"The Interpretations of the Genesis 1 - 2 Accounts of Creation"
Note: This essay is a spin off from my research paper on Creation Versus Evolution in Light of Contemporary Research, and addresses the Christian theology issues of a young Earth versus an old Earth view of creation.
The age of the Earth is one of the major points where there is an apparent conflict between science and the Bible. The biblical statements, at first glance at least, seem to indicate that the Earth was created in six literal days. Calculating the age of the Earth by using the biblical genealogies dates the creation somewhere between 4000 and 8000 B.C. According to geologists, however, the generally accepted age for the Earth and the rest of the solar system is about 4.55 billion years. This value is derived from several different lines of evidence, largely based on the characteristics of radioactive material.
Young Earth creationists dispute the mainstream scientific dating techniques, and hold to a literal view of the creation accounts in Genesis. Old Earth creationists agree with the mainstream scientific dating, and have sought to reconcile the biblical accounts accordingly. There are many well-respected creation scientists and Christian theologians on both sides of this issue.
The first category of interpretations we will explore is from the young Earth creationists who most often hold to a literal six-day interpretation of the Genesis creation account. Some creation scientists holding to this view contend that the radiometric dating techniques used by mainstream science are flawed, and their work is focused on demonstrating the problems with these dating processes. Others contend that the process is sound, but that the conclusions are wrong. They offer several alternatives to interpreting the scientific data in light of the biblical accounts. These alternatives attempt to explain the discrepancy between mainstream science and the Bible with scenarios that hold to a young Earth model, while also explaining the scientific data. Two of these young Earth scenarios include the flood theory, and the ideal time theory.
The flood theory uses the biblical event of the worldwide flood of Noah's time to explain the scientific evidence. It states that a tremendous flood covered the Earth; huge waves traveling at very high velocity picked up various forms of life along their way. The mud where these life forms were deposited solidified into rock due to the tremendous pressure of the waves. The various rock strata in which fossils are found today represent the various waves of the flood. The unusual forces of the waves and the water pressure involved accomplished in a relatively short period of time the same effect that geologists would expect to have required billions of years.
The ideal time theory is another young Earth creation scenario which states that God created the world in a six-day period a relatively short time ago, but that he made it as if it were billions of years old. This view points out that Adam did not begin his life as a newborn baby, and at any point in his life he must have had an apparent age that was many years older than his actual age. The ideal time theory extends this principle and explains that if God created trees, rather than merely tree seeds, they would have had rings indicating an ideal age rather than their actual age. Thus, each element of creation must have begun somewhere in the life cycle and would appear to be older than it actually was.
The other category of creation interpretations are those of old Earth creationists, who believe the mainstream scientific dating of the Earth to be correct, and interpret the Bible accordingly. There are several theories that attempt to reconcile the biblical account with an old Earth dating. These include the gap theory, the age-day theory, and the pictorial-day theory.
The gap theory holds that there was an original creation of the Earth billions of years ago and that this is the creation mentioned in Genesis 1:1. It states that some sort of catastrophe occurred, causing the creation to become empty and unformed (Genesis 1:2). Then God re-created the Earth a few thousand years ago in a six-day period, and He populated it with all the species as described in Genesis 1:3 - 1:27. The apparent age of the Earth and the fossil records show the development over a long period, which is attributed to the first creation. The catastrophe is often linked to the fall of Satan, when the creation lay in ruins for a long period of time before God re-created it.
The age-day theory is based on the fact that the Hebrew word yom, which is translated in Genesis as day, most frequently refers to a twenty-four-hour period of time, but is not limited to that meaning. It can also refer to epochs or long periods of time, and that is how it should be understood in this context. This view holds that God created in a series of acts over long periods of time, and that the geological and fossil records correspond to the order of His creative acts.
The pictorial-day, or literary framework theory, regards the days of creation as more a matter of logical structuring than of chronological order. Either God's revelation of creation to Moses (who was God's instrument in writing the book of Genesis) was in a series of six pictures, perhaps given to Moses on six consecutive days, or the author arranged the material in a logical grouping of six periods, which are then referred to as days. There may be some chronological dimension to the ordering, but it is thought to be primarily logical. The account is arranged in two groups of three--days one through three and days four through six.
Christian theologian Millard Erickson refers to the three old Earth views, and the two young Earth views, in his book, Christian Theology. Erickson points out that each of these views has strengths, and each has some difficulties. He states that we must find the view that is the strongest and with the fewest difficulties. At present, the view Erickson finds most satisfactory is a variation of the age-day theory. Erickson states that there are too many exegetical (Bible interpretation) difficulties with the gap theory, while the flood theory involves too great a strain on the geological evidence. He continues with outlining the difficulties with the other theories and concludes, "While the age-day theory seems the most plausible conclusion at present, we cannot be dogmatic. The age of the universe is a topic which demands continued study and thought" (Erickson 382).
In my own thinking currently, I find the age-day theory to be the strongest of the old-Earth interpretations; it reconciles nicely with the mainstream scientific dating and still holds to reasonable standards of biblical exegesis (interpreting the Bible). But I also find the ideal-time theory to be extremely convincing. Erickson admits that this theory is in many ways irrefutable both scientifically and exegetically, but he is critical because it implies that God is deceiving us with a creation that looks older than it is, and this contradicts His nature. But if God did not deceive us when he created Adam as a grown man and not a baby, how then would he be deceiving us by creating the rest of His creation at an ideal age if this also served His purposes?
Christians need to be careful not to overstep the current understanding of these issues from both science and theology. In his book Know the Truth, theologian Bruce Milne, explains that dogmatic insistence from creationists on a particular interpretation of the Genesis account is inappropriate unless we can show that the Bible necessarily requires a particular interpretation. Bible expositors of undoubted intelligence and faith support a variety of views on the origins of mankind (Milne 93).
The young Earth theories show that science can, at least in theory, be reconciled with the Bible, and the old Earth theories show that the Bible can, at least in theory, be reconciled with science. Bible believing Christians need not be afraid of approaching science with an open mind and a view to reconciling their beliefs with scientific findings, so long as those findings are truth and not just theories skewed by naturalistic presuppositions. It is essential, however, for the Christian to hold to a high standard of biblical exegesis when reinterpreting the Bible in light of current scientific findings. Likewise, scientists need not discount the Bible as entirely irreconcilable with science in its account of life's origins, especially in cases where the scientific data is inconclusive.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.
Milne, Bruce. Know the Truth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982.