From Faith in Hovind, to Understanding Science
By: Kristina Gidenko
A more condensed version of my story appears here: https://biologos.org/personal-stories/from-evidence-for-evolution-to-evidence-of-grace/ with links to the specific people and podcasts that I mentioned.
“Dear Dr. Kent Hovind,” I remember writing at the top of a letter I planned to send to inmate #06452-017 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Berlin, New Hampshire. You see, Hovind was jailed for fighting for the truth of the Bible. He told it how it was to non-believers; he beat countless evolutionist professors in debates. A force to be reckoned with, considering he had a PhD in Christian Education from Patriot University—a diploma mill, sure, but a PhD nonetheless. Which is why “they” in the government had to put him away. He was such a threat to the religion of evolution being taught in public schools—funded by you, the taxpayer—that he was “wrongfully” charged with tax evasion and given 10 years in prison, starting his sentence in 2007.
My 15-year-old self was pretty distraught at the news. On the bright side, I thought, he would start preaching in the prison and the truth of God would prevail. So, in 2008, I decided to write him a letter of encouragement to tell him just how much his ministry meant to me.
I come from a conservative, evangelical, most-likely fundamentalist church background where we're taught that the Bible is 100% accurate both historically and scientifically. Considering that I was born and raised in a small town in Ukraine and then immigrated to the States at the age of 7, we were a simple people and Biblical scholarship was not the strongest amongst our church leaders. My parents and grandparents lived under strict anti-religious Soviet rule where religious “propaganda” was illegal and religious establishments, especially non-orthodox ones, were heavily regulated. Hymnals, Christian literature, and even portions of scripture were painstakingly hand-copied to replace any confiscated by authorities, families were fined for taking their children to church services, and in the case of my parents and their believer peers, they were ridiculed in school by both teachers and students for being in a Baptist “sect.” Being a believer was hard back then, and they did the best they could to survive in that environment, mainly by sticking together and spending as much time in fellowship with each other as possible, resulting in an us-versus-them mentality.
This isolation from the outside world became even more pronounced when my family moved to the States and found not only similarly minded people, but also people who spoke our language. Church became our everything. Friendships and social events outside of the church body were seen as unnecessary or even harmful, and anything (even homework) that could take me away from a regular church activity was usually met with some kind of suspicion and a dissatisfaction that I was putting “earthly things” above God. This attitude wasn’t very strong, but it was enough to consistently remind me that to live is Christ; secular music/movies, education, and friendships with non-believers would only serve to take me away from him. While they weren’t all inherently bad, they weren’t all worth it. Best to stay away.
It was in this world that I was introduced to Dr. Kent Hovind. I was in 4th grade when I first listened to his lecture titled: “The Age of the Earth.” Unbeknownst to me then, his method was presenting the false dichotomy of "you can't be a Christian and believe the Big Bang or evolution." He put forth all sorts of straw man arguments and cherry-picked data to back his position that the earth was under 10,000 years old, that there was all sorts of confirmed evidence supporting the biblical historical and scientific narrative (specifically a 6 x 24-hour day creation and a world-wide flood), and that anyone who said otherwise was just “willingly ignorant,” a scoffer, and “ought to get their head checked.” The Bible said so. There was just one correct interpretation, of which Hovind was made aware and was now sharing with us, and that settled it.
Besides quoting the Bible with verses that seemed to be contextual (I never bothered to check), what made him even more believable was his PhD. “PhD.” A few months ago, I had the honour of reading parts of his dissertation. This is the opening (which, coincidentally, is almost word-for-word the greeting he uses for all of his seminars): "Hello, my name is Kent Hovind. I am a creation/science evangelist. I live in Pensacola, Florida. I have been a high school science teacher since 1976. I've been very active in the creation/evolution controversy for quite some time." Needless to say, fourth-grade Kristina thought that PhD meant "I'm very smart, you can trust me. Would a Christian ever lie?” Maybe it’s ok if the lying is for Jesus; people’s souls are on the line after all. So, this self-dubbed "Dr. Dino" left quite the impression on me and many people in my Slavic-Baptist-immigrant community. He laced his presentations with crude jokes (including a weird Freudian Slip I’ve never forgotten: “An article from National Pornographic, oops, I mean, Geographic”), and snide comments, which appealed to the less-educated and more gullible religious audience I was a part of. The DVDs he sold were not copyrighted in order to encourage copying—to spread the “truth.” They were conveniently translated to many languages, including my native Russian, so that even my parents and grandparents could hear about the "dangers of evolution," the New World Order, and the depopulation agenda being perpetrated by none other than the elites: all unnamed, but all with an agenda. This agenda was to brainwash our kids into believing the "religions" of evolution and atheism which have led to Humanism, Communism, Fascism, and Racism—all with capital letters. Even the tragic Columbine shooting was the result of teaching evolution in school, he said. The “philosophy of evolution” robs us of our morality; we are just animals with no value or purpose; therefore we can do whatever we want without consequence. Just look at the crimes committed by believers of evolution: so much innocent blood has been spilled in the slave trade, the Holocaust, and countless wars, “all products of believing in evolution,” concluded Hovind.
