Why Academic Biblical Scholars Must Fight Creationism

The time since that debate has allowed me to reflect on the whole question of whether biblical scholars should debate creationists, and whether debates are effective means to educate laypersons. My response remains today as it was then: Academic biblical scholars are the best persons to debate creationists. The reason is simple. The Achilles’ Heel of creationism is its biblical illiteracy, and not just its scientific illiteracy.

See Also:

The New Holocaust Denialists: The Need for a Metacriticism of Biblical Scholarship

Slavery, Abolitionism and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship: Reflections about Ethical Deflections

In Praise of Biblical Illiteracy

By Hector Avalos
Iowa State University
July 2015

Months before the famous debate on February 4, 2014 between creationist Ken Ham, and science educator Bill Nye, I agreed to a debate with another creationist that took place on February 16, 2014 in a High School in Indianola, Iowa.[1]

The debate was with Juan Valdes, a minister from Miami who is completing a doctoral degree in Christian apologetics through Southern Evangelical Seminary. I have taken a special interest in the subject of creationism because of my formal training in both anthropology, the home of the study of human evolution, and the Hebrew Bible.

By many accounts, including that of other creationists, Valdes performed poorly, especially as he admitted that he could not argue for his interpretation of Genesis on the basis of biblical Hebrew or other Near Eastern languages.[2]

The time since that debate has allowed me to reflect on the whole question of whether biblical scholars should debate creationists, and whether debates are effective means to educate laypersons. My response remains today as it was then: Academic biblical scholars are the best persons to debate creationists. The reason is simple. The Achilles’ Heel of creationism is its biblical illiteracy, and not just its scientific illiteracy.

True enough, scientists have done an excellent job in pointing the scientific flaws in creationism. However, the problem is that scientists usually don’t have enough knowledge of biblical scholarship to address or defeat some of the arguments creationists use to harmonize the Bible with science.

Scientists are not trained to recognize how creationists are distorting biblical texts. Thus, Jerry Coyne’s Faith v. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (2015) does an excellent job of explaining scientific theory and methods, but one will not find any discussion of how most creationists are misreading Genesis 1-3.

Creationists in the pews tend to shrug off arguments about DNA, radioactive dating, and other technical subjects because they are not familiar with them. But one need not even go into these scientific intricacies if the Bible does not even say what creationists claim.

For example, most Bible readers today don’t realize that the Bible speaks of a heaven made of a solid material or a dome in Genesis 1. English translations often obscure that fact. Therefore, it will take a biblical scholar to explain that the Hebrew version of Genesis has a sky that is made of a metallic or solid material.[3]

It is much more obvious to the average creationist that the sky is not made out of a solid material. On the other hand, the decay of isotopes over thousands or millions of years is not so easily demonstrated for the average layperson.

I have not yet seen a debate where a scientist can explain that the creation of light in Genesis 1 is not a reference to the Big Bang. Indeed, even Robert Jastrow, a famous astronomer, adopts this erroneous analogy in God and the Astronomers: “The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.”[4]

Jastrow is completely unaware that a good case can be made, on the basis of Hebrew grammar, that water preceded the light in Genesis 1:1-3 (cf. 2 Peter 3:5).[5] The text does not tell us where the water came from because the story begins with a chaotic dark mass of water already there. Indeed, Genesis 1 does not say that the water was created at all. That is an understanding reflected in, among other translations, the Common English Bible, New Revised Standard Version (as a footnote), and the New Jewish Publication Society version.

That sequence would not be compatible with the Big Bang, wherein water is a comparatively late development. On the other hand, the primal nature of water in Genesis is a concept shared with other creation stories in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece (e.g., Thales).

Creationism is principally an authority-based belief system. Its authority rests on the Bible. Creationists look upon their own ministers/theologians as the best interpreters of Genesis. To undermine creationism, therefore, it is important to expose how poorly these creationists understand the Bible and its Near Eastern context.

