It seems to be universally agreed, that faith in God and in the Bible is under heavy attack in today’s world. Atheist Web sites dominate much of the Web and are increasingly aggressive in their outreach to young people. Much of the information on these sites is false. The falsehood comes not only from the misunderstandings that atheists have of Christianity and the Bible, but also because they can find ample material produced by believers that can easily be shown to be incorrect. The primary purpose of this journal is education. For 42 years we have been producing factual material on science, faith, and the Bible that comes from people who are schooled in these areas. That does not mean we never misunderstand or make a mistake, but if we do, we try to correct it. Religious people and atheists alike misread messages — both the messages in the Bible and the messages in God’s creation — the natural world that surrounds us.

The cover of this issue of our journal and the pictures on these pages show one of the areas that we visit in our “Canyonlands Seminar.” (Click this link for information on this year’s seminar.) Bryce Canyon in Utah is not only a beautiful place to see, but there are many things in the area that are related to questions about the fossil record and the age of the earth. The spires you see in the pictures are called hoodoos. They are places where a hard cap rock has protected the softer layers below from erosion creating these interesting spires. This is a common feature of eroded areas that have layers of hard rock above softer rock, and can be seen in many places in the world, but nowhere more clearly than in Bryce Canyon.

One of the things that can be seen in creationist literature and museums is what creationists call “polystrate fossils.” The term poly means many, and strate refers to layers or strata of rock. Sometimes trees will be seen cutting up through many layers of rock. The trees are vertical, and the claim is that the rock layers could not have been laid down over a long period of time. The argument is that the tree could not have existed over the long periods of time the geologists claim were required for the rock layers to be deposited. Some creationists have even suggested that the rock layers had to be flood deposits burying the trees instantly or the formation with the trees cutting through it could not exist.

The picture on the cover shows an interesting place on the main trail going through the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park. There are less known areas of the park where similar trees grow in a place where the canyon walls touch the tree. If sediment were to be deposited in this area, the tree and all of the rock layers would be preserved. Then if it were later exposed after many years it would be called a polystrate fossil.

The point here is that creationists are misreading the message. There are many clues that should help avoid such an error. The rocks deposited around a tree growing up through rock layers should tell you what took place. Flood layers are always clastic rocks — rocks deposited by running water like shale (mud), sandstone (sand), conglomerate (gravel), or breccia (landslide gravel). Limestone, dolomite, gypsum, halite, and geodes are chemically precipitated rocks — rocks crystalized out of quiet pools of water and never produced by a flood. Basalt, rhyolite, scoria, pumice, andesite, and porphyries are volcanic rocks and are also not produced by a flood. Every polystrate fossil I have seen was surrounded by rocks that were not flood deposits. When creationists make this kind of claim they are misreading the message of the rocks. The problem is that any young person who has had a course in earth science has studied petrology (the study of rocks), and knows that most claims about polystrate fossils are not true. This can produce a faith crisis in a thinking young person who wants to know what is true and sees the Church as misinformed.

Another example of misreading the message is the subject of uniformitarianism. This belief is the cornerstone of evolution and much of geology. What it says is that the only processes that have ever happened on the earth are the processes going on today. When scientists study rock layers they assume that erosion, volcanoes, weathering, glaciers, earthquakes, sedimentation, etc., are what produced the layers because that is what is producing the layers today. To be facetious, if an alien brought a dump truck space ship to the earth and dumped a bunch of their garbage, uniformitarianism methods would fail to be able to explain it. This is avoided by assuming no such thing has ever taken place. In the case of alien dump trucks, this is probably a good assumption. The fact is, however, that we now know that comets and asteroids have struck the earth in the past, and the effects they would have on the earth are debated because that process is not happening today.

