A Brief Intro to the Origins of Humanity
How Did We Get Here?
One of the hot spots in the perceived conflict between science and Christianity is around the question of how human beings came to exist. The Bible says that God made us humans “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27), gave us the special role of ruling over his creation, and called us to a special relationship with him—different from his relationship with any other creature. But in 1859, a British scientist named Charles Darwin published a book called On the Origin of Species, in which he argued that all living beings are related to each other, and that human beings had gradually “evolved” from other animals.
Christians in Darwin’s day disagreed about whether his scientific theory could fit with the Bible’s account of creation. Some argued that the Bible describes God creating humans from the dust of the earth, but that there’s no reason he couldn’t have created humans gradually through an evolutionary process while still making human beings special. Others argued that evolution doesn’t fit with a more literal reading of the biblical creation story and therefore believed that God created humans suddenly and not gradually. Christians disagree about how we should understand some parts of the Bible, and the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 are an important example of this type of disagreement.
Today, as in Darwin’s day, some Christians think that you can’t believe in evolution and believe that God created us, while other Christians think you can. Some argue that Christians should believe God used evolution to create humans, but that he intervened at stages in the process, so we should expect to find some elements in the story of human origins that cannot be explained by science. Others argue that God is in charge of the whole process, so we don’t need to look for evidence of his action in the parts we can’t explain, because he is directing every tiny step. It’s also worth noting that while scientists have a theory to explain how more complex life forms developed from simpler ones, they really don’t know how life got started in the first place!
Atheist authors like Richard Dawkins tend to add in all sorts of other beliefs when they talk about science, to make it sound like any time we find a possible scientific explanation of something in the natural world, this squeezes God out of the picture. Christians first developed science not because they didn’t believe God created the world, but because they did. Just as with any other scientific field, there have always been Christians leading in this area of science.1 But we also shouldn’t assume that everything a scientist says is true—partly because, as science advances, what most scientists believe can change (like it did with the Big Bang) and partly because scientists sometimes make it sound like their science has proved what they do or don’t believe about God, when it hasn’t.
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If you’re a follower of Jesus, I hope you’ll keep exploring and make your mind up for yourself. These questions are definitely complicated. Christian beliefs about how the Bible fits with science aren’t like an on-off light switch (yes or no). They’re more like the reading lights my girls have attached to their beds, which have multiple buttons you can press to get different levels of brightness and different kinds of color. But any Christian—whatever he or she believes about science—must believe that God created us, that the Bible tells us the most important truths about human beings, and that a scientific description of a human could never give us the full story. This is a place where Christians and atheists most deeply disagree.
What Is a Human Being?
When the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking was twenty-one, he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease: a terrible illness, that gradually broke his body down. Hawking eventually had to use a motorized wheelchair to get around and a specially designed computer to help him speak and write. His daily life depended on computers. But in an interview toward the end of his life, he went one step further: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail,” Hawking said. “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”2
Hawking believed that his brain was just a computer. He did not think he was made in the image of God. He thought he was just a complex machine. In his opinion, the specially designed computer attached to his wheelchair that allowed him to speak and the brain-computer in his head that allowed him to think weren’t fundamentally different. When he died, he thought, it was going to be just like a computer breaking down.
Many atheist scientists think this way. They believe the only real truth is truth we can measure with the tools of science. Oxford physics professor and Christian believer Ard Louis calls this way of thinking, “nothing buttery,” because people will say we’re “nothing but” what science can describe.3 So, has science shown that we are “nothing but” the things science can measure? Not at all.
Believing that God created the universe isn’t illogical or outdated.
The people who first invented modern science believed in a God who created the universe and could not be measured by science himself. And just because we can study the physical features of a human by using scientific tools does not mean we can understand everything about humans through those tools. MIT professor Ian Hutchinson agrees that he is a complicated biochemical machine, made up of atoms and molecules and all sorts of things we can investigate with the tools of science. But he says he is also a husband, a father, and a sinner saved by God’s grace, and these different kinds of descriptions don’t have to push each other out.4 They can all be true at the same time. If one of his kids said to him, “You’re not my father! You’re just a bunch of atoms and molecules!” we’d think that kid was confused. But we’d also think he was confused if he said the opposite: “You’re my dad: you’re not atoms and molecules!” If we think about it, we’re used to understanding that there’s more going on in any situation than science can describe.
Imagine you were watching a football game on TV, but instead of the commentators talking about plays and scores, they were commenting on what was happening scientifically. “One somewhat hairy mammal (height: 6 ft., 2 in., weight: 195 lbs.) extends a limb at velocity 30 mph. Limb collides with ball (weight: 16 oz.), and ball leaves ground at velocity of 15 mph, angle from the ground 30 degrees . . .” You can imagine the commentary going on and on, with more and more scientifically measurable details. These statements could all be true. But no one would watch that TV channel, because the point of football is not the scientific details. It’s the game!
Likewise, if someone asked me to tell them about my husband, I wouldn’t give his height and weight and blood pressure. I’d tell them about his personality, his interests, and the things that make him laugh or cry. Science can tell us many useful and important things, but it can’t tell us the most important truths. Science can measure how fast my heart is pumping blood around my body, but you can’t use a stethoscope to measure how much I love my husband.
Stephen Hawking thought that heaven was a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” If we only believe in science, as he did, we don’t just lose the hope of life after death. We lose the meaning of life before death as well.
I’m writing this on a laptop computer. My one-year-old son is lying next to me, asleep. If I threw my computer out of the window it would be a waste of money. But I could buy a replacement. If I threw my son out of the window, I would be doing something deeply and profoundly wrong. My son is not replaceable, like a computer. He’s a unique and precious being, made in the image of God.
Science is an amazing tool. It helps us to discover useful things to make our lives better and to recognize beautiful things about our world. But if we boil everything down to what science can measure, then you and I don’t matter anymore. We’re just computers in a fleshy case. Believing that God created the universe isn’t illogical or outdated. It’s not like believing the stories Maui makes up in Moana. According to some of the top thinkers in science today, believing in the God of the Bible is the best foundation for science. It’s also our best foundation for understanding what a human being is, and why you, and I, and my little baby, Luke, are infinitely valuable.
- For example, one of Charles Darwin’s closest scientific colleagues was a Harvard professor named Asa Gray. Gray was a passionate Christian, and he kept trying to persuade Darwin to trust in Jesus. Today, there are Christians who are leaders in evolutionary science: for example, Cambridge professor Simon Conway Morris, who is a leading expert on the fossil record of how many different forms of life emerged; Gregory Wray, who is a Professor of Biology at Duke University and an expert in the evolution of gene regulation; and Justin Barrett, who pioneered the field of evolutionary psychology of religion.
- Stephen Hawking, “There Is No Heaven; It’s a Fairy Story,” interview by Ian Sample, The Guardian, May 15, 2011, www.theguardian.com /science/2011/may/15/stephen-hawking-interview-there-is-no-heaven.
- See Dr. Ard Louis, “Science or Religion: Do We Have to Choose?” www.thphys.physics.ox.ac.uk/people/ArdLouis/downloads/Ard -Louis-London-Alpha-Oct10.pdf.
- Ian Hutchinson, Can a Scientist Believe in Miracles? An MIT Professor Answers Questions on God and Science(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 32.
This article is adapted from 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin.
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