It is often assumed, particularly by atheistic or humanist writers, that belief in a Creator God has been made impossible by the theory of evolution and the generally accepted notion of the universe coming into existence through a ‘big bang’. However, this is not the case, and Christians do not have to choose between Bible-based faith and a respect for science.
Regarding the universe as a ‘creation’ implies that there is a ‘Creator’, a Being who has made everything, or at least has made its existence possible. Most religions have their own account of how this might have come about, some stranger than others. For Jews and Christians, it is to Chapters 1 & 2 of Genesis, the opening book of the Bible, that they have mainly turned in trying to understand life and the world around them. There are actually two separate accounts given, each with distinctive purposes. The first (Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a) is a poem glorifying God for his ordering of creation, separating light from darkness, land from waters, making it possible for food to be produced, with humankind (both male and female) made in God’s image to oversee all this abundant life. At the end of the sixth day, God famously declares his creation ‘very good’, leading into the seventh day sabbath rest. Thus, the Israelite peoples were able to recall and give thanks for the way their God had provided for them. This first account is believed to date from after their crushing experience of being taken off to exile in Babylon in the 6th Century BCE and, without going into detail, also implicitly repudiates the gods worshipped by the Babylonians and the creation myths that went with them.
‘To think God’s thoughts after him’, as the German astronomer Johann Kepler put it.
The second Biblical account (Genesis 2:4b-25) has a very different style and feel. It presents a more intimate narrative and gives attention to the place of humankind within creation and their role as God's caretakers in the world. They are different from God, very much of the earth, made from its dust and brought to life by the divine breath (v.7). God sets limits on human freedom, represented by the prohibition of eating from ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (v.17) which would bring death for them, thus hinting that humankind’s future relationship with God may not be straightforward! Where the first creation account ends with the peaceful blessing of the sabbath, the second ends with human disobedience in Genesis 3 and the damage that does to humankind’s relationship with God. Taken together, the two accounts point to the wonder and order of God’s creation, as well as to its potential vulnerability. In other words, they are primarily about God and our relationship with him, not intentionally about how stuff works and interacts, which is more the realm of what we would now label science.
If we ask science for its account of creation, we’ll most likely be pointed to what is known as the Big Bang Theory. There are some other models for the origin of the universe, but this is the one most commonly accepted today. In brief, it describes how approximately 13.8 billion years ago all the matter and energy we see presently in the universe was compacted into a tiny ball of infinite density known as a singularity. This began expanding extremely rapidly and with enormous energy until temperatures were low enough to allow the formation of sub-atomic particles and, later, simple atoms. Gravity eventually caused giant clouds of these simple elements to coalesce, forming the first stars and galaxies. These stars produced more complex elements through the nuclear reactions taking place in their cores, and if a star died with a violent explosion it would shoot out these elements to seed and form second generation stars like our own Sun, which might then in turn gather a solar system of planets around themselves from debris scattered throughout the cosmos. The detail of all this is by no means certain or finalised, but the model does provide a coherent explanation of what is observed in the universe today, and there seems little reason for the Christian not to pay it due respect.
We turn now to what is generally known as the theory of evolution. Science has not yet come to a clear and undisputed view on the origin of life on the earth, though it is thought to have happened some 3.8 billion or more years ago. However, there is general agreement that all the life forms we see on earth today (as well as those long extinct species whose fossilised remains are found in certain of the earth's strata) are derived from earlier, single-celled organisms. No two organisms are completely the same, not even identical twins! Biological material has a degree of variability about it, the underlying genetic composition being expressed slightly differently depending on prevailing conditions. Within any given species population, there will be a natural range of genetic variation which allows the population a protective buffer to cope with environmental changes that might come along, such as the onset of an Ice Age! Charles Darwin proposed in the mid-19th Century that new, distinct species could eventually appear over a long enough period of time in the face of such external changes or 'pressures'. Given the right conditions, this process of 'natural selection' was a sufficient mechanism for producing nature's rich wealth of plant and animal forms.
It's no surprise that some took these conclusions as justification for ditching any notion of a Creator, and belief in God with it! There are those who want to assert that religious faith and science are fundamentally incompatible and opposed to one other, a view sometimes found among certain conservative Christians as well as more hardline atheists. Some Christians welcomed Darwin's theory as the uncovering of the process by which God had created life on earth, but others vigorously contested this new thinking because it seemed to them to contradict what they understood the Bible to say about life's origins. However, far from science being in principle opposed to faith, it can be fairly argued that our modern science grew out of it. From the late Middle Ages onwards, Christian convictions about the rationality and order of the universe based on the nature of God himself positively encouraged scientific exploration in order to discover the underlying structure and laws of the universe, ‘to think God’s thoughts after him’, as the German astronomer Johann Kepler put it. Of course, not all scientists figure God in their considerations today, but this root and connection remain and should not be forgotten.
The scientific approach, of measurement and experimentation, of careful analysis, breaking things down into their constituent parts so as to understand the greater whole, of making predictions based on past discoveries and then testing out the validity of those predictions, has undoubtedly served us extremely well. So much of what we take for granted in our ordinary, everyday lives is the fruit of scientific endeavour, from smartphones to the rapid production of vaccines in the face of a global pandemic. Indeed, so successful has the scientific approach been that its assumptions and the way it uses language have come to dominate and shape our general thinking. At the popular level, many would regard scientific truth as the only real truth. After all, it has been observed and measured, tested repeatedly, and is often capable of being expressed in precise mathematical formulae; in other words, it’s based on hard, visible data, not personal opinion or 'superstition'! In the face of such attitudes, the truth claims of religious faith can seem feeble or even nonsensical.
Science can tell us how to do something, but by itself it can't decide for us whether we should be doing it.
Science is very good at answering the 'how?' questions, about structure, mechanisms and processes, but not so useful when we come to talk about morals or relationships because those things don't naturally lend themselves to laboratory testing. It doesn't have the answers to all life's questions because its methods and approach don't enable it to deal objectively with issues around value or morality. Science can tell us how to do something, but by itself it can't decide for us whether we should be doing it. For that we must turn to ethics and the tenets of religious faith to draw help from wisdom accumulated over the ages. Science and religion have a lot to learn from each other and we need to keep the dialogue open.
Some Christians, who are known as 'creationists' believe in a literal reading of the Creation stories found in Genesis, where the universe was created by God in just six days. Whereas many other Christians would ague that the first chapters of Genesis were only ever intended as poetry, pointing to greater truths, but not as historical fact, and that God created the world as we know it through the means of scientific processes over many billions of years. The conversation continues.
All Christians, however, are united in believing that God is the loving creator of all things, and that one day all things will be restored, as God initially intended them to be.