The When of Creation (Genesis 1:1)

Author’s Note: I am preaching through Genesis on Wednesday nights. Here I will present edited notes in blog form. You can access the audio of this sermon here. May God be glorified and His people edified. Comments below if you like.

In the last post I wrote about how the most offensive verse in the Bible is Genesis 1:1, where we find out that everything has come into being through a Creator… the Creation… God… the Hebrew word Elohim. He is the who of creation, and the implications of that are huge. You can read more here.

The topic of this post, then, is the when of creation — when creation happened. What does it mean when Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”? When was that beginning?

This is, of course, a controversial subject for some, and to be sure, it’s not of first importance. That is to say, it’s not the gospel. It’s not the doctrine of who God is. You could say it’s a secondary issue. But then again, if we don’t get the beginning right, there are ramifications to that. How we answer the question of when creation happened is important, and I’m convinced it says much about what we really believe regarding the authority of Scripture.

The more I study it all, the more this becomes a conviction, because if the Bible is our authority for all we believe and how we are to live, and if we hold to sola scriptura, the Reformation principle of Scripture alone (and I believe we must), then we know — and I’m not speculating when I say that — we know the when of creation. Using the Bible, using biblical history, using the genealogies, we can pinpoint creation to around 6000 years ago, something around 4000 BC. It may seem far-fetched to think we can be that precise, but it’s only because the Bible is fairly precise. We can know the when of creation.

Of course, that flies in the face of what modern science tells us is true. The theory — and I emphasize theory — of evolution has become such accepted dogma that many Christians who otherwise affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture drift from what the Bible says when it comes to when creation happened. Instead of letting the Bible be the authority, and looking at science and the world God created through the lens of the Bible, scientific theories have been made the authority and men instead have to try to fit the Bible into whichever way the scientific winds are blowing.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of it all, at least as far as I am concerned, is that even most of those who don’t agree with me on when creation happened, even holding to some form of evolution, concede that a plain reading of Genesis 1 says God created the heavens and the earth in six sequential twenty-four hour days, and then there was one twenty-four hour day of divine rest. That’s what a plain reading tells us.

And that was the overwhelming consensus of believers until several centuries after Christ, and you could argue up until about 200 years ago even. Sure, there were other prominent opinions from time to time, such as that of Augustine. Nevertheless, the consensus position was that the world was created by God in six literal, twenty-four hour days.

But as man has allegedly become more enlightened, there has been a fundamental shift in our understanding. Scientists keeps changing the numbers, but by and large they now say the earth is 4.54 billion years old and the universe is 13.8 billion years old. That’s when a big bang supposedly took place. I find it ironic they can be so sure about that, but yet even Christians don’t think we can be sure about what the Bible says about the when of creation.

Then again, the Bible has been attacked in the past 200 years as well. A brand of critical scholarship arose which viewed the Bible as just another human document, and a cottage industry of so-called theologians developed who began looking for things to be wrong with the Bible… so it could be discredited.

One of the results of this type of criticism was  the “documentary hypothesis” of the Pentateuch. Proponents of this hypothesis contend Moses didn’t write Genesis through Deuteronomy, but Jewish editors compiled a number of different sources from different writers to put it together and reflect Jewish belief. I was actually taught this in an Old Testament class at a community college about fifteen years ago. Not that it’s true. It’s these attempts to reconstruct how we got our Bible that are, in fact, an attack upon the inspiration of Scripture. And yet, it’s what our children and young adults are learning in religion classes. That is why the question of when creation happened is urgent. Christians and non-Christians alike are saying, I believe, that the Bible doesn’t mean what it clearly says.

For example, James Montgomery Boice, the late pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia who was highly respected, wrote several Bible commentaries I use regularly. In the first volume of his Genesis commentary he wrote that the exegetical basis (and remember, exegesis is taking out from the Bible what is there… we want to do exegesis)… He wrote the exegetical basis for a six-day creation is strong, taking the Bible as literally as possible. He contended that the perspicuity of Scripture — that is, the clarity of Scripture — is at issue here, and he’s right. But, then he compromised himself when he wrote, based upon “data from various disciplines [which point] to a very old earth and even older universe. . . . it is hard to believe that the creation of the earth and universe was recent.” 

Charles Hodge, who along with B.B. Warfield was a titan for the inerrancy of Scripture around the turn of the last century, wrote a three-volume Systematic Theology which sits in my office, and in it he admits that the most natural way to understand the creation account is a six-day creation with the earth being thousands of years old. But then he adds, “If that sense brings the Mosaic account [meaning Genesis] into conflict with facts, and another sense avoids such conflict, then it is obligatory on us to adopt that other.” Think about that for a second.

