Creation Concerns Part 2

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.

Creation Concerns

I’ve been promising a post on creation and evolution ever since I touched on the topic in a previous blog. So, here we go — the first of a two-part blog on the issue. No doubt many of you may disagree with what you’re about to read, and that’s perfectly fine. I can’t stress strongly enough that this is a secondary issue — one about which Christians can disagree and discuss, but should not divide.

First, I believe in creation. I believe in the Bible, and I believe it to be the inerrant word of God. I am also a scientist, with four graduate degrees — three of them in engineering. For some, this may pose a problem — but not me, and I’ll tell you why.

Second, I am what some call an “old Earth” or “progressive” creationist. Some of you are ready to stop reading, but I’d ask that you stick with me for a few more paragraphs, and try to think clearly about this issue. Nearly every discipline of science — astronomy, cosmology, geology, anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, even chemistry and physics — provides considerable evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. I could cite thousands of examples, including distant starlight (known as anisotropic synchrony), sedimentation, the fossil record, ice cores, red shift in space, star ages, cosmological and gravitational constants, radiometric dating, the list goes on. Point is, science is nearly unanimous in this regard. Are there exceptions? Sure. There are a few places where the sedimentary layers are reversed. There are gaps in the fossil record. Radiometric dating is notoriously unreliable. There are inconsistencies in other places — but what we can’t do is use the exception to prove the rule.

Third, I find there to be very scarce credible scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 – 10,000 years old. However, there appears to be abundant Scriptural evidence that this is so. Answers in Genesis, one of the leading defenders of the Young Earth view, publishes a Biblically-based timeline that puts the Earth right at 6,000 years old.  The Institute for Creation Research also has some great resources advocating the young-Earth view. Hopefully, my clear-thinking readers are sensing the coming train wreck — if science gives us an old Earth and Scripture a young Earth, there is an apparent “conflict” between science and Scripture. This is a false dilemma — here’s why.

I call the concept “Dual Authorship.” God is the author of nature (Romans 1), and God is the author of Scripture (1 Tim 3, elsewhere). Understood accurately, the two will not — cannot — contradict each other. So, when you see a conflict between what you observe in nature and what you read in Scripture, you are doing one of the two inaccurately. Either you are observing nature incorrectly, or you are interpreting Scripture incorrectly. In my view, many Christians are far too quick to assume it is the former, and discount the possibility that they’re not reading the Bible accurately. When it comes to Genesis 1, this is precisely what we have — nature and Scripture apparently in conflict.

(NOTE: There are two separate issues at play here that are often conflated, but shouldn’t be. First, how long did it take God to create the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants? Second, how long ago did this creative act take place? They’re normally conflated since those who believe in a literal 7-day creation almost always also believe in a very young Earth, and those that believe in an old earth usually reject a literal 7-day creation in favor of other models. Let’s deal with the age of the Earth first.)

So, which is it? Are our scientific observations wrong, or is Scripture wrong? I’m sure you know by now that the answer is NEITHER. They’re in synch. How? Well, to get this answer, young-Earth creationists have to do some pretty fancy dancing. Normally they’ll rely heavily on a global flood (which is another issue altogether), and suggest that things like the Grand Canyon can happen in a matter of days if you have enough water and soft enough soil. Multiple layers of sediment may appear thousands or even millions of years apart, but only be days or months apart, due to flood geology. All of these are grand attempts, but they fall short in most serious investigations. But, we don’t have to try to force the observable, natural evidence into a preconceived notion of Scripture.

In fact, there is no discussion in the Bible about the age of the Earth. To get the age, scholars have to use the genealogies from Genesis and Leviticus and the ages of the key figures (Adam, Seth, Enoh, Lamech, the Kings, etc). I believe this is very shaky ground. These genealogies are NOT consecutive (they contain gaps), are NOT complete (many are missing multiple generations), and the ages of the individuals in question are not precise (it’s not like we have birth and death certificates for these folks). From a Jewish perspective, these genealogies are designed to show a general line of descent, not to be all-inclusive. The genealogies are not unlike those referenced in the New Testament, where we hear of Christ referred to as the “son of David,” although we know there were many generations between David and Christ (Matthew 12:23, Luke 1:32 & 18:39, elsewhere). Or when the Israelites as a whole are referred to as “sons of Abraham,” though we know that most are not directly his sons, just in his lineage.

