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In Six (Literal) Days? Point and Counterpoint

by John MacArthur and Paul Copan –

In Six Days?—Point – By John MacArthur

Scripture clearly teaches that God created the universe out of nothing.  In fact, one of the unique features of the creation account in Genesis is the repeated stress on divine creation by fiat—meaning that a simple decree from God brought the created thing into being.

Progressive (or “old-earth”) creationists (like advocates of evolution) turn the creation event into a process that spanned billions of years.  To hold this view they have to adjust the straightforward meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1.  But this interpretation is not justified.

 

The Meaning of “Day”

The first day of creation defines and delimits what the Bible means by the word day throughout the context of Genesis 1.  Those who believe the days of creation were long ages invariably make much of the fact that the sun was not created until the fourth day, and on this basis they argue that the days could not have been solar, twenty-four-hour days. The word day, they point out, is used elsewhere in Scripture to speak of long or indeterminate periods of time.

The problem with this view is that nothing in the passage itself suggests that the days were long epochs. The days are defined in Genesis 1:5: “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.  So the evening and the morning were the first day.”  Night and day, evening and morning are demarcated by rhythmic phases of light and darkness from the very begin­ning.  The very same expression, “the evening and the morning were the [nth] day” is employed for each of the six days of creation (vv. 5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), underscoring the fact that the days were the same and that they had clearly defined boundaries.   There is no reason to believe that the rhythm was greatly altered on the day four.  That means that the duration of “the evening and the morning” on the first day of creation was the same as the evening and morning of any solar day.

Indeed, the word day is sometimes used figuratively in Scripture to speak of an indeterminate period of time (“the day of your gladness”—Num. 10:10).  But throughout Scripture, wherever the word is modified by a num­ber (“He rose again the third day”—1 Cor. 15:4), the clear reference is to a normal solar day.

Moreover, the order of creation itself rules out the possibility that the “days” of Genesis 1 were really long ages.  For example, plant life was created on day three, including flowering plants and seed-producing trees (1:12).  But birds didn’t appear until the fifth day (v. 21), and earth-bound animal creatures—including insects (“creeping thing[s],” v. 24)—, were not created until the sixth day.  As every gardener knows, there is a necessary symbiosis between most flowering plants and the insect kingdom that utterly rules out the exis­tence of one apart from the other.

 

Constancy or Catastrophe?

The hypothesis that the earth is billions of years old is rooted in the unbibli­cal premise that what is happening now is just what has always happened.  This idea is known as uniformitarianism. It is the theory that natural and geo­logical phenomena are for the most part the results of forces that have oper­ated continuously, with uniformity, and without interruption, over billions and billions of years.  Scientists who hold this view explain nearly all geological phenomena in terms of processes that are still occurring.  The uniformitarian sees sedimentary rock strata, for example, and assumes that the sediments that formed them resulted from the natural, slow settling of particles in water over several million years.

The opposite of uniformitarianism is catastrophism, the view that dra­matic geological changes have occurred in sudden, violent, or unusual events.  A catastrophist observing sedimentary rock formations or large canyons is more likely (and more accurately) to interpret them as the result of massive flooding.  Of course, this yields a much younger time frame for the development of earth’s geological features.  (A sudden flood, for example, can produce a thick laver of sediment in a few hours.  That means a large stratum of sedimentary rock, which a uniformitarian might assume took millions of years to form, could actually be the result of a single flash flood.)

In fact, a moment’s reflection will reveal that the fossil record is impossible to explain by any uniformitarian scheme.  For a living creature to become fos­silized (rather than to decay and turn to dust—Job 34:15), it must be buried immediately under a great weight of sediment.  Apart from a catastrophic del­uge on a scale unlike any observed in recent history, how can we explain the existence of massive fossil beds (such as the Karoo formation fossil field in Africa, which is thought to hold eight hundred billion vertebrate fossils)?  Natural sedimentation over several ages cannot explain how so many fossils came to be concentrated in one place.  And every inhabited continent con­tains large fossil beds where millions of fossilized species are found together in large concentrations, as if all these creatures were destroyed and buried together by massive flooding.  Fossils of sea creatures are even found on many of the world’s highest mountain tops.  How do uniformitarians explain such phenomena?  The only way they can: They constantly increase their estimate of the age of the earth.

Scripture expressly condemns uniformitarianism in 2 Peter 3:4.  Peter prophesied that this erroneous view would be adopted in the last days by scoffers—men walking after their own lusts—who imagine that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”  The apostle Peter goes on to write, “For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heav­ens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water” (vv. 5-6).

