11

Genesis seems to say that God created the Earth in six literal days ~4,000 B.C., and that there was a global flood ~2,000 years later that destroyed (almost) all life. It also claims that Earth was created before the stars, birds before land animals, and that all animals were vegetarian before The Fall. It "seems" to say this so plainly that for ~4,000 years, this was the prevailing belief among Jews and, later, Christians.

Moreover, Christ Himself made statements such as "From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female".

Many today believe however that the Earth is ~4.5 billion years old, humans are some hundreds of thousands of years old (some tiny fraction of a percent the age of the universe), and death and suffering reigned for millions of years before any humans existed. Clearly this is at odds with a "plain" reading of Genesis; at least the first nine chapters must be pure fantasy, and none of the genealogies can be trusted.

Someone made the claim that God's revelation is progressive. That may be, but that puts Genesis firmly in the "lies told to children" category. It also puts Christ in the same boat; why, for example, would He not choose a phrasing that isn't factually wrong (e.g. "from the start of history" or some such)?

If God lied to his people for thousands of years (and Christ perpetuated the lie), or if Genesis is simply not inspired, how can we trust anything about the Bible or Christ? If the origin of Sin and its consequences is a lie, and if death, disease and suffering are Very Good, how do we make sense of Christian theology?

Okay, that's a lot of questions, but the one I really want to ask is this: according to Trinitarians that deny a historical reading of Genesis, what is the purpose of this misleading narrative? Even if "we weren't ready", why include elements that are factually wrong but appear to make no difference, such as the wrong order of creation?


Some evidence that Christians prior to ~1800 AD believed predominantly that the Earth was created < 10,000ya:

  • This article on talk.origins (note the first sentence).
  • This paper.
  • This article.
  • There are various YEC resources floating around that give much more comprehensive lists of age-of-the-earth calculations done by Christians which mostly give a Creation date of ~3,500 BC - ~7,000 BC (with a few outliers, but all much less than 100,000 years).
  • Wikipedia also discusses the topic, and asserts that "an Earth that was thousands of years old remained the dominant view during the Early Modern Period (1500–1800)".

There were other beliefs prior to ~1800 AD, both Christian and otherwise, but to the best of my knowledge, belief in a "young" Earth prior to ~1800 AD was predominant, at least among Christians and Jews. Moreover, the Scriptures themselves (and even Christ, as noted above) generally refer to the Creation and Flood accounts as plain history.

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 28 at 15:27

7 Answers 7

17

When you say that Someone made the claim that God's revelation is progressive, I’m assuming that you are referring to our conversation. Allow me to offer some thoughts on your statement of: That may be, but that puts Genesis firmly in the "lies told to children" category.

God rarely reveals everything at once. To claim that the old covenants were “lies told to children” is just foolish. God can have reasons for not offering all of revelation to civilizations that are not prepared for the fullness of the truth. Not a single Israelite tribe would have a concept of genetics, cosmology, or metaphysics, at least not in any meaningful sense. Instead, God meets groups where they are at. To claim that this is perpetually lying would be to claim that teachers telling their students that there are 3 states of matter rather than 4 is lying. Of course it’s not lying, it’s just saving advanced concepts for later.

So I really reject this idea of “lying”. Withholding information till it’s appropriate is not lying. God not immediately sending his son to die on a cross is not lying nor is it bad.

So we’ve established your framing is wrong, but let’s still look at this question. What’s the purpose? Well that’s simple. I can think of a few key truths we can draw out of the story even if it isn’t literal. Stories can have purpose, regardless of the genre that the come from.

  1. God created all things
  2. He made man and women to marry and have dominium over all the creatures.
  3. Humanity frequently disobeys God, and the lord is just to enact justice on those who disobey.
  4. We have been corrupted by a fallen nature.

I’m sure there are more things to draw from that story, but those are 4 MAJOR ideas that still impact us today.

So the story doesn’t have to be literal to have a purpose.

A final point - you say that this view was held for thousands of years, but I don’t see how that’s remotely relevant. All Jewish people were anti-trinitarian, and a works based salvation system. Does that mean Jesus is not God and works apart from faith bring us salvation? Of course not!

