Former AiG volunteer: YEC apologetics ‘were like a drug that fed my addiction’

Mario Russo studied the scientific evidence for evolution in college and emerged a more committed YEC than ever. It wasn't until he took courses on biblical exegesis in seminary that his views of what Genesis is really about began to change.

Today’s testimony comes from Mario Russo, an awesome guy whose story offers a lot of encouragement about the power of biblical study, a determination to seek the truth and the Holy Spirit to change even the most adamant anti-evolutionists. Mario’s essay was first published on BioLogos.org.

I was 16 years old when I became an apologist for young-earth creationism. My passion for defending young-earth creationism began in high school, when Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis visited our town and gave a creation seminar. Growing up as a home-schooled student, I was told that the theory of evolution was not based on real scientific evidence and that it contradicted the Bible. However, I never had any biblical or scientific answers to defend creationism other than saying, “the Bible says so.”

From the first session of the AiG seminar, I was hooked. Ken Ham was giving me both biblical and scientific arguments against evolution. I devoured as many YEC books I could get my hands on. I would memorize their arguments against evolution. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had answers to some of the “big questions,” and I wanted everyone to know. “Creation apologetics” became my life mission.

In high school, I was the host of a live radio talk show and a newspaper columnist. At the time, my station manager told me I was the youngest radio personality in the history of the station; I was just 17 years old. I also produced 60-second radio spots that had a creation apologetics theme, which aired on multiple stations. I talked and wrote extensively in defense of young-earth creationism and attacked the theory of evolution. I loved the thrill of giving someone an answer to an objection they had against creationism. I lived for the chance to make an “irrefutable” argument for young-earth creation to an evolutionist.

In my 17-year-old mind, it was a clear black-and-white issue: the Bible said God created all things in six, literal, 24-hour days six thousand years ago, and there wasn’t room for any “theory” that said otherwise. This was an undeniable truth that the world needed to accept. If God was Creator, evolution could not be true. If evolution was true, then there was no Creator. The two were mutually exclusive. My task was simple: argue and dismantle the theory of evolution, so that the only option left would be that God was Creator.

During this time, I took regular trips to Kentucky to volunteer at Answers in Genesis for several weeks at a time. I had access to some of the best minds in the YEC movement. I recorded several interviews with Ken Ham while I was there and would play them on my radio show. As I learned, part of Ken Ham’s testimony is growing up when Christians didn’t have many answers for the culture’s questions of the Bible in general, and Genesis in particular.

I can recall a story he told me about how, as a young man, he loved Henry Morris’ book “The Genesis Flood” because it provided answers to so many questions. Ken Ham’s passion for providing answers eventually led him to found an organization dedicated to providing an answer to any and every possible question the world might have about God, the Bible, and creation.

Providing answers is what YEC apologetics is all about. I’ve heard Ken say several times in his seminars: “Every question can be answered either directly or indirectly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Why do we wear clothes? Genesis 1-11. Where did Cain get his wife? Genesis 1-11. Why are there so many species in the world? Genesis 1-11. Why did Jesus die on the cross? Genesis 1-11.”

These answers were like a drug that fed my addiction. The more answers I got, the more I needed. I couldn’t entertain any alternate interpretation of Genesis because if I did, my “answers” would evaporate. Any challenge to the YEC framework would ultimately undermine the source of all of my answers. If I didn’t have answers, I didn’t have any faith. Or so I thought.

After high school, I attended a public state university and majored in biology and psychology. My goal as a YEC apologist was to teach biology in a public high school and secretly preach creationism to my students. I was passionate about providing answers, and I wanted to reach the next generation of kids with the “truth.” As I began to take my biology courses, I knew I was going to be met with evolutionary theory.

My parents were concerned that my professors would sway me to deny my faith and disregard the Bible. However, the exact opposite happened to me. I graduated from my secular, public university even more convinced of young-earth creationism than when I entered. I was now armed with scientific credentials, and I could navigate any debate with “scientific evidence” against evolution.

