|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - SCIENCE||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
What does Genesis 1 really teach?
The debate between Christianity and science concerns not just the scientific facts, but how they fit in with the teaching of the Bible, particularly with Genesis 1. So let's explore that.
I am aware of seven different ways in which Genesis 1 is interpreted. They are not all mutually exclusive, though most are. There are variations on some of these interpretations which I won't go into. However, as this is so crucial to the debate I think it is important to mention them all. The first four of these interpretations all take the "day" of this chapter to refer to a day of 24 hours.
Scenario 1 - Recent Creationism
There are many Christians today who believe that to take the word "day" to refer to anything other than 24 hours is to be unfaithful to what they believe the Bible says, and therefore unfaithful to God. They would rather be true to what they believe God is saying than accept what appears to be the physical evidence presented by scientists. The world must therefore have been created comparatively recently and within a six-day period, and the scientists have just got it wrong - for whatever reason. A statement of this view is given to us by Dr Henry Morris of the Creation Research Society, cited by S. G. Brush in Journal of Geological Education, 30:
The only way we can determine the true age of the earth is for God to tell us what it is. And since he has told us, very plainly, in the Holy Scriptures that it is several thousand years in age, and no more, that ought to settle all basic questions of terrestrial chronology.
Scenario 2 - Creation, then chaos, then re-creation
To get around the evidence produced by geologists, some have suggested that "the earth was formless and empty" in verse 2, should be translated "the earth became formless and empty". (The Hebrew could be translated that way, though I understand from good authority that the grammatical construction is against it here.) That implies that there was an original creation which was good, and the life now represented by fossils flourished. But then something went wrong, perhaps associated with the rebellion of Satan and other spiritual beings. As a result of God's judgement chaos resulted. The rest of Genesis 1 then speaks of a re-creation which did take place within the six-day period. This view has its roots in early Jewish tradition and has been held by some throughout the history of the church. It was held by some geologists in the nineteenth century and was popularised by the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. However, there are problems with this view on both Biblical and geological grounds, and I am not aware that there are many who would hold it today.
Scenario 3 - Stages of creation revealed in six days
A very reasonable view was presented by Air Commodore P. J. Wiseman, CBE RAF (1888-1948), in two studies—New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis (1936) and Creation Revealed in Six Days in 1946. R. K. Harrison summarised the first of these studies in his impressive Introduction to the Old Testament on pages 545-53 (1970). Both these two studies were edited by his son, Donald J. Wiseman, Professor of Assyriology in the University of London and formerly Assistant Keeper, Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities, The British Museum, and republished together in 1977 with the title Clues to Creation in Genesis.
 Marshall, Morgan & Scott, ©.
The Inter-Varsity Magazine said of this latter book:
We can recollect few books so startlingly convincing or so helpful in clearing up many difficulties connected with the Old Testament.Fortunately it is book easily read and understood…
After reading it one realises how inadequate one’s previous understanding of Genesis has been. Read it and pass it on. It is one of the best books we have seen.
Wiseman’s basic argument is that the six days do indeed represent days of 24 hours, but they are not days in which God created the universe, but days in which he revealed truths of his creation to an individual at the dawn of history over a period of six days.
We now know a great deal about ancient writing in Assyria, Babylonia, Ur and Egypt. There are over a quarter of a million cuneiform tablets now scattered in museums around the world, going back to 3,500 B. C. They deal with mundane issues of personal, family, and business matters and well as issues of state. Wiseman gives impressive evidence to show how the whole structure of Genesis fits so well with the way tablets were written in ancient times, tablets that could well have been handed down through several generations. Moses would have been in an ideal position to edit these.
