Does science contradict the biblical creation account?
In short, no, I do not believe that science contradicts the biblical creation account. But my approach to this is probably different from yours. I’m totally fine with disagreement because I don’t consider this an issue primary to the gospel message. Here, I want to give what I hope is a fair description of the common ways of reconciling scientific observations with the Bible’s creation account.
The most common belief in conservative Christianity by far is that the Earth is young.
The most common Young Earth view is that the Bible’s genealogy is generally inclusive and that the Earth is no more than about 10 thousand years old. Some Young Earth folks consider a more stringent bound of around 7 thousand years, and some expand it to tens of thousands of years. Most young Earth proponents believe everything we see today (rock stratification, topography, fossil stratification, etc.) is the result of a single catastrophic flood and set of tectonic shifts, the aftershocks of which have decreased exponentially with time.
Most believe that isotope dating is inaccurate because the rate of decay has changed over time. Likewise, most believe the universe’s age is in error because either the universe’s rate of expansion has changed drastically over time or God created the light from distant stars already in-flight.
I tried hard to believe this viewpoint in college, but it was never satisfying scientifically. If you find the main views of Answers in Genesis to be scientifically satisfying, I respect you. I have to be honest and admit that I’m not convinced by it. I also want to encourage you to consider that you may not necessarily have to be a Young Earth believer to trust the Bible.
Age Built In
There is also the “age built in” belief. For example, when you imagine God creating Adam, how do you imagine Adam? As a baby or as a fully grown adult? You probably imagine Adam as being created as an adult. If this is true, Adam was created as though he had grown into adulthood even though he did not actually grow into adulthood. Likewise, one could believe the Earth was created as an “adult” Earth that looked like it had already undergone growth, even though it actually did not.
I see nothing inherently wrong with this belief, but functionally it is no different than an old Earth belief with evolution. There is, of course, the feel that God is being a bit deceitful about the history of creation. But if He wasn’t deceitful about Adam’s immune system (which must have been prepared for harmful viruses and bacterial before he left the garden), perhaps this is a moot point.
In short, I consider this a bit of a hack. Sure, maybe it’s true, but it’s also inherently unfalsifiable, like being a part of the “Matrix” or having been created 10 seconds ago with everyone’s memories faked. There’s no way to argue against it because the magic (so-to-speak) can become as all-encompassing as you want it to be.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It just means it can’t be investigated with logic, science, or observation.
Some people take the road of considering the creation account to be largely allegorical, intended to get across ideas about God and His interaction with mankind rather than physics, geology, and astronomy. While I can relate to this viewpoint, I have to admit that it could be flirting with heresy because if God-imaging humans died before they sinned, then what does Jesus’s death actually rescue us from? It’s dangerous territory.
There is possible leeway here because “death” could be interpreted as a purely spiritual death rather than a physical death. It feels like this is probably stretching the text beyond what it actually meant, though.
The fact is that the Bible was never primarily meant to convey scientific truths. Rather, it was meant to convey God’s nature to us. If Jesus can use the Greek idea of Hades to convey judgment to people in terms they inherently understand, I see no reason he can’t use existing stories to convey creation to people accurately in terms they naturally understand.
It’s impossible for the Bible to fully describe just about anything related to God or His love, justice, etc. These things are too complex for us to understand let alone communicate entirely to readers over thousands of years and hundreds of languages and cultures.
It’s like the mathematical concept of “projection.” We “project” something complex onto something simpler so we can understand it better. The projection isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. Often the projection seems to have contradictions that are resolved when looking at the full picture. The Trinity? God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability? Living “forever”? Jesus being fully human and fully divine? These are all projections — not wrong, just incomplete. Notably, they’re incomplete in exactly the way God wants them to be.
I know it’s probably a bit mind-bending to think of scripture this way, but it’s important to firm up what you believe Biblical inerrancy to actually mean at the ground level. It’s not a simple topic.
