This post is designed to encourage believers who have walked away from church and seekers who will not consider Christ because of ultraliteral interpretations of Gen. 1-11. Many of us Christians do not share this view, but accept science. 98% of scientists do not accept that view, either.
Starting off, your and my interpretation of this complex topic is secondary or even below that and is not a test for orthodoxy. Since our interpretations are peripheral, let’s remember this wise statement:
In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things charity (love)
Now let’s get started.
A survey shows that, in part, narrow creationism drives people, particularly the young, away from church, and another survey says it hurts Christian colleges. All of this because of a narrow interpretation of Scripture that forced them to choose between science and the Bible.
A full 98% (no. 2) (call it 100% if you wish) of more than 120,000 scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that humans evolved over time—evolution, in other words. (I prefer to call it slow-motion creation.) Are all these scientists (and others) in rebellion? Highly doubtful.
So, evolution, whether micro or macro, is not “in crisis.” It is not “bankrupt.” It is not in its “death throes.” It is not a “lie.” It will not go the way of dinosaurs.
It is time for Christian believers to accept the science and not interpret Genesis 1-11 so narrowly and ultraliterally.
Ironically, one threat to Christianity comes not from evolution, but from a very fundamentalist brand of Christianity, which interprets Genesis 1-11 equally narrowly. This brand is called Young Earth Creationism. It is ironic because they deeply believe they are saving Christianity when they actually hurt it.
In this post,
YEC = Young Earth Creationism
YECs = Young Earth Creationists
YECs believe that because in Genesis 1 God created everything in six day of twenty-four hours, that time limit is the only way to read the text. (They fail to realize that Gen. 1 was actually written in a sixth-and seventh-day framework to teach a Sabbath lesson for ancient Hebrews, for the text goes on to say that God rested from his labors on the seventh day; cf. Gen. 2:1-3 and Ex. 20:8-11. So ultraliteralism and modern science are out of place). Imagine demanding of Shakespeare that he write about a twenty-first century car. Unfair.
See my post 2. Reading Genesis 1 as Originally Intended
They also add up the genealogies in the first eleven chapters of Genesis and conclude that the earth and universe are about 6,000 to 10,000 years young (never mind that ancient genealogies are often gapped and heads of households are like dynasties whose members cannot be tracked historically).
Then they claim that God made the earth and universe to look old, to test our faith or something. Never mind that this is “divine deception” and a kind a heretical Docetism that says that things seem to be one way, but are actually another—docestism comes from Greek and means seems. For example, Jesus seemed to have had a body of flesh, but he really didn’t.
So now let’s invent two terms:
Geo-docetism says that by appearances the earth seems old, but it really isn’t. It’s young!
Cosmo-docestism: by appearances the universe seems old, but it really isn’t. It’s young!
It’s an old heresy rearing its awful head. It needs to stop.
This post is purposed to show that Christian believers who love Jesus and are his followers and who read Scripture and attend Bible-believing churches regularly—they believe in God-ordained and God-sustaining evolution, both micro and macro.
They believe in evolutionary creationism—that God ordained and sustains creation in slow-motion. (But this is not to say that they believe in the god-of-the-gaps fallacy that uses God to overcome science gaps or gaps in our knowledge). Under his loving care, nature has been evolving on planet earth for billions of years, until his highest creation—humans like us—appeared about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. And the planet is still under his loving care. (See How are the ages of the universe and earth calculated? at BioLogos.org.)
It’s wonderful and liberating to go through this paradigm shift and escape from narrow fundamentalism and ultraliteral interpretations.
In other words:
It is not God vs. Evolution, but God ordained evolution; God and evolution.
Evolution = Atheism
Evolution = God’s method of creating.
Here is a mere sample of such scholars, academics, and scientists—a Christian sample.
Francis S. Collins
Francis S. Collins, who has two doctorates, one in Medicine (UNC Chapel Hill) and the other in Physical Chemistry (Yale), was the director of the Human Genome Project, which finished sequencing Human DNA in 2003. He is director of the National Institutes of Health and founder of the BioLogos Foundation.
He wrote a bestseller The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press, 2006). It has helped many people to come to terms with the science of evolution as ordained and sustained by God (not blind or atheistic evolution). The evidence in genetics alone is simply overwhelming. In any case, after discussing some of the basics of YEC and its belief that God deceptively made the world to seem old, he writes:
Thus, by any reasonable standard, Young Earth Creationism has reached a point of bankruptcy, both in its science and its theology. Its persistence is thus one of the great puzzles and great tragedies of our time. By attacking the fundamentals of virtually every branch of science, it widens the chasm between scientific and spiritual worldviews, just at as time where a pathway toward harmony is desperately needed. By sending a message to young people that science is dangerous, and that pursuing science may well mean rejecting religious faith, Young Earth Creationism may be depriving science of some of its most promising future talents. (p. 177)
Karl W. Giberson and Francis S. Collins
Karl W. Giberson has a doctorate in physics (Rice University) and teaches at Stonehill College. Giberson and Collins teamed up to write the book The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions (InterVarsity Books, 2013). First, they say that many of the YEC proponents have substandard biblical scholarship (not excerpted here). Then they show why YECs are off target.
[YECs] claim that the age of the earth depends not on data but on our starting assumptions. Anti-evolutionists argue that the secular scientific community arrives at the conclusion that the earth is billions of years old because they start with the assumption that there is no God, not because of the data take them there.
These bold claims are hard to justify. Nowhere does the Bible identify the age of the earth as ten thousand years, nor does it provide information that would let us infer this indirectly with any confidence. Young earth creationists often appear to be reading an anti-evolutionary agenda into the Bible and forcing it to fit assumptions they bring to the text. When the text admits of multiple interpretations, they often insist on the one that maximizes the conflict with evolution. … Virtually all leading evangelical biblical scholars reject the claim that the age of the earth can be determined from the Bible. They are quick to note the importance of understanding biblical Hebrew to read Genesis creation stories appropriately and caution against assuming that our modern scientific concerns are being addressed in any way by this ancient text. (pp. 53-54)
Giberson’s and Collins’ claim that “virtually all leading evangelical biblical scholars” argue that we should not impose modern science on a premodern text (Genesis) is true. The key term is leading, since a few biblical scholars can be found to argue the opposite. But they are so few that they are unable to convince leading evangelical Bible scholars.
Then Giberson and Collins wonder how YEC’s interpretation of Scripture could so roughly violate confirmed science that says the earth is billions of years old.
[W]e do not believe that God would provide contradictory revelations. God’s revelation in nature, studied by science, should agree with God’s revelation in Scripture, studied by theology. Since the revelation from science is crystal clear about the age of the earth, we believe we should think twice before embracing an approach to the Bible that contradicts this revelation. (pp. 70-71)
The key terms are “an approach to the Bible.” If YECs would simply calm down about their interpretations of Scripture, then they would stop interpreting nature so strangely. Giberson and Collins go to great length to explain in laymen’s terms why the mountain of scientific data say the universe and earth are billions of years old and to offer alternative interpretations of Scripture, but we can’t go into this here in this post (buy their book). A critic can knock some details of their biblical interpretations (though they seem reasonable to me), but not their science.
John H. Walton
John H. Walton (Ph.D., Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, a very conservative institution. He has written many books on the Old Testament and its ancient Near Eastern background, including a commentary on Genesis; Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context; (as coauthor) The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament; The Lost World of Adam and Eve; and Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology.
In Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity, 2009), he says that YECs go too far in interpreting Genesis 1.
.… I would contend that this view [on a young earth] goes too far in its understanding of what we need to do to defend the biblical text. It goes too far in its attempts to provide an adequate alternative science. It uses a particular interpretation of the biblical text to provide the basis for scientific proposals about rock strata, an expanding universe, and so forth. The YEC position begins with the assumption that Genesis 1 is an account of material origins and that to “create” something means to give it material shape. It would never occur to them that they are departing from a face-value reading of the biblical text. In fact they pride themselves on reading the text literally and flash this badge of honor as they critique other views. Reading the text scientifically imposes modern thinking on an ancient text, an anachronism [out of sequence] that by its very nature cannot possibly represent the ideas of the inspired human author. (p. 109)
So the attempt to impose modern science on the premodern text of Genesis is anachronistic and misguided because the ancient authors could not have known our science.
Howard J. Van Till
He is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He taught physics and astronomy there for more than thirty years. He earned his doctorate in physics from Michigan State University. He was a contributor to the Counterpoint series for Zondervan Press: Three Views on Creation and Evolution (1999).
