The text of Genesis 1 has become a liability for many Christians, especially in certain professions. In America (where 40% of the population believe in one-week creation), seminary teachers have been dismissed for publicly supporting evolution in Genesis. In the UK (where even two-thirds of Evangelical Alliance members reject one-week creation), some teachers have got into trouble for even mentioning it alongside evolution. I’m conscious that my own employment prospects may be reduced on both sides of the Atlantic by this article, because I’m resurrecting a minority view which supports both a literal sevenday interpretation and four-billion years evolution.
Scripture doesn’t give us facts which oppose those of science and history – it gives us additional facts. So instead of fighting over which side is right, we should ask ourselves, what would happen if we took the facts of both scripture and science seriously? On the one hand, the repeated ‘morning and evening’ in Genesis 1 implies these periods of time are literal days. On the other hand, while scientists are uncertain about many things, one thing all specialties agree on – from geologists to biologists and physicists – is that the earth is about 4 billion years old. Is it possible to find one theory or interpretation which fits both sets of facts?
Imagine you are God. How would you explain the history of the earth to Moses’ generation? They are just as intelligent as us, but in many areas have far less knowledge and vocabulary than we do. They could name more stars and plants than most of us, but they knew nothing about light years or genetics. One popular technique beloved by documentary journalists is to pick a few typical days at significant points in a complex process. For example, a documentary might outline how God established Israel in three days – when God parted the Red Sea, when he brought down Jericho, and when he caused Cyrus to release the Israelites from Exile – and describe each one through the eyes of an observer. Could God have chosen this method? Let’s look at Genesis chapter 1 again assuming that this is just what he did.
The first day God picks out to illustrate the story of his creation is one when the earth was no more than dust swirling around a solidifying core. An observer on the planet would have seen nothing but periodic light and darkness as the sun tried to penetrate this dense ‘atmosphere’.
The second day is at a much later time in the creation process: things are now cool enough for some of the atmospheric steam to have turned to water. Next God picks a day when volcanoes were erupting through the water and laying down land on which plants started to thrive. The fourth day is one when the plants and new weather systems had cleared the atmosphere sufficiently to reveal the sun and stars.
For his fifth day God selects a typical day when animals were abundant in the sea and air, though the impenetrable fern forests didn’t let many thrive on the land. And finally God chooses a day when the big animals had come – though the dinosaurs and others had already come and gone since the previously sampled day – and man was about to arrive on the scene.
This interpretation is, of course, only one way we can understand the text. It has literal days, each with a literal morning and evening, separated by millions of years. Another popular view is that ‘day’ meant a very long ‘period of time’, lasting millions of years, because the Hebrew word yom can mean a time period as well as 24 hours. The one-week creation view has three days with a literal “morning and evening” after the sun is created, preceded by notional ‘days” which are assumed to be the same length. In eternity we’ll probably find that no-one has grasped the full truth, but the underlying message is overwhelming loud and clear: God made everything, and we are his creation.
What stands out in this account is not the length of time creation took, but the fact that it took time at all. It’s something of a surprise to us modern readers: why doesn’t an omnipotent God simply snap his fingers and create everything instantly? We can’t account for this as simply following an ancient storyline – ancient readers would have been as surprised as ourselves, because their creation stories usually involved gods being attacked, raped and bisected. In contrast the credits at the end of Genesis 1 can truthfully say: ‘No gods were harmed during the making of this world!’
The style of Genesis 1 is also surprisingly impersonal. God isn’t even described as a builder or a father – only as a speaker and creator. If you removed the God phrases, you’d have a surprisingly scientific description: ‘In the beginning stars and planets formed and produced light…’ ‘Water divided into clouds and oceans…’ etc. This style doesn’t imply that God is impersonal or absent, but it is a startling contrast to ancient creation myths where gods do surprising, capricious and crazy things. The Genesis God is everywhere and doing everything, with a script that puts order into the world. It’s an approach that invites us to describe the world in the way that a scientist does – without attributing every individual event or action to the direct command of God.
All professionals need to use God-free language – in art, economics, retail, social care, or education – because we need to be able to discuss how things work without attributing specific actions to God’s decision, one way or the other. In order to work out how the world functions, we need to momentarily ignore God – otherwise we’d still attribute flashes of lightning to God’s anger. Stephen Hawkins has now concluded that the whole history of the universe can be described without reference to God. But the fact that we can describe the universe without mentioning God, doesn’t mean that he is absent. It means that God is the God of order who created a universe which is predictable.
Khrushchev, who sent the first cosmonauts into space, commented: ‘Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.’ But this is like an ant crawling across someone’s shoe and commenting: ‘I can’t see anyone on this hill.’ Actually there is nothing in Gagarin’s flight transcripts about not seeing God. In fact a close friend said he was a believer who campaigned for the rebuilding of a Moscow church. He could predict flight patterns and gravity, just as many modern scientists who are believers can predict things accurately in their own field, because he knew that God has created a consistent universe. Some philosophers look at the predictability of the universe and conclude that this makes God redundant. But Genesis 1 implies that God is actually revealed within this order, which is one of the wonders of his creation.
Rather than being a problem for believers, Genesis 1 allows us to maintain our integrity in secular professions and, at the same time, enables us to worship God as the creator and sustainer of the whole universe.
In favour of 6 days at intervals:
In favour of 6 long periods:
In favour of 6 consecutive days:
The early church and creationist theology:
Modern history of the Creation-Evolution debate: