genesis because the astronauts were government employees and, therefore, should be banned from performing religious-inspired acts in space. The Supreme Court rejected the case, but in July of 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Buzz Aldrin quietly took communion but didn’t mention it until several years later so as not to fuel the controversy.
Genesis – the message
The biblical verses that the three astronauts read that Christmas Eve are among the most inspiring and controversial of the Bible. The doctrine of creation out of nothing is not clearly taught in the first two verses, but later biblical authors interpreted it that way. The author of Hebrews said, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb 11:3) – the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Later Christian theologians – especially Augustine – interpreted it that way too.
In the biblical account the world is not presented as being created all at once but rather in stages over a period of seven days. From the earliest centuries these seven days were not always considered to be literal days. And it was also recognized that the Genesis account of creation was more a poetic than a scientific account. The acts of creation are presented in pairs of three, the first three days with the second three days – a beautiful example of Hebrew poetic parallelism. Hence on the first day there is light, and on the fourth there is sun and moon. On the second day there is water and air, and on the fifth day there fish and birds. On the third day there is land and vegetation, and on the six day there are animals and people on the land. The whole creative process is capped off on the seventh day, when God rested.
The Jews thought of the number seven as a perfect number, the number of God himself. The theological truth to be grasped here is that God is the creator, that all came about by his plan and his power. A second point is that after each day of creation, God said, “It is good.” And after the creation of human beings at the end of the creative process, he declared, “It is very good.”
There is also a special message here for human beings. God created man (humanity) as male and female. He created them in his own image – so that we are in some way a reflection of the divine. Finally, these creatures were directed to fill the earth with their progeny, and to rule over the planet.
This is a controversial passage because there are many things to stumble over. In what way are we made in the image of God? What is the nature of man as male and female? In what sense are we to be rulers (or stewards) of the planet? What exactly was the process of creation? Should we interpret this passage poetically so that we come away with a sense of wonder and awe, or are we to take it more literally than that?
One answer to that last question can be found at the Creation Museum, which opened a year ago this month in Petersburg, Kentucky – just south of Cincinnati. This is a $27 million facility organized by the Australian born Ken Ham. It purports to present the creation of the earth from a literal interpretation of Genesis. In what is called the “Young Earth” interpretation of Creationism, the earth was created only 6000 years ago; Adam and Eve are historical characters; and all the animals that ever lived on the planet were created in the same brief period – six days. Hence the Museum includes a display that shows human beings living at the same time as dinosaurs.
You may shake your head at this, but roughly 50 percent of all Americans believe in some form of Creationism; and at one of the early Presidential debates all but one of the candidates raised their hands to show their support for a creationist interpretation of Genesis. In addition to the “Young Earth” version of Creationism, there is also and “Old Earth” version that sees the “days” of Genesis as being potentially long epochs of time. There is also the school of thought called “Intelligent Design,” which should not be confused with Creationism. Intelligent Design, or ID, began in 1991 with a book by Philip Johnson, Darwin on Trial. This takes a very sophisticated look at the modern science of Evolution and points out all of the logical and technical problems with it. Johnson’s central view is that scientists are trapped in the scientific paradigm of evolution and are therefore incapable of seeing its flaws. Or, if they see its flaws, they cannot admit them without committing professional suicide; therefore, these flaws are not given the attention that scientists should be giving them. This is a very interesting view. It made a big splash in the 1990s. It continues to present a challenge to the details of the theory of evolution. But the flaw in Johnson’s approach is that he is not able to present a credible scientific and naturalistic alternative to evolution – and either is anyone else.
