By Paul Priest | 12 November 2021 |
Some religious viewpoints completely disregard the findings of science as it relates to the creation of the earth.
We Seventh-day Adventists, for example, have traditionally held a 6-day creation, 6,000-year chronology as a fundamental belief. This interpretation is based on Ussher’s flawed chronology, reinforced by Ellen White’s 20-plus statements that the earth is about 6,000 years old.
The position that we seem to have adopted is that if science and scripture disagree, scripture wins because it is divinely inspired.
Scripture is indeed God’s revelation. However, inasmuch as nature is God’s creation, shouldn’t nature inform our interpretation of Scripture?
In this essay, I’m going to suggest an interpretation of the Genesis narrative that is based on both science and scripture.
Chronologically, science wins
If the earth is indeed 6,000 years old, science would confirm that conclusion.
But it doesn’t. Not a single scientific measurement confirms a young earth. Science measures the age of earth at around 4.5 billion years old. These measurements have been repeated thousands of times using a variety of methods, and they agree within the limits of scientific error.
That suggests a high reliability of an old earth. Stromatolites, some of the first forms of life found in Shark Bay in Western Australia, are dated to 3.5 billion years (Prothero 153). Such scientific facts must inform our interpretation of Genesis.
Young earthers reject this science because it conflicts with their 6,000-year interpretation. But they shouldn’t.
Many old earthers, on the other hand, have assumed that these age measurements have disproved the Genesis narrative, and consequently discard scripture. This, too, is wrong.
Unfortunately, there are those who might consider the possible truth of Christianity until they encounter young earth creationism—but they then reject both the Bible and Christianity.
I remind you again: the God who created the universe also inspired the Bible. Both the Bible and science witness to the same creation event. They must agree. Multiple measurements showing an old earth speak to the incorrectness of the young earth model and call for a reinterpretation.
Science is the study of God’s creation. Rejecting science is rejecting God’s witness. Job counsels us to “speak to the earth, and it will teach you…” (Job 12:8). Isn’t this what science is about—searching out the truth of creation taught by nature?
Science should inform our understanding of scripture, and scripture should inform our interpretation of science.
The Genesis 1 creation story follows two patterns for each day. First, each day begins with “Then God said…,” and ends with, “And evening and morning were …”
Second, everything created on each day is said to be “good.”
All except the first two verses fit these patterns. Verse 2 says the earth was a water world before the beginning of creation. Thus we cannot date the earth from Adam’s genealogy. Ussher’s chronology for the age of the earth must be rejected along with its resulting theology.
Were the heavens and earth created at the same time?
Scripture says the universe was created by God.
While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there. (Prov. 8:26-27).
These verses imply two creations. The first is the creation of the heavens or universe; the second the creation of the earth. And so science confirms.
The first creation began with the Big Bang which occurred 13.77 billion years ago. This age is based on recent measurements made by the WMAP satellite. The second creation, the creation of the earth, occurred 9.3 billion years later—4.5 billion years ago. That age is established by radiometric dating and other methods.
God’s word as a seed
Scripture is clear that the universe was spoken into existence.
- “…the universe was formed at God’s command….” (Heb. 11:3).
- “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made” (Ps. 33:6).
- “He spoke and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Ps. 33:9).
Genesis 1 records eight statements of “and God said…” The words “command,” “spoke,” “said,” and “word” all show that the universe was spoken into existence. But what does that mean? It is a common perception that when God spoke, the universe instantly came into existence. But that isn’t what the Bible says.
The key to understanding these texts is the word “word.” Scripture says, “The seed is the word of God” (Lk. 8:11)—that is, God’s word is seed, not completion. This understanding is inclusive of all God’s words and commands.
If you split open a bean seed you can see the embryo of the bean plant: the bean plant is contained in the seed. In the same way an embryonic oak tree is in the acorn. This is true of all seeds.
In like manner the gift of God’s word is always in the word itself. He “…summons things that are not yet in existence as if they already were.” (Rom. 4:17 NEB). When God commands them, they are. Even though they may not exist at the moment, their existence is guaranteed because existence is embedded in God’s command.
When a seed is planted it doesn’t immediately pop into a mature plant; it takes time to mature. “First the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear” (Mk. 4:28). It requires years for an acorn to become a mature oak tree.
Things called into existence in creation week didn’t just pop into existence. The biblical assertion that “God’s word is seed” allows for great ages, not just 24-hour periods of time.
The laws of nature were established by God at the beginning (Jer. 33:25). Consequently, everything that happens in nature, from the beginning to the present, is governed by those laws.
Although the universe was made by God’s command, its formation was governed by the laws God established in the beginning. There is therefore no conflict in saying that it took 13.77 billion years for these laws to bring the universe to maturity, and it took 4.5 billion years for the earth to reach maturity.
Each day of the Genesis account of creation begins with “Then God said, ‘Let….’” The word “Let” implies God’s use of natural forces—using the laws of nature to bring about the outcome contained in the command. There is no contradiction here: the results of the forces of nature are indistinguishable from the acts of God, because God formed these laws at the beginning (Jeremiah 33:25). Everything that happens in nature is governed by these laws.