In other words, the plain teaching of Scripture is that this world’s history has not been one of uniform natural and geological processes from the begin­ning.  But according to the Bible, there have been at least two global cata­clysmic events: creation itself and a catastrophic worldwide flood in Noah’s time.  These would sufficiently explain virtually all the geological and hydro­logical features of the earth as we know it.[i]  In fact, as Douglas Kelly writes,

The uniformitarian assumption that millions of years of geological work (extrapolating from present, slow, natural processes) would be required to explain structures such as the American Grand Canyon for instance, is called into serious question by the explosion of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington on the 18 of May 1980.  Massive energy equiva­lent to 20 million tons of TNT destroyed 400 square kilometers of forest in six minutes, changing the face of the mountain and digging out depths of earth and rock, leaving formations not unlike parts of the larger Grand Canyon.  Recent studies of the Mount St. Helens phenomenon indicate that if attempts were made to date these structures (which were formed in 1980) on the basis of uniformitarian theory, millions of years of formation time would be necessarily postulated.[ii]

Christians who reinterpret the biblical text to try to accommodate the uniformitarians’ old-earth hypotheses do so unnecessarily. To imagine that the earth was formed by natural processes over billions and billions of years through slow and steady evolution is to deny the very essence of what Scripture teaches about the earth’s creation.  It is to reject the clear account of God Himself that He created the earth and all its life in six days.

 

The Chicken or the Egg?

One rather obvious fact ignored by many is that the universe was mature when it was created.  God created it with the appearance of age.  When He cre­ated trees and animals, for example, He created them as mature, fully devel­oped organisms.  According to the biblical account, He did not create just seeds and cells.  He certainly did not plant a single cell programmed to evolve itself into a variety of creatures.  He made trees with already-mature fruit (Genesis 1:11).  He didn’t merely create an egg; He made chickens already full grown. (Thus Genesis 1:21 plainly answers the familiar conundrum.)  He cre­ated Adam full grown and fully capable of marriage and procreation.

Suppose a modern scientist could travel back in time and arrive in the garden moments after Adam’s creation.  If he examined Adam, he would see adult features.  If he could converse with Adam, he would find a man with adult knowledge and fully formed language skills. But if he interpreted those things as conclusive proof that Adam was more than one hour old, he would simply be wrong. When we’re dealing with things created ex nihilo, evidences of maturity or signs of age do not constitute proof of antiquity.

 

What About the Stars?

The closest star to our solar system is Alpha Centauri which is about 4.35 light-years away.  Most stars are immeasurably farther away than that.  That raises a fair question: If the universe is no more than ten thousand years old, as most Young-earth creationists believe, and as I believe Scripture plainly teaches, how can we see light that theoretically should have taken millions of years to reach us?

That’s a reasonable question, and I believe there is a reasonable answer.  It seems clear that when God created the stars, because He created them to illuminate the earth and be signs of our seasons, He also supernaturally enabled the light to traverse those vast expanses of space immediately.  If He is capable of designing such an immense and intricate uni­verse in the first place, He is certainly capable of getting the light across the vast reaches of space in accordance with His purpose.

 

Should We Appraise Scripture by Science, or Vice Versa?

Progressive creationists have embraced selected theories of big bang cosmology, which they regard as undisputed fact—including the notion that the universe and the earth are billions of years old—and they employ those theories as lenses through which to interpret Scripture.  In effect, he makes Scripture subservient to science—and they do so without carefully separating scientific fact from scientific theory.  Current scientific theory has thus become an interpretive grid through which progressive creationists read and explain Scripture.

Scripture is a sufficient revelation; nature is not.  Scripture is clear and complete; nature is not.  Scripture therefore speaks with more authority than nature and should be used to assess scientific opinion, not vice versa.  And, in fact, it is virtually impossible to begin with a straightforward reading of Genesis and arrive at the opinion that the universe is older than a few thou­sand years.

Take the age of the human race, for example.  Genesis contains a detailed genea­logy that traces the development of the human race from Adam to Abraham and beyond.  Some scholars have suggested that there may be gaps in the genealogy, in which a generation or two is skipped and the name of a grandson or great-grandson is Substituted for the name of a son.  But even allowing for some possible gaps, it’s inconceivable that the date for Adam’s creation could he much more than ten thousand years ago.

Scripture also teaches that there was no such thing as death prior to Adam’s fall.  Death is the result of sin (Rom. 5:12).  Of course that means that prior to Adam’s fall, none of the animals were carnivores.  They did not hunt and kill one another for food (cf. Gen. 1:30).  This biblical teaching is incompatible with old-earth creationism.

Absolutely nothing in the text of Genesis 1:1-2:3 speaks of evolution or long geological ages in the creation process.  The text itself is in fact a straight­forward refutation of all evolutionary principles.  Theistic evolution, billion-­year-old -earth theories, and “progressive creationism” are all refuted if we simply take the statements of Genesis at face value.

 

John MacArthur is Pastor-Teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and President of The Master’s College and Seminary.  This article is adapted from his book, The Battle for the Beginning: Creation, Evolution and the Bible (W Publishing Group, 2001).

 

The Days of Genesis: An Old-Earth View –Counterpoint – By Paul Copan

God’s kingdom and our Christian witness to the world are far weightier and grander matters than how long it took for God to create. That God created is more critical than the duration of creation. Alas, the young-earth versus old-earth debate has often been ugly and mean-spirited, and I (an old-earther) hope to build—not burn—bridges of understanding, and I readily affirm each side’s Christian commitment.[iii]

First, I’ll set forth important hermeneutical perspectives.  Second, I’ll point out some scientific evidences for an ancient universe. Third, I’ll make the case that faithfully interpreting Genesis 1-2 with a high view of Scripture doesn’t require taking “day” as a 24-hour period.  Genesis 1-2 allows for greater flexibility of interpretation than what some young-earthers claim. This flexibility can easily accommodate the weighty evidence for the universe’s antiquity.

 

Hermeneutics and Authority

For much of my life, I’d believed in a recent universe, being suspicious of any “billions of years” talk.  But after read scientifically-trained authors—Christian and non-Christian with no apparent axe to grind—who repeatedly spoke of an ancient cosmos, I investigated further.  To my surprise, not only did many young-earth “evidences” in which I had taken scientific refuge come crashing down, I found that most such “evidences” were highly selective, skewed, outdated, or otherwise problematic.  I would have been happy to find solid support for a young universe (and I’m still open to persuasion), but I regularly found it to be shaky at best.  The more I have studied the Scriptures and the relevant, wide-ranging scientific data, the more reasonably I can conclude that (1) the universe is billions of years old and (2) Scripture accords nicely with this evidence. The breath-taking splendor of God’s creation isn’t diminished if the process took billions of years rather than six 24-hour days.  The heavens still declare God’s glory.

I am firmly committed to Scripture’s authority, but the difference between John MacArthur and me is hermeneutical. One must distinguish between Scripture’s authority and our interpretations of Scripture. As Francis Schaeffer (incidentally an old-earther) wrote, “We must not claim, on the one hand, that science is unnecessary or meaningless, nor on the other hand, that the extensions [i.e., interpretations] we make from Scripture are absolutely accurate or that these extensions have the same validity as the statements of Scripture itself.”[iv]  John Calvin astutely observed that students of Scripture can make the Bible appear silly to the scientifically-minded by insisting on pressing certain aspects of biblical language as literal.  For example, Genesis 1:16’s observational language refers to the sun and the moon as “the two great lights.” Some of Calvin’s contemporaries had interpreted this to mean that the moon must be bigger than Saturn, which is false.  However, Calvin asserts that Moses simply addresses the common man—without need for scientific exactness (as with our use of “sunrise” and “sunset”).[v]

The two “books” of God’s self-revelation—His Word and His world—aren’t ultimately contradictory.  On the one hand, Scripture should not be held hostage to certain scientists’ pontifications (e.g., Christians across the centuries have held to creation out of nothing even when the empirical evidence wasn’t as clear as it is today).[vi] On the other, scientific discoveries have at times demanded that humans adjust their interpretations of Scripture (regarding the earth’s immovability, its being on foundations, its spatial centrality in the cosmos, etc.).  Theologians and scientists can learn from each other.

Clearly, Genesis 1-3 is historical (e.g., Adam and Eve as the first couple who were tempted and sinned: Lk. 3:38; Ac. 17:26; Rom. 5:12-19; 1Tim. 2:13-14; 1 Cor. 11:8-9; 15:21-2; 2 Cor. 11:3); however, it has a number of non-literal/metaphorical elements as well (some evangelical exegetes consider the early chapters of Genesis “poetical-historical”).  Thus we must not over-literalize Genesis 1-3 given important theological/literary motifs: God’s “dividing,” which foreshadows priestly responsibilities in the tabernacle (Lev. 10:10; 11:46), metaphor (God “breathed” and “walked”), poetic parallelism (1:27; 2:2), poetically arranged strophes with “echo” and “re-echo (“God said”/“and there was”), etc.

