I’ve been thinking a lot about creation/science issues lately, so I read Doug Wilson’s recent piece on the interpretation of Genesis 1 with great interest. I wasn’t planning on writing anything more in this area, but you know how it goes when you start thinking about something, and then you start jotting down your thoughts, and then before you realize it you’re ready to hit “publish.” This is not a thorough response, just a couple of particular thoughts generated by Wilson’s piece, and here or there they may be more informed by the larger discussion than Wilson directly. These are in the spirit of “friendly reminders” or “friendly appeals” to my young-earth creationist friends, in the interests of keeping up good, sharpening dialogue about these important issues, particularly in a few areas where I think young-earth creationism is itself not so clearly removed from the ambiguities it typically ascribes to old-earth creationism.
1) Let’s be careful not to give the impression that it’s “young-earth” versus “evolution”
I am sure Wilson knows that you can reject a 24-day, sequential reading of Genesis 1 without affirming a strictly evolutionary account of the origins of life generally or humanity specifically. There is a huge swath of evangelicalism that goes this route, as well as a number of heavy-hitting modern theologians like Warfield and Hodge and McCosh at Old Princeton. But there is a tendency among young-earth creationists to obscure from visibility this middle-ground, intermediate position, such that the interpretative choice looks more starkly like a stand off between Ken Ham and Charles Darwin. (There is a powerful rhetorical thrust to this appeal: which do you believe, God’s thought’s or man’s thoughts?)
Wilson does much better than other young-earth creationists in this regard. But may I gently suggest it is not so helpful for him to write, after referencing Mark 10:6-7, “now this makes good sense if Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day of creation, but it makes no sense if Adam and Eve emerged from a group of hominids billions of years after the first act of creation.” The words “from a group of hominids” in this sentence expand the scope of the discussion from the timing of humanity’s creation (the original point in question) to the mechanism of humanity’s creation (a separate issue on which old-earth creationists disagree). Blurring together the “when” and the “how” is confusing and potentially prejudicial for readers.
The emotions and ambiguities involved in the word “evolution” make it all the more important to make these distinctions. That unhappy English noun “evolution” has been freighted with a host of different meanings, ranging from general change/adaptation in biological life over time, on the one hand, to a naturalistic worldview that accounts for all reality in terms of ruthless progression (what C.S. Lewis called “developmentalism”), on the other hand. Even the most Bible-thumping fundamentalist in the world believes in the evolution in the first sense (for instance, how else do you explain different races of human beings?); while evolution in the second sense must make any thoughtful theist shudder. And of course there are shades of meaning between these two extremes.
Because the word evolution is used differently in different contexts, and because different old-earth creationists accept different kinds of evolution (and some very little), arguing for young-earth creationism by arguing against “evolution” is like arguing for a memorialist/Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper by arguing against transubstantiation, or arguing for congregationalism by arguing against the Papacy, or arguing for communism by arguing against fascism, or arguing that baseball is the best sport by arguing against golf. It obscures the other options.
I wish more young-earth people would not just begrudgingly acknowledge the full spectrum of creation views, but make it visible in their language and argumentation. I think that would sharpen our dialogue.
2) Remember that “death before the fall” is a problem for us all
Wilson’s lengthy final point pertains to Romans 5:12-13 and the problem of death before the fall. I grant this is a challenging issue, one to which I have devoted some sustained thought and research. But I am not sure that adopting young-earth creationism resolves the difficulties. After all, while a few young-earth creationists maintain that the second law of thermodynamics came into existence with Genesis 3 and there was no death of any kind beforehand, most admit that some kinds of death (plant death, bacterial death, cell death, etc.) are necessary for the world to be sustainable, even while Adam and Eve were still in the garden.
The real challenge is not whether we admit “death before the fall,” but where we draw the lines. If you press the point, many young-earth creationists will resort to “plant death is morally neutral, but animal death is evil.” This sounds initially promising, but upon some probing is revealed to be inexact. First of all, we have not yet identified non-plant and non-animal life like fungi or protists. Secondly the word “animal” typically includes invertebrates like insects, jellyfish, molluscs, worms, sponges, leeches, spiders, crabs, etc.—creatures that most young-earth creationists affirm died before the fall, or are at least affirm could have died. (This is a reasonable concession for young-earth creationists to make, because a world without insect death would very rapidly become uninhabitable, and it is not very intuitive to insist that mosquito death or starfish death is “evil.”)
So the distinction for the young-earth creationist is typically not between plant death vs. animal death, but between death among all lower forms of organic life (bacteria, protist, fungi, plant, invertebrate animals, etc.) vs. death among vertebrate animals. But it feels a bit arbitrary to draw the line here: why should lobster death be okay but rat death not be? Upon what basis do we determine that God is justified to create a world containing shrimp death but not a world containing toad death? Entertaining these questions may sound silly, but they underscore the fact that all creation views have to deal with the problem of death before the fall; the only difference is how much, and what kind.
