by Mark Herring
We’ve heard it all a million times before. God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh. So is it possible to take the Genesis accounts of creation seriously? Well, look a little deeper and you’ll find it’s not as simple as that.
To start with, we need to understand the Hebrew language contains far fewer words than English – and therefore far more ambiguity. Take the word yom for example. The English Bible translates it as day.
Yes, yom can refer to a 24-hour solar day. But it can also describe an unspecified period of time. So yom can also mean age (in the sense of era). As an example of the flexibility of the word, Genesis 1 describes the six yoms of creation, while Genesis 2 uses yom to mean the entire periods of creation.
So is the Bible account of creation consistent with scientific knowledge?
Written several thousand years ago, Genesis describes a universe that was brought into into being rather than one that has existed for eternity. Right up until the twentieth century, however, science had always believed the opposite, almost as an article of faith. Discovering the Big Bang changed all that and so, when it comes to the beginning of time, the Bible and science agree.
(When a leading atheist says the Bible just took a lucky a 50-50 guess, he’d do well to remember that science called it wrong.)
As to initial conditions on earth, Genesis 1:2 describes a planet both ‘formless and void’ lacking the shapes of land masses and oceans, life forms, and light. Scientific observations of newly formed planets confirm the opaque atmosphere, thick layer of gases, and shroud of interplanetary dust and debris that would result in conditions consistent with the biblical account.
Now, let’s go through the days – or yoms – of creation to see if they also align with the scientific facts.
Yom 1: “Let there be light.”
The sun had already been created in the Big Bang. But its light would have been unable to penetrate the dense atmosphere of a newly formed earth. Over time, however, gravity removed dust and debris. An exceptionally fortunate set of circumstances then combined to make earth’s dense atmosphere translucent. As it did so, light reached the surface of the planet for the first time. Assuming the earth was spinning on its axis, this light would have been separated from darkness as day turned to night.
Yom 2: “…separate the waters from the waters.”
The water cycle represents the continuous movement between waters on the earth and waters in the atmosphere (or heavens). The formation of a perfectly balanced water cycle is crucial to life. Too much carbon dioxide or water in the atmosphere and the seas would boil dry. Too little and earth would become an icy wasteland. Only the balance of water and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and water in the oceans, finely-tuned to a mindboggling degree, allows our planet to maintain moderate, life-supporting temperature ranges.
Yom 3: “…let dry ground appear.”
Dry land mass increased from 0% to the current 29% through volcanic activity and plate tectonics. Since Genesis doesn’t state that land was created by a specific miracle, then God’s workings through natural processes are entirely consistent with the scientific reality of land formation.
“Let the land produce vegetation.”
The formation of dry land is followed by the appearance of plant life, a phenomenon entirely consistent with geological history. Once again, the Biblical description matches modern scientific understanding.
The Bible does not explain how this life first came into being. Then again, neither does science. What is interesting is that every cell of every living plant and animal requires extremely complex organic molecules such as DNA and RNA, plus a variety of proteins put together in the exactly the right order. The mere formation of these molecules under abiotic conditions is difficult to imagine. Generating the highly complex arrangements necessary for life, akin to programming advanced pieces of code, is so unlikely that it defies human logic.
Yom 4: “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night.”
As we’ve already discussed, we aren’t dealing with the creation of the sun, the moon, and the stars here. Rather, the passage explains the first appearance of these celestial bodies. Newly-formed plant life converted the carbon-dioxide-rich translucent atmosphere into an oxygen-rich transparent atmosphere. The sun, moon, and stars would become visible, able to be used to mark time and keep calendars, serving “as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” (Gen. 1:14)
Yom 5: “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.”
Yom 6: “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.”
The advent of an oxygen-rich atmosphere set the stage for the development of more complex animal life forms – exactly as revealed by historical geology and geochemistry. It’s interesting to note how the Cambrian Explosion shows the sudden appearance of a dizzying array of life forms and body plans in an unfeasibly short space of time.
“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…”
As for the creation of man, that’s a whole story in itself and one for another time. One quick observation on the usual cliché of man descending from chimpanzee as per The March of Progress. Evolution doesn’t work in such a linear manner.
Man and chimp descended in very different ways from a common ancestor and both have evolved separately. We can distinguish our side of the evolutionary branch from other prehistoric humanoids because we have been created in God’s image. This likeness is manifested in our moral consciousness, creativity, intelligence, imagination, awareness of good and evil, moral values – in other words, our minds. But as I say, that is a blog for another time.
Yom 7: “On the seventh day he rested from all his work.”
And so here we are. We are now in the yom where God is resting from creation. And it is interesting to note that the appearance of new families and phyla – and even of species – seems to have come to a halt since the appearance of man. That doesn’t mean, of course, that God is no longer active within his creation. He hasn’t retired or, as the famous book would suggest, died. Our hope remains that there is one final act of creation to come.
When you look more closely, the Bible’s account of creation is consistent with scientific observation. The major stumbling block, that it all took place within a week, is easily overcome by the correct understanding of the word yom. And for someone writing several thousand years ago, the chances of accurately laying out the order of creation are far higher than that 50/50 spin of a coin. Yet somehow…they got it right.