There are a few biblical scholars who have taken up such a task in their publications, and one I can mention is Peter Enns, author of The Evolution of Adam: What The Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (2012). The BioLogos organization consists of Christians, some of whom are biblical scholars who embrace evolution, and also engage in discussions with creationist Christians.[6]

Some creationists I know were certainly disappointed that Valdes did not know the Bible as well as his followers thought he did. Valdes could not tell his creationist audience why his translation of Genesis 1 was better on the basis of the Hebrew grammar and syntax. Some creationists were appalled that one of their own did not know his Bible better than a biblical scholar who supports evolution. That is why the fight against creationism must be led by academic biblical scholars.

But even if we can agree that academic biblical scholars are better at debating creationists, the question remains as to whether there should be public debates at all. Therefore, let me address some of the most common objections to public debates.

There is No Need to Debate Creationism

Creationism is simply not worth the time, according to many scholars or advocates of evolution.[7] It is like arguing against flat-earthers, who mostly have died out by the progress of science. In fact, we actually legitimize creationism, which also will die if left alone. I have found this position to be particularly common among scholars in foreign countries where creationism is moribund.

Nothing could be further from the truth in America. Anyone who keeps track of polls knows that belief in creationism does not go away by being left alone. According to a Gallup Report from 2014: “More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades.”[8]

Despite the defeat of creationism in our courts, creationism still thrives in our schools. That is because teachers, especially in High Schools, don’t want all the problems (e.g., complaints from creationist parents) that come with teaching evolution. The reticence of many educators to explain evolution may be a great factor in retaining this level of scientific illiteracy in the general populace.

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer of the Department of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University conducted a study of the teaching of evolution in High Schools, and the results were not very encouraging. Berkman and Plutzer state: “We estimate that 28% of all biology teachers consistently implement the major recommendations and conclusions of the National Research Council...At the opposite extreme are 13% of the teachers surveyed who explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design by spending at least 1 hour of class time presenting it in a positive light (an additional 5% of teachers report that they endorse creationism in passing or when answering student questions).”[9]

One reason that creationism continues to thrive in America is precisely because those most skilled at explaining its flaws have remained silent. Biblical scholars need to be more vocal in their local communities, and in the larger media, in explaining that the creation stories of Genesis are being misunderstood by creationists.

Debates will never convince anyone

Both empirical evidence and history shows this to be wrong or questionable. One cannot easily explain the astounding victory of gay rights in the United States without admitting that debates played a factor. The main debates in the nationwide legalization of gay rights were held in the Supreme Court of the United States, where lawyers eventually made a successful case in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that The Fourteenth Amendment granted homosexuals the right to marry. Lawyers just needed to convince 5 out of the 9 justices to enact a new national policy.

Debate has been an integral part of how all science progresses. This was the case with the Ptolemaic versus Copernican models of our solar system or the Germ theory of disease. A similar observation obtains in the history of biblical scholarship.

Even those that espouse more relativistic views of science admit that debate and paradigm shifts are intertwined within the field. As Thomas Kuhn observed in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “[t]he transition from Newtonian to quantum mechanics evoked many debates about the nature and standards of physics, some of which still continue.”[10]

While debates in science and humanities usually begin in written form in the elite circles of scholars and philosophers, their contents and/or results eventually need to be transmitted to the masses in a form they can understand. It is important to remember that the target audience in debates is never the people convinced on either side. Die-hard creationists probably will never be convinced, and one does not need to convince those who already believe in evolution.

However, there is a substantial crowd in the middle, and it is that middle of the spectrum that is the target audience. Indeed, it is at such debates that a pro-evolution biblical scholars will encounter the largest pool of creationists that will ever listen to them. A creationist audience may hear arguments that they never would hear in churches.

Some of these creationists may also be in the middle despite their professed stance. More importantly, in the age of YouTube, one is no longer limited to educating the live audience in the debate, which was in the hundreds in my case. Although not nearly as well-known as the Ham-Nye debate, the corresponding YouTube video of the Iowa debate has nearly 5,000 views.