With the complexity of the words “life” and “death” in view, we are in better position to observe that virtually no one interprets “death” in Romans 5:12 (or I Corinthians 15:21) as death indiscriminately. For most old-earth creationists, it means human death; for most young-earth creationists, it means human and vertebrate animal death; but in neither case is Paul’s horizon of concern in this passage absolutely universal, or the word “death” without qualification. Personally, I think Paul’s concern in Romans 5:12 and I Corinthians 15:21 is specifically with human death, given the larger context of the Adam-Christ typology running throughout both passages, and the parallel construction in I Corinthians 15:22 to denote human resurrection: “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (no one sees animal animal resurrection in view here).
Young-earth creationists should also be aware of what they are asking us to believe when it comes to the transformation of vertebrate animal life at the fall. According to most young-earth creationists, all animals were herbivores until Genesis 3. This makes one wonder: before the fall, did saber-toothed cats use their saber-teeth to eat fruits and vegetables, or were they purely decorative? Did moray eels have their lightning reflexes to hunt seaweed? Did eagles and falcons have their far-reaching eyesight to swoop down and pounce on plants and shrubs?
Obviously this seems absurd. But if not—if carnivorous teeth/digestion and predatory behavior began at the human fall—then we must envision a massive structural overhaul of creation in Genesis 3 (implanting saber teeth to the cats, hunting reflexes to the eels, new eyesight to the birds, and so forth). There is no evidence of this in the text. The “curses” given there to the man and woman primarily concern human (female) childbearing and (male) labor, and the statement “cursed is the ground” comes in the context of the latter. Many people have the impression that young-earth creationism is a simpler and “cleaner” view than old-earth creationism, and in some respects I think that is true; but we should recognize that all the various views on creation out there have “gaps” and blind spots that tend to generate speculation and head-scratching.
In my forthcoming article for Evangelical Quarterly, I suggest that in order to account for natural evil we must remember that Genesis 3 is not the origin of evil in God’s creation, but rather the extension of evil from one part of creation (fallen angels) to another (humanity). Christians have always believed that evil predates humanity, and that evil has a corruptive, corrosive influence on nature (think of the way demons are presented in the gospels). It seems to me that the best hypothesis for the problem of pre-human natural evil lies here: that natural evil began when evil began: that nature fell when angels fell: that creation became infected with disarray and disorder when her first creatures rebelled against the Creator’s design.
I unpack this view more thoroughly in the article. Of course, it is just a hypothesis. But it explains a lot and fits with what we have already believed about demons. And while it is somewhat speculative and uncertain, my broader point here is that hypothesis and creative speculation are impossible to avoid in this area.
3) It’s important to work hard after the Bible’s intended meaning
One of the strengths of Wilson’s piece is that he deals with texts other than Genesis 1, particularly Mark 10:6-7, Romans 1:20, and Exodus 20:11, 31:17. I appreciated this aspect of his piece and thought he made some interesting points. So I here I want to interact a little with these texts, but first it might be helpful to lay some hermeneutical groundwork.
After all, the general impression in creation discussions is often that young-earth creationism is the result of a “literal” reading of the Bible, whereas old-earth people play fast and loose with the text. Wilson doesn’t give this impression, but his use of these various texts provides the occasion to reflect on this concern, and in particular the slipperiness of that word “literal.” I fear that too often Christians equate “literal” with “how it initially strikes me.” Justin Taylor recently put up a helpful blog post on this topic, showing that the word “literal” actually has a range of meanings.
Let’s start with an imaginary scenario to try to gain some sympathy for the point: suppose you have a friend who believes in a three-tiered universe in which the earth is flat and stationary, heaven is above the sky, and hell (the underworld) is below the ground. They argue that such a view is the “clear teaching of the Bible” because it is what Philippians 2:10 and Revelation 5:3 “literally” say. If you deny the existence of these three realms (“heaven and earth and under the earth”), they insist, then you are compromising and choosing “man’s science” over “God’s truth.”
How would you respond? Obviously this is a provocative example, but it needs to be so to make the point clearly: what establishes the Bible’s authoritative meaning is always what the original author intended to communicate to the original audience. If an emphasis on reading the Bible “literally” encourages us towards interpretations that the biblical authors did not mean for us to draw, then it is the so-called “literal” hermeneutic that is actually playing fast and loose with the text, because it is transporting the Bible into our domain of concerns before it has situated the Bible within its own. This means we cannot shrug off the hard exegetical labor of, for instance, doing word studies, analyzing the historical setting, comparing parallel texts, identifying particularities of language that reflect ancient idiom or metaphor, and so forth. The driving concern is always, “how does the Bible want itself to be read?”