Evidence he assembles to support the view that Genesis describes six days over which God revealed these truths rather than six days in which he created the universe include, very briefly:
Wiseman points out seven difficulties that are eliminated by the above interpretation:
(1) God giving names—we now see the reason for this. (2) ‘God said’—the whole account was a revelation to man, just as the two final statements of what ‘God said’ are stated to have been. (3) The ‘evenings and the mornings’ are now seen to be, quite naturally, for man’snightly rest. (4) The seventh day on which God ‘ceased’ was for man’s sake. While (5) all the days, including those in the fourth commandment and the seventh day’s rest, are seen to be natural days, there is no need to give these days exceptional duration, and this (6) disposes of the idea that (a) the day of rest was instituted a few hours after Adam had been created (b) that it was the end of a long geological age, or that the seventh day is one of some thousand years. And (7) it resolves the old conflicting ideas about the ‘light’ of day one being present before the ‘sun and moon’ of day four and all its related problems.
Reasons which Wiseman gives for believing that Genesis 1 is very ancient are:
Genesis 1, disencumbered of its misinterpretations, stands out in its sublime grandeur, its remarkable accuracy, its concise comprehensiveness, quite unique in the creation literature of the world.
Scenario 4 - God spoke his words of creation over six days
This view suggests that on each of the recorded days God spoke his intention. Thus, on Day One God spoke his intention of creating light, on Day Two of creating the earth's atmosphere, and so on. After each spoken word a parenthesis is added to show the consequence of that word. This view is based upon two well-established Biblical principles: that when God has foreordained something, it is often spoken of as if it had already happened - though the outworking of it may take considerable time, in this case millions of years; and the widespread use of parentheses in Scripture. This interpretation fits in well enough with the rest of the Bible, and yet allows unlimited time for the outworking of God's creative words, with some overlapping of the events recorded.
This way of understanding Genesis 1 was published by F. H. Capron in 1902, tucked away in the middle of a massive book on other matters. It made little impact and lay forgotten until discovered by Dallas Cain who published it in a paper Creation and Capron's Explanatory Interpretation in 1982. It is argued for fairly convincingly by Alan Hayward in Creation and Evolution.
Scenario 5 - The "days" represent unspecified ages
Some of the arguments to support this view are spelled out well by Dr Hugh Ross in Creation and Time. I summarize them as follows:
Since God is not subject to biological cycles, his rest period is completely flexible. The emphasis in Exodus 20 is on the pattern of one out of seven, not the literal duration of the days of creation. Just as the priests served "at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven" (Hebrews 8:5), the days demarked by the rotation of the earth are copies and shadows of the days distinguished by God in the Genesis creation record.
The purpose in listing these arguments is not to say that they are necessarily correct, but to show that a good Biblical argument can be made for assuming that the days of creation represent long periods of time. Some would say it is a stronger argument than that for 24-hour periods. I have given some space to this as it is a crucial one to the whole debate.
Perhaps also relevant to this scenario is George Knight's statement that the Authorised Version of the Bible has done us a disservice in its translation of Genesis 1:1: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." Grammatically, 'created' is in fact a participle which should read: "In the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth..." or, in better English, "When God began to create..." The legitimacy of this understanding is recognised by OT scholars. Newer Bible translations include as alternative readings:
"When God began to create the heavens and the earth..." RSV, CEV
"When God began to create the universe..." GNB
If it is correct to regard the days of Genesis 1 as referring to indeterminate lengths of time, then it is important to ask the question: Does the rest of the chapter fit in with the stages of creation revealed to us in the fossil record? If we allow for some overlapping, then the picture seems to fit in a remarkable way. If verses 1 and 2 can be regarded as an introductory statement, then Day One could refer to the initial creation of light in the big bang, resulting in the contrast of darkness much further down the track. Or maybe it refers to the first rays of light penetrating the earth's atmosphere. The chapter is written from earth's perspective, as this is the focus of God's ultimate purpose.
As the earth cools, then the moisture surrounding it condenses to form a clear division between the oceans and the moisture in the atmosphere. Day Four does not represent the original creation of the sun, moon and stars, but rather the point at which their light shines on the earth sufficiently to create seasons, and therefore to govern the day and night. Previous to that, the amount of carbon dioxide that we know existed in the atmosphere, together with the moisture and other gases thrown up by multiple volcanoes, had prevented this.
