Bible Q&A: The beginning of the world

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Is Genesis an accurate account of the beginning of the world or a layman's version which man can understand without having a Stephen Hawking's degree?​

Answer:

The vast majority of Bible scholars read the creation account in Genesis chapter 1, not as a scientific account, but a theological message that conveys some of the most profound spiritual truths. Above all else, it talks about who God is, and who we are. It goes much deeper than questions about how exactly the universe started, or how long it might have taken.

'In the beginning, God…' The first thing the Bible talks about is not creation but the creator. Is he? Who is he? What is he like? 'In the beginning, God…' Everything else is secondary.

'In the beginning' implies that God has always been there. Common sense struggles with the idea of eternity; it goes against the way we experience space and time. Yet interestingly, modern physics – relativity and quantum mechanics (two models Stephen Hawking spent his life trying to connect) – has shown that our traditional notions of space and time only tell half the story. Stuff happens between subatomic particles and in the depths of the cosmos, weird enough to destroy one’s trust in common sense forever. Incidentally, Stephen Hawking said that if we could crack these mysteries, we would know the mind of God.

The first chapter of Genesis tells me that God is not just eternal and mysterious, but unique. He has no need to struggle with competing deities for world supremacy, because there is no one beside him.

The next thing Genesis tells me is what God is like. He speaks and things happen. Out of chaos, he creates an orderly universe, a planet fit to sustain life including a species made in his image. We are neither his slaves nor his playthings, but reflections of the divine. 

Over the centuries, hardly any Jew or Christian ever read Genesis 1 as a scientific account of natural beginnings. As early as the 4th century, Christian bishop, theologian and philosopher Augustine warned against treating the Scriptures like a scientific textbook.

That worked well, so long as people believed that heaven and earth were intimately connected. It all changed in the 17th and 18th centuries when leading thinkers began to rely solely on what they could experience, test and logically define in the here and now. The natural-supernatural divide was born, to the point that some people questioned whether the latter existed at all.

No wonder some Christians began to fear for the authority of the Bible. Especially, once Charles Darwin had shaken fundamental beliefs about human origins, they began to argue for biblical accuracy in terms of reason and science, trying to beat the rationalists at their own game. 

But the Creation account in Genesis was never written to satisfy people’s desire to squeeze truth into telescopes and test tubes. Genesis 1 speaks of a different kind of truth: a sovereign creator calling life into being and singling out one species to bear his image.

Having said all of the above, I am happy to acknowledge that there are Christians who will disagree. They’ll continue to hold to a literal, 'scientific' reading of Genesis 1, wary that a 'poetic', purely theological interpretation will allow evolution in through the  back door. This, they argue, undermines traditional beliefs about where evil and death came from: if God used evolution, which operates by one individual or one species emerging through the death of another, where does this leave the doctrine that death came through the first humans? 

It’s a tricky debate. The danger is that Christians on both sides stop listening to each other. The challenge is to carry on the conversation, humbly wrestling with the text, and not losing sight of its core message: that God is good, that he made the world good, and that you and I are made in his image.


Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!

This article was written Michael Pfundner, who works in our publishing team.

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