Unfortunately, many young-earthers have accused old-earthers of not taking the biblical text “literally” (an often ill-defined, inconsistently-used term that fails to take genres and important literary features into consideration)—or of compromising with naturalistic evolutionists.  But many careful evangelical exegetes such as Gleason Archer, Craig Blomberg, Walter Kaiser, Craig Keener, Derek Kidner, Kenneth Mathews, Vern Poythress, Bruce Waltke (to name a few) have observed from the text itself that the word “day [yôm]” in Genesis 1-2  hardly entails a 24-hour time-period; the text is more generous than this.

Furthermore, another view to consider is the “literary framework” view, in which the author isn’t interested in a specific chronological or scientific account, but speaks literarily/theologically, underscoring the fact of God’s creation.[vii]  First, God forms (days 1-3—light separating from darkness; water above and below separated; earth’s vegetation) and then fills His creation (days 4-6: lights in the heavens, birds/fish, and animals/humans).  At any rate, the biblical text does allow for greater flexibility regarding the “days” of Genesis.  But before any such analysis, what is the scientific support for an old universe?

 

The Antiquity of Universe

I won’t expand much upon the evidences for an ancient earth/universe, which are abundant.[viii]  I shall basically list them.  There is (1) the rate of the universe’s expansion (red-shifting of spectral light from stars) as well as (2) the rate of cooling from initially high temperatures, which support an ancient universe.  In addition, consider (3) the rate of stellar burning and (4) the arrival of light from distant galaxies.[ix] There is (5) the phenomenon of varves (two-toned sediment layers reflecting annual change of seasons); these layers number in the millions—and thus millions of years.  Note (6) the lengthy process of continental shifting (plate tectonics), in which land masses move slowly—about 2-5 centimeters per year.  (There is an almost perfect jigsaw-puzzle fit between the eastern coast of North America and the northwestern coast of Africa as well as eastern South America with Western Africa; other land masses also fit together well.)  This process—which includes the formation of mountains (e.g., the Himalayas) that were once on the ocean floor embedded with layers of marine fossils—takes many million years.  (7) Coral reefs grow only a few centimeters per year in the best of conditions—again, a process that would take millions of years to produce today’s reefs. There have been (8) at least four major ice ages, often with intervening subtropical conditions—a process taking millions of years; this can be accounted for by the earth’s tilt that varies by a few degrees approximately every 41,000 years (and sometimes in combination with the earth’s changing from an elliptical orbit to a more circular one every 100,000 years or so).  (9) Detecting radioactive decay through various corroborating or cross-checking methods supports an ancient earth, not a young one.  (10) The fossil record indicates that animal death occurred before human beings existed; with the fall, human death entered into the world. (Contrary to what young-earthers claim, Rom. 5:12 simply doesn’t assert that all death [e.g., plant death] came into the world with Adam’s sin.)  What’s more, Scripture indicates that the food chain was created by God—something young-earthers don’t adequately address.  God’s original creation includes carnivores (Job 38:39-41; 39:28-9; 41:1,10,14; Ps. 104:21,29).  There’s both beauty—as well as bloodiness—in the world God made.[x]

 

The Days of Genesis 1-2

Before arguing for a greater flexibility of interpretation regarding the word “day” in Genesis 1-2, I point out that even if one takes Genesis 1’s days as 24-hour periods, one can still believe in an ancient universe, including ice ages, animal death, and dinosaur extinction (e.g., Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer holds just such a view—“textual creationism”).[xi]

