So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.
In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.
Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.
God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love. In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.
Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4. St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.
Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous. It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…
Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.
Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.
Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.
I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.
The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome). It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).
Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.
The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers). This was important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.
God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13. So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.
Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.
If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ. He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way, St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself. If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy, would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.
God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation. I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.
Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.
Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.
Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.
This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.
Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.
For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.
Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism. Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.
Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.
Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts. In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.
Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.
I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”
Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.
Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.
I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.
I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.
So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.
Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…
When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.
If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.
As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).
Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.
I have heard some really vitriolic criticisms of the movie, The Shack.
I am reminded of the parable of the emperor’s new clothes. A foolish emperor commissions new clothes to be made. They were invisible, a deception on the part of the tailors, but they tell the emperor that anyone who thinks they are invisible are foolish. So the emperor pretends he can see the clothes and scorns anyone that does not. On parade, an innocent child points out that he is naked, and the jig is up. The emperor realizes he is in fact naked.
Paul Young is that child, I think. The emperor is evangelicalism; his clothes the pretension to orthodoxy. Our children know our flaws better than anyone, and Paul Young, as a child of evangelical thinking, a pastor’s/missionary kid, is speaking from the inside. He is not an outsider.
Some of Paul Young’s testimony resonated with me. I was raised with a very conservative theological paradigm. I went to seminary, where we liked to joke, “Of course, we are fundamentalists, we just aren’t as angry as those other people.” But the truth was we were angry too. Anyone that held beliefs different from us, if they were significant, were wrong and worse than that, dangerous.
I have learned there is a big difference between “right belief” and “believing in the right way.”
Some of the biggest critics of The Shack have been Reformed Christians. Now, these Christians are our brothers and sisters. They often don’t recognize that, but that is on them not us. I’d prefer to take the high road. We have the same Gospel, just different particulars, but I would point out there are some particulars that I think are deeply problematic.
I do not speak as an outsider on this. In college, I loved listening to John Piper. I read Calvin’s Institutes and I thought Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology was the greatest contemporary work to put theological pen to paper.
Now, I think the only reason I thought that was because I had not read much else. Since then, I have read at least one systematic theology every year. For me I moved beyond some of my more ultra-conservative convictions because they fundamentally could not stand up to either the Bible, historical Christian thinking, or the phenomena of life itself. I’ll explain…
For Calvinism, since God elects some to salvation and others not, and there are those Christians that claim to be “Christians” (like those Catholics and liberals and people that watch HBO) but are not (grace was not enough for them), I had to be hyper-vigilant theologically. I found myself always angry and annoyed at someone’s theology, even disgusted. I did not want them to contaminate me. If there were people that were not Christians but thought they were, the only way I knew I was saved myself was to always keep articulating every question I had theologically, ever more precisely, and to stay away from those that differed (you can read more about my journey in learning to accept other Christians here). Questions over infra-lapsarianism or super-lapsarianism became faith crises as to whether or not I actually believed God was sovereign and therefore whether or not I was saved. Discussions like this all became slippery-slope arguments. Arminians denied God’s sovereignty; open theists God’s impassibility; egalitarians, God’s authority. I was very good a pointing out the proverbial speck in another, ignoring the proverbial log in my own.
I could not reckon with the fact that there were sincere, biblically-minded Christ-followers that did not think the same things as me. See, when I looked at a biblical passage, and had an interpretation I thought was by the Holy Spirit, I could not doubt that. Everything hangs on certainty. I have often said that a fundamentalist cannot ask whether or not they are truly wrong on a core issue of doctrine, because to do is to doubt God and to invite doubt about one’s salvation assurance. Self-fallibility is too risky, even if it is true.
In this scheme, I did not believe in justification by works, but that just meant I was saved by doctrinal works. I was certain of my salvation because of the correct ideas in my head.
