Evangelical Interpretations of Genesis 1-2
Although many possible interpretations of the chronology of Genesis 1–2 exist, all evangelicals take a sophisticated view of Scripture on its own terms and adopt a defined position in relation to scientific claims.
While many in modern Western cultures think that Genesis 1–2 is simply outmoded within the discussions surrounding the creation, age, and development of the earth, Christian believers have been attempting to understand the relationship between Genesis 1–2 and modern scientific claims for centuries. There are at least ten possible views on the relation between the chronology of Genesis 1 and modern scientific dating: young earth creationism, mature creationism, the revelatory-day theory, the gap theory, the local-creation theory, the intermittent-day theory, the day-age theory, the analogical-day theory, the framework view, and the religion-only theory. Each of these theories have their own challenges, whether with their handling of Scripture or of the scientific data. An additional yet related issue is that of the creation of Adam and Eve; were they, as modern scientific theory would suppose, simply part of a larger population of gradually developing creatures, or were they specially and directly created by God?
How do we faithfully interpret Genesis 1–2?
Within modern Western cultures, some people simply dismiss Genesis 1–2 and the Bible as a whole, because they think modern knowledge has made it outmoded. Supposedly, the progress of science has shown that the Bible is mistaken and its message irrelevant. But this dismissal seldom considers that for centuries, Christian believers who respect the Bible as the word of God have been carefully considering the relation of the Bible to modern scientific claims. They have produced a number of views or theories that attempt to explain how Genesis 1–2 relates to claims about origins from mainstream science.
We will briefly survey ten distinct views and include short evaluations. Readers need to be aware that these views have been more extensively discussed in published books and on websites.
Young Earth Creationism
Young earth creationists (YEC) maintain that the earth and the universe as a whole are only a few thousand years old. They cite some details from the world as evidence, but the main incentive is to be faithful to their understanding of Genesis 1. They think that the six days are normal days with no gaps between them. Therefore, they endeavor to re-interpret or refute a large number of the claims of mainstream science concerning the past. This approach usually goes together with “flood geology,” according to which the major fossil-bearing strata around the world were laid down during the flood of Noah. Young earth creationism is sometimes called “the 24-hour day view,” but this label is not apt because some other views maintain that each of the six days in Genesis 1 were 24 hours long.
Criticism. The biggest challenges are two: (1) Is the YEC interpretation of Genesis 1–2 the only reasonable one, or is it an over-reading? (2) Do YEC interpretations of evidence from the world make a good case? Critics often complain about selective use of evidence and special adjustments necessary to bring the evidence in line with the YEC interpretation of the biblical narrative.
The Mature-Creation Theory
The mature-creation theory also says that the days in Genesis 1 were of normal length. But unlike YEC, it addresses the apparent discrepancies with mainstream scientific claims by primarily using the overall principle of “mature creation.” Adam and Eve were created mature, rather than with a process of gradual growth behind them. Likewise, might it be that the entire universe was created coherently mature? So, just as Adam might have had an apparent age (when scientifically examined) of 25 years, the entire universe might be created mature with an apparent age of 14 billion years.
Criticism. The biggest complaint from critics is that it feels as though God is deceiving us by producing an apparent age. The basic reply from advocates of mature creation is that the fault is with human beings who assume that, even during the exceptional period at the beginning of the world, maturity implies a gradual process in the past.
The Revelatory-Day Theory
The revelatory-day theory says that the six days in Genesis 1 were six days of Moses’s life, during which God successively revealed the various acts of creation. The days were 24-hour days of revelation to Moses, not 24-hour days during which God made the world.
Criticism. No evidence in Genesis 1 indicates that the days were days of revelation rather than divine work operating on the created world. The parallel between divine work and human work in Exodus 20:8–11 confirms that Genesis 1 is about divine works, not divine revelation.
The Gap Theory
The gap theory says that there is a time gap between Genesis 1:1 and verse 2. Genesis 1:1 is about the origin work of creating from nothing. Then there is an unspecified period afterward. Verse 2 describes an undoing of created order, a ruination, associated with the fall of Satan. The translation would be, “The earth became without form and void.” Verses 3-31 then describe the restoration of creation after the ruination. Modern scientific claims about the past fit into the gap between verses 1 and 2.
Criticism. The grammatical structure of the Hebrew in verse 2 indicates that it provides circumstantial information, rather than continuing the main narrative. Accordingly, the right translation is the usual one, “The earth was without form and void.”
The Local-Creation Theory
The local-creation theory says that though Genesis 1:1 is about a universal work of creation, most of Genesis 1 describes a work of God in a small area of the earth, not the entire globe.
Criticism. There is no textual evidence for this limitation to a small area.
