“How did we get here?” This is one of the great questions of life, and its answer sets the direction for so many other answers to great questions. If we are descended from animals, then are we not justified in living as animals? If we are generated merely by chance, then is there any meaning to life, or do we simply make our own? If we are created by a non-involved creator, then are we accountable to that creator? If we are created by the Creator described in the Bible, then are we not accountable to Him, and should we not look to Him to guide in our understanding of existence in His universe?
How we answer the origin question in large part predetermines how we view and answer questions of our own personal meaning and responsibility. We really can’t know what we should do unless we know who we are. And we can’t know who we are unless we know from whence we came.
There are two major categories of origin theories: abiogenesis (that life comes from nonlife) and biogenesis (that life comes from life). Abiogenesis tries to explain existence and what we observe based on the presupposition that there is nothing beyond the isolated system of the natural realm. Abiogenesis presupposes an internally driven, self-created, and self-contained system. Biogenesis, on the other hand, presupposes something or someone outside the natural realm that exerted itself in the formation or creation of the natural realm and life in it. Biogenesis presupposes an externally driven system created by something or someone outside of the system, with minimal interaction (in a closed system biogenesis theory) or with broad interaction (in an open system biogenesis theory).
Using thermodynamic systems to illustrate,1 an isolated system does not allow anything in or out; a closed system allows heat but not matter in and out; and an open system allows both in and out. Abiogenesis theories presuppose the universe as an isolated system with nothing interacting from the outside. A closed system biogenesis theory would allow for some degree of interaction (in deism, for example God creates, but is not otherwise accessible to His creation) with an external force. An open system biogenesis acknowledges interaction between the universe and that which is outside it.
In the isolated system, meaning is found only from within. In the closed system, there is some connection to the outside, with minimal practical implication. In an open system the external interacts with the internal and influences the existence of the internal far beyond simple causation. Whether or not the universe is isolated, closed, or open is significant in our understanding of our origin and purpose.
ABIOGENESIS THEORIES (ISOLATED SYSTEM)
In 1929 Edwin Hubble observed other galaxies moving away from our own in all directions with great speed, suggesting an incredible initial force. This is either reflective of an expanding universe or the contents of that universe moving toward the outer boundary. In either case, this phenomenon is compatible with the Big Bang theory that the universe was begun an initial cataclysmic explosion. In 1931 Georges Lemaitre proposed his theory that the expanding universe had begun from an initial primeval atom or cosmic egg.2
In the panspermia theory, the universe has within it the ingredients of life, and over the course of a great deal of time, and through motion and internal transference, those ingredients eventually mixed to form life. The recent discovery of survival in space of a tiny eight-legged animal provides evidence that the transportation of living things through space is a viable concept.4
There are several related views that the ingredients of life were already on earth, and were combined as ice melted, as lightning struck, as clay mixed, through volcanic activity, through submarine hydrothermal vents, through RNA residing in the primordial soup, or even through aliens planting life on earth.
Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory of the Origin of Life
Physicist Karo Michaelian postulated a model in which ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) are “reproduced without the need for enzymes, promoted instead through UV light dissipation and diurnal temperature cycling of the Archean sea-surface.”5 Michaelian sees this view as advantageous over other prevailing theories in that it “does not require the unlikely discovery of an abiotic mechanism that produced an initial high enrichment of chiral enantiomers to explain the homochirality of life today [emphasis mine].”6 Rather than relying on a random accident to provide the impetus for life, Michaelian suggests that the ingredients (RNA and DNA, specifically) are purposefully reproduced through UV light dissipation for specific effect: “the net effect of the origin and evolution of life has been to gradually increase the Earth’s entropy producing potential.”7 The origin and evolution of life was and is goal oriented, universal, and involves a strong coupling of biotic and abiotic processes moving toward disorder.8
What is perhaps most interesting about each of these origin theories of life is that they are not actually origin theories. They all presuppose the eternal existence of matter, energy, and motion. While they try to explain how life come into existence from non-life, they make no effort to address where those initial ingredients originated, other than to say, as did Carl Sagan, “The Cosmos is all that is ever was or ever will be.”9
BIOGENESIS THEORIES (CLOSED SYSTEM)
Former atheist Antony Flew, in his autobiographical and philosophical treatise There is a God, traces his personal journey and explains how he arrived at a belief in the existence of God. He hold to a tentative style of deism, believing that God resembles Aristotle’s version, not engaging in the affairs of the world.10 Flew argues that the universe was created, but sees no direct current involvement of such a Creator, though he admits an openness to learning more about that Creator.11
In chapter 6-10 of Book XII of his Metaphysics, Aristotle argues for a single prime mover – an eternal unmovable substance – who must be imperishable. Aristotle doesn’t speak of this deity as personal in the sense of being engaged in the natural world, but rather primarily as causative. As Aristotle held that God was a metaphysical perfection, Aristotle’s God could not contemplate anything less than Himself, and thus could not engage in nature lets He fall out of metaphysical perfection.12 Aristotle’s perspective of God is a deistic one.
Philosopher of Science Stephen Meyer suggests that information is a fundamental ingredient of life, and that it can be traced back to intelligence in design. Intelligent Design (ID) is akin to deism, but is less reliant on a personal deity – though some proponents of ID are theists. Meyer is careful to distinguish ID from creationism, noting its origins in the 60’s and 70’s as a scientific movement arising from recognitions of fine tuning in the laws of physics.13 Meyer suggests that “the information-bearing properties of DNA, the miniature circuits and machines in cells and the fine tuning of the laws and constants of physics…are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected material process.”14 Meyer is also careful to note that ID is not counter to Darwinian evolution, but only contradicts “Darwin’s idea that the cause of biological change is wholly blind and undirected.”15
BIOGENESIS THEORIES (OPEN SYSTEM)
Theistic Evolution / BioLogos
Geneticist Francis Collins, argues for a contemporary version of theistic evolution in his The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. He warns that a God-in-the-gaps approach is doomed as science makes progress, and he views evolutionary theory as fundamental progress, suggesting that “Darwin’s framework of variation and natural selection…is unquestionably correct.”16 He adds that his “BioLogos” concept “will not go out of style or be disproven by future scientific discoveries. It is intellectually rigorous and provides answers to many otherwise puzzling questions.”17
The publishing of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, beginning in 1830, proposed uniformitarianism and an old earth view as science through the interpretation of geological ages. In order to accommodate Lyell’s science, C.I. Scofield’s Study Bible and Clarence Larkin’s Dispensational Truth helped popularize the view that there was a gap of indeterminate time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. This gap accomplished two things: (1) it allowed time within a Biblical framework for Lyell’s geological ages, and (2) it provided a convenient time window for the fall of Satan (and in some iterations of the gap theory, a great war between God and Satan). Proponents of the gap theory view the theory as compatible with an exegetical approach, even though it requires reading between the lines of the first two verse in Genesis. Scofield, for example suggests that Jeremiah 4:23-26 is referring to the Genesis 1:2 world and, “describes the condition of the earth as the result of judgment…which overthrew the primal order of Gen 1:1.”18
Astrophysicist Hugh Ross views the heavens as having been stretched out and continuing to be stretched out, and he connects this process with Lemaitre’s big bang:
This simultaneously finished and ongoing aspect of cosmic stretching is identical to the big bang concept of cosmic expansion. According to the big bang, at the creation event all the physics (specifically, the laws, constants, and equations of physics) are instantly created, designed, and finished so as to guarantee an ongoing, continual expansion of the universe at exactly the right rates with respect to time so that physical life will be possible.19
Ross’ view is that God used the big bang to create life:
From 4.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, an unusually large number of comets and asteroids bombarded Earth’s surface – particularly toward the end of this period. Many of these collisions would have liquefied the crust hundreds of meters deep, nearly (if not completely) sterilizing the planet. The scientific data shows an abundance of life right after the intense bombardment ceased – in the absence of any evidence for a prebiotic or primordial soup. Multiple lines of evidences also indicate a high level of complexity for this first life. While evolutionary models strain to accommodate this scientific data – and also struggle to explain how life can originate from non-life (called abiogenesis) – the evidence affirms [Reason to Believe’s] creation model.20
Ross’s (and Reason to Believe’s) view is old earth with a day age view of the creation week,21 and that we are currently in the seventh day or an age of God resting from creation.22 Holding to this day age model, Ross and RTB deny evolution as ungrounded, unnecessary, and incompatible with Scripture.
