17 When? – Part 1
Bible and Science – When? Part 1
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26).
Perhaps nothing generates a more controversial and less spiritually edifying atmosphere than debating how and when the events depicted in the first chapter of Genesis took place. If we could bottle the emotional energy expended in such discussions, we would no doubt completely solve the energy problem on this planet. Many people holding differing views on the time-span involved in the creation story in Genesis may be sincere and intelligent Bible students. Nevertheless, sincerity needs to be tempered with humility and respect for others who may have opinions differing from their own.
Various theories reviewed
We will briefly review some of the theories put forward by Bible believers with respect to the time and circumstances of the creation story. I will tacitly assume that if you believe in evolution you have already stopped reading these narratives and I will thus concentrate on reaching those who believe in both the Bible and science! All I ask is that the reader keep in mind three things: First, that the details provided in scripture about how and when creation occurred are sparse and hence, one ought not be dogmatic. Second, that they not dismiss scientific evidence for the age of the earth and universe, for God is the author of nature as well as the Bible. Finally, that they not elevate their belief in any particular model of the creation story to a first principle to do so would be contrary to scriptures.
There are a number of explanations that have been put forward to understand the timing of the events in the first chapter of Genesis. I will briefly outline each in turn and then go back and take a detailed look at each of these scenarios with an attempt to lay out the pros and cons for each model of creation. There are essentially six common views that challenge our imaginations in seeking to interpret Genesis 1. Consider then the following models:
- Strict literal view – Considers that Genesis 1 records events that happened 6,000 years ago when the entire heavens and earth were created in seven literal 24-hour days.
- Gap theory – Here the heavens and earth are considered to have been created a long time ago (literally billions of years in the past are possible) with the present dispensation dating back to 6,000 years ago when God reconstituted the physical environment on earth, which had been depleted due to some unspecified global catastrophe.
- Fiat hypothesis – This idea considers that the seven days of creation were seven literal days in which God declared His will by commandments (or fiats). The actual work of creation carried out by the angels could have taken millions or even billions of years.
- Revelation model – Here the seven days of creation are viewed as seven days of revelation to Moses (perhaps in dreams). Moses then recorded what he saw as a seven-day narrative even though the actual events may have spanned innumerable eons.
- Drama premise– This proposal considers the events in Genesis 1 to be, in a sense, a dramatic scenario. Each day in the narrative does not refer to a literal time period, but instead to an act in Hebrew dramatic form that describes a stage of creation.
- Relativity supposition – This view of the creation story considers the events in Genesis to be seven literal days, but not days governed by the rotation of planet earth. Rather, the time scales of creation are considered in relation to the time expansion derived from relativity theory based on the assumption that God moves in a far different time frame from that which governs clocks on earth.
Each of these theories has obvious proponents or they wouldn’t exist for me to write about. One thing I will not do is present a theory of my own. I don’t have one. There are enough out there to argue about without me contributing further confusion! I have selected these theories for discussion because the bottom line for all of them is that they completely accept the idea that the heavens, earth and all that is contained within them are the product of God’s creative power. None of these concepts have anything in common with the theory of evolution, which completely rejects the concept of a God of creation.
In this sense I have also left out so-called Deistic evolution, and its subtle variant Theistic evolution1, which is the idea that sometime in the distant past God created the universe and has since let it run under its own devices. This view is not quite Darwinist evolution, but it also excludes God from any role in the working of His universe over all ages past once the universe was up and running. Thus, I personally find the Theistic evolution model not much different from Darwin’s theory. All the arguments that I have presented in previous chapters against gradual change and blind luck being responsible for our existence apply equally against Darwinism and Theistic (Deistic) Evolution. Hence I will restrict further discussion to the six models proposed by believers as outlined above.
Strict Literal View
The interpretation of Genesis 1 as referring to the creation of heaven and earth that took place in seven 24-hour days approximately 6,000 years ago is simple and straightforward. If someone wants to believe that view and dismiss the scientific evidence discovered since Newton and Galileo, they are certainly entitled to do so. However, it becomes especially disturbing when they force the issue and raise such a belief to the level of first principle, i.e. if you don’t believe in such a literal interpretation you won’t be in the Kingdom of God. Such an approach is detrimental to preaching work and produces great difficulty for our young people.ce.2
The proponents of such a view will say that God can do anything He wants and is not limited in His power. Indeed that is true, but it is not the issue when interpreting Genesis 1. The issue is not what God can do, but what He actually did do. Those who propose alternate views to the strict literal interpretation do not desire to limit God’s power; rather they prefer to take into account both the full sense of scripture plus the evidence that the Lord has provided in this natural world He has created.
Have physical laws changed?
Let us consider the virtues and vices of the “strictly literal” approach. The young earth/young universe argument considers that the narrative in Genesis 1 takes place over seven literal 24-hour days commencing with God creating the universe on day one and then preceding to the rest of creation for each succeeding 24-hour period.
The age of the universe derived from physical observations of astronomers, which we discussed in earlier chapters of these essays, is dismissed in several ways. Some have said that the physical laws of the universe were different in the past from what we observe today. While this is possible, at least at the present time there is no evidence from scripture or from the known physical laws to presume that this would significantly change the age of the universe from being billions of years old.
As pointed out earlier, the prophet Jeremiah, to account for the unchangeable nature of the Lord God’s promises to His people, uses the unchangeable nature of the physical laws of the universe as confirming proof of His steadfastness (Jer. 31: 35,36; 33:25,26). Therefore, the constancy of the physical laws of the universe from creation to the present is an assumption that we find completely agreed upon in both biblical and scientific thought.
The appearance of age
Another argument that has been used to justify a “young universe/earth” is one that assumes God deliberately created the universe with the appearance of age. They argue that if one plants a garden, and wants to see it bear fruit and flowers quickly, one would go out and obtain mature vegetation and thus have immediate results rather than plant seed and wait a long time.
The flaw in this argument, when applied to creation, is that the gardener who wants a mature garden has to go to a nursery to obtain the plants. The analogy just doesn’t hold up consistently when applied to Genesis 1. Where was the equivalent of the nursery?
Another attempt to prove that the earth/universe was created in seven literal days is to cite from seemingly parallel passages which suggest that God indeed will instantaneously create a new heavens and earth (Isa. 65:17, 66:22, II Pet. 3:13, and Rev. 21:1). However, these passages clearly refer to spiritual matters, i.e. a new heavens and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.3
An additional problem with taking the days of creation as seven 24-hour days is that this is not at all what the Bible account literally says. The time period for each creation day is given as evening to morning: “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Gen. 1:5, also similar in verses 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). The only exception is the seventh day where this phrase does not appear. The word evening in the original Hebrew means “dusk” or sundown4 and the word morning alludes to “dawn”.5 Thus if we are to take the time periods of creation in a strict literal sense we would have to concede that all of creation was done in the night time and therefore cannot be considered as seven 24-hour periods.
Literalists will also cite Exodus 20:11: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” as further proof of their assertion that Genesis one can only mean seven 24-hour days roughly 6,000 years ago. At the same time they completely ignore, or dismiss, the statement in Genesis 2:4: “in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.” Literalists will say that the expression in the day is simply a metaphor for the whole seven 24-hour day creation period. However, this is entirely arbitrary because it begs the question: how do your decide what is literal and what is metaphor unless you have direct evidence from other comparative passages? In sum, the idea of taking the first chapter of Genesis in the strict literal sense, as worded in English translations, is fraught with problems from both the scientific as well as the biblical point of view.
In the nineteenth century, when Biblical scholars first became aware of the scientific evidence for an “old” universe/earth they did not seem particularly disturbed. The idea of an old universe/earth going back in prehistory to any length of time consistent with scientific evidence was readily accepted. Thus we find in Elpis Israel,6 Dr. Thomas espouses this view and later standard Christian reference works also endorse the Gap Theory.7,8
The Gap theory postulates, in a sense, a re-creation of the life on earth approximately 6,000 years ago in a seven-day period. In this model, the heavens and earth are of old and the recreation of life on earth occurred following a destruction of a past dispensation.