This proves potentially fatal if you ever encounter an important yet ambiguous text, which was often in seminary, or change your mind, or just don’t know what to think. The Bible became a scandal to my own theology, whether it was the unsustainable idea of its inerrancy, the refusal to admit the existence of woman leaders, or passages that did not fit an impassible God. As I began to see some of my theological convictions being contradictory, I felt like I was losing my salvation.
In one summer, while that was happening, my “shack” occurred. My father died of cancer; my mother was also suffering from cancer. Several friends of mine went through severe moral and faith crises, which for their sake I will not go into (you can read more about the whole experience here). I was left penniless, working at a Tim Horton’s on night shift, wondering if all this Christianity stuff was even true.
I ended up having a remarkable shift where God encountered me in the abyss of my confusion. I realized that if God is love and God is in Christ, then my ideas of faith can fail, but God will still have me. It was a profoundly mystical experience.
That lead me on a journey to rethink my faith, since I suspected there was more to it than just one tradition that no longer nourished me. This is a hard thing to say to some of my Calvinist friends, who I do consider my brothers and sisters, but I find that this theology is so intellectually and biblically problematic that it induced a faith crises for me, yet still nourishes them.
Nevertheless, that summer I began to I read deeply. I went to the University of Toronto soon after where I got to study under so many different voices. In high school I was a fundamentalist, in college I moved to being a conservative evangelical, in seminary I felt like I was becoming increasingly liberal, in post-grad studies I read deeply in postmodernism and mysticism, by doctoral studies I found myself gravitating to the school sometimes call “post-liberalism,” which lead me to do my dissertation on James McClendon, a Baptist narrative theologian.
Along the way, I started reading church fathers, mothers, and doctors. These are the most esteemed thinkers and saints the church has looked to. I gravitated to the mystics: Dionysius, Nyssa, the Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart, but also Irenaeus, Aquinas, Athanasius, Anselm, and Augustine, etc.
One thing that I started noticing was that what I thought was “unorthodox” was widely held by those who were actively bound by creeds. When I told them about my upbringing, they looked at me recoiling, noting how unorthodox it was.
I found that, ironically, the narrow view of what I considered orthodox was actually not viewed that way by those who had read deeply in the tradition of historic Christianity and had strong conservative commitments to historic orthodoxy. What is “orthodox” here is the bounds of acceptable biblical reflection that the church over 2000 years has developed, using church fathers and doctors, councils and creeds. The sad thing was that the over-protective, arrogant, isolated, and suspicious mode of my past beliefs ironically made me closed to something the greater sweep of Christianity held to be appropriate.
Bonhoeffer once said that those that cannot listen to a brother or sister will soon find themselves unable to hear the word of God also. I think this statement is applicable.
Here lies the irony of those that criticize the “heresy” of The Shack. The notion that Young has moved beyond conservative evangelicalism is not abandoning orthodoxy; it is coming back to it!
I’ll explore this further in my next post.
“One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I will send you the Holy Spirit who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon. For He willed to make them Christians, not astronomers.”
– Saint Augustine, regarding Genesis chapter one
Many of my fellow believers are creationists, who hold that Genesis chapter one should be read as teaching a doctrine of how the world was scientifically made. While I respect the sincere faith of these believers, some are even in my church, I also see many Christians, myself included, encountering significant faith crises, because of the assumptions of that perspective. Many creationists see it as the opposite: that evolution will erode and destroy one’s faith. For me and many other Christ-followers, it simply hasn’t. For me, it is mostly because I found that Genesis one should not be made to comment on the scientific composition of the universe. Here is a reflection on why I think Genesis one is best understood as offering a theological narrative: timeless truths about God and creation delivered in a culturally bound way.
There are some very good reasons not to take Genesis one as offering a scientific description of the creation of the world. Not doing so, I think, is the most consistent way to interpret it. This is because there are pre-modern notions about the cosmos that these text assumes. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if we do take it as a historical description of the material origins of us and the cosmos, if we make that the truth of this text, we force the text to contradict itself, reducing a literalistic strategy to absurdity.
