Genesis 1 has been interpreted to mean that God created the world in six literal, 24-hour days. Moses stated that “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Ex. 20:11), in teaching the Israelites to follow the pattern that God had set in the seven-day week and obey the Sabbath. In the New Testament, verses such as John 5:17 and Heb. 4:4 imply that it was a literal week in the Genesis creation account. It is the simplest reading of the text, and God can certainly accomplish a miraculous creation work in such a short time. Thus, taking Adam to be created in that first week and adding up from all the genealogies found in the Old Testament, the earth should only be a tender 6,000 years old.
But modern science has produced a wealth of evidence that supports the age of the earth as much older than this. Cosmological evidence includes the redshift of galaxies, the microwave background radiation and the abundance of helium in the universe, which gives the earth an age of billions of years old. Geological evidence relating to the use of radioactive fossil dating determines that homo sapiens have existed for at least 200,000 years, which is clearly still incompatible with the literal ‘young earth’ view above. This has placed Christians in a seemingly intractable dilemma: either believe the Bible, or believe science.
A number of ways to reconcile biblical text and scientific data have been offered. One is to stretch the definition of each “day” in Genesis 1 beyond its usual definition of a 24-hour period, to mean an age of possibly millions and billions of years. But while the Hebrew word for “day” is sometimes metaphorically used in the Bible to denote a long period of time, in Genesis 1 we are contextually bound by the week of seven “days” to the usual 24-hour definition. Thus, by virtue of sound biblical interpretation, this approach is not satisfactory.
Another way is based on an alternative reading “the earth became formless and void,” instead of the usual “the earth was formless and void” (Gen. 1:2), thus creating a ‘gap’ of any number of years between the initial creation in Gen. 1:1 and the subsequent weeklong reconstruction in the next verse. But when there is no prior mention of the condition of earth in the context, it is difficult to justify the rarer “became”, so we must fall back on the much more common meaning of “was”. Supporters of this ‘gap’ theory also appeal to destruction by Satan after he was banished from heaven as the cause for reconstruction of the formless void earth, but these are indirect inferences based on the already-tenuous “became” reading. Thus, postulating this ‘gap’ of billions of years also remains an unsatisfactory approach to reconciling Bible and science.
All the above approaches have attempted, unsuccessfully, to work within what is still a literal understanding of the text to reconcile with the scientific data. But there is good reason to reexamine whether or not Genesis 1 should be read literally in the first place. After all, alongside literal truths, metaphors are generously sprinkled throughout the Bible. The “green pastures” and “darkest valley” of the 23rd psalm are not literal places we go to on a trekking expedition, but metaphorically represent times of peace and trouble in life. When Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” the Jews mistakenly assumed a literal meaning, when Jesus meant it metaphorically to refer to His own body (John 2:19-21). If we take literally that only 144,000 will be saved (Rev. 14:3), then much of Singapore’s 1 million Christians or the world’s 2 billion Christians will be excluded!
Granted that not all biblical metaphors are easy to spot, just reading Genesis 1 itself must already cause the modern mind to wonder if we are dealing here with a literal genre, or something else quite different. For example, how is day and night (created on Day 1) to be demarcated without the sun and moon (Day 4)? Can vegetation grow (Day 3) before the sun is created (Day 4)? How is the sky a solid firmament or dome (Gen. 1:6-8,17)? How was the “earth” created on Day 3 (Gen. 1:10) already different from the formless and void “earth” (Gen 1:2)? When we read scientifically impossible statements like “raining cats and dogs” or “he ran faster than the speed of light”, we quickly abandon any expectation of a literal writing. Similarly, here in Genesis 1, it is obvious enough that this cannot be a scientific document.
Further evidence in the text proves that Genesis 1 cannot be used literally or scientifically to derive the age of the earth. Firstly, even before God spoke on Day 1, there was already pre-existing matter: the earth’s superstructure and the waters (Gen. 1:2). Then, the first word of the first verse in Hebrew reads “in beginning” or “in a beginning,” i.e. lacking any definite article (in English translations, “the” is supplied for smooth reading). Also, the Hebrew words for “create” and “formless” can be applied for both material and non-material cases (e.g. creating a nation), so a literal creation is not necessitated. Another strong argument is the fact that from Gen. 2:4 there is a parallel creation account, whose order of creation is man-plants-animals-woman: markedly different from the Gen. 1 order of plants-animals-humanity. All these point to the fact that the week in Genesis 1 does not actually describe the beginning of time when matter first came into being.
