Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

12 replies
  1. William Brown
    William Brown says:

    Firstly, I am not sure that you can state with this amount of certainty “God’s intent in Genesis”.

    Secondly, there are very good arguments on both sides regarding the age of the earth. It is now fairly certain that macroevolution (change from one species to another by random mutation and natural selection) is not possible. Microevolution (the size of finch beaks, for example, or dog breeding) is obviously true.

    Lastly, the modern (since mid 1800’s) idea of evolution has had radical consequences for faith and practice; i.e.: worldview.

  2. Cody Knox
    Cody Knox says:

    Hi there William,

    Thanks a lot for your comment. I will attempt to address each of your three points below. Feel free to get in touch with me directly via Facebook if you would like continue this discussion.

    1) I feel confident in asserting God’s intent in Genesis as this is an inference from the words of Christ himself that the entire Bible is about Him. God’s primary concern in the early chapters of Genesis is not to give a science lesson. Yes, the story of origins brings up legitimate questions to ask and answer and we should seek to engage with these to sort the wheat from the chaff. But they are not of first importance. This has a strong historical pedigree and we would do well to not forget this.

    2) I completely agree. There are good arguments on many fronts of this discussion. The main views are in themselves nuanced at several points, creating even more positions to hold to. Obviously, some of these views will be at odds with core biblical truths and should be rejected but many don’t.
    An attempt of mine in this article was to legitimise the scientific pursuit of answers to these questions.

    3) I understand your concern here. FYI – I am not putting forward evolutionary naturalism as the explanation for origins. I don’t personally hold this view. In fact, I am not sure where I stand on this. The ambiguity in the article was very intentional in this sense – I have some ideas, others will have theirs, and there are still more to be found. But I am convinced that the primary purpose of Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) is to tell the a better story. GOD SAVES SINNERS.

  3. Matt
    Matt says:

    A non-young earth world view requires billions of years according to science. It requires chaos and chance. It requires death and destruction. It requires features and characteristics of certain species to live, die, fail, try again, live die fail over and over and over again.

    That does not sound like the God of the Bible. God did not create and say “well, that’s close enough. Let’s sit back now and see what happens with it”
    The world God created according to Genesis was perfect. It was good.
    A billion year old universe was not created good or perfect. it was created flawed and required all the above to get to today. You want to put your trust in a God that created the universe in a manner like that? i certainly don’t.

  4. DarrenG
    DarrenG says:

    I have no problem with a 4.5 billion year old earth and macro-evolution guided by God’s providence.

  5. bryan
    bryan says:

    the word evolution only means one thing, random chance and eliminates gods sovereign presence on all scales. evolution cannot and must not be used in conjuction with creation in any form. to do so by adding micro and macro? you are just submitting to darwins idiotic theory of random chance

  6. Cody Knox
    Cody Knox says:

    Hi there Bryan,

    Thanks for your comment. I would remind you that I did not at any point in this article say whether or not I believe that evolution is harmonious with Scripture. In fact, I may share criticisms with you.

    But these accusations of buckling at the knee to Darwin’s thought are helping to prove my point – Christians don’t approach Genesis with authorial context and intent at the forefront of their interpretation and so end up arguing endlessly about subjects that I don’t think concerned the authors and original readers.

  7. Derek Beaven
    Derek Beaven says:

    Cody, I agree with your point that the focus after Genesis 3 is the redemption of mankind. Very little is said in the scriptures regarding creation. But I have to agree with Matt though. When you pull scriptures on creation together and analyse them it’s clear that God also makes no doubt about the statement of creation. They are powerful statements God said and it happened. The more you come to this realisation the greater is the realisation of the creation of mankind. Also when you analyse the names of God and their meaning it also creates a mighty picture of our creator and His relationship with mankind.

    There is great peril in allowing science to be any voice outside the Word of God. Science shifts like blowing sand. New theories pop up on a regular basis and for the most, it’s not true science rather humanism in disguise, I’ve studied to many sites that are pretty clear that evolution/long earth creation is doing a great disservice to the Word of God. Much sound fascinating and sometimes even logical. thank goodness there are many incredibly bright scientist that have doctorates that believe in 6 day creation.

    Let’s remember – that the Torah is Hebraic/Jewish, not western. They wrote is in a language that is clear God created and it was perfect!! Also, the miracle of the flood (God again – by his power and Authority) is in at least 30 of the 35 or so ancient civilisations stories.

    Question the power and authority of creation – you’ll question Jesus, his miracles and the resurrection.

    I always ask one question prove evolution? There is not a drop of evidence in archaeology and if evolution did exist the evidence would be clear. also, it’s a known fact that with each successive generation the RNA/DNA is degenerating not improving – so if life was millions of years old – life would probably no be capable of existing.

    John 1
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

    Hebrews 1:3 Amp. …upholding and maintaining and guiding and propelling the universe by His mighty word of power.

    Psalms 33:6-9, By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth…For He spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.

    Hebrews 11:3, Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God…

    Romans 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    The core of the issue to me is faith – yes use your mind but intellectualism has many false doors.

    Derek B

  8. Hans Weichselbaum
    Hans Weichselbaum says:

    I find the title of this thread silly “Is young earth necessary?”. If nature tells us that the earth is round, or that the earth goes round the sun, or that the earth is billions of years old – what does “necessary” mean?