So, the following eight exegetical points attempt to point out the problems of a creationist approach. Because the text assumes a geo-centric cosmology, it cannot be used to support creationism which does not hold to these details. I am doing this without offering a full positive doctrine of creation (which is another argument that I will give later). However, trust me, I do think Genesis one is God’s Word and that the universe is God’s creation. But it is God’s Word in proper literary context, understanding the cultural climate it was written in. I believe in creation. I believe that Genesis one teaches us about creation. I just don’t believe in “creationism” as an idea that tries to extract science into this narrative or things all of the aspects of these narrative are applicable today.
As I said, my argument is an reducio ad absurdum. Creationism, by its own uneven exegesis (or more accurately is consistent neglect of what the text literally says), is an interpretation that collapses into self-contradiction necessitating a different interpretation, a reconsideration of interpretive principles. So here are the eight interconnected arguments or features:
Creation from Water?
The opening verses describe the heavens and earth as “formless and void” yet the spirit of God hovers over the waters of the deep. Before everything else is created, there is water. Before there is time, planets, stars, there is water. That seems odd. Why is that? Is water the eternal, primal sub-atomic substance in which all things were constructed? Does this passage, as some suggest, contradict creation ex nihilo, the notion that God created the world out of nothing? No.
Water was a symbol of nothingness. The Mediterranean Sea was thought to be an “abyss.” Why? If a sailor sank into the depths of the sea, they would disappear into what would seem like bottomless black nothingness, a void. Beginning with water is a metaphorical way of saying the world was “formless” and “void,” and so, God created the world out of nothing.
Notice right off the bat then that choosing to see metaphor rather than concrete descriptions makes the images in the text make way more sense. It makes them much more meaningful. It has a better interpretive fit.
Earth then Universe?
Next we see that the creation of the earth precedes the creation of the very universe it is supposed to be situated in. This should tip us off that this is not a scientific description. In fact, we commit violence to the text by reading out modern assumptions into it. By all accounts the Sun is older than the earth, and the earth (as well as the moon) all formed because they were in orbit around the Sun.
A creationist might retort and say that God held these things in place until the solar system was created, but then natural history is being portrayed as intentionally deceptive. However, the text does not say anything about such a process nor would it even be suggesting it as it is speaking to a non-scientific world. Often I find creationists doing these kinds of ad hoc interpretations in order to save their theology. What ends up happening is that creationist invent miracles that the text does not describe to make the simple narrative make sense by their interpretive assumptions. A good rule of thumb is that if you have to invent miracles in order for interpretations to make sense, you are probably reading into the text with the wrong approach.
Light/Day before Sun?
Light and darkness as well as night and day are placed before the sun and moon, by which light, time and day are generated and measured. Even the ancient people understood that light only comes from the sun and moon (remember, they did not have electricity). Yet the sun was often worshiped, so we see the sun’s importance relegated to a later day in creation. It is no longer the primary act of creation or its pinnacle. Light, the source of all the earth’s nourishment, the symbol of moral goodness, comes directly from God. Time and day, the forces that structure reality, again, are not controlled by a solar deity, but proceed directly from God. The sun, not even named, is demoted to merely being a sign for the seasons. The “seasons” are the times of the worship festivals. So, instead of being a god, it is merely a sign for the people of God to know when to worship the true God! Thus, we see that the creation days are most meaningful when we see them as a rhetorical strategy for countering pagan mythology.
Blue Sky Made of Water?
God divides the waters above to form the sky and the waters below to form the seas. The sky is described as being made out of water in the text. Again, I am amazed that creationists skip right over this. We know that the sky is not made out of water, but rather it is blue due to the fact that light rays going through the atmosphere show up blue, and the sea is blue because it reflects the blue of the sky. The sky is not blue because it is made of water. Again, this is a pre-modern description of the universe, not a scientific one.