It sounds reasonable on its face, but what Hodge conceded there is that “the assumed facts of geology,” as he put it, are indeed facts. So even someone like Hodge, who did so much and wrote so much for the cause of Christ, in this instance compromised (as I understand it) his own high view of Scripture when he felt it necessary to reconcile Moses with science, instead of the other way around. I hope you are starting to see why the when of creation is such an important question.

Davis Young of Calvin College has written against evolution and has said that theistic evolution, the idea God ordains and oversees the evolutionary process, leads “logically and ultimately to the death of biblical religion.” And I believe he is right. Nevertheless, he also said that “Science must be allowed to modify our exegesis of Scripture.” He says science must be allowed to change what we understand the Scriptures to be clear on. That’s awfully dangerous ground to be treading upon, a slippery slope to say the least.

I don’t want to be too hard on brothers in Christ. It’s certainly not my intention to criticize men like Boice and Hodge who have contributed so much to the building up of the body of Christ. And I imagine that if many of us lived in Hodge’s time, at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, being hit with all of these new things from science, that it would have been difficult for us to contend with as well. But when it comes down to it, it seems to me that over the past 200 years many very smart Christians have agreed, when it comes to Genesis 1-11, to try to reconcile the Bible with science instead of the other way around. There has been an accommodation to science in culture and in the church, at the price, I believe, of taking God at His word. And the evolutionists and atheists love this, because they can’t believe that even in the year 2015 polls show the majority of Americans still reject the theory of evolution.

Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times wrote, “I am frightened to live in a country where more people believe in the virgin birth than evolution.” Richard Dawkins, an atheist, believes evolution is the final nail in the coffin of theism, belief in God, adding that deniers of evolution should be as scorned in society as Holocaust deniers. His manner of thinking is just one reason why this question about the age of the earth is a battlefield for the faith in my opinion. It is an issue of authority, an issue of trust in the word of God.

So let’s look a little closer at the word of God, because much of the confusion amongst Christians over the age of the earth is over what the word day means in Genesis 1. The word translated day is the Hebrew word yom, as in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Many assert that yom does not mean an ordinary twenty-four day in Genesis 1. They say there are many places in the Old Testament where it’s not referring to an ordinary day. And you know what? They are right about that. There are places where yom clearly doesn’t refer to a twenty-four hour day. We’ll see one shortly, but in places where we read day of the LORD or day of judgment, that’s clearly not referring to a twenty-four hour day.

But the question we have to ask is not, “Can the word yom mean something other than an ordinary day?” We have to ask, “When does it mean an ordinary day and when does it mean something else?”

Yom is used 2,301 times in the Old Testament. That’s a lot of times. But the only place people really question what it means is in Genesis 1. That ought to tell you something right there. They don’t question yom when it comes to Joshua leading the children of Israel around Jericho. Can you imagine if day meant something more than an ordinary day there? Can you imagine the look you would get, for instance, if you suggested they marched around the city for seven millions of years. It would be absurd. No… they only question dayyom — in Genesis 1.

What’s happened is we’ve gotten to the point where we’re willing to sacrifice the inerrancy and clarity of Scripture in order to add this idea of millions or billions of years to the text. Christians have looked at what we’re told by scientists and started doubting the Scriptures, especially when we see all of these different ways in which they date things that have happened in the past. But we have to remember that when they date things, like the age of a rock for instance, the methods they use to date things are themselves based on scientific assumptions. The methods themselves are assumptions. That’s important to remember.

Uniformitarianism is the idea that the way physical processes are observed now is the constant guide to how physical processes have always operated. What I mean by that is, when scientists observe how something changes today, they take their findings and impose them on what they believe happened in the past. It’s retroactive science. They don’t allow for the idea that things in the world haven’t always changed in the exact manner they do now. That strikes me as incredibly ironic considering they want us to believe that our very existence as humans is the result of evolutionary change.

So from a Christian perspective I would caution you to be wary of the various scientific methods of dating, because they are based on assumptions, not hard truth. In fact, many of the dating methods used seem to contradict each other as often as they contradict what we see in the word of God.

And the word of God, plus nothing else, as I understand it, equals an earth created by Elohim… God… thousands of years ago. It equals death that came after sin (which is important to understand… that death came after sin, just like the Bible says… that’s only possible if we take the Bible at its word). The Bible clearly teaches a literal creation.

Let’s go back to that word for dayyom — for a moment. How is the word used outside of Genesis 1 in the Old Testament? Well the word is used alongside a number 410 times outside of Genesis 1, and every time it means an ordinary twenty-four day. Evening and morning are used together without day thirty-eight times, and they always refer to an ordinary day. Evening and morning are used with day fifty-two times, and it’s always an ordinary day. The word night is used with day fifty-two times, and it always means an ordinary day.

So what about dayyom… in Genesis 1? Look with me…

In verse 5 we see — night, evening, morning, a number, and day. In verse 8 — evening, morning, number, day. Verse 13 — evening, morning, number, day. Verse 19 — evening, morning, number, day. Verse 23 — evening, morning, number, day. And verse 31 — evening, morning, number, day.

The question we’ve got to ask is, “Why should we assume the way yom is used with these words and numbers in Genesis 1 is different from the way its used with these words and numbers outside of Genesis 1?” The bottom line is that without a clear reason to in the text itself we shouldn’t, and those who do are drawing conclusions from a source not found in the Bible, imposing something upon the text.

But then, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m… maybe we… are “over-reading” Genesis 1. So let’s look at Genesis 2:4:

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.

What we see there is the phrase in the day but without the word night, without evening or morning, without a number. When we read this plainly the context is clear. This isn’t referring to a literal twenty-four hour day, but a time.

Context, as is so often the case, is key when we are interpreting the Scriptures.

Have you ever wondered where we got the idea of a week from? Think about it. Our twenty-four hour day is rooted in astronomy. It takes twenty-four hours for the earth to make one rotation. Our month is rooted in astronomy, based on the time it takes for the moon to revolve around the earth. Our year is 365.242 days long, because that’s how long it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun.

But where did the week come from? Not from astronomy. There’s nothing astronomical about the seven day week. We get that from the order of creation. We got it from the Bible. Consider Exodus 20:11… and note that Exodus is not Genesis, and especially not Genesis 1-2: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.“ That’s where we get our week, our seven twenty-four hour days. From the seven twenty-four hour days of Genesis 1. Do you think the Hebrews were thinking anything other than six literal days when they were given the fourth commandment? No. And the context doesn’t allow us to, either.

We’ve got to understand the Bible rightly. We’ve got to understand what the Bible says about creation rightly, because really — if we take out what a plain reading of the opening chapters of Genesis tell us — it cuts to the heart of the gospel.

In time, in creation, God is telling a story. Creation is the theater of God’s glory, and in Romans 1:19-20 we’re told that in creation God has revealed enough so that all men are accountable before Him. In Psalm 19:1 “the heavens are telling of the glory of God.” His glory is evident in creation, and to a degree it’s plain to see, even for those who are spiritually blinded, dead in their sins.

But what happens to Adam when we don’t take God at His word in Genesis? And I don’t just mean what happens to the authority of Scripture, but to the message of Scripture itself? Well what do we read in Romans 5? That God has demonstrated His own love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). But in verse twelve Paul is still writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he says that the very idea we have been reconciled with God is based on the fact that Adam is, literally, the head of the human race. He was a real man, the first man. And for those who want to say the earth is billions of years old that’s a very real problem.

The late John Stott, author of Basic Christianity and The Cross of Christ, named by Time Magazine a few years ago as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, suggested Adam was an existing hominid — the name for a two-legged creature somewhere in the evolution between man today and our supposed ancient form. Stott said Adam was a hominid when God implanted a soul in him. That, though, is a denial of Genesis 1:27, where man was created in the image of God, not implanted with the image of God.

Others have suggested God chose a couple of ancient farmers and chose to reveal Himself to them in a special way. Now there is an organization called Biologos which tries to reconcile Christianity with evolution. One of their writers, Peter Enns, says that we should abandon Paul’s understanding of Adam because Paul was limited by primitive understandings.

Karl Giberson of Eastern Nazarene University sees the flaws of these arguments, and he is a defender of the theory of evolution! He writes, “One could believe, for example, that at some point in evolutionary history God ‘chose’ two people from a group of evolving humans, gave them his image, and put them in Eden, which they promptly corrupted by sinning. But this solution is unsatisfactory, artificial, and certainly not what the writer of Genesis intended.” He’s not trying to defend the book of Genesis. He’s trying to destroy all of those arguments, but even he sees the flaws in those who try to reconcile God’s word with an old earth.

Beloved, an old earth understanding is very difficult to reconcile with a historical Adam, not just in Genesis, but in Romans as well. And if Adam isn’t who Paul thinks he is in Romans 5, then what are we to make of the rest of Romans 5? Because verse 12 says that “through one man [and Paul means Adam there] sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” If Paul’s Adam isn’t who he says he is, how are we to say that Paul’s Jesus is who he says he is, because verse 17 says, “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” If Paul can’t speak authoritatively about Adam, if he’s just mixed up by primitive understanding, then what does that say about the authority and inspiration of the word of God? And what does it say about him speaking authoritatively about Jesus Christ and the gospel?

