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Cosmology and Faith

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists were not debating the origins of the universe. It was assumed that either the universe was always there, or its origins will be forever a mystery.

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Cosmology and Faith

Feb. 7, 2022 by Rev. Jacques Nel

At the beginning of the 20th century, scientists were not debating the origins of the universe. It was assumed that either the universe was always there, or its origins will be forever a mystery.


It was left to theologians and philosophers to debate such metaphysical matters. Einstein’s theories already then suggested that the universe is unstable and not static, but no one came up with a definitive answer why this is so. Alexander Friedmann, a Russian mathematician developed a cosmological model, indicating an evolving and expanding universe. A Belgian priest and physicist by the name of George Lemaitre was the first to suggest that the universe started with an exploding primeval atom. Lemaitre said, there are two ways of arriving at the truth and I decided to follow them both.

The size of the universe

andromeda galaxy
The Andromeda galaxy

Up until about 1928, no one knew what those faint patches of light in the night sky were. Very descriptively they were called the nebulae. Then with the newly built Hooker telescope, Edwin Hubble discovered that the nebulae were in fact giant star cities. At present it is estimated that there are approximately 200 billion of these star cities or galaxies in the observable universe. Our home the Milky way galaxy contains 250 billion stars. Our nearest neighbor the Andromeda galaxy, is 2.5 million light years distant and it contains roughly a trillion stars. The most distant galaxy we can see lies at a distance 13.4 billion light years.

The Big Bang

With the aid of the known absolute luminosity of Cepheid variable stars, Hubble and his assistant measured the distance to the nearest galaxies. With light travelling at 186,000 miles per second (that is circling the earth seven times in a second) even the nearest galaxies are immensely distant. Not only that, Hubble discovered that the more distant a galaxy was, the more red shifted it was in the electromagnetic spectrum. This meant that all the galaxies were speeding away from one another and the more distant a galaxy was, the faster it was receding from every other galaxy. This became known as the expanding universe hypothesis. Space itself is expanding and we now know that the acceleration is speeding up, driven by a mysterious property known as dark energy. At present we have no idea what this dark energy is, and some speculate that it might be a property of space itself.

If everything was shooting away from everything else, then at some point in time it had to be much closer. How close? The obvious answer was a bit of a shock. The universe exploded out of state so close, the physics thereof cannot be described. It is called the singularity. This event became known as the big bang. If we rewind back the clock at the rate of the present expansion, it happened some 14 billion years ago. At that point in time this universe and with-it space and time, literally exploded into existence. The name Big Bang itself came from one of the opponents of the theory, Fred Hoyle. It was meant to be a sarcastic remark, but it stuck. The Big Bang has since been confirmed by the discovery of a background radiation in every direction of space. It is the standard model of modern cosmology, and its opponents are no longer considered to be serious scientists.

big bang
The Big Bang

The discovery of the Big Bang was arguably the greatest scientific event of the last century. We landed on the moon but here before us was now a window on the beginning of our universe. Hubble became a bit of a celebrity and he and his wife were often seen at Hollywood parties of the time. The work itself was a lonely quest like all similar achievements. Driving the giant Hooker Telescope night after night with frozen fingers took a lot of stamina. Staying for weeks on end in what was known as the monastery up on Mount Wilson was not an easy life. But it paid off. Hubble once remarked, astronomy is like ministry. No one should go into it without a call. Talk of God was now going to be the next thing on the table.

On a road trip out west, we once visited Mount Wilson. The place is a shrine of modern science. On the outskirts of LA in a very ordinary looking neighborhood, we found the winding road going up the San Gabrielle Mountains - speak of angels. When after an hour long drive up that mountain we finally came to the famous observatory, there was not a soul in sight. The Hooker telescope was locked behind glass. There were a few old photos, one with Einstein and Hubble on it. High up in the pine trees there was the sound of a soft breeze. There came a feeling of peace over me. Our God is an awesome God.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Turtles all the way down
Turtles all the way down

The discovery of the Big Bang was seen by several Christians as a confirmation of Genesis 1:3, where God says: Let there be light and there was light. Here finally we had the evidence for creation and a beginning that needed an uncaused cause (God). The medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas (following Aristotle) held that we cannot proceed infinitely in a series of beings or events. We cannot be here now if time goes back infinitely or if the universe is eternal. If the world sits on a turtle and that turtle sits on a world that sits on a turtle, there cannot be an infinite regress of turtles all the way down. Somewhere it got to stop and there must be a beginning. Speaking of the infinite can only be a reference to God, who is the Alpha and the Omega. A finite universe with a beginning requires a creator.

An 11th century Persian Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali first came up with what is now known as the Kalam cosmological argument. Somewhat rephrased it goes like this. Everything that begins to exist has a cause. The universe began to exist. Therefor, the universe has a cause, and that cause can only be God. Pope Pius Twelve in a 1951 address delivered before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, strongly endorsed the theological implications of the Big Bang. Even someone like Stephen Hawking seemed to agree that such a beginning of the universe inevitably pointed to a Creator. But Hawking had absolutely no plan to side with the church. This was more like the proverbial red flag for a bull.