I have heard some creations say that before the flood there was an expanse of water above the clouds that came down for the flood, since the text says it had not rained until then. There are problems with this. The biggest problem is that the “expanse” of water is not described as coming down at this time. In fact, the author that wrote at the time of Psalm 148:4 implores the “waters above the skies” to worship God. So, it is still there. Also, the expanse is not merely water held in the sky. It is literally thought to be a hard dome, which we will see in the next point…
Sky is a Hard Dome?
The sky is thought to be a hard “dome” (also translated “vault” or “expanse” or “firmament”). In the ancient cosmology the sky was made of water, separated by a dome-like wall. Creations oddly dismiss this detail, saying that it is no longer there because the waters came down in the flood. However, this neglects firstly that the dome is still around in Psalm 150:1 when the people of God are invited to praise him in this dome. The dome is a permanent fixture of the cosmos in the ancient mindset. Second, what is being described here is literally a hard dome, not a miraculously held up expanse of water. This dome has “flood gates” by which waters flood down (cf. Gen. 7:11). This dome is hard enough for God to “stretch out the heavens like a tent” over top and lay “the beams of his upper chambers on their waters” (Ps. 104:2-3). Isaiah 40:22 describes the heavens not like a spherical atmosphere, but as a “canopy” or “tent” on the flat earth. The flat earth rests on pillars. “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady” says God in Ps. 75:3. One cannot escape that the ancient people thought of the world like a building, with a dome over top and pillars below (cf. Ps. 104:5). For all their talk about reading the Bible plainly, creationist ironically read these passages as figurative.
Creation is a Building?
Expanding the last point, the sun and moon are described as embedded in this dome like lamps in a ceiling, “lights in the dome…God set them in the dome of the sky” (Gen. 1:1, 17). Experientially, we can look up and see that the sun and moon appear to be in front of the blue of the sky and it is no surprise that the ancient people literally thought this. They thought that the sun and moon were embedded in the dome of the sky, like lamps in a ceiling.
Instead of the earth moving around the sun, the ancient people saw the earth as a flat immovable building. Earth is described like a flat “circle,” not a sphere (Isaiah 40:22). God in Psalm 104:5 “set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Job 9:6 says God “shakes the earth…its pillars tremble.”
The sun and moon are described as revolving around earth’s building, not the earth around the sun. Ecclesiastes poetically describes this: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises” (Ecc. 1:8).
A creationist might respond by saying these are merely a metaphor. To which, I would say that is an ironic strategy for defending an otherwise literalistic interpretation! In other words, that’s my point! Bracketing parts of the text as metaphor to preserve reading the rest of the passage as a scientific description is a sad, self-defeating strategy. Why not be consistent and read the whole description as pre-modern poetic description? That makes more sense.
The fifth day mentions the creation of the great “sea monsters” (v. 21). This is often glossed as something less offensive to our modern ears, reading something like “sea creatures.” However the word in Hebrew is tannim, which literally means “dragons” or “monsters.” The Bible was written in a time when people assumed these things existed. For instance the Book of Job reports the Leviathan and Behemoth as massive mythological forces of evil and chaos, but assumes they are real: “as I made you [Job] I made it [Behemoth]” (Job 40: 15). Isaiah 27:1 refers to Leviathan as the “dragon of the Sea.” Psalm 74:14 mentions that Leviathan has many heads like a hydra. Creationists have tried to say that these refer to the dinosaurs before the flood. Dinosaurs certainly do resemble dragons, but these passages refer to these beasts as presently existing at the time of writing, well after the time that the flood supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs.
The Bible also mentions creatures like Rahab (Job 9:13; also called Lilith, cf. Isa. 34:13), not to be confused by the prostitute that helped the spies in Canaan. Rahab is described as a dragon-like enemy of God that God defeats: “Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?” (Isa. 51:9). Rabbinic commentators describe her as a vampire-like woman. Job 26:12 describes God striker her down like he rebukes the Sea, the Sea (capital “S”) being a symbol for cosmic forces of chaos and nothingness in Job. Similarly, Psalm 89:9-10 refers to God conquering the chaos of the Sea, slaying Rahab and the enemies of God, Rahab being a kind of symbol for chaos and evil.
Why does the Bible include this stuff? It is because the ancient people thought they were real and the Bible is trying to comfort them by entering their cultural standpoint, assuring that God is more powerful than any evil they can imagine. What is more comforting? If the Bible said, “Those things don’t exist, silly” or “Whatever evil you can imagine, God is greater than that.” The Bible tends to choose the later strategy.
Different Creation Order from Genesis Two?
Notice in comparison to Genesis two that Genesis one reports the order and events of creation differently. Thus, if they are read as strictly historical accounts rather than literary-theological accounts, they are contradictory. It seems like Israel has two creation accounts that were quite different that the writer of Genesis knowingly put next to each other because both story’s teachings are true. They are both inspired stories. First, while in chapter one creation occurred in a week-long process, in chapter two it is in a day: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (2:4). Now, “in the day” can mean a period of time, but in this context it does not seem to. This refers to Genesis two, where, as we will see, a new creation story is being presented, which does not use a creation week. Its events are presented undifferentiated by days. Thus, it seems that “day” could mean a week-long period, there are no creation days in Genesis two for it to correspond to.
Second, there is a different creation mode. Genesis one creates by divine word alone. Genesis two uses the imagery of a fountain (perhaps the river of life alluded to Rev. 22:1-2) springing forth and covering the earth (decidedly different from water being the beginning substance that is pushed back in chapter one). From there, God “formed out the ground” man, plants, animals, and birds. Chapter two describes creation not by word instantaneously but like a potter forming clay, then breathing life into it. In Genesis one God is a poet; in Genesis two, God is an artisan.
Third, there is a different order to the two creation stories. In chapter one, the order of creation goes birds and fish on day five, then on day six animals first and then male and female created simultaneously that same day. Day five: birds fish; day six: animals then humans, male and female. In chapter two the order goes as follows: the man, then vegetation comes up (v. 9 – where it is already made in the first account), then animals and birds are formed (v. 19), then the woman from Adam’s rib. It is an often neglected detail that in the second creation account God creates the man first, and it is only after he states that it is not good for the man to be alone that he then creates animals and birds, who are not suited for him, and only after that realization, the woman is formed.
Verse 19 sees the creation of every animal as a consequent act to realize Adam is alone: “So then out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air…” Creationists inject alternative meanings to say that God had already made the animals and birds, but the passage describes a subsequent and consecutive event. In fact, it is similar to most verses in this chapter that begins with what is called a waw consecutive (the Hebrew word for “and then”), which is the engine of Hebrew narrative (literally every sentence in a narrative will begin with a waw, “and then,” but most translations edit them out).
Again, if you read them as historical accounts, you force the passages to contradict themselves. If you try to use the passage to support creationism, you are glossing over a lot of details to make it work. If you read them like they intend to be read, as theological narratives, something closer to a parable, then you will have no problem seeing these different orders as incidental to the enduring theological truth of the passage.
What should we do with this? Is Genesis a Myth?
Is Genesis a myth or is it history? The Bible never uses the term myth to describes its contents. In fact 2 Peter 1:16 is quite condemning of the category. So, many are troubled to hear that the creation myths around and before Israel had similarities to Genesis one. In Genesis chapter one, we see what can best be described as an “inspired story” or a “counter-myth.” This is a story that resembles myths that proceeded it, told using the form of story that ancient people used to explain their world, but uses that medium to present truth that counters pagan ways of thinking about God.
Is it purely fictional then? Didn’t ancient Israelites think it was factually true? Creationists are right to think that the writer of Genesis one probably did think the universe was created in six 24 hour periods 6000 years ago. However, it assumes the geo-centric cosmology of culture as well. The text does assume a cultural history that the ancient people assumed, but is crafted through the covenant relationship with God to present us with redemptive truths that speak beyond the ancient assumptions.
