Is God a Hypothesis?

Stephen C. Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis continues to receive accolades.  Most recently, World magazine chose it as one of their 2021 books of the year.  On Amazon, it’s currently the #1 best-seller under “Creationism” and #4 under “Science & Religion.”  This is an important and influential book coming out of the Intelligent Design movement.  However, from a biblical perspective, it has several glaring problems. 

The subtitle reads, “Three Scientific Discoveries that Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe.”  Those three “discoveries” are:  the Big Bang, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the existence of highly-detailed DNA information.  Meyer works with these “discoveries” to argue for the eminent plausibility of the “God hypothesis.”

I’m not qualified to evaluate the scientific evidence for the Big Bang.  However, I do know that Big Bang cosmology is not consistent with the biblical account of origins.  Rather than explain the details of how and why myself, I’ll leave that to Christian astrophysicist Dr. Jason Lisle:

A Bible-believing Christian can’t use something that contradicts the Bible in order to argue for the likelihood of the existence of God.  That brings us down to two scientific discoveries. 

When arguing for the “God hypothesis” with DNA information, Meyer makes his case using what’s called “deep time.”  Contrary to what the Bible indicates, Meyer believes the earth has a history involving hundreds of millions of years.  In fact, chapter 10 is entitled, “The Cambrian and Other Information Explosions.”  The Cambrian explosion allegedly took place 530 million years ago.  As the story goes, this involves an explosion of new life forms in the fossil record.  Meyer argues that this also represents an explosion of biological information.  It poses a difficulty for materialistic theories of biological evolution, but could possibly “also provide positive evidence for intelligent design” (p.209).  However, for a Bible-believing Christian, the problem is that God said he created the heavens and the earth at the beginning (Gen. 1:1) – and Jesus said that God created Adam and Eve at the beginning (Matt. 19:4).  If you subsequently take the genealogies of Scripture seriously, even granting some gaps, you’re left with a world with an age on the order of thousands of years, not millions.

Now before I get to the most serious issues with The Return of the God Hypothesis, let me say that Bible-believing Christians can get some value out of it.  Some of the value comes when Meyer is critiquing materialist scientists.  For example, Stephen Hawking is quoted, “Because there is a law of gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.”  But Meyer points out that “causes and scientific laws are not the same things…The laws of physics represent only our descriptions of nature.  Descriptions in themselves do not cause things to happen” (p.371).  There’s yet more value in Meyer’s critique of theistic evolutionists like Deborah Haarsma of BioLogos.  I appreciate his setting the historical record straight on Isaac Newton and his alleged “God-of-the-gaps blunder.”  Finally, Meyer illustrates how materialist scientists and philosophers live contrary to the beliefs they profess to hold.  For example, David Hume put the uniformity of nature into question, yet acted as though he believed in it (p.441).  Alvin Plantinga pointed out how, if evolutionary naturalism is true, “we have significant reason to doubt the reliability of our minds” (p.445).  Yet no one really does.  To do so would ultimately be self-defeating, since we would also have to doubt our beliefs about evolutionary naturalism.  This is a good example of answering a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:5).     

My two biggest beefs with Return of the God Hypothesis have to do with the method of argumentation and the conclusion which results.  There are these three scientific discoveries mentioned earlier.  Meyer incorporates these discoveries into what’s called an abductive argument for the existence of God.  Such an argument works by way of inference to the best explanation.  It takes this form:

Abductive Schema

Logic:  If A were true, then C would be as a matter of course.

Data:  The surprising fact C is observed.

Conclusion:  Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.

Filling it out, it looks something like this:

Logic:  If a personal God existed, then DNA information would be as a matter of course.

Data:  The surprising fact of DNA information is observed.

Conclusion:  Hence, there is reason to suspect that a personal God exists.

One of the crucial things to note here is that the “logic of abduction…does not produce certainty, but instead plausibility or possibility” (p.224).  This tentativeness is reflected throughout Meyer’s book.  His argument is ultimately that “the God hypothesis” is possibly the best explanation of the three scientific “discoveries” discussed.  So:  a personal God quite likely exists.

