Saturday, 8 June 2013

The days of Genesis 1 cannot refer to consecutive creation events

The central core of young earth creationism - the belief that God created the entire universe in six consecutive 24 hour days 6000 years ago is false. We know that the Earth is around 4600 million years old [1] while the universe is around 14 thousand million years old. This alone invalidates young earth creationism as it asserts that the Earth is older than the sun, moon and stars, a position which is simply untenable in light of what we know from astronomy.

Well before Darwin published his landmark book "On the Origin of Species", geologists had uncovered enough evidence to show that the Earth was much older than 6000 years, and the sedimentary deposits could not have been deposited by a global flood. Contemporary special creationists not only are wrong, but are ignorant of the history of geology which would have shown them that the ideas they advance today were dismissed well before Darwin's thesis. The evangelical geologist Davis Young observes:
The speculations of modern creationism, like those of seventeenth century diluvialism, know no bounds. While seventeenth and eighteenth century cosmogonists can be pardoned as children of their times who had little empirical data to constrain the bounds of speculation, current scientific creationist ideas are puzzling in view of the abundance of empirical data that invalidate them. Although today’s literalism presents a semblance of scientific sophistication, it has largely ignored the vast wealth of empirical geological data that have come to light during the past 300 years that rule out a global deluge and a recent creation. There is no way that the literalistic approach to Genesis 1–11 can be sustained without appealing to miracle at every point at which scientific data conflict with a literal rendering of the biblical text. [2]
Arguments against young earth creationism predate Darwin's theory of evolution, so it is somewhat inaccurate for young earth creationists to allege that strong consensus among educated 19th century Christians arguing for an ancient earth and against flood geology was a craven capitulation to atheism. What motivated this abandonment of young earth creationism was the weight of evidence against a literal reading of Genesis.

This did not mean that 19th century Christians abandoned the idea that the sequence of creative events in Genesis 1 could be harmonised with the geological record. Ideas such as diluvianism (flood geology) and neptunism (the belief that the Earth was covered by the sea, and that eventually dry land emerged) could not be reconciled with what a careful examination of the Earth showed. Young notes that:

Numerous discoveries pointed toward a long, complex, dynamic earth history that was totally incompatible with a global flood, and newer studies in the early nineteenth century indicated that rocks formerly interpreted as chemical precipitates from a universal ocean had cooled from intensely hot liquids injected into the overlying fossil-bearing strata.”  Stratigraphic evidence also made it clear that the ocean had repeatedly advanced on and retreated from the landmasses: it had not simply retreated uniformly. Moreover, successive advances and retreats had been accompanied by significant extinctions of large quadrupeds. Neptunism, like diluvialism, rightly fell by the wayside. Although both diluvialism and neptunism had temporarily provided useful frameworks for integrating theories of earth history with the meager data available at the time and had served as stimuli to further geological research, the time had come for them to be discarded. Diluvialism and neptunism could no longer adequately account for the wealth of geological data that were known by the early nineteenth century.
The recognition of the earth’s vast antiquity caused little alarm among leading British and American Christian geologists of the early nineteenth century. Many of the great geologists of that era were devout and enthusiastic Christian believers who were fully committed to the infallibility of Scripture. Thus, even though Scripture played a diminishing role in professional technical geology, many geologists developed popular treatments of ways in which the results of geology could be related to biblical teaching. Many of these geologists sought to demonstrate how Scripture was fully compatible with the latest discoveries of geology. The golden age of concordism had arrived. [3]

Two popular concordist approaches were the day-age theory and the gap theory. Put simply, the day-age theory argued that the days of Genesis were actually long periods of time, while the gap theory argued that Gen 1:1 referred to an initial creation of heaven and earth, with an indefinite length of passing from that initial creation to the events in Gen 1:2 and onwards. Both approaches allowed Christians to attempt a reconciliation of the facts of geology with a reading of Genesis which viewed the events described as corresponding to periods of the Earth's history.

Both approaches are unsustainable however, and have largely been abandoned by serious Christian scholars. The problem with the gap theory is that there is no evidence in the geological record that the earth was subjected to a global devastation that made it 'without form and void'. The day-age theory suffers from the fact that it is hard to imagine how plants could be created on the third 'day-age' and survive untold years without pollination from the bees and birds created on the fifth 'day-age'. Many people forget that life does not exist in isolation, but as part of a complex ecosystem which could not be created in piecemeal fashion.

