Options in Genesis: How to Read the Creation Account?

   Imagine this: you fell in love with the stars when you went camping as a child.  You studied astronomy in college as an undergraduate, and eventually got your PhD in astrophysics. Now, you work as a researcher in a major university’s Astronomy department, studying starlight that’s only now reaching your telescope after traveling through the universe for many years--sometimes over a billion. You are intimately familiar with the scientifically-sound equations and measurements that determine the distance of any given star.

    Now, imagine you are invited to a Bible study by your next door neighbor.  She is the host as well as the discussion leader.  Tonight’s text is Genesis 1; you grow tense in your chair.  She asks the group, “Should we take the creation story literally?”  Group members toss out their own theories, and a consensus begins to emerge: the Bible is God’s word, so if it says that He created the universe in 6 days, then He did.  Science, after all, has been wrong before.

    You finish your coffee and leave as soon as possible.  You avoid eye contact with your neighbor for a couple weeks, until the scene is mostly forgotten.


And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
        Genesis 1:16-19

    How are we to read the above passage?  What is God saying to us through it?  Is it scientifically accurate?  Is it metaphorical?  If one believes that the Big Bang was a historical event, then in what sense could God “set” the stars in the sky?  Isn’t it more like he “exploded them all throughout the heavens”?

    There are many ways of reading the creation account(s) in the book of Genesis.  Here is a brief overview of most of them:

YOUNG EARTH CREATIONISM

    On this view, the account of the six “days” of creation in Genesis is to be taken quite literally.  God can perform whatever miracles He wants, so just because any particular human being might not think that this reading makes sense scientifically, it should present no real challenge to the Christian.  If God created the world in the first place out of nothing, surely anything is possible, and it is better to take God at his word than to second guess the Bible’s claims.  When YEC’s are challenged by those with scientific knowledge about what appears to be very strong evidence for the age of the earth and the universe, often they will respond with the “apparent age” argument: God simply made the universe look as if it were 13 billion years old.  Why couldn’t He?  A strong emphasis is placed on reading the Bible literally, using the plain sense of the meaning of its words.

DAY-AGE CREATIONISM / GAP THEORY

    This is similar to Young Earth Creationism, but with a twist.  Day-Age Creationism posits that we have ample biblical reason to assume that, for God, who is presumably not bound by time and space, “days” need not be 24-hour periods.  In fact, in 2 Peter 2:3 we read that, “A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.”  Therefore, the age of the universe does not present a problem.  Gap Theory proposes that the six days of creation were in fact literal days, but a long gap must have existed between the first day and the rest of the days, explaining the age of the universe and Earth.  On this view, the doctrine of evolution through natural selection is not affirmed. God still created the Universe in the way it is described in Genesis, only with breaks in the action that account for the age of the Universe and Earth, the speed of light, etc.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN

    This term actually covers a pretty wide tent of perspectives, but one common premise is something like the following: “Evolution is an accurate depiction of the earth’s history, but evolution could never have happened without the direct interceding of God at certain places and times.”  One of the most interesting ideas is that certain features of the world require more than a step-by-step incremental change in order to be useful to a creature; they could not have simply evolved.  In other words, the mechanism put forward by evolutionists is not sufficient to explain certain organisms or traits; something more (read: supernatural) is required.  Two examples often cited are eyeballs and the flagellum (or “legs”) that propel certain microbial organisms.  

It is common, then, for a proponent of ID to believe that humans need not have developed from apes, despite the evidence for that view: since God periodically intervenes to ensure the viability and survivability of his creatures, He needn’t go through the long, messy process of slowly evolving humans.  This might solve some of the stickier questions regarding human origins and the Bible: was there an Adam? When did humans start to be responsible for their own sin/choices (assuming that animals are not responsible in the same way)?

THEISTIC EVOLUTION

    Theistic Evolution attempts to find plausible readings of the Genesis account(s) that leave room for science to do what science does best: describe the natural world.  If the data tells us that humans descended from apes, or that the universe is 13 billion years old, or that the fossil record shows organic life evolving in a particular way, then that is probably what happened.  This view contends that, since there are so many possible ways to read the biblical text, we must choose one that accords with the findings of good, careful science.  

Within TE, there are multiple ways of understanding God’s role in creation.  Perhaps evolution is simply the physical mechanism by which he has created every creature precisely as He intended them, down to the smallest biological details.  Or, perhaps, God values the randomness and chance seemingly inherent in the process of evolution and in the biological diversity that results from that process.  Perhaps, the only truly necessary outcome of the evolutionary process was the existence of morally capable intelligent beings, well-suited for a mutually loving relationship with their Creator.

WHERE I FIND MYSELF AND WHY

    I was raised, seemingly by default, as a Young Earth Creationist.  At times, I was taught what now appears to me, quite frankly, to be intellectually dishonest apologetics masked as science.  One example: the long-discredited “Canopy Theory,” which posits that the “waters from above” contained enough water for 40 days of global rainfall in the Flood.  Because such a layer of water vapor would cause a greenhouse effect that heated the Earth to unlivable temperatures, most every Christian scholar and scientist had dismissed this notion well before it was printed in my textbook.  This is not to say that there are no scientific arguments for YEC; there are, although I do not find them convincing, especially when held up against the abundance of evidence for an old universe and earth.  

The hypothesis of “Apparent Age” is problematic for two reasons: 1) it seems deceptive on God’s behalf, such that we cannot trust the tools of reason that He has given us, and 2) even if it is true, since all of our own scientific processes/reason give us some particular result, what is the purpose of claiming “Apparent Age”?  Why not just continue to live, do science and theology, and worship as if our rational capacities function correctly, and the universe is, in fact, old?  It seems that the only reason to claim Apparent Age is to rescue a particular reading of Genesis that I find neither necessary nor even particularly compelling.

The tipping point for me was reading Finding Darwin's God by Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic professor of microbiology at Brown University.  He lays out a very convincing case for an old universe, old earth, and the descent of humans from apes.  He also argues strongly against the Intelligent Design contingent, debunking the arguments mentioned above regarding the supposed impossibility of the gradual development of eyes and microbial flagellum.  His book, and other reading that I have done since that book, have convinced me that Intelligent Design’s central claims are unlikely to be true.

    But if I’m honest, large questions remain.  If evolution is the mechanism by which all life is derived from common ancestors, and if a certain amount of random genetic mutation is inherent in evolution, then in what way can we say that God has “designed” any particular creature?  How does this relate to being created “in the image of God”?  And now that we know that the entire biological story of our universe rests on constant competition for energy and resources--plants vie with one another for sun and soil nutrients, animals eat and kill those plants or other animals to survive--what does this say about God that He would create such a world?  Are the features that helped humans survive a Darwinist world ones that God “designed” us with, or is that “human nature” precisely what we are to overcome through selfless love?

    What has all of this done to my theology, my sense of security as a Christian?  What fruit is produced by leaving such large questions open, essentially unanswered?  The truth is, it’s not a particularly easy way to live, but it seems to be the only intellectually honest option I have.  Furthermore, it has opened up an entirely new way of living life with God: trading my intellectual certitude for vulnerable day-to-day trust.  In fact, I have felt God explicitly asking me to stop worrying about “getting it all right,” and to focus more on loving Him, loving my neighbor, listening closely to those around me, staying in prayerful communication with Him throughout the day (as much as possible), and training myself through classic Christian spiritual practices to ground myself in the true and deepest reality of every moment of my life.

    The scientific questions remain open, and none are off limits.  In fact, I find myself far more interested in science than I was in younger years.  Sometimes what I read is upsetting, sometimes encouraging.  I think my only option is to keep reading, keep asking questions, and keep trusting God with my day to day life.


P.S. If you want to hear me chat with on this topic with an expert, check out this episode of my other podcast Depolarize! where we discuss these issues, and particularly focus on the question of Common Ancestry (did humans evolve from other creatures?).

P.P.S. A great source for Theistic Evolution (linked to copiously throughout this article) is BioLogos.

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