Oddly enough, the slave trade started around the 15th century and was abolished in 1807, but the theory of evolution only officially proposed in 1858 some 50 years later (if we’re lying, we’re lying for Jesus, remember?) We must stop this theory—apparently powerful enough to travel back in time and influence people, imagine what it could do to the future… Fear, delusion, and the appearance of authority: the recipe for keeping people in a box, excusing their hateful behavior towards anyone who thinks differently, and ultimately justifying the isolation of any individual who dares to arrive at an answer different than the one given by the only correct reading of scripture—worse if that answer influences a change in thinking.
Thus ended my love of scientific inquiry. I was curious, but I was more afraid of my curiosity leading me away from Jesus, so I memorized the rebuttals, the bad science, and went through school with a certainty that I knew all the answers, that my faith was secure—being built on these “truths,” and that everyone else was brainwashed (how sad). I could tell them where they were wrong, but Hovind said that Romans 1 says that non-believers know the truth but purposely suppress it, so they’d deny every “fact” that I presented anyways.
In fifth grade, I caught myself being swayed by my textbook making too much sense about geology. The evidence was so clear that I almost believed the Big Bang, but I quickly remembered that Adam and Eve would appear on Day 6 and they needed a fully grown, lush garden in a snap, not a hostile rocky earth that wouldn’t see its first plants until almost 4 billion years after “poofing” into existence, so again I watched the DVDs and remembered Hovind’s great advice to learn enough to pass the tests, but not enough to fall into the trap.
In ninth grade, I was thrilled to learn that my science teacher was a Christian! My happiness was short lived when Mr. Hall started showing us all the pictures he took of the rocks at the Grand Canyon and dared to say that it took millions of years to form the rock layers, and just as much time for the Colorado River to carve out the canyon itself. Didn’t he know that the Flood laid down all of those layers about 4,000 years ago? I wasn’t sure of his salvation status or his credentials after this, so I decided to call him out, as persuaded by Hovind’s teaching. Part of me felt so proud because I would have a story to share with my family and youth group about how I stood up to my teacher and shared my faith, just like in the Christian movies. Also, luckily for me, I had enough sense to speak to him after the lesson where others couldn’t really hear us—otherwise this memory would be that much more embarrassing. I fired all of my rebuttals and bad science at him while he patiently listened and graciously answered to my arguments with real science. My certainty and faith were on the line, so I saved the best tactic I learned from Hovind for last: I asked Mr. Hall how he could possibly be a Christian while knowingly going against the Bible and then spreading those lies as a teacher. He should be using his position to fight for truth, not compromising! Again, in humility and grace, Mr. Hall told me that there are Christians who think differently, and even understand the Bible differently, but are still believers because the age of the earth was not a salvation issue—it wasn’t actually an issue at all. Admittedly, I was confused by his words and his reaction. I tried to dismiss the whole thing, but his kindness was something I could never forget. He even sent me an Easter card in the mail a few years later. I really need to track him down and apologize.
After high school, Hovind was still in jail, so there wasn’t much happening on his end, and while I did go to see a creation vs. evolution presentation by his son Eric, it was word for word Kent’s presentation, down to the jokes and insults. I left wondering why they don’t have any new material or new creationist discoveries. Isn’t science dynamic and constantly being updated? Why not creation science, after all, given that it was the true science? I became quite lax in my defense of a young earth after that. So much so that I wasn’t really interested in watching the 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye debate, quite possibly the most cringey debate in the history of humanity. I didn’t go to university because of the cost and time needed to study. Why was time a factor in my decision? Because I’m a woman, so my Biblical calling—if you will—is to be a wife and mother. What’s the point of a degree if I’m going to get married young and sit at home with the babies? This sentiment was something I heard many times from members of my community, so I accepted it as the way things should be. Besides, I was still scared of learning something that could potentially turn me into an “Evolutionist,” which would mean that I can’t be a Christian. Even more than that, if the Big Bang and Evolutionary theory are true, then God is a liar and the Bible cannot be trusted. Mr. Hall said that it’s not a salvation issue, but everything I’ve been taught has implied that it is.
Speaking of babies, fast forward to 2017, when I became a mom, or “Mimi” as my son calls me. Given the mistrust and misunderstanding of science in my community, the question of vaccines came up. Being completely ignorant and misinformed, I was against vaccines—more specifically, I was terrified of them. This fear was driven by personal testimonies of friends of friends whose kids developed something or other after the shots and then were cured when they stopped vaccinating. Though most of these conditions were never evaluated by a doctor or officially diagnosed, what mattered is that the moms knew what their child suffered from, they knew it was the vaccine—despite any research stating otherwise, and they knew that stopping the vaccines is what healed the child. End of story. And honestly, it was good enough for me—until my sister-in-law graciously explained how vaccine science works. She explained that claims of harm are taken very seriously by public health officials and vaccine developers alike, prompting extensive, exhaustive research and re-testing to make sure the benefits still far outweighed the risks. She quieted my fear, and made me understand that by vaccinating, I am actually loving my neighbor and contributing to the overall health of my community, my child included.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7)
My curiosity was piqued. I started consuming scholarly articles about vaccines, and even tried my hand at reading medical papers, attempting to learn how these cool things worked. Limited to the topic of vaccines, I became science obsessed. I joined Facebook science groups, shared my discoveries with family and friends, and even attempted to test my knowledge by joining in “discussions” in the comment section of vaccine posts (never a good idea). I loved how systematic and unbiased data was. Even more, I loved how it made me feel smart, not in an arrogant way like before, when I memorized all of the facts of young earth creationism just to spew them out onto my unsuspecting opponent, but smart in the way that actually I understood how scientists got their information, their methodology, and that I could replicate these same experiments at home and get the same results as Einstein and the like. This was science.
I felt like I’d been given a key to the mall with no spending limit and free churros(I love churros). The meaning of the results and most of the concepts went over my head, but I finally grasped at the fact that the world is written in a language that we can decipher by using math and physics. No guesswork, no memorization of elusive facts only found on creationist DVDs, but a clear and logical approach toward a world just waiting to be discovered. Around this time, my husband (a believer who never subscribed to YEC) found some very interesting documentaries about great thinkers of our era. Nietzche, Einstein, Marx, along with others, were featured for their lives, their thoughts, their work and influence on our world. We went on a science binge, spending our late evenings taking turns rocking the baby to sleep and watching videos on YouTube on topics about all things science and philosophy. Some of the new information I encountered made my still-conservative self uncomfortable at first. All my life I was taught that the world is black and white, but here I saw that it’s a spectrum of vibrant color. For the first time I wasn’t nervous or scared about what I might learn, because scientists weren’t out to disprove God and make people atheists, they’re just curious minds who, like me, enjoy learning about what stuff is and how it got here.
Realizing that I’m finally seeing the world as it is for the first time at 28 years old brings out a lot of mixed feelings. Feelings of wonder and awe at the grandness of the universe and the beauty of the life that it holds. Feelings of anger for being lied to and feelings of disappointment for being gullible enough to believe something so far fetched. Feelings of missing out on all of the things I could have learned and possibly pursued career-wise had I known the truth sooner, but also feelings of hope, because everything that happens to us—good or bad—makes us into the people we are today. Thankfully, hope has two daughters: anger and courage. Anger for the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way that they are.
Not willing to let go of my anger just yet, I wanted to know exactly what Hovind was right about, and what he had made up to perpetuate his ideas. A simple search on YouTube landed me on plenty of videos debunking every argument he ever put forth, but a debate he had with Dr. Hugh Ross, an astrophysicist and a believer, caught my eye. The first thing that jumped out at me was Dr. Ross’s humility and kindness in the way he spoke and handled very unfair insults thrown at him by Hovind, many of which were not at all germane to the debate itself. I immediately recognized my 9th grade self in Hovind, and Mr. Hall in Dr. Ross. After watching a few more videos of Ross explaining the science of the Big Bang and how the age of the earth is calculated, I was convinced that if Ross, an expert in his field, saw no contradiction between the Bible and science in regards to the Big Bang, then there was nothing holding me back from accepting the evidence myself. Ross and his organization, “Reasons to Believe,” do not accept the theory of evolution, but I was fine with that. Besides, I had almost 14 billion years of cosmology I needed to catch up on.
