This post is part of a series of posts about what it means to love God with our minds. In the process, I touch on a number of issues that are sure to raise questions. If you have questions for me regarding any of this, you can post them in the comments or feel free to contact me directly through this site or my Facebook Page.
In my previous post, I shared the first biblical reason Christians have to be anti-intellectual:
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NIV
I mentioned how Christians use this verse to justify a “simple” approach to the life of the mind, but then I went on a long digression about how the “simple” approach can get us into trouble. I went into great detail about how a literal reading of the Bible can lead us to believe things the Bible never actually teaches. Specifically, we looked at how the origin story of Satan is a comforting myth that answers a lot of questions and in some ways fits a literal reading of a number of passages, but ignores all the context and the meaning of those passages to do so.
Today, we’re going to stay with the same idea by addressing another overly simplistic way of understanding the teaching of the Bible to prove the point that our desire for simple answers can actually lead us away from using our minds the way God would want us to.
In this post, we’re going to talk about Young Earth Creationism or the belief that God created the Earth roughly 6,000 years ago in contrast to all the evidence of modern science.
The Over-Simplicity of Young Earth Creationism
Many other resources are better than anything I can offer here, so if you want to learn more on this topic, just head over to BioLogos. Still, what I can offer here is a brief explanation for why Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is so attractive to so many Christians, why it is an unnecessary belief, and why it perpetuates Christian anti-intellectualism.
Basically, YEC has its power in its claim that it takes the Creation account in Genesis 1 literally. Furthermore, YEC proponents use fear tactics to keep doubters in line by saying that without YEC, the authority of all Scripture comes into question. If you deny YEC, you might as well burn your Bible because nothing else matters.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the claim that it takes Genesis 1 literally.
Consider Genesis 1. I won’t print the entire chapter here, but I’ll quote a few portions:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
Genesis 1:3-5 NIV
Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
Genesis 1:11-13 NIV
And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
Genesis 1:14-19 NIV
The first thing to notice is that “day” seems to refer to a period of light and darkness, or more accurately, a period of productivity, then a period of darkness, then an end to the darkness… a “morning.” The simplest and most straightforward way of understanding this seems to be that “day” means a 24 hour period coinciding with the rotation of the earth. From this perspective, God took 6 earth rotations, or 144 hours to take the earth from complete darkness to a place teeming with light, plants, animals, and people.
Those who hold to a YEC viewpoint start here and claim that a literal reading of the chapter is best and that a literal reading requires belief in creation taking 6 literal 24 hour days.
There’s just one problem… or actually two problems.
The Textual Problems with YEC
Both problems show up in Genesis 2:1-7. Here it is:
(1) Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
(2) By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. (3) Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
(4) This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.
(5) Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, (6) but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. (7) Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 2:1-7 NIV
The first problem with the simplistic/literal YEC interpretation of Genesis 1 is that it doesn’t know what to do with the apparent contrast between the two accounts of creation. Genesis 1 is the account of God creating the heavens and the earth and then filling the earth and the heavens with all manner of things. However, Genesis 2 gives a secondary more detailed account of the creation of human beings, but there’s an interesting and important detail. According to the YEC understanding of Genesis 1, God created all the land plants on day 3 and humans on day 6, but according to Genesis 2, God created the first man before any “shrub” or any “plant” had appeared on the earth. If we take the simplistic / literal interpretation of these two chapters, there seems to be a pretty stark contrast between the two accounts. YEC defenders get around this by attempting to define “shrub” and “plant” in specific ways that bypass the problem. They claim that God created a lot of plants on day 3, but that the “shrub” and “plant” referred to in 2:5 were a different kind of plant not yet created. However, YEC defenders still embrace chapter 2 heartily because it appears to say that God created humans before rain existed. That would require a young earth indeed. It’s important to note that this sequence problem between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is only a problem for the simplistic / literal interpretation of the two chapters. If you take a more poetic interpretation of Chapter 1, then Chapter 2 can be understood as a specialized, localized, detailed picture of how God made and cared for Adam and his wife Eve, and there is no conflict of sequence between the two.
However, the second problem is the one I find the most interesting. Verse 4 is an obviously transitional verse, but as such it’s also hard to know whether the verse more appropriately goes with the stuff before it or the stuff after it. Consider these translations:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. (ESV)
These the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, (KJV)
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. (NASB)
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. (NIV)
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens— (NIV84)
This is the account of the creation of the heavens and the earth.
When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,
Genesis 2:4 NLT
Notice the 1984 edition of the NIV and the New Living Translation both split the verse into two sentences. The first half goes with the previous section and the second half goes with the next section. The first half is a summary phrase concluding the first account, and the second phrase is the initial phrase of the second account. However, the more recent translations all agree that the entire phrase concludes the first account. They are almost certainly right to do so because the phrase forms a bookend with Genesis 1:1.
Why does that matter? Well, it matters because of a single word that shows up in the ESV, KJV, and NASB translations. Did you notice the word “day” in those verses? That’s right. In the original text, verse 3 tells us that God rested on the seventh day, and the very next phrase tells us the summary statement, this is how God created everything in the day he created them. Don’t miss this. In Chapter 1, we are told about 6 days of creation, but in the concluding verse for the entire account, it all gets expressed as a single day. Which is it? If “day” is a literal period of 24 hours, then did God create the earth in 6 days or just 1 day?
