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The death of the gods and the rise of science

A journey into the Genesis creation account: part two

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This article is the second part of an ongoing series on the Genesis creation account. Here are parts one, three and four.

The belief in the existence of supernatural powers that can be manipulated for one’s benefit is nearly as old as humanity itself. And for most of human history, men and women have feared those who claimed to have such powers. Because such beliefs fundamentally distorted how humans were to relate to nature, they represented a critical threat to Israel’s survival as God’s people in the Promised Land. The Genesis creation account was, in great part, written to challenge the underlying worldview these beliefs reflected.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (1) This simple sentence can best be compared to a cosmic divine “vacuum cleaner.” It represents a thundering declaration that freed human imagination of the multitude of divine entities that were believed to populate the universe.

For those who lived under the constant threat of hostile deities and desperately sought to gain some control over their destiny through magical incantations and rituals, the creation account’s opening sentence was earth-shattering.

By draining the physical universe of its divine essence, this text annihilated the conceptual framework that made it possible to believe in magic. Magical rituals had no power in and of themselves. Magic was entirely contingent on the gods’ willingness to follow through on the various hopes and aspirations that triggered these appeals (fertility, protection, riches, love, etc.).

Although scholars have long held that ancient people believed that the effectiveness of magical incantations was contingent on the inherent power of the word, there is no evidence to support this assertion. Ancient Near Eastern documents consistently link the efficacy of magical incantations, as well as curses and blessings to the intervention of the gods, not to some mysterious power of the spoken word.

By emptying the universe of its deities, the text annihilated the very existence of magical power and the possibility of manipulating it. By eliminating the gods, the text expunged nature of consciousness, thus proclaiming that a piece of wood is always and only a piece of wood, a most revolutionary concept that was, for example, at the very root of Isaiah’s sarcastic description of idols in Isaiah 44:13-19.

By erasing the very existence of the gods on whom the powers of magic depended, this text created the conditions that would eventually lead to the birth of empirical science.

Without the appearance of an authoritative text that challenges and undermines nature’s divine character, it is virtually impossible to conceive of a rigorous and fully developed scientific model. The reason for this is remarkably simple. To paraphrase the eminent French historian, Pierre Chaunu, you cannot investigate, analyze, or dissect what you worship and fear!

The creation account initiated a process of demythologization that characterized the physical universe as “object” rather than “subject.” In doing so, it set the stage for humanity to take its rightful place in the universe:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:26).

In the Mesopotamian worldview, nature was the seat of divine consciousness. As such it positioned nature at the top of the cosmic hierarchy and humanity at the bottom. In the creation account, the cosmic order is dramatically reversed. The physical universe is stripped of its divine consciousness thus allowing humans to take their proper place as self-determining agents and the creator’s co-rulers.

Genesis 1 describes a world that is devoid of evil deities bent on disrupting human life. It is a world where nature and the divine are no longer one and the same. It describes a universe that ceases to be an object of worship and fear. Not only are the gods erased out of existence, the repeated allusions to the goodness of creation communicate that men and women live in a friendly universe.

By “friendly,” I do not mean to say that the universe is devoid of threats. Such a characterization would more properly denote the Garden of Eden, which was likely intended to function as an incubator for an emerging humanity. “Friendly” refers to an environment that is governed by predictable physical laws rather than hostile and unpredictable supernatural forces.

Without an authoritative declaration that radically challenges the deification of nature, it is nearly impossible to imagine, let alone propose, an alternative way of looking at reality. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks gained, from time to time, great insights into the nature of reality, but these insights never led to the complete abandonment of idolatry and the development of a fully integrated scientific model.

As a case in point, the Greek philosopher Aristarchus (ca. 310-230 BC) had, long before Copernicus, voiced the theory that the earth revolved around the sun. But because there was no broad cultural framework to receive and support his insight, Aristarchus’ discovery failed to give rise to the development of a scientific model. Such insights usually collapsed under the weight of the primitive worldview in which they emerged.

It was the Judeo-Christian tradition that in time provided the basic architecture for developing a worldview that could effectively support the scientific method.

Astrophysicist and science historian, Christopher Kaiser, notes: “An operational faith in God as creator was a vital factor in the development of all branches of science until the late eighteenth century.” (2)

Why does this matter?

First, as I demonstrate in “Further Reflections on Paul Hiebert’s ‘The Flaw of the Excluded Middle’”(3) for missionaries who work in traditional cultures, where belief in magic is often ubiquitous, direct exposure to the creation text may be, in the long run, the only effective way to bring about the transformation of the audience’s worldview.

Second, as Western culture becomes increasingly and rapidly post-Christian and more susceptible to adopting ways of thinking that may be more aptly described as precivilizational, a rediscovery of this magnificent text may offer an unexpected ray of light and hope in this encroaching darkness we find ourselves in.

1. Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical citations are from the New International Version (2011).
2. Creation and the History of Science (London: Marshall Pickering; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 273.
3. Pierre Gilbert, “Further Reflections on Paul Hiebert’s ‘The Flaw of the Excluded Middle’,” Direction 36 (2007): 206-218.

1 comment

Karl Dick January 17, 2024 - 15:06

Great advances in empirical thinking occurred at various times, in China, India, and Greece. The invention of gun powder, the number system we now use, and Euclid’s geometry are examples. Within the nation of Israel the Bible has evidence of amazing cultural and artistic endeavors, but what we term the physical sciences were hardly pursued at all.
In addition, it was a grievous error made by Christianity for 1500 years to repeatedly suppress new thinking and to support Aristotle’s flawed thinking.
Dr. Gilbert, your innovative way of seeing the Creation views of the OT writers may help us to be more supportive of new intellectual insights and arrive at a better view of how to be stewards of what God has gifted us.


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