The book of Genesis gives a vivid picture of creation. God is like a workman, constructing the universe over a period of six days, then resting on the Sabbath. There is a beautiful garden, trees with strange properties, the first two human beings, an evil serpent, an angel to guard the entrance after the couple have been cast out as punishment for eating forbidden fruit.
Clearly there is a wealth of symbolism in the account but there is also true history. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in 1909, declared that the first three chapters of Genesis contain true history, basing this answer on the testimony of both the Old and New Testaments, the almost unanimous opinion of the Fathers of the Church, and "the traditional view which - transmitted also by the Jewish people - has always been held by the Church" that these chapters contain the narrative of things that actually happened (see AAS, 1909, 567-569).
Two extremes need to be avoided in biblical interpretation, whether in Genesis or elsewhere: taking things too literally or not taking them literally enough. Those who do the former are labelled fundamentalists, but we should recognise that they want to be faithful to the fundamentals of Christianity, whereas those who too easily dismiss the literal sense of a passage will often deny key doctrines - for instance, some even see the Resurrection of Christ as not involving the body that was buried in the tomb.
In conversation with a Baptist student for the ministry, I once interpreted a Bible passage in a non-literal sense, and he suggested that if we do that with this particular text, we will not know where to stop. I can sympathise with his difficulty, for he didn't accept a Church that can guide us infallibly. But given a Magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit, we can stay on the right path.
With that in mind, what things in the Genesis creation accounts must be accepted as having happened, and what is, or may be, only symbolism? First let us look at a number of things in the first category.
Genesis says God created the heavens and the earth. This means that he willed the world to exist and it came into being from nothing. It depended on his infinite will, not on any previously existing matter - for there was none. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 293) quotes the words of Vatican I that God, "from the beginning of time made out of nothing both orders of creation, the spiritual and the corporeal."
That teaching has profound consequences for our spiritual lives because it shows our utter dependence on God. Once things got into existence they didn't become independent of their Creator: each being, including ourselves, depends as utterly on the divine will holding it in existence from moment to moment as creation did in its first instant (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 301.) A realisation of this lets us see more profoundly the truth of St Paul's words: "What have you that you have not received and if you have received why do you glory as though you had not received?" I Cor 4:7).
It is a fact is that Adam and Eve were real individuals. They are not symbolic figures simply standing for early humanity. Pope Pius XII expressed the constant belief of the Church when he rejected the idea that Adam was not an individual man but only a name given to some group of our ancestors. He declared: "Original sin is the result of sin committed, in actual historical fact, by an individual man named Adam" (Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 37).
It is certain that Satan tempted our first parents to commit the first sin. St John, in the Apocalypse, writes of "that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world" (Rev 12:9). He is the leader of the fallen angels, those purely spiritual beings who rebelled against God and were cast into hell. (For the fallen angels and their tempting of the human race, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 391ff.)
After Adam and Eve sinned, work became laborious, they suffered and would eventually die. These afflictions flowed from their fall from God's grace. The Catechism recalls: "By the radiance of this grace, all dimensions of man's life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die" (n. 376).
But Adam and Eve lost this grace when they sinned. "The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed, the control of the soul's spiritual faculties over the body is shattered" (n. 400).
God had warned our first parents that they would die if they ate the forbidden fruit. We don't know concretely what the sin was (eating fruit from a tree may be mere symbolism), but we do know that physical death was a consequence - people would not have died had Adam and Eve remained faithful to God's command. Vatican II speaks of "bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned" ( Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, n. 18).
In a sense death is natural, for the body, from its very nature, is vulnerable to destruction, but God would have given us the preternatural gift of bodily immortality had Adam not sinned. Other preternatural gifts were lost too: we would have had clearer understanding, a stronger will, control over our passions.
Seeing the present state of human nature we may be tempted to think God was unfair to us, for it was Adam, not us, who committed original sin. As the saying goes: Adam ate the apple and we get the stomach ache. But we need to realise that the gifts just mentioned are not owed to human nature since they would have been something over and above the natural.
