There are many aspects of the science faith debate, but some of the most central questions have to do with creation. The most fundamental one is whether we should interpret the beginning of Genesis as literal history, or some sort of figurative narrative. In the first case, there is a conflict between a literal interpretation and conventional science, while there is no conflict in the second case.
This essay outlines one viewpoint, based on both spiritual and Biblical perspectives, for why a figurative interpretation is best. The idea is to avoid overspiritualizing the text by including spiritual elements only when there is some clear reason for doing so, but to also avoid a purely natural perspective while missing valid spiritual elements. This latter error is the one that Jesus warned the disciples against.
Regarding Genesis 1, note that to the extent that it reveals anything about creation events, it could not have been witnessed by any human. We weren’t there. So, anything we get comes from God directly. This means that to properly interpret Genesis 1, we need to take into account the nature of God’s voice, and recognize that Genesis 1 is a prophetic revelation. Sometimes these are literal in Scripture, sometimes figurative, so we cannot make an assumption without an explicit Biblical statement. Looking for clues in the text, we find that God highlights a figurative element. Thus, we see that Genesis 1 is a divine oracle with at least one clearly figurative element. So, the most Biblical interpretation, taking into account both spiritual and Biblical characteristics, is that the whole narrative is figurative. This means that it says nothing about the physical age of the earth or universe, and science then becomes the best way to determine that.
Even if one accepts an old universe, the reality of evolution is often denied by those who believe that there was no death before man’s fall because creation was perfect before that. In order to hold that view, it’s necessary to ignore the darkness that existed before the fall (or interpret it differently than the rest of Scripture), as well as the handful of other clearly “not good” elements. This is typically culminated by changing Scripture by stating perfect instead of very good, again ignoring the clearly figurative nature. In fact, none of this is right, and there is nothing in the early Genesis account that conflicts evolution.
Considering the nature of Adam and Eve causes us to face another aspect of God’s voice, by looking closely at the translation. The term “Adam” is the generic Hebrew term for man or mankind. In the original Hebrew, it would not have seemed like a person’s name at all, not at all the way we think of it. Similarly, “Eve” is a unique word, used nowhere else, intended to convey the essence of life. It is basically a very slightly modified form of a word that conveys life, something like “Liife”. So the narrative in Eden tells of Man and Liife being deceived by a talking snake into eating a spiritual fruit. Now, consider the nature of God’s voice throughout Scripture — does this sound more like something out of the historical narratives of Kings and Acts, or the figurative narratives of Ezekiel and Revelation? Clearly, the narrative is intended to teach us about the fundamental nature of humanity.
Do these observations mean that all Genesis should be thought of as figurative? I don’t think so. There is a big difference in the style of narrative between chapters 1-11 and 12-50, and that change in style is the most reasonable place for a transition to historical. Several other details, such as the existence of tribes based on Jacob’s sons and the persistence of physical artifacts through various narratives, serve to further indicate a historical continuity from Abraham narratives forward, but not back into the earlier chapters of Genesis.
Otherwise, the only continuity we have through the book of Genesis is provided by genealogies. Those can certainly be literal, but they can also be literary. Choosing one over the other without some reason, is arbitrary. We have a clearly figurative beginning, a clearly historical end, and a significant change in style and perspective in the middle. The most reasonable assumption is that the epic narratives before the transition are figurative, consistent with the rest of Scripture, and the text after the transition is historical, also consistent with the rest of Scripture.
Now that we have pulled back the veils of tradition and translation, these narratives start to appear more like those at the end of the Bible, in Revelation, than simple history. Note how figurative speech is key to God’s nature (as evidenced both throughout Scripture and in Jesus’ teachings), and that the eternal, substantive, incorruptible nature of spiritual reality is not inferior to the temporary, corruptible, shadowy nature of this physical image world. This means that a figurative description of spiritual truths is more real, more substance, than a natural historical narrative. Our natural minds struggle with this — we tend to see figurative writing as somehow less real than literal description of natural events. This why we must use the mind of Christ, rather than natural minds, when wrestling with these topics.
Unfortunately, when reading with just the natural mind, it’s difficult to grasp spiritual figurative priorities and things seem the other way around. This is why it is so easy to see the passages as literal — it’s the most natural interpretation.
The early parts of Genesis are figurative, although it requires discernment to see that. This means they convey no information about the physical creation of the earth or biosphere, including humanity. We are free to use science to interpret those things, and move past the false conflict between science and faith.