This chapter does not align with the fossil record as precisely as some would require. For instance, reptiles are found lower down in the geological column than birds and fruit trees; sea mammals come after land mammals; and insects come before birds and sea mammals. However, this can be explained by a precise analysis of the Hebrew words used for living things in this chapter and also by the brief nature of the account given. The fact that the general picture fits is remarkable, particularly when it is compared with the creation stories of other cultures, of which we have many. In other accounts the gods create the universe like mere workmen, from pre-existing raw material - sometimes even from the carcases of other slain gods. Or from their own energy or qualities, oozing out to make a world. Or again, by some sexual process, with a consort, or even by masturbation as in some myths. For instance, the Babylonian account goes something like this. Marduk, tall, handsome and powerful, with four eyes and four ears, the loftiest of the gods, goes to battle with Tiamat, another of the gods. Having torn her belly, he cuts through her insides, splitting her heart. With his mace he crushes her skull. He splits her into two parts like a shellfish. With half of her he creates the sky and with the other half the earth!
In contrast to this Genesis 1 is simple, sober and restrained. The progression is orderly and complete. Where will you find another creation account that correctly orders even two of the dozen or so events mentioned here? The whole universe and each part of it owes its existence to the one God. And the general picture fits what is known today. I find it difficult to see how anyone could imagine that a passage such as this, written around 3,000 years ago, could not have been divinely revealed.
Scenario 6 - Prophetic poetry
This view declares that to look for any correlation at all between Genesis 1 and modern science is to miss the whole point of the chapter. Though not strictly poetry, there are certain characteristics which suggest we should regard it more as a "Hymn of Creation" than a factual statement in prose. Some of these characteristics are: a number of alliterations which are lost in translation; the prominent use of repetition; the anthropomorphic treatment of God's creative acts (he "speaks," "sees," "moves," "breathes"); the use of the numbers three, seven and ten in a very specific and coherent way (groups of 7 are especially significant in the Hebrew arrangement of this chapter); and places in the account where the words rhyme, which is also lost in translation. No scientific literature ever uses these kinds of literary devices. It bears some similarities to more poetic passages on the creation like Job 38:1,4-11 and Psalm 104.
Charles Hummel, in The Galileo Connection, gives an excellent discussion of this. He shows how the original Hebrew text divides up naturally into a series of eight poems, with repetitive endings and beginnings tying them all together into a pattern. Wiley's Christian Theology also does an excellent job of laying it out in such a way as to clarify its literary character.
Since the time of Herder (c. 1750) students have noted that it naturally falls into two related groups of three, thus:
Poetry was originally intended for saying out loud; what could be more natural than that God's six great fiats should be proclaimed in poetic form.
There is much more that could be said about the literary structure of this chapter. However, if it is not intended to be compared to a modern scientific document, then what is it intended to convey? The most obvious answer is that it was written to counteract the false mythologies and worldviews that existed in those days. This it does admirably.
Conrad Hyer, in Is God a Creationist? The Religious Case Against Creation-Science, edited by Roland Mushat Frye (1983), says:
In the light of this historical context it becomes clearer what Genesis 1 is undertaking and accomplishing: a radical and sweeping affirmation of monotheism vis-a-vis polytheism, syncretism and idolatry. Each day of creation takes on two principal categories of divinity in the pantheons of the day, and declares that these are not gods at all, but creatures - creations of the one true God who is the only one, without second or third. Each day dismisses an additional cluster of deities arranged in a cosmological and symmetrical order.
On the first day the gods of light and darkness are dismissed. On the second day, the gods of sky and sea. On the third day, earth gods and gods of vegetation. On the fourth day, sun, moon and star gods. The fifth and sixth days take away any associations with divinity from the animal kingdom. And finally human existence, too, is emptied of any intrinsic divinity - while at the same time all human beings, from the greatest to the least, and not just pharaohs, kings and heroes, are granted a divine likeness and mediation.
It is significant that the words "God", or "he" referring to God, occur thirty-eight times in this chapter.
God said -
In other words, whatever happened, God was behind it all. In this respect Genesis 1 not only stood against false philosophies of 3,000 years ago, but false philosophies of any age. In its God-centredness it contradicts the materialism, secularism and humanism that is rampant today. In its statement of the goodness of creation it contradicts those philosophies that see this material world as something bad from which we must escape. In the distinction it makes between the Creator and his creation it contradicts much that is found in New Ageism and some Eastern religions. In its clear statement of the qualities it gives to humans, it contradicts those who would blur the distinction between us and the rest of living things.
Although, as suggested under this heading, Genesis 1 has poetic qualities, in contrast to popular poetry its main purpose is to teach rather than entertain; in contrast to allegory, it has a strong historical element; in contrast to human speculation, it is revelation; and in contrast to legend, it is unembellished. It is a great prophetic message, with roots in eternity and its fruit in history.
James Packer, in God's Words, has five points which sum up very well this approach to the chapter:
the narrative is a celebration of the fact of creation and of the Creator's wisdom, power and goodness, rather than an observational monitoring of stages in the creative progress;
the story focuses not on the cosmic system as a system, but on the Creator apart from whose will and word it would not at this moment exist;
the narrative method is imaginative, pictorial, poetic and doxological [expressing worship] rather than clinically descriptive and coldly prosaic in the deadpan scientific manner;
the Earth-centredness of the presentation reflects not scientific naivety about the solar system and outer space, but theological interest in man's uniqueness and responsibility under God on this planet;
the evident aim of the story is to show its readers their own place and calling in God's world, and the abiding significance of the Sabbath as a memorial to creation, rather than to satisfy curiosity about the details of what happened long ago.
Scenario 7 - Symbolic interpretation
This interpretation is not, strictly speaking, relevant to the main issues of this booklet, but I give it here for those who may find it of interest.
Sometimes, particularly in the Old Testament, we find passages that have a primary historical application, but which display a secondary meaning in picture form, illustrating truths that are expressed more clearly in the New Testament. One has to be careful in giving this kind of secondary meaning, as it is possible to be carried away with all kinds of fanciful interpretations. Usually, however, the Bible itself gives some clear guidelines.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, gives us the first clue here by illustrating Christian conversion from Genesis 1:1-3, Day 1: "For God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." The emptiness and lack of fulfilment experienced in the life without Christ are transformed by the light of his presence.
Following on from this the following have been suggested:
Day 2 Once a person has received Christ into their life they begin to breath a new atmosphere, the atmosphere of heaven itself. Also a clearer division comes between those things which are of God and those which are of earth (1 John 2:15,16).
Day 3 Where the third day is mentioned in the Old Testament there is often a picture of resurrection. Here the land appears above the waters and new life springs forth.
Day 4 Jesus is spoken of as the "Sun of righteousness" (Malachi 4:2). John uses the moon as a symbol of the church (Revelation 12:1). It has no light of its own, only that which it reflects (2 Corinthians 3:18). God declares that those who lead many to righteousness will shine "like the stars for ever and ever" (Daniel 12:3). Our present responsibility is to be "blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life..." (Philippians 2:15,16).
Day 5 The turmoil and confusion of peoples and nations is sometimes likened to the restless oceans (Isaiah 5:30; 57:20; Revelation 17:1). Christians are supposed to be fishing (Ezekiel 47:10; Matthew 4:19)!
Day 6 The creation of humans prefigures the time when Jesus, the "second man" (1 Corinthians 15:47), will reign over creation restored to its intended glory (Romans 8:21; Revelation 11:15) and the earth will indeed be fruitful (2 Peter 3:13).
Day 7 God's people enjoy his blessing and all that he has prepared for them in that day which has no evening (Ephesians 2:7).
This way of seeing the completeness of the gospel message anticipated in the Bible's first chapter may, of course, go along with any of the previous scenarios. It ties in with the divinely revealed character of all the sixty-six books that make up our Bible.
What does Genesis 1 really teach?