From a biblical perspective, this is unacceptable.  The Bible doesn’t reveal the existence of God to us as a likelihood, but a certainty.  His existence is real and everyone knows it (Rom. 1:18-20).  Furthermore, the idea that God is a hypothesis to be tested or evaluated by sinful creatures is repugnant to biblical revelation.  The creature ought never to stand in judgment over the Creator or reduce him to a hypothesis.  As I was reading Return of the God Hypothesis, the words of D.A. Carson from this old video clip kept ringing in my ears:

Carson is quite right:  human beings have no right to judge God’s existence.  The whole premise of Meyer’s book flatters people into thinking they do have such a right.  That’s not a minor procedural peccadillo, but a massive misstep, even an affront to the Creator.

Meyer’s conclusion has another problem embedded in it.  He argues for the plausibility of the existence of a personal God.  In chapters 13 and 14, his reasoning excludes pantheism and deism as possibilities.  That leaves him with a God who is personal and involved with his creation, not only at the beginning, but on an ongoing basis.  But the problem is that this is still not the God of the Bible.  Meyer’s God who very likely exists could be the Allah of the Muslims, the God of the Jews, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the Mormons.  What we’re left with is plain vanilla theism.  Meyer has argued for a god, but not the Triune God of the Bible, and certainly not for the biblical worldview package.  Meyer professes to be a Christian, but this book could just as well have been written by a Jew. 

Ultimately all the problems in Return of the God Hypothesis trace back to one fundamental difficulty in Meyer’s method:  he doesn’t start with the Word of God.  Instead, he starts with the notion of neutral intellectual ground.  He doesn’t seem to apprehend that the problem with unbelief isn’t intellectual, but moral.  There is no neutrality.  Those who reject the God of the Bible are rejecting him because of the wicked rebellion in their hearts.  It’s this foundational issue that really needs to be addressed.  Meyer doesn’t do that.  In his book, there’s no sin from which unbelievers need to repent.  There’s just errant thinking that needs more information and sounder logic.  In his book, there’s no Saviour to whom unbelievers need to turn, no gospel to deliver from vanity and futility.  There’s just science and logic putting our minds at ease about origins.  I bought Return of the God Hypothesis in a Christian bookstore, but I really don’t know why it was there.  Even if Christians may find some things of value, it’s not a Christian book.     

Note:  for a biblical alternative, I highly recommend Jason Lisle’s The Ultimate Proof of Creation: Resolving the Origins DebateYou can read my review here.

The Perplexing Platypus

Is it a mammal or a reptile?  And why does it have a bill like a duck and a tail like a beaver?  When the first platypus specimens were brought to England from Australia in 1798, scientists thought they were a hoax.  They’d been fooled before by concocted “mermaid” specimens from Asia and that wasn’t going to happen twice.  But eventually credible observations and research proved the reality of this bewildering creature. 

Sadly, many Australians have never seen a platypus in the wild.  Part of that is attributable to their range being limited to the eastern states and Tasmania.  Even many residents of those states have never encountered this duck-billed curiosity.  Being a fly-fisherman means I spend a lot of time in Tasmanian creeks and rivers.  That’s led me to frequent platypus encounters.  On one occasion, a platypus was digging for food in the riverbed almost right at my feet.  Last year, in a tiny little headstream creek I met my first baby platypus.  He could have fit in the palm of my hand.  So platypuses aren’t as rare as you might think – it’s just a matter of being in the right place.

Eventually scientists classified platypuses as mammals.  However, they were placed in a special category known as monotremes.  The only other monotreme is the echidna, another Aussie oddity.  Monotremes have one opening used for both reproduction and elimination of waste.  This opening is called a cloaca, similar to birds.  From this cloaca, again like birds, platypuses lay eggs about the size of an acorn.  However, unlike birds, platypuses nurse their young with milk like mammals.             

The features of the platypus get even stranger.  It’s one of just a few venomous mammals.  The male platypus has a spur on its back legs that it uses to inject venom.  While no humans are known to have died from a platypus encounter, there are dogs that have met their demise in this way.  Regardless, getting spurred by a platypus is reportedly an intensely painful experience.  So, unless you can definitively tell a male apart from a female, resist that temptation to lift a furry platypus out of the water!

And what about that duck bill?  If you have a close encounter with a platypus, you’ll see that it’s covered in pores.  These pores are electro-sensitive.  When small prey move along the riverbed, they create electric currents with their muscles.  Platypuses have eyes, but they’re closed underwater.  Instead, they use their electro-sensitive duck bills to not only find their way around, but also to find their food.

