Chapter 5

Questions about the Genesis Creation Account

Let’s look at some questions that often arise whenever the Genesis account of creation is discussed.

According to the Bible, how old is the earth? We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t give us that information. But throughout the centuries, devout believers have pondered the age of the earth. Many thought that all one had to do to determine the age of the earth biblically was to apply simple math and some logical deductions to the genealogies of Genesis 4, 5, 10, and 11. But a problem is created by the limitations of the language. The word begot used in our English Bible to indicate the paternal line between generations does not always mean father to son. It often refers to the great-great-grandfather (or any number of “greats”) of the named individual, with the in-between (and apparently less significant) progenitors unnamed. So there is no accurate way to measure the generations back from Abraham to Adam.

Yet while the Bible doesn’t say how young the earth is, it also doesn’t say that it is as old as modern cosmological and geological studies indicate. Conflicting evidence has compelled some Bible scholars to suggest that the earth would obviously have been created with the appearance of age. They believe that since most living things would have been created in a mature state and had to appear to have grown, so also the nonliving elements upon which they depend for life would have had to show apparent age. Distant galaxies would appear to have been transmitting light for millions of years. The earth’s crust would appear to indicate “ancient” sedimentation, volcanic activity, erosion, decomposition, and chemical reactions.

That reasoning is considered implausible by many others who are equally convinced that a normal analysis of the creation must acknowledge the evidence of great age. They point out that there are problems in saying that a “correct” interpretation of the 6 days of the Genesis creation requires us to hold that those days were 24-hour periods— for example, the first 3 days passed before the sun, moon, and stars were even created (genesis 1:14–19). They also point out that while an earth created with the appearance of age would have to demonstrate evidence of long-running natural processes, it would not have to contain fossils of divinely fabricated living creatures.

In either case, it’s important to note that the Bible doesn’t say how old or how young the earth is. It doesn’t say whether thousands or millions of years lie between the lines of sacred Scripture. But the Bible does give us pause by implying that some scientific data could be skewed by God’s acts of judgment (the fall and the flood) that had a physical impact upon the creation.

Because of the different ways we interpret such evidence, it’s not surprising that there are differences of opinion about how to read God’s two books in relationship to each other.
Dr. James Sawyer of Western Seminary has pointed out that when the International Council On Biblical Inerrancy was formed in 1978, “the founding membership held over 30 discrete positions with reference to the interpretation of Genesis 1. Only one of these positions involved a 6-day recent creation.” Most of those on the council felt that the book of God’s words did not demand that the days of creation be considered standard 24-hour days—or that no time elapsed between the days.

Many committed Christian scholars continue to debate this issue. We have plenty of reason, therefore, to allow for an honest difference of opinion and conviction on this issue. There’s no need for bitter debate when attempting to explain why God’s two books appear at times to be in conflict. The important thing is to consider it all with a humble spirit. As Dr. Sawyer explains, when we cannot distinguish between our understanding of the truth and the truth itself, we are boastfully claiming that “we have, at least on this issue, the complete understanding of God Himself.”

We have plenty of reason, therefore, to allow for an honest difference of opinion and conviction on this issue.

Genuine humility would also demand that there be as much room for our misunderstanding the message of general revelation as there is for our failure to understand the full meaning of special revelation—the Bible. Both revelations undoubtedly present aspects of reality well beyond the grasp of human reasoning and experimentation.

Shouldn’t the Genesis account of creation be read literally? A significant feature of the controversy over the age of the earth as it is understood from the first chapter of Genesis is the principle of historical-grammatical interpretation that is so foundational to historic orthodoxy. The aim of the historical-grammatical method is to discover the meaning of the passage as the original author would have intended, and what the original hearers would have understood.

Those who hold to a young-earth view say they are reading the account “literally” and are therefore more in line with belief in biblical reliability, a cardinal conviction of evangelical Christianity. Because they read the Genesis 1 creation account as describing events that took place over a period of 6 successive 24-hour days, they see any attempt to read more time into the process as opposing the Word of God.