So when Jesus says that God made humanity male and female “from the beginning of creation” in Mark 10:6, and Paul says that God’s nature has been seen “ever since the creation of the world” in Romans 1:20, what did Jesus and Paul intend to communicate? Were they concerned with their hearers/readers properly ordering the relative sequence of the creation of humanity in relation to the rest of the cosmos? I would say it is more natural to take these statements in terms of the normal idiom of human language, asserting that marriage and general revelation have been continuous since creation but not intending to delineate their exact relation to other creation events. In the same way, I might say,
- “Fathers have felt protective about their daughters since the dawn of time;”
- “people have pondered the meaning of time since the world was made;”
- “God has been in the business of redemption for as long as the earth has been spinning.”
When I make those statements, I am not intending to denote a precise timeline. The idea is simply that the activity in question is perennial and continuous. If you took each of these three statements in a hyper-literal fashion, you have conclude that statement 1 occurred before statement 2 (since time is older than the world), and statement 2 occurred before statement 3 (since the world was made before earth started spinning). But obviously this cuts against the intended meaning of the statements.
There are two reasons why I favor such a view of Mark 10 and Romans 1:20. In the first place, if in Mark 10:6 Jesus is intending to locate the timing of the creation of the humanity within the broader sequence of creation, then you would expect the creation of humanity on Day 1. That would seem to be a more “literal” reading of the words “from the beginning of creation.” What Wilson really interprets this phrase to mean is something more like “close to the beginning of the creation” or (better) “towards the end of a very short creation process.” And similarly with Romans 1:20: if exact sequence is in view with the phrase “since the creation of the world,” you would expect humanity at the start of the process, not on Day 6 as the apex and pinnacle of creation. After all, for the young-earth creationists God still reveals his glory to an “empty auditorium” for over 85% of the creation week. This cuts against a supposed “literal” reading of Romans 1:20 as much any old-earth reading.
The second reason is that phrases like “since/at the creation of the world” occur in other texts where it does not seem that the author is intending to give us an exact date. For example:
- In the parable of the sheep and goats Jesus commends the sheep by saying, “come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
- Matthew 13:35 comments that Jesus fulfilled Psalm 78:2 by teaching with parables: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
- Revelation 17:8 references names “written in the book of life from the creation of the world.”
Are these texts intending to tell us that the events in question (preparing, hiding, writing) “literally” took place within the first creation week? I doubt it. I think they are communicating more idiomatically in the sense of my sentences above, and it looks likely to me that the first and third are actually denoting activities better conceived as prior to creation.
What about Exodus 20:11 and 31:17, and the word “day” (yom) in Genesis 1? Wilson argues that “day” must equal 24 hours here based on its usage elsewhere: “when the Hebrew word yom is used elsewhere in Scripture, and is associated with evening and morning, it always means twenty-four hour day.” He also argues that the later commentary on the creation week in Sabbath regulations specifies that God’s work of creation involved 6 24-periods.
A framework reading of Genesis 1, however, affirms that the days of Genesis 1 are literal 24 hours periods within the context of the literary device being employed. In this view, the author is employing a literary device depicting God’s work of creation in terms of an ancient Hebrew workweek (an image that would have been readily meaningful to the original recipient of this text, a first or second generation Israelite about to enter the promised land). Whether the creation week actually happened within 144 hours does not just hang upon the meaning of the word yom, but on how the passage works as an entire literary unit.
Another scenario to make the point: imagine that your friend is insisting to you upon a “literal” reading of Genesis 11:7 in which God, when when he confuses languages after the Tower of Babel, geographically relocates from a place in the sky down onto the surface of planet earth. They pound their Bible with conviction and quote emphatically, “let us go down and confuse their language!” Then, when you will not concede the point, they proceed to offer you a lengthy word study of the Hebrew word yarad, “go down” or “descend.” Not once, they insist, in the entire Hebrew Bible is this word ever used for any direction other than down.
The reason this method of interpreting Genesis 11:7 misses the point is not that their lexical data is wrong, but because the word can function “literally” but still within the context of a metaphor. Old Testament narrative sometimes compares divine activity to human activity in what is called anthropomorphism, and an appeal to the literal meaning of yarad is not an argument against the presence of an anthropomorphism in Genesis 11. Neither does an appeal to the literal meaning of yom as 24 hours argue against the presence of a literary framework in Genesis 1.
