F.A.Q. #6: In the Beginning, God . . . Did What, Exactly?

Few points of Christianity seem to be contested as much as how to read the very first chapter of the Bible (and the second and third, for that matter). Somewhere along the way someone established a false dichotomy between science on the one hand and religion on the other. “Never the twain shall meet,” they said, “and since science is observable, verifiable fact, we have to toss out religion.” Not so, as I hope to discuss in a later post. But the mindset of science vs. religion really comes out in the great creation debate. When Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” what exactly does that mean?

There’s certainly no shortage of views on the matter. Your options range from young earth creationism (the earth is only about 6,000 years old) to a fully atheistic take on evolution which needs no act of creation at all but instead relies on quantum gravity to make the universe out of literally nothing (a non-theistic creatio ex nihilo, if you will). The idea the literal reading of Genesis could be wrong wasn’t truly challenged until Darwin, and along with him came the geologists, physicists, and chemists who told us far more about the mechanisms of our world than Scripture could. With the rise of knowledge came the rise of alternatives to taking Genesis 1-2 completely at face value.

Two main camps arose within the Christian world: those who could read the creation account literally and those who couldn’t. The literal reading inevitably leads to a form of creationism. As mentioned previously, the first position, the sort of young earth creationism made famous in our time by Ken Ham and his Creation Museum/Answers in Genesis, tallies up the six literal 24-hour periods of creation and the genealogies of the rest of the Bible and concludes the earth is much younger than science would have us believe. Instead of a universe billions of years old and an earth some 4.5 billion years old, the numbers of Scripture reveal a universe and earth some 6,000 years old. Quite a difference!

Another form of creationism exists — old earth creationism. It has various ways to interpret the Bible’s opening chapter. It takes literally the idea of God creating the universe without a form of evolutionary process, but it doesn’t necessarily believe in six literal 24-hour days as the time span of the creative act. The first variant is called gap theory. It does say the world was created in six literal days, but there’s a gap in the chronology between Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning . . . “) and verse 2 (“And the earth was without form and empty”). The gap could very well be billions of years, during which time we have the construction of the rest of heaven, the creation of the angels, Satan’s rebellion, and other things which don’t fit well into the rest of the Genesis chronology. (Dinosaurs are optional.) This allows for an old universe and an old earth, as the earth was around during the gap, so to speak; it just wasn’t in the configuration we know today. Humanity is created as stated in Scripture.

A second sort of old earth creationism is called day-age theory. Instead of six 24-hour days, the word used for “day,” the Hebrew yom, refers to an indeterminate time period far longer than what we refer to as a day. “Day” could mean “epoch,” “era,” “millennium,” or any other time period. Its flexibility allows this reading of Genesis 1 to perfectly parallel what geology has discovered — but biology is left in the lurch, as the creative acts don’t allow for evolution (for most day-age theorists, at any rate).

One of the non-literal readings is called “Literary Framework Theory,” which is instantly appealing if you’re a poet. (I am not.) Instead of taking Genesis as a literal account of God’s creative acts, it instead sees the opening chapters of the Bible as a sort of, well, literary prologue. It likens them to other creation myths of the ancient near east: instructive for recognizing who God is and our relationship to Him, but shouldn’t be viewed as a blow-by-blow account, instead being a good “story” to help explain origins. Like any other story, it has some truth to it, but it falls more into legend (holy legend) than fact. God may have created humanity in a special way, but telling us so simply isn’t the purpose of Genesis 1-3.

Along the same non-literal lines comes the Big Three: intelligent design (I.D.), theistic evolution, and (atheistic/Darwinian) evolution. I.D. simply states some intelligence somewhere created the universe through some means. Theistic evolution accepts the evolutionary process as offered by biology but substitutes God and not chance (or another sort of random process) as the origination point. In short, evolution is true, but Genesis points us to the God who began the evolutionary process. Finally, standard evolution needs no deity at all, and so Genesis becomes a work of fiction, nothing more.

With all these ideas floating around, what do we do with them? I think we as Christians can immediately discard two of them: atheistic evolution and intelligent design. Clearly we believe in God, and so we can’t accept views which either deny His existence or refuse to fully embrace Him as a Prime Mover of sorts. As a burgeoning young linguist, I personally also discard day-age theory. I know of precious few instances of yom which would have it refer to something other than a 24-hour time period — including its other appearances within the creation narratives. And as a burgeoning young theologian, I have issues with theistic evolution, a view rapidly gaining widespread acceptance throughout Christianity, including becoming the official position of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-twentieth century. I have difficulty reconciling any evolutionary view with Pauline takes on creation, original sin, Christ as the second Adam, and a few other New Testament doctrines. Simply stating Adam represents the first humans with whom God decided to have a personal relationship is inadequate and untenable in my opinion, and it raises far more questions than it seeks to answer.

Still, this leaves several different options: young earth creationism, literary framework theory, and gap theory. As I’m inclined to take Scripture more literally unless other rhetorical considerations point otherwise (genre, use of metaphor or analogy, etc.), I’m not overly fond of literary framework theory. With that said, I’m also not a large fan of throwing away the knowledge imparted by scientific inquiry (since Scripture isn’t exactly suited to be making these kinds of judgment calls; I may change my mind once I find the formula for determining half-lives, the structure of benzene rings, and a diagram of Buckminsterfullerene in Revelation. I’m left with only gap theory, which to me does have merit from both scientific and theological perspectives.

As always, everyone is free to disagree with any of this! I don’t find this an easy question to answer, and I don’t pretend to understand every facet of every issue at stake. All I can do is present the positions, give my own opinion, and leave it to you to formulate your own. And as Saint Augustine would say, in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.