In addition, many believe that the ages are not actual ages, but numerical representations of their lives. Both Hebrew and Greek authors and theologians were frequent practitioners of what is known as Gematria, or establishing theological and linguistic significance to numbers. We see this throughout the Bible, where certain numbers (often 40, 12, or 7) contain significance. You probably already know about these cases…for example, the number “7” in Scripture usually signifies perfection or completeness. How many times do I forgive my brother? “Not 7 times, but 70 times 7 (or 77 times).” Matthew 18:21-22. It’s not telling us to that we should keep count, and when we get to 77, it’s over…it’s telling us that we should ALWAYS forgive. There is no limit. Same with 40. How many years did the Hebrews wander? How many days did the rain last during the flood? How many days was Jesus tempted in the desert? We’re not sure what exactly “40” signifies, but it appears time and time again in Scripture, and carries great significance. How does this apply? Well, when we read that Lamech lived 777 years, this could be much like saying we forgive our brother 77 times. It’s not meant to be a precise count, it’s meant to tell us something of theological significance…perhaps Lamech lived a complete or nearly perfect life. That’s just one example of many…bottom line, using ages and genealogies to establish the age of the Earth, rather than scientific exploration and observation, is bad business.

So, in summary, we cannot create a false conflict between science and religion, and we cannot drive a wedge between how God has revealed Himself in nature and how He has revealed Himself in Scripture. The two are not incompatible or contradictory. The Bible is silent on the age of the Earth, and the use of genealogies to establish the age is unreliable and most probably inaccurate. On the other hand, God has also given us nature in abundance, as well as the tools and mental faculties to observe, test, measure, and draw conclusions from that general revelation. With notable exceptions, those observations, tests, and measurements clearly point to an Earth considerably older than the 6,000 – 10,000 years supposedly determined by the genealogies.

Can A Christian Believe in Evolution?

I’ve encountered many, many Christians who readily state “I don’t believe in evolution.” In my opinion, this is one of the most ill-informed and unhelpful things a Christian can say, especially to one who disagrees. More importantly, without sufficient context, it is a blatantly false statement. Let’s try to think through this clearly.

It depends on what you mean by evolution. If you define evolution simply as “change over time,” then evolution is not only common sense and easily proven, it is actually Biblical. Languages evolve, societies evolve, cities evolve, you get the idea. Evolution, in that context, is not in dispute, and should be accepted by all Christians.

Alternatively, if you define evolution as “the ability of a species to adapt to its environment,” this is also so certain that it nearly approaches common sense. Again, let me be clear — the ability of a species to adapt to its environment through inherited genetic traits, including natural selection — is not in dispute, and should not be opposed by clear-thinking Christians. This is commonly called “microevolution.”

Finally, if you define evolution as the “molecules to man” hypothesis, where every living thing on Earth shares a common ancestor and that life began as some pre-historic, single-celled organism which has since developed into the complexity and diversity of life we see today, this is where the Christian (and the non-Christian, by the way) can reasonably depart. It’s important to note, however, that the dispute over this issue it not solely religious. There is a significant debate within the scientific community as well about whether or not this “macroevolutionary” Darwinian model is true. In the wonderful words (paraphrased) of Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason, “The question isn’t whether a dog and a wolf share a common ancestor, I believe they probably do — it’s whether a whale and an avodado do.” For that is precisely with the macroevolutionary model teaches. At this point, clear-thinking Christians and non-Christians alike can reasonably dissent.

I hope you can see, when investigated a bit more closely, the refrain “I don’t believe in evolution,” when stated by Christians, is not only misleading, but rarely accurate. Similarly, affirming a belief in evolution to a certain degree does not mandate that we abandon the Biblical model (which I’ll discuss in a separate blog). There is nothing in the Bible that is inconsistent with natural selection or microevolution…and a clear-thinking Christian can readily affirm a belief in both the Bible and in evolution (properly characterized) without sacrificing their intellectual integrity or their Biblical foundation.