The when of creation impacts even how we understand salvation. It matters.

Have you ever wondered what Jesus thinks about all of this? Or what He said on the subject? Consider Luke 11, where Jesus had rebuked the Pharisees for paying so much attention to their outward holiness. He called them concealed tombs and the people who walk over them are unaware of them. And in verses 45-48 He says,

One of the lawyers *said to Him in reply, “Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too.” But He said, “Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs.

Now listen to this, verses 49-51:

For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the house of God; yes, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation.’

Did you catch that? Jesus talked about the blood of all the prophets shed since — big words coming up here — “the foundation of the world.” And then He gave two names.

The second name He gave was Zechariah,  a reference to 2 Chronicles 24:20-21. Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, told the people the reason they did not prosper was because they had forsaken the LORD, and thus He had forsaken them. The king, Joash, let the people stone Zechariah to death.

Second Chronicles is the last book in the order of books in the Hebrew Bible. It’s the order of books Jesus and the disciples and the Jews of the first century knew. So Zechariah was the last prophet slain in the Old Testament.

So that brings us to the first name, Abel, who in Genesis 4, the first book of the Bible, was slain by his brother, Cain. Abel was a prophet according to Jesus, the first prophet. And Jesus, the Son of God, who John writes created all things, and nothing came into being that He did not bring into being, associates Abel with the foundation of the world.

Was Abel the first man? No. But was he around very close to the time that God created the heavens and the earth? According to Jesus, YES! Jesus Himself, who created the world, it would appear was convinced about the age of the earth, and it wasn’t old. There’s no hint in Jesus’ words that Genesis 1-11 should be taken figuratively. Nothing in Jesus’ words suggest Abel was any less a real man and a real prophet than Zechariah, whom all Jews would recognize as a real prophet.

Opponents of Christianity and the inerrancy and authority of the Bible don’t go after 2 Chronicles 24, but they go after Genesis 1-11 because they know if they topple the authority of the beginning, then the rest of Christianity goes with it.

Paul believed in a real Adam. Jesus believed in a real Abel. They both believed in a real Fall. God’s word is clear.

It’s more important than maybe you realize what we believe about the when of creation. When you move away from what the Scriptures say plainly about creation the costs are just too high. And there is simply no compelling reason biblically to doubt a young earth, about 6000 years old, created in six literal twenty-four hour days (contrary to what Justin Taylor writes on The Gospel Coalition’s website, rebutting soundly by Ben Edwards here).

Biblical inerrancy and authority are at stake and our only means of intellectual rescue is the God who speaks. The word of God trumps our fallible understandings of general revelation, otherwise we face the destruction of the entire gospel from a logical, intellectual standpoint. When we don’t rest in the authority of Scripture, disaster ensues.

Science changes. Forty years ago scientists warned of global cooling. Now it’s global warming. The science of yesterday is not the science of today. Will the science of today be the science of tomorrow? I doubt it. So what do the assumed facts of science today?

They say “No” to the virgin birth. They say “No” to the resurrection. If we give in to their assumptions about the origins of man and the origins of our earth, then what is keeping us from giving in to their assumptions about the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ? The gospel is at stake.

When you say the Bible says something but it doesn’t mean what it says because of outside influences, you have just unlocked the door to doubting all of God’s word. Sound familiar? How about Eve, whom Genesis 3:20 calls the mother of all the living, being asked by the serpent earlier in that chapter, “Indeed, has God said…?”

If we are prepared to let science tell us Genesis does it mean what it says, then how long will it be before we let them tell us what Matthew says? What John says? What Romans says? What Revelation says?

Has God said? Yes He has. And if we don’t trust Him about the beginning, why trust Him on abortion or homosexuality or marriage or anything else? Has God said? Yes He has.

I’ll let Martin Luther close.

How long did the work of creation take? When Moses writes that God created heaven and earth and whatever is in them in six days, then let this period continue to have been six days, and do not venture to devise any comment according to which six days were one day. But, if you cannot understand how this could have been done in six days, then grant the Holy Spirit the honor of being more learned than you are. For you are to deal with Scripture in such a way that you bear in mind that God Himself says what is written. But since God is speaking, it is not fitting for you wantonly to turn His Word in the direction you wish to go.

Amen to that.

Father, as we study Genesis — this book of beginnings — grant to us the grace of having confidence in Your word. You have spoken. Help us to know You haven’t spoken in such a way it’s impossible to understand. I thank You for telling us how we got here. Now I ask You might use this book to help us understand how we can live for You and with You for eternity, for Your glory. I pray this in the name of Jesus, for whom and through whom and to whom are things. Amen.

Author: Matt Privett

Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor.

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