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Don Stewart :: How Are We to Understand the Word Day in the First Chapter of Genesis?

Don Stewart
One of the most basic questions about the biblical account of creation concerns our understanding of the word day in the first chapter of Genesis. Genesis speaks of God creating the heavens and the earth in six days and then resting upon the seventh. The question arises as to what the word day refers to and how it relates to the age of the earth and universe. In what sense does it help us determine the age of the earth and the universe?

Throughout history there have been a number of answers given to this question by Bible-believing scholars. Before evaluating the most popular responses to this question we will first make some preliminary observations.

Not A Test Of One's Faith

We must emphasize that one's view on the meaning of the days in Genesis, or the time involved in creation, should not be made a test of fellowship among believers. Unfortunately, there are some churches and Christian organizations that have made a particular view regarding the days of creation, and the age of the universe, as a test of membership or leadership. Nowhere do we find in the Old or New Testament a person's view of the age of the earth, or of the days in Genesis, used as a test of their spirituality or qualifications for leadership. We must not place our restrictions, restrictions which the Bible does not place, upon people who wish to become involved in Christian work.

The Central Issue - What Did God Do

If creation took place longer than six days of twenty-four hours each then the character of God is not maligned. Time does not diminish the miracle of creation. God could have created the universe in six seconds if He wished. The issue is not what God could have done, the issue is what God did do.

On the other hand, if the evidence leads us to believe that the six days were twenty-four hours in length, and that God recently created the universe, we should not shy away from that because modern science opts for an old universe. The key is to find out, as best as we can, what the text says.

Rise Of Modern Science

The rise of modern science has seen a change in interpretations of the Book of Genesis. Theologian John Sailhamer writes:

For the past two hundred years the understanding of the biblical creation account has gradually shifted. As modern scientific views of the origin of the universe have radically changed, interpretations of the Genesis creation account have been shaped to fit them. Whether we like it or not, modern science has fundamentally altered how we read and understand the Genesis creation account (John Sailhamer, Genesis Unbound, Sisters Oregon, Multnomah Books, 1996, p. 27).


Scripture Is Final Authority

Because of some of the conclusions of modern science, some interpreters have sought to place nature on an equal footing with Scripture in determining Bible/science issues. They claim that God has given us two infallible revelations, one in the Bible and one in nature, and these are of equal authority. This attitude has its dangers. First, it fails to appreciate the difference between Scripture, which is an explanation of God's plan for humanity, and nature which is a silent testimony to God's creative hand. Nature tells us about God's power and majesty, but it does not tell us any specifics about His plan.

Fallen Condition

The Bible also speaks of the world as presently being in a fallen condition resulting from the influence of sin. This should make us cautious about any final conclusions from science. Furthermore, what does one do when nature and Scripture are seemingly in conflict? The usual response is to reinterpret the Bible to fit the latest finds of science. This approach robs the Bible of its authority. Scientist E.H. Andrews writes of those who put the Bible and nature on an equal par:

You notice that the book of nature and the Word of God are both 'Divine Records'. They are put on a par, on an equal level, so that one is not to be preferred or advanced beyond the other. This surely is a denial of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture and the teaching of Romans 1 concerning the inability of fallen man to comprehend the 'book of nature' (E.H. Andrews, Christ And The Cosmos, Welwyn, Garden City, England, Evangelical Press, 1986).

Make The Bible Fit

Another error we should seek to avoid concerns the constant reinterpretation of Scripture by modern science. We should be careful when we attempt to equate Genesis with the latest discoveries of science. P.J. Wiseman makes an appropriate point.

Modern thought about the origin of things is still in its usual state of flux, and there is nothing that can become out-of-date so quickly as an up-to-date scientific explanation of the first chapter of Genesis. This narrative has often been 'harmonised' with modern scientific theories, only to find that scientists have necessarily changed their position, leaving the 'explanation' quite out-of-date. H.G. Wells, for instance, complained that 'we do not rewrite and retell Genesis in the light and language of modern knowledge' . . . had the Genesis account been subjected to constant amendment in accordance with modern thought, the various editions of it would make an interesting history of the changes in human thought on the subject, but it certainly would not impress us with the sum of human wisdom about origins (P.J. Wiseman, Clues To Creation In Genesis, London, Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1977, p. 111,112).

Fair Presentation

It is our intent to give a fair and objective presentation of each of the major views on this subject using the best arguments that are put forward. It should also be noted that within each major view there are those who differ in the various details. We will, therefore, attempt to offer only the main points of each view so that they are accurately represented.

Strengths And Weaknesses

At the end of each theory, we will bring up difficulties that others have raised. Finally, the strengths and weaknesses of each view will be summarized and the reader can decide which is the best answer to this controversial question.