Those theologians who believe in an earth that is billions of years old (the view of most contemporary geologists) are often just as committed to the reliability of the Scriptures. But they are likely to point out, as Henry Virkler does in his book on the principles and process of biblical interpretation: “As much distortion of the author’s meaning results from interpreting a literal statement figuratively as from interpreting a figurative statement literally” (Hermeneutics: Principles And Processes Of Biblical Interpretation, 1981, p.28). They see a need to take the conclusions of geology seriously and believe that the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 allows acceptance of evidence for an exceedingly old earth.

“As much distortion of the author’s meaning results from interpreting a literal statement figuratively as from interpreting a figurative statement literally”

Down through the years of church history, scholars with a high view of Scripture have disagreed among themselves whether or not the language of the creation account was intended to be read as a stylized literary narrative or as a scientifically specific description.

Can someone believe the Bible and still believe in evolution? It depends on what is meant by “believing in evolution.” It’s important to understand that the word evolution merely means “to change” or “to develop.” It would be a mistake to limit the word evolution only to the contemporary naturalistic scheme, which holds that all of life came about through the unplanned and undirected process of organisms progressing through billions of years from simple nonliving molecules to mankind.

From beginning to end, the Bible declares that all cosmic forces and elements are the handiwork of a divine Artist who was intimately involved in creating man. Someone, then, could not accept the naturalistic claim that the creation process was God-less and also believe that the Genesis account of creation is true. If the Creator is a good, loving, and sovereign God, nothing in His creation takes place without His personal oversight. The God who attends the death of a sparrow certainly would have attended its creation. If the biblical account of creation is true, what appears to the philosophical naturalist to be the result of mere chance is only a human perception, not a fact.

Those who have closely examined God’s general revelation recognize that the characteristics of many living creatures do change over time (like many of the fascinating creatures of the Galapagos Islands studied by Charles Darwin). Those who have complete confidence in the Bible would conclude that God created them with the capacity to adapt to a changing environment. This is a form of evolution. These adaptations that Darwin and other scientists have observed over the years are sometimes called “microevolution”: small-scale changes that may actually produce new species (new forms of the same creature that do not generally breed with the old forms).

Theistic evolutionists, however, consider the Genesis creation account to be a divinely inspired pictorial overview, not a scientifically specific description. And they believe that macro-evolution has occurred. But they also believe that it is a God-designed process just like all the other natural processes God conceived for the development and perpetuation of life. They firmly reject the naturalistic suggestion that evolution occurred without the presence and care of an overseeing Creator. Theistic evolutionists don’t believe that natural selection could create anything without supernatural attention.

Many renowned evangelical theologians over the centuries, from Augustine to B. B. Warfield to J. I. Packer, have believed that a long and gradual creation process directed by a loving and superintending Creator is not contrary to the Genesis account of creation. Packer, author of the Christian classic Knowing God, made this assertion: “I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture . . . but I cannot see that anything Scripture says, in the first chapters of Genesis or elsewhere, bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other” (The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem, 1978, p.5).

Views like Packer’s highlight how important it is for Christians who disagree on the matter of origins and the meaning of the Genesis account to do so in grace and love without smearing each other with accusations of unfaithfulness to either of God’s two books. Because of such differences among committed followers of Christ, it will certainly remain divisive and detrimental to the cause of Christ for the church to make the process of divine creation, rather than the fact of divine creation, a test of Christian orthodoxy.

It will certainly remain divisive and detrimental to the cause of Christ for the church to make the process of divine creation, rather than the fact of divine creation, a test of Christian orthodoxy.

How do any of us live honestly and faithfully in the middle of such uncertainty and disagreement?

One answer is found in our being as honest as we can with the messages given to us by God’s two books. Both books declare with their own forms of eloquence the power and wisdom of the Creator. Both books demonstrate that it is God who has made us and everything else. Yet both stop short of giving us final answers about many questions of time and process. In these matters, we must live faithfully, graciously, and humbly with our differences. What we know and agree on is far more important than what we don’t know or fully understand.