He represents theistic evolution (a better term is evolutionary creationism), which he prefers to call “fully-gifted creation” because God built into the universe and the earth the capacity and ability to evolve over time to where we are right now. God did not need to nudge it along in stages. In any case, Van Til believes in an old universe and strenuously disagrees with YEC.
When geologists, chemists, astronomers, and physicists agree that the observational evidence convincingly supports the conclusion that planet earth formed four-and-a-half billion years ago in the context of a universe that came into being approximately fifteen billion years ago, what is the response of the Christian community? Remarkably, a major portion, specifically the young earth special creationist camp, chooses to reject the conclusion reached by the vast majority of natural scientists on the basis of prior beliefs proceeding from a particular reading of the biblical text—a reading that is itself based on the particular set of assumptions and interpretive strategies. For a number of reasons, which I will discuss later, I find this inconsistency of attitude wholly indefensible. (p. 184)
One thing to notice in that excerpt is that the “vast majority of natural scientists” believe the earth and universe are billions of years old, based on real science, not the substandard kind that leads to the belief that it is a few thousand years young. And Prof. Van Til indeed explains in his chapter why the universe is old and why YECs badly misinterpret Scripture, but this post is about these devout Christian scholars and scientists offering their overall view on YEC, so the reader will have to buy the book to look into the details.
Dennis R. Venema
He earned his Ph.D. in biology from University of British Columbia and is a professor of biology at Trinity Western University, the largest evangelical school in Canada. He is Fellow of Biology for the BioLogos Foundation.
In the book Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (Brazos Press, 2017), co-authored with Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar, Venema explains how God-ordained and God-sustained evolution is actually intelligent design (ID).
Evolution versus is ID (p. 89)
In other words, evolution does not oppose intelligent design, but actually is intelligent design. This means that he does not believe that God had to intervene at various stages in creation, which ID teaches, but God fully gifted nature from the very start, to keep going toward his purpose. Thus, for sure he does not believe the earth is young.
She is president of BioLogos. She received her Ph.D. in astrophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a contributor to the wonderful book How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science (InterVarsity Academic, 2016). As the title says, twenty-five Evangelicals explain how they transitioned from a strict interpretation of Genesis to a broader approach that encompassed real science.
Once I started studying astronomy [at MIT], however, I quickly encountered the scientific evidence that the earth and the universe were more than a few thousand years old. I couldn’t ignore the origins question any longer. I took a hard look at the scientific evidence, but the more I looked, the more solid the evidence proved to be. There wasn’t just one way to measure the age, but several independent measurements and arguments that all pointed to the same general conclusion: billions of years, not thousands. (p. 42)
Denis O. Lamoureux
He has three doctorates: dentistry (University of Alberta), theology (St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto), and biology (University of Alberta). He is an Associate Professor of Science and Religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. In his book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! (Zondervan, 2016), he explains that he used to be a six-day creationist. He set out to get his doctorates in theology and biology to prove evolution wrong. But studying the evidence led him towards better conclusions. He writes that 97% (different polling sample) of scientists at leading institutions are evolutionists. How can they all be wrong? A trick of the devil?
A serious problem with young earth creation is that it is in conflict with every modern science that deals with origins. Notably, there are very few six-day creationists in the scientific community today. In the United States, a survey reveals that 97 percent of scientists accept that “humans and other living things have evolved over time.” Moreover, nearly every university throughout the world fully endorses, teaches and practices the evolutionary sciences in cosmology, geology, and biology.
This leads to an important question. Are we to believe that all these scientists are completely wrong about evolution? We enjoy these amazing fruits of modern science daily, like medicine and engineering. But are scientists who study the origin of the world totally mistaken? How do we explain that nearly all American scientists are evolutionists? Some Christians say they’ve been deceived by the Devil. There was a time I believed that. But is that reasonable? (p. 115)
Lamoureux’s answer to the final rhetorical question is no, it is not reasonable.
Prof. Lamoureux has two helpful illustrations (p. 50). Which pool shot in billiards is more marvelous?
In the first illustration, divide and label the balls “heavens,” “earth” and “living organisms.” Six-day creationists believe that God made single shot after single shot with no misses, until the table was cleared.
That is impressive.
Now for the second illustration.
The balls are labeled the same. An evolutionary creationist believes that after the Big Bang—one stroke of the cue—God’s opening shot is so precise that all the balls fall into the pockets, but in order: First the group of balls labeled “heavens”; the group labeled “earth,” and then the group labeled “living organisms.” The last ball to go into the pocket is us—humans. He takes it out and holds it close to his heart, so he can have a relationship with us.
Which shot (or series of shots) is more amazing? Clearly the illustration in which God sunk all the balls in order, but with only one stroke of his cue.
Application: God through his eternal power set in motion the creation of the heavens and the earth and living organisms all the way to the present day. It is still going strong. He wants to have a relationship with humans.
But it is not that God had to nudge his creation along at various stages as if he did not do it right the first time: Zap! zap! zap! zap! But he fully gifted it in one shot: ZAP!!!! One word of his power is sufficient to ordain his creation to move along by his plan over billions of years.
Replies to objections and questions
They are bound to come up, so let’s answer them.
I can find an equal number of qualified scientists who believe in six-day creation.
Not likely, for 98% of the 120,000+ scientists associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe in evolution (and therefore the earth is a lot older than 10,000 years).
In contrast, at these six-day creation websites, check out the credentials of the contributors (see creation.com and About Us and Who We Are or Scientists at Answers in Genesis). Only a very few of the sum total have doctorates in science that covers origins, like geology or astronomy or biology, but most do not. They may have an advanced degree like a M.S., but is it in the right areas of science? Is it in theology or apologetics? If so, then that is only partially helpful. Do the six-day creationists with doctorates have positions on (Christian) university faculties, where their ideas can be scrutinized?
It is unwise to depend on the two percent (if any of them believe in a young earth), when the evidence is so strong against them.
The 98% are in rebellion! They are just stubborn!
Perhaps a few individuals might be, but we cannot know which ones.
A better explanation is that they follow the evidence wherever it leads, and it leads to an old universe and evolution–and Christians add, God-ordained evolution.
Do you expect us to give up on Adam and Eve? So much theology depends on them!
Not much theology depends on them. Yes, Jesus mentions “male” and “female” in the beginning (Matt. 19:1-6), and Paul mentions Adam in Romans 5:12-21, but even those references can be easily interpreted as archetypes. Jesus and Paul simply accepted existing, authoritative stories in Genesis and interpreted them theologically and ethically.
Further, several evolutionary creationists believe that Adam and Eve existed. One seems to be Kathryn Applegate, who got her Ph.D. in computational cell biology from The Scripps Research Institute. In her contribution to the book How I Changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science, she writes:
Evolutionary science is silent on whether Adam and Eve were historical figures; it merely states that there was never a time when just two people walked the earth. Perhaps Adam and Eve were the first two people with whom God began a covenant relationship. In the fullness of time, he called them out for a purpose, just as he did with Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah and pretty much everyone else in the Bible. God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, which they broke when they fell into sin. As our representatives, their sin became our sin.
I am aware that many Old Testament scholars, even conservative ones, feel there are good reasons to think Adam and Eve were not historical figures. I can respect that. I don’t think the gospel hangs in the balance either way. Christianity depends on the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whose sacrifice on the cross redeemed us from our sins. (p. 184)
See Where Are Adam and Eve in the Story of Evolution? Four Possibilities at BioLogos.org.
Also see my post Adam and Evolution: Five Options, which offers five options about Adam and Eve.
If we don’t read Gen. 1-3 literally, then we cannot read the four Gospels literally. Therefore, we cannot consistently and rightly believe in the literal resurrection.
Creation could not have any human eyewitness, so God inspired the author of Gen. 1 to frame it freely—a Sabbath lesson. He framed it non-literally and analogically. (Think of a clock with hands that point to the right time. That’s analogical.)
On the other side, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection had plenty of eyewitnesses. They framed it literally and digitally. (Think of a clock that tells times through the digits.)
Thus, here are the witnesses to the resurrection:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)
So there is absolutely no connection between how Gen. 1 was written (analogically) and the preaching of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ (digitally).
Gen. 1-5 is–and can only be!–a free interpretation, while the truth claims about the resurrection in four Gospels and the epistles are literal and depend on eyewitnesses.
God inspired the author of Gen. 1-2 to write out exactly as it happened. It was a literal six days of twenty-four hours.