In 2009, I entered seminary. At this point my passion was subsiding, and I realized that my dream of making a living as a YEC apologist was coming to an end. Most of the people I engaged with seemed less and less interested in young-earth creationism, and the overall “buzz” of the moment was dying down — at least in my part of the country. At this point, my wife and I were feeling called to be missionaries, and I wanted more theological training. Once I began to study in seminary, my world began to open up. I took courses on biblical exegesis. I learned how to look at a passage of Scripture and understand what it means.

I had no idea that what I was about to learn would radically alter my interpretation of Genesis. Some of the key principles of sound exegesis include looking at who the author was, why he was writing his book, who he was writing it to, and what he was trying to say. Armed with my new tools for biblical interpretation, I felt compelled to re-examine my views on the opening chapters of Genesis. After all, it had been a while since I had a chance to use those apologetic skills and, while I was certain there was no “scientific” evidence for evolution, now would be a great time to put the matter to rest once and for all by showing that the biblical evidence fully supported my YEC position. What I found shocked me.

Through the tools of biblical exegesis, I discovered in the opening chapters of Genesis an entire world of meaning I had never seen before. Understanding the literary genre and the historical-cultural context of Genesis dramatically shifted my interpretation of the creation events in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I was hoping to find biblical evidence against evolution, but instead I found no evidence that Genesis was concerned with any modern scientific view of origins.

The opening chapters of Genesis were offering a story far greater and more majestic than I had ever realized. God wasn’t trying to discredit a scientific theory that didn’t even exist at the time Genesis was written. God was trying to show his people how incredible and powerful he was. He was giving his people a national identity and identifying himself as their God and King — not even a hint of anything to do with evolution.

The more I studied and learned, the less I needed “answers” to every possible question. The less dependent I became on giving the right answers to any objection, and the more comfortable I became with the phrase “I don’t know.” I remembered the invigorating wonder of science as it investigates the unknown. The fewer answers I had, the more wondrous God became.

But there was still one other obstacle that I needed to overcome. How could God be creator, and evolution be true? Didn’t the theory of evolution dispel any need for God? Robert Asher’s book “Evolution and Belief” and Alister McGrath’s book “Surprised by Meaning” were both crucial in helping me reconcile God and evolution.

Asher so aptly points out that when we speak of the evolutionary process, we are speaking of the cause by which new species arise. When we speak of God as creator, we are speaking about the agency behind the cause. In other words, science gives us the mechanism by which life develops, and religion gives us the agency behind the mechanism. Science and religion are not in opposition to each other, but complement each other.

Just recently a friend of mine asked me how I could believe in evolution. “What about the lack of evidence in the fossil record? What about the lack of evidence from genetic mutations? Evolution has no answers for this.” Of course, now I know that there are indeed good answers for these questions, based on solid scientific research. But I know from my own background that these aren’t the “answers” he really wanted. His point was that because the theory of evolution cannot provide all the “reasonable” answers (in his mind) to every possible question, it cannot be true.

I now realize that this is dangerous and poor logic. Can Christianity provide satisfactory answers explaining exactly how Jesus can be both fully God and fully man? Can Christianity provide a truly satisfactory answer for explaining the Trinity, one God in three persons? Yet, Christians hold both of these doctrines to be unnegotiably true. There are many mysteries in Christian doctrine, but this does not mean Christianity is false.

I trust in God because he has shown himself faithful, not because I have all the answers and understand all the mysteries of the faith. Of course, science has a much narrower focus than faith, but the metaphor still works. As an evolutionary creationist, the lack of answers to every single scientific question does not dissuade me from believing in a well-substantiated scientific theory.

Rather, it encourages me to pursue the answers, with the expectation that no matter what science discovers, it’s all part of God’s good world.

Mario Anthony Russo received his Bachelor of Science (biology and psychology) from the University of South Carolina, as well as a Master of Arts in religion from Reformed Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry from Erskine College and Seminary. He and his wife, Kara, live in Greenville, S.C., with their two children.

  • Andrew

    Wow, I would have thought that a Geology class, or for that matter an ancient history class, would have been the death knell for YEC. The fact that you made it through college strengthened in that position is surprising.

    • Matthew Funke

      Especially majoring in *biology*, yes. The evidence to support evolution is voluminous and everywhere.

      I made it through an engineering degree without course material challenging my YECist upbringing. It was an amateur interest in astronomy that opened the crack, combined with an excellent set of classes about logical argumentation in high school that showed exactly why so many of the arguments against evolution made by YECism are blatantly bad. (It took a while for that crack to “take”; I fought it for years under the misguided notion that any real Christian faith *required* YECism to be true.)

      • I tend to agree with you, Matthew, but this author is not the first person I’ve known who earned a degree in biology or similar field while harboring very strong anti-evolutionary beliefs. Sometimes, like even this author mentions as being part of his motivation at the time, their desire is to obtain credentials they believe will give their position more merit. But really, what it comes down to is whether you are open to your mind being changed or not.

        If you’re open to truth, then truth will change you. If you have armored your psyche with the belief that everything being presented has been twisted, distorted or just completely made up because of an anti-God worldview, then, well, experience has taught me the human mind can handle quite a lot of cognitive dissonance to protect its presupposed beliefs.

  • Andrew

    Coming from another ex YEC I can say it was studying ancient history at least that made me doubt it and reconsider Genesis.

    • That’s interesting. Would you mind sharing a little bit more about how studying ancient history caused you to reconsider the YEC view of Genesis? Are you talking specifically about the creation accounts? The flood? The stories of Abraham and Jacob? All of it?

      • Andrew

        I’m talking about the first eleven chapters, and really the time frame of it, not so much the historical content. I’m kind of in the Hugh Ross Camp on the first eleven chapters (although I’ll admit that I think John Walton’s view of the first chapter, the “cosmic temple” theory is very plausible). When I say studying ancient history made me reconsider, the big thing I’m talking about is finding out just how old human civilization is. Learning about the evidence of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian civilization existing before and during the time that AIG thinks the earth was completely covered in water (which would have erased said evidence) was shocking for me, because up until then the only thing I knew was YEC. Also there are human settlements that existed before AIG thinks the earth was created. I was fortunate to have a pastor who explained to me that the Bible does not really take a position on the age of earth, and that Young Earthers read a lot of their theology into the text.

        • Hey Andrew, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing! That is wonderful that you had a pastor who took such a view of things. Though it is entirely reasonable and biblical, it unfortunately seems to be quite rare among the clergy, at least in my experience, and those of many others who follow this site.

          • Jackie Chiles

            Yeah, I mean why don’t people trained in ministry know as much about science as scientists?? It’s almost like they went to a different school than scientists or something.

          • Krazzzy, rite???

        • summers-lad

          I think The Onion once ran a story: “World Created – Sumerians taken by surprise”.

          • Andrew

            LOL, that’s awesome! You wouldn’t happen to have a link to that story would you?

          • summers-lad

            I hadn’t got it exactly right, but thanks to Google, here’s the link. http://www.theonion.com/article/sumerians-look-on-in-confusion-as-god-creates-worl-2879
            I’m glad you were fortunate with your pastor too.

          • Andrew

            Thanks for the link. Now if only we could get Ken Ham to read it. The reaction would be hilarious.

          • He wouldn’t get it. Dude has no sense of humor. Haven’t you ever seen the so-called comics that AiG puts out? Ken Ham thinks the point of a joke is to make YECs feel superior by lying about reality.

          • Andrew

            I have seen them yes. I’m not expecting him to laugh, it would just be funny to see the blog post that he would write telling his followers that now the archeologists and historians are in bed with the scientists as part of the great “anti-God” conspiracy, and that compromisers like us were taking advantage to mock the living word of God ( and by living word of God, I of course mean AIGs ridiculous theology)

          • At this point, I’m pretty sure all those blog posts are pre-written. He just has to change the names and swap in a link to whatever person or organization he happens to be attacking.

          • Some say Eric Hovind has a sense of humor, until he was confronted by me as I used a very black controversial type sense of humor to illustrate what young earth creationism really looks like with Noah’s Ark when you have Megalodon in the water with the ark. An atheist saw this joke and was dropping his jaw “this came from a Christian?!?” When I first became a Christian some Christians didn’t understand me because of my use of dark humor. I made the crack on Eric Hovind’s facebook page, “If humans and dinosaurs co-existed in the Garden of Eden, humans would end up being fecal matter with hair.”

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    “Every question can be answered either directly or indirectly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Why do we wear clothes? Genesis 1-11. Where did Cain get his wife? Genesis 1-11. Why are there so many species in the world? Genesis 1-11. Why did Jesus die on the cross? Genesis 1-11.”

    For the secular equivalent, substitute “Global Warming!” for “Genesis 1-11”:
    Girlfriend left me? “GLOBAL WARMING!”
    Cat had kittens? “GLOBAL WARMING!”
    Same attitude, different focus.

    • Interesting point. Of course, the direct counter-example of what you offer here is not “Genesis 1-11,” but the extreme right-winger’s mantra of “Thanks, Obama.”

      • Matthew Funke

        Not to mention that global warming is an empirically-testable *thing*, even if its effects are misunderstood and misapplied by laypeople. The term refers to a factual phenomenon which, by itself, has little direct spiritual import. In an academic sense, it’s either factually true (and if it is, observation, discovery, and experiment will support it) or it’s not true at all.

        Genesis, on the other hand, is almost exclusively a document of spiritual import; its importance lies *beyond* empirical testing. It’s driving at truths that are true whether or not forensic evidence shows that the Earth was created in the space of a calendrical week. So you *might* be able to argue that all *spiritual* questions can be answered with Genesis 1-11 (even though the author shows that his group was evidently trying to extend it to empirical questions as well).

        As a Christian, I’d argue that that’s a mistake, because nothing spiritual makes sense outside of the person of Jesus Christ. To each his or her own, though, I guess.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    After all, it had been a while since I had a chance to use those apologetic skills and, while I was certain there was no “scientific” evidence for evolution, now would be a great time to put the matter to rest once and for all by showing that the biblical evidence fully supported my YEC position. What I found shocked me.

    You found yourself in the position of the POV character in Bob Dylan’s “Talking John Birch Society Blues”, where after proving everybody else in the world is part of The Conspiracy (“there’s Red stripes in the American flag!”), starts investigating himself…

  • Bad Girl Bex

    “My goal as a YEC apologist was to teach biology in a public high school and secretly preach creationism to my students.” It terrifies me, just how many YEC are out there thinking about doing – or already doing – this very thing.

    • What’s worse is the states like Louisiana and Texas, where the teachers don’t even have to be that surreptitious about it.

  • Study up on vulcanology (Volcanoes) and that will be evidence for a much older earth then examine the Biblical New Testament world with a scientific eye. That would turn a few heads on the YEC front as I shared a documentary about ancient Rome and Pompeii when I engaged Eric Hovind. I used the horror film Carnosaur to illustrate what the co-existence between dinosaurs and humans really look like (as it was taking your meme one step further.) YECs don’t understand black humor or gallows humor but they leave themselves open for sick jokes that show what YEC really looks like. I became open about being an evolutionist when I turned 30 as I quietly acknowledged a much older earth when I first became a Christian though the Independent Baptists practice cartoon theology (is that term blasphemous? As they got the co-existence of humans and dinosaurs from the Flintstones.) I had made a quip referring to the Megalodon the ancient relative to the Great White Shark being in the water with Noah’s ark and atheists were going, “the elephants fell in the water and became the shark’s snack. I can’t believe that joke came from a Christian it’s so tongue-in-cheek.”