A spanish matador
A Spanish matador

The No-Boundary Proposal

History often showed how fatal it can be to build theological arguments on scientific theories. By simply assuming that the Big Bang had to be the first moment of creation, a flood of responses coming from the scientific world were invited. The best known of these responses was Stephen Hawking’s no boundary proposal. In his characteristic dramatic way, Hawking proposed that there is no singularity in what he called imaginary time. The universe is finite in time, but it has no beginning he said. At an imaginary time, the universe has no boundary, it just curls around itself like the earth. Hawking was basing all this on a complicated mathematical argument using imaginary numbers. According to Hawking then, if the universe had no beginning, we must conclude that it simply exists. The brute fact of its existence has finally done away with God.

Hawking argued that if time is defined by this universe, then it makes no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. In general relativity it became meaningless to talk about space and time outside the limits of the universe. To even begin to understand what Hawking is saying, at least some insight into quantum mechanics is needed. On an almost infinitely small-scale space and time is nothing like the way we experience it. Hawking wanted to figure out what will happen when gravity is so strong, that it will reveal its quantum nature.

The inability of light to escape from a black hole is due to the extreme curvature of space and time. A black hole is the final stage of a massive collapsing star. Hawking did considerable work in this field. It is postulated that inside the event horizon of a black hole, the values of any matter and energy that are falling into it are raised infinitely. It results in what is called a singularity, which is precisely what was postulated to be at the very beginning of the Big Bang. There is now however some doubt whether singularities exist, since no one knows what happens to the laws of physics as the infinite values are approached. It was precisely here that Hawking did his theorizing about the early stages of the universe where a singularity was proposed.

Once over the event horizon of a black hole, nothing giving us any information what lies beyond ever emerges. Singularities are protected from outside observers. Values are raised infinitely as we approach the singularity so we have no way to know if any of the laws of physics still operate or what other conditions may exist. When we theorize about a singularity, we can only imagine catastrophic conditions. Hawking speculated about these extreme conditions, and he wondered how it could be applied to the early universe.

When we look at a model of the earth, we see the longitude lines converge at the North Pole and it looks catastrophic. But when you are at the pole you don’t see anything unusual. Hawking proposed something similar for the Big Bang. From our perspective there is a singularity but at the point of the bang there is not. From our perspective the universe has a beginning but at the point of the beginning there is no beginning. The curvature of space and time becomes infinite and like the surface of the earth time and space has no edge, yet it remains finite.

Hawking reasoned for high densities of matter it is not to say that the concepts of gravitational field and matter will still be separate. In a unified theory of quantum gravity there might not be a singularity. Hawking was interested to see how all these ideas could be applied to the problem of the Big Bang singularity. All along he worked with the likes of Roger Penrose and others on these problems. It was now obvious that we can only understand the earliest moments of the Big Bang through a theory of quantum gravity. But we have no such theory. Our understanding of the Big Bang breaks down at Planck time which is about 1×10-43 seconds after the Big Bang itself!

The no boundary thesis is best formulated in Hawking’s own words. In this theory time loses the characteristics that separates it from space and the concept of a beginning in time becomes meaningless. Space-time with this signature has no boundary. There is no big bang, no singularity, just another direction in space (and time?) So long as the universe had a beginning that was a singularity, one could suppose that it was created by an outside agency. But if the universe is completely self-contained, having no edge or boundary, it would be neither created nor destroyed. It would simply be. Hawking asked what place then for a creator?

Hawking now wanted to be the matador taking on the church. This can only be a red flag for believers. Hawking is now deceased, but his books sold in the millions. I suspect very few people understand what he said but the faith of millions is undermined, when they hear the famous scientist denying creation by God. We are in the marketplace of ideas, and we cannot avoid this dialogue with science.

The end of God or the end of science?

Let’s assume for the moment that Stephen Hawking had it right, saying the universe had no beginning. Should such a universe without beginning automatically do away with the need for a Creator God? Hawking said that his no boundary proposal implied a universe that simply is. But is the brute fact of existence not something mystical? Must we now be content with the shallowness of a materialistic society. For Hawking the final victory of science had to exclude God from the universe and with that all mystery.

Hawking based his no creator argument on a fuzzy period (1×10-43 seconds) where time gets swallowed by space. But does belief in a Creator God require a definite specific first event of creation? The answer is absolutely no. God is not bound by time. With respect, God is all over the place, God is the Alpha and the Omega. Hawking was trapped in a very outmoded deistic understanding of God. That somewhere before the world was made, there was God. Fact of the matter is, an eternal God can also make a universe that is finite in time, yet it has no beginning. And that would be Hawking’s universe. Hawking’s no boundary proposal proves nothing about a creator God either way. If in Genesis it says in the beginning, that is merely as seen from our perspective. That the earth was a formless void before there was light sounds a bit like Hawking. Genesis saying that God created the world and Hawking’s description of the process should not be juxtaposed.