There’s one type of person for whom the platypus is the most perplexing:  the evolutionist.  They just don’t know what to do with this animal.  It has some features like a bird, others like a reptile, and others like a mammal.  How did it evolve?  Where are the transitional forms in the fossil record?  Evolutionists at first believed it to be a “primitive” animal representing a living transitional form between reptiles and mammals.  But when research uncovered the electro-sensitive pores in their bills, they had to conclude that it was, in fact, “highly evolved.” Yet they find platypus specimens in the fossil record which they allege date back millions of years. Research into the platypus genome has uncovered even more perplexities for evolutionists.

For a Bible-believing Christian, the platypus is an amazing example of our God’s creative imagination.  Though he often appears to have used templates for creating certain animal groups, he decided to do something quite different with the platypus, giving it an electro-sensitive duck-bill, webbed front feet, venomous spurs on the hind feet, egg-laying, and a beaver-like tail.  It’s almost as if God meant to create something unconventional just to leave us scratching our tiny human heads.  Beyond perplexed, surely he meant to leave us in wonder at his playful artistry.

The Protective Plover

Australia is famous for its diverse wildlife wanting to kill you.  Even the birds get in on the action.  In certain regions the Australian magpie (no relation to the Canadian bird) will swoop at humans, at times with deadly consequences.  A five-month old baby recently died when her mother stumbled while trying to avoid a swooping magpie in Brisbane.  Thankfully, the magpies here in Tasmania are much milder mannered – they don’t swoop.  However, things are quite different when it comes to our plovers.

Ornithologists call them masked lapwings, but most Aussies just call them plovers.  For North American readers, just imagine a large killdeer with a bad temper at certain times of the year.  In our Launceston neighbourhood they’re prolific.  You can’t avoid them, even though at times you desperately want to.

I’d nominate them as Tasmania’s most dangerous bird.  Though they’re sometimes hard to see from a distance, plovers have a black-tipped yellow spur on the carpal joint of their wings.  And they’re not afraid to use these spiky little weapons.  Swooping magpies just have their beaks; plovers intimidate with beaks and spurs – doubly dangerous.

Most of the year plovers are harmless.  They just go about their business feasting on worms and insects.  At such times their only fault is their awful sound.  Australian magpies have a beautiful throaty call, but plovers sound like a malfunctioning home alarm.

However, when the winter solstice rolls around in the antipodes (June 21), plovers become unhinged.  The solstice usually marks the beginning of their breeding season.  The problems begin with where the females choose to lay their eggs, which is just about anywhere.  A few weeks ago I was on my normal daily walk route.  I rounded a corner on a sidewalk and there, right next to the sidewalk on the grass, was a female plover sitting on her eggs.  She started squawking at me, the male started squawking at me, and I made a hasty retreat to the other side of the street.  I don’t mess with plovers.   

In the weeks following, I knew to avoid that spot.  In that instance, a predator appears to have eventually raided the nest – I never saw any chicks.  But it’s when the chicks hatch that things really start to get out of control.  In another spot on my daily walk route, plovers have been nesting regularly each year.  This year they initially had four chicks hatch.  At the moment, they’re down to one.  The other three haven’t survived – probably due to cats, but we also have a goshawk in the vicinity, as well as some falcons.  But with that one chick, that pair of plovers will protect it with their lives.  A nest is static – it stays in one spot; but chicks are mobile and you never know where they’re going to be from day to day.  If you come anywhere near a plover chick, the parents only give you a couple of warning squawks before the aggressive aerial attack begins.  I’ve been attacked several times, always by accidentally coming across chicks and their parents, and I can tell you it’s the kind of experience which requires a change of undergarments afterwards.  They’ve never made contact, but it’s still a terrifying ordeal.

Plovers seem insane about protecting their young, their most vulnerable.  I often think about their instinct to do whatever it takes to make sure their chicks survive, even before they hatch. They’ll even resort to violence to protect the next generation.  But then are others of God’s creatures which resort to violence to destroy the next generation.  So many tiny helpless human beings are being brutally destroyed in the womb each day.  The human parents who are supposed to protect them fail.  Plovers may appear insane with their protective instincts, but I’d propose that it’s actually humans who are insane with their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our species.  And unlike plovers who have no moral responsibility for their violent instincts, we humans are culpable for our insanity.  Even in creation, God has not left us without a witness to this fact. It’s neither natural or moral to fail to protect.