Young Earth Creationism
In addition to being a commonly held understanding throughout church history,23 young earth creationism represents the most literal reading of the Genesis creation account and accompanying passages. Young earth creationism views Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 not as separated by a gap, but as narrative of a single event beginning the first day of creation week. Each of the six creation days (including the three preceding the creation of the sun) begin with evening and end with morning. The creation week culminates with the seventh day rest, which God set apart from the other days to denote His completed work (Gen 2:3-4). Young earth creationism pursues and acknowledges scientific data, but challenges interpretive presuppositions of other theories which presuppose an old earth (i.e., through uniformitarian assumptions).
THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL PIVOT
Upon what epistemological basis do each of these theories ground themselves? How would we come to prefer one over the others? Each of the theories process observable phenomena in light of the presuppositions which ground the theories. To assess the value of the theories we have to distill them down to the presuppositions upon which they are built. Abiogenesis isolated system theories, rooted in empiricism, presuppose the absence of the supernatural since it cannot be observed with empirical tools (the senses). If those tools are accurate and capable of measuring all of reality, then theories emerging from empiricism are plausible. Biogenesis closed systems theories synthesize empiricism and rationalism in order to account for a higher, creative power that seems not to be exclusively within the universe. This approach relies on empiricism, but views it as somewhat limited and appeals to a rationalistic tendency of recognize the dependence of the internal on the external.
Biogenesis open system theories rely primarily on special revelation as the fundamental principle, but to differing degrees these theories appeal to empiricism as a lens through which to view special revelation. For example, Hugh Ross’ progressive creationism, the gap theory, and theistic evolution all view the Scriptures as authoritative but interpret them through an empirical lens. In contrast to these models, young earth creationism relies on Scripture as understood through the literal grammatical historical hermeneutic. This latter view welcomes empirical data, but recognizes the limits of empirical as not exceeding the boundaries of Scripture. Consequently, in choosing to prefer one theory of origin over another, the interlocutor is not merely choosing a narrative, he or she is choosing an entire worldview. The question is which epistemological grounding is the correct one. The right answer to that question helps us arrive with confidence at who we are, from whence we came, and what we should do.
5 K. Michaelian, “Thermodynamic Dissipation Theory of the Origin of Life” in Earth System Dynamics, March 11, 2011: 37.
6 Ibid.: 47.
7 Ibid.: 48.
9 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York, Ballantine, 1985), 1.
10 Antony Flew, There is a God (New York, HarperOne, 2008), 156.
11 Ibid., 156-157.
12 Stanley Sfekas, “Aristotle’s Concept of God” in An Esoteric Quest for The Mysteries and Philosophies of Antiquity, Sept. 3-8, 2008, viewed at http://www.academia.edu/15234171/ARISTOTLES_CONCEPT_OF_GOD.
16 Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (), 141.
17 Ibid., 210.
18 C.I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, 1917, 776.
23 Christopher Cone, “The History of Biblical/Scientific Creationism in the Church“ in The Genesis Factor, ed. Ron J Bigalke Jr., (Greek Forest, AR: Master Books, 2008), 21-42.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.