Hawking seemed to think that finally explaining how everything works (I doubt it is possible) is the equivalent of understanding why everything is. Willem Drees, a Dutch physicist and theologian considered Hawking’s proposal interesting and elegant. Drees however added that no argument against God can claim completeness. The mystery of existence is unassailable. It remains possible therefor, to understand the universe as a gift, as grace. That can certainly also apply to Hawking’s universe which is finite in time, yet it has no edge, boundary or beginning. If there is any evidence for God or not (coming from cosmology) it must lie elsewhere.

Reflecting on quantum fluctuations in the vacuum, Hawking in fact went much further than his no boundary proposal. He said because there is such a thing as the law of gravity the universe will create itself from nothing. Hawking literally argued that the universe bootstrapped itself into existence. I don’t think his use of the word nothing was legitimate. Nothing is nothing. If I understand him correctly his nothing was still quantum fluctuations in the vacuum. But that aside, a universe that literally created itself had to be very smart to give us the outcome that is before our eyes. Gravity then was an artist, giving us mountains, flowers, sunsets and seasons so perfect. In fact, gravity had to be a genius that all of this can be described by the logic of Math. Gravity gave us love and hate, joy and sorrow! That gravity can be so all encompassing, that is truly amazing.

John Polkinghorne is a Cambridge Quantum Physicist who became an Anglican priest. For Polkinghorne the belief that the universe was created by an act of God, can be backed up by two arguments. Both arguments spring from the findings of modern science. None offer conclusive proof that God is the creator of the universe. Both however are strongly supportive of such a view. They are meta- questions (questions going beyond) simply because the findings of science from which they flow offer us no comfortable resting place. According to Polkinghorne these two meta-questions that arise from science are: 1) The amazing rational transparency of the physical world. 2) The remarkable fine tuning of this universe that makes human life possible. Personally, I find myself in agreement with Polkinghorne on this.

The rational transparency of the universe

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

Although he was not a believer in the Biblical sense of the word, Einstein famously said the universe is a set up job. The only in incomprehensible thing about the universe is, that it is comprehensible. Polkinghorne thinks our amazing ability to understand the physical world cannot so easily be explained away. Why does reason so perfectly fit the physical world? This physical world is rationally transparent to an astonishing degree. What is more is that mathematics plays such a key role in that transparency. The physical world is shot through with mind, which in fact is the mind of the Creator. There is congruence between our minds and the universe, between the rationality experienced within and the rationality experienced without. The true explanation for this congruence must surely lie in a more profound reason, which is the ground of both. Such a reason would be provided by the rationality of a Creator. And we are made in God’s image.

E = mc²
Einsten's famous equation E = mc²

A fine-tuned universe

For Polkinghorne the belief that we live in a world created by God, flows also from the second issue raised by science. This is what we might call the anthropic principle. The fact is that a delicate balance seems necessary in the universe’s make-up, like what we find and evolving systems like ourselves. This universe could have evolved into an almost infinite number of states. The fundamental forces of nature (gravity, strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetic) had to be in a very specific balance during the first moments of the bang, to give us this specific state of the universe. The probability of this universe arising by chance is so small, no one in his or her right mind can think our universe is the product of the mere blind forces of nature. The fine tuning of those cosmic knobs was necessary to make humans. This is known as the fine-tuning argument of standard Big Bang Cosmology. Polkinghorne strongly propagates fine-tuning as an argument for the theistic origin of this universe.

spiral of numbers
Perfectly tuned cosmic knobs

During the first moments after the Big Bang the universe was placed on a very specific track. For life to be on this earth, everything in that first split second had to be in the right balance. Otherwise, the universe could have evolved into an almost infinite number of states. A physicist Paul Davies says the fact that those relations were necessary for our existence, is one of the most fascinating discoveries of modern science. A deviation in the ratio between the competing effects of the explosive expansion and gravitational contraction of one part in 1× 1060 would have led to a different outcome. It was more than a slippery slope. It was God who brought us to this place. That’s the argument.

Late-stage stars collapse when the outward push of the nuclear furnace is overcome by the inward pull of gravity. When the star is above a certain mass it will keep on collapsing until it hits what can best be described as something like a brick wall. At this point the star will explode in what is called a supernova. One supernova can shine with the light of a billion suns, and it is the most violent event known to us. The element carbon is produced by these supernovas. Were the value of gravity different, there would have been no supernovas and no carbon-based life on this planet. We are stardust and our birthday, like that of the universe was the most violent event you can imagine. What’s more, the whole thing is now beginning to look pre-planned. Not because there was a beginning. Maybe there was no beginning as Hawking wants us to believe. No, it looks pre- planned because when it happened all the knobs were tuned to right values.