The words of Genesis 1:2 provide a picture of a creation being imposed on a chaotic earth, which was without form and void and where water already existed (note carefully that God moved [or hovered] over the waters; He did not create water on the first day). Hints of a prior destruction are implied in the use of the word replenish in Genesis1:28and 9:1. (This has been discussed at length previously.) The record of II Peter 3:5-7 is also a possible allusion to a prior dispensation predating Adam. The words the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water parallel Genesis 1:2. Therefore the expression: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished (v. 6) seems to relate, not to the Noahic flood, but rather could refer to some prior catastrophe.
Scientific evidence sparse
Scientific evidence for a Gap Theory is sparse; the best one can say is that there are some small hints. The abrupt demise of Cro-Magnon man and other earlier hominids, and the evidence of annihilation of other species such as the wooly mammoth roughly 10,000 years ago are well documented. This prehistoric era also coincides with evidence of the ending of a massive ice age, which engulfed the northern hemisphere of the earth. However, detailed evidence for a massive catastrophe that inundated the entire planet 10,000 years ago is as limited as evidence for the flood at the time of Noah.
It has to be realized a catastrophe that takes place over a very short period of time is akin to a snap of the fingers in terms of geological dating. If the cataclysm were followed by a new creation only a short time later, then evidence for the prior destruction would be virtually wiped out in terms of geological history. Hence, while the Gap Theory has certain attractions in reconciling the fossil and geological findings with the Biblical creation story, I would again caution that one ought not be dogmatic.
To be continued, God willing.
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1 Strictly speaking Theistic evolution allows for God to “create” the right environment to eventually produce mankind in due season. In this sense it gives evolution a “purpose”. Alternatively, the notion of Deistic evolution assumes God created the universe, set natural law in operation and has been absent ever since.
2 In speaking of the proponents of young universe/young earth view, one author has said: “However, their insistence that theirs is the only valid interpretation of the creation record has serious and tragic consequences. The publicity given to their views leads scientists to suppose that the literal young earth interpretation of Gen. 1 is the only possible meaning. As a consequence they conclude that the Genesis record is largely mythical. And since Gen. 1, 2 and 3 are the foundation chapters of the Bible then the reliability of the Bible as a whole is questioned.” Alan Fowler, The Drama of Creation, Ortho Books, Bridgend, UK, (1996), p. 4.
3 Passages in Psa. 102:26, Isa. 51:6 and Heb. 1:11, also speak of a new heavens and earth but add in the phrase shall wax old, which can be considered to have both spiritual as well as physical implications. However, the physical interpretation could only refer to the distant future (as discussed in an earlier chapter) and does not imply any time scale for accomplishing the regeneration of the universe.
4 “Evening” [Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31] is Strong’s number 6153 = ereb, eh´-reb; from 6150; dusk:—+ day, even (-ing, tide), night. And Strong’s number 6150 = arab, aw-rab´; a primitive root (identical with 6148 through the idea of covering with a texture); to grow dusky at sundown:—be darkened, (toward) evening.
5 “Morning” Strong’s number 1242. = boqer, bo´-ker; from 1239; properly, dawn (as the break of day); generally, morning:—(+) day, early, morning, morrow.
6 John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 14th edition – Revised, The Christadelphian, Birmingham, UK, (1990), p.10.
7 Referring to Gen.1:1 – “The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope for all the geologic ages.” Scofield Reference Bible, KJV, New York, Oxford University Press, (1909), pg. 3.
8 “The creation of Man, according to Biblical chronology, was about 4000 BC. But the creation of the Universe may have been countless ages earlier.” – Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, first edition (1924), pg. 63 (in 1964, 23rd edition).