Recently a question occurred to me: what if the way we read the Bible is all wrong? Typically we approach it with the idea that the world was perfect until humans messed it up through sin. Jesus came and gave it all a partial fix. Now we can be restored to relationship with God, and live out our lives knowing that we’ll go to Heaven when we die. Meanwhile life on earth gets worse and worse, and the end seems to be approaching, but God tarries because he is gracious.
Lately, bothered by the pointlessness in this view of even redeemed human life, and equally bothered by the awareness that there was plenty of death and suffering on earth even before humans came on the scene, it’s occurred to me that maybe creating humanity in the first place was God’s first movement toward redemption: the creation of “rulers.” Then Jesus came, a divine corrective and clarification of our understanding of humanity’s role in creation. Now the Holy Spirit inhabits us, and we are granted access to a whole dimension “by faith” whereby we are supposed to be doing what Adam and Eve were originally supposed to do: “rule,” or “tend,” the creation as God’s representatives, made in his image. Rather than awaiting a transformed world in the distant future, the Kingdom is operative now. This is what Jesus said, after all. But looking at our typical experience of the Christian life, it’s hard to see it in action. Could we be missing something important, simply because we are looking through the wrong glasses?
I’ve been picking this idea up and putting it down, not sure if I’m being heretical or not. I’ve even written about it here, in a post I published privately, as I do with all my potentially heretical posts. Imagine how I felt when I encountered a similar idea in the pages of Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. Except here it is developed more fully, and set into a fuller context of both science and theology. Perhaps, writes Daniel Harrell,
creation is not so much something good that went bad but something started as good that just is not yet done. It’s as if redemption was the purpose from the beginning. It’s as if the creation is being pulled, called toward that day when all things become radically new in Christ. If perfection never was and is “not yet,” the appearance of evil and suffering (including the suffering and struggle depicted by Darwinian science) is no longer inconceivable. That the serpent got into the garden may suggest that everything was not yet right with the world, even before everything went wrong… What this entails is that you flip your Bible around and read the end as the beginning. Instead of Genesis, what if Revelation is the more plausible place from which to view God’s creative design? What if the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21:1) already exist in eternity, and we’re just waiting for our experience to catch up with that reality — a compression, if you will, of eternity and time.
Daniel M. Harrell is a long-time pastor and has a doctorate in developmental psychology, and in this book he takes up the subject of evolution and whether it can be harmonized with Christian faith. Often Christians approach science defensively, rather than remembering that if all truth is God’s truth, and if God is the Creator of nature, science too will attest to his character and authority. Harrell points out that science and faith once had a cooperative interest in studying the natural world, but in more recent times, not so much because of scientific knowledge but because of the competing interpretations given to it by some branches of science and the church, this relationship has become much more wary.
This book is a model for how to explore the subject of evolution from a Christian perspective. “Christian theology doesn’t have to submit to accurate scientific findings, only to account for them,” Harrell explains. “Authentic faith strives to believe in what is rather than in what we wish was. All truth is God’s truth, however you look at it and whether you like it or not.”
This is not always easy, of course, and sometimes we need some help thinking things through. I’m an example of that. It’s not that I have intellectual problems with the idea that God could have used evolution; it’s that evolution involves so much pain and death and time that it seriously challenges my understanding of God’s love and his personal nature. This is something Harrell has felt too:
Theology teaches me that the character of creation reflects the character of the Creator — God’s beauty and order and goodness and purposefulness. But as soon as you start thinking about what an evolving creation truly reveals — namely, cruelty and disorder and indifference and randomness — you can’t help but wonder about your faith and about the God to whom that faith points.
Delving with equal energy into both science and theology, Harrell confronts such questions head on. Nature’s Witness is a veritable popcorn popper of ideas, and it will bear (it will require) rereading at some point when my brain has peeled itself off the floor and recovered from the intense workout these pages necessitated. It’s 137 pages long and relatively fast-paced, and it proceeds, I felt, in a somewhat cyclical fashion — ideas and questions surface and resurface rather than being pinned down, exhaustively detailed, and then left there. I found the reading experience to be a little frustrating in this respect. The book’s organizational pattern wasn’t always clear to me as I was reading (which naturally could be my own fault and not the book’s), so I wasn’t able to assimilate the material as well as I would have liked to.
However I don’t have any regrets about reading it, or any annoyance at the prospect of rereading it. In fact I was reminded that one of my main reasons for reading is companionship. I read for instruction too, and for entertainment. But when you’re troubled by questions that strike at the heart of your faith, and unsure of how to move through them systematically, the right book at the right time is — well, an answer to prayer. Even the 10 pages or so of nothing but questions about three quarters of the way through. We all have questions, but too often and for too long they have been casualties of the wars between science and faith, and between biblical literalism and whatever you call its alternative (it can make the Darwinian struggle for survival look pretty tame). We’re all in this together, and this book met a need I have for those questions to be given a full hearing.
I can’t conclude without mentioning that Nature’s Witness is also entertaining. It’s written accessibly, and there are dialogues and jokes sprinkled throughout. As a reward for anyone who’s made it all the way to the end of this post, here is one example:
My uncle told me this joke: Adam is lonely and moping around the garden, so God says to him, “I can make a companion for you. She will harvest the garden and cook you delicious meals. She will tidy up the house and do the dishes. When you disagree, she will always admit she’s wrong first, and she’ll never have a headache.” Bowled over, Adam says, “What will that cost me?” The Lord replies, “An arm and a leg.” Thinking about it, Adam then counters, “What can I get for a rib?”