  9. Jeffrey Ross
    Jeffrey Ross says:

    A few thoughts spring to mind.
    1. It’s often stated that the Bible is not a science book. But what book of history or law or prophecy is? None. This line of reasoning invites an alternative framework of authority, equal to the Bible, but just in a separate field. And over time that field grows, while conversely the domain of biblical authority shrinks.
    2. The plain reading of Genesis 1 conveys a 6-day creation. The 4th commandment (Exodus 20:11) confirms this, and uses that Genesis 1 pattern of 6 days work, 1 day rest, as the basis for our current 7 day week. Notably, every nation in the world follows this creation pattern. If the days were purely symbolic there is no hint of it in the 7 day week that Moses traces back to the beginning of creation.
    3. If the Earth is millions/billions of years old and the fossil record pre-dates Adam & Eve, then death and disease were not the result of the Fall, but were always present. Then we die because that’s natural, and this dying world is the very good creation that God described in Genesis 1. Then the Fall must be reinterpreted, Creation is unclear, and God’s character itself is in question (since goodness stems from Him). This renders Redemption unnecessary or meaningless, and the Restoration to come may not be so very nice either. I don’t think this is very compatible with the Bible’s account of God’s works.
    4. If one of the “evils of evolution” is to undermine the theology of Creation and Fall, then maybe that needs to be addressed before salvation can be intelligently accepted. The sequence of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration seems pretty clear in the Bible. Salvation is reasonable when one understands sin. I suppose one could offer salvation without reference to the Fall, but it would be a poor presentation, focused on what I have done rather than on what God has done.

  10. DarrenG
    DarrenG says:

    Bryan, I think you will find the common definition of Evolution is “change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations” and that was the definition I had in mind. Since I believe that God has perfect foreknowledge the idea of “randomness” doesn’t worry me any more than human free-will. While you are free to make ad-hominen attacks I find that they weaken your position and credibility.

    Jerrfery, yes a cursory reading of Genesis 1 in modern english conveys a 6-day creation. And a cursory reading of Genesis 3 in modern english conveys that Eve was tempted by a common garden snake. Not to mention a cursory reading of Psalm 91:4 in modern english conveys that God has feathers and wings. Which to me highlights the inherent dangers of putting too much weight on a cursory reading in modern english of any biblical passage.

    Derek, I agree that the Torah is Hebraic/Jewish, not western. That is why i find it significant that the Jewish calendar claims to date back only to the creation of Adam, and the earlier days of creation were kept separate. (“Remember the days of old, Consider the years of all generations” Deuteronomy 32:7). There is an interesting article from a Jewish perspective at http://www.aish.com/ci/sam/48951136.html

    So, getting back to the original question posed by Cody “are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?” While I respect other well-argued points of view I find myself in agreement with William Lane Craig who answered a similar question here:

    Should OT Difficulties Be an Obstacle to Christian Belief?
    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/should-ot-difficulties-be-an-obstacle-to-christian-belief

  11. Jeffrey Ross
    Jeffrey Ross says:

    DarrenG, I’m disappointed in your response. A “plain reading” of Genesis 1 cannot be dismissed as “cursory” without a substantial argument, but you provide none. The serpent of Genesis 3 was not “a common garden snake,” but a creature that was transformed as part of God’s punishment for the Fall. Psalm 91:4 is clearly a metaphorical description of God’s protection and faithfulness. By contrast, the language of Genesis 1 is simple narrative with no textual reason for considering it to be metaphorical. (If you did that perhaps darkness could mean evil, light could mean good, water could represent God’s Spirit, and so on ad absurdum.) You repeatedly warning about modern English translations of Scripture, but Genesis 1-3 in modern English (eg ESV and NKJV) conveys accurately the meaning of the ancient Hebrew.
    Your statements undermine God’s Word by freeing Creation from literal reality, questioning the record of the Fall, and hinting that modern translations of the Bible are insufficient to provide an accurate understanding of God and His works. That’s neither appealing nor intellectually convincing.

  12. DarrenG
    DarrenG says:

    Jeffrey I apologise if my use of the word cursory offended you. I had regarded cursory in the sense of “not thorough or detailed” to be synonymous with plain in the sense of “simple or basic in character”. I meant a reading of a passage in an translation without recourse to commentaries, dictionaries and so forth. Nor was I trying to insult translations ancient or modern. But every OT translator has to find a compromise between linguistic distance and historical distance, collapse ambiguities, balancing the masoretic text from ~1000AD with its vowels to other sources such as the Septuagint, Syriac translations, quotations from rabbinic manuscripts, the Samaritan Pentateuch, Dead Sea Scrolls and so forth. Which is precisely why there are so many translations.

    All of which was tangential to my main point. You state that psalm 91:4 is metaphorical and that there is no reason to consider Genesis 1 metaphorical. May I enquire which criteria you use to make such a distinction?

    I do not *hint* that the Bible is insufficient to provide an accurate understanding of God and His works, I would state that emphatically! I affirm Isaiah 55:8 that “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” But I do affirm that the Bible contains everything we need to know about God and his works to be sufficient for our worship and salvation.

    I also commend to you the quote by Augustine of Hippo, that “If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.”

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *