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Spring 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 1 · pp. 65–75 

Reflections on Genesis and Physics

Candice Viddal

When I was a high school student aspiring to become a scientist—a career I had been naturally inclined to from a very young age—I was surrounded by people at church and at school that considered Genesis to be in conflict with the modern scientific picture. There were those in church who insisted that the account in Genesis 1 should be taken literally, and thus the findings of science should be rejected when they weren’t in agreement with a literal interpretation of that book. And there were many at school, teachers and friends, who dismissed the entire book because, they said, it was written by people in the prescientific age who used myth to explain their sense impressions of the natural world. Genesis, they believed, was a book that should not be taken seriously in our more enlightened age.

I have found scientific engagement with the world to be a tremendous source of joy and intellectual fulfillment, but I have also found that the deepest part of my being is relentlessly drawn to Christ.

There were also, of course, perspectives that held the middle ground. My father, raised in a small Mennonite community in Paraguay, shared with me that in a Bible course he took in high school, his teacher began the first class by saying, “This is the Bible. It is not a scientific textbook, nor a cookbook. It is about the relationship between God and man.” This statement helped me stay in church and see its relevance in the scientific world I {66} began exploring in earnest, despite the anti-science preaching of some pastors of my youth. It also opened my eyes to reading the Bible in a different way and helped me resist secular influences in my life that insisted religion was only a primitive impulse that we should cast off in order to “progress.”

I later delved into the writings of scholars who viewed the themes in Genesis in this expansive way. Walter Brueggemann emphasizes that the Genesis text “is not a scientific description but a theological affirmation,” 1 and that readers should hear the text as a “theological idiom, which leaves open all scientific theories about the origin of the world.” 2

Conrad Hyers interprets verses 16–17, which describe the creation of the sun, moon, and stars, as declarations made over against those of competing mythologies. 3 He asserts that the biblical writers were not trying to make astronomical observations, but to proclaim that the God their hearers were to worship is the one who made those heavenly bodies. For the ancient Hebrews, the sun, moon and stars could not be divinities in their own right as the sun-worshiping Egyptians believed or as the Canaanites insisted, who had both a sun- and a moon-god. Genesis 1:16–17 made that impossible.

No doubt the verses in Genesis 1 have been interpreted in various ways. I take the position, however, that the purpose of Genesis 1 was not to give an account of the origin of the natural world that could eventually be verified by modern science, but that the meaning its writers sought to convey was strictly theological. And poetry and story-telling are the Bible’s preferred means of communicating theological truth.

Core theological beliefs about the origins of the world, even if expressed through “mere” poetry and stories, will nevertheless influence the way nature is viewed. The bold theological claim in Genesis 1:1 that God created the heavens and the earth is immediately followed by a description of the physical world around us, the parts that we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. And every mention of God’s intentional creation of a physical thing is followed by God’s affirmation that “it was good.” The text affirms both that the physical is good and that there is a metaphysical realm that precedes the universe. In Genesis, the source of the mystery of our existence and the realm that precedes us is named God.

The implication of the theological monotheistic claim is that absolutely everything is an expression of this One—a Unity that brought forth and sustains all existence, from the smallest insect, to the largest mountain, to the farthest galaxy, to ourselves. A consequence of holding a belief that the universe originates in a single ground is the possibility of a scientific investigation of nature, a methodology very closely linked to our understanding of the metaphysical. {67}

Some historians of science suggest that the systematic study of nature flourished in Christian Europe in ways that it didn’t elsewhere because essential beliefs about the universe expressed in Genesis 1 were uniquely hospitable to rational inquiry and experimentation. 4 Physicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne, for example, argues that one of the principles the modern scientific enterprise was founded on is the doctrine of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo)—the universe exists only on account of God’s free, purposeful act. This doctrine implied “both that the world was rational and also that the nature of its rationality depended on the choice of its Creator, so that one must look to see what actual form it had taken.” 5