Most serious of all, sanctifying grace was lost by original sin. It is this grace which, infused into the soul by God, gives us a share in his own divine life. It raises us to a new level of being, making us capable of seeing him face to face in heaven. The essence of original sin in us consists in the privation of that share in the divine life.
Genesis depicts the fall and its consequences in terms of Adam and Eve's attempts to hide from God, their expulsion from the garden, and their struggle to survive in a hostile world.
Did God really create the world in six days? Does the Bible imply that the universe began about six thousand years ago? Is evolution ruled out by Scripture?
For many centuries it was generally thought that God performed the work of creation over a period of six twenty-four hour days, although the great St Augustine of Hippo disagreed. Today Scripture scholars in general dismiss that interpretation, for there is now a better understanding of the genres used in ancient writings. The Catholic Magisterium leaves the question open: the Pontifical Biblical Commission on 30 June 1909 stated that the Hebrew word yom (day) when used to describe the six days of creation may be taken either for the natural day or for an indefinite period of time.
Adding up the ages of the Patriarchs as given in Genesis, and taking the six days literally, it was thought until recent times that the world was created about 4,000 years before Christ. Now there is not only a better understanding of the literary forms used in Scripture but scientific evidence that the universe is very old.
The Church hasn't condemned the view that the Patriarchs lived the great ages ascribed to them in Genesis, but few Catholic scholars would defend that view. Those life spans are seen as symbolic - a judgment supported by today's better understanding of ancient modes of writing.
What of evolution? In particular, did the first man evolve from apelike creatures? In his 1950 encyclical Humani Genesis Pope Pius XII gave guidelines about this. He emphasised that caution must be exercised here, but allowed for the possibility of evolution in regard to the human body, but not of the soul: "[T]he Catholic Faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God" (n. 36).
Pope John Paul II spoke on the question of evolution in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996. He reaffirmed the doctrine that man's spiritual soul is immediately created by God. But he went further than Pius XII by saying that "new knowledge has emerged that shows the theory of evolution to be more than a hypothesis" (n. 4).
That last statement is Pope John Paul's assessment of the scientific evidence; it is not a statement binding on Catholics. But those Catholics who say that theistic evolution, in any form, is against Catholic teaching, are certainly wrong. Were they right this would mean the Popes have told us we are free to believe something which is, in fact, contrary to God's Revelation.
If Adam's body did originate through evolution, it is nevertheless certain that he had high intelligence, for otherwise he would have lacked the intellectual maturity to be guilty of the sin on which the future of the human race depended.
"Moses wasn't there, so we don't know what happened in the beginning." That sceptical attitude is common, but it overlooks something. God was there, and he has revealed truths about the beginning. He is the principal author of all Scripture, inspiring the human authors to write what he wanted written and preserving them from error.
As Vatican II says: "Sacred Scripture is the Word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the Divine Spirit, while Sacred Tradition takes the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the apostles and hands it on to their successors in its full purity" ( Dei Verbum, n. 9).
When disputes arise about the meaning of passages of Scripture, Sacred Tradition guides the Church to the true meaning, while both Scripture and Tradition are authentically interpreted by the Church's Magisterium or teaching authority. "It is clear, therefore, that Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church, in accordance with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others" ( Dei Verbum, n. 10).
The Judeo-Christian religion is based firmly in history, for God reveals himself through actual events. There was a real first human couple, they committed a sin when tempted by a real fallen angel called Satan, with the result that real supernatural and preternatural gifts from God were lost.
God promised to send a Redeemer who would crush the head of the serpent, a promise fulfilled thousands (or hundreds of thousands?) of years later when the second Person of the Blessed Trinity became man and worked as a carpenter in Galilee, before dying on a cross and literally rising to life again in the same human body.
A clear realisation that these are actual events in human history will make our outlook more realistic and strengthen our faith.
John Young has taught philosophy in fo ur seminaries and to adult education groups. He has had numerous articles published on philosophy, theology and economics, and written several books on these topics. His latest, The Scope of Philosophy (Gracewing, $20.00) is available from Freedom Publishing.