We see micro-illustrations of this in the Bible. For instance, Paul says in Romans 1:8, Colossians 1:23, and other places that the gospel and faith are being proclaimed throughout the “entire world.” Clearly this doesn’t include the Americas. Nobody even knew of them at the time. If, taken as a physically literal statement written to us, this would simply be wrong. However, Paul is likely talking about the world known to the readers (either that or he’s using hyperbole). It wouldn’t make any sense for him to go on about the Americas…or Antarctica. It would needlessly distract from the point of his letter (assuming this had even been revealed to him in the first place, which is unlikely).
Is it possible God was using contextual ideas to get across a more important meaning? Yes, I think it’s possible. Do I believe this is the case with the creation account? No, personally I don’t. Death, sin, and Jesus’s rescue to too intertwined for me to believe God-imaging humans died before God-imaging humans sinned. And there are no current observations to suggest whether they did or did not.
It’s important to note that the creation account is not Hebrew poetry. It doesn’t match that style, so the allegorical argument can only be made as using an existing contextual belief to get across a more important truth.
Surface of the Earth perspective with epoch “days”
There’s another view I stumbled upon in the last few years that I find very interesting. Consider the creation account from the perspective of someone observing from the surface of the Earth, interpreting the word “day” as a large swath of time (something the word could be used to mean).
We start with an Earth that has already collapsed to form a rocky planet revolving around a nuclear furnace called the “Sun”. Waters now cover the surface. The first thing we encounter is light, diffused from the Sun through a dense primordial atmosphere. The second “day”, a recognizable water cycle to form with precipitation.
On “day” three, land shows up with tectonic motion, and there’s enough sunlight peeking through the diffused atmosphere for more significant photosynthesis and vegetation to join the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. On “day” four, the atmosphere becomes more transparent, and the sun and moon are recognizable bodies in the sky. On “day” five, animal life appears in the ocean, and birds appear in the sky. On “day” six, God creates animals on land and human beings to directly image important aspects of Himself.
In this view, animal and plant death was normal before God create humans, and life was quite harsh outside the garden created for Adam and Eve. It’s important to note that life in the garden was likely substantially different than life outside the garden before mankind sinned.
The main difficulty with this perspective is how we call this kind of creation “good”, and why there was death of any kind before humans sinned. But keep in mind that humans weren’t the first being to rebel against God. According to the Bible, Satan and his followers did so long before humans.
I would also argue that this kind of creation is “good” for the purpose it was intended. For instance, the law was not God’s intended rule over mankind, but that imperfect rule was called “good” and even “perfect” because it led us to see our need for Jesus. Similarly, creation was “good” even with animal death because it shows off some of God’s important attributes, and it shows us our need for Jesus and a new creation.
Where to draw the line
We need to ask ourselves where we draw the line regarding our interpretation of the creation account. For me, there are two specific things referenced heavily in the rest of scripture that are going to be very hard to do away with ethically: (1) Adam was a real person; and (2) human death only came after human sin. The gospel hinges intimately on the latter, and the former is referenced several times as if it were fact.
Further, I need to caution you about the allegorical argument. Taken far enough, it robs all scripture of any meaning whatsoever, putting you in the driver’s seat of what is and is not allegory. If there is no clarity in scripture, then there is no Jesus.
This is the approach of many who want to do away with human sin to make us more comfortable (the core tenet of the “emergent” church). But we also know the human heart is wicked and deceitful beyond our comprehension. You don’t want your selfish heart dictating doctrine. You have Jesus who cleans you from sin despite you solely because of His love for you and not your actions. That’s far more beautiful than working hard to pretend we never sinned in the first place.
I strongly encourage you to consider from your own reading of the Bible what you feel comfortable with.
I respect you no matter what your viewpoint is on creation and how it interacts with science. I welcome you fully as a brother or sister in Jesus if you believe in salvation from sin as a free gift solely due to Jesus’s sacrifice on our behalf. I think it’s important that we agree on this.
Regarding belief in creation, we need to bear with one another in unity. It’s good for us to discuss these things even if we disagree. It’s good for us to understand one another as fully as possible even if we disagree. What is not good is if we create “camps” and demonize those with different beliefs. The gospel is more important than the creation account, and we must be unified in the gospel.