George Ellis, who for many years taught applied math at Cape Town University, said there is absolutely no way we can escape the conclusion that fine tuning is a pointer to intelligent design (God?) UCT is my alma mater and that is one more reason why I agree! Of course, that is just my bias. Fine tuning is due to either design, change or some other necessity not known to us now. Even Stephen Hawking had to ask, what then is breathing fire into the equations (if it was not God)? And for Hawking this fine-tuning argument for God, it was once again the proverbial red flag. Like most cosmologists petrified by even the mention of God’s name, they all sought solace in the multi-verse hypothesis.

Cambridge cosmologist Martin Rees said, our emergence from the Big Bang was sensitive to six numbers. Had these numbers not been well tuned, the gradual unfolding of the complexity of this universe would have been quenched. He then asks the vital question. Are there a multitude of sterile universes and just ours happen to be an oasis? The deadly logic of this is obvious. Either this universe is designed by a higher intelligence (God?), or we are just lucky to be in the right universe out of uncountable zillions of universes, where change couldn’t get the numbers right.

The Multiverse

lucky
Are we just lucky?

The primordial sphere of total chaos that preceded the Big Bang is called a Planck sphere (no longer a singularity?) It was not long before cosmologists came up with the idea of a mirror universe emerging from the same Planck sphere as our universe. While the mirror universe exists in our past, its arrow of time points opposite to ours. The mirror universe is expanding in the direction opposite to ours. Since the Planck sphere contains no information or structure, it is functionally indistinguishable from nothing (so goes the argument) and we have two universes tunnelling from nothing.

The mirror universe is dominated by randomness like ours. It will not be identical to ours. It may in fact be so different, we cannot dream it. Ours was the lucky throw of the dice. So here I am, how lucky I am! And that’s you over there, that smiling yellow face! Whatever is in that opposite universe, it is not the place to be. And if two universes are possible, why not three or five or an infinite number that is now called the multiverse. Hence the many grumpy blue faces. The multiverse is then the ultimate lottery and carbon-based life is nothing but a lucky throw of the dice. That one universe (ours) out of zillions of other less fortunate universes, that couldn’t get the numbers right (at least for life as we know it).

So, we are the lucky throw of the dice (?) thank God for that! No, you are not supposed to mention God in this quest to unravel the secrets of our existence! Some of us suspect that the sudden enthusiasm for the multiverse came at a very convenient time, as a denial of fine tunings most likely conclusion (a creator God). On July 7, 2005, Christoph Schörnborn, Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna wrote, in the New York Times: The multiverse hypothesis in cosmology was invented to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science. Others like William Lane Craig expressed similar sentiments. The proponents of chance have been forced to postulate the existence of other universes, preferably infinite in number and randomly ordered, so that life-permitting universes will appear by chance somewhere in this multiverse.

In fairness, this is vehemently denied by the scientists who favor the multiverse idea. They argue that the multiverse is the conclusion of our best current models of cosmology. And true, the multiverse thesis is based on complicated mathematical reasoning and many of the current theories in theoretical physics. Yet many non-believing scientists have joined the theists in arguing that the multiverse is not a proper scientific theory. There is absolutely no way to verify this hypothesis (falsify it, if you want to follow Karl Popper here!) We have no way of observing a universe outside of our own and we will never have it. All information is lost in the chaos of the Planck Sphere (and that is putting it mildly).

The proponents of the multiverse insist it is an unavoidable consequence of eternal inflation, the current model of the early universe. And that we are just lucky to be in the right universe. To my mind something is missing here. I know that I’ve been lucky sometimes in my life (I suspect that was also God at work). But such a stroke of luck? One in zillions? Tell me another story.

The Apostle Paul

If some of us struggle to see it in the details, we saw it long ago in the big picture. Ever since the creation of the world his (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. (Romans 1:20). That was Paul. I am not saying there is no multiverse. The verdict is still out on that one. I am saying with Paul, God made it all.

Little people under a big sky

Milky Way Galaxy
The Milky Way Galaxy

By now contemplating all of this, we will be pardoned for feeling very small and insignificant. Compared to the vastness of the cosmos we are nothing. This is often used as an argument against faith in God. Even if there is a creator God it is said, why would such a God be interested in us? We are just a speck of dust on a pale blue dot in space. Remember those famous photographs, coming back from Voyager as it was leaving the solar system. Our faith in a God who cares about us, that is just our own inflated opinion of ourselves. At least that is the argument.

Fact of the matter is, we are not so small. We are exactly halfway between all possible sizes in the universe. If the observable universe is roughly 46 billion light years across and if superstrings indeed exist as the smallest imaginable something, we are size wise located dead centre in the middle. Size wise we are at the centre of the universe. More important, we were made with minds that can contemplate in absolute awe the magnificent beauty of the cosmos. Looking up into the night sky the Psalmist ask in wonder, what are humans that you are mindful of them God? Indeed, who are we that the maker of the universe was thinking of us, when He made the Orion and the seven stars?

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Eden and the Fall

Aug. 1, 2021 by Rev. Jacques Nel

Reading Scripture with integrity begins with allowing the ancient text to speak for itself.