Nor do Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 exclude the possibility of such a literary device in Genesis 1. For instance, if I reference the parable of the prodigal son in a non-parable context (like a sermon), saying something like, “we must come home to God after we have sinned, just as the prodigal son came home to his father”—I am not thereby suggesting that Luke 15:11-32 is not a parable but in fact true history. I am simply referencing the story’s meaning by repeating its content. Similarly, the repetition of the workweek image in later passages like Exodus 20:11 and 31:17 does not mean it is not a literary framework. You can use the framework image in other contexts without it ceasing to be a framework. Actually, that would be expected in the context of Sabbath regulations, since the whole purpose of the framework is to draw a comparison between God’s work of creation and a Hebrew workweek.
4) Let’s get specific with the scientific evidence
Wilson concludes his article thus:
If you are going to listen to an unbelieving interpretation of rocks over against a faithful exposition of Scripture, you have a problem. We have fossils of thorns and thistles that antedate man by 300-400 million years — provided you always believe those who say the science is settled. But the science is always settled until somebody unsettles it.
In my opinion, one step that will greatly help the dialogue about creation in the church is for young-earth creationists to pay more attention to the specifics and particulars of the evidence for an older earth and universe. Maybe Wilson has done that and simply didn’t go into it here, but on the whole his conclusion feels too carefree. It is not abstract “science” that says the universe is old: it is a wide range of phenomena in the realm of general revelation that in many cases are open for examination by non-scientists and scientists alike.
It becomes more difficult to summarily reject this huge body of evidence when the discussion gets focused on the specifics: for instance, star light, coral growth, ice layering, river erosion (as with the formation of the Grand Canyon), permafrost formation, layered craters on the moons of Jupiter, stalactites forming in caves, layers of cooled molten lava, petrified wood, crystal formation, the fossil order (for instance, dinosaurs), layers of sedimentation beneath the earth’s surface, and so forth. Everywhere we look in the universe, whether to the stars above or ground beneath, we find what looks like a very, very long history.
Now, to be fair, this does not absolutely demand an older universe, because it always remains theoretically possible for God to create an object with the recent past but give it the “appearance of age” (like the body of Adam). But the abundance and mutual convergence of all this data makes it somewhat arbitrary to imagine God doing this with the entire universe. Why would God go to such lengths, for instance, to create so many impact craters on the moons of Jupiter? Why would he give us a false history of annual temperature and irradiation in ice cores, or create so many layers of plankton fossils on the floor of the ocean? It is one thing to create Adam with a 21 year-old body; it is another to fill his mind with 21 years of false memories. If the appearance of age all around us is fundamentally deceptive, can we trust anything we learn from general revelation?
Think of it like this. If you cut down a tree and counted 75 rings, you would probably not think twice to conclude that it was 75 years old. Of course, God could have made the tree 25 years ago and supernaturally added 50 rings, or for that matter 10 hours ago and added all 75. But you generally need a compelling reason to posit such a fictitious history. (By the way, there are individual trees still alive today that are older than young-earth creationists date the flood of Noah.)
With the evidence for an older universe, such as star light, do we have a compelling reason to posit fictitious history? Young-earth creationists often argue that God created star light “on route” to us. But think what this would involve! Robert Newman makes this point well:
“When we look at our sun, we see what was happening on the sun (movement, rotation rate, sunspots, flares, etc.) as it was about 8 minutes ago when the light we see left the sun. When we look at the next nearest star, we see what was happening about 4 years ago, when the light we see left that star. When we look at a star 8,000 light-years away, we see what it was doing 8,000 years ago. But when we look at a star (say) 12,000 light-years away, we do not see what it was doing 12,000 years ago, because (by this argument) the star didn’t exist. Instead we see what it would have been doing if it had existed, but it didn’t—fictitious history! Not just “appearance of age,” but a full, complex history of events that never happened. And not just for a few isolated objects, but for the vast majority of stars and star-clusters, and for all the galaxies and galaxy-clusters in the universe…. In harmonizing the revelation God has provided us in his Word, the Bible, and in his world, the universe, it seems to me that it is much preferable to spend our efforts on models that do not require us to believe that God has given us fictitious history.”
In short, if young-earth creationists want to suggest that the scientific evidence for an older universe could be so easily “unsettled,” I suggest they deal with the specifics of what this would involve. Otherwise their claim feels like a bit of a broadside.
I submit these thoughts to my young-earth creationist friends in hopes of furthering our dialogue. Please remember that many of us old-earth people don’t believe in full-scale evolution, and are trying to read the Bible “literally.” Please remember that young-earth creationism is not so neatly removed from the problem of animal death, and that there is a lot of specific data for an older earth and universe that needs to be engaged. And if there are areas where old-earth creationists like myself need to listen more carefully to your point of view, don’t hesitate to write back and point them out! Its good to maintain and further this dialogue “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Ephesians 4:13).