The word “let” provides a strong case for the creation days being more than literal 24-hour days. On day three, for example, dry land was separated from water, and then plants were created.
It stands to reason that it took more than 24 hours to thrust up the huge land masses of the earth, for had it occurred in half a day, the energy released would have turned the continents into a molten mass.
It takes more than 24 hours for a plant to be fully grown. The description of the events of the third day implies a considerable length of time.
On the fifth day, aquatic life and birds were created. Scripture says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth” (Gen. 1:22). The command to multiply and fill the earth is unlikely to occur in a span of a literal 24-hour day.
Let me add that the idea that God created things with the appearance of age would make God a deceiver. Trees with 100 years of growth rings, though only one day old, are a deception. It is impossible for God to lie (Heb 6:18). Therefore this didn’t happen.
Most translations of the day numbers of Genesis 1 are inaccurate. Most read “the first day,” “the second day,” and so on, using ordinal numbers.
However, the Hebrew text actually uses a cardinal number on day one. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates verse five correctly: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day”—that is, a cardinal number.
A second inaccuracy is with the use of the article “the.” The Hebrew text does not use the article “the” on the first five days. The NASB accurately translates the Hebrew for the sixth day as “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day” (v. 31). (Guy 149-150)
This unique presentation of the days suggests something other than a normal literal week. In fact, the Hebrew for day one (yom ahad) literally means “day absolutely unique” (Doukhan 26)—implying that the whole creation week is unique. It is unique in that it is not a normal human week: it is meant to describe God’s creative activities.
One may ask, “But doesn’t the evening and morning describe a literal 24-hour day?”
On the first day of creation God created light and separated light from darkness. He named the light day and the darkness He named night (v. 5). On the fourth day He created the sun and the moon to separate the day from the night (v. 14-18).
That is to say, on creation days one and four, day is first, followed by night. Yet the creation days consist of evening followed by morning. Here the Bible is making a distinction between our 24-hour solar days of day and night and the creation days of evening and morning.
Brian Bull and Fritz Guy in their book God, Sky, and Land, explain that the Hebrew word “Tob,” translated as “good,” is inaccurate. “Tob” means “function.” The phrase “God saw that it was good” should be translated as “functioned as God intended.” (Guy 150).
The original pre-creation earth is described as “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 2:2). Since “deep” and “waters are set in parallel, one can conclude that the earth at the beginning of creation week was a dark water world. Both darkness and water imply a chaotic, disordered and nonfunctional earth.
Each day of creation involves a progression from this dark, disordered, nonfunctional condition to one that is ordered and functional. Evening, the beginning of a creation day, addresses the disordered, nonfunctional state, while morning addresses the ordered, functional state.
Thus the meaning of the statement made at the end of each creation day: “God saw that it functioned as He intended.”
The seventh day has no evening and morning, implying that the disordered, nonfunctional condition of the precreation world had been transformed into an ordered and functional earth. Evening and morning did not describe a 24-day; rather, it described a progression from nonfunction to function.
Bull and Guy assert that the days of creation represent six archetypical days God used to establish the seventh day of the weekly cycle as a memorial of God’s creation (Guy 147-159).
The uniqueness of the creation week is in its archetypal nature.
Genesis 1 describes the transformation of earth from a water world to an inhabited world over a period of 4.5 billion years. Evolution, by definition, is change over time.
Genesis 1 describes that change: it is about the evolution of the earth. To deny evolution denies the authority of Genesis 1.
This essay presents a reinterpretation of Genesis based on a literal reading of the Bible text informed by science. I argue that read carefully and with nuance, the Bible and science agree.
- They agree that the universe had a beginning.
- They agree that the heavens were created first, then earth.
- They agree that the earth is old.
- Although scripture doesn’t give a precise age for the earth, it allows for an old age. In that sense science and the Bible agree.
- I have shown that Ussher’s chronology cannot be used to date the earth, and that that interpretation should be rejected.
- Progression—or evolution—is a natural outworking of the laws God established from the beginning
- That progression requires more time than a literal 24-hour creation.
- I have shown that the evening and morning of creation days do not represent 24 hours. They contain no time element. Rather, they represent a progression from nonfunction to function
- My conclusion is that the whole of Genesis 1 is really about evolution.
Isaiah 45:18 gives us an overview of the purpose of creation:
For this is what the Lord says: he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited. He says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
Doukhan, Jacques B. THE GENESIS CREATION STORY: TEXT, ISSUES, AND TRUTH. Loma Linda, CA: ORIGINS, 2004.
Guy, Brian Bull and Fritz. God, Sky and Land. Roseville, California: Adventist Forum, 2011.
Prothero, Donald R. Evolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Paul Priest earned an Ed.D. from Loma Linda University with emphasis in science education. He taught for 22 years in Adventist academies, and 22 years in public school. He lives in southern California.