Have you ever felt like you entered the rabbit hole of no return? If you start reading the literature on Genesis 1, you will. Nearly every line in Genesis 1 is the subject of intense debate.
In this post, I will focus on two interrelated debates among Christians regarding Genesis 1: the proper interpretation of the days in Genesis 1 and the age of the earth.
When confronted with a challenging and complex topic, I find it helpful to start by making a list of things I know—or at least think I know—about the topic. Since science is not my cup of tea, my list mainly focuses on the biblical side of this controversy. Also, while each side offers rebuttals to points made below, I’m only going to allow each side to speak once. I don’t want to go back into the rabbit hole—there are too many words down there. Here’s what I think I know, starting with what I believe is the proper framework for this debate.
I. According to Paul, the most important thing he taught was Christ’s death for our sins, his burial, his resurrection on the third day, and his resurrection appearances (1 Cor. 15:3-8).
II. An explicit statement on the age of the earth and the proper interpretation of the days in Genesis 1 is not found in the Bible.
III. While Genesis 1 received much attention by the early church fathers who lived prior to AD 325, none of them explicitly endorsed the 24-hour-day interpretation of the days in Genesis 1 (Ross, Navigating Genesis).
IV. None of the major historic Christian creeds mention the age of the earth nor specify the correct interpretation of the days in Genesis 1.
V. Most modern-day statements of faith do not mention the age of the earth nor specify the correct interpretation of the days in Genesis 1.
VI. The debate between young earth and old earth advocates has been one of the most contentious issues in modern-day Christianity in the U.S.
VII. For some believers today, the Bible clearly teaches that God created the earth in six, 24-hour days. For these believers to hold to a different view would be to compromise the clear teaching of Scripture for the sake of current popular opinion. The following arguments are used to support this view:
- The Hebrew term used for day in Genesis 1 is the typical term used in the Hebrew Bible for a 24-hour period.
- The account of each of the six days concludes with the refrain, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the ___ day” causing us to think of a typical 24-hour period.
- Exodus 20:11 states, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day” (cf. Ex. 31:17). That statement is used as support for Israel to have a literal 24-hour period of rest once a week: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
*Those who believe the days of Genesis 1 were 24-hour days often arrive at the conclusion that the earth is relatively young—6,000-10,000 years old. This date is arrived at because:
- The first man is connected to his descendants in the biblical genealogies and those genealogies include the years each person lived.
- The first man and woman were created on the sixth, 24-hour day.
- Using data from the genealogies along with a literal view of the six days enables us to determine the relative time when the six days began.
VIII. For other believers today, there are multiple lines of scientific evidence which all point to one conclusion: the universe is about 14 billion years old and Earth is about 4 billion years old. For them to go against this data would require them to be dishonest with what they believe they know about the natural world.
*For Christians who believe science clearly supports an old universe/earth, there must be a great deal of elapsed time in Scripture that the six-day creationists are missing. That time is found in various places:
- Biblical genealogies are known to be selective rather than exhaustive.
- A large gap of time exists between Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 1:3. The six-day account does not narrate the creation of the water-covered earth of Genesis 1:2; instead it assumes its existence. Genesis 1:2 sets the scene for the six-day creation account with the Spirit of God hovering over the surface of the deep. But where did the water and earth come from? And most importantly for this topic, how long did the water-covered earth exist before God said, “Let there be light” on day one? The text doesn’t say. The origin of the water-covered earth in Genesis 1, can only be found in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (The phrase “the heavens and the earth” refers to the entire universe or everything that exists.) And that leads to the view that Genesis 1:1 is not merely a summary statement of the six-day account, but it is a prior event to the six days of creation. (For support read here.)
- The days of creation are not literal, 24-hour days, but longer periods of time.
- The Hebrew term for day is used for a wide range of time periods: some of the daylight hours, all of the daylight hours, a 24-hour period, a long but finite time period. (Ross, Navigating Genesis).
- The seventh day is not a literal, 24-hour day which opens the door to viewing the first six days as non-literal. First, there is no “evening and morning” refrain at the end of the seventh day (Gen. 2:1-3). Second, Hebrews 4:1-11 refers to God’s Sabbath-rest as something we can enter into thus indicating it’s on-going nature.
- Genesis 2:4 says, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens” (ESV). Notice the singular “day” in this creation statement. This observation led Augustine to view God’s acts of creation described in Genesis 1 as occurring instantaneously.
- The sun was not created until day 4 so days 1-3 could not have been literal 24-hour solar days.
- The chronology of the creation of plant life and human life varies between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, therefore we should not take the days of Genesis 1 literally. In Genesis 1, plants and trees first appeared on day 3, while humans were created on day 6 (Gen. 1:11-13, 26-30). However, in Genesis 2, humans were created before shrubs or plants appeared (vv. 5-7).
- If Eve was made in the same 24-hour period as Adam, Adam’s accomplishments in that one 24-hour period are quite impressive. For example, among other things, he would have had to name all the livestock, birds, and wild animals in less than one day (Gen. 2:15-24).
- The text of Genesis 1:1-2:3 has non-literal elements such as God resting on day 7.
- The Hebrew word used for God’s rest refers to tiredness and exhaustion in the other places where it is used. Was God really tired and in need of rest? Since the Bible clearly teaches that God doesn’t get tired or weary (Is. 40:28), God’s rest should not be interpreted literally.
- The refrain, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the __ day”—the time when people come home from work and sleep until the next morning—makes it sound as if God worked during the day and then went to his home where he rested until the next morning.
- In Psalm 90, Moses wrote, “A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” (v. 4, NIV; cf. 2 Pet. 3:8). According to that statement, God experiences time differently than we do. The days in Genesis 1, especially days 1-3 without the sun, are best viewed as God’s days, not human days.
IX. Church leaders are not immune to misinterpreting the Bible and the scientific data.
- While the Catholic Church did not initially reject Copernicus’s heliocentric model when it was proposed in 1543 in his work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by 1616 the Catholic authorities “suspended” the works of Copernicus “until corrected.” The reason given was that Copernicus’s heliocentric proposal was being defended by a Carmelite father and the authorities didn’t want that proposal to spread any further.
- John Calvin’s interpretation of relevant biblical passages show his support of geocentrism.
- The heliocentric model is now universally accepted by Catholic and Protestant Church authorities.