Empirically, one does find ambiguity about how effective public debates have been. Some researchers say political debates don’t really change many minds based on polls taken after presidential debates.[11] But it is also important to realize that you don’t need to convince everyone in a debate. You just need to convince enough people to make a difference (as in Supreme Court cases).

Over the years, I have had a number of debates with apologists such as William Lane Craig and Rubel Shelley. I often have students write optional responses that are not graded in order to elicit honest appraisals. I would say that about 20-30% of those who were in the middle reported a change of side or more doubts about their past position. I’ve seen debates have effect years after people witness them. People that have attended a debate have written me years later to tell me that the debate may not have convinced them at the time, but it raised enough questions that compelled them to investigate further and change their minds later.

In that sense, public debating is part of the larger enterprise we call “education.” Imparting correct information is a principal objective of a debate. If one objects that imparting information will not help change anyone’s mind, then this undermines a principal reason for education. Why educate people at all if imparting information has no benefit?

Debates are often poorly done

This is true. Debates often develop a bad reputation not so much because the notion of debating is itself flawed, but because the debaters are not always the best. Debating, like many other endeavors, is a craft. Some do it well, and some don’t. It’s no different from teaching. Some do it well, and some don’t.

Bad debates are simply an argument for preparing better debaters, and not for giving up on debating itself. My High School had a class on debating, and it was expected that you would be using that skill throughout your life.

Good debates can take months of preparation, and should be pursued like any other substantial scholarly project. For the Valdes debate, I had to read everything I could find written by him. I had to listen to hours of his podcasts and annotate them patiently in order to ensure that I understood his position and to catalogue the number of factual errors about science and the Bible that he routinely made. Updating my basic knowledge of anthropology, paleontology, and a few other related subjects took another large segment of time.

Over five hundred PowerPoint slides were prepared even if not all were used (but were there in case needed), for the debate. There were some 119 rehearsals that encompassed about a dozen prepared alternate presentations, depending on what he said in the segments allotted to him. We are talking about 200-250 hours of work.

Activism should not be part of biblical studies

I have advocated a more activist stance for biblical scholarship because beliefs have consequences. I have addressed this argument more thoroughly in other venues, such as The End of Biblical Studies (2007). I argue therein that academic biblical studies is largely irrelevant for the public.

The remedy for irrelevance is something suggested by Noam Chomsky, who argued cogently during the Vietnam War that “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak truth and to expose lies.”[12] Similarly, Eric Lott has made a case for renewing past roles of public intellectuals in addressing social injustices.[13]

However, the fact that public universities are funded by tax payers often encourages the view that scholars must be sympathetic or neutral toward religion. Religions must be understood but not criticized. Any research indicating that religion is injurious or that particular religious beliefs are deleterious can bring a response that universities, as publicly-funded institutions, cannot seek to undermine the faith of constituents.

Otherwise, the notion of academic responsibility has not been consistent from field to field. Professors in the sciences routinely are expected to help solve problems in society, whether these be finding a new medication for cancer or learning how to suppress odor produced by swine containment facilities.

It is true that there have been efforts to engage in what is called “activist” scholarship or “praxis” in the humanities. This sometimes means that advocates of some sort of liberation theology see their obligations, as scholars, of putting their beliefs into practice. In South Africa, there have been some vocal theoreticians of this approach when apartheid ruled. For example, Gregory Baum says, “religious studies, and the human sciences in general, should not only aim at understanding reality, but also at transforming it.”[14]

In truth, neutrality does not and cannot exist in the academic study of religion. Even a pluralistic approach is not neutral for those who don’t think that anything but their religion should be taught.

Science certainly is not neutral toward religious beliefs. Despite the complaints of creationists, college science departments have very little problem teaching evolution as a fact. Evolution certainly undermines Christian literalistic understandings of Genesis, but those understandings are either held not to be suitable understandings of Christianity, or they have so little power that they can be ignored.

Nor do universities have a problem teaching a heliocentric model of solar system even if a few constituents still think it undermines their religious belief. Heliocentrism is held to be so obvious that a religious understanding may be excluded as legitimate. The firm results of empirico-rationalist science are held to take precedence over offending religious beliefs.

The same should apply to creationism. It should be refuted out of existence in our society just as academics have sought to do with the idea of the demonic origin of illnesses or the claim that astrology works.


The belief that the origins and future of our world are scientifically represented in the Bible has enormous implications for how we deal with everything from climate change to the practical medical applications of evolutionary biology. Biblical scholars are the best equipped experts to lead the fight on creationism, alongside their colleagues in the natural sciences. Scholarly activism acknowledges that beliefs have consequences. It is, therefore, a moral duty to share the results of biblical scholarship about the Bible’s view of creation and cosmology within the broader society. One can think of it as outreach or a service to public education.

This stance should be no more controversial than the activism we encounter in sciences. If a scientist discovers a new vaccine that could heal millions of people, then that would certainly cause that researcher to be an activists on behalf of vaccinating those who are eligible for that vaccine.

If scientific literacy matters, then certainly biblical scholars should be willing to explain to the public why using the Bible as a scientific authority is not the best way to enact legal or social policies involving science.

Scholarly activism means writing op-ed pieces and providing relevant information about varied biblical interpretations in local school board meetings where creationism threatens to become part of the science curriculum. It means engaging with politicians who have the power to enact legislation that involves conflicts between religious and scientific views.[15] And, if they are willing and able, academic biblical scholars should debate creationists in public forums.



[1] For video of the debate, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPD9bUE7NAU. The debate begins at 1:23:30.

[2] See, for example, the comments of Dr. Jim Linville, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Lethbridge, in Canada:

[3] For example, see

[4] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: Warner Books, 1978), 14.

[5] On translating Genesis 1:1-3, see Harry M. Orlinsky, “The Plain Meaning of Genesis 1:1–3,” Biblical Archaeologist 46 (December 1983): 207–209.

[6] See http://biologos.org/about.

[7] For an example, see http://chatpilot-godisamyth.blogspot.com/2014/02/evolution-vs-creationi….

[8] See

[9] Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom,” Science 331, no. 6016 (28 January 2011): 404-405. See further, M. B. Berkman, E. Plutzer , Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2010).

[10] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd enlarged edition; Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1970), 48.

[11] See:

[12] Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 60. For other factors in the decline of public intellectuals, see Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[13] Eric Lott, The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

[14] Gregory Baum, “Religious Studies and Theology,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 70 (1990):4-5. Cited in Donald Wiebe, The Politics of Religious Studies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 130.

[15] See further Mark Chancey, “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses,” Religion & Education 34 (2007): 28-47.

Comments (15)

The normal views of the world as flat with columnar support does not jibe with Talmudic sources.
Only a few Jewish scribes held that view since one scripture uses the Hebrew word sphere, that we mistranslate as circle. All the rest take one of four beliefs.
1) The earth is flat and is resting on some sort of foundation.

2) The earth is flat but is floating in the air or nothingness.

3) The earth is round but its "bottom" half is immersed in water.

4) The earth is round and both sides are inhabitable.
For an in-http://www.aishdas.org/toratemet/en_shape.html depth JEWISH analysis of these JEWISH scriptures, follow this link.

#1 - Eric Schramm - 07/23/2015 - 13:38

Very nicely stated. Thank you for your time and dedication; especially that spent in preparation for your debates.

I had not previously considered confronting creationism from your particular biblical scholarship-based approach. To date, I've relied on the Bible to argue against literal biblical interpretations by appealing more to empathy; “Would we really put people to death for some of relatively minor offense given in the Old Testament?” and such arguments. However, I now appreciate your more academic approach. It may not drive to people’s sense of sympathy as much, but it does drive home the point directly and objectively.

Thank you, again.

#2 - Christopher Hurst - 07/23/2015 - 23:25

Nice article, Hector. I don't think I would agree to take part in a formal debate but I do agree that biblical scholars should make themselves useful. The issue is, really not one that science should be left to deal with on their own.

#3 - Jim LInville - 07/24/2015 - 02:01

Certainly better-informed explanations of Genesis 1, such as bringing out the metallic vault over the earth, and the context of biblical creation accounts in ancient dialogue with other creation accounts, seem called for in evolution vs. creationism public debates, as your essay brings out. These add power to scientific arguments and the excitement and joy of problem-solving and speculation through the scientific method. I believe you raise an insightful point in referring to the delayed and cumulative effect on thoughtful people of such points over time. Rarely do people change lifelong views all at once, or if it seems so, such "tipping points" typically follow preparatory thinking or reflection. For ex-creationists this may take the form of reinterpretation of Genesis 1 (theistic evolution); maintenance of scriptural authority as a moral or spiritual guide while recognizing errors relative to history and culture (some biblical scholars); recentering of religious identity in terms other than written scriptures (personal religion, mysticism, Quakers, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and non-Christian options); secularization while maintaining traditions and attachments ("cultural Christians"); secularization while rejecting religious identity.

For what it is worth I wrote a chapter on the evolution vs. creationism issue at a fundamentalist college, which touches on some of the issues discussed in your essay, at http://www.scrollery.com/?page_id=241. I wish your debate had been available then. Your work in this area seems important in America where members of Congress and even recent presidents, with fingers on the nuclear button and executors of policies affecting the future of the earth, hold views so seriously out of keeping with scientific thinking as creationism.

#4 - Gregory Doudna - 07/25/2015 - 22:15

I have found that the collected writings of Paul Seely for example his article on the dome above the earth, to be especially helpful in this debate, http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/01-genesis/text/articles-books/seely-firmament-wtj.pdf

#5 - Jimpithecus - 07/27/2015 - 23:41

Most people believe that the problem is between the Bible and science. The is not true. The Fundamentalists and their literal interpretation of the Bible have "hijacked" Christianity. They have created an "iron cage" of belief without knowing, understanding or appreciating the scriptures. They do not read the scriptures in the Greek and Hebrew because it would shatter their cage. They can't live in the modern world because it is too threatening. They stand in the road like a frightened deer as the highlights shine upon them.

#6 - Steven Godby - 07/28/2015 - 00:26

Dear Jimpithecus,
I agree about Paul Seely, and I quote his comments here: http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-solid-sky-in-genesis-response-to.html

#7 - Hector Avalos - 07/28/2015 - 05:23

The Creationism 'debate' for most Christians has never been about Genesis 1-3 vs the physical reality of the formation of the Universe or Earth. It's about there being a Creator. Period. So they're massively uninterested in your arguments for good reason, not out of dedicated ignorance, as you imply. Biblical scholarship has its place, and its value, particularly as it reveals context otherwise washed out by time and translation. But disputing the underlying message of the book, unfortunately, is not one of them.

#8 - SaludoVencedores - 07/31/2015 - 02:57

Dear SaludoVencedores,
Thank you for your comments. Please answer some questions regarding these statements of yours: "The Creationism 'debate' for most Christians has never been about Genesis 1-3 vs the physical reality of the formation of the Universe or Earth. It's about there being a Creator. Period."

A. What empirical evidence do you have for your claims in the quotes I selected? For example, are there specific surveys you used to draw these conclusions? What historical evidence do you have that it has "NEVER" been about Genesis 1-3? What does "most Christians" mean (is it for the entire history of Christianity or only most Christians living today, etc.?)

B. Where do most Christians get the idea that there is a creator, if not Genesis 1-3 (though there are other passages, of course)?

C. Since "the creator" can be identified in many ways, are most Christians really content with there just being "a Creator"? Or would
they say that it does matter WHO the creator is?

#9 - Hector Avalos - 08/02/2015 - 21:07

I fully agree with your article. I have often watched these creationism debates on youtube with morbid interest - as if God would regard people like Mr Ham as His legitimate advocate on planet earth .
Scientific evidence actually means nothing to the likes of Mr Ham, nor does it mean anything to all the Christians who blindly believe the written word per se

#10 - Peter Bentley - 08/03/2015 - 17:21

I watched the debate in full, and frankly it was awful, on both sides .
If ever there a real debate on whether God exists I hope HE uses better advocates . In the meantime I think that God should "time out" Ken Ham and his ilk

#11 - Peter Bentley - 08/04/2015 - 19:23

I have always felt that dogmatism of creationists is actually rooted in Genesis 3. That is the key. The creation stories of Gen. 1-2 are merely the statement of intent leading up to Genesis 3. Fundamentalism, literalism and evangelicalism are are not predicated on Genesis 1-2, but rather on Genesis 3 - "Jesus died for your sins". Insisting on a 6,000 year-young Earth is only necessary as far as it then "proves" the "historicity" of Genesis 3. The corollary is true: if there were no Genesis 3 then there'd be no need for creationism.

#12 - Craig Morrison - 08/04/2015 - 20:00

From what I've read of creationist literature, Craig Martin is right. Christian YEC is tightly linked to salvation doctrines. The NT has Christ as the "New Adam" and a literal "Fall" is absolutely necessary for these Christians to explain the necessity of Christ's death. Yet, I think there is more to it. The objection to evolution is also the result of a fear of modernity, and secularity. I think it becomes a social boundary marker for some people, and provides a kind of empowerment through knowing "the truth."

#13 - Jim LInville - 08/05/2015 - 14:14

Excellent article, Dr. Avalos.

I agree with you and commenter Craig Morrison with respect to the prime importance of Genesis 1-3 in modern Creationism.

As you know, biblical descriptions of creation extend far beyond Genesis. In fact, I would say the chaoskampf myth in which Yahweh conquers the sea monster Leviathan/Rahab in order to create the world — a cultural parallel with the Marduk/Tiamat myth — is, in fact, the dominant view of creation in the Bible. And yet, I have never met a Creationist who tried to defend the literal truth of that view. Only Genesis 1-3 matters to these people, and lack of biblical knowledge certainly plays a role.

#14 - Paul Davidson - 08/08/2015 - 03:07

I have completed a 4 year research paper on evolution - and Jerry Coyne even was one among many experts who helped me with information thru correspondence besides the thousands of papers I read - I am now finishing a 4 year paper on creation - I like the idea of maintaining the integrity of scripture because Genesis is a highly integrated book and continues to be factually vindicated as archaeologists make new discoveries - it would be illogical to state that 99% of the bible is factual and the mere first 11 chapters are not true - goes against logic - plus there is proof - using scientific methods to prove the bible is in fact God's word - as one would expect if scripture is divine there would be some inductive proof of it - we now have it - just as the Jews had it when Jesus worked miracles among them - what undermines scripture to many is those first 11 chapters - yet logically they must be true if the rest is true - also there is now increasing evidence that Noah's ark is true - when you have several sources closely aligned for this event it indicates with greater confidence that the event happened - the trend is that the bible is continually vindicated - we just need to harmonize science and creation - it took the church 900 years to understand who Jesus is and formulate a series of statements and I suspect it is going to take some time on this point of creation and science as well - we just need to be fair - open minded - but above all not give in to our fears that scripture is not true - it is absolutely trustworthy - archaeology has already proved this and even secular historians agree but with a lot less conviction than religious ones - the ultimate outcome will be that scripture will be vindicated and the manner in which it is will be just mind-blowing and exceed all our expectations

#15 - david - 11/23/2016 - 08:12

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