Why I’m Not a Young Earth Creationist

Today marks a new beginning in the Liturgical Year.  Today’s first reading is Genesis 1:1-19, the first four days of Creation.  Tomorrow, we’ll hear the last three days of Creation, and continue reading through Genesis, day by day, until next Friday.  It’ll cover all of the major events of Genesis 1 to 11 (it skips things like the genealogies).  Here are a few brief thoughts on why I don’t subscribe to Young Earth Creationism.

I. Genesis, like all of the Old Testament, is Christological.  

The point of the Old Testament is to prepare Israel, and the world, for Christ.  Everything in the Old Testament Scriptures, from the most epic accounts to the most minute details, serves this purpose.  And the role of the Creation account of the Book of Genesis is easy to grasp.  I mentioned last week that John’s Gospel shows us that Jesus is the New Genesis, and John 1-2 is structured “In the Beginning,” followed by seven days.  Paul calls Christ “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) and “the second Man” (1 Cor. 15:47), and the Early Church Fathers showed that Mary was the last Eve and the second “Woman” (John 2:4; John 19:26). The fruit of the tree prefigures the Fruit of Mary’s Womb, Jesus (Luke 1:42). The Tree prefigures the Cross (Gal. 3:13).  The week of Genesis not only prefigures the week of John 1-2, but also is the basis for the Sabbath, which is fulfilled in Christ’s resting in the Tomb on Holy Saturday. Note that the days of Genesis begin in the evening (see Genesis 1:13, for example).  It’s due to this peculiar structure that Christ is able to have the Last Supper and the Passion on the same day, fulfilling all of the Passover and Preparation Day prophesies in one day. I describe that in part I here. Clearly, the Book is Christological and prophetic, so by definition, it’s inspired.

It strikes me, though, that to try and reduce this to an account of our cosmological origins is to miss the whole point. It would be like hearing Jesus saying, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19), and declaring that for His Words to have any meaning, they must literally be referring to the Temple of Jerusalem.  Ironically, this is the interpretation Jesus’ enemies take, and its this very over-literalism which provides the needed testimony to condemn Christ to death (Matthew 26:61), which ironically fulfills Jesus’ actual prophesy in John 2:19.  Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the events of Genesis didn’t occur. I’m saying that they’re depicted in a particular way for a specific purpose – certain details are highlighted, certain details are omitted, and so forth.

II. The “Days” Language of Genesis is Often Metaphorical. 

Frequently, a “day” refers to a period of time much longer than twenty-four hours.  The most famous example is 2 Peter 3:8, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”  In this, Peter is referencing Psalm 90:4, and explaining why some of the prophesies (particularly about Christ’s return) weren’t going to be fulfilled as quickly as some of the early Christians thought.  


After all, why should a day be twenty-four hours to God?  A day is twenty-four hours here on Earth because that’s how long is takes for the Earth to rotate around its axis as it revolves around the sun.  But on the first day in Genesis, there’s no sun or Earth, so that interpretation hardly makes any sense.  More fundamentally, it isn’t as if God is wandering around on Earth, so the references to “evening” and “morning” seem very much metaphorical, in the same way that when Alister McGrath speaks of “The Twilight of Atheism,” he’s referring to the end of an era, not the end of a 24-hour day.   After all, when it’s nighttime on one half of the Earth, it’s daytime on the other, and terms like “nighttime” and “daytime” are no longer coherent when you’re talking about the cosmos.  At what point is it “nighttime” on the sun?

Another obvious example of a metaphoric “day” is from Hebrews 3:12-15, which quotes Psalm 95:


See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”

So Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3 are written on the same “day,” despite being thousands of years apart. And Hebrews suggests that this “Today” will continue as long as we still have a possibility of redemption — that is, “Today” lasts until the end of our time on Earth.

III. The Perils of an Either/Or Attitude
Young Earth Creationism runs a real risk when it becomes dogmatic. A number of Evangelicals take the position that the Big Bang and Genesis can’t both be true, and that evolution and Genesis can’t both be true. In taking this “either/or” position, they’re siding with a handful of atheist scientists.  And in the process, they’re doing an immense amount of damage to the Body of Christ, alienating all sorts of intelligent young people interested in learning about the Creator.

This is also the worst sort of false dichotomy. Isaiah 44:2 says that God formed each of us in our mothers’ wombs.  Does that disprove the scientific theory of sexual reproduction? Of course not.  There’s a natural cause (sexual reproduction) and a supernatural cause (God’s Sovereign Will).  Theistic evolution just says that there’s a natural cause (natural selection) and a supernatural cause (God’s Sovereign Will) to the Creation of species as well as individuals. And a belief in the Big Bang and Genesis is the same.  At most, the Big Bang shows how God created the Universe. It doesn’t disprove that He was the One who did it.  In fact, the scientist who first theorized the Big Bang was a Catholic priest!
The overly-literal interpretation of Genesis add in facts which aren’t in the text.  For example, it says that God created land animals on the sixth day.  YECs tend to assume that they simply appeared into existence, fully-grown.  Now, that’s one possibility, but nothing in the text requires that outcome. By forcing this suspect interpretation of Genesis on all believers as an article of faith (without any authority to do so), Young Earth Creationists create unnecessary division within the Body of Christ.  The most learned Christians are alienated, and the YECs unnecessarily make Christianity seem uneducated and silly.  After all, the scientific evidence for the Big Bang and evolution is piling up.  There’s dispute about some of the details, but the major theses have been largely proven.
Ironically, by saying that Genesis forces specific views on the Big Bang and evolution, it conditions the truth of the Bible on the outcome of contemporary science, making the same error as their atheist opponents. Atheists often argue, “If the Bible is inspired, why doesn’t it tell us anything important, like E equals M C squared?”  The answer is simple: that God wasn’t giving us a scientific cheat sheet (why would He?), but telling us about His Divine Son, so we could enjoy eternal salvation, not fleeting knowledge of the world around us.  But YECs make the same error, assuming that for the Bible to be true, it must be science-y.  

IV. There’s Room for Multiple Understandings of Genesis

The simple fact is that Genesis 1 isn’t focused on the scientific origins of the Universe. It’s possible to view it as a simplification of Big Bang cosmology and evolution. Cristofer Urlaub is a Mormon blogger who’s done a good job of showing how each of the seven days matches what science is now claiming about the origins of the universe.  Others have done the same, and I’m partial to this view myself. But the science leading to these conclusions could turn out to be false.  Of course, it’s nice to know that if the science is correct, it’s one more indicator pointing to the inspiration of Scripture, and the role of a Divine Creator, but my faith isn’t hinged upon the science being right.

Likewise, Young Earth Creationism is fine as a theory, but it runs a serious risk. All too often, it hinges the faith of countless believers on the science being wrong.  If it says, “the only way Genesis 1 is true is if it literal, and therefore, evolution must be wrong,” it’s starting from a false premise. That false premise has lead too many YECs to demonize their fellow Christians for not accepting a hyper-literal interpretation.  The biggest risk we face in interpreting Genesis 1 is acting as our own pope, declaring that anyone who doesn’t accept our interpretation of Genesis (and our interpretation of science we’ve never studied) is less Christian than us.

Of course it’s fine to think that the events of Genesis 1 occurred over seven literal twenty-four hour days.  There’s no sin in taking this view, and the Church has left this field wide open for multiple permissive interpretations.  But it’s also possible to think that Genesis 1 is Divinely inspired, and not referring to these days literally.

8 Comments

  1. I’ve tossed this idea around some with friends of mine. Young earth creationism is dangerous for an additional philosophical reason. If the science is correct behind isotopic dating etc. then God would have created the natural world to appear as something else, i.e. very much older. Our understanding can err but it would seem that if you accept the natural evidence of geology, completely apart from evolution, it would suggest God is deceptive which is philosophically useless to consider, i.e. it undermines even the notion of a ‘reality’. I write this because I have heard people sometimes say and one time wondered if God were all powerful couldn’t he have just created the earth to look like it evolved over eons.

  2. One thing that bugged me as a young evangelical was that the Bible was not written in such a way as to keep readers from errors like YEC. Eventually, and especially as a law student, it became obvious to me that no text of any complexity can protect its readers from all such errors. But I never really lost the feeling that the Bible was less than I hoped for till I considered the proposition that, perhaps, God did institute a infallible interpreter of His revelation after all.

