Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

How in Hades Do We Teach Genesis 1-3?

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

How in Hades Do We Teach Genesis 1-3?

Article excerpt

I thought I was doing such a good job. There I was, teaching a college course on Genesis to a classroom of mostly evangelical students, who were hoping to go into some form of ministry. I was spreading the good news about how science and Christian faith can play friendly. I had, so I thought, been working through Genesis at an appropriately slow and pastorally sensitive pace. We had been learning about the interpretive significance of genre and how we must take seriously the text's socio-cultural location. We had been reading John Walton, and I was supplementing this with the sometimes supportive and sometimes dissenting perspectives of folks such as Tremper Longman III and Iain Provan.

Although we had plenty of class discussion along the way, it was not until I set aside an entire class hour for questions that it came out that several students were unsettled by our study of Genesis. Despite my careful nuancing throughout, two nagging fears lingered in some students' minds: (1) if Genesis 1-3 is not offering a straightforward historical description, then perhaps nothing else in scripture is historical either--including the incarnation and the death and resurrection of Jesus; and (2) if Genesis 1-3 is not teaching scientific truths about the mechanics and timeline of creation, then perhaps we should not take seriously any theological claims of Genesis 1-3, since those theological claims would be interwoven with cosmological material that we find inaccurate.

On the one hand, it is refreshing that some college students still care deeply about the authority of scripture, about learning from and submitting to the truths it proclaims. On the other hand, I was disappointed that these students had not followed my nuanced claims that, I thought, had addressed both these fears. I left the classroom discouraged that day. I deeply love scripture and regard it as authoritative, special revelation. It hurt to think that I was inadvertently undermining that conviction in my students. It also angered me that too many churches are perpetuating flat, unthoughtful approaches to scripture, which set students up for faith crises when they discover that scripture is not like what they were taught.

Fortunately, serendipity was waiting for me in my Advanced Greek course, in which we were reading the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16. Reading that text on that day with three students from my Genesis course led to an insightful conversation, which inspired a lecture I would give my Genesis students at our next meeting. What follows is a sketch of that lecture, which I believe helped my struggling students to fit the pieces together in a way that allowed for (1) a high view of scripture, (2) the lack of scientific claims in Genesis about the precise mechanics and timeline of creation, and (3) historical claims about events such as the death and resurrection of Jesus. The lecture below is by no means intended to replace the incredible work of the scholars mentioned above; it is merely a humble supplement that may help to ease the concerns of Christians who are struggling to align their theological convictions with a more nuanced reading of Genesis. (1)

From Creation to Hades and Back Again

I opened the class by reading Luke 16:19-31, instructing the students to pay attention to genre clues in this pericope. (2)

There was a [certain] rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen
and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a [certain]
poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his
hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would
come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the
angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In
Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far
away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, "Father Abraham, have
mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and
cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames. … 
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