The Intermittent-Day Theory
The intermittent-day theory says that each of the six days were 24-hour days, but that there were possibly large time gaps between them. The works of God and the scientific accounts for the past fit into these gaps.
Criticism. Note the parallel made in Exodus 20:8–11 between Genesis 1 and the Israelite observance of a weekly sabbath. This parallel does not work well if there are gaps between the days of Genesis 1, but no gaps between successive days in the human work discussed in Exodus 20:8–11.
The Day-Age Theory
The day-age theory appeals to the fact that the Hebrew word for day (yôm, יוֹם) can sometimes designate a period of time other than a 24-hour day (Gen. 1:5; 2:4; Deut. 32:35). Accordingly, the “days” of Genesis 1 may be long periods of time (akin to geologic ages).
Criticism. The six “days” in Genesis 1 are numbered. They have evenings and mornings (Gen. 1:5, etc.). They are parallel to the days of human labor (Exod. 20:8–11). Accordingly, according to context, the meaning of the word “day” is essentially a 24-hour day.
The Analogical-Day Theory
The analogical-day theory says that the days of Genesis 1 are God’s work days. They are cycles of work and rest, analogous to the cycles of human work and rest in the daily cycle of human life. That analogy is the basis for the sabbath observance set forth in Exodus 20:8–11. Within the six days of Genesis 1, the focus on labor and rest is the point. Accordingly, we do not know how long the days were if we import some modern measuring apparatus, such as a watch. The reference to evenings and mornings makes sense, because evening is the commencement of rest and morning is the beginning of new work (Ps. 104:23).
Criticism. It is natural to assume that the cycle of light and darkness started with day 1. Accordingly, the days are determined by light and darkness, not merely by cycles of work and rest.
The Framework View
The framework view says that the structure of days in Genesis 1 is a literary framework, and does not imply any particular chronology. This view usually appeals to the fact that there is a literary structure, according to which the first three days and the last three run parallel to each other, in an overall bipartite literary structure. During the first three days, God creates the major structured “spaces” or regions of the world: the heaven, the sea, and the dry land. During the last three days, God fills these regions with creatures: heavenly lights; sea creatures and birds, and land animals and man.
Criticism. Genesis 1 is a narrative that has progression. The presence of literary features does not negate the presence of features involving the passing of time.
The Religion-Only Theory
The religion-only theory says that Genesis 1–2 are not about particular ways in which God created and formed the world but are only a religious statement about who established the world and why. The Bible is about who and why, while science is about how.
Criticism. The focus on the Bible may indeed be mostly on who and why, but it is a book with an interest in history and in events in the world. The who and the why of what God did are made evident by the account of what he did. Most of the time the Bible does not go into detail about processes that God may have used (the “how”). But what it says in Genesis 1–2, it says about the real world. So, there are things that God brings about that make an observable difference in the world. Genesis 1–2 is not merely about the theology of God in a way that is detached from history—from what he did.
The plurality of explanations show that we should examine each explanation carefully and not leap to conclusions without thoughtful examination. Each person needs to weigh what the Bible says but also to recognize that the Bible does not fill in all the details of how God may have proceeded during the six days. As the mature-creation theory points out, the time during the six days was different from the established order that scientists observe now. So we should be cautious in our guesses about how God may have acted in detail, beyond what Genesis 1–2 tells us.
At the same time, some of the explanations make more sense and have fewer difficulties than others. The author of this article points especially to the analogical-day theory and the mature-creation theory. Evaluation of Young Earth Creationism would involve a more detailed look at the interpretation of evidence of many kinds within the created world.
Adam and Eve
The narrative in Genesis 2 concerning the creation of Adam and Eve also needs attention. A strong case can be made from the New Testament evidence that Adam is not only a real, historical person but the unique progenitor of the whole human race (Acts 17:26; Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–49; see J. P. Versteeg’s booklet in the bibliography). Genesis 2:18 also implies that Adam was absolutely the first, by saying that “[I]t is not good that the man should be alone.” This verse is as odds with modern views that claim that Adam, if he existed at all, existed as part of a larger group with a gradualistic biological history behind it. The view that Adam and Eve were supernaturally created as the very first human beings is at odds with scientific claims; but these claims need to be sifted with the realization that mainstream science typically assumes that origins are purely gradualistic and that miracles are disallowed.
Young Earth Websites
- Answers in Genesis
- Creation Ministries International
- Creation Research Society
- Institute for Creation Research
Old Earth Websites
Intelligent Design Websites
- J. P. Versteeg, Adam in the New Testament: Mere Teaching Model or First Historical Man?
- Vern S. Poythress, Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1
- Vern S. Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1–3
- Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. See this book summary.
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.