Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, shares on a current issue…
Let me preface what I am going to write with this statement: I am a creationist!
I believe God created the heavens and the earth. I believe that God created humankind as a unique being and that Adam’s ancestors were not tree-swinging monkeys! I also believe in the divine authority of Genesis chapters 1 and 2. Having got that out of the way, we turn now to the substance of what I want to say.
In a recent article, The Genesis Crisis by Cameron Buettel, the writer argues from two premises: first that the earth is only 6000 years old, and secondly, that each of the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis 1:1 – 2:2, referred to 24 hours.
Merely to question the validity of these assertions is often taken as a denial of the authority and integrity of the scriptures and an embracing of the theory of evolution. The implication is that the meaning of Genesis 1 is so obvious and so simple to understand that to question the ‘obvious’ meaning of the account is to question the ‘enquirer’s’ faith in Jesus Christ and his relationship with God.
1. Two theories of creation
I will not comment on the theory of evolution which is commonly accepted as fact even though it still remains as a theory. It is a theory much beloved by secularists and atheists as it leaves God out of the equation. Some Christians have also accepted the basic model of the evolutionary hypothesis but affirm that the driving force behind it is not blind chance but a wise God. I will not explore this further here as I want to refer to two ‘Christian’ theories of creation.
(i) The theory that the earth is only 6000 years old
Recently I read this statement: ‘The Bible says the world is about six thousand years old.’ Let us be clear about this. Nowhere, from Genesis to Revelation do we read that the earth is 6000 years old nor does it give unambiguous information from which to make such an incontrovertible deduction.
Belief in the creation of the earth 6000 years ago is not a Christian doctrine! It is not in the same category as the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Deity of Christ. Rather it is an assumption based on an interpretation of some biblical chronologies and data from other sources.
The theory of an earth being created around 4000 BC was initially propounded by Archbishop Ussher, Bishop of Armagh, Ireland in a work on biblical chronology published in 1654BC. By counting the generations of biblical figures recorded throughout the Bible from Adam and Eve, Ussher came to the conclusion that creation took place in the evening of 22nd October 4004 BC.
We can respect Ussher for his labour. It was an incredibly time consuming, diligently researched and admirable work according to the sources available to him. But the sources were limited and the research was flawed. The respected evangelical theologian, B B Warfield, in the Princeton Theological Review in 1911 wrote that ‘…it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables.’ Nevertheless there are many Christians who steadfastly hold on to Ussher’s theory as if it were a cardinal tenet of the Christian faith and a test of Christian orthodoxy.
Data collected from many scientific disciplines indicates an earth significantly older than 6000 years. However scientists are no more reliable than anyone else in interpreting the data, therefore their conclusions are often widely inconsistent and ever changing – often differing by millions of years! We cannot therefore wholly rely on the accuracy of scientific assumptions. Nevertheless it is impossible to reconcile observable and testable information with the theory of an earth that is only a few thousand years old.
(ii) The ‘Gap Theory’
Some Christians have suggested an alternative way of interpreting the facts to reconcile the idea of an earth that is millions of years old with a human race and animal life that is only thousands of years old. The theory, that was first advanced in the 19th century by the Scottish theologian, Thomas Chalmers, is as follows:
(a) According to biblical chronologies a case may be made out for humans having come into existence a matter of only a few thousand years ago.
(b)According to a non-biased conclusion based on geochronological techniques, the earth is billions of years old.
(c) These two apparently contradictory arguments can be reconciled in an easy way – by retranslating one word in Genesis 1:2 which states: ‘Now the earth was formless and empty …’
The word translated into English as ‘was’ is ‘hayathah’ which can be translated ‘became.’ This suggests that there is a time gap between verses 1 and 2 – verse 1 suggests a world that God created and populated with animals and pre-Adamic humanoids. Then, for some reason, God wiped it all out and later started again with Adam and Eve. This means that only the earth’s surface required a make-over. This, it is argued, would account for the discovery of ancient fossils.
However, the Gap Theory, rather than resolving the problems associated with a 6000 year old earth, actually generates many more.
First, the word ‘was’ actually means ‘was’ and although it is translated in a few Old Testament passages as ‘became’ because the context required it, no Hebrew scholar would translate this verb in Genesis 1:2 in this way.
Secondly, in Genesis 2 we read that death came into the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, however the Gap Theory is dependent on death being vigorously present before Adam and Eve. Paul wrote in Romans 5:14, ‘Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses …’. That statement contradicts the idea of death having already reigned for, perhaps, millions of years before Adam.
Thirdly, the Gap Theory, which has the concept of ‘life – destruction – GAP – life remade’ requires such a violently destructive event that all geological evidence for the existence of the first period, including the fossil records, would be destroyed.
Fourthly, the Gap Theory is theologically flawed. Not only is there not the slightest hint in Genesis 1:1 that there was a previous creation, but neither are there any other verses in the Bible that explicitly state or even strongly suggest a pre-Adamic creation. Furthermore the phrase translated, ‘formless and empty’ does not indicate chaos initiated by God as judgment.
While the ‘6000 year theory’ is genealogically and scientifically flawed, the ‘Gap Theory’ is exegetically, theologically and scientifically flawed.
2. The six days of creation
The debate on the duration of the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 has always been a ‘bone of contention’ among Christians, and even more so in this ‘scientific age.’ Can we simply take the position that if the Bible says ‘days’, it must mean 24 hours.
This is often accompanied by the comment that if you don’t believe the first chapter of Genesis, how can you believe what the Bible says about salvation through faith in Jesus? Sadly the debate has often degenerated into vehement hostility among the members of God’s family!
In his article Buettel takes the high-ground as ‘defender of the faith’ by judgmentally stating:
(a) ‘The academic credibility of our faith is meaningless if we’re so quick to sacrifice the meaning of scripture at the altar of public opinion.’ And –
(b) ‘Scholars ignore the actual text by blinding themselves to the genre, grammar and layout in order to insert their own.’
In the first of these statements (a), Buettel is arguing that his interpretation of scripture is academically credible while those who disagree with him have capitulated their faith to public opinion. This is not only an arrogant position to take but it also dismissive of both the academic integrity of others but also of their relationship with God.
In the second statement (b), Buettel maintains that his reading and understanding of the text is the only right one, and that those who disagree with him are wrong!
I am saddened by both of those statements which I consider to be unwise and unhelpful.
The main argument of those who believe that the universe was created in six separate days of 24 hours can be simply stated – Genesis 1 contains a straight forward unambiguous statement that each day of creation lasted 24 hours and that this is affirmed by the Hebrew word yom which means ‘day.’
(i) When is a day not a day?
In Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, Norman Geisler (a respected conservative theologian) has written:
‘It is true that most often the Hebrew word yom (“day”) means “twenty-four hours.” However, this is not definitive for its meaning in Genesis 1 for several reasons.
First, the meaning of a term is not determined by majority vote, but by the context in which it is used. It is not important how many times it is used elsewhere, but how it is used here.
Second, even in the creation story in Genesis 1–2, “day” (yom) is used of more than a twenty-four-hour period. Speaking of the whole six “days” of creation, Genesis 2:4 refers to it as “the day” (yom) when all things were created.
Third, and finally, yom is elsewhere used of long periods of time, as in Psalm 90:4 which is cited in 2 Peter 3:8: “A day is like a thousand years.”’
Geisler is correct in maintaining that the word yom may rightly refer to 24 hours, daylight, or epochs. Can we therefore say that each day in Genesis 1 may refer to periods of more than 24 hours? I think that we need to be open to that possibility.
(ii) Is Genesis 1 ’historical narrative’?
Can it be argued that Genesis 1 is historical narrative, that is, prose and not poetry, and therefore must be translated literally in contradistinction to poetry which may be largely symbolic? Some people believe so. This statement summaries this position, ‘The bottom line is that Genesis is not “Hebrew poetry.” Genesis is Hebrew narrative prose. In other words, Genesis is a record of accurate, true history.’ (James J. S. Johnson)
I cannot go along that dogmatic path either because such a statement is rather simplistic as is that by Buettel, ‘Genesis 1 could not be a more straightforward biblical narrative describing God’s creation week.’
There is nothing ‘straightforward’ about this chapter. It is…
- Awe inspiring!
When examined closely one sees in Genesis 1 a mixture of literary styles. Yes, there is historical and there is poetry. Although some elements of Hebrew poetry are not found in chapter 1, other elements are. For example, although the strict parallelism that is found in much Hebrew poetry is absent from that chapter, there is evidence of other poetic elements such as repetition, alliteration and figurative language. Also, the phrase, ‘And God said …’ occurs eight times, and each time it introduces a four line poem.
Furthermore I do not think that the literary style of Genesis 1 wholly settles the issue. Perhaps God used both prose and poetry in an interwoven way to help us to get a grasp on something that lies outside both our experience and our comprehension.
The theme of Genesis 1 is considerably more significant than any literary genres to which it belongs. The whole of Genesis is a book of beginnings and especially reveals themes that are worked out in the rest of the Old Testament, in the New Testament and in the life and ministry of Jesus …
- the Creator of the universe and Lord of history
- the nature of God
- the sin of humanity
- the provision salvation and restoration to God
- the consequences of sin
- God’s grace and means of forgiveness
- his call and his unshakable promises.
My perspective on this whole matter is not at all sewn up, conclusive, fixed and infallible! I do not have all the answers to the complexities of Genesis 1 and I am suspicious of those who appear confidently to make that claim.
While I would like to have all my theology and biblical understanding neatly wrapped up in little packages, I am afraid that I do not. But that is, I suppose, inevitable for then I would understand all the mysteries of God – and until now I have never met any such person.
So there are many things I do not know and many things I do not understand, but one thing I do know –
‘I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day’ (2 Timothy 1:12).
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from concerned Christians.
In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong reciprocal aspect and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of our God. This book is now being offered free by Dr Jim in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks to make it easier to navigate from the ‘Contents’ pages to the main text. This is available to anyone who contacts him at email@example.com (Note: Those who previously requested this book may obtain a hyperlink version if required)
Excellent and thought provoking article, I align myself with the sentiments set out in your conclusion. I am grateful for the level of understanding God has given, but acknowledge there is much we will not know this side of eternity.
Well presented, Dr Jim. Lucid and so biblically accurate! It’s sad that some Christians don’t think things through and check statements/books/declarations by so-called teachers and just take stuff they read as gospel.
If they did, they’d be an answer to those prayers of Paul’s where he urges followers of Jesus to be wiser, really led by the Spirit…filled with the Spirit of wisdom and not be sidetracked!