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The two-year-old speech “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” by Al Mohler has been thoroughly praised and criticized point by point since it was first given at the 2010 Ligonier Conference, and I have no intention of arguing against the particulars here. But having read and listened to it for the first time today, I was struck by how much of a misnomer it is and nauseated by what this mismatch between speech title and speech content reveals about the viewpoint Mohler is espousing.

In a conference about difficult questions that Christians face, Mohler was assigned to answer the query “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” (You can read it abridged here or listen to it here.) Astonishingly, his sixty-six minute speech spent only the final four minutes truly addressing his topic, offering the standard two woefully inadequate answers of appearance of age and catastrophism. The first sixty-two minutes addressed an entirely different issue, namely why belief in an ancient universe and evolution wrecks the doctrine of biblical authority and demolishes essential theological issues like Adam’s role in the fall of mankind. This topic has its place, and many people have disagreed strenuously with every point Mohler made, but to me, the very approach of answering the question in this way is startling. Imagine a Q & A at your church and someone asking the preacher the question given to Mohler. Now picture your pastor beginning his response with, “Well, first off, we cannot believe in an old earth because too much is at stake to essential Christian beliefs.” This is essentially Mohler’s approach.

It Messes Up Our System and Therefore Can’t Be True

At one point, he states, “[…] the exegetical cost…is just too high. […] The theological cost is actually far higher.” In other words, it cannot be true because if it were, it would wreck everything we believe to be true about God. It cannot be true because the Bible says it is not true. This answer shows a surprising disregard for objective truth. Mohler is effectively (albeit, unconsciously) saying, we cannot consider the idea of an ancient earth to be true because it would mean that what I believe is not true. It would complicate things too much. “Galileo, your theory cannot be true because it would mess up our whole system that we have labored so hard to build.” No one will be convinced by a faith that says this; no Christian struggling to reconcile faith and science will remain in a faith that says this. In order for there to be rational dialogue on the veracity of any position, there must be an understanding that it is possible for that position to be untrue. I am sure that Mohler would concede this, but the answer he gave does not.

There Are Two Books of Revelation, But One of Them Is Illegible

Mohler acknowledges that truth comes from nature as well as from scripture. However, he lowers the volume on nature’s voice so much that not much can be heard from her. “There is a book of nature. We do learn much from it. […] God has revealed nature to be intelligible.” But, as he ponts out, Paul teaches that “given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there.” I would need a lot more convincing before I accepted the notion that Paul really taught such a skeptical view of the comprehensibility of nature. About our knowledge of God from nature, yes, but not about our knowledge of nature from nature. Make as many qualifications as you like about the instrusion of Ptolemaic thinking into Christian dogma, the fact still remains that it was nature’s witness, not the Bible’s, that showed us clearly that the earth revolves around the sun. The fact also remains that if the descriptions of the Bible receive nary a one “Amen” from Mother Earth, that if she responds with nothing but dissent to Mohler’s understanding of Genesis 1, then the future congregations of this earth will not believe the claims of Christianity. “Disaster ensues when the book of […] general revelation is used […] to trump scripture.” Disaster also ensues when we are told to believe only the book of books and to stop up our ears to resounding calls of general revelation, as if nature were a brood of Sirens enticing us to the rocks of shipwreck.

“We would not be having this discussion today,” said Mohler, “[…] if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation […] is presenting to us something in terms of compelling evidence […] so forceful and credible that we are going to have to reconstruct and reenvision our understanding of the biblical text.” This is a statement of the obvious, and I am not sure what Mohler is driving at, since the fact is that people are posing these questions as well as assuming that the evidence is compelling. The operational word in this statement, I suppose, is “assume,” and I imagine that the implication is that there IS no “compelling evidence.” But to say this is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Don’t Look Too Closely, or It Might Be Compelling After All

The mountains of compelling evidence are out there, if one will only be humble enough to survey their heights. I do not think Mohler has given much more than a cursory glance in their direction, judging from the final minutes of his speech, in which he finally turns his attention to why the earth appears so old:  “In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question,” but the two basic principles for understanding the illusion, he says, are that God makes things whole (i.e., they have an appearance of old age) and that creation has suffered from the consequences of sin (the flood, e.g.). These two answers can only be satisfying from a great distance, but the moment that you begin to look more closely, the moment that you do consider a sub-question or two, the more you see just how unsatsifying and inept these responses are. It’s one thing, for instance, to say that God created light to appear as if it had traveled millions of light years to get here, but quite another when you consider that those rays that were supposedly created en route tell stories of stars that exploded a billion years ago. This is just one of many “sub-questions” that have to be considered instead of being brushed aside in the concluding minutes of a speech. Most infuriating of all, Mohler says that really, the ultimate answer we have to why the universe is so old is that it is telling the story of the glory of God. “Any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days, and that is where we are left. And it is safe.” No, it is not safe. Mr. Mohler is effectively saying that if data pointing to an ancient earth cannot be explained by the appearance of age or the catastrophism arguments, then we should just trust that the earth is young regardless and that the answer lies with God. We should just not worry about it.