19
  • 2
    BTW, I am going to have to take issue with your fourth point. If death, disease, suffering and carnivory have been around for millions of years, what exactly has been corrupted by The Fall?
    – Matthew
    Mar 25 at 17:26
  • 1
    @Matthew human sin nature is a possible answer
    – Luke Hill
    Mar 25 at 17:49
  • 3
    @Matthew I’m a theistic evolutionist. Kind of suprised you haven’t heard of that before.
    – Luke Hill
    Mar 25 at 17:50
  • 1
    God can have reasons for not offering all of revelation to civilizations that are not prepared for the fullness of the truth. Well-said, +1. I'd say that statement is true at any point in history, including the present. Mar 25 at 18:52
  • 2
    @LukeHill yes indeed! I believe the creation is one of God's means of revealing truth. He created a universe that obeys laws, and gave us minds that could test and discover those laws. Mar 26 at 1:26
7

tl/dr: The purpose of Genesis 1-9 is quite clear: to teach us where we came from, why our world is a mess, and why we need a savior. If you missed that part I suggest you go back and read it again :)

If you believe that the Earth is a sphere, then why does the Bible refer repeatedly to the Earth having four corners? Surely you don't believe that all dozen or so references to corners of the Earth are metaphorical? If you do, then where do you stop? Is the new testament metaphorical? Is Jesus' death and resurrection metaphorical??? Is God a liar and our faith powerless????

The Central Question

It all boils down to one question: when God wrote the book of Genesis, what was His goal? Did He intend to provide a precise, blow-by-blow description of exactly how He made it, or did He intend to help us understand our own origins and - more importantly - the fall (or maybe both)?

The main goal of the creation story is indisputable. The key takeaways from Genesis are the fact that God created a beautiful universe out of nothing through His spoken word, and that mankind rejected His perfect will and made a miserable mess of the place. These are, without question, the most important things we learn at the beginning of the Bible.

What else though? Did God also intend to provide a precise, blow-by-blow description of exactly how He brought our world into being? Quite frankly, I don't think there is anything in the Bible that lets us answer that with any certainty. I think that is much less critical than the main goal - helping us understand our origins. The Bible certainly is filled with allegory, parables, and metaphors. The story of creation can be any of those, and it need not cast anymore doubt on the Bible than Jesus did by telling parables. If you think that YECism is the only way to understand Genesis or else the whole Bible falls apart, then I suggest that you need to have a little more faith :)

Sure, many Biblical scholars throughout history believed that the creation story was meant to be a literal description of how creation happened. There were also many who didn't believe that. As always, the most important thing is to give grace on topics that are unclear, and for me this is clearly a topic on which the Bible is unclear.

Sad But True

Sadly, during my college years I spoke to many college students who had grown up in YEC families. They went to college, took some science classes, decided that everything they had been taught was a lie, and walked away from their faith. Of course, who knows whether or not YECism was really what drove them away from their faith, but I ask you: why give someone the excuse? I'm not saying that everyone should abandon YECism just because it doesn't fit in well with modern sensibilities. However, I would invite you to very seriously answer this question for me:

Do you think that YECism is a topic that is worth shipwrecking people's faith on?

If your answer to that question is YES!! then I would once again encourage you to have a little more faith.

Let's get crazy

Ironically, I think that some of the fervor for YECism is a result of drinking too deeply from the very same kool-aid that YECs accuse modern day scientists of drinking from. Regardless of how old it is, YEC is very much in line with the spirit of this age (and not in a good way).

"Scientists" like to understand everything analytically, have a precise understanding of the rules, have a detailed and accurate history book to review as needed. We expect and strive to have a perfect and clear understanding of everything around us and everything that came before us. We've used that mindset to do an amazing job of understanding physics, history, and the universe. We've used that knowledge to transform the world. I think that modern day YECs take that exact same mindset and incorrectly apply it to the Bible.

Just because you can read the creation story like a history book doesn't mean that God was writing a history book in the modern fashion. Frankly, I think it takes quite a lot of modern day hubris to look at the creation story in Genesis and say, "Ah yes, clearly God was writing this just like I would have if I had been there and taking notes, so I will interpret it that way". In essence though, this is exactly what YECism both believes and demands.

Let's get more crazy

So what does the creation story tell us about how the universe is made? I'm not sure, which is why I'm generally happy to let people believe what they want. Having the wrong belief in this area will not stop someone from believing in Jesus, despite the extreme importance that the Christian church seems to give this question. As a result, I've intentionally decided to not have an opinion on this topic. There are more important things to discuss.

However, I suspect that it is indeed factual, not a metaphor or allegory, and I also believe that the universe and Earth are billions of years old. I expect that the apparent disagreement between these two facts is just that - apparent and a result of our limited view and limited understanding of God's power. When we get to heaven, assuming we still care, I expect we'll get the full story from God and will be able to honestly say, "Yup, the book of Genesis got it perfect" while also saying, "Yup, the Earth really was quite old".

An Illustrative Example

Countless people in Jesus' day missed Him because they knew that the Bible promised the Messiah would come as a conquering king. When Jesus didn't meet their expectations, they refused to follow Him. The crazy part is that they weren't even really wrong. We know that Jesus will return again as that conquering King promised throughout the Bible. The Bible was true, it's prophecies were true, and Jesus is the Christ. The only thing wrong was people's interpretation of things. In exactly the same way, the Earth can be old and the Bible can be true. It's as simple as that.

1
6

why include elements that are factually wrong but appear to make no difference

I wanted to provide a less controversial example of when Jesus does exactly this.

Matthew 13:31-32, NIV translation:

He [Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

(bolding added by me)

I don't read Greek so I can't corroborate, but according to this website, this translation does seem to the justice to the original Greek (which was already a translation of Jesus's Aramaic)

Is the mustard seed the "smallest of all seeds"? No. Not even close. But is the mustard seed the smallest seed common in the middle east during the time when Jesus was on Earth? Yes! See this link for more details.

So, why didn't Jesus just say "Though it's a really small seed", or "Though it's the smallest seed in this area", or, "Though it's the 243rd smallest seed", or something like that? Well, I am not a theologian, but it seems to me that communicating effectively and memorably often involves things like hyperbole, stories, analogies, metaphors, etc. And that was apparently more important to Jesus than being scientifically accurate.

2
  • To be fair, another viewpoint on the "smallest of all seeds" part is that Jesus meant "smallest of all seeds in the area". Of course, this could have been what He meant. But it seems to me that if the mustard seed had ended up being the smallest of all seeds, we'd be touting it as "see, He was right all along!" In other words, I think this alternative viewpoint only occurred to people after it was discovered to be not entirely scientifically accurate. Mar 27 at 2:31
  • If the mustard seed had ended up being the smallest of all seeds, I think people would shrug, go “oh, Jesus knew a fact that pretty much everyone else did”, and move on. Nobody talks about John 4:35–37, where Jesus demonstrates knowledge of common figures of speech.
    – wizzwizz4
    Mar 28 at 18:30
6

Well I got a few different answers to your general question.

  1. I will note that your assumption about history is right. I myself am an old Earth Creationist and read a wonderful article from a Old Earth Creationist who was Greek Orthodox. The article was a rebuke to people who were fans of this one Greek Orthodox scientist Dr. Alexander Kalomiros who preached theistic evolution. That person followed the formula of other old earth creationists and Theistic Evolutionists did where they interpreted the Word for Day as Age, because the Hebrew word Yom does have that kind of possibly Lexical meaning.

    The person's rebuke however addressed the fact that there was some kind of misrepresentation going on. The scientist tended to quote a number of various church fathers, and seemed to indicate there was a wonderful harmony between them and theistic Evolution. But he rebuked this based on what he called "hijacking the Church fathers". The seven or so Church fathers did indeed make an Day = Age interpretation but apparently never believed that specifically about the actual Creation in Genesis but believed that sort of thing in general in regards to New Testament theology around Jesus, the Church, and Bible passages around that.

    Anyway this person as an Orthodox person realized that the Church fathers believed in something different about Creationism than he did. But this is OK, because this is not something dogmatic, unlike areas covered by the Creeds like the Trinity, hypostatic union, virgin birth of Christ etc. (Your free to believe what you want to believe on this subject without fear of being labelled a heretic, false teacher etc.)

  2. Hugh Ross is an evangelical Christian, Apologist for Creationism. He is an Astrophysicist and an old Earth Creationist. He believes that God progressively created the world slowly in a way that is at harmony "with the fossil record". He has a "Big Bang Cosmological" model concerning the origins of life. He believes that the Bible (his interpretation) is mostly in harmony with science etc.

    He also believes that the Bible in certain passages predicted certain scientific discoveries like Cosmic expansion of the universe, besides revealing to us various spiritual truths about Salvation, the nature of God.

    His website is below and has a number of videos on You-tube.

    https://reasons.org/

  3. Michael Heiser, Biblical Semanticist

    Michael Heiser is a person I refer to a lot because he delves into much of the weird aspects of the Bible that come from it's ancient near eastern context.

    In terms of the function of Genesis, Heiser work points more to the fact that Genesis is something of a polemic against near eastern cultures coming out of Ur of the Chaldees, ancient Babylon etc. (After all father Abraham emigrated from Ur). Basically Genesis tells similar kinds of stories as these other cultures but they did so from the stand point of exalting their culture, kind of like propaganda proclaiming themselves as a master race of people that gained superior knowledge by the gods etc. while Genesis shows this stuff as corruption, sin etc.

    Anyway there is more going on in the stories than just a strict Chronology...

3

Let's start by jumping ahead to the New Testament. In Galatians 4:22-24, Paul writes (NIV):

22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. 24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants.

This figurative meaning is independent of their historicity. If we were to discover new historical documents that conclusively proved that Abraham had only one wife, the figurative meaning of texts which state he has two wives would not change.

So it is with Genesis. I am scientifically minded; I have a Ph. D. in mathematics and work as a researcher; I am not a Young Earth Creationist and do not believe that Genesis is meant as a factual historical account. But I do believe that Genesis is meant as a factual figurative account. Here are some of the assertions made in the early chapters of Genesis that are independent of its historicity:

  1. The God of the Old Testament alone is responsible for Creation. Other religions which claim their god or gods created the world are false.
  2. Creation is good. The earth and its people were not created evil, nor were they created a mixture of good and evil.
  3. Sin is real. It afflicts all humans everywhere, and nobody can overcome sin on their own.

One of the purposes of Genesis is to make basic claims like these that are foundational for the rest of the Bible. Plenty of other religions and religious movements have opposing views on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Gnosticism, for example, considered the material world inferior to the spiritual one; material existence was somewhere between flawed and evil. (Genesis wasn't meant as a response to Gnosticism, which arose later, but the point is still valid.)

God chose to explain those foundations by telling us a story. The story is not, and is not meant to be, a factual historical account (no matter what Young Earth Creationists say). It is nevertheless a correct description of basic facts about how the world works. Properly understood, it is as relevant now as ever and just as true.

3
  • Welcome to the site Ozob!
    – Luke Hill
    Mar 27 at 19:30
  • Fun fact: answering this question was also my first post on Christianity.SE, and I, too, am a mathematician. Maybe we'll run into each other at a conference some day! Mar 29 at 14:50
  • Ha! That's quite a coincidence. I'm an algebraic geometer, so (from your user page) it looks like we hang out with different crowds. But who knows? It could happen some day.
    – Ozob
    Mar 30 at 4:29
3

Let me give another answer which doesn't directly address the "What does it mean?" question does answer the related "Why would God write a metaphorical creation story?"

The reason is

Because a scientifically accurate story would have been pointless.

A description of the creation of the universe that is scientifically accurate in early 21st Century terms would not have been understandable to anyone on earth as little as 200 years ago. Even now a fully accurate 21stC scientific description would not be understood by 99% of people. Christians would be reliant on scientists to tell them whether the description was accurate or not. 3000 years ago the virtually none of the words needed for such a description existed in any language. Even if the words had existed the description would have been so different from the accepted understanding of the universe that it would have been rejected by almost everybody. Writing a 20thC scientific account would have doomed Christians to confusion for 1900 years.

But it's worse. 1000 years from now scientific understanding of the origins of the universe may well have changed significantly. Should God have written an account of creation in 3000AD terms? Such a description may well be as incomprehensible to us as our descriptions would be to someone from 1000AD. Would scientists in 2022 then be telling us that the Genesis account is wrong because it doesn't line up with what we currently believe (even though the account is actually more scientifically accurate)?

6
  • "Would scientists in 2022 then be telling us..." Yes. Yes they would, and I don't understand how you can ask; "scientists" (non-YECs anyway) are telling us "that the Genesis account is wrong because it doesn't line up with what we currently believe". That's sort of the point of the question! I understand metaphors like "opened the fountains of the great deep" when we don't understand hydroplates... but the metaphor isn't wrong. Things like "Created in six days", making birds before land animals, and sending a global flood are just plain wrong... according to non-YECs.
    – Matthew
    Mar 28 at 15:16
  • Had God inspired the authors to clearly annotate these things as parables (as is done for Christ's parables!), or simply not added seemingly-extraneous details that are "factually incorrect" (according to non-YECs), this quandary wouldn't exist. But there is no "God told a story" in Genesis; it's just recorded as if it actually happened. And other Bible authors, and Christ, talk about Genesis as if it actually happened.
    – Matthew
    Mar 28 at 15:19
  • You miss my point. I ask if scientists would be telling us that the Genesis account was wrong even if the account was more accurate than what we now know. Of course they would. You can disagree with these things if you like, but you asked what the reasons were and people are telling you. Frankly we are not interested if you disagree with those reasons. This is not the place to have the debate you seem to want to have. Mar 28 at 15:55
  • 2
    1000 years from now scientific understanding of the origins of the universe may well have changed significantly. You hit the nail right on the head, +1. It's tempting to believe the Bible was written only for our time. Fortunately God is wise enough not to do that. If the Bible were 100% in agreement with the science of today, it would be in disagreement with the science of tomorrow. Mar 28 at 16:12
  • 1
    @Matthew: I learned a lot from reading the book "Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes" (which is written from a very Pro-Christian perspective.) One thing they point out is that we westerners are quite concerned with ordering events correctly, while easterners tend to care more about timING. This is why, for example, the order of Jesus's temptation varies between the Gospels. See, e.g., point 3 of zondervanacademic.com/blog/bible-contradictions-explained Mar 29 at 14:53
1

