Christ and Creation

Science and the Bible on the Wonder of Life

(John 1:1-14)

 

The last fifty years, since the description of the double-helical structure of DNA in 1953, have seen a revolution in understanding the living cell. Yet these discoveries, far from making the Bible seem dated, make its portrayal of the nature of life as an information system even more relevant to understanding why we are here. In this address, ninth in a series on ‘Beginnings’, given at St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 21 May 2000, Rob Yule shows the remarkable convergence between the scientific and biblical descriptions of life.

 

In Goethe’s play Faust, there is a famous scene where Faust opens the Gospel of John and begins to read. He hesitates at the first sentence, ‘In the beginning was the Word' (John 1:1). Unable to give the Word such a prominent role in creation, he tries alternatives. He rejects ‘In the beginning was the Thought,’ for thought alone is not creative. He toys with in ‘In the beginning was the Power’, but hesitates to accord such a role to brute force. Finally, he settles on the translation, ‘In the beginning was the deed.’

 

The Explanation of Life

Deed, or Word? Random development, or intelligent design? Natural processes, or a transcended mind? Which framework offers the right explanation of how we come to be here?

The theory of evolution has appealed for the past century and a half, because it offered a naturalistic explanation for why we are here. It sought to explain the origin of the universe and of living beings without reference to supernatural agency or a transcendent cause. Given time plus chance, it was assumed that natural processes would provide an explanation of how energy formed matter, molecules formed life, and mutations formed human beings. Evolution was the orthodoxy of a secular age.

But the edifice of naturalistic evolution is crumbling. The discovery that the universe had a beginning removes the infinity of time for random processes to cycle through the options necessary to come up with something as complex as life. The discovery that mind-bogglingly complex biochemical systems operate in even the simplest single-celled organisms, effectively renders impossible the hypothesis that life could have originated by undirected random processes. Above all has come the unexpected finding that life is ordered by a sophisticated genetic information code, with an identical structure in all living organisms. It seems after all that we are creatures formed by the Word, not at all the products of a blind and purposeless Deed.

 

The Book of Life

In the nineteen twenties, life was thought to be a very simple thing. Little was known about the cell. It was thought to be just a blob of undifferentiated protoplasm. Now we know better. The cell is extraordinarily complex. I will try to explain it as simply as I can, but as microbiologist Michael Behe said, ‘complexity must be experienced to be appreciated’ (Darwin’s Black Box: the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution [New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996], p. xii).

1. DNA Code

Deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, is the genetic material which determines the characteristics of an organism by controlling protein synthesis in a cell. It is an information code, rather like the computer code of an enormous software programme, recorded in four nucleic acids (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine) which combine in pairs (A-T, C-G) in the elegant, spiral, ladder-like structure of the double-helix. The code contains the complicated technical instructions to make a living organism, whether a plant, an animal, or a human being.

The genetic code is a triplet code, with three bases (a codon) acting as a code for one amino acid, the subunit of protein. There are sixty four possible triplets of the four bases, and sixty one of these code for an amino acid. GCA, for example, codes for glycine, the structurally simplest amino acid and one of the earliest to be found. The remaining three triplets act as ‘punctuation’ signals which tell the translation process when to stop translating the coded instructions and halt protein production.

In this code, a gene is like a sentence, a chromosome like a book. Twenty three chromosome books comprise the shelf of instruction manuals needed to specify a human being. Perhaps because of its obstinacy, a donkey needs even more chromosomes than a human being. As in computing, where we keep a backup copy of our operating software, each cell retains a master copy of its DNA in its nucleus. Thus every human cell has 46 chromosome books or two sets of manuals, the equivalent of a million pages or more than ten Encyclopaedia Britannicas of instructions.

In computing language, the entire human genome comprises some 3.4 billion letters or bytes of information (Michael D. Lemonick, ‘Spelling Out the Book of Life’, Time, 17 April 2000, p. 55). Even an infinitesimal portion of this far exceeds William Dembski’s stringent 500 bit universal probability bound, beyond which it is nonsensical to attribute anything to chance (Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology [Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1999], p. 166). The only possible mechanism to account for this complexity in Neo-Darwinism is mutation. But mutations are errors in instructions. How could errors, loss of information, account for the existence of such an information-rich code?

2. Code Decryption

The DNA code needs translation, and in each cell there are some 15,000 sophisticated organelles or intra-cellular machines, called ribosomes, which translate the message into a protein. It is difficult to imagine how this could be accounted for by natural processes. How could a natural process produce the original information-rich code, somehow acquire and preserve the means to decode it, and also assemble the translator or decoder? It has taken ten years with some of the world’s largest super-computers for Celera Genomics merely to sequence the human genome - sparking the recent frenzy of gene patent applications from biotechnology firms wanting to find the genetic roots of diseases and their cures. Neo-Darwinism is powerless to explain how random chances could cycle through all the possibilities to break the code, remember it, and incorporate it into a functioning parallel decryption system. Only a super-intelligence could possibly account for the existence of such complex information, let alone possess the knowledge necessary to design the cell’s system for decrypting or unlocking it.

The problem can be illustrated by a simple code:

THE GENOME IS TOO DARNED COMPLICATED
TO EXPLAIN BY RANDOM MUTATIONS

A secret agent will have a numeric key to decode this message: 4, 7, 15, 20, 26, 31, 39, 51. By using those numbers to pick out the 4th, 7th, 15th . . . letters of the code, as follows:

THE GENOME IS TOO DARNED COMPLICATED
TO EXPLAIN BY RANDOM MUTATIONS

the agent will decrypt the message:

GOD DID IT

We have to explain here the production of the original message, the key to decode it, and the decoded message. We naturally assume that this is not the product of a random natural process, but that an intelligent being who devised the code also devised the means to decode it.

3. Cellular Machinery

In addition to the ribosomes, each cell has some 200 different editor and sub-editor chemical catalysts, called enzymes, which trigger the biochemical reactions. But these enzymes are manufactured by the same DNA code which they produce. So how could they have evolved by natural processes?

It is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. They have to exist before they can function. They can only exist if they have been manufactured. But they can only be manufactured by what they produce. The circularity problem of cell enzyme production is a good example of Michael Behe’s ‘irreducibly complex systems’, only they are immensely more complex than his mousetrap, with its five component parts (Darwin’s Black Box, pp. 39-46). These enzymes, without which no living cell can function, must have been assembled or initiated as whole systems to get them functioning in the first place.

4. Fuel Production

No machinery can work without fuel. The power stations of the cell are the mitochondria, which provide the energy for every organelle in the cell, and indeed for all life and movement in every kind of organism. The mitochondria supply fuel in two grades: low and high octane, or ADP and ATP respectively (for adenosine diphosphate and adenosine triphosphate). The supply of these grades is controlled by control switches, to save the ribosome machinery from burning out if they ran on high octane all the time. Each mitochondrion is as complex as an independently-operated and fully-automated oil refinery. It has its own DNA, separate from the cell’s master DNA already mentioned. To produce fuel, the raw materials have to go through six successive refining processes.

Mitochondria are also difficult to account for, because of their dependence on their fuel supply. As items of cell machinery, they need fuel to run on. But how did they get their first fuel before they had manufactured a supply? Professor Malcolm Dixon, former head of the Enzyme Biology Department at Cambridge University, in one of the earliest studies of this problem, said that ‘It is like trying to build a machine-tool factory without machine tools to build it.’ (quoted by Victor Pearce, Who Was Adam? [Exeter, Paternoster, 1969], p. 116). Because of this circularity, like enzymes, there is no way of accounting for their existence without a Creator. Mitochondria join the other problematic units of intracellular complexity in resisting the materialist’s endeavour to account for the appearance of life by solely naturalistic means.

 

The Word of Life

These modern discoveries in genetics and microbiology have remarkable anticipations in the Bible:

1. God’s Means of Creation

In Genesis 1 God is represented as bringing the universe and life into existence by a series of commands. Speech is God’s means of creation. Other biblical passages also link the creation of the universe and the origin of life with God’s speech or word (eg. Psalm 33:6 & 9, John 1:1-4).

This corresponds with the discovery by molecular biology and genetics that DNA is a biological code or language, a highly complex information system. Moreover, the discovery that there is only one form of DNA in all living organisms, from the humblest bacteria to the highest humans, is only explicable on the hypothesis of a single rather than a multiple origin of life, and accords with the biblical attribution of all life to a single Creator.

‘The common feature of all living organisms is the DNA code,’ says Victor Pearce. ‘As there is only one language used in it, the instructions must come from one source, and as the instructions for the simplest viable unit of life are complex, that source must be an adequate one with an intelligence equal to that required to invent a computer-automated factory. This code has been added to in the same grammar and vocabulary down - presumably - 4,000 million years, therefore the Being who is the source of that language must be constant and unchanging - not like those who speak human language, for a family of languages will change so much over the centuries that nations of common origin cannot understand one another.’ (Who Was Adam?, pp. 127-8).

2. God’s Book of Humanity

In the Biblical passage which is the locus classicus for the origin of human life as the special creation of a personal Creator, the human genome is specifically referred to. Psalm 139:13-16 says:

‘For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made . . . .
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.’

Our formation as a unique human being in our mother’s womb was encoded beforehand in text form, as in a book. What occurs in the growth of each human individual was ‘written before it came to be’ - including the timing of the various developmental stages from the womb, through puberty, to the onset of aging. Modern information theory can measure and quantify the amount of information in a system, whether a computer programme or file, or the DNA of a living organism. It takes the entire 3.4 billion byte human genome, the Creator’s ‘Instruction Book of Humanity’, to tell each cell how to make a human being. Truly, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’

3. God’s Agent of Redemption

In the passage that confounded Faust, John 1:1-4, we learn that all life owes its existence to the Word (Logos), through whom all things were made:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.’

The Greek term logos, here translated ‘word’, also means ‘reason’ or ‘plan’. John applies it to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Godhead, linking the Hebrew emphasis on God’s creation and self-revelation by means of his word, with the Greek understanding of the logos as the unifying principle and source of intelligibility in the universe. John views the Logos as the cause of all that exists, the origin of all life, and the basis of human consciousness, ‘the true light that gives light to everyone’ (John 1:9). Transcending the creation as its Creator, the Logos entered his creation and took residence within it, to become its Saviour. The one who was ‘with God in the beginning’ (John 1:2) ‘came to that which was his own’ (1:11), where he ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (1:14).

Early Christian theology took up the concept of the logos to demonstrate the universal significance of Jesus Christ, as the agent of both creation and redemption. Jesus is divine and human; he reveals God the Creator in human form. He is qualified to be the Saviour of all human beings, not merely because of his exemplary human life or moral character, but because he is God’s true self-expression in human form. We view him as the Saviour of humanity, not because of any mythological idealising of his significance, but because he is the Creator of all humankind, genuinely able to represent each and every human being and atone for our misdeeds.

Athanasius wrote in the early 4th century AD, ‘the renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word (Logos) who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the one Father has employed the same agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it at the first.’ (On the Incarnation, 1). As we could now say with the benefit of modern genetics, the same Word who encoded the DNA of all life in the beginning by his instruction, became encoded in the DNA of the human Jesus by his incarnation. That is how the Creator of the universe could become its Saviour.

 

© 2000, St Albans Presbyterian Church