If a modern scientist were to rewrite the first chapter of Genesis, it might go something like this. The universe began with a singularity – or Big Bang – 14.7 billion years ago. The earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. During its first 500 million years, it was under constant bombardment from asteroids and meteorites. It was at this time that our moon was born, probably being a huge chunk of the earth dislodged due to a giant asteroid strike. Then in the next 150 million years microbial life appeared in the oceans. Scientists have yet to discover how this life came about, but it continued for several billion years. Then suddenly 550 million years ago a large number of new life forms appeared in what is called the “Cambrian explosion.” Four hundred million years ago plants appeared on the dry land, and 30 million years later animals appeared on the land. The dinosaurs appeared 230 million years ago, and then suddenly disappeared about 65 million years ago, when scientists believe the earth was struck by a large asteroid on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. The mass extinction that followed cleared the way for the rise of mammals on the planet. A number of humanoid types appeared over the last few hundred thousand years. All of them have died out except homo sapiens (ourselves), who date from about 195,000 years ago.
Charles Darwin taught us that life on this planet evolved from single-celled life to more complex life forms. From fish came reptiles, and from reptiles sprung both birds and mammals. Darwin expressed various views on religion over the course of his life. At one time or another he was an evangelical Christian, a theist, an agnostic, and an atheist. But he writes at the end of The Origin of the Species of his wonder over God’s work of creation: “There is grandeur in this view of life [this is, evolution], with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that…from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”(Collins 98-99).
Similarly Francis Collins, the head of the human genome project of the last decade, writes, “The elegance behind life’s complexity is indeed reason for awe, and for belief in God – but not in the simple, straightforward way that many found so compelling before Darwin same along.” (86) Scientists, in working on the human genome project, have discovered that the alphabet that makes up the script of our DNA has only four letters but that each gene is made up of hundreds or thousands of letters of code. In fact the text of our DNA is 3.1 billion letters long. Collins writes that if you print “these letters out in regular font size on normal bond paper and bind them all together… [the result would be] a tower the height of the Washington Monument.” (1-2) The amazing thing is that all that information is packed into each one of the tiny cells that make up our bodies. Collins writes of the beauty and eloquence of this system of genetic coding. The same “genetic code” that produces a human being also produces soil bacteria, mustard weed, and alligators. We human beings may look different from one another because of race and background but we are all 99.9 percent the same on the genetic level, which of course suggests that we all share the same origin, that we all emerged from the same small family of people – perhaps even from the same mother.
The evidence of the human genome has virtually clinched the argument for human evolution because it has revealed that the genetic similarly between human beings and chimps is about 96 percent. Moreover, about 45 percent of our genetic coding is inoperative. These are “junk genes,” genes that are left over from earlier stages of evolution that our bodies no longer use. If God created human beings independently from other life on this planet, then why would he include the defunct DNA of other animals in our cells? The only reasonable explanation is that we are not a separate creation but have evolved from lower forms of life.
Scientists looking at this naturalistic, complex, intricate, and – yes – beautiful means by which life on this planet has evolved and human beings have been produced are not inclined to loose their faith, but to have it affirmed. Francis Collins when he was asked to direct the Human Genome Project in 1992 spent an afternoon in a chapel in North Carolina praying to God for direction. He doesn’t say why, but I suspect that perhaps he was concerned that he was going to undermine the Christian faith, undermine the cause of God in this world. But he found a peace that afternoon, which led him a few days later to agree to direct the project. When the project was complete in 2003, he wrote, “for those who believe in God, there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less.” (119, 107)
The science of our times has taught us that not only do the heavens declare the glory of God, but so too does life on this planet – and especially the climax of God’s creation, human beings. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and on the sixth day he reach the apex of the creation with the appearance of humanity. Shakespeare caught the paradox of humanity’ s glory and humanity’s baseness in the famous lines of Hamlet:
What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet 2.2.327-332).
The Genesis creation narrative and the discoveries of modern science together remind us of how special this world is, and how precious we human beings are. We are not simply the happy result of the collision of random particles over billions of years. Neither are we the result of a fairytale-like creation event. Rather, as the Genesis account implies, we are part of this planet, for we emerged from it. We are, in fact, the direct result of a long, complex process of evolution, guided at every step by a loving and all-powerful God. Human beings may be the “quintessence of dust,” but we are also the very purpose for which this world was made. There is reason, indeed, for awe and faith.
The foregoing sermon was the last one given by Rev. Michael Parker as Interim Pastor at the United Parish of Bowie, May 18, 2008.
© 2008 Michael T. Parker