Those who claim “day” in Chapter 1 must be 24 hour periods of time need to play translation games with the very same word between 2:3 and 2:4. Either they push the phrase containing “day” into the secondary creation account, claiming they are different enough to result in different meanings for the word, or they simply translate “day” as metaphorical in 2:4 when they had previously demanded it be understood in a simplistic literal sense throughout Chapter 1! The point is that a fully simplistic literal understanding of Genesis 1 & 2 is unsustainable. At some point in the account, you have to appeal to metaphorical language or play translation games, or split the two accounts up in ways that do damage to the integrity of the Bible text itself. If you don’t have a good and compelling reason for Moses to use “day” in a literal sense in 2:3 and then immediately shift to using it metaphorically one verse later, perhaps it’s reasonable to accept it as a metaphorical word throughout, and to claim that 24 hour days is the only way to read Chapter 1 is a violation of basic literary study.
One more thing. I want to emphasize that nothing I have said here requires the appeal to modern secular scientific reasoning. I’m not saying we should abandon YEC because science tells us so. I’ll say that eventually, but for the moment, I want you to see that the text itself has problems with the simplistic / literal claims of YEC defenders. There are textual reasons to believe “day” should be taken metaphorically, but it might help to actually see what a more metaphorical interpretation looks like.
What Is Required By the Text
There is a beautifully simple but not simplistic way of understanding both accounts of creation. It is simple because it only goes as far as the text goes and not any further. It is not simplistic because it leaves a bunch of questions unanswered.
Notice that Chapter 1 is a beautifully structured poetic account of God creating a thing and then filling the thing. God created heaven and earth in verse 1, but then spends the rest of the chapter filling both heaven and earth. God creates day and night in day 1, but then in day 4, he creates the things to govern day and night. He creates water and air on day 2, but then fills them with birds and fish on day 5. He creates dry land on day 3, but then fills it with animals on day 6, and it all culminates in the creation of humans in his image and then his own day of rest. The point of the passage is not to emphasize the sequence of events or the passage of time or the mechanism of Creation (did you notice he often commands other things to do the work of Creation, like when he commands the land to “produce” living creatures), but to emphasize the creative wisdom of God who sets things up and then gives them life.
Similarly, a poetic understanding of Chapter 1 leads to a simple understanding of Chapter 2. At some unknown point in the creative process, God decides to find an empty wilderness, fill it with rivers and a garden, and then make a man to care for that place and enjoy it while doing so. It’s a detailed closer look at one part of the story of the earlier chapter and gives that other story a much more personal touch.
How long did creation take? The text doesn’t actually say. Perhaps the 6 days were the 6 days it took God to reveal all of this to Moses. Maybe God condensed creation into a 6 episode mini-series that Moses binge-watched in 6 consecutive days. Perhaps the 6 days refer to 6 different epochs of time. Perhaps the 6 days are purely metaphorical and nothing more. Perhaps they really were 6 24-hour periods. The point is that we don’t know and the text doesn’t require any particular conclusions especially when you see the two chapters side by side.
I don’t want to take the time now to address the other misunderstandings from the Creation account, but I’ll mention a few of them.
- No, the Bible does not teach that there was a glass dome above the earth either now or in the past. It uses the word “vault” or “firmament” but we honestly don’t really know what Moses meant by that.
- No, the Bible doesn’t teach that the earth is flat, that the moon produces its own light, or that planets are also stars. I’d love to dig into those things some other time, but for now, I’ll just leave it at that.
- Although we are meant to think of Adam and Eve as historical beings (specifically because Jesus referred to them as such), it’s important to point out that no, the Bible doesn’t claim Adam was the first example of Homo sapiens. There are many, many land-based creatures hinted at by this text, but the Bible makes no attempt to classify any of them in any kind of scientific way or order them in history. Adam was the first being mentioned as having the breath of life in him, but could there have been other sentient creatures on the planet before or after him? Could God have breathed the breath of life into another being on the other side of the world? Does the breath of life mean Homo sapiens? We don’t know any of those answers, and that’s okay!
Conclusion Regarding YEC
Yes, YEC seems at first glance to be a simple solution to the interpretation questions of Genesis 1 & 2, but it is overly simplistic. It claims to be a literal interpretation, but it can’t sustain a purely literal interpretation throughout both accounts.
Still, that’s not the problem with YEC. The real problem is that it makes improper claims about how to properly understand the Bible; claims that improperly set Christians up to be at odds with the claims of science. Christians raised with YEC beliefs must conclude that the entire program of secular science is antagonistic to them and therefore is untrustworthy. This simplistic idea leads directly to an unhealthy rejection of science and by extension and unhealthy rejection of the intellectual endeavors that drive science.
However, rejecting YEC interpretations is wildly liberating. It brings in an even simpler understanding of the creation accounts, but it leaves us with the challenge of not having many answers we would want to have. It drives us to think more deeply about how to understand the text of Scripture. It drives us to think more broadly in embracing the disciplines of scientific discovery. It opens our minds up to new revelations and new understandings about the intricate wisdom of God’s creation.