But if Genesis 1 is a non-literal metaphor, what does it signify? In the first three days God separated and formed, in the next three days He adorned and filled; light (Day 1) corresponds to the luminaries (Day 4), sky and waters (Day 2) correspond to birds and fishes (Day 5), land and vegetation (Day 3) corresponds to terrestrial creatures (Day 6). All this signifies that there is great order and beauty in the way God created the cosmos. Humanity is created in His image, as God’s preeminent creature and his co-regent to steward and care over the rest of creation. On the final day God rested—not because He was tired, but as a celebration of His transcendent victory and a Sabbath sign for His people to rest on the last day of the week.
This metaphorical interpretation of Genesis 1 is confirmed by similar creation accounts in pagan inscriptions of Mesopotamia and Babylon written around the same time, which the Old Testament frequently counters by way of apologetics for the Hebrew God. Thus, although these pagan creation accounts have different deities battling for supremacy, in Genesis 1 there is only one sovereign God with no equal. Although the pagan gods have to fight the forces of chaos, the Genesis God only has to speak to put all things into order. Although the pagan gods found kingdoms and create humans to do their menial work, the God of the Bible creates humanity in His image to ultimately rest in the kingship He has established. Notably, none of these ancient accounts had any intention of relating how the universe came to be materially created – and so, too, Genesis 1.
Ultimately, while the Bible is divinely inspired, it is also humanly written. As such, the Bible is subjected to the revelation received by its original authors, who did not possess the same scientific knowledge we have today. Therefore, just as we cannot fault the Bible for omitting any mention of the computer or the North Pole, we equally cannot fault the ancients for imagining that the sky was a solid vault (c.f. Gen. 1:6-8,17). Could God have supernaturally revealed to the ancients that the sky was actually space, or what the actual age of the earth is? Surely He could have, but this is not what He chose to reveal to us in His Word. Because instead of just being intellectually informed of how old the earth is, surely it is much more spiritually beneficial for all believers down the ages to live by the theological truths that God is sovereign and transcendent, creating all humans in His image, ordaining order and rest.
Accordingly, the other verses in the Old and New Testament (c.f. the first paragraph) that refer to Genesis 1 need not presuppose a literal interpretation, but have simply appropriated this metaphor to build on their theological ideas. The Church Fathers also never insisted on a literal understanding of creation in Genesis 1. As John Wesley well understood, “the scriptures were never intended to instruct us in philosophy, or astronomy; and therefore, on those subjects, expressions are not always to be taken in the literal sense.” Yes, our Bible clearly affirms that God did create everything material in the universe (see also Isa. 45:12; John 1:3; Col. 1:6); but nowhere does it tell us how He did so. The conclusion of the matter is: the Bible was written to present us—not with scientific facts, but with theological truths.
Thus, it is not reasonable to expect the Bible to answer scientific questions, because the Bible and science fundamentally deal with different realms of knowledge: while science is only operative in the material realm, the Bible mainly speaks of the unseen realm of God and the human heart. We Christians need not reject science wholesale, but should seek God’s help to rightly discern which authority should be used to answer different questions. Thus, just as we look to science (and not the Bible) to inform us about smartphones and medicines and dinosaurs, we must look to the Bible (and not science) to tell us about God and the human soul and why we exist. We reject theological incursions into science, and so we do not use Genesis to determine the age of the earth. Similarly, we also reject scientific incursions into theology: while evolution can scientifically explain how animals change characteristics to adapt to their environments, evolution cannot enter the theological realm and speculate itself (without repeatable experimental proof) to be the random originator of all life. The Bible and science fundamentally pertain to different realms.
But how, then, can we still claim that the Bible is our highest and final authority? Firstly, by recognizing that science is still a function of the human intellect, and humans can still be wrong (remember how man once thought that the earth was flat and was the centre of the universe?); but because we believe Scripture is divinely inspired by God, it always speaks the timeless truth about God. Secondly, science also cannot account for all truth, e.g. “I love you” can neither be proven nor explained by the scientific method; but the theological statements of the Bible pierce through our hearts and meet the needs of our souls in a scientifically inexplicable way. Finally, science—no less knowing the age of the earth—has no bearing or instruction for holy living; but our lives can be transformed when we know the sovereign and transcendent God of the Bible who made us in His image, and has given us order and rest.
Therefore, there is no clash between the Bible and science for the sound Christian interpreter of Scripture. Modern science, as birthed by Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, was founded on Christian principles of attaining to the wonder of God’s creation, and its technologies and innovations rightly constitute God’s blessing to us today. But we must confine science to enquiry of the material realm and give the scientific process room for error. On the other hand, the Bible is an ancient document not written in the modern age, and in affirming its utmost authority over our lives we must allow it to speak with its own voice: by diligently seeking the best interpretive strategy for the various texts and genres within it.