An Exhaustive Exegetical Extravaganza

In the Beginning: Listening to Genesis 1 and 2, Cornelis Van Dam.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Dr. C. Van Dam begins his latest book by explicitly laying out his presuppositions.  He’s upfront about his non-negotiable assumptions and biases.  As I review his book, it’s appropriate that I share mine too.  I share his presuppositions about Scripture as the trustworthy Word of God, but I also bring a personal bias to the table.  Back in the day, Van Dam was my Old Testament professor at the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  I had an affectionate nickname for him in view of his ability to put the smack-down on unbelieving or shoddy scholarship:  “Wham-Bam-Van-Dam.”  This was always said with the greatest admiration for Dr. Van Dam.  As a seminary professor he was nothing if not thorough and careful.

This new book exhibits that same kind of comprehensive and precise approach to the two opening chapters of Scripture.  Van Dam leaves no stone unturned.  In the Beginning is an exhaustive treatment not only of the meaning of these two chapters, but also the various challenges that have been raised in Old Testament scholarship regarding them.  What you’re looking at here is not just a commentary on Genesis 1-2, but far more.

Over the last decade or so John Walton has become well-known for his views on the early chapters of Genesis.  Walton argues that we often misunderstand Genesis 1-2 because we don’t take into account the ancient Near Eastern context of these chapters.  Once we do that, says Walton, then we can see that Genesis 1-2 was never meant to be taken literally as history.  The history can then be filled in with what science teaches us, including what science says about human origins.  In chapter 2 of In the Beginning, Van Dam discusses Walton’s views at length and explains how and where they fail to do justice to the character of Scripture as the Word of God.  In my view this is the most important chapter of the book. 

To whet your appetite further, let me share a selection of questions that Dr. Van Dam answers elsewhere in the book:

  • Can new scientific data be regarded as general revelation given by God?
  • What is the relationship of Scripture to science?  Is Scripture a scientific textbook?
  • Can geology give us a history of creation?
  • Was Herman Dooyeweerd faithful to Scripture in his view of origins?
  • How are we to evaluate Meredith Kline’s Framework Hypothesis?
  • Did the ancient Israelites believe that heaven was a solid vault above us?
  • Why is there no mention of evening and morning with the seventh day in Genesis 1?
  • What does Scripture mean when it says that God created through his Son?
  • Can the breath of life in Genesis 2:7 be equated with the Holy Spirit?
  • Was there animal death before the fall into sin?
  • Why did God create everything with an appearance of age?  Was he being deceptive in so doing?

Those are just a few of the questions answered.  There are far more.  What I appreciate about Van Dam’s answers is that he bases them on what Scripture says.  He doesn’t want to go beyond Scripture and so he’ll sometimes say, “Scripture doesn’t say more than this – this is as far as we can go.”

If I would venture some respectful disagreement, it would be in the final chapter where the author briefly discusses whether there’s a need for new confessional formulations to address the challenges of evolution.  In 2014-15, I was involved with an effort to add some clarification to article 14 of the Belgic Confession in the Canadian Reformed Church.  That effort was ultimately unsuccessful.  I don’t regret having made the effort, nor do I think it unnecessary to this day. 

Van Dam argues that Scripture is clear and our “confessions faithfully reflect that testimony” (p.300).  However, that fails to account for those who have argued that the Three Forms of Unity provide the latitude needed to hold to forms of theistic macro-evolution.  Their arguments have persuaded some.  This wiggle-room ought to be addressed, especially if there is openness to theistic macro-evolution in your churches.

Van Dam also posits that “A difficulty with preparing a new formulation asserting the historicity of Genesis 1 and 2 is the temptation to go beyond what Scripture says, in other words, to provide specifics about that which Scripture gives no additional detail” (pp.300-301).  The proposal to add clarification to BC 14 was to state what Scripture states:  that Adam was created from dust (Gen.2:7) and Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22).  As a consequence:  “They were created as the first two humans and the biological ancestors of all other humans.  There were no pre-Adamites, whether human or hominid.”  If one thinks that this infringes upon the freedom of exegesis, then one is willing to grant the latitude for theistic evolutionary accounts of human (and other) origins.    