As for the meaning of “day” in Gen. 1, Beeson Divinity School’s Kenneth Mathews correctly observes: “there are many indications that ‘day’ in its customary sense may not be intended.”[xii]  Here are some: (1) Those who take a young-earth view typically claim that the ordinal (e.g., second, third) with yôm (day) is always a literal 24-hour day.  But this isn’t so. Take the restoration passage of Hosea 6:2: “[The Lord] will raise us up on the third day”—a phrase identical to Gen 1:13; this case presents a clear exception.  Interestingly, Luke 13:32 reads,[xiii] “Go and tell [Herod], ‘Behold, I [Jesus] cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third [day] I reach my goal.”  Clearly something other than a 24-hour day is in mind here (see also Ps. 90:4, where human life is like a “day [yôm]”; 2 Pet. 3:8). (2) The phrase “day one [yôm echad]” in Gen. 1:5 is also found in Zech. 14:7, referring to “the day of the Lord”—clearly not a 24-hour day. (3) Genesis 2:4 reads “in the day [yôm] the Lord God made earth and heaven”—referring to the entire act of creation.  So within the text of Genesis 1-2 itself, we have clear indication that “day” can mean more than 24 hours. (4) “Evening” is mentioned before “morning” throughout Gen. 1; this is an unusual rendering and suggests a sacramental and symbolic usage that points forward to Israel’s celebration of holy “days and months and years” (Gen. 1:14; Sabbath and Passover began the evening before). (5) If the sun was not made until the fourth day, as young-earthers claim, then why think that the preceding days were 24-hours in length? (6) “Evening”/“morning” isn’t mentioned on the seventh day, suggesting God’s complete rest from this initial creation is still continuing to this day (cp. Heb. 4:4: “God rested on the seventh day from all His works”)—a very long “day” of rest!  If this final day can be more flexibly understood, then why can’t the others? (7) Some say that Exodus 20:9-11 (“in six days the Lord made heaven and earth . . . and rested the seventh day”) demonstrates a literal 24-hour view of “day” in Gen. 1.  However, the focus is on a divine pattern being set for humans to follow, but this doesn’t mean that all comparisons are equal. Consider 1 Jn. 3:16:  Christ’s (unique atoning) laying-down-of-life sets a pattern for our (repeated, non-atoning) laying-down-of life for our brethren.  Also, note that the fourth commandment is repeated in Ex. 31:12-17, which adds that God “was refreshed”—which isn’t to be taken literally (cp. Isa. 40:28).  Why insist that “day” be taken as such? (8) The third day calls for a lengthy process of plants to grow, produce seeds, and yield fruit (Gen. 1:11-12); a 24-hour interpretation would require extremely rapid plant development, as in time-lapse photography in which a seed grows to full flower in seconds! (9) The sixth day also requires more than 24-hours:  Adam names thousands of animals, gets acquainted with their mating habits, realizes he’s alone, etc., suggesting more than just 24 hours. And Adam’s cry at Eve’s arrival suggests significant passage of time—“At last! [happa`am]” (2:23).  Note the same phrase used at Leah’s “vindication” in childbearing “at last” (29:34-5); Jacob’s finally leaving Laban after fourteen years (30:20); Jacob’s finally departing this life having seen Joseph (46:30). (10) If Gen. 1-2 is a historico-poetic genre, then it is unfair to make unwarranted literary demands upon it (such as the ordinal + yôm configuration = 24 hours).  Think of how wrong-headed it would be to insist that Revelation’s numbers be literalized for similar reasons, when this genre (apocalyptic-prophetic) is highly symbolic.

For these and other reasons, a high view of Scripture does not require holding to 24-hour days in Gen. 1; there is greater flexibility, which leaves wide open the possibility of an old-earth view.  Furthermore, other plausible approaches—such as Sailhamer’s “textual creationism” (“day” as 24 hours) or the literary framework hypothesis—allow for an ancient universe as well.

Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics, Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is the author of That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith (Baker, 2001).

 

NOTES

[i] Many fine resources outlining the geological evidences for creation and Flood are available from The Institute for Creation Research (www.icr.org) and Answers in Genesis (www.answersingenesis.org).

[ii] Douglas F. Kelly, Creation and Change (Fearn, Ross-shire, U.K.: Christian Focus, 1997), 164-65.

[iii] See the review of Macarthur’s Battle for the Beginning in Christian Scholar’s Review 32/4 (Summer 2003).

[iv] Genesis in Space and Time (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 36.

[v] John Calvin, Genesis, repr., trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 86-87.

[vi] Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation Out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Grand Rapids/Leicester: Apollos, 2004).

[vii] This is briefly described in Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy, Across the Spectrum (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 67-73.

[viii] I draw upon various astronomers, astrophysicists, geologists, etc. such as J. Gribbin, In the Beginning (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993); John D. Barrow and Joseph Silk, The Left Hand of Creation (New York: Oxford, 1993, 2nd ed.); Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982; repr. Artisan Pub.)—to name a few.

[ix] Light from distant stars becomes visible to humans (Tycho Brahe’s 1572 starburst; Ian Shelton’s [Feb. 1987] observing a supernova 160-170,000 light years away), which goes against “appearance of age” idea.

[x] Creation’s goodness doesn’t imply perfection or completion. On animal death, see related chapters in my books “That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) and “How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong?” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).

[xi] Genesis Unbound (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 1996).

[xii] Genesis 1-11:26 NAC (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1996), 149.

[xiii] Though the Gospels were written in Greek, Jesus’ originally spoke in Aramaic.

 

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