What is Young Earth Creationism?
In recent months, there was a very public debate between Bill “the Science Guy” Nye and Ken Ham that I saw. It was highly advertised on the internet and TV and perceived as a debate between Christianity (who Ken Ham supposedly represented) and science and reason (Bill Nye). Of course the mass media was playing off of the perpetual “culture wars” in this country and reinforcing the metanarrative that reason and faith are incompatible. That is not what exactly, as Peter Griffin from Family Guy would say, what really “grind my gears” so to speak, but it was rather what Ken Ham was claiming about the Bible. Ken Ham was advocating a literalist interpretation of Genesis and making the argument that the Bible claims that the world was created in seven consecutive days and the universe is only 6,000 years old. The world-view he believes in is called Young Earth Creationism (or YEC). His organization in particular, Answers in Genesis (AiG), has been receiving millions of dollars in donations. Organizations like Ken Ham’s funnel them into projects such as the construction of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky which cost over 27 million dollars to construct. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like that of Ken Ham’s and others, they have given the perception towards its audience that if you do not accept YEC, then you are a biblical compromiser, a denier of biblical inerrancy, or somehow not a genuine Christian.
So you know the background and what Young Earth Creationism is. But we need to be asking ourselves these questions:Does the Bible really support Young Earth Creationism? In order to be a Christian, do I have to automatically accept YEC? The answer is no! On both accounts!
My interpretation of the creation narratives is this: that the meanings of Genesis 1 & 2 are not to be fully taken literally and we can adopt a wide variety of interpretations of the text. In this case, I am genuinely an agnostic of what interpretation should be applied to Genesis– a Christian can genuinely go where the evidence leads them which is tremendous advantage. We should not, as Christians, automatically presuppose Young Earth Creationism and be cognizant of other interpretations that are, I think, are far more plausible than YEC.
1. How was Genesis written?
First I want to emphasize, it is not my wish to impose modern science into the text, on the contrary, what is needed is an exegesis of the text by itself and not allowing one’s own scientific presuppositions upon the text (I do not identify myself with the hermeneutic of concordism, although, I do not agree with YEC pseudo-science theories). Indeed, we should understand what the author is saying to his audience, within the cultural and historical context of the time, and not apply an interpretation that would be foreign towards how the author or the audience understood the text.
Genesis is a highly stylized historical narrative using various metaphorical devices. Out of all the creation stories for that period, there is really nothing like it, Genesis stands by itself as a literacy masterpiece. But to think that the Genesis narrative was written like a detailed police report; to think so displays a gross ignorance of the text.
That being said, there are certain aspects of the Genesis 1 and 2 that are historical and are to be taken literally. For example, the characters of Genesis are not being spoke of in a metaphorical sense such as there are really characters Adam and Eve that did really exist (considering the genealogies show Adam and Eve have actual descendants)! Not to mention, the most important character of the story namely God! God is the central figure of the story, who is interacting with His creation, and is not spoken of as a symbolic or figurative character. He is a personal Person who interacts with His creation and is no way a metaphor!
In essence, there are portions of Genesis that are historical given these examples. However, these accounts are also symbolic and metaphorical in certain respects. For example the name of Adam means man and Eve means the “mother of all living human beings.” They are symbolic because they represent all of mankind. OWe also have figurative language being use of God “walking” in the garden (Genesis 3:8) and looking for Adam and Eve and brings man out of the dust of earth and breathes in Adam’s nose (2:7). I have a hard time believing God bent down and performed CPR on Adam, I do not think that is what the author is implying. The author of Genesis uses highly stylized and literacy devices to illustrate parallels of God’s prerogative to give life or ‘breath’ life into us. Genesis is also written in a semi poetic style. Just look at the creation narrative and you will notice repetition throughout the text (i.e. “then God said…” “…Then God made…” “..and he saw it was good..” and etc.). This semi-poetic prose comes across as a chant of sorts. When you compare Genesis 1 and 2 together, the styles are written totally different.
Just from the evidence above, it is difficult to think of ALL of Genesis 1 & 2 as a pure historical narrative or like a police report transcribing literal events. To interpret the text in this way would be grossly naïve and would display a tremendous amount of ignorance surrounding one’s own understanding to Genesis.
Because of these various metaphorical devices being used in the text, (this is where you will probably disagree with me), it is unfair to impose a literal interpretation of the days in Genesis. Here are my reasons as to why I think the days and meanings of Genesis are not to be taken literally.