That criticism notwithstanding, In the Beginning was a delight to read – personally it brought me back to many of the OT lectures I enjoyed from Dr. Van Dam in my seminary years.  While I found it enjoyable, there may be others who will find it tough-going at times.  It’s not highly technical, but in places Van Dam does go academic.  It’s not a book you’d necessarily be giving out as gifts to those doing profession of faith.  It would, however, be a great gift for someone doing post-secondary studies, whether in the sciences or in the humanities.  And it’s definitely a recommended read for those who’ve completed such studies. 

The Wacky Wombat

Common Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Back when I was a missionary in British Columbia, we had a friend visit from Australia.  I asked him, “Have you ever seen a bear in the wild?”  He hadn’t.  “Would you like to see one?”  He certainly did, but expressed his doubts whether I could just conjure up a wild bear for him.  We drove for about 15 minutes north and arrived at the fish-counting weir on the Babine River.  And sure enough, as always at that time of year, there were grizzly bears about, fishing for spawning salmon.  Our Aussie friend was duly impressed. 

Now if you were to visit our part of Australia today, I’d ask you, “Have you ever seen a wombat in the wild?”  The wombat is as close as we get to a bear here in Tasmania.  We’d have to drive a little bit, but there are some spots here where I can guarantee you’d see one — places like Maria Island, Cradle Mountain, or Narawntapu.  And there are plenty of other places where, even if we didn’t see an actual wombat, we could definitely see evidence of them. 

The main evidence you’d find would be their droppings.  They’re rather distinctive.  Wombat droppings are cubic, you see.  Yep, they’re the only animals in the world that poop cubes.  How does a wombat manage this feat?  According to a recent study of wombat intestines, rather than being consistent like most animals, wombats have areas of varying thickness and stiffness.  The droppings go through grooved tissues and irregular contractions and this produces cubes.  Now not all wombat droppings are perfect cubes, but apparently the more cubic they are, the healthier the wombat.

When most people think of marsupials, they think kangaroos.  However, wombats are marsupials too.  The wombat’s pouch faces backwards between its legs.  So you could very well see a momma wombat wandering away with a baby wombat peeking out from the pouch. 

Wombat on Maria Island, Tasmania

Wombats are also renowned road kill in Tasmania and elsewhere.  Adult wombats can be a meter long and weigh in at 35 kg or 77 lbs.  They are like little bears.  If you hit one with your vehicle, you’re going to feel it and it’s going to do some damage.  This is because a wombat is not only large and heavy, but also built tough.  Wombats may look soft and cuddly, but they’ve been designed like a tank.  It’s especially their backsides that present a formidable wall – they have four fused bony plates.  They use their backsides for defence and mating.  When they’re in their burrows and an animal threatens to invade, they’ll just stick their bony butts out.  They’ve been known to crush their enemies with their ample derrieres.  Male and female wombats bite each other in their solid back ends as part of their mating rituals – and are none the worse for it.

Other wacky wombat facts:

  • Baby wombats hiccup when they’re stressed.
  • Wombat digestive processes include fermentation, a process which lasts weeks.
  • Some early European arrivals mistook the wombat for a badger.  Hence Tasmania has a “Badger Beach” on its north coast. 
  • Wombats create lengthy and complex burrow systems.  In 1960, a 15 year old Australian schoolboy began exploring wombat burrows by crawling through them.  Peter Nicholson’s research is still used today.
  • There are three species of wombats:  the common, the northern hairy-nosed, and the southern hairy-nosed.  All are only found in Australia (in the south and east).
  • The Latin name of the common wombat is vombatus ursinus – literally, “wombat bear.”  If you know your Heidelberg Catechism history, Zacharias Ursinus’ original German surname was Baer (=Bear).   

God has certainly put fascinating creatures on this earth.  Wombats are among them, animals that illustrate our Maker’s creative genius.  Here we have an animal that looks a little bear, but could hardly be more different than a bear.  I can’t help but exclaim with the psalmist, “O LORD, how manifold your works!  In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).