    I don’t think we should be surprised that this kind of issue is endemic to Protestantism. And, if we wanted to, I’m sure we could articulate the argument for Catholicism from this Protestant confusion that tugged at me.

    Anyway, another great post. Thanks.

  3. Can’t agree with much of anything you’ve said….
    Pretty good attempt to cover your unbelief with fig leaves.
    So you accept science as true and the Word of God as a lie. Good one.

    Do you accept the 10 commandments as true or metaphorical? I assume you take them literally and don’t accept idol worship/adultery/murder to be Ok. If the 10 commandments are to be accepted literally why shouldn’t Exodus 20:11, in the midst of them, be taken as literal?

    I’ll take God’s word over scientists any day.

  4. Jeanne,

    (1) Exodus 20:11 actually proves my point. Creation is divided into seven “days” (God’s days, not man’s days, and 2 Peter 3:8 distinguishes), for liturgical reasons.

    That is, God could have done all of Creation “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52), but chose to do it over seven days. Exodus 20:11 makes it clear that this is tied directly to the establishment of the week, and more importantly, the Sabbath. The Sabbath, in turn, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, through His Bodily “rest” in the Tomb on Holy Saturday, the ultimate Sabbath.

    (2) It’s a false dichotomy to say something is “true or metaphorical.” Jesus says He’s the Good Shepherd. Are you arguing that He literally tended sheep (He didn’t: see Mark 6:3), or are you saying that He’s not telling the truth?? Likewise, when the New Testament says that the day is still “Today,” despite being centuries later (in Hebrews 3), is that literal or a lie, based on the dichotomy you just established?

    (3) It’s the very sort of argument you present that lead to Jesus being condemned to death. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). A couple of people the Bible calls “false witnesses” decided that “true” must mean “literal,” and testified that Jesus wanted to destroy the Temple at Jerusalem (Matthew 26:59-61). Stop thinking that metaphorical equals “false.”

    (4) I’ll venture you don’t even live by your own standard. In John 6, Jesus says that His Flesh and Blood are Food and Drink “indeed,” and He says that the Eucharist is His Flesh and Blood in Matthew 26:26. The early Christians believed this was literal, as do I. Do you? Or do you think that the Church was wrong in taking Jesus literally, and should have taken Him only metaphorically?

    (5) You should be ashamed of the vile with which you presented the Gospel in your comment (the first paragraph, in particular). You should thank God that I am a believer, because if I weren’t, and were relying on you to present the Gospel “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:15-16), you’d have been accountable to God for my soul.

    I’m thankful you care enough about your faith to fight for it, even though I think you’re wrong on this point. But please, please, PLEASE stop being sarcastic and mean in offering the Truth. We have enough of that amongst atheists – we don’t need to deal with it from our sister and brothers in Christ.

    Pax Christi,

    Joe

  5. 1) Exodus contradicts your point entirely.
    If we are to take the 10 commandments literally why should we take the justification for obeying them non literally. The laws of language don’t change in the same sentence as you suggest.
    God days vs man days. You’ve provided no justification for your assertion that Genesis was “god days”. Saying my hands are hard AS/LIKE steel doesn’t mean they are steel does it? Reread 2 Peter
    2) you’ve mistaken my belief for your own and argued against yourself in the remaining points. Where God uses metaphor or figures of speech they are used to convey truth- not the opposite as you propose. Sin came before death. You believe the opposite. Please furnish us with a list of scriptures espousing evolution or admit you’ve reinterpreted the scriptures in the light of science.
    3) Its fine for you to vilify those that take God at His word and accept His Word as truth. You say you believe /are a believer. It’s very strange that in order for you to call yourself that, the words of scripture have to be twisted beyond recognition first. So days can mean any period of time regadless of context and even change meaning in the same sentence (ie Exodus 20:11), the creation order was given incorrectly and death never really happened after the fall but eons before. A day isn’t like a thousand years but “like” a billion. God’s misled people for thousands of years for accepting what He’s written. And finally, we shouldn’t come to Him as children, trusting what He’s said, but first need to way everything up 50 times first

    Thanks… but having had encounters with the real Living God and a semblance of knowledge of His character, I choose faith, a simple “child like” faith in Him, who means what He says and says what He means- proverbs 8:8 not something other. I prefer to drink from Living waters rather than than cool aid on offer at these blogs.