Many times you will see creationists and atheists alike talking about catastrophes that have affected the earth. The claim is made that uniformitarianism is disproved by evidence of massive volcanoes erupting in the American Northwest, or by tsunamis. These events may be catastrophes to humans, but they do not violate uniformitarianism, because we see them happening today and we know what the results of such things are. We are misreading the message when we talk about a catastrophe that affects the earth and assume it poses some problems for evolutionists and/or geologists.
Similar problems take place in misreading the Bible. One claim of almost all atheists from Richard Dawkins to most of the atheist Web sites is that God is an unpleasant person. Richard Dawkins wrote in his book, The God Delusion, that God is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

The point here is that Dawkins and his followers misread the message. God is not a human with human weakness and failings! So why is God referred to in the male gender in the Bible (Him, He, Father, etc.)? There is no neuter in the Hebrew language, so if a gender identity were to be given to God of any kind it would have to be done contextually. For that reason when war, power, strength, punishment, and provision are being emphasized a male identity is given. Throughout scriptures however, there are female attributes and identities given to God when themes like love, compassion, nurturing, etc., are present. Consider Matthew 23:37 (NIV) “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” Even the most severe critics of the Bible have to admit this is not a male image. When people attribute gender inequities to the Bible they are misreading the message.

Many of the misunderstandings of the Genesis account are also due to misreading the message, combined with a failure to take the Bible literally — and this is true of fundamentalists and atheists alike. When did creation occur? What does the Bible actually say? Is the “creation week” really a creation week? We are not asking whether the days were seven 24-hour days (they probably were), we are asking, “What does the Bible actually say and are we misreading the creation account because of our denominational traditions?”

In the minds of the ancient Hebrews, God functions in two ways.  He acts miraculously, but He also acts naturally — by manipulating natural processes. Jesus was conceived miraculously, but His birth and early childhood were accomplished naturally. Jesus was not zapped into existence as a 29-year-old mature male. He was born naturally and lived normally and naturally like any other young Jewish male. Luke 2:41– 52 makes it clear that the early life of Jesus was that of a normal child.

The creation verse of the Genesis account is verse 1. The Hebrew word that emphasizes this is the word bara, which is only used in Hebrew in reference to something God does — never in reference to a natural process or to something a human does. The entire process of creation from absolutely nothing to the matter of which we are made and the planet on which we live is in verse 1. This includes the sun, moon, stars, and all interstellar matter. “In the beginning” in Hebrew is reshith and refers to the physical earth on which we live. There are many other Hebrew words that refer to the start of something that has a natural source. Techillah means “to commence.” Rosh refers to “the head” of something. Rishon refers to “the former” of something. The word reshith means “the first, the absolute start” of something. But the word bara refers to something supernatural which only God can do.

The method God used to create time, space, and energy is not stated in verse 1. In modern science we have quantum mechanics with a completely new set of scientific laws that help explain how quarks, electrons, protons, and ultimately hydrogen came into existence. Quantum mechanics does not violate the science of the past. It expands our understanding of how things that are a part of other dimensions can ultimately cause the building blocks of matter to come into existence. Contrary to what some atheists claim, quantum mechanics does not prove that something can come from nothing. What it tells us is that there are dimensions beyond the X, Y, and Z dimensions we know, and that creation came from laws which govern these other dimensions. Genesis starts with what ancient man could understand — the physical cosmos that we observe with our senses.

The ultimate message to those who take the Bible seriously is that God created a functional earth in verse 1. The Hebrew word for earth here is erets, which refers to a working, functional earth. If a blob of guck was what God wanted us to understand He would have used tselem, meaning an image or shadow, or tsurah, meaning an outline. In verse 2 of Genesis we read that a natural change occurred in the earth — it became or was “without form, and void.” The Hebrew for “without form” is tohu, meaning “vacant” or “ruined.” There is compelling evidence of astronomical catastrophes early in the earth’s history, one of which wiped out the dinosaurs. In the creation week we see continued natural change. This change is directed by God, but the Hebrew word used in these verses is asah, meaning “to make or naturally form”  — not to miraculously create. In verses 14 –19 a natural change allows the sun, moon, and stars to be seen and used to establish “signs to mark seasons and days and years” (verse 14). It is not until verse 21 that bara is used, and then again in verse 27. Verse 21 refers to complex life in the sea and verse 27 refers to man’s soul. Everything else is done by natural process if we take the Bible literally. In chapter 2, verse 3, the distinction in God’s methods are clearly laid out, “he rested from all his work which God created (bara) and made (asah)”. God did both.

When there is a conflict between the message we read in the natural world that we can observe — that which science studies — and what we read in the biblical account, we know we have either misread the natural world or we have misread the Bible. The lesson of history is that we have misread both in the past — and we need to work harder not to do so in the future.
--John N. Clayton

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