I became a trinitarian Christian in my mid-20s. Prior to that, I was convinced the Trinity doctrine was a satanic lie. I did believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible, and understood that a great deal of it was literal, whilst other bits were symbolic, that it contained history, and it also contained prophecies. I viewed Genesis as a mixture of all four of those literary genres. However, when I became a Christian, I had to re-evaluate everything I'd ever believed, because the basis of my conversion was the discovery of just who it was who had died for my sins - the incarnate, uncreated Son of God who "was with God in the beginning", and who "made everything that was made" - John 1:1-14.

That brings us back to Genesis and its opening declaration that, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth." The purpose of Genesis is to introduce us to this awesome God, what he did (not how he did it, or how long it took him to do it), and why, and what he will yet do in the future regarding his creation. The purpose of Genesis is to show us historical matters that took place at God's decree before any humans were around to witness them. God, by the Holy Spirit active in the creation, caused what he wanted us to know about this creation to be written down. In astoundingly few words, God had recorded a breathtakingly minimalistic account of creation. He deliberately left out vast tracts of information so that our minds would focus on what really matters, with regard to his creation. And the most important matter to get right (before we can take on board all the other matters of fact) is just who this God is.

After all, there are many competing names to the title of "Creator". Pagan religions are full of names of their deities and their own creation accounts. So, who is the Creator God of Genesis? is the most important matter to establish first. I suggest that a few billion people, over the centuries, have glossed over that first sentence in Genesis 1:1 because they assume they already know who this God is. Well, unless they read the rest of the Bible, they will remain in ignorance. I had to learn that the Son of God equally created everything, as did the Holy Spirit. All three were involved in Genesis 1:1-2. Yet all three are the one God.

Now, this answer will not satisfy you because you want a debate on how long each 'day' of creation was. Well, this site is not for debates. Yet your list of comments and links show you have made your mind up and are challenging others to disagree with you. I'm not rising to your challenge. You can think what you like. Nobody's salvation depends on being able to wield a Bible to show evidence for how long each 'day' of creation was. But everybody's salvation depends on getting verse 1 right - knowing who this God is, who made the heaven and the earth, in the beginning. Yet without the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, who lifts up the resurrected Christ of the cross to us, so that we will adore him, we'll just remain mired in arguments. The gospel of salvation is all about Christ, "who made everything that was made" (proving he could not have been made himself). It's not about dates or chronology, or dating methods. It's about who this Creator God is, believing him, and knowing him through knowing Christ and the Holy Spirit, who indwells all believers. Obedient belief in God as Creator is the purpose of, not just the book of Genesis, but of the entire Bible. And we need all of that Holy Book, believed in humility, to understand what Genesis is saying - and is not saying - to us.

Finally, it is insulting of you to suggest that trinitarians who do not takes the 'days' to be literal days "deny a historical reading of Genesis". You jump to the illogical conclusion that they must, therefore, deny the historicity of the global Flood in Noah's day! That is absurd. Who put that idea into your head? Of course I believe in the historical parts of the entire book of Genesis, including the Creation and the Flood, just as I believe in the myriad other historical parts of Genesis. If you re-word that sentence in your 6th paragraph, that would be good.

1
  • "you want a debate on how long each 'day' of creation was"; not as such, no, though as you note, I have my own thoughts. What I want is some reason why God would say that He made birds before land animals if that isn't the case. I can maybe buy six days (from whence we get the week) and claiming animals were vegetarian, but it would have been trivial to not misrepresent the order, nor can I come up with any reason to do so. As for the Flood... shouldn't there be some evidence of such a massive catastrophe? Where is that evidence?
    – Matthew
    Mar 28 at 16:16

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .