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Christians Divided Over Science Of Human Origins


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The Book of Genesis tells the story of creation, of the sea, the sky, the birds and animals and, finally, Adam. Chapter 2, Verse 7 reads: The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Eve was formed out of Adam's rib.

Then a cunning serpent enters Eden, and original sin stains a perfect world. Opinion polls report that four out of 10 Americans believe this account of the creation story. It's a central tenet for many conservative Christians.

Science tells a different story. And recently, several Christian scholars argue that the scientific evidence must be accepted, which profoundly concerns others in the evangelical intelligentsia. Believers, how does science complicate your understanding of the Bible? Please note this is a rebroadcast. We won't be able to take any new calls in the hour.

Later in the program, flying with a cello, but first, Eden, evangelicals and evolution. NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty joins us here in Studio 3A. And Barbara, nice to have you back.


CONAN: The debate over evolution and the literal truth of the Bible goes back to Darwin. What's changing now?

HAGERTY: Right, right. Well, this debate within evangelical circles has been developing, you know, brewing for a number of years but kind of below the radar. But then some prominent evangelicals began to talk about this openly, most prominently Francis Collins, who as you know, is the head of NIH. He mapped the human genome.

And he wrote a book called "The Language of God," in which he said that his belief in evolution did not conflict with his evangelical faith. And that kind of opened the floodgates. A lot of people started coming out, a lot of scientists and theologians started coming out and saying, you know, we believe that, too. We believe that there may not have been, say, an Adam and an Eve.

CONAN: In particular, I was fascinated to read that some genetic evidence, DNA, was investigated by some of these Christian scholars and say, wait a minute, there's no way you can have the diversity of human beings we have on the planet if you start with two people.

HAGERTY: Yeah, that's right. They say now that we've mapped the human genome, it is clear that modern humans emerged from other primates way before the timeframe of Genesis, you know, like 100,000 years ago. And they say given the genetic variation, we can't possibly get the original population to below about 10,000 people at any time in our evolutionary history.

And one scientist put it to me this way. He said there would have had to have been an astronomical mutation rate that produced all these new variants in this short amount of time, and those mutation rates simply are not possible. We'd have to - we would have mutated out of existence, he said. So it's not possible.

CONAN: Yet some would argue look, biology, astronomy, geology, all kinds of sciences have, for at least 100 years, refuted the biblical account of creation.

HAGERTY: Yeah, many people say that's true, and they say look - the conservatives, the ones who read Genesis literally will say look, the science is still emerging. It's way too early to throw out the Garden of Eden.

Others kind of have a variation of that. They say that, OK, maybe there were more than two people, but - maybe there were many more than two people. Maybe there were 10,000 people. But there were two people who made a bad decision. They were, say, King and Queen Adam and Eve, right, they made a bad decision. They made the choice to eat the apple. They made the choice to disobey God.

And what's critical for them - it's not so much how many people were on Earth, but that man and woman decided to disobey God and create that original sin.

CONAN: And as you talk to the conservatives, they, at least in your story, tend to acknowledge, look, every little thing in the Bible isn't necessarily true, but Adam and Eve has to be true.

HAGERTY: Right, right. The stakes are really, really high in this debate, Neal. Many conservative Christians say, look, if you don't have an historical Adam and Eve, then you might as well throw out Christianity and Jesus, for that matter. Because if there's no Adam and Eve, they say there was no original sin, no fall, no choice to disobey God, to eat the apple, no need for a savior in the form of Jesus Christ. That's what they say.

And they also look at Paul, and the Apostle Paul, who wrote much of Christian theology, talked about Jesus being the second Adam, the second Adam that undid the sin of the first Adam. And so they say, look, if there is - if Paul was wrong about Adam, then what else was he wrong about? Does the whole thing unravel?

There's also something else that troubles them. They say that evolution calls into question the nature of God. Did God, who in Christian - conservative Christian theology is totally good and knows no evil - did God wire us to be sinful, to have selfish genes, to be cruel, you know, and predatory? If so, then how can God get mad at us for sinning? And so you see, there's a lot at stake here theologically.

CONAN: That the whole faith - it's the slippery slope.


CONAN: If there's no Adam, then the whole thing falls apart.

HAGERTY: That's right.

CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get some callers on the line. We'd like to hear from those of you who are believers. How does science impact your belief in the Bible? 800-989-8255. Email us: And we'll start with - this is Peter, Peter with us from Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

PETER: Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PETER: First of all, just to preface this with who I am, I am a seminary student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. And I'm married to a biologist. So this question has - is one that is very relevant in sort of the evolution and how it relates to Genesis and the story of the fall.

My comment that I'd like to add to this whole mix is - believe me, I could go on for hours and hours, but I'll keep it short, I promise. The whole concept of - that society has science and religion sort of at odds, and you either have to believe in creation as is told in the Book of Genesis - whether you ascribe to Genesis One or in Genesis Two. But either way, you have to ascribe to that or evolution.

And I would say that's most certainly not the case. A colleague of mine put it best when he said if you want to know the who and the why of creation, read the Bible. If you want to know the when and the how, read a science book.

HAGERTY: His whole point is that how we got here in the first place, the Bible doesn't take that up. And really, it's - until you get up to the story of Abraham in the holy scriptures in Genesis, you're - prior to that is all just pre-history, just sort of explaining why the world is the way it is. And you can still have original sin, you can still have the fall even if there wasn't literally a man and a woman standing there contemplating whether they should eat from this tree or not eat from this tree.

CONAN: And so with original sin and a fall, then there is still need for a redeemer, for Christ.

PETER: Absolutely. And Christ is - and I am a Lutheran, so this is paraphrasing Luther, here, when I say the whole point of scripture is to make Christ necessary and present, that is that there absolutely was something that went horribly wrong. There certainly is a corrupted nature. There certainly is something that has happened to us that gives us the absolute and utter need for Christ because of the - because of what we think of as original sin.

But whether it took place in time historically, geographically in this place we call the Garden of Eden, I think, is immaterial.

CONAN: Peter, thanks very much. You must have interesting conversations around the dinner table.

PETER: Absolutely, that we do.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

HAGERTY: And I should say that a lot of orthodox Protestants - and I think the majority of Catholics - feel exactly that same way. And what they say is Genesis may not be good history or good science, but it's great theology. And the one indisputable fact that we could all point to is that we are kind of - we do bad stuff, that sin infected the world.

And how that happened, you know, we don't know. But for Christians who don't want to take a literal interpretation of the Bible, they find ample evidence that they need a savior.

CONAN: We're going to talk in a few minutes with the head of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but joining us right now, Daniel Harlow, one of the biblical scholars who has spoken out against a literal interpretation of the creation story. Dan Harlow joins us now from member station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nice to have you with us today.

DANIEL HARLOW: Glad to be here.

CONAN: And last fall you wrote an article that got you into a bit of trouble at the school where you teach, at Calvin College. This - what was - the argument, as I understand it, was this genetic argument that Barbara Bradley Hagerty was outlining just a moment ago.

HARLOW: Well, that was part of it. In fact, the genetic evidence is now 20, 25 years old. And it's offered independent confirmation of what paleoanthropologists have long known, and that is simply that human beings evolved from other primate forms, and that we now know the ancestral human population size was something like 10 to 20,000 people, right.

So the genetic evidence isn't brand new, but it's taken time to sort of trickle down into popular consciousness.

CONAN: And that put the biology class at odds with the theology class down the hall.

HARLOW: Well, no, not really. Calvin College, an institution in the reform tradition of Christianity, has for decades had a vigorous engagement with evolutionary science. All of our natural science courses are taught from the perspective of evolution. It's the central organizing principle of science.

The kerfuffle at Calvin was not a problem with our provost or deans or faculty or intradepartmental warfare of any kind. It stemmed from the well-intentioned but I think misguided actions of our college president. I'm glad to say, though, that Calvin College is back on track in bringing a Christian perspective to bear on the secure findings of evolutionary science.

CONAN: Barbara?

HAGERTY: Well, I just wonder, Professor Harlow, what students think of this. It seems to me there may be a bit of a disconnect. I mean, in your own case - and you have a colleague named John Schneider who has resigned from Calvin College because of his discussion about - or his questioning about historical Adam and Eve.

And so it seems like there may be a bit of a disconnect between what's taught in biology and then the ability to teach the implications of that in the theology class. At least that's how it appears from the outside. And I'm just wondering what students think of this, when they go to biology on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, they hear the implications - or maybe they aren't supposed to hear the implications of that biological evidence.

CONAN: And Daniel Harlow, forgive me, we'll give you time to answer that question in just a minute, when we come back from a short break. So if you'd just stay with us there.

HARLOW: Okay. I'll try to remember it.

CONAN: Okay - in Grand Rapids, and Barbara Bradley Hagerty, our religion correspondent is with us here in Studio 3A. We'll also be talking with Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to explain why that original sin, as written in the Bible, is key to Christianity, in his view. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. NPR religion correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty has reported on a growing divide in conservative Christianity, on one side the growing body of scientific evidence that modern humans did not descend from two common ancestors, Adam and Eve; on the other, religious scholars who argue that the biblical story of creation and original sin formed the foundation of Christianity.

HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty is with us here in the studio. Daniel Harlow, religion professor at Calvin College, a Christian Reformed school in Grand Rapids, is with us from the studio of our member station there. And we're going to give him an opportunity to answer Barbara Bradley Hagerty's question just before the break, which was, briefly: Are the implications of the scientific evidence of evolution that are taught in the biology classes at Calvin, are those taught in the theology classes that the students take, as well?

HARLOW: Yes, they are. I don't think our students sense a disconnect between what they learn in Bible classes and biology classes. In our Bible classes, they learn two fundamental things. First of all, the literary genre of early Genesis is divinely inspired story, not documentary history.

Secondly, they learn very quickly that Adam and Eve are not central to biblical theology, despite claims to the contrary. If Adam and Eve were central to biblical teaching, it would be a surprise to learn that they are not mentioned in the entire Old Testament after Genesis Chapters 3 and 4.

If Adam and Eve are at the heart of the Christian faith, then Jesus and the apostles missed that memo. If you read the Gospels and read the Book of Acts, which purports to give the apostolic preaching of the Gospel, Adam, Eve and the serpent are not there. What is central to the Christian faith is the life, the saving death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So we don't need a historical couple tricked by a talking snake for the truth claims of Christianity to be true. What we need simply is a recognition of the reality of human sinfulness, that human beings are in the grip of sin, and that we need a savior because of that.

CONAN: Let's bring in Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the largest seminaries in the world, with us today from our bureau in New York. And nice to have you with us today.

ALBERT MOHLER: It's great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: In a blog post you wrote after you heard Barbara Bradley Hagerty's piece, you wrote: Make no mistake. A false start to the story produces a false grasp of the Gospel.

MOHLER: Well, absolutely. Adam is, I have to say - contrary to Professor Harlow - is a very important part of how the Bible explains the Gospel. In particular, the Apostle Paul twice grounds the story of the Gospel in the linkage between Christ as the second Adam, understandable in terms of why he came and what he did for us, with reference to the first Adam.

And the Apostle Paul, by the way, is not just telling us about biblical theology here and helping us to understand the Gospel. He is also telling us how to interpret the Old Testament. And I think it's a very important issue here that we recognize that what's at stake in this discussion is not just, as important as it is, the historicity of the first several chapters of Genesis or the historicity of Adam and the fall.

HARLOW: Those are absolutely, I believe, vital to orthodox Christianity, but also to the question as to whether or not the apostles get to tell us how we interpret the Old Testament. And I believe that's a very important issue.

CONAN: And as you...

HARLOW: Well, it is important. Can I interrupt here, and just say it's important? But if you read what Paul is doing in Romans 5 and First Corinthians 15, he's not trying to historicize Adam. He's trying to point up the more-than-historical significance of Christ's act, right? Paul...

MOHLER: I just have to disagree and say that's arbitrary, and frankly quite insulting to the biblical text and to the fact that no one would have thought such a thing...

CONAN: Gentlemen, one at a time, if you would.

MOHLER: He responded to me. No one would have thought such a thing until someone says, oh, look, modern science has a contrary word. No one had suggested such a thing in terms of the lack of an historical Adam until, all of a sudden, persons said science has a privileged word to say.

HARLOW: Well, science isn't privileged, but if this world is God's creation, then we have an obligation as bearers of the divine image to study the creation. Science uncovers facts about God's world. It's his world, right? And if we're going to ignore what mainstream science says, then we have no right to expect people to listen to us when we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I think this anti-science, anti-evolution rhetoric typical of evangelicalism brings disrepute on the Christian faith, and it brings unnecessary shame upon the name of Jesus Christ.

CONAN: Albert Mohler, we'll let you respond, and then we'll get some callers in on the conversation.

MOHLER: Well, the problem with that logic is that it has absolutely no end. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central fact of the Gospel story.

HARLOW: I agree. I agree.

MOHLER: And yet there is no scientific basis for making that argument, and quite frankly, modern science - in terms of its naturalism and materialism - generally rules completely out of order even the question of supernatural events. If we're going to...

HARLOW: Well, that's naturalism...

CONAN: Daniel Harlow, please, you have to let him speak.

HARLOW: Oh, I'm sorry, okay. I was getting carried away.

MOHLER: If we're going to allow modern science to tell us what we can and cannot theologically affirm, then it doesn't end with the discussion of whether or not there's an historical Adam. It continues throughout the entirety of the body of Christian truth. And that is a disastrous route.

And frankly, you're either going to accept that the Bible gives us the authoritative word concerning the entirety of our understanding of things relative to who we are as human beings, what God did in creating the world and what God did for us in Christ.

If the Bible is not the authoritative source for that and instead has to be corrected by modern science, then the Bible is just there for our manipulation, and quite frankly, the Gospel is there for constant renegotiation. It ends up being another Gospel, the very thing the Apostle Paul warned against.

CONAN: And Daniel, we're going to get a caller in, as I promised.

HARLOW: OK, sorry. Go ahead.

CONAN: Let's talk with Robert, and Robert's with us on the line from Charlotte in North Carolina.

ROBERT: Hey, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ROBERT: I just wanted to say this: I am an evangelical Christian, and I've been working in the fields of science, physics and chemistry, for - wow, I don't know, about a decade or so. And I have no problem reconciling my faith with what I do every day in science.

One of the things I think about - your producer was asking a question about, kind of bearing on what you guys are talking about. You know, and I think whether it comes to - I don't study botany, but when someone explains to me, or I read in a textbook or a journal about how exactly an apple gets from being flower to apple, or exactly what goes on underneath the hood of my car every day, I mean, I believe it, and it makes total sense to me. And I then have to take that evidence and see if I believe it or not.

And when I look at the truth claims of the Bible, I see the evidence for it, and I believe it. I believe it in faith. And I believe that there is no problem reconciling science with faith.

CONAN: So the evidence of geology, astronomy, that doesn't bother you at all?

ROBERT: No, it doesn't bother me at all. One of the ways I look at it is this: We look at a lot of things, and judging by the evidence, we think, wow. You just take the Grand Canyon or quasars or anything, and you think, wow, everything has got to be billions of years old.

And then I asked some other people, and I say okay, do you believe in God? Well, sure I believe in God. And you say God can do anything, right? Sure he can. And I think about it like this: If I was going to be God and make a universe, would I make a marble for an Earth?

Would I make a universe that isn't interesting and beautiful and imaginative and full of all kinds of cool stuff that, by our reasoning, would have to have taken millions or billions of years? Yeah, if I was God, I would do something that awesome. That's what I would do.

CONAN: Daniel Harlow?

HARLOW: Well, I agree. The Bible needs no correct or revision or updating. What needs revision at times is our understanding of what the Bible intends to teach. Let's be clear: The Bible is not an authority on scientific matters. It was written in a pre-scientific age. It's not a science textbook.

There's a lot more knowledge about the world to be had. Ultimately, what's most important to know, of course, is God's intention for the creation and God acting in Christ to reconcile the world to himself. But I just don't accept the evangelical rhetoric of Reverend Mohler, that - the slippery slope mentality, that somehow the resurrection is going to be called into question.

No. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection are fundamentally different in the type of literature they are from the early chapters of Genesis.

CONAN: This from DJ in Kansas City by email - and Robert, thanks very much for the call - if we as believers of the Bible don't believe in the truth about Adam and Eve, then why believe in the splitting of the Red Sea or any of the other miracles, or the miracles of Jesus? Miracles go beyond science, by definition. Why is it that we only focus on creation? What about all those other miracles?

And Albert Mohler, is that your point? If it starts to come undone, then we don't believe that the Red Sea divided?

MOHLER: No, I don't think it's fair to even describe this as a slippery slope argument, because, quite frankly, we're basically at the end of the slope already. It's the question as to whether or not the Bible reliably tells us the truth about even why we need a savior.

And for instance, when you take the issue at Calvin College there, Professor Schneider, he was very explicit. He was not just even denying an historical Adam. He was denying an historical fall. He was denying that there ever was a time before evil existed in terms of the cosmic experience.

And that is a direct refutation of the major storyline of the Bible. It's a direct refutation of what the apostles tell us Christ came to do for us in saving us from our sins. It is a rejection of the human moral agency that is absolutely vital to understanding why we are guilty before our creator.

And it's just the process, again, of suggesting - and by the way, I reject the fact that we, all of a sudden, know that the Gospels are historical. I certainly affirm that. But then we do not know that the opening chapters of Genesis are historical. Certainly, they're more than history, but I would suggest they're never less than history.

And it is true that evangelicals have nothing to fear. Christians have nothing to fear from legitimate science. But it's scientism and it's the naturalism that is the problem. I'm perfectly willing for science to tell me what the scientists are working on and how they believe the world is working. I cannot draw my conclusions about the Bible, about the Gospel, from them. Instead, I have to say, all right, I know they have their say. I respect that.

I believe that in the end of the day, there will be no final conflict between Christian truth revealed in the Scriptures and true science. But in the meantime, it's just not fair to say you have two different realms that don't overlap. It's not just a how and a who. The claims of modern science go far beyond merely a how, and the claims of the Scripture go far beyond merely a who.

CONAN: Daniel Harlow, is your article basically arguing, as Albert Mohler just said, that there was a time - that there was not a time before evil?

HARLOW: Well, I accept the Bible's truth claims about the reality of human sinfulness, right? But if we met a story - and I believe the book of Genesis is divinely inspired - if we met a story about a naked couple and a talking snake in any other book but the Bible, would be - would we be tempted to think that it is documentary factual history? I don't think the answer to that is yes.

CONAN: Barbara...

MOHLER: I don't think, by the way, we would think that, in any other book, about Jesus walking on water or multiplying a little boy's meal to feed 5,000 men and additional thousands who were there. That is just a logic that is deeply destructive, not only of biblical theology and the authority of Scripture, but of the Gospel itself.

HARLOW: Well, a lot of Christians at Calvin College working in the sciences accept evolution, and they don't see the conflict that you see there. They accept, as I do, the miracles of Jesus. But they recognize what type of literature we're dealing with in early Genesis. You know, we have to find a way to...

MOHLER: I think that's entirely arbitrary.

HARLOW: No, it's not arbitrary. It requires a lot of hard work. We want to hold on to Christian teaching about the fall and original sin. But we have to articulate it in a way that is faithful to the intentions of Scripture. Your understanding - I respect your understanding of what Scripture intends to teach, but I want listeners to know that your description of Scripture's intention is not the way many, many Christians understand the Bible's intentions.

MOHLER: Only of late, only those who come to the Scripture - and with a prior agenda coming from modern science - only those who try to bring genomic evidence and other things to say Genesis doesn't mean what any straightforward honest reader would think that it means and...

HARLOW: It's not science.

MOHLER: ...furthermore, what the Apostle Paul clearly believed Genesis meant.

CONAN: Albert Mohler and Daniel Harlow are with us: Daniel Harlow, a religion professor at Calvin College, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, I wanted to bring you back into this conversation. You describe this in your story as the Galileo moment - of course, the great Italian who argued that the Earth revolves around the sun, not the other way around, as some interpretations of the Bible would have you believe. Got into a little trouble for that from the Catholic Church, which apologized only 350-odd years later.

HAGERTY: That's right. That's right. Well, there's a debate. I'd think Albert Mohler would not say this is a Galileo moment. I think others would. The scientists who don't take literal interpretation of the Bible would. But what everyone agrees on is that this is a huge debate of the size of the Galileo moment. This is a clash of science and religion, where some people are going to decide that science trumps the interpretation, that we have to take account of the science and the genomic evidence.

And therefore we have to - this is what some people say - therefore we have to think about the Bible, the Genesis account a little bit differently. Is it a metaphor? Is it a story? Is it allegory? What is it? Does it have great themes, great ideas, but is it not literal? And so, in that sense, what you have is a parallel clash of religion and science. And people are duking it out right now, trying to figure out which is right.

CONAN: And, Albert Mohler, I wanted to ask you, as you look at the Christian scholars, like Daniel Harlow, who have come to their conclusions, is this something that should be taught at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Should your students be exposed to this thought?

MOHLER: Oh, absolutely. The controversy needs to be taught, and, quite frankly, no one can be a well-educated and an intelligent person in the modern world without understanding the theory of evolution and its implications.

Professor Harlow said one thing with which I wholeheartedly agree, and that is this is really not a new line of evidence. There's certainly some of the more genomic evidences coming. But in terms of the arguments being made by the central proponents of evolutionary theory, this is not new.

What is new - and I appreciate the fact that Barbara has focused on this - is the fact that we're now down to what I think is the key issue of our understanding. And that is, even given all the controversies that had been taking place amongst evangelicals over Genesis in times past, are we now at a place where it's going to be legitimate to say that there was no fall, that there was no Adam, there was no Eve?

That is where the implications of this thought have taken us, and this is where the dividing line is going to happen. There is a serious and deep, perhaps irresolvable, divide between the scholars who would stand with Professor Harlow and those who would stand with me.

CONAN: And, Professor Harlow, I think you argued that Christian scientists can't be taken seriously unless they accept this evidence and go from there.

HARLOW: Well, that's true. The other thing they need to accept, though, is mainstream biblical theological scholarship of the last century. Archeologists have uncovered older, ancient Near Eastern stories about creation, a primeval flood, et cetera, works like the Gilgamesh epic and the Atrahasis epic. The book of Genesis, clearly, is drawing, adapting numerous details and even the general sort of plotline of these older stories, but then transforming them and filling them with a very different theology that asserts the fundamental goodness of God, the fundamental goodness of creation, the dignity of human beings created in God's image and, yes, the problem of human sinfulness.

So you can have the fall or a fall, and you can have original sin. You don't need one man and one woman and one talking snake to get that. Again, I want to emphasize, if Adam and Eve and the serpent were so central to biblical teaching, why did Jesus and the apostles not teach about it?

CONAN: And at that, we're going to have to end this discussion. The argument, I suspect, is going to continue for some time. Daniel Harlow at Calvin College, thank you very much for your time today. Albert Mohler joined us from our bureau in New York. He's the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president. And Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR's religion correspondent who is responsible for starting all this, she's with us here in Studio 3A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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