Peter E. Hodgson elaborates, arguing that science was possible because of the specific underlying beliefs that (a) all that is exists because of one God, (b) the world has order, stability, and is lawful and rational because God is rational, and (c) there is no physical distinction between heaven and earth—the laws that apply on earth apply beyond it as well. These convictions stand in stark contrast to the belief of Aristotle (384–322 BCE), for example, that the natures of the terrestrial and celestial realm are completely distinct, the celestial realm being pure and incorruptible, and the terrestrial corruptible and subject to decay. It was, says Hodgson, because of the vision of the cosmos embedded in the Christian doctrine of creation that Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was able to form his revolutionary idea that the celestial and terrestrial realms operated in accordance with the same laws, overthrowing the firmly entrenched Aristotelian belief. Newton’s formulation became the foundation for classical physics for the next three hundred years, and that physics is still used today on all length scales except the microscopic and all speeds except those close to that of light. Although Albert Einstein (1879–1955) later revolutionized Newton’s theory in profound ways, the unity of the two realms is still maintained.

Scientific theories are never believed to be the final word in a description of the universe. They are continually being re-opened to further scrutiny, subject to revolutionary shifts in fundamental assumptions that alter our picture of the universe, and are generally expressed, by design, in terms of falsifiable statements—statements that could be proven incorrect by further demonstration. (Non-falsifiable statements are usually not considered to be scientific.) However, there is also a deep sense among physicists that the overarching principles we use to describe the universe suggest there is a template that undergirds and holistically connects all phenomena. In every physical system, there is a causal nexus that joins one phenomenon to another. Even when the specific content, language, and concepts used as part of our theoretical framework changes, as it inevitably does, many scientists are convinced that our belief in an underlying order from which the universe emerges is grounded in a reality that exists independent of the {68} mental constructs or models we employ to conceptualize patterns. Einstein, for example, could not believe in a personal God, but he was a Deist who believed in a rational, clock-maker God:

The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books—a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. 6


There are many instances in the history of science that illustrate how the intuitive impression of an underlying order responsible for the emergence of a diversity of phenomenon proved to be correct. For example, when scientific investigation began in earnest in the seventeenth century, questions were posited about very specific phenomena, and explanations were proposed to explain them. Some examples: What is the relationship between the temperature, volume, and pressure of a gas? 7 How should lenses be cut and arranged in order to view microscopic objects? 8 This is not to say that every-day contemporary scientific investigation is not interested in specific questions about certain materials or systems for practical applications; it very much is. But the larger goal of scientific investigation is often to position phenomena into a specific theory or model to create a larger explanatory whole that stands on its own. When phenomena do not fit, we are forced either to adjust our models or to find the missing link.

After much experimentation, a coherent picture of how aspects of one phenomena are related to another is built and more fundamental principles are revealed. Isaac Newton did just that— motivated by a belief in deeper underlying principles, he uncovered deeper underlying principles of the universe.

Unitive principles continued to be discovered. Electricity, the flow of electric charge that Benjamin Franklin so bravely demonstrated lightning is by flying a kite in a thunderstorm, and magnetism, the behavior that we observe when the earth deflects a compass needle to help us find our way, were initially thought to be very different phenomena. In the late eighteenth century, however, James Clerk Maxwell showed, in four elegant equations, that the electric and magnetic fields were simply different manifestations of a single electromagnetic field. {69}

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chemists discovered regular patterns in the reactivities of the elements. They organized the elements in the first Periodic Table according to these recurring properties, and described them using the concept of chemical bond and valence electron shells. In the early twentieth century, however, the laws of quantum physics were able to explain why there were such patterns in the elements. Electrons occupy discrete energy levels, which are responses to quantum wave vibrations, in the same manner as a musical instrument produces certain frequencies as a response to air vibrations. Each level is thus only able to accommodate a specific number of electrons, and the highest energy ones are the ones that participate in chemical reactions. The natural organization of the Periodic Table, which was discovered first, is a result of the intrinsic physics of the atom.

The science of heat and work, called thermodynamics and developed for the practical purpose of designing a steam engine, turns out also to be perfectly reducible to a molecular description. That is, all of the concepts needed to talk about heat and work, such as temperature and entropy, can be obtained by speaking in terms of atoms moving about according to atomistic laws.