It is clear that God inspired the author to frame Gen. 1 as a Sabbath lesson. God worked six days and then rested on the seventh (Gen. 2:1-3). How do we dare ignore the author’s stated intention? A Sabbath teaching required him to use the structure of six days and the seventh day. (And other interpretations are possible that lead us away from ultraliteral ones.)
Realizing the author’s original purpose, we are not bound to interpret the text as literally written. We are free to learn what we can about the Creator and conclude that he is large and in charge.
It is unfair and anachronistic to impose modern science on an ancient text when the author could not have known our science. He simply wrote about the observations he saw with his own eyes every day and night, in his limited knowledge.
See my post 2. Reading Genesis 1 as Originally Intended
Here’s another version of creation in Psalm 148. Pay close attention to vv. 5-6:
1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights above.
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
3 Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created,
6 and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away. (Ps. 148:1-6, NIV)
“Command” and “decree” is singular. The inspired author of this psalm, inspired and writing infallibly, was not bound to show God to be the Ultimate Sabbath Keeper. His version is much more streamlined. God established by one command and issued one decree, and the whole process began. Science teaches us that it began with the Big Bang, about 13.7 billion years ago. In contrast, the author of Genesis was inspired and wrote infallibly by confining himself to a Sabbath lesson. Mission accomplished. Let’s not over-interpret him and squeeze modern science through a six-day framework.
It is a sad fact that YECs refuse to change their interpretation of Genesis (an easy thing to do), but instead change their interpretation of science (an impossible task), since science now conclusively demonstrates that the universe and earth are billions of years old. YEC scientists (the few there are) have tried for years to come up with young earth models that convince the 98%, but so far their models have not budged the huge majority away from an old universe and evolution.
Now the rest of the world mocks and laughs at these sincere and well-meaning Christians.
Less charitably, I wonder how much money six-day creation websites and organizations collect to maintain their point of view and interpretations. Millions of dollars are up for grabs. But that is simply a question, not a statement or allegation or accusation.
Let’s wrap up by appealing to honest, sincere, and intelligent skeptics who refuse to come to faith in Christ and believers who have walked away from God because they were forced to choose between a narrow, ultraliteral interpretation of Genesis and modern science.
You do not have to give up on dinosaurs that are hundreds of millions years old or a universe billions of years old universe or modern science. You don’t have to measure the ark of Noah to figure out how many dinosaurs could fit in it.
Happily, you can be a Christian and maintain your science. Either the Bible does not discuss modern science, or Scripture can be reinterpreted to open the door to modern science, without damaging the Bible’s theological and spiritual truths or even incidental truths (e.g. where Jerusalem is located).
I hope this post has set you free to reexamine your skepticism and loss of faith in light of these new facts.
Christian Scientists Comment on Young Earth Creationism
SERIES ON GENESIS 1-11
Applegate, Karen and J. B. Stump, eds. How I changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science. (InterVarsity, 2016).
Enns, Peter. “The Firmament of Genesis 1 Is Solid, But That Is Not the Point.” Biologos.
Fergusson, David. Creation. (Eerdmans, 2014).
Halton, Charles, ed. Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither? Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters. Counterpoints. (Zondervan, 2015).
Keathley, Kenneth, J. B. Stump, and Joe Aguirre. Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation? Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and Biologos. (InterVarsity Academic, 2017).
Kitchen, J.A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. (Eerdman’s, 2003).
Lam, Joseph. “The Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context.” BioLogos. (Jan. 2010).
Lamoureux, Denis O. Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes! (Zondervan, 2016).
—. I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution (Wipf and Stock, 2009).
Lewis, Jack P. “Days of Creation: Historical Survey of Interpretation.” ETSJETS (Dec. 1989).
Moreland, J. P. and John Mark Reynolds, eds. Three Views on Creation. Counterpoints. (Zondervan, 1999).
Payne, J. Barton. “Theistic Evolution and the Hebrew of Genesis 1-2.” ETSJETS (no date). (The point: Hebrew words are neutral about evolution, neither supporting or contradicting it).
Sterchi, David A. “Does Genesis 1 Provide a Chronological Sequence?” ETSJETS (Dec. 1996).
Stump, J. B., ed. Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan, 2017).
Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (InterVarsity, 2009).
—. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. (InterVarsity Academic, 2015).