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The Omphalos Hypothesis

Today we're going to explore one of the deep theological questions: Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?

The young-earth creationist organization Answers in Genesis says no:

Why? Because your belly-button (navel), or tummy-button as it’s sometimes called, is a sign that you were once attached to your mother. You depended on that life-line—the umbilical cord—for your nourishment from her body as you developed inside her.

But our first parents, Adam and Eve, didn’t develop that way. I believe that God would not have planted on them a false indication that they had developed in a mother’s womb.

A website called Creation Tips agrees, using much the same argument:

Without wasting time, the answer is simple: No, Adam and Eve did not have belly buttons. Here is why:

Your belly-button, or navel (or tummy button as some people call it), is evidence that you had a mother.…

Adam and Eve, as the first man and woman, had no mother.

But in the 19th century, one prominent scholar argued otherwise. Philip Henry Gosse was a marine biologist and a devout Christian. Had Gosse lived in an earlier time, he would have been very comfortable with the calculations of 17th century bishop James Ussher, who determined that the universe was created on October 23, 4004 BC.

In Gosse's day, however, geologists were increasingly questioning the validity of Ussher's calculations—not because they disagreed with his theology. Most of the early geologists were creationists. But as they dug into layer upon layer of stratified earth, they began to realize that the richness of the geological record was not compatible with a flatly literal reading of the book of Genesis. The day-age and gap hypotheses were two popular ways to reconcile geology with scripture.

Gosse was not convinced. In his 1857 book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (available online at Project Gutenberg), Gosse argued that Usser's calculations were accurate after all, and that the apparent age of the earth was only that—apparent.

Gosse, drawing on the classic chicken-and-egg problem, states, "The course of nature is a circle." He notes that, for any stage of existence, there was a previous stage:

Here is in my garden a scarlet runner. It is a slender twining stem some three feet long, beset with leaves, with a growing bud at one end, and with the other inserted in the earth. What was it a month ago? A tiny shoot protruding from between two thick fleshy leaves scarcely raised above the ground. A month before that? The thick fleshy leaves were two oval cotyledons, closely appressed face to face, with the minute plumule[Pg 114] between them, the whole enclosed in an unbroken, tightly-fitting, spotted, leathery coat. It was a bean, a seed.

Was this the commencement of its existence? O no! Six months earlier still it was snugly lying, with several others like itself, in a green fleshy pod, to the interior of which it was organically attached. A month before that, this same pod with its contents was the centre of a scarlet butterfly-like flower, the bottom of its pistil, within which, if you had split it open, you would have discerned the tiny beans, whose history we are tracing backwards, each imbedded in the soft green tissue, but no bigger than the eye of a cambric needle.

But where was this flower? It was one of many that glowed on my garden wall all through last summer; each cluster springing as a bud from a slender twining stem, which was the exact counterpart of that with which we commenced this little life-history.

And this earlier stem,—what of it? It too had been a shoot, a pair of cotyledons with a plumule, a seed, an integral part of a carpel, which was a part of an earlier flower, that expanded from an earlier bud, that grew out of an earlier stem, that had been a still earlier seed, that had been—and backward, ad infinitum, for aught that I can perceive.

Nowhere on the circle can we point to a state and declare it the plant's original state.

Gosse believed the omphalos hypothesis to be an elegant solution to overcome the discrepancies between nature and the Bible. It lets geologists continue their research without bothering about conflicts with Scripture, and it allows theologians to interpret Scripture without reference to the observed history of the earth.

But Gosse's hypothesis has not won favor among theologians or scientists. Rationalists have satirized it with a hypothesis they call Last Thursdayism, the idea that the universe was created last Thursday, and all evidence of an older world (including our memories) were planted as part of that creation. The point is, omphalos has no usefulness as a scientific hypothesis, because it's impossible to measure its truth claims.

Many theologians (including those at Answers in Genesis) reject the omphalos hypothesis as well, because it implies that the creator has planted deceptive evidence. There is no motive for God to have placed fossils in the ground of a brand-new earth, unless God wanted to trick people into believing the earth was much older.

Gosse's hypothesis, intended to reconcile science and faith, ultimately strained their relationship even further. Gosse believed he had found a solution that could please all sides, but he ended up pleasing no one.

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