How biblical literalism relates to telling children where babies come from

Children must know the truth about where babies come from. The slimy, bloody truth. (Photo by Ernest F., via Wikimedia Commons.)

I don’t have children yet. But I’m told this is a question I will hear: “Daddy, where do babies come from?”

I used to think, depending on how old the little tyke was at the time, I might answer by saying something like this: “Well, sweetheart, believe it or not, babies comes from inside their mommy’s tummies. And babies are made when a mommy and daddy come together in a special way because they love each other very much.”

Thanks to my years of studying the works of young-earth creationism proponents like Answers in Genesis president and masked hero Ken Ham, I’ve learned exactly how foolish and cruel such an answer would be.

My friend K-Ham may not expound much upon the nuances of discussing intercourse and conception with children, but he does frequently share his wisdom on the “correct” interpretation of the Book of Genesis. And I think there’s a strong parallel between the two. (Stick with me for a moment; I’ll explain.)

In the one case, you have a young child coming to his or her parents and asking where babies come from. In the other, you have a pre-scientific ancient culture coming before their heavenly Father and asking (or perhaps just wondering rather than directly asking), “Where did the world come from?”

My proposed answer to the hypothetical kid is roughly in line with my understanding of how the Holy Spirit revealed the truth of the first few chapters of Genesis. In both instances, we have reasoning, intelligent beings contemplating matters that lie beyond the scope of their knowledge and, in some cases, their ability to comprehend. And in such cases, it seems best to put a premium on the important, simple truths (my child is loved and special and was born because its mother and I wanted it to be) over the incidental mechanics of sex and pregnancy that — factual though they may be — tell an empty story.

As for Genesis, I had imagined a similar principle at work: that it had been deemed of the utmost importance to teach that God was one, that the universe had proceeded at his command alone and that he had made everything very good. Such distinctions were especially necessary to contrast with the creation myths of the Babylonian culture that scholars believe the Israelites were immersed in at the time the Pentateuch was completed. Unlike the orderly account of Genesis, these narratives were often bloodier and more chaotic than an episode of “Jersey Shore” (and had almost as many characters).

I reasoned that, just as a small child doesn’t need to know that babies actually form in their mother’s uteruses (a word they most likely couldn’t pronounce), not their stomachs, God’s chosen people didn’t need to know that mankind’s physical bodies developed from lower organisms, or that the process took hundreds of millions of years. But they most definitely did need to know that God is powerful and good, and that he made humanity and all other life on earth with care and purpose in mind. And so, that was what was conveyed to them, in a way they could easily understand.

Makes sense, right? That’s what I thought. But K-Ham sees it differently.

Responding to an “attack” on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy earlier this year, the Blunderer from Down Underer points out that the only way a story can be True™ is if it’s literally, historically and scientifically true. Encasing a transcendental truth in a simple, but ultimately inaccurate metaphor (like saying babies come from a mommy’s “tummy”), is the same as lying.

And as K-Ham says, “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust a God who intentionally lies to me just to teach me some truth about Himself.” Of course not! Would you? (Yes, K-Ham actually wrote that — see for yourself.)

I’ve learned much from this powerful lesson. You, dear reader, are free to do as you like, but I know I, for one, am not interested in lying to my kids. So when they ask me where babies come from, they better be ready for a lecture. A long, boring one. Better yet, I’ll march them straight down to the public library (it’s safer than the Internet when it comes to this particular field of inquiry), where we’ll check out every college-level textbook on anatomy and biological reproduction we can find. I’ll have them writing 10,000-word essays on the human gestation period before they hit first grade.

And, if — in the endless talk about meiosis, fetal development, labor, delivery and so on — the kids miss the point about them being unique and deeply loved by their mommy and daddy, who cares?

What really matters is that they know what a placenta is, right?

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Tyler Francke

  • Burla Travis IV

    Thanks for this. I’m relatively new to your blog, and appreciate the work you do.

    • Glad to hear it! Thanks for following the blog 🙂

  • alan

    What a wonderful post! I have been thinking along the same lines recently.

  • Jeff Schaefer

    Agreed, this is such a fine blog post I felt compelled to share it! Thank you!!! 🙂

    • No, thank you! Glad you liked it, and thanks for sharing!