Possible Explanations

We will look at various theories of the days of Genesis and the time of creation. These different theories will be broken down into four categories.

1.Literal Twenty-Four Hour Days

2.Long Ages

3.Symbolic Days

4.Other Factors For Dating The Earth


Literal Days Of Twenty-Four HOurs each

The following theories all treat the days as being literal days of twenty-four hours in length.

1.Solar Day/Recent Creation

The first option we will explore is that the days in Genesis refer to solar days, twenty-four hours in length. According to this view, the earth was created very recently - a few thousand years ago. Therefore the earth and universe are both very young.

2.Solar Day/Creation Undated

The next theory holds that the days in Genesis were solar days, but that the creation of the universe is not dated. It argues that Genesis 1:1 states that God created the universe at some dateless time in the past. After He created the heavens and the earth, He then filled the earth in six literal days. The Bible makes no comment, one way or another, about the time that God spent creating the universe before He concentrated on the filling the earth in six literal days.

3.Local Creation

This view is similar to the preceding one. It has Genesis 1:1 referring to the creation of the original universe at some dateless time in the past. However this theory sees the rest of the creation account as only referring to the Promised Land - it does not refer to the entire globe. The six days that are listed in Genesis, beginning with 1:2, merely talk about preparing the Promised Land for humanity to dwell in it. This occurred in six literal days. The date of the original creation of the universe is purposely not given to us.

4.The Gap Theory

The Gap Theory believes that Genesis 1:1 is a statement of the original creation of the universe. Between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 some catastrophic event happened that destroyed the first world. Genesis 1:2, through the end of the first chapter, describes a re-creation of the earth, not the original creation. This recreation occurred in six literal days.

5.Literal Days/Gaps Between Them (Progressive Creationism)

The next theory also holds to literal days in Genesis, but with gaps between the literal days. These gaps between the six days of creation could have lasted millions of years. It is argued that much of the creation activity took place between the six days, not necessarily during them.

6.The Revelational Day Theory

This particular theory argues that the days in Genesis were not days of creation, but literal days in which God revealed to Moses what He had done in the beginning. Thus in six literal days, God told Moses about His creative work. Because these are days of revelation and not creation, it is impossible to date the earth and the universe.


Long Ages

There is one theory that sees the days of Genesis as age/days, not as days of twenty-four hours in length.

7.The Age/Day Theory

This option holds that the days in Genesis are not meant to be understood as solar days but rather as indefinite periods of time - possibly millions of years each. This allows Genesis to harmonize with the findings of modern science.

Symbolic Days

The following theories sees the days in Genesis as neither literal days nor long periods of time. They are merely symbolic of God's creative activity.

8.The Literary Framework View

The literary framework view understands the days in Genesis to be part logical and part chronological. There is a definite literary framework in which the entire Book of Genesis. This includes the creation account. The days, therefore, are not to be taken literally but rather symbolically of God's creative work.

9.The Religious Only View

This option believes we are asking the wrong question. The author of Genesis intended to give no scientific information whatsoever with respect to the creation of the heavens and the earth. His purpose was religious, not scientific. To try to find any information of a scientific nature misses the purpose of what the author is trying to tell his readers. Therefore, it is not necessary to attempt to harmonize Genesis and science since there was no intent to make them harmonize. The writer was not addressing that question.

Other Factors In Dating The Earth

There are other factors that directly bear on calculating the age of the earth. Although they do not have anything to say about the meaning of the word day they need to be considered when this issue is addressed.

10. Time

Time needs to be taken into consideration when one attempts to date the earth. Whether the earth is young or old, it has changed with time.

11.Ideal Time (Mature Creationism)

There is a distinction between ideal time and actual time. Mature creationism, or ideal time, emphasizes that God created the universe with a superficial appearance of age. When Adam and Eve were created, they were made fully mature. When they were thirty seconds old they probably looked thirty years old. The rest of the universe was created on the same order. The tress, stars, animals, and everything else was created fully mature. This fact has to be taken into consideration in the dating of the earth and universe.

12.The Fall Of Humanity

God created everything perfect. However humanity rebelled against Him and sin entered the earth. The original perfection was now marred. Things began to break down after the Fall. This factor needs to be taken into consideration when one attempts to date the age of the earth.

13.Flood Geology

Flood geology argues for a universal Flood in the days of Noah that completely changed the surface of the earth. Most fossils that we find today are a result of this global Flood. As a result, there is no record of long geologic ages in the rocks. The rocks testify to a universal Flood. These facts must be taken into account when one tries to date the earth.

Weigh And Evaluate

Now that we have a basic understanding of each main position with respect to the days in Genesis and the age of the earth, we will now fully state them, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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