Friday, January 14, 2011

Chaos and the Deep (Part 3 of 3)

'By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.' (2 Peter 3:6)

Tehowm and Creationists
Now that we have flogged the image of tehowm to death (but hopefully gleaned some insights along the way), it is time to relate all of this back to the relationship between evangelicalism and science.

Creationists cannot simply ignore ‘the deep’ of Genesis 1, or the separation of the waters on day 2.  If they insist on a literal reading of Genesis 1, then the tehowm must have a place in the natural world. 

Many Creationists argue that in verse one, when God ‘creates the heavens and the earth’, this is an actual statement of a creative act prior to the formation of light on day one.   God’s first creative act, they argue, was to produce a formless and empty earth that was covered in raging waters.  God then, over a six day period, shaped this primordial earth.  He threw back the waters to expose the land, tamed the seas, etc etc etc. 

So far there is nothing outrageous about this.  Sure, this water-filled account runs counter to what we scientifically know about the formation of the oceans, and it ignores the deeper mythological ramifications of tehowm, but at least it isn’t doing a complete disservice to the text.  The issue really comes on day two, with the separation of the waters.

The canopy model of Young Earth Creationism argues that on day 2 God really did separate water from water, creating both the earthly oceans that we know today and a heavenly ocean that we have no experience with.  This heavenly ocean would have been a layer of water above our atmosphere that surrounded the planet.  It would have protected and enhanced life in numerous ways, such as:

a)     Concentrating global oxygen through increased pressure, turning the world into a giant hyperbaric chamber.  Like hyperbaric chambers used today, this oxygen-saturated atmosphere could have allowed wounds to heal rapidly and organisms to attain atypically large sizes. 
b)     Preventing harmful rays from penetrating through the atmosphere.
c)     Trapping heat, creating a lush, subtropical zone across the planet.
d)     Increasing the lifespans of organisms (thereby accounting for the long lifespan of humans in the first few chapters of Genesis)

The reason the world is no longer like this is because, during the Flood, this heavenly ocean crashed down on the Earth.  Our earthly oceans must contain some of this heavenly water today.  With the canopy gone, organisms shrank in size and lifespans were dramatically reduced.

The nature of the canopy varies depending on who you ask.  Some view it as liquid water suspended above the earth.  Others argue that it couldn’t possibly be liquid, as the density of water could never be supported, and the temperatures produced by such pressure would be outrageously high.  They also point out that this canopy would prevent us from seeing the stars, contradicting what is recorded for day 4.

So, they argue, there was a canopy of water vapour, not liquid water.  Or some have suggested ice crystals like the rings around Saturn.  Regardless of the theory, they all end the same way: this canopy becomes destabilized and floods the earth as liquid water (coinciding with major geologic activity that releases subterranean waters).

The current state of the canopy theory among the more influential Young Earth Creationist groups is that it is no longer tenable.  Try as they might, the model could never be made to work.  Click here and here to read’s (a YEC website) reasons for rejecting the canopy model.

Besides the complete lack of scientific support for such a model, there are also (at least) three major scriptural pitfalls to supporting the canopy model:

a)     The heavenly ocean is located above the expanse, but the stars are hung in or on the expanse.  Therefore, if we are to take this literally, we must either argue that the stars are only a few miles away, or the heavenly ocean exists at the furthest limits of our universe.  The first proposition is clearly untenable; but the second proposition does not allow the floodwaters to have come from the heavenly ocean.  So neither literal interpretation works.  Some try to rescue this by arguing for two expanses, one in which the birds fly and one in which the sun/moon/stars reside, with the canopy between them. does not find any scriptural support for this, and neither do I.
b)     Tehowm in scripture is bottomless, unfathomable.  Yet the canopy is so limited that all of it ended up on earth during the Flood and no longer exists today.  There is absolutely no hint in the Flood account that the heavenly oceans were used up by 40 days of rain.  In fact, in Genesis 8:2, the windows of heaven are closed (caker) to prevent any more rain from falling.
c)     An actual physical canopy deprives scripture of the notion of chaos.  For what is chaotic about a canopy that surrounds the earth and deflects harmful solar rays?

The newest YEC model for the Flood is called the catastrophic plate tectonic model.  The Flood rains according to this model were caused by superheated steam released during volcanic activity (read more about it here).  The ‘heavenly oceans’ of day 2 in this model are ignored.

With the canopy model sunk, the only Creationist interpretation of day 2 seems to be that the heavenly oceans refer to the clouds, that the ‘separation of waters’ was just the kick-start of the water cycle.  This of course does a disservice to both day 4, in which the stars are hung in the firmament, and the Flood account, in which the firmament opens to release the waters.  It also ignores that fact that there is no evidence anywhere in early Hebraic writings for an understanding of evaporation’s role in the water cycle, and completely disregards the beliefs held by the surrounding cultures that there was a vast heavenly ocean surrounding the earth.

I have tried my very best to not present straw-man arguments here.  You can refer to the Creationist literature yourself to see how they interpret day two.

My question is, which interpretation does better service to both science and the text?