  • Joshua Hedlund

    Any comparison between tales of birth and creation is going to be subjective, but in my opinion there is much more detail in Genesis 1-2 than “God loved us and made us in a special way” (I would say that’s more like the references to creation in the Psalms.” A birth story that is more analogous to a scientifically inaccurate version of the creation story in Genesis would be like, “Mommy and Daddy decided to make a baby because they loved each other. In the first month Daddy made your head and Mommy made your belly. In the second month Daddy added your arms and Mommy added your legs. In the third month….” Why did the Holy Spirit go to so much detail if he intended it to be an inaccurate metaphor like a “mommy’s tummy”?

    • Well, you misunderstand me if you think I was arguing that the Spirit’s goal was to reveal a simple “inaccurate metaphor.” I believe his goal was to impart theological truth on many aspects of creation, God’s nature, mankind’s nature, our role in creation, our relation to God, etc. To do so required a more in-depth story.

      We can see a similar principle in the parables of Christ. Sometimes, his stories were simple, one-sentence illustrations, like the hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44). Other times they were very long and in-depth, with multiple characters and different themes and lessons at work (e.g., the prodigal son or the good Samaritan).

      • Joshua Hedlund

        Thanks. I like the prodigal son example much better than the pregnancy analogy. So perhaps you would say, for instance, that God resting on the seventh day was for teaching his followers later to rest one day a week. However if you will indulge me to explore this a little further… Most of the parables are basically self-contained. On the other hand, the Bible seems to repeatedly insist on treating the creation story as part of its overall narrative. For instance – and I don’t know if you’ve written on this yet or not – but what do you make of the Bible’s repeated efforts to genealogically link the characters in the creation story to literal people that even non-Christians believe historically existed (Gen 5 & 11, Matt 1, Luke, etc)?

        • This is a really good question, and I’ll do my best to answer it. Essentially, I think it is another example of the Spirit accommodating the inaccurate views of the science of the day regarding biology and biological history in order to teach a deeper truth, just as God did not correct the original audiences about their belief in the sky being a solid firmament in Genesis 1 and Job 37:18.

          Macroevolution takes millions of years, and the early Hebrews had no way of knowing about that. What they saw is that cows give birth to cows, goats give birth to goats, dogs give birth to dogs and humans give birth to humans. So they presumed, reasonably I think, that species are fixed, and that it must have been this way going back to the very beginning. And the Spirit chose not to correct them on this point, because his goal was to teach them a much more important lesson: That when humans did come to be, it was by the deliberate will of God, for a very grand purpose.

          I believe that Adam and Eve are metaphors for our earliest ancestors who could be said to have been made in the spiritual image of God. The first century Palestinian audiences who read Luke’s gospel (Matthew’s genealogy does not mention Adam — it only goes back as far as Abraham) would have mostly believed Adam to have been a historical person — why wouldn’t they? And again, the Spirit chose not to correct them on this point, because his main goal was not to give them a rigorously accurate and thorough genealogy, but rather, to demonstrate that Jesus the Messiah may trace his legal inheritance and right to rule through the great King David and directly back to the first people to whom God said, “Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

          What if Luke’s genealogy had ended, not with “the son of Adam, the son of God,” but with hundreds of names that read like this: “the son of Goog, the son of Boog, the son of Oogoo, the son of Grog, the son of Brog, the son of Og” and so on? That might be more accurate from a purely historical standpoint, knowing what we know now, but it would have completely baffled Luke’s original audience and would have taught them nothing. Indeed, it may have even caused Luke’s gospel to be rejected from the canon we have today, and what a terrible loss that would have been!

  • ShelbyLynn

    Very good insight. You elaborated on one thing I didn’t think of in a lot of long debates inside of my own head.

  • soanso

    I really like this analogy, especially having children of my own. Having children has really helped my understanding of the Old Testament and how God related to His children. It really changes your perspective on things. One one word I’ve seen a couple times throughout this site is ‘inaccurate’ when you’re referring to the Hebrew understanding of nature and science. I think this particular blog shows that a better word would be ‘incomplete.’ Ancient civilizations had to describe what they could see, and while at times it may be inaccurate, in plenty of instances it is merely incomplete. And there’s no reason to see the Genesis account as inaccurate. I think that undermines the spiritual authority of God’s word. Explaining to children that babies grow in mommy’s tummy is not inaccurate, but incomplete. Tummy is not a biological word, and while it usually refers to the stomach, it can also refer to the whole mid section of a person. It is not inaccurate to say, but it is colloquial and incomplete.

    • A good distinction. I will keep it in mind for future posts. Thanks!