Did God create the universe? Does science contradict the Bible? Did Adam and Eve exist? Can a person be a Christian and believe in the theory of evolution? What about the big bang?
When he was an atheist Alister McGrath gave little consideration to such questions. Today he is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, a prolific writer on Christian thought, an Anglican priest and the director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. He has two Oxford doctorates – one in science, one in theology. So he is well equipped to talk about the big questions.
Nigel Bovey: When it comes to ideas about how the world started, many people think there are only two options – evolution or the Bible. Is that the only choice?
Alister McGrath: No. All Christians take the Bible very seriously and will say that it is of the utmost importance to remain faithful to what it is saying. The key question is how to interpret the Bible. Are, for example, the first three chapters in Genesis literal history? Or are they something deeper than that?
There are four main positions within Christianity. Young Earth creationism says the Earth is about 6,000 years old and was made pretty much in the form that we see now. This conclusion, they say, is a natural reading of the Book of Genesis.
Another school of thought – old Earth creationism – while agreeing that God made the Earth and everything in it within a limited time frame, says that there are gaps within the Genesis account. For example, God creates the universe, then there's a gap and then he creates something else. In other words, the universe is extremely old but God made the Earth and us at a much later stage. That, again, is a perfectly legitimate way of interpreting the Book of Genesis.
A more recent development is intelligent design. This is quite similar to old Earth creationism but the talk is not so much about 'God' as about an 'intelligent designer'. The basic argument is that we cannot explain the way the world is by purely naturalist explanations. We have to invoke an intelligent designer to explain what we find. This argues that a purely Darwinian account of the world cannot give a total picture.
underlying each approach is the very firm insistence that the world is God's creation
The fourth approach is theistic evolution. This sees evolution as the way in which God providentially exercises his creative processes and brings the world into being.
This approach finds a lot of favour among Christian biologists and links in well with some parts of the Book of Genesis, particularly those that talk about the Earth bringing forth things, which seems to imply there's some kind of ongoing natural process.
Each of these ideas has its strengths and its weaknesses. But underlying each of these approaches is the very firm insistence that the world is God's creation; it is his world not ours; and it was deliberately brought into being – and so were we.
So somebody can be a Christian and believe in evolution?
Yes, they can. Evolution is not, by definition, atheistic. Darwin saw his theory as reconcilable with the Bible. He struggled with his Christian faith towards the end of his life but that was because his daughter had died very young, not because of his ideas on evolution.
Some Christians will be uncomfortable with the idea of believing in evolution, particularly because it raises the question of how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. That's a very big issue in its own right. All I can say is that, with complete integrity, there are many Christians who see evolution as illuminating the way in which we understand Genesis and as giving us an enhanced vision of how God brought the world and humankind into being. People can make evolution atheistic but it doesn't have to be.
Why is it important that God created the universe?
It's important because, first, it is saying that neither the universe nor humankind is an accident. We are meant to be here. It affirms the idea of purpose. It also raises the question: Why are we here?
Secondly, a God-created universe tells us that the world itself is not divine. In the ancient world, people thought the Sun, Moon and stars were divine and had to be placated, otherwise there would be trouble. But the doctrine of Creation says that if you know God and you're right with him, then ultimately there's nothing to fear. We don't have to worry about occult forces.
Thirdly, Creation is a beautiful reflection of the fact that the God who made everything we can see also made us and cares for us.
neither the universe nor humankind is an accident
In Christian thinking, however, the world as we see it is not the world that God made. It is a fallen world. The created order is showing suffering and pain. Christians believe that at the end of all things God will bring about a place where there is no more suffering, no more pain, no more death. In other words, Eden will be restored. This inspires Christians to bring about those conditions now. That is why, over the years, so many Christians have worked towards the alleviation of suffering, illness and poverty. And why we still do.
The Christian doctrine of Creation says we've lost our way but it is redeemable. Which is, of course, why Christ came.
Is the Creation account of Genesis 1 and 2 literally true?
The idea that God created the world is literally true. That belief is not only in the opening chapters of Genesis but throughout the whole Bible.
In the opening chapters of Genesis we find a particular way of thinking about how Creation took place. It is trying to set before us, in a way that is true but not necessarily true at the absolutely literal level, how God did this.
We are asked to try to make sense of this, bearing in mind that there is not simply this passage on its own but a whole range of other passages that are trying to help us understand what it means to say that God created the Earth, and God created us.
Would you say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and if so, what do you mean?
Yes, it is. By this I mean that the Bible has an origin and an authority which no other human text has. I also mean that, as I read the Bible, the same God who was responsible for this text will illuminate my mind as to its meaning and how to put into practice what it says.
But isn't the Bible open to misinterpretation?
It is said that the Bible is like a wax nose – you can twist it to mean what you like. Talking about the inspiration and authority of the Bible doesn't lead us to the conclusion that there's only one way of interpreting it. That's why it's important for Christians to test what we conclude from our reading with other people and with the Christian creeds.
Did Adam and Eve exist?
I've no doubt that there was an Adam and an Eve in the sense of some primal figures. Throughout the Bible Adam and Eve also are often used as representatives of the human race.
Are you saying that some parts of the Bible are to be taken literally and others metaphorically?
God was there right from the beginning
The Bible includes a number of different literary forms – history, prophecy, allegory, poetry… Each needs to be identified and interpreted in an appropriate way. The difficulty is trying to decide which category a particular biblical passage belongs to. If, say, we were to take poetry as literal truth when the poet writes about "mountains dancing for joy" we might end up in some difficulty.
It is important to appreciate each level of meaning, really to try to come away from reading the Bible with an enhanced sense of its richness, rather than simply saying every bit has to be interpreted in exactly the same way.
Can somebody be a Christian and believe that the universe came into existence through a big bang?
Big bang theory is a good approach for Christians to adopt. Early in the 20th century the prevailing wisdom in the scientific community was the steady state theory. In other words, the universe has always been here and while it may fade away at the edges it is being replenished from the centre.
Big bang changed all that. Interestingly, many atheist scientists were strongly resistant to big bang not on scientific grounds but because they thought it sounded too religious.
The key point here is that big bang is a major scientific advance which seems to reinforce what Christians have always been saying – God created.
For many Christians this is simply a scientific version of the Christian doctrine of Creation.
Big bang doesn't explain everything but it raises some very big questions, including, put crudely: 'Who pressed the button?' There's an easy Christian answer to that. It can be explained in very complicated ways but the basic idea is that God was there right from the beginning. Just as it says in the Book of Genesis!
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