Where is evil coming from? Evil is coming from our own wrongful desires (James 4:1-3). Evil is coming from a talking serpent and a tree with forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8 - 3:24). Our reading of this text can be either too figurative or too literal. Figurative interpretations may arise from a desire to accommodate a modern worldview. What the author(s) of Genesis could have understood as actual historical or geographical realities (Eve created from Adam’s rib or the location of Eden) may not be so for us. Adam simply means man or coming from the red earth. It need not be a specific person, but was probably understood so by the author. Eve means life. Literal interpretations may again flow from not understanding how the author is weaving together different types of literature. He effortlessly jumps from portraying what was perceived to be actual history to speaking in parables and symbols; living in a garden to eating from a tree described as good and evil.

I don’t think the author of Genesis believed that God would banish us from his presence merely for eating the wrong fruit. That is a bit harsh coming from the God who is love (1 John 4:8). Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of all of Scripture. It is more than just knowing the right grammar or the literal meaning of the words. When Jesus says: “I am the vine and you are the branches”, he does not mean we are branches growing from his side. Was the tree of good and evil then an actual tree? It seems from the description of the tree itself, that the author is not saying so. The tree of life is not an actual tree either (Revelation 22:2). The serpent sounds demonic, like the father of the lie, saying: “Did God really say?” Can a serpent speak while hiding in a tree that is not an actual tree? No, and the author certainly knew that. The tree was not meant to be a literal tree. We should allow the text to speak for itself.

In trying to match details of an ancient text with our understanding of the world, we may lose its meaning. Meanings in a text are best understood in terms of the world within which the text was written. Historical, archaeological, and geographical realities must be accounted for. Our aim is to learn from the text. Once done, modern science can come into play. What we have in the first chapters of Genesis, happened in a prehistoric time of which there are no written records. We are not always sure when the narrative is meant to be understood as actual history or not.

Writing history in the ancient world was done very differently from how it is done now. Details were made to fit the big picture. The big picture mattered, not the details. The structure of Genesis revolves around genealogies. Whether they are historically accurate or not doesn’t seem to matter. If Adam and Eve were the first two people on earth, did Cain marry his sister? I doubt if the author of Genesis wants us to believe that. Cain founded a city (Genesis 4:17). How can you do that if the only other people on the planet are your brothers and sisters? How many people are needed to build a city? The answer is, certainly more than your brothers and sisters.

Clearly the historical details were not the main focus of the author of Genesis. It was the big picture. Cain farmed the land. Agriculture and a settled existence led to the building of the first cities. The cities of Sumer were known for violence and constant warfare. Cain’s descendant, Lamech, boasted to his wives how he would take revenge seventy times seven. Lamech was a violent man, and because of the violence, God sends a flood to destroy all those descended from Cain. Noah and his family survived in a boat. Noah is the son of the other righteous Lamech (ninth in descent from Adam). There are two Lamech’s in Genesis and two Enoch’s, the son of Cain and the other an ancestor of Noah. That is the big picture.

Some are Righteous and serve God while others are not, paying the price. This grand theme of Genesis echoes throughout Scripture. With all our attention to historical and scientific details, we may still not get the big picture right. What started with God, creating order out of chaos, became eating from a forbidden tree. From that followed the incident with Cain and Abel, Lamech’s violence, and then the chaos of the flood. Noah is saved and the blessing or order is restored with Abraham.

Genesis 1-11 is often compared to what is known as mythical time in the memory of a people. To the aboriginal people of Australia it is known as the dream time. For the Romans it went back to Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of Mars, the god of war. Myths can be either true or false, so the term is best avoided here. The first chapters of the book of Genesis are uniquely difficult to interpret. Compared to the surrounding ancient cultures of that time, its author demonstrated superior theological insights. These insights are divinely inspired. This inspiration did not happen in a mechanical way, as if God was speaking through the author like we would be typing on a keyboard.

The divine words became flesh. It was spoken/written within the limited scientific and historical understandings of its author. That does not matter. It is the big picture that matters. Are you Cain or Noah?

A garden with all kinds of trees

forest

The Lord God planted a garden (גן pronounced gan in Hebrew) in the east, in Eden (Genesis 2:8). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuaginta) the Hebrew word gan is translated with the word paradeisos πᾰρᾰ́δισος. This word goes back to an older Persian word, meaning a walled garden. It carried connotations with it, that is not of necessity in the Hebrew text. The text is not saying the garden was a paradise. It is not saying the garden was somewhere in Persia either. It is saying the garden was in the east and it says it twice. The Hebrew word Eden is derived from the Akkadian edinu 𒉌𒋾𒈝 which in turn comes from the even earlier Sumerian word Eden, meaning plain (or plain in the east). This was an obvious reference to the land between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, known to us as modern day Iraq. Earlier it was known as Mesopotamia, which is Greek for the land between the rivers.

The word Eden can also relate to the Hebrew root adan עָדַן (meaning joy, pleasure or luxury). Eden was associated with an idyllic life in God’s presence in the distant past. Work was indeed easier before the agricultural revolution in the Neolithic era. Working the land required hard intensive labour for long hours. Banned from the garden, Adam was now cursed to toil the land with pain (Genesis 3:16-17). We cannot of necessity assume that Eden was thought of as a perfect paradise. It was certainly remembered as idyllic. Creation was good (Genesis 1). Good need not mean perfect. In a perfect world we might not feel any need for God.

Four rivers

After informing us that the Lord God planted a garden in the east, in Eden, the author gives us a geographical description of where this garden was located. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden, and from there it divided; it had four headstreams. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (Genesis 2:10-11). Havilah is mostly understood as a reference to Arabia, or Chawilah in Hebrew meaning ‘sand-land.’ There are no big rivers at present in Arabia. The Hebrew word nahar (river) is at times used to describe the sea (Jonah 2:3). Concluding from this that the Pishon is a reference to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf (encircling Arabia) is stretching it a bit.

Using remote sensing, geologists discovered a dry riverbed in Arabia. It runs for over 850 kilometers. In places it is over 5 kilometers wide. It is at present covered with desert sands, which made it invisible for so long. It is called the Kuwait river and the last time water flowed there was between 5,000 and 11,000 years ago. The existence of this dry riverbed was confirmed by penetrating radar images taken from onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 1994. If this dry riverbed was indeed the Pishon, it is a remarkable confirmation of what we read in Genesis.

The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush (Genesis 2:13). Cush was a reference to upper Egypt and what is now Sudan. The Gihon then had to be the entire Nile River system. This would mean that the garden was somehow connected with the entire fertile crescent, stretching from Egypt to Iraq. That does not square with locating the garden in Eden (the plain in the east) and the Mesopotamian setting of the third and fourth rivers.

The Kassites (from the word kussu) took control of Babylon after the fall of Hammurabi’s rule, sometime around 1,600 BC. For the next 300 years plus, central Mesopotamia was known as C(K)ush. If the Gihon winded through the entire land of (this) Cush, then it was a river in Mesopotamia. The name of the third river is the Tigris. The fourth river is the Euphrates (Genesis 2:14). This is a clear reference to what was the ancient land of Mesopotamia and what is now modern Iraq. This agrees with Genesis 2:8: That God planted a garden in the east, in Eden. This mention of a garden in the east, where God puts the man that He had formed (Genesis 2:8) agrees with the latest insights from paleo anthropology. The first modern humans migrated out of East Africa into the fertile crescent, 120,000 years ago. From there we spread across the globe. Is what is written in Genesis, the dim memory of that?

The author of Genesis presents us with what was then considered to be a literal fact, namely the location of Eden. If it was the intention of the author of Genesis, to share with his readers what he considered to be historical facts, that Adam and Eve were the first two people on this planet and their son Cain built a city, we must respect that. There is a possibility that the author was not so concerned about historical events, and that the story is on an altogether different level.

Formed from the dust and built from a rib can be archetypal claims, and not claims about material origins. It can be about God’s intimate role as Creator, and not so much the mechanisms used or the time it took. Should that be the case, the perceived conflict between Science and Scripture is even more overblown than we realize. Unfortunately, it is not possible to show conclusively that there is a right and a wrong way to read the text of Genesis. I personally prefer the view that this text is alive with different meanings on many levels. It speaks in a timeless manner enriching our self- understanding.

Certainly, whoever wrote Genesis, did not know that humans were hunter gatherers for thousands of years, then nomads herding animals, and at long last farmers building the first cities. Anatomically modern humans emerged over a hundred thousand years ago, while the earliest cities were built in Anatolia, between ten and twelve thousand years ago. All of that, the author of Genesis squeezes into two generations (Adam/Cain). I am okay with that. Denying it would-be a fraud. Allow this ancient scripture to belong to the time in which it was written. That is how we acknowledge that the Word became flesh. Doing so, you will hear the soft whisper of God’s voice in the evening breeze (Genesis 3:8).

“You may eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). A tree of the knowledge of good and evil has everything to do with a deeper spiritual meaning, if words are what they mean. It has nothing to do with fruit trees or the fruit you buy in the shop. If you eat too much of that fruit, it will give you a stomach-ache, but you will not die. When God says of the tree of good and evil: “if you eat of it, you will surely die,” it can be that the author was thinking of spiritual death and not physical death. At some stage in our collective history or in our individual lives, we lost our innocence. Sinning we could now see that there is good and evil. Not being God, we were unable to steer away from evil towards the good alone.

Adam and Eve had to leave Eden. This event is perpetuated throughout the generations. It became the doctrine of original sin. In Adam we have all sinned (Romans 5:12-21). How did that happen? How did we go from order to chaos? It was the abundance of God; that you may eat from all the trees in the garden. In a sense all of Eden was given to all humans and that’s the whole world, if we are going to read Genesis chapter one with chapter two. What God made with such ease in six short days by merely speaking the word, it was good. It was designed to create a living space.