I had heard to be careful of the “compromisers”(read in an Australian accent: Ken Ham) over at Biologos. A science/faith organization started by Dr. Francis Collins, one of the minds behind the Human Genome Project which mapped the entirety of the human DNA for the first time, Biologos seemed like a pretty decent place. Remembering that the term “compromiser” is usually used when fearmongering, I decided that I had nothing to lose if I listened to a few of their podcast episodes. Again, I heard humility, grace, and more of that science that I had come to know and love. One episode that appealed to me particularly featured John Walton, an Old Testament scholar. Walton makes the point that if the Bible and science seem to be in contradiction with each other, it’s only because we’re ascribing something to the Bible that isn’t there. The Bible and science tell two different stories, thus they answer two very different sets of questions. Having been written thousands of years ago, we cannot assume that the Old Testament writers were making scientific claims in the way that we understand science today. If we dismiss the cultural and historical context of the narrative, we risk imposing our modern ideas and meanings onto the text, which were never meant by the original authors nor would they be understood by the intended audience. Simply put: the Bible tells us how God made us part of his family, while science tells us how God made the house in which his family lives. And in the words of another podcast guest, Oliver Crisp: if there seem to be incongruencies between the Bible and science, they will ultimately be reconciled, because all truth is God’s truth.
Having grasped the basics of Big Bang cosmology, I found myself dabbling in evolution. “A change in allele frequencies of a population,” is the basic underlying force of evolution. These genetic changes accumulate in a population so that, over time, the organisms in question will have changed enough that they may not even be able to breed with other members of their species. To illustrate this, let’s take walking for an example. Say that you can walk from your room to the kitchen in 20 steps. Given enough time and resources, there is nothing stopping you from walking to the park, across town, or even across the country. This is how simple evolution is. It’s not some philosophy that breeds murderers, it’s not a religion that’s trying to kill God, it is a theory borne out of observing changes in populations, and noting that once enough changes have accumulated, the offspring can be considered as a completely different species. That’s it. Evolution doesn’t deal with non-living becoming living, it doesn’t claim that an ape birthed a human, and it doesn’t rule out God. It deals with changes in allele frequencies of a population. Full stop.
So, there I was again, realizing that if Francis Collins, John Walton, and many other experts in their respective fields, understood that the Bible doesn’t say anything for or against evolution: the overwhelming evidence is clear, I had no reasonable objection to accepting evolutionary theory as fact.
This journey has not been entirely easy. Accepting scientific consensus has opened a lot of information for me to sift through, and not only that: it’s challenging my literalistic interpretation of the Bible. I have had to do a lot of re-learning and re-studying of everything that I have known about religion for the past 28 years. What is it that I really believe, and do I believe at all? The very fact that everything is far more ambiguous than I’m used to has caused some doubts and many questions. Being in the same conservative community where most people still see science as an enemy, it can feel quite isolating and lonely at times, not being able to share my journey as very few people understand the tremendous amount of work involved in making such changes, while others will say that “doubting is from the devil, away with him!” But having come so far, I cannot not pursue the truth.
Surprisingly, there have been many moments of affirmation and encouragement as well. I find that the more I share and admit that I was wrong, overly confident, too definitive, or too harsh in my thinking on a particular topic, there is always at least one person who messages me and says, “Hey! I’m kind of going through this as well, I’m glad to know that I’m not alone.” This has inspired me to keep searching, keep learning, and to be honest with those around me. Because of where I am in my community, I could start a whole reformation—a very, very small reformation—but a reformation in thought and action, to examine what we believe and why we believe it. Do our beliefs and positions help or hurt the image that we carry? And how can we learn to graciously disagree, without losing family and friends in the process? Instead of doing everything we can to protect what we think is correct, we shouldn’t shy away from and try to shut down anything that challenges our interpretations and presuppositions, because ultimately: all truth is God’s truth.
But before that happens, my husband and close friends are rallying around me, creating a safe space to ask questions and arrive at whatever conclusions pop up. Moreover, I also have the beautiful community, created by the wide platform provided by BioLogos, of people just like me, trying to find their footing, learning real science, and deciding if the two can work in harmony in their lives, all without judgment or a witch hunt.
I still have that letter. And it still only has the greeting because I never started it. Intuition, procrastination? It’s been said that the most well-known Christian quality is forgiveness, and it is a quality that I’m working on throughout this process. Instead of dwelling on the fact that I’ve been deceived, I’d rather use that time and energy to learn from the past, move on, and become better for it. This whole experience has given me an exercise in critical thinking and being accepting of people who think differently, just like Mr. Hall was towards me when I pelted him with my “right answers.” It’s the grace and patience that I remember most, not the exact words that he said, I could be like that for someone as well.
Doing my best to show love, compassion, and grace towards everyone has proven to be a far more peaceful way to live than constantly trying to prove that I’m right. It is for this lesson that I am most thankful.