Creationists, by treating Genesis one as an historic/scientific text, miss out on the beautiful imagery conjured up by tehowm.  Contrary to their objections that any non-literal interpretation invalidates salvation history, we have seen that, without this non-literalist interpretation, one cannot fully appreciate both the authority of Christ and the imagery of baptism.  Perhaps it is time for evangelicals to acknowledge that Genesis one is not about the how of Creation, but is rather about higher truths: salvation history, the nature of God, the power of Christ.

The difficulty posed by 2 Peter
2 Peter 3:5-6 is an interesting passage.  On the one hand, it supports everything we have had to say.  Peter writes, ‘But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.  By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.’  Here Peter links those chaotic waters out of which land appeared with those waters that flooded the world, which is certainly great validation for everything I have so far been saying.  But he also talks about the creation of the world out of these waters and the global Flood as if they actually happened.  This presents a slight problem for the argument that I have been formulating.  Although I have not explicitly said this, I have been implicitly suggesting that the Flood waters, which were in part derived from a heavenly ocean, could not possibly have been literal (re-read the articles to see why this must be the case).  If Peter is affirming their reality, then my arguments, and my reading of tehowm, must disintegrate.

I am not arrogant enough to think that I know more than Peter.  But when the scientific evidence for a canopy is simply not there, and when the scriptural evidence does not allow the canopy to be positioned between us and the stars, I have to wonder if perhaps the Creationists are reading Peter incorrectly as well.

For the Creationists point to this verse as support that Peter took Genesis one as a literal fact.  By denying the physical reality of the tehowm, by suggesting that it is imagery for chaos and not an accurate description of how God created, I am in effect denying the very authority of Peter.

But need this be the case?

If I were to say, ‘Just as the dragon of Revelation waited to snatch the child from its mother’s womb…’ we would all realize that I am not saying that dragons are real.  Instead we would recognize that I am using the image from Revelation to make some sort of point.  So too, I think, should we give biblical writers the right to refer to fictional or metaphorical images used elsewhere in scripture, without accusing them of believing in the literal reality of those images.  Indeed, this can be the only way to deal with Jude and his rather embarrassing references to both Enoch and Michael’s war with Satan over Moses’ body. 

Simply put, just because Peter refers to the world emerging from water, and just because he refers to a global Flood, does not mean that he believed in the historical reality of those events.  He could have been using a scriptural image to jump-start his own metaphor.

Some concluding remarks on the utility of tehowm for evangelical evolutionists
This article has taken a fairly lengthy look at an image that most Christians are probably not even aware of.  We have seen that tehowm conjures up images of a chaotic ocean; that it sets the stage for God’s orderly creation; that God used tehowm to extinguish moral chaos from the world, and that this was unsuccessful; that Christ was capable of taming the tehowm; and that Christ’s death and resurrection are re-enacted by each Christian at the moment of baptism, when their old selves are put to death in the primordial tehowm and they emerge as new creations in God’s new order.

We hesitate from taking any of these images literally.  We know that we do not literally die when we enter the baptismal waters, and we know that we emerge still with a propensity for sin.  In the same way, we do not treat the chaotic tehowm of Genesis 1 as a literal entity that wages war with God, but rather as an image that emphasizes the orderliness of God’s creation.

But we also cannot shy away from the reality of chaos.  Although not in the form of an ocean or Leviathan, we do recognize that this world is not perfect, that disorder at times seems to have the upper hand, and that not every aspect of this disorder is caused by moral chaos.  It is difficult to see, for example, how natural disasters could be a result of the Fallen condition of man.  To be sure, the suffering that attends many natural disasters would be far less if we took pains to care for the earth and for one another (for example, numerous lives have been lost due to poorly designed buildings that could not withstand inevitable earthquakes; the devastation unleashed during the 2007 tsunami has been directly linked with the clearing of mangrove swamps for, among other things, shrimp farms).  But much of the devastation is a necessary part of how the world operates; from an evolutionary perspective, we would not be here without this disorder.

In a very real way, disorder is necessary for order to be produced.

I wonder, and this is merely conjecture, if God is not trying to teach us something about how he operates through the use of the word tehowm.  On day one, things are good, but they are still disordered.  Order is a gradual process in the creation account.  Perhaps the chaos we see in the evolutionary record, the suffering and death and waste, is nothing more than the remnants of tehowm in paradise.  And perhaps this is not a bad thing.  Perhaps tehowm stands apart from moral chaos in not being inherently evil.  In large portions it is destructive and threatening to God’s creation, like in the Flood, but in small doses, in manageable amounts, it, like the subterranean waters flowing from the rocks, gives life.

I cannot say for sure, but maybe some of the objections evangelicals have about evolution are answered through tehowm.

Part 2


chrislantz said...

This is brilliant stuff... all 3 parts of "Chaos and the Deep" were fascinating. I learned a great deal, and feel as though Scripture was done a great service by being treated with dignity, awe and respect. My faith is stronger having read this, Matthew.

Matthew said...

Thanks Chris! And just wait - I have an epilogue that will be posting shortly.