Thermodynamics also explains how the reactions in the cells of living organisms that cannot strictly occur on their own proceed by coupling to an energy-releasing chemical reaction, or why amino acids can string together to form large protein chains that fold into intricate three-dimensional structures and perform very specific cellular functions, even though our intuition deems this process to be entirely improbable. The second law of thermodynamics, which implies that the universe is dying down and returning to a state of disorganization and formlessness, has been used to argue that the original state of the universe must have been perfectly organized. 9


Twentieth-century physics has revealed that all forces in nature are a result of one of four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong versions of the nuclear force. These four forces are believed to be different manifestations of one, and many researchers are committed to understanding how the One became the Four. 10

Furthermore, our intuitive notion of force, experienced in our daily lives as a “push” or a “pull” and which seems entirely different from our concept of matter, is intimately tied to the structure of particles. A single unity does indeed seem to underlie all things.

However, this unity does not necessarily imply a transcendent being, active and immanent in creation, which is what the first verse of Genesis proclaims. Atheists, agnostics, deists, and theists all agree that the universe {70} operates according to powerful underlying laws but will interpret the unity of the physical universe very differently. Atheists will generally say that these laws of physics reveal an accidental universe, that the laws are a brute fact about our existence, and that they absolutely do not suggest a God, personal or not. Some claim that the power of the laws of physics to explain so much of the universe implies that the universe is objectively meaningless. Distinguished chemist P.W. Atkins echoes that sentiment: “I regard the existence of this extraordinary universe as having a wonderful, awesome grandeur. It hangs there in all its glory, wholly and completely useless. To project onto it our human-inspired notion of purpose would, to my mind, sully and diminish it.” 11

But scientific knowledge does not automatically lead to a nonreligious, strictly naturalistic worldview. Some scientists see the fact of the existence of man in the universe and his deep and abiding search for intelligibility and meaning quite differently. Anglican priest and theologian Arthur Peacocke, who spent a significant part of his career as a physical biochemist, raises a good question: “Does not the very continuity of the universe, with its gradual elaboration of its potentialities, from its dispersal 1010 years ago as an expanding mass of particles to the emergence of persons on the surface of the planet Earth, imply that any categories of ‘explanation’ and ‘meaning’ must at least include the personal?” 12

Genesis 1 is an expression of the Judeo-Christian belief that there is a meaning to our existence that transcends our own selves. The rhetorical pattern of “and God said let there be” and “it was so” is a powerful way of proclaiming that the universe and everything in it is part of God’s creative purpose.

These two extreme positions do not reflect a conflict between science and religion, but rather a conflict between naturalism (and its related worldviews) and Christianity. Naturalists argue, for example, that there is nothing that transcends nature, that communing with nature is enough to satisfy our spiritual longings, and that we have to make peace with the essentially tragic nature of the cosmos. Christianity, on the other hand, is built on a foundation of promise that the world will be made new and that God gives meaning to all that passes. 13


A universe created by the God of Genesis is a universe endowed with purpose. The significance of such a universe is closely related to our sense of intentional design. After all, if the universe has no purpose, all that exists must have arisen by a cosmic accident.

Traditional arguments from design, such as the watchmaker argument of William Paley (1743–1805), are of the form: If there is an arrangement {71} of pieces to make an organized whole, somebody or some ultimate “mind” has arranged it. However, physical scientists have shown that it is not only possible but natural to get order out of chaos as a result of the lawful behavior of the atoms and molecules that compose the new entity, without ever invoking God as an explanation. When a thin layer of oil is heated between two pieces of glass, for example, the convection currents eventually drive the oil molecules into a pattern of honeycomb-like cells, ordered in an array that extends over the volume of the film. These are called Rayleigh-Benard cells after the individuals who discovered them. 14

Is this behavior a result of blind chance? And what does that mean? Some physicists say yes, and then advocate for an accidental universe. Others will say no. Physicist Stephen M. Barr argues that the observed behavior only reveals a deeper design principle than there may appear to be on the surface. He argues that simply looking at the behavior at the level of collective organization of smaller entities into a new pattern does not bring us deep enough into the mystery. Rather, he says, “Order has to be built in for order to come out.” Or in science, “order comes from greater order.” 15

The essence of Barr’s argument is as follows: If you take a box of identical marbles—same size, all perfect spheres—that are initially arranged haphazardly and then tilt it on its side, the marbles too will arrange themselves in an orderly, honeycomb-like pattern. However, if you were to repeat the experiment with identical spoons instead, the collection of spoons at the bottom would still be haphazard. The group of marbles becomes organized on its own, the group of spoons does not. The fact that the marbles exhibit order can be explained as a combination of the way gravity acts on the marbles and the mathematical necessity that when identical marbles pack in an area, they do so in such a way as to minimize the space between them. The arrangement that minimizes that space is a hexagonal (honeycomb) one.

