When examining the creation-evolution debate, there are two issues which are often erroneously conflated — the age of the Earth and the length of the creation period. Within the Christian community, we generally agree that this creative act took place, but disagree on two subsequent questions: How long ago did this creative act occur, and how long did it take? In my last blog, I discussed in some detail the age of the Earth, coming down on the side of the “progressive” or “old-Earth” view. In this blog, we’ll tackle the other half of the issue — how long did it take? Again, I remind readers that this is a completely secondary issue, a good topic for internal discussion and debate, but not a topic that should divide Christians.
So, how do we view the week of creation? Reading Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, we immediately see a clear pattern of “On the first day…on the second day…on the third day…”. The traditional/historic Christian view has been that these are literal, 24-hour solar days. Unfortunately, few who believe that have actually read closely the account in Genesis 1. Open to it. If you read the whole first chapter, carefully and critically, you should notice some problems. First and foremost, the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it is unlikely that the first three days are solar days. Even worse, if the sun and the lights in the sky weren’t created until day four, where did the light come from on the first day? Furthermore, the plants and vegetation were all created on day three…how could photosynthesis occur without the sun? Sure, plants could probably survive for a day without the sun…but why would God create plants that require sunlight to survive, but not create the sun yet? These are just a few problems, you could probably ferret out a few more if you read closely. Young-Earth creationists have worked hard to develop coherent answers to these questions, and some do address the concerns intelligently.
But if the days in Genesis 1 and 2 don’t refer to literal 24-hour days, what do they mean? Well, taking into account both a critical reading and the old-Earth/progressive view discussed in my prior blog, they certainly don’t mean 24-hour days. It turns out that in this case the Hebrew language is not a whole lot different from how we use language. At times, we use “day” to refer to the period of daylight (“during the day” versus “during the night,” a period of about 8 – 10 hours). Other times we use it to refer to an entire 24-hour period (as in “the day before yesterday”), or an entire indefinite period (“back in my grandfather’s day”). In English, that one word can refer to 8 – 10 hours, 24 hours, or an entire epoch/age/generation. Not surprisingly, it’s the same in Hebrew. The Hebrew word “yom” is the word translated “day” in Genesis 1 and 2. Does it have to mean 24 hours, as most if not all young-Earth creationists would support? The answer is no. Even in the first few cases of Genesis 1, it specifically states, “…and there was morning, and there was evening, the first day.” From morning to evening may actually be closer to our use of the word to refer to dayLIGHT — the 8 – 10 hour period — not a 24-hour day. To make matters worse, look ahead to Chapter 2 of Genesis, specifically 2:4. Depending on the version of your Bible, it might say, “This is the account of the heavens and the Earth in the day they were created.” Other translations say, “in the time” or “when” they were created. Point is the same, and you may have guessed it — the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:4 is the same word “yom,” used here to mean the entire creative period. Advance to Genesis 4:3, and it says (again depending on the version of the Bible you use), “In that day, Cain brought forth…” or perhaps “In the course of time, Cain brought…” At this point, you can probably guess. Genesis 4:3 is also the same Hebrew word, “yom,” here used to mean an entire indefinite period.
While there are other factors (such as the use of the ordinals “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth before the word yom), the point is that there is nothing in context, in language, or in interpretation that requires the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days. That doesn’t mean they aren’t, it just means the text doesn’t require it. In fact, the context and the chapters that follow seem to indicate precisely the opposite, that these are NOT 24-hour days. As we’ve seen, “day” in Genesis is variously used to mean the period of daylight (Genesis 1:5, 8, elsewhere), the entire creative “week” (Genesis 2:4), or an indefinite period of time (Genesis 4:3). Add to this the previously-discussed fact that the first four days are likely not solar days (since the sun didn’t exist yet), and the seventh day — God’s creative or Sabbath rest — is still ongoing (Hebrews 4), and the argument that Genesis 1 refers to seven literal, 24-hour days starts to quickly break down. I know that’s a lot to wrap your arms around — so let’s put it all together.
1. The text in Genesis does not mandate a literal, 24-hour day or a 7-day creation. In fact, such an interpretation causes significant problems with the Genesis 1 text, and makes other areas of Genesis (chapters 2 and 4) problematic.
2. The genealogies in Genesis and Leviticus contain significant gaps and overlaps (see my previous blog).
3. The ages of the individuals in the Old Testament may be symbolic, not literal.
4. Nearly all of the evidence we see today, in nearly every field of natural study (science), indicates that the Earth is far older than the 6000+ years presented by many young-Earth creationists.
I could go on, but you get the point. In my view, the earth is many millions, perhaps billions, of years old, the creative “days” refer to vast periods of time, animals and other living creatures (Genesis 1:20 – 24) were created well before mankind, and many had become extinct (including the dinosaurs) before mankind was created. We did not live simultaneously with the dinosaurs. Please understand, this view is entirely consistent with both scripture and our current understanding of science. Though some will object, there is nothing wrong with using science or natural observation to inform our reading of scripture. Twice before the church has made this error, at one time believing the Earth to be the center of the solar system (some said the universe), and later concluding based on scripture that the Earth is flat. Both of these views — like young-Earth creationism, the traditional and historic Christian perspective — were eventually abandoned in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Perhaps young-Earth creationism is next or perhaps it will endure, I don’t know. One last note — please don’t make the mistake of thinking that believing in an old Earth equates to supporting Darwinian evolution. That’s a completely separate matter.
Hello, friendly young-earth creationist here to offer the other side on some points you make here:
>If you read the whole first chapter, carefully and critically, you should notice some problems. First and foremost, the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it is unlikely that the first three days are solar days.
A day is not classified by the sun, a day is classified by the complete rotation of the earth. A YEAR is classified by the sun.
Yes, everyone agrees YOM can have multiple meanings. The way you distinguish is by context clues. In Gen1 YOM is always preferenced by qualifiers “evening, then morning” and “the first”, “the second”, etc. That qualifies YOM as a normal 24-hour day. Gen2 does not use that qualifier.
Thanks Tim! Great comments, and I do appreciate your perspective.
First, I assure you I understand how days and years are measured ;-). The point is, those markers that God has provided to “mark sacred times, days, and years” – the sun, moon, and stars – are not created until day four. That’s clear from Gen 1:14. One could question where the light came from for the first three days, but that doesn’t trouble me.
Second, I’ve often heard the argument that the ordinals or qualifiers before “yom” indicate that it is a normal 24-hour day. While this could be the case, it does not have to be. That is, your interpretation of Scripture is a permissible reading but it is not mandated by the text. There is no rule in Hebrew language that says a ordinal or qualifier before “yom” indicates a literal interpretation of the day. There are numerous other places – both in the Bible and other Hebrew writings – where a qualifier before “yom” doesn’t mean a literal day (such as Zechariah 14:7 – 9). Simply stating that when “yom” is used with qualifiers or ordinals it refers to a 24-hour day is false – that rule is not recognized by Hebrew scholars, it is not consistent throughout Hebrew writings, and it’s not even consistent throughout the Bible. Similarly (as discussed in my first point above), there was no sunrise or sunset in the first three days, therefore I don’t think we can consider the “morning” and “evening” referred to there as marking the passage of literal days or the rotation of the Earth.
Thanks for the reply! I do not see a similarity in the Zechariah verse. I see a mention of morning, but that is FAR from “evening, then morning, the 2nd day”. If someone said that phrase to you today, would you question what they meant? The clear reading is a literal day. There is very little objection to the idea that the author was clearly meaning to communicate six actual days. It’s abundantly clear, almost unnecessarily clear – like the author knew there would be questions about it.
God did create light on day one, therefore – yes there could have been day and night before day four. What was that light? Some would say it was God himself, who is often referred to in scripture as light.
The Zechariah verse is similar in that it also uses an ordinal prior to “yom”, but it does not mean a 24-hour day. If someone said that to me today, it would be very clear — because I’ve seen many sunrises and sunsets. My point is that God’s divinely ordained and created means of measuring days and years were not created until day four (Gen 1:14), so it seems a stretch to me to impose those measurements on days 1 – 3. They may be literal days, they may not be…but the scripture doesn’t require or mandate that they be 24-hour days.
Respectfully, your statement “there is very little objection to the idea that the author was clearly meaning to communicate six actual days” is simply false. Many great and highly respected theologians and apologists do not believe Gen 1 to refer to literal 24-hour days — Dr. William Lane Craig, Dr. J.P. Moreland, Gregory Koukl, the list is long. There are objections to this idea from the theological community, apologetic community, and certainly scientific (including many Christians like me) and secular communities. Others whom I greatly respect, such as John Mark Reynolds and Paul Nelson, defend the young Earth (literal day) view. This is a great and ongoing discussion, but to suggest that there is “very little objection” to the literal day view is false. Thanks again!