The idea that Genesis one has pre-modern qualities or assumes a history that we do not hold to today, does not disprove its enduring theological worth. Far from, it shows its incarnational beauty. God worked from within the ancient culture. We as responsible interpreters need to be discerning about what is cultural and what is timeless. We do this by discerning the context of the text in its historical context and as it has been reflected upon by Christians for 2000 years.
Are we condemned to disbelief about God as a creator, creating the world out of nothing because of these prescientific descriptions? No. It should be no scandal that God used people where they were at to communicate his Word. The notion that God was trying to teach physics and astronomy to a pre-scientific people implies that that Bible is true because it is a science text book and not a book about a God that comes into our world. In fact, people who want to read the Bible as offering a culture-less statement of timeless principles often have a very docetic view: a Word from God without human flesh. It makes way more sense that, just as Jesus stepped into human (Jewish!) flesh, God stepped into a world that thought in terms of story to offer redemptive truth using the media of the culture. Just as Jesus assumes that the mustard seed is the smallest seed (which was the ancient assumption) to teach as about the power of faith, so also Genesis assumes a geocentric universe to communicate God. The meaning of faith is not damaged by the mustard seed not actually being the smallest seed nor is creation disproved by astronomy. So, the fact that God used ancient means of communicating theology should not bother us. In fact, it is a comfort: God uses imperfect authors to write his perfect Word just as he uses us imperfect people to be his Body. He uses our cultural thoughts to communicate his perfect thoughts.
This passage is offered in the form or medium of a nonscientific counter-myth or origin story (which is how the ancient people thought), yet its enduring message or substance is that God is creator and nothing else is, the creation is good, life-giving ordered, and beautiful, and humans are made in God’s image, designed to inherent dignity and to find themselves in his love, etc.
What we have to keep in mind is that God has communicated something enduring in something culturally-bound. This is called the form/substance distinction that Baptist interpreters (such as E. Y. Mullins and Walter Connor) have suggested for over a century. Does the Bible assume a hard domed universe? Yes. Does it assume a 6000 year old cosmos? Yes. Does it assume a geo-centric universe? Yes. Does it assume the existence of dragons? Yes. Does the Bible implore us to believe these things now in order to believe God is a creator? No. Those things are incidental.
We might also call this the medium/message distinction. The form or medium of this passage is prescientific counter-myth, an event of creation that is dated somewhere around 4004 B.C. involving a domed universe and all that, which are details that the ancient people assumed to be true. However, the substance or enduring message of the text is more than that. It is teaching the following:
- God is creator of all that exists, creates out of nothing, and therefore, is greater than all the forces of chaos in our world.
- God is beyond creation, and so, nothing in creation is to be treated as god, and therefore, humans ought not to be enslaved to the worship of finite things.
- Creation is made by divine decree, and therefore is ordered, good and life-giving.
- Creation is designed for peace, worship and Sabbath.
- All humans, not just kings, high priests, or warlords but all people, male and female, rich and poor, are made in God’s image, deserving the dignity and rights God’s children deserve.
- All humans are designed to act like God, emulating his “likeness” of goodness and love.
- People have a responsibility to be stewards of the environment, not to destroy it or waste the precious gift we have been given, but to care for it.
- Reading Scripture through the entire canon, we know that Genesis one is true because it points to Christ. Christ is the logos of God, bringing creation into being (John 1). Christ is the truth of creation, and the truth of creation points forward not backward: Christ is the light shining in the darkness and is ushering a new creation in our midst. The power of Genesis one has not merely happened but is happening as we look to the transformation that Gospel is enacting.
All of that is still true and simply does not depend on whether a creation event happened six thousand years ago.
There are, of course, more truths in the text, and these can be discerned with wisdom, in the community of the faithful, gathered to listen to how the Spirit will use the Scriptures to speak to us.
You can hold to evolution and that universe is billions of years old and that Genesis is God’s Word. Why? For the same reason we trust the Gospel today: God has meet us where we are at.