Genesis Creation Account vs. Science
When Science Seems to Contradict Scripture
A professor once beautifully described Scripture as God’s portrait to humankind. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance times, nobles and aristocrats sat for artists to paint their portraits. Some of these still surviving portraits give us an idea of what people in previous centuries looked like. For example, we know what Vincent Van Gogh may have looked like because of his various self-portraits (although he was by no means a rich aristocrat). In the same way, if we want to know what God looks like, the Bible is His self-portrait to us.
How then should Christians respond when new information arises that seems to contradict Scripture? In the last few centuries, the field of science has produced a lot of new information that seems to directly contradict what Scripture asserts about the universe. One famous example is when Galileo proved Copernicus’ theory that, the earth and other planets revolved around the sun, and not the other way around as was believed. This was a revolutionary discovery indeed! Now, as one author notes, the Church had an option of three possible reactionary responses: (1) Doubt the words found in the Bible and adopt the new information, (2) Reject the new information, (3) Revise its view of biblical interpretation because the facts of science and history had shed new light on the universe. So how did the Church in Galileo’s day react? Well, sadly they chose option two. They prosecuted and convicted Galileo of heresy, banned his books and teaching, and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life!
Scientific Discovery about the Universe
The Creation Account is an important biblical story that modern science seems to contradict. According to Genesis 1:1-2:3, God created the heavens and the earth in six days. Biblical chronology dates the earth as being several thousand years old. However, according to scientists the earth was gradually formed over billions of years, 4.54 billion years, give or take 50 million years, to be precise. Geological research – which is the study of earth materials – has calculated, according to the radiometric method, that the oldest earth rock is approximately 3.6 billion years old. As well, they have found the age of meteorites to be about 4.5 billion years and moon rocks to be about 4.6 billion years old. Using Astronomical research, some nuclear and astro-physicists have been able to use data from light travel-time, the makeup, mass and temperature of some stars to calculate the ages of stars to be about 10 billion years old. From these dates scientists conclude that the whole solar system must be approximately 5 to 10 billion years old; and the age of the galaxy to be about 15 to 20 billion years old.
‘Young Earth’ View
Young Earth adherents reject these scientific data. They believe that the words in Scripture should be taken literally. They maintain that the Creation Account, as told in Genesis, must not be reinterpreted or reimagined to suit science. They argue that the Hebrew word for ‘day’, yom, is not to be interpreted as anything other than a 24-hour period. Using the genealogical accounts found in Genesis and their own scientific research, Young Earth adherents have dated the earth to be no older than 10,000 years.
In refutation to the Geological findings, Young Earth adherents capitalize on the admitted weaknesses of the radiometric dating method to refute its results entirely. In rebuttal to the antiquity of the universe, Young Earth adherents propose that the earth seems old because God created it with “an appearance of age”. Therefore, yes, the dating of matter yields an age of billions of years, but that’s because matter began as extremely aged to begin with. Think of the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The earth, they suggest, is like Benjamin Button, it was born old!
Similarly, in refutation to the Astronomical findings, Young Earth adherents suggest that the data using light travel-time may not be accurate because, as one author puts it, perhaps sometimes “light may take a “short-cut” as it travels through deep space.” He also proposes that “the speed of light may have been considerably faster in the past.”
These counterclaims by Young Earth adherents have not been received positively in the scientific community. They are certainly fringe views rather than the mainstream.
‘Old Earth’ View
Old Earth adherents also believe in the authority of Scripture. However, unlike Young Earth adherents they do not hold to the view that the Bible must always be taken literally. As such, they accept the scientific data regarding the age of the earth. They argue that it is not the authority of Scripture that scientific data challenges but its interpretation. For example, when Galileo proved via his telescope that the earth revolved around the sun, he was not disproving the Bible itself but the current-day interpretation of Psalm 96:10 which says:
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns.”
The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.
Psalm 96:10 (NIV)
One scholar aptly observes that the Church erroneously read the verse as “scientific”, rather than taking the remark on its own terms, that is theologically. The focus of the verse is on God’s character and not on the characteristics of the planet earth. In the same way, Old Earth adherents believe that the Creation Account, when interpreted correctly, is not disproved by scientific data but is rather confirmed by it.
One idea amongst Old Earth adherents is the ‘Day-Age theory’. It proposes a more flexible understanding of the Hebrew word for ‘day’, yom. This theory suggests that the six ‘days’ mentioned in the Creation Account should be thought of, not as 24-hour periods, but as longer periods of time, or ages. In this view, the universe developed slowly over ages, thus correlating with scientific data. The Day-Age theory has received criticism among some scholars because, in their view, the loosened translation of the word ‘yom’ is linguistically weak. The predominant meaning of yom in the Old Testament is either (1) daylight, the time when the sun is up, or (2) a 24-hour period that includes daylight and nighttime. The understanding of yom to mean age lacks biblical linguistic support.
The linguistic argument for the Day-Age theory is in fact faulty but I believe the concept is sound. Based on scientific facts, it is not implausible to suppose that God created the universe in a gradual manner. One scholar recommends for the Day-Age concept to be thought of anthropomorphically. Anthropomorphism is attributing human features, like physical form or emotions, to a non-human entity, such as a deity. For example, when the Bible talks about God’s face, or hand, or back, these are anthropomorphic descriptions of God. This scholar argues – and I agree with him – that the timeframe described in Genesis 1-2 should be thought of anthropomorphically rather than literally. The Bible says this about God, in relation to the concept of time:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
2 Peter 3:8 (NIV)
If this verse were to be understood literally, then one day equals exactly a thousand years in God’s calculation; but that, in my view, misses Peter’s point. I believe the intent of this verse is to highlight the infinite nature of God. Because God exists outside of our finite timeframe, his activities must not be confined to our understanding of time. Therefore, when we say that God created the universe in six 24-hour days, we are ascribing our finite, human concept of time to his creative activities, similarly to the way we ascribe human attributes to his being.
Theistic Evolution vs. Progressive Creationism
The Day-Age theory is an attempt to explain the duration of creation. The Old Earth adherents have also proposed concepts to describe the process of creation that holds both the scientific and biblical data to be true. One such view is Theistic Evolution or Evolutionary Creationism. Adherents to this view fully accept the theory of evolution but propose God to be the active agent in the process. Scientists have generally rejected this concept because they believe it is a sloppy attempt to co-opt the theory of evolution into a religious understanding. As well, some Old Earth adherents disklike this view because it accepts the evolutionary theory that all living matter, including human beings, originated from a common organism. This, they argue, denies the Biblical assertion that God made the different species and vegetations “according to their kind”, and made humans “in God’s image”.
As a corrective to the Theistic Evolutionary view, Old Earth adherents have proposed the idea of Progressive Creationism. This approach still holds to the belief that God’s creative process occurred gradually over a long period of time. However, it proposes a biblical explanation for the flaws it perceives with theory of evolution. For example, one Old Earth scholar notes that the theory of evolution lacks an explanation for the “absence of transitional forms between separate species”, as well as “the sudden appearance of several main divisions of the animal kingdom” in fossil evidence. These phenomena which the theory of evolution fails to account for, he says, can be explained by the Creation Account. There are periods of spontaneous and multiple bursts in the creation process because on Day 3, God created plants and trees, and on the Days 5-6, He created air, sea and land animals.
Biblical Account vs. Ancient View: Similarities
Even with the ‘Old Earth’ explanations of the Creation Account, the function of Genesis 1-2 is primarily theological rather than scientific. Our modern conception of science – the empirical study of matter – did not exist the Old Testament worldview. The ancient Near Eastern (ANE) region, which comprised of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and the Canaanite region where ancient Israel was located, all held to a very a similar worldview.
For example, the Genesis account of how the universe was created is not unique to Israel. Historians have discovered that Genesis 1-2 bears a very striking resemblance to Egyptian and Babylonian creation accounts. Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account, bears the most similaries. In that story, the gods Marduk and Tiamat engaged in a cosmic battle in which Marduk defeated Tiamat. Marduk then split Tiamat’s body into two and with one half he created the sky and its celestial bodies, and with the other he created the earth. Marduk then instructed the god, Ea, to create human beings from the blood of another vanquished god, Kingu.
One of the most notable parallels between these two stories is the order or events. Both stories begin with primordial chaotic waters – in Enuma Elish these waters are the gods Tiamat and Anku – and darkness. Then, similar to Genesis, Marduk first created light, then an expanse between the waters. Next, he created dry land, the sun, moon and stars, and finally humankind. After the work of creation, the gods rested and celebrated, just like in Genesis.
Along with a similar cosmogonical outlook, Israel also shared in the general ANE worldview regarding the structure of the universe. These ancients believed that the earth was flat, surrounded above and below by cosmic waters, and supported upon pillars. The sun and moon were thought to revolve around the earth. The sky was considered to be a solid tent or dome onto which the stars were etched, and rain was the result of cosmic waters falling through openings in the sky dome.
Biblical Account vs. Ancient View: Differences
The crucial point at which the biblical account diverges from the ANE worldview is regarding the question of who created the universe and why. It is these theological questions that the author of Genesis primarily intends to answer. He makes it clear that creation was not a result of activities between several gods but was the sole act of one God, Yahweh. In the ANE worldview the sun, moon and stars were worshipped as gods. The Biblical account, however, portrays these celestial bodies simply as created things. Finally, in ANE worldview, human beings were an afterthought, the very bottom of the hierarchical structure of created things. They existed mainly as slaves to tend to the needs and whims of the gods. Not so in the Biblical account. Here, humankind was the pinnacle and culmination of God’s creation. The universe was created and fully furnished to be the dwelling place of human beings who were meant to enjoy a loving relationship with their Creator.
When Genesis 1-2 is read in its original context, it quickly becomes plain that the story was not written to answer a scientific question, but a theological one. Its primary purpose is not to provide detailed descriptions about how the earth was created. Rather, it serves as an introduction to the Creator and His relationship with His creation. Both the Creation Account and the proven scientific data about the cosmos are true, and together they serve to paint a more complete picture of God’s creative activities of the heavens and the earth.
- John Walton Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Genesis
- Gordon J. Wenham Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 1
- Tremper Longman III The Story of God Bible Commentary: Genesis
- A. Speiser The Anchor Bible: Genesis
- Frederic R. Howe The Age of the Earth: An Appraisal of Some Current Evangelical Positions (Part 1 & 2)
- John Collins How Old is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3
- C. Lucas Some scientific issues related to the understanding of Genesis 1-3
- history.com (April 12 Galileo accused of Heresy)
- nationalgeographic.org (Age of the Earth)
- thecanadianencyclopedia.ca (Geological Dating)