2. The Hebrew word day or yom could be reinterpreted as “age” or epoch of time.
The Hebrew word used in the narrative is “Yom” which could mean a 24 hour period or epochs of times or used in a much broader sense. It exhibits the same latitude as the english word day. For example, if I were to say, “back in Lincoln’s day there were no automobiles yet,” obviously I would not be talking about a literal day, I am using this in a figurative sense. Additionally, the phrase used in describing day one in Genesis is “yom echad” which is used in other parts of the Bible in a non-literal way (see Zechariah 14:7 where it states “on the day of the Lord”).
Now Young-Earth Creationists have attempted to explain away the significance of the word yom. When reading William MacDonald’s Believer’s Bible Commentary (which is a popular commentary that supports Young-Earth Creationism), states that “Wherever the word “day” is used with a number in the OT… it means a literal day.” I do not find the MacDonald’s response plausible. The first reason is there no rule in Hebrew that states that day followed by an ordinal number has to be a literal day. Moreover, there is no ancient sources I have found that have any examples of such a rule being applied with the phrase “yom echad” or “day one” Even if there was any text that applied this “rule” it could be a mistake used, but in general, there is no consistent usage of yom echad in reference to literal days.
Secondly, the assertion is false because there are examples in the Bible that use “yom” with a number in an non-literal way. For example, in Hosea 6:2 where it states,
“He will revive us after two days, and on the third day He will raise us up.”
Here God is saying he will judge Israel and on the third day, he will raise them up. Clearly, this is narrating God’s judgement and restoration of Israel which is obviously not a literal 24-hour day. Thirdly, yom could be used in a literal way but still be implied as a literally metaphor. A 24 hour day could be used metaphorically. A good analogy is the english word arm. In a literal sense, an arm is a physical limb. But in a metaphorical way we could say “a man is armed” meaning he is carrying a weapon and not carrying a limb or has limbs! So we could apply this analogy with Israel or say “the arm of the Lord was with Israel” or in Psalm 110 the Lord is at your right hand should not be taken literally! This means that God’s power or righteousness is with Israel. So even if one where to prove the word day in Hebrew is always used literally, it doesn’t even begin to demonstrate that yom cannot be used in a metaphorical sense.
Also, defenders of the literalist interpretation such as Exodus 20:8-11 where the author says.
“for the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day.”
I have seen this in some websites where YEC have used this as a way to illustrate six literal days. However, this interpretation I think is too pressing. All that is being shown in v. 9-11 is the pattern that is set down in Genesis of God’s laboring and should be the same pattern the Israelites should observe. No where in this specific text does it state that this pattern establishes literal days. Look at Exodus 31:12-17 and notice on the seventh day is God’s rest and cease from labor. But when you read Genesis 1 on the seventh day, it is clearly not a literal day. It unlike, the other days, does not end with evening and morning and it is continual day because God is still in His Sabbath rest. We are in fact still on day seven. This is stated later in Hebrews 4:3 where the Apostle Paul writes:
Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’” And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.
So if this day not to be taken literally, then why should we take the other days literally? Genesis 2:4 it says “this is the account of the heavens and the Earth when they were created, in the day, that the Lord God made earth and Heaven” In this passage is referring to the entire creation week describing in the day. The author here is obviously not talking about a literal day but using the word yom metaphorically.
3. If the First Four Days of Creation are Clearly Not Actual 24 hour days
The literalist interpretation also runs into more problems on the fourth day for example. The entire universe was created on or before the first day (Genesis 1:1 and sunlight was upon the earth before the end of the first day (Genesis 1:3-5). If the Earth had directional light and Earth experienced night and day (1:5) and the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, how could Earth experience both evening and morning if the Earth wasn’t rotating around the sun? Again, here is an example of the highly stylized and metaphorical language is being used and precisely why the text should not be taken literally. Additionally, look at Genesis 1:11-12, “let the earth sprout vegetation, plants, yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them…” It is hard to believe that God created vegetation and plants somehow ex-nihilo or out of nothing! Plants grow gradually and it would seem strange that they would appear out of nothing in one day. The text let the EARTH bring forth vegetation and plants, which could imply a long duration of germination and growth from photosynthesis.
