OK, confession time, guys. I did that bad thing bloggers do: I wrote a headline just to make you click on it. I am ashamed, and I am sorry.
Now, it wasn’t a total bait and switch. I will be talking about the question my headline asks. Only, I won’t be answering it, because I don’t believe we have anywhere near enough information to do so.
There is precisely one instance in all of scripture where Jesus quotes from Genesis 1 and 2. OK, actually, there are two, but they are parallels of each other: Matthew 19:1-11 and Mark 10:1-12. Here’s the relevant portion of the text from Matthew’s gospel, as rendered by the NIV:
Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Let’s start by laying out what Jesus did not say in this passage. He did not say the universe was created in six 24-hour days. He did not say the first human was a man named Adam, who had a wife named Eve and was evicted from a place called Eden. He did not say the world is roughly 6,000 years old, and that the exact age is difficult to determine because there was a worldwide flood that mucked up the planet and somehow makes radiometric dating impossible.
In fact, Jesus’ words, taken in their obvious context, aren’t referring to creation at all. Jesus is asked a question about marriage and divorce, and he answers the question using scripture. Being the true Word of God, that’s something he did fairly frequently.
In that understanding, I think Jesus’ use of the phrase “at the beginning” is largely incidental. It’s used to clue his audience in to the context of what he’s talking about, like when he said, “Have you not read in the book of Moses?” But even if Jesus is making a point about the creation of men and women here, I don’t think that necessarily conflicts with Darwin’s theory, because I don’t believe we are an accidental product of evolution. I believe we are, in fact, a deliberate, purposeful product of evolution — a creature made in God’s image, male and female, whom he had in mind even before the beginning.
The thing is, if God made time, then he exists outside time. And if he exists outside time, then the moment of the Big Bang, and 13.7 billions years later when an apelike creature first looked at the stars and wondered if there was something bigger than it out there, really aren’t all that different from God’s point of view. Which makes the phrase “at the beginning” pretty relative.
But let’s pretend for a moment, as the literalists will insist, that by “at the beginning,” Jesus meant the sixth day of Creation Week. If creation really took billions of years, does that mean Jesus was wrong?
Yes. Sort of.
You see, Jesus was wrong, but only because his listeners were wrong. His audience believed that humans had always existed on the earth; they had no reason to think otherwise. And Jesus accommodated himself to their inaccurate views of our biological origins in order to remind them of a deeper truth: that we are made in God’s image, male and female, and that there is a grand, divine beauty in the marital bond that flippant divorce makes a mockery of.
Of course, young-earthers will reject my interpretation. This being the only passage in all of the New Testament in which Jesus’ words can be construed to offer any kind of support for their view on origins, they can’t simply let it go without a fight. The problem is that literalists already use this exact same hermeneutical technique elsewhere in the gospel accounts. And here are three examples.
Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32)
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:23-24)
So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time. “But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:23-26)
Taken at face value, every one of these statements of Jesus is just plain wrong. The mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth; orchid seeds are smaller. Nor is it the largest of all garden plants. So, either Jesus flunked botany, or he adopted the predominant (but ultimately incorrect) view of his listeners in order to convey an abstract truth about the coming kingdom of God.
In the same way, wheat kernels, of course, do not die before germinating. Dead seeds don’t grow, and I doubt God was actually confused on that point. But his first-century listeners were, because the outer shell of a wheat kernel does rot away before the new plant appears. Again, either Jesus was wrong, or he accommodated the beliefs of the time to share a more important truth.
And finally, stars are not tiny pinpricks of light hung in a solid dome called the firmament, as the ancient Hebrews (and others) once supposed. There are no stars caught in our planet’s gravity, so none could “fall from the sky” to earth, and if even a single one did, it would burn the whole thing up. In short, we now know that what Jesus is plainly describing as a future event is impossible. But, that’s not what his listeners would have thought. For the modern Christian, I think the perfectly reasonable assumption is that Jesus is teaching here that catastrophic natural events will herald the Second Coming — just couched in terms that his disciples would understand.
To sum up, I believe Jesus adopted his contemporaries’ views of botany, astronomy and even the Bible — just as he adopted their language and their appearance — in order to share the truth we needed to hear from the mouth of God himself.
So, did Jesus believe in a six-day creation and a literal Adam? We don’t know. He simply did not fully address the question of how we are to interpret Genesis, or if he did, the record is not preserved. And I believe there’s a reason for that: It’s not important. That’s right, despite Ken Ham’s righteous declarations to the contrary, Jesus very clearly does not seem to think a literal view of Genesis is necessary to live a godly life according to his teachings. If he thought otherwise, then he would have said so.
And he would have said so — as he always did — in a way that both we and his originals hearers could understand.