Many years ago I set off on a mission. My mission was simple. Read the Bible from cover to cover, start to finish. What could go wrong?
Anyone who has ever attempted this probably knows what happened. Leviticus happened. And anyone who makes it through the book of Leviticus is faced with two more daunting books: Numbers and Deuteronomy. The three books are largely composed of laws, building specifications, statistics, and very few stories. Only the most driven make it through the first five books of the Bible without stopping.
But anyone who has even tried will likely find himself face to face with chapters in the Bible that have received much attention lately: The creation stories in Genesis. The first account (Gen 1) of creation describes how God created the universe and everything in it in six days. The second presents a different perspective on the creation of man and woman, along with the garden of Eden (Gen 2). Many read these stories and wonder how they square up with modern science.
After all, scientists date the age of the earth to approximately 4.54 billion years,1 with the earliest human ancestors setting the stage around six to seven million years ago.2 According to scientific discoveries, man didn’t exactly show up on day six of creation. Furthermore, the theory of evolution holds that man evolved over millions of years from apes!3
So what are we to believe? Are the Bible and science opposed to each other? Did we come from Adam and Eve or monkeys? How can we make sense of this?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Answers will vary even among devout Christians. So I’ll attempt to demonstrate the Catholic understanding of the dilemma. And as we will find out, this is no dilemma at all. In fact, many scientific discoveries were made by men of faith.4 (The Big Bang Theory came from a Priest!) As discussed in a previous post (here), faith doesn’t need to fear science. Instead, faith guides science. And in return, science enriches faith.
All that said, I don’t plan to comment on whether the theory of evolution is true or not. True or not, a Christian can rest assured that it does not contradict the Bible.
Science and Religion
We first need to understand what science is. To be brief, we might say that science studies the material world through human reason and ingenuity. It’s a tool that we use to discover truths about this world. But because humans are flawed creatures, sometimes our reasoning can be incorrect, and our theories are sometimes wrong. But in general, humanity has gained much understanding of the world through science. Our advances in medicine, computing, and the like are a testament to our success through science. So at the very least, science deserves our attention when it says something.
Going forward, we need to understand two things. First, faith establishes boundaries for science. There are truths that we hold by faith that cannot budge, no matter what science tells us (for instance, God is the creator of the universe). If science opposes these truths, then science is wrong. In this way, faith guides science by making defined and objective truths.
And second, science enriches faith. When scientific discoveries appear to oppose truths of our faith, it’s often a chance to enrich and broaden our understanding of that truth. In this way, it doesn’t change our minds, so much as it clarifies our understanding.
What Can’t Change
When we consider evolution, we see both aspects at play. Let’s look at some of those things that faith affirms, which science cannot change. First, the universe had a beginning, and God was the cause of that beginning (Gen 1:1). God created everything out of nothing, and whether life developed over time or in an instant, it did so under the guidance of God.5
When it comes to mankind, there is more to consider. For starters, we must understand that man is composed of both body and soul. Unlike angels, which are pure spirit, or animals, which lack an immortal soul, mankind was created as a hybrid of body and spirit.
A Catholic may hold that man’s body developed over time, until God instilled in it an immortal soul. Consider how in the second creation story God “formed the man of dust from the ground” and then God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7). Notice the distinction between God forming man’s body and breathing life into that body. This “forming”could have taken place over time, through natural biological reproduction. It isn’t until God “breathed” the breath of life into his nostrils that man is complete.
Pope Pius XII taught in his encyclical, Humani Generis, that the “Church does not forbid that… research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter”. Man’s soul, however, did not evolve over time. Pope Pius XII continued, saying that “the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God”.6
But one might wonder, why must man’s soul be created in an instant? Why didn’t it evolve too?
Man isn’t just the smartest of animals. While he is similar to animals in that he possess a biological, natural body, he differs from them in his unique role in creation, and in his possession of an immortal and supernatural soul. The Second Vatican Council taught that “man was created ‘to the image of God,’ is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God’s glory”.7 And similarly, the psalmist affirms that God “made him [man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You [God] have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:5-6).
Man’s body may have naturally evolved from animals, but this natural process cannot yield a supernatural soul. As it is written in the book of Ecclesiastes, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12:7).
What about Adam and Eve?
Finally, we must hold that Adam and Eve were real people.8 They were the first of mankind, the first humans to bear the image of God, and all of humanity descended from them. The Bible teaches that sin entered into the world, and was passed down to all of humanity through one man. St. Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that,
“The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents” (CCC 390).
The details of Adam and Eve’s lives are subject to debate. But their existence as our first parents is not. With all that said, we still have to see how the creation stories can be reconciled with science. So without further delay, let’s get biblical.