  6. JR,

    (1) On “the laws of language,” it’s not true that a sentence can’t have a mix of metaphoric and literal language. You might say something like: “It’s raining cats and dogs out there, so if you go outside, you’ll catch pneumonia.” The “cats and dogs” is metaphoric language, while the rain and pneumonia are literal, and the instruction (don’t go outside) is literal.

    We see this plenty of times in the Bible, and even in the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:4, taken literally, would forbid depicting any images, not just idols. No Christian reads it that way, and more importantly, God doesn’t intend it that way. He orders the engraving of angels on the outside of the Ark in Exodus 25:19.

    And yes, “God days” seems to be the most consistent interpretation of Genesis 1. After all, “Earth days” are measured by the rotation of the Earth around its axis in a revolution around the sun, and God is Creating the universe without an Earth, or a sun.

    And while 2 Peter does us “like/as” language, it’s because God’s days aren’t literally a thousand years long each. Psalm 90:4 compares a thousand of our years to both a day, and a watch of the night (which is much shorter than a day), to God. The point isn’t to create an exact conversion chart, but to show that a “day” to Him isn’t 24 hours, since He’s the Author of time, rather than its servant.

    (2) The passages you’re referencing in arguing that sin precedes death are being taken out of context. They’re talking about spiritual death, which is why Paul proclaims death through Adam, life through Christ. He’s not saying Christians are immune from physical death, but that Christ protects their souls from eternal damnation. John 11:25-26 is pretty explicit on this point, I think.

    (3) I wasn’t trying to vilify you, but I wrote that section very poorly, and I apologize. All I meant to say is that hyper-literalism isn’t (a) what the Bible calls for, or (b) always harmless. You’re bearing false witness when you say I’ll only believe when “words of scripture have to be twisted beyond recognition first.” I was a YEC for many years and rejected it ultimately, not because of a crisis in faith or even something I heard in a science class, but because I felt it perverted the more likely Scriptural interpretation. I still think that Genesis 1 is God-breathed, and is in the correct order — what’s wrong isn’t the order, but our assumptions.

    Under this view, contrary to your claims, God didn’t mislead anyone, just as He didn’t “misled” them in John 2:19. On the other hand, arguing that God made a young universe, but created it to appear much older sounds much more like the attitude you criticize (see Ryan’s comment, above).

    Finally, you boast of your faith being simple and child-like. We should have a child-like trust in God (Luke 18:16), but that your doctrines are still like those of a child is an error, not a virtue. See Hebrews 5:12-14, 1 Corinthians 13:11, etc. We’re to put away childish things, and move from spiritual milk to solid food.

    Finally, one of my major points in the above post is that it’s fine to believe in YEC. I want to make sure you recognize I’m not condemning you for believing in YEC; that’s fine. It becomes a problem only when you make yourself Chief Pharisee, and declare that anyone who disagrees with your personal interpretation of Scripture is not only wrong, but less of a Christian than you. In Christ,

    Joe

  7. I’m a Catholic convert from a strong evangelica Protestant background. I was brought up on the young earth theory, holding to it because it seemed that to do otherwise was to cave in to the atheistic evolutionists.

    I have seen this argument before that you make, Joe — Scott Hahn is on record with something similar — and I am finally having to admit that it makes sense.

    However, I was just recently surprised, astonished, and mightily encouraged by something I saw on an episode of The Naked Archeaologist. The host, Simcha Jacobovich, is an Orthodox Jew who believes the (Old Testament) Scriptures are true. So he went looking for someone to talk to about the six days of creation.

    He found a Jewish scholar, an astronomer, who came up with a remarkable point. Mathematicians have taken the apparent center of the existing universe, from which everything seems to be moving outward, and, using relativity theory, have made time calculations with regard to our planet’s distance from the center. The remarkable result was that an earth-length day of 24 earth hours, taking place at the center of the universe, would result in a time span of several billion years by the time the distance to the earth is taken into account.

    It was a lot more scholarly than I have just stated — some went a bit over my head — but, if true, this mathematical fact would allow Genesis to be literally true with regard to creation, while still accommodating current knowledge about the age of the earth.

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