I am a Christian; I believe in God and the Bible, but I also accept the overwhelming scientific, geological and genetic evidence that the Earth is several billion years old and that life on it, including us, evolved from the most basic of forms over those billions of years.
Actually no, that’s not quite true: I don’t just “accept” it as an inconvenient fact to be worked round so I can keep right on believing my fairy stories1: I embrace it as a revelation of God’s purpose and a fundamental ground of my faith.
But isn’t Genesis God’s almighty Word of which every dot and comma is the absolute inerrant truth? Yes, but then again we know too that the Earth isn’t a circle (in the sense of being a circular disc – Isaiah 40:22) and fixed in place (Psalm 93:1) on pillars (1 Samuel 2:8) in the midst of the sea (Genesis 1:9), with a great solid arch over it keeping back the waters above (Genesis 1:7) on which the sun, moon and stars are fixed (Genesis 1:17). The authors and compilers of the Bible knew full well that in describing creation they were delving into mysteries they knew little about. Their purpose was not to write a science textbook but to use and adapt the then conventional description of creation to deal with what the Bible is always and ever about: the saving power and plan of God in the world. If you don’t get too hung up on the standard tropes of ancient Near East creation myths, Genesis 1 and 2 are basically the evolutionary story.
Genesis 1 as an evolutionary narrative
In Genesis 1:1-2, we are not told of a world formed whole in its final form, but one which progresses, in which each new stage is formed from and developed out of the last. It starts with a description of the heavens and the earth at the moment of their creation: dark, formless and void. If you read with an understanding of Hebrew grammar, the whole of Genesis 1:1-2 is arguably scene-setting, not narrative, and one may read:
“In the beginning when God had created the heavens and the earth, when the earth was empty and waste, when there was darkness on the face of the deep, and God’s Spirit flitted across the surface of the sea, then God said…“ (my translation from the Hebrew text)
And after which the narrative begins.
The author then deliberately has God halt at each stage and admire his handiwork and pronounce it good, and has time pass before he continues: “and evening came and morning came, one2 / a second / a third day etc”. They describe a continuing development of greater order and higher orders of being culminating in the creation of man. Although the author cannot have known the sequence or detail, he has intuitively seen a progression being played out of ever more complex order which we can now begin to grasp in our study of cosmology and evolution.
Genesis 2 as the fall of man
Genesis 23 must be seen as a companion piece to Genesis 1, not a straightforward continuation of the narrative. The authors / compilers of the Bible were not stupid: they must have known perfectly well that Genesis 1:11-12 had already introduced growing plants and 1:20-22 and 24-25 animals before 1:26-28 introduced man, and that Genesis 2 restarts and reverses the sequence, but they did not care. The new story shifts the focus from the whole of creation to man specifically; the details are conventional.
In Genesis 1’s overall narrative arc, the Eden narrative takes place at day 6 when the developing Earth at last produces man as a conscious, thinking being.
Genesis 2-3 is in fact is the story of Israel transformed and universally applied to mankind. The man (Israel) is chosen to be God’s image in the world, is given a beautiful land to dwell in but is exiled from it (as warned) because he has not obeyed God. If this story is to work as an archetype for Israel, Eden must be, like the land of Israel, a special place set aside (and walled off) for the man, and the man must be a creature chosen from out of the rest of God’s creatures for God’s own special purposes.
The story tells us man is a creature formed from the dust as a creature amongst creatures, but chosen as a race to be God’s image to the world. When he opens his eyes in understanding looking on creation God has built it as a garden for him, until he falls into sin, when he is thrown back into the life and death evolutionary struggle God raised him up to escape from.
The fall of man in Genesis 3 as a figure for creation’s fall
Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To truly know and understand both good and evil must be to be able to contemplate both and choose either: to possess conscious free will. The price for this is that life should not be be eternal perfection but a struggle for resources until death (3:18-20) and to continue on in the next generation in one’s offspring, which Eve will now struggle forth (v16) as the mother of all living things (v21).
If Adam and Eve are taken figuratively for not just the first humans but also for infant creation as a whole, then Genesis 2-3 is not just compatible with evolution, it confirms it: it is natural selection, the struggle of life through the generations, that allows free-willed conscious beings to evolve.
(And there is no doubt that, like Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, Genesis 2-3 is a story, figure, a parable: the authors have left a talking snake in it, for heaven’s sake, how much more of a clue do you need?)
The Seventh Day
If we read in the light of the “book of creation”, the natural world and evolutionary theory, in Genesis 1’s overall scheme we are in day 6, and day 7, when God rests from his perfected work, is yet to come. Reading the Bible through the evolutionary lens, I see mankind as God’s image on Earth, ensouled beings capable of knowing and responding to their creator, responding not only on our own account but as representatives and head of the great sea of life from which we emerge. We are the product but also aim of evolution, as Christ is the end product and perfection of mankind. We were made to evolve into an ever-closer connection with God, and to raise up creation with us, striving towards that glorious seventh day when all will be perfected and at peace.
1 © Someone On The Internet
2 In Hebrew verse 5 says “one day”, not “the first day”
3 Strictly speaking Genesis 2:4 onwards