Understanding the Bible
In the Beginning
In the first chapter of the Bible, we read an account of God creating the universe over the course of 6 days. With the highly quoted “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3), God began His work. On days 1, 2, and 3 He created space, sky and water, and land (Gen 1:3-13). On days 4, 5, and 6 He filled creation with planets and stars, birds and fish, and animals and humans (Gen 1:14-31). And on day 7, God took a well deserved rest (Gen 2:2).
This story tells us a lot about the origin of the cosmos, the nature of creation, and the work of the Creator. And it clashes with our modern scientific understanding. But we need to take a step back and recognize that the Bible isn’t a science textbook. It’s an ancient document, written in a different culture and different era. And if we aren’t careful, we’ll fall into the trap of thinking that everyone uses language the same as we do.
I’m not saying that the creation story isn’t true. It is. But we need to be careful what details we say are true. For example, pretend I explained to a child that Jesus is stronger than Superman. Am I lying? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean Superman is real. I’d be appealing to common knowledge of our time to convey a timeless truth. Similarly, God can convey truths through finite human knowledge and language. To this point, the Second Vatican Council taught that,
“Truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.”9
The Bible isn’t just a book. It’s a library of books, with varying genres. And each book (or portion of a book) must be interpreted according to its genre. After all, you wouldn’t interpret the Song of Songs (a love poem) the same way as you would interpret the Acts of the Apostles (early Church history). The results would be disastrous. So too, we must take caution in how we read the creation stories in Genesis.
The fact is, creation may have taken place in six 24 hour days, but we aren’t going against the Bible if we believe otherwise. In fact, a careful reading of the creation story seems to indicate that the author didn’t intend us to take him literally. Notice that God created the sun, moon, and stars on day 4, that they might be “lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth” (Gen 1:15). But God already created light on day 1. This alone should give us a hint that the author of Genesis didn’t mean to write a scientific, chronological account of creation, since there was light before there was a light source.
Similarly, we might also note that in the first creation story, God created man after animals. But in the second creation story, God created man before animals (compare Gen 1:24-26 with Gen 2:19). The point here is, these stories sought to teach us important facts about our origins, but they were never intended to be a science textbook for the beginning of the universe.
An Alternate Reading
While a Catholic may hold that God created the world in six 24 hour days, that is not our only option. Trent Horn describes what has come to be called “the framework interpretation.” He explains that the framework interpretation holds that “the six days of Creation do not consist of a literal, chronological description of the events, but instead represent the human author’s nonliteral, topical way of describing how God created the world.”10 Allow me to explain.
Notice that before God created, “the earth was without form and void” (Gen 1:2, emphasis added). It was without order, and it was empty. But then God began to create. Horn explains that “in the first three days God creates the realms where specific creatures will reside – the sky, the waters, the land and vegetation. He fills those realms in the next three days, creating the lights in the sky, the birds and fish, and land animals.”11 In the first three days, God brings order to what was formless. And in the next three days, he fills what was empty. As Scott Hahn said, “first the realms and then the rulers.” In short, this framework “shows us what and why God created.”12
This conflict between the creation story and modern science has raised many concerns among Christians. Many have been troubled at the thought that science may be disproving things in the Bible. But this simply isn’t true. When we understand each in its proper realm and context, we find no conflict. The Church affirms that “methodical research in all branches of knowledge… can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God” (CCC159).
No doubt, the findings of modern science will certainly continue to develop. And with every new development, our faith will be enriched. We discover the genius behind God’s creation as we grow in our understanding of the universe. St. Paul affirms that “ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20).
1. Nola Taylor Redd, Space.com. “How Old Is Earth?” Space.com, www.space.com/24854-how-old-is-earth.html.
2. Trasancos, Stacy A. “Particles of Faith: a Catholic Guide to Navigating Science.” Particles of Faith: a Catholic Guide to Navigating Science, Ave Maria Press, 2016, p. 148.
3. Than, Ker. “What Is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution?” LiveScience. May 13, 2015. https://www.livescience.com/474-controversy-evolution-works.html.
4. Hahn, Scott. “Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith.” Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith, Doubleday, 2007, p. 16.
5. Catholic Answers, “Adam, Eve, and Evolution” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2001)”. https://www.catholic.com/tract/adam-eve-and-evolution.
6. Humani Generis (August 12, 1950) | PIUS XII. para 36 http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html.
7. Gaudium Et Spes, para 12 www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.
8. Catholic Answers, “Adam, Eve, and Evolution” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2001)”. https://www.catholic.com/tract/adam-eve-and-evolution.
10. Horn, Trent. Hard Sayings: a Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties. Catholic Answers Press, 2016, p. 46-47
12. Hahn, Scott. A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture. Servant Books, 1998, p. 43-45