A recent article in Science discusses the difficult spiritual journey of Stephen Godfrey. Raised in a strong, Bible-believing home, Godfrey showed great aptitude for both science (particularly biology and paleontology) and art. Though his parents believed Earth to be 6,000 years old with the geological record having been laid down during Noah’s flood, they encouraged their son to pursue his interest in biology. However, during graduate school, Godfrey encountered a number of problems that eventually led to a crisis of faith.
The first issue related to the pervasive animal death represented in the fossil record. Based on his upbringing, Godfrey believed the Bible taught that no animals perished before Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. However, Godfrey saw a great number of well-designed predators in the fossil record. How could these animals emerge if God had not intended them to prey on others?
A field expedition in rural Kansas unearthed a second troubling issue. Upon discovering fossil animal footprints, Godfrey struggled to resolve how these footprints could have been formed during Noah’s flood.
As he wrestled with these obstacles, the counsel he received from his parents and others in the church was that “it was all or nothing.” Either the Earth was 6,000 years old and virtually all the geological record resulted from Noah’s flood or the Bible was not true. Godfrey could not accept the former and still struggles to know what to believe about God. Consequently, he was rejected from the church community and estranged from his parents.
For me, the most troubling aspect of Godfrey’s story is the response of the church community. Nobody in the church came alongside Stephen Godfrey to guide him through his troubled waters in a way that affirmed the authority of Scripture and the legitimacy of the scientific enterprise. It appears that his questions and struggles caused him to be treated as a threat.
Additionally, an “all or nothing” admonition similar to what Godfrey received is dangerous if it requires a young-earth interpretation. Throughout history, the church fathers have never spoken with a unified voice on the age of the Earth. While there has been great agreement among them on the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, God’s transcendence over the creation, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and many other essential Christian doctrines, a diversity of views regarding the timescale of creation existed.
Please note, I am not saying that those who believe in a 6,000-year-old creation are doomed to a crisis of faith when they pursue careers in science. A New York Times piece demonstrates how some young-earth creationists survive and even thrive in scientific careers. However, other Christians cannot suitably resolve the conflicts that arise between a young-earth creationist view and the findings of contemporary science. These Christians might benefit from exposure to an old-earth creationist framework, which resolves many of those conflicts.
As we, the church, interact with the scientific community let’s keep a clear picture of the essentials of the Christian faith so we don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks. Furthermore, let us engage in genuine respectful dialogue that reflects a Christ-like spirit.