In Babylon humans had to make a living space for the gods or else! This was now the reverse. It was a fresh perspective. The sun and the moon were created, to be a light for the day and a light for the night. Dry land was separated from water, so that humans created on the sixth day could live. (Genesis 1:1-19). The sea was teeming with fish (fifth day) and the land with animals on the sixth day (Genesis 2:20-25). Plants were made as food for the animals to eat (Genesis 2:29). The days or billions of years in which this was done, that makes no difference. The Creator is not bound by time. A billion years is but a moment, to the One who is the Alpha and the Omega.

Getting stuck in all sorts of time-scale arguments, it clouded the sun. As a result, we lost the meaning of; let there be light and there was light. We lost sight, of how precious this order out of chaos is. Creating our own order, we bombed the flesh of those made in the Imago Dei. We poisoned the fish that swim in the ocean. We slaughtered the animals that live on the land. We pollute the air. Somehow, we miss what this is all about. It is about order out of chaos, light from darkness. It is not about the days that can so easily be billions of years.

What God made is good and we are not God. We will not be able to do a better job. On the seventh day God rested (Genesis 2:2-3) We are told to do the same. The reason being, that in six days God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in it and on the seventh day He rested (Exodus 20:8-11). It is done. We were created to find rest (an eternal Sabbath) in God and His works. Made in His image, we were created to sit forever at our Father’s table. We were made for fellowship with our Father. The human heart remains restless, until it finds rest in God (St. Augustine). Unfortunately, the youngest son said to his father; give me my inheritance. Lucifer the bright morning star, wanted to ascend above the heavens (Isaiah 14:12) not wanting to rest in God. I saw Satan fall like a bolt of lightning from the sky (Luke 10:18) The Fall is wanting to take on infinity. It is wanting to usurp God. It is wanting to be like God. From the tower of Babel to the devil, the beast and the false prophet getting thrown in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10).

Only God can face the terror of infinity. Not even God’s creation is infinite. The multiverse where all possibilities are realized, I personally find that repugnant. God rested on the seventh day after he made everything in six days. It was done. In modern cosmological terms, space and time has no edge. There is no beginning and there is no wall where it stops, so you can ask: What was before and what lies beyond? Like the earth, it has no boundary. You can travel forever around the earth, without ever falling over the edge. The surface area of the earth is finite, yet you can travel an infinite number of miles over it. Space and time are the same. It is finite, yet you can travel forever through it. Standing at the equator, the lines of longitude appear to merge at the pole. At the pole the horizon is the same distance than it is at the equator. Space and time are not infinite categories. Space and time are created entities. What is beyond, that is unspeakable. It is the realm of God, who alone is the Alpha and the Omega. Of the tree in the middle of the garden, you shall not eat. In the middle of Eden, were both the tree of life and the tree of good and evil (Genesis 2:10). That had everything to do with God. God, who alone can handle the terror of infinity.

Did God really say?

snake

We cannot deal with the infinite. Not in a spatial, temporal or a moral sense. Wanting to do so, is wanting to be God. It is departing on a journey, where we will never find any rest. It is entering through the gates of hell. It is refusing to rest on the seventh day. Also, Genesis 1:1-3 is not saying; in the beginning there was nothing. It says the earth was formless (tohu) and empty (wabohu) and darkness was over the face of the deep (Leningrad or St. Petersburg Codex dating to the early 11th century) More than a thousand years before that, in Dead Sea Scroll commentaries on this text, it is noted that Genesis is somewhat ambiguous on this point. We do believe in creatio ex nihilo but yes, there was chaos! What is no surprise to see, it is that the master of chaos entered the discussion at this junction.

In ancient times serpents were as mysterious as the Leviathan from the abyss. The serpent was craftier than all the other animals and now asked the woman. Did God really say you must not eat from any trees in the garden? (Genesis 3:1). God never said that! God said you may eat from all the trees in the garden, only of the tree in the middle of the garden you may not eat. This attempt to portray our lives with God as dull, boring and limited, it fails miserably. The father of the lie, the dragon, that serpent of old (Revelation 20:2) is persistent, utilizing every possible angle (Revelation 12:10-18). Some modern translations regrettably left out the Greek word for serpent (ofis), which is in the original manuscript of the Apocalypse of John. The amazingly rich ancient Greek vocabulary for snakes (serpents?) is beyond the scope of this essay.

A serpent is not a snake. A serpent walks on all fours. But this serpent was about to make the transition to sailing on the stomach (Genesis 3:14). Snakes were once lizards. Millions of years ago they had legs, now they sail and slither on the ground. Our reptilian brain (our primeval brain or basal ganglia) is associated with our baser desires (violence, lust, greed) and Paul urges us to crucify the old nature and become more Christlike. The Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin speculated about our ever upward journey (Cosmo-Geo-Bio-Homo-Christo Genesis) towards the Omega point, which is God. Surely, someone wanted to put an end to all of that. The serpent said to the woman. When you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. Wanting to be like God, that was the trap. The woman seeing that the fruit was desirable, ate of it and she also gave it to her husband to eat (Genesis 3:4-6). Desire did it all.