There are also strong Biblical arguments against interpreting Genesis 1 as a consecutive sequence of creation events (day or age) and that is that this results in a flat-out contradiction with the sequence of creation in Genesis 2. As the OT scholar Peter Enns notes, there are significant differences between the creation accounts in Gen 1 and Gen 2 which are difficult to harmonise:

Duration of creation: Six days versus one day (Gen 2:4 "in the day")
Sequence of creation: (Light, firmament, dry land, plants, sun, moon and stars, birds and fish, land animals and humans) versus (Adam, garden, animals and Eve)

As Enns says:

"[t]hese two stories are clearly significantly different, and they cannot be harmonised by saying that the first gives the overview and the second fills in some of the details. [4]

The Biblical scholar Meredith Kline, writing over 50 years ago likewise noted that reading the creation days in Gen 1 as a consecutive sequence of events places it in direct conflict with Gen 2:

[It] was the work of the "third day" that the waters should be gathered together into seas and that the dry land should appear and be covered with vegetation (Gen. 1:9-13). All this according to the theory in question transpired within twenty-four hours. But continents just emerged from under the seas do not become thirsty land as fast as that by the ordinary process of evaporation... "The results, indeed, approach the ludicrous when it is attempted to synchronize Gen. 2:5 with Genesis 1 interpreted in terms of a week of twenty-four-hour days. On that interpretation, vegetation was created on what we may call "Tuesday". Therefore, the vegetationless situation described in Gen. 2:5 cannot be located later than "Tuesday" morning. Neither can it be located earlier than that for Gen. 2:5 assumes the existence of dry land which does not appear until the "third day". Besides, would it not have been droll to attribute the lack of vegetation to the lack of water either on "Sunday" when the earth itself was quite unfashioned or on "Monday" when there was nothing but water to be seen? 
"Hence the twenty-four-hour day theorist must think of the Almighty as hesitant to put in the plants on "Tuesday" morning because it would not rain until later in the day! (It must of course be supposed that it did rain, or at least that some supply of water was provided, before "Tuesday" was over, for by the end of the day the earth was abounding with that vegetation which according to Gen. 2:5 had hitherto been lacking for want of water." [5]

Irrespective of whether one interprets the days as six consecutive 24 hour periods or six ages, the scientiic and Biblical evidence make either option hard to honestly accept. Young Earth Creationism is of course invalidated by the overwhelming evidence for an ancient earth. Old Earth Creationism in its concordist guise may well appear to be a better reading of both nature and Bible, but as Young notes, the lack of a consensus among its advocates is damning: 

A review of 300 years of literalistic and concordistic harmonizations between the biblical text and the results of empirical geological study shows that there has been absolutely no consensus among evangelical Christians about interpretation of the details of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood or about texts such as Psalm 104, Proverbs 8, or other wisdom literature that bear on the creation, the flood, or the physical character of the earth. There has not been a Christian consensus about the identity of the great deep, about the firmament, about the waters above and below the firmament, about what happened on the fourth day of creation, about the sequencing of events and their matching with the geological evidence, or about the nature of the fountains of the great deep. Given this history of extreme variation of understanding of these various elements of the biblical text, it is unwise to insist that the teaching of the biblical text on any of these matters is “clear and plain” or that one’s own interpretation is obviously what the biblical text has in mind. [6] 

The problem with YEC and OEC readings of the creation narratives is that they simply assume God is telling us how He created the universe, and forget that Genesis was not written originally for us, but for a community who lived thousands of years ago in a pre-scientific culture with presuppositions markedly different to ours. In short, we need to read Genesis through ancient near eastern eyes, not our own. Young notes:

I suggest that we will be on the right track if we stop treating Genesis 1 and the flood story as scientific and historical reports. We can forever avoid falling into the perpetual conflicts between Genesis and geology if we follow those evangelical scholars who stress that Genesis is divinely inspired ancient near eastern literature written within a specific historical context that entailed well-defined thought patterns, literary forms, symbols, and images. It makes sense that Genesis presents a theology of creation that is fully aware of and challenges the numerous polytheistic cosmogonic myths of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the other cultures surrounding Israel by exposing their idolatrous worship of the heavenly bodies, of the animals, and of the rivers by claiming that all of those things are creatures of the living God. The stars are not deities. God brought the stars into being. The rivers are not deities. God brought the waters into existence. The animals are not deities to be worshipped and feared, for God created the animals and controls them. Even the “chaos” is under the supreme hand of the living God. Thus Genesis I calmly asserts the bankruptcy of the pagan polytheism from which Israel was drawn and that constantly existed as a threat to Israel’s continuing faithfulness to the true God of heaven and earth. [7]

To summarise: Genesis is telling us who created the universe and why it was made, rather than how it was done in scientific detail.

This post first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Dalrymple GB "The Age of the Earth" (1991, Stanford University Press)

2. Young DA "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part 1)" Westminster Theological Journal (1987a) 49(1):31-34

3. Young DA "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part 2)" Westminster Theological Journal (1987b) 49(2):257:304

4. Enns P "The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say About Human Origins" (Brazos Press, 2012)

5. Kline MG "Because it Had Not Rained" Westminster Theological Journal (1958) 20:146-157

6. Young 1987b, op cit p 292

7. ibid, p 303