With all due respect to Mr. Mohler whom I consider a sincere Christian brother, I urge him to consider that we cannot reject the veracity of the belief in an ancient earth based on what is at stake. It does complicate our theological systems. It does cause us to reconsider how we read scripture. But what ultimately matters is whether or not it is true. It does no good to ignore the mounds of reasons why scientists believe that age to be 4.5 billion years (or why all life shares a common descent). Nor do we get off the hook by saying that our judgment is clouded by sin. We have to acknowledge the evidence and engage it. Please, Mr. Mohler, take some time to hear a scientist out on what that evidence is before you answer this question again.

I have come to realize that the Achilles heel of the literal approach to Genesis 1 resides in Day 2, when God creates the firmament by separating the waters below from the waters above. I had always been puzzled by this passage in my YEC days, concluding that the firmament was just the sky and that the waters above were the clouds or water vapor. Ironically, this approach fails (in my mind) because it is not a literal reading of the chapter. Consider the following two points:

  1. God creates the firmament as a separation between the waters below from the waters above. It is not the water vapor above, nor is there any indication that the water changes into vapor. It is the waters above. In the original state of creation, there was only one body of water, and now there are two. I am told that the ancients of the Middle East believed that this is just what there was above the dome of the sky–a body of water that accounted for the heavens’ blue color. (Recall also that in the Revelation, God sits with an ocean at his feet.) How is it possible that the waters can be separated into two? Why, you need a separator, of course! Which is why the firmament must be interpreted as something solid, not mere air, for how could air lift up the waters and hold them back?
  2. In Day 4 (verse 14-15), God creates the luminaries and places them in the firmament. Now if the waters above are read as the water vapor of our atmosphere and if the firmament is simply the sky or the air, then it follows that the sun, moon, and stars are located in our atmosphere.

I just finished reading the Enuma Elish for the first time. As has been said before, the main point of contact between it and Genesis 1 is the primordial ocean, represented by the goddess Tiamat. (Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom are etymologically related, coming from a common source word.) When the Babylonian god Marduk defeats her in battle, he splits her body into two and builds the sky from one half and the earth from the other. Likewise, Genesis 1 presents God moving over the surface of the waters and in Day 2, separating the waters below from the waters above, thus creating the firmament. What I found particularly interesting is the following passage from the fourth tablet of the Enuma Elish:

137  [Marduk] split her open like a mussel (?) into two (parts);

138  Half of her he set in place and formed the sky (therewith) as a roof.

139  He fixed the crossbar (and) posted guards;

140  He commanded them not to let her waters escape. (emphasis mine, translation from Alexander Heidel’s The Babylonian Genesis)

It is pretty clear here that the Babylonian conception of the sky consists of something solid holding back the waters above. Half of Tiamat’s corpse has been made into the sky, but Marduk has to make sure to keep the waters of her body in place, and therefore, he creates some sort of crossbar and posts guards. The passage presents us with one example of this early conception of the universe.

Many Christians will find it troubling that this is reflected in the first chapter of the Bible, but for me, it gives the Genesis account a much richer meaning. Seeing it as an interaction with the surrounding myths, even as a counter to them, gives a much more powerful message of truth than a literal step-by-step account of the process of creation. (Gordon J. Glover’s book Beyond the Firmament does a good job reflecting on just what that message is.) It also makes much better sense of Day 2.

The following is Part 2 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis:  The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1A:  Creation (Genesis 1-4)

Sarna begins this first chapter by noting that there are several versions of creation in the Bible, most of them in abbreviated form. The two most famous accounts, and the longest, are found in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. In this post, I am going to focus on his comments on Genesis 1.

The key to understanding Genesis 1 lies in another creation story, the Enuma Elish of the Babylonians. Sarna gives the following summary. Before the creation of heaven and earth, all that existed was primeval water, represented by the male god Apsu of the sweet waters and his wife, the monstrous Tiamat of the salt waters. From them arose several generations of gods, the youngest of which so disturbed the peace of their first parents that Apsu tried unsuccessfully to destroy them, but Ea, god of the earth and sea, thwarted his attack.

Tiamat then amassed an army to destroy these young gods, who themselves turned to Marduk for help. After he first made them promise to make him their king, he killed Tiamat, cut her into two pieces, and used one of them to build the heavens and the other to build the earth’s foundation. Marduk next fixed the stars in their place, an activity whose details are lost due to the fragmentary nature of the fifth tablet. The other gods, who had now been given fixed assignments, complained about the continual work that was sure to await them. To solve this problem, Marduk made man out of the blood of Kingu, Tiamat’s second husband and captain of her army. Finally, the gods built Marduk a temple in Babylon and sang a hymn of praise for his victory.

Before explaining the meaning of the Enuma Elish, Sarna defines myth itself. The Greeks viewed it not as a fairy tale or a lie but as a story of the gods and their interactions with nature and man. They “have as their subjects the eternal problems of mankind communicated through the medium of highly imaginative language.” These myths were re-enacted in festival and ritual so that the creative processes they described would continue and the community be blessed.

The Enuma Elish was central to the Babylonian Spring New Year, when it was read aloud and presented in their festivals. “It was, in effect, the myth that sustained Babylonian civilization, that buttressed its societal norms and its organizations structure.” The myth explained the origin of the gods and of the world, a natural theme for the new year. It also mirrored and justified their societal structure:  man’s place in the Enuma Elish was the same as the slave in the Babylonian Empire, whereas the place of Marduk as king, which he had won by his display of power, mirrored the rule of Babylonian royalty. It explained Marduk’s ascension from the obscurity of god of Babylon to head of the Babylonian pantheon, as well as Babylon’s own ascendancy to the supreme place at the head of the world. Finally, the myth of Marduk’s victory over Tiamat meant the imposition of order over chaos. The re-enactment of the myth through the yearly festival during the vernal equinox (when the forces of night were equal to the forces of day) guaranteed the continuation of order winning out over chaos. In an environment that was no stranger to the unpredictable whims of nature, this ritual was of utmost importance.

Next, Sarna compares and contrasts the Enuma Elish with the Genesis 1:1-2:4 account of creation. The first difference he highlights is that the creation of the cosmos is not central to the Hebrew account; instead, it is introductory to the exodus of Israel. Genesis, he writes, “proclaims […] the absolute subordination of all creation to the supreme Creator who thus can make use of the forces of nature to fulfill His mighty deeds in history. It asserts[…] that the world is under the undivided and inescapable sovereignty of God.”

Secondly, the Genesis account does not justify or explain Hebrew political structure or institutions, and it was not acted out ritualistically to harness and continue the creative power of the story. It is, in fact, non-mythological in that it does not include an account of the birth of God or include any stories about him growing up, marrying, or having children. He is assumed to exist beforehand.

Because the Genesis story is not theogonic (i.e., having to do with the birth of a divinity), God is not part of or subject to nature, nor is he able to be manipulated by magic. In the Enuma Elish, by contrast, the gods arise from the pre-existing forcesTiamat and Apsu, and the universe itself is formed from Tiamat’s body. The gods and man were of the same origin and lived in the same realm. The gods were not omnipotent, nor was theirs the only power. In fact, man could learn to manipulate this other power by magic and ritual. Not so with the God of Genesis 1, who retains complete control over the chaotic forces and who creates by merely speaking the word.

Sarna points out that this creative act by means of the spoken word is wholly different from other stories where the divinity utters a spell to do his will. The Hebrew God is not harnessing the powers of creation by finding the right word; he is commanding matter, which has no choice but to do his will.

Creation by divine fiat is in itself another stark contrast between Genesis and other myths of the Middle East, in which all creative processes are the result of sexual intercourse. The first act of creation in the Enuma Elish, for instance, is the mingling of the waters between the male Apsu and the female Tiamat. In Genesis 1, on the other hand, the writer seems to go out of his way to say that “male and female he created them,” emphasizing that God actually created the differences between the sexes.

The primeval waters of the Enuma Elish seem to be present in the Genesis 1 story also. They exist before God begins to create, and like Tiamat, they are divided into two parts, the waters above and the waters below. However, unlike the unruly Tiamat, the waters in Genesis 1 are completely subject to God’s command. His spirit hovers over them before he divides them into two. He commands, and they separate from the land. He commands again, and they produce swarms of fish.

The Genesis 1 story, then, is truly illuminated by the Enuma Elish. It is the Hebrew answer to the Babylonians, a presentation of who Yahweh is by contrasting him with the gods of the ancient Middle East.

The next installment will deal with how Sarna reads Genesis 2-3. 

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