Someone used to joke about Adam and Eve, eating themselves out of the garden of Eden. But this was no joke. So, used to pain, do we still feel the loss of Eden? It was a tremendous loss. There was now placed before the gates of Eden an angel (cherubim) with a flaming flickering sword. The tree of life was now forbidden territory (Genesis 3:24). The woman was told that her husband will rule over her. The man was told, because of you the ground is cursed. Work from now on meant toiling all the days of your life (Genesis 3:16-21) It is all vanity (Ecclesiastes). Cain killed his brother Abel, whose name means mist or vapor. His life had no meaning, it was cut off way to soon. After the Fall, Adam and Eve were hiding in the garden from God, like the cockroaches in a kitchen, disappearing under the cupboards when someone switch on the lights at night. We’ve been running away from God ever since.

Not that the serpent was going to have the last word. The Lord God said to the serpent. I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. He will strike your head and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:14-15). That is the Gospel that we proclaim. The genealogy that runs from Eve to Abraham and all the way to Jesus. You need not worry about the details, just go and proclaim this Gospel. They conquered him through the blood of the lamb and the word of their witness (Revelation 12:11). That is now the beast and the false prophet and the dragon, who was thrown down on the earth and went off to wage war against the woman and her offspring (Revelation 12:4 and 17). Reading the first and the last book of the Bible, it should be done through the same lenses at the same time. Scripture has many layers. From Eve to Mary to the church. The woman flew on the two wings of an Eagle, away from the serpent into the dessert where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time (Revelation 12:14).

The Greek word (ofis) can mean a snake or a serpent. The serpent is the dragon, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9). The dragon took his stand on the sand of the seashore (Revelation 12:18) and I saw a beast rising from the sea (Revelation 13:1). That had to be the final temptation which was also the first temptation. The temptation to power. The wanting to be like God. In this case it was the Emperor of Rome, referring to himself on the silver Denarii coins as God. In Eden the serpent said to the woman, when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God. No, their eyes were not opened. They were not changed to be like God. They had to flee from God. Banned from Eden, we wrote a tale of darkness like no other. While God made order out of chaos, we wreaked havoc on ourselves and others. I have now become death, a destroyer of worlds! Robert Oppenheimer said that, quoting from Hindu scripture after seeing the detonation of the first atomic bomb. That is how we went from Eden to the Fall.

When the Psalmist says the earth is founded on pillars (Psalm 75:3) no one in his or her right mind will think this is so. Why then insists that the days in Genesis must be literal days for us? That God created us over a longer period of time and that we evolved, to my mind the science of this cannot be disputed. Was the Fall then a specific moment in this history and when was that moment? Considering the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture (John Calvin) I prefer to think of the Fall, as something that happened in a moments time and throughout this history. We are all Adam! We are all Eve! There was once this place called Eden.

Did God really say? Doubting that God is speaking to us through these ancient scriptures, it is now ingrained into the modern mindset. The sciences of Biology and Psychology are the trusted voices, when trying to discern what it means to be human. A literal reading of scripture, bringing it into conflict with some of the findings of modern science, was not of much help in this situation. Strangely enough, I’ve never doubted these ancient scriptures. Neither did I have any problems with science. I was always aware that it is not easy to enter into the thought world of the author(s) of Genesis. It was a world very different from ours, ignorant of modern science. But a reductionist study of the material world (that is what science is) is certainly not the only route to understanding. It is wisdom that we lack and only an extremely arrogant person will think, ours is the only time with insight. That we never discovered anything more that the laws of Physics and the Chemistry of atoms? That there never was a revelation coming from God. Based on what can anyone say such a thing?

I believe in the story of Eden and the Fall, with all my heart and mind. Like my heart jumped in my throat, when I saw a palaeolithic stone age knife lying on the desert floor! I knew it was for real. That we are old and that our stories are old, how else can it be? That God made it all by speaking the word and that we messed it up, that is for sure! At the heart of this story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, lies our unwillingness to be humble. Instead of a deep joy that we can eat from all the trees in the garden, we want to be in control of it all. Instead of resting on the Sabbath at our Fathers table, we stormed the gates of infinity. Wanting to be like God, it was and is our downfall in every age.

Most theologians agree, regardless of whether Adam and Eve were historical people, they are archetypes or prototypes of us all. Just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam is also a type of the one to come (Romans 5:12-14). We are not meant to storm the gates of infinity: Do not say in your heart, who will ascend into heaven that is to bring Christ down. The words are near you in your heart and on your lips, that is the faith that we proclaim (Romans 10:6-8). We are called to a Sabbath rest, but then that Sabbath is only a shadow of the reality that is Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17) We rest in Christ, who is our only comfort in life and death. Saved by grace, allow yourself to be carried to the Omega Point, don’t ever try to get there on your own. You may eat of all the trees but of the tree of good and evil in the middle of the garden, you may not eat. If you eat of this tree, you will surely die. Who can doubt this, that the story of Eden and the Fall is our story?

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