4. Adam’s Reply When God Made Eve is Extremely Odd.
In Genesis 2:22-23 where God created Eve from Adam’s rib and Adam’s reply is as follows:
“at last! the man exclaimed. This one is bone from my bone and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from ‘man.’”
The phrase Adam uses “at last” in the Hebrew is a phrase meaning a long time of waiting. It would seem strange for Adam to say this if this means only one literal day, but rather, Adam endured a long period of waiting and want. Otherwise, Adam’s response would not make much sense.
5. There are several early church fathers who believed the world was not 6,000 years old and did not interpret Genesis literally.
I must emphasize this reinterpretation of Genesis is not a recantation of science; there were several early church fathers that did not take a literal view of Genesis. The ones that come to my mind are Philo of Alexandria, Justin the Martyr, Origen, and Augustine of Hippo. My personal favorite is St. Augustine, who for example, wrote that the days in meanings in Genesis should not be taken literally. He also stated that God could have created the world by using certain ‘potencies’ that would unravel over the course of long extended periods of time. Furthermore, Augustine wrote that interpretations of Genesis can be adopted to fit with both science and scripture or in other words, science and faith can be reconciled. He writes:
In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.
He believed that science could not contradict orthodox Christianity because the redeemer God and the creator God are one. In essence, truth cannot contradict truth. You see, not even some of the most prominent early Church Fathers believed that world was 6,000 years ago. This is 1,5000 years before Darwin and before any sort of conflict between science and religion.
If anything, my objections to macroevolution are scientific because what macroevolution calls for is highly improbable. The unlikely hood of macroevolution succeeding is illustrated by John Barrow and Frank Tipler (both Barrow and Tipler were anti-theists when they wrote their extensive work). In their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, they lay out ten crucial steps necessary for the evolution of man. Before each of these steps would have occurred by chance alone, the sun would seize to be a main sequence star and would have burnt up the Earth. Barrow and Tipler calculated the probability of the human genome evolving and their conclusions were incredible:
“the odds against assembling the human genome spontaneously is even more enormous: the probability of assembling it is between (4-180^6)110,000 = 10 -12×10^6 and (4360)110,000 = 10 -24×10^6. These numbers give some feel for the unlikelihood of the species Homo sapiens.”
This is significant because it shows that the chances of evolution happening by chance alone is not plausible. To illustrate the improbability it would be as if you were sentenced to death and faced 100 well-trained marksmen firing from point-blank range. Then imagine all the marksmen missing you and you surviving. The chances of that happening are extremely bleak. If you did survive, it would be unlikely to assume that this occurred by chance alone and it was by design. Therefore, if macroevolution did occur, it would be literally a miracle. Thus proving the existence of God.
The Christian actually has enormous advantage to follow where the evidence leads him or her to. One could accept either special creationism or theistic evolution or other theories/interpretations. Where as the atheist, as Richard Dawkins describes, is stuck with the “only game in town.” To be an atheist, one is forced to believe Common Descent or macroevolution and one cannot follow where the evidences leads them since it is the only viable naturalistic explanation that is absent of God. Therefore, one should not feel boxed in by YEC because it’s not the only viable interpretation to Genesis.
You may be asking, “what do you think is the best interpretation or scientific theory?” I honestly do not know. It is difficult without any of extra-biblical accounts of the creation story that clear figure out how God created. We have to go with the best explanation for our existence. The leading and prevailing theory is the universe was created 13.5 billions years ago in the cosmic event called the Big Bang. How biological life prevail is another question entirely, I am open to the idea of theistic evolution but the fossil records have been embarrassingly bad in proving macroevolution. However, I am open to the idea of macroevolution and the theory of common descent. I am legitimately open to where the evidence leads me. Call me an agnostic in regards towards how God created biological life.
More significantly, a non-believer should not feel like they are committing intellectual suicide by believing in Christianity because, being Christian does not pre-commit you to YEC. To you Young Earthers reading this, I implore you to not force your interpretation of Genesis and making it a perquisite for Christians to become Christians. Maybe it’s me but the majority of churches I have been too have sort of crammed this world-view down people’s throats, Paul says it best:
“So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (Romans 14:10)
Focus on what is really important and that Is Jesus Christ for without him, our preaching is useless (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).If anything, this approach to allow individuals to honestly go where the evidence leads them will, I think, lead more people to coming to know Christ resulting in their salvation. For all roads, if they are sought after with an honest and open heart, lead right back to the foot of the cross.