Barr asserts that if we resort to an argument of mathematical necessity only, we are taking as fact something that requires a further explanation—that the marbles are all identical and spherically symmetric to start with. If they were not, the beautifully patterned array would not form. Why are the marbles identical and symmetric? The mind of the designer that drew up the specifications for the factory made a decision for them to be that way, and that is why order arose. Mathematical necessity gets you from the marbles to the pattern, but it ignores the fundamental question.

Barr illustrates his point further by referring to crystal growth. Crystals are ordered arrangements of atoms that have repeated subunits, such as those found in wallpaper, that extend throughout the volume of the crystal. Crystal growth is a perfectly natural process that can be explained by the laws of physics. When a crystal forms, atoms collectively organize in response to the deeper laws of physics that give rise to this behavior. {72}

The carbon atoms would not organize this way if they were not all identical. Can we say the carbon atoms are designed this way? Physicists say no. The carbon atoms are identical because they are made up of identical protons, neutrons, and electrons. Electrons are identical because they arise from quantum fields, which are the same everywhere in space.

And imagining quantum fields as having the same properties everywhere is not just a convenient theoretical simplification. Our theories of physics would not be able to explain the behavior we see if those fields changed depending on where you were in the universe.

We anticipate that these symmetries continue as we probe deeper and deeper into the structure of the universe. As Barr concludes, “the symmetries and patterns found at one level are manifestations of greater symmetries and more comprehensive patterns lying concealed at the more fundamental levels.” That is, physicists who think of the universe in terms of design are thinking about the inherent properties of the most fundamental stuff of the universe, whether they be particles or fields.

Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976), one of the co-founders of quantum theory, said that “By getting to smaller and smaller units, we do not come to fundamental units, or indivisible units, but we do come to a point where division has no meaning.” 16

Nobel-Prize winning physical chemist Ilya Prigogine (1917–2003) spent a lifetime working on developing a thermodynamic theory of living systems that predicts the spontaneous organization of higher-order patterns from simple mixtures of compounds when they are forced into a condition far from thermodynamic equilibrium—where there is a continuous exchange of heat and matter between the system and its surroundings. 17

It is within the realm of possibility, although dimly perceived and not yet proven, that a prebiotic mixture of all ingredients necessary for life may have come together by self-organizing into self-reproducing complex structures that we call living. 18

Even though nobody knows the sequence of events that gave rise to life on Earth, it may be that the methods of science will eventually be able to demonstrate the formation of life in the laboratory. Invoking God as a supernatural explanation for our own human existence is a “God-of-the-gaps” argument that should be avoided. I find it more satisfying theologically to regard life not as an isolated divine miracle amidst a vast variety of mechanistic natural causes but as a larger part of the bigger cosmic miracle of us being here in the first place, with God as the ultimate explanation. As C.S. Lewis said, “Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature.” 19

The poetic description in Genesis 2:7 of God as the breath of life—in Hebrew, ruach (wind, breath, air, spirit)—is a beautiful description of our physical dependence on a power entirely beyond ourselves. {73}


In the apocryphal book, “The Revelation of Ezra” (also known as 2 Esdras), the writer experiences a sense of a “growing consciousness out of the dust,” which is expressed with force: “Every hour I suffer agonies of heart, while I strive to understand the way of the Most High. . . . For it would have been better for the dust not to have been born, so that the mind might not have been made from it. But now the mind grows with us, and therefore we are tormented, because we die, and we are conscious of it.” 20

Current scientific understanding is that our universe moves in a direction that begins with collections of simple constituents that eventually self-organize into a diverse array of novel, complex forms, at all length scales, from self-replicating biomolecules, to cells, organisms, and galaxies. It is an inherent property of the universe to bring forth novelty, and the new forms transcend the simplicity of the constituents.

This view has impelled theologians to reintroduce a dynamic element to our understanding of God’s relation to the universe. Arthur Peacocke asserts that “Any notion of God as Creator has to take into account that God is continuously creating, continuously giving existence to, what is new. . . . God is creating at every moment of the world’s existence through the perpetually endowed creativity of the very stuff of the world.” 21

In Genesis 1:26, God said “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Peacocke considers the tendency of the universe toward greater consciousness:

The material units of the universe—the subatomic particles, the atoms and the molecules they can form—are the fundamental entities constituted in their matter-energy-space-time relationships, and are such that they have built in, as it were, the potentiality of becoming organized in that special kind of complex system we call living and, in particular, in the system of the human brain in the human body which displays conscious activity. In man, the stuff of the universe has become cognizing and self-cognizing. 22

The question of consciousness is, of course, intensely debated, and beliefs about its nature range from it being a mere by-product of the physical brain (the physicalist view), to it being something wholly other than the brain (the traditional dualist view), and other views in between (such as the idea that mental states are physical, but are not reducible to the properties of the physical components alone). 23 As a physicist, my view is that consciousness is likely rooted in the physical, but that our emotions and values form an irreducible part of nature that flow from it, and because of this we can affect the universe. Nevertheless, our understanding of how consciousness arises is currently very limited. {74}

If we consider ourselves as having emerged from the outer space-time reality that we are intricately intertwined in, we can then view our inner reflective life as an expansion of our physical life. This place of consciousness is where our prayers begin, where our deepest selves are expanded and nourished, where we encounter new insights, experience transcendence. It is where our poems, symphonies, and paintings crystallize, where our scientific theories are imagined and apprehended, and where religious symbols, concepts, metaphors, and beliefs are both created and, in turn, create us.


The Genesis account of creation in the Bible uses rich metaphor and imagery to give an account of why we are here. It proclaims that the cosmos is meaningful and rests on a basic foundation of hope. Scientific language is more technical and precise than day-to-day language, and most of it is open to experimental verification. But it cannot say anything strictly scientific about the meaning of things that does not go beyond its methodologies. The major stress between Genesis and science is caused by the difference between the ultimate claims of a purely naturalistic view of the universe with its ontology of death, and those of Christian theology, which begins with the hope and promise made in Genesis 1 and culminates in the story of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

As a Christian, I have found scientific engagement with the world to be a tremendous source of joy and intellectual fulfillment, but I have also found that the deepest part of my being is relentlessly drawn to Christ. Through engagement with faith, and with the imagery of Jesus Christ and his self-humbling love, I am brought into a much larger whole than when looking at the world through scientific eyes alone. Being part of a church that is open to and grapples with current understandings of science and seeks to find integration of them into theology, makes the experience all the more rich.


  1. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching 1 (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1982), 25.
  2. Ibid., 26.
  3. Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta, GA: John Knox, 1984), 43-45.
  4. Peter E. Hodgson, Theology and Modern Physics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005). In Chapters 1–3, Hodgson provides an overview of how Christian theology was amenable to the development of modern science, while other {75} religious worldviews prevented it. In the epilogue, he affirms that modern science could have developed without the Christian revelation, but did not in actual world history.
  5. John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996), 74.
  6. Quoted by Max Jammer in Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 48.
  7. This investigation was carried out by Robert Boyle.
  8. Robert Hooke invented the compound microscope.
  9. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  10. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988).
  11. Peter William Atkins, “Does the Universe Have a Purpose? No,” in A Templeton Conversation, Big Questions series, The John Templeton Foundation website, accessed February 26, 2014,
  12. Arthur Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 75.
  13. For a much deeper exploration of these two views and others in between, see John F. Haught, Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007) and Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  14. Roger Highfield and Peter Coveney, Frontiers of Complexity. The Search for Order in a Chaotic World (New York: Ballantine, 1995).
  15. Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).
  16. Werner Heisenberg, quoted in Glimpsing Reality: Ideas in Physics and the Link to Biology, ed. Paul Buckley and F. David Peat (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 15.
  17. See Ilya Prigogine, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (Toronto: Bantam, 1984).
  18. Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (New York: Touchstone, 1984) and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Emergence of Life: From Chemical Origins to Synthetic Biology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  19. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 115.
  20. Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the book of Revelation (New York: Viking, 2012), 80.
  21. Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science Towards God (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001), 146.
  22. Peacocke, Creation, 66.
  23. John Heil, Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction, Routledge contemporary introductions to philosophy, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Candice Viddal has taught physics and chemistry at Canadian Mennonite University since 2010 and attends St. George’s Anglican Church, where she sings alto in the choir. She and her husband Jason live in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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