All Christians believe that God created the heavens and the earth, but there is no consensus about how and when He did it. Several years ago I was asked to give a short talk on the different understandings of Genesis 1 held by Bible-believing Christians. This post is an adaptation of that talk. It is an overview of the different approaches, with very brief explanations of the reasons for taking each one. Serendipitously, my husband was teaching an astronomy class and had been collecting slides to show to his students. I used some of those slides to illustrate my talk, and some are sprinkled throughout this article. They speak eloquently of the wisdom and majesty and power of the Creator.
My purpose in presenting these ideas is not to make a pronouncement about which one is true, but rather to provide a greater understanding of the diverse viewpoints held by fellow believers. My hope is that readers would thoughtfully consider the ideas of other Christians and be charitable toward brothers and sisters with whom they disagree.
(All photographs courtesy of nasa.gov. Notice that you can click on the arrow in the upper left corner of each picture to see a full-size image.)
A number of years ago a friend who is not a Christian challenged me to read the book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, who is an atheist. I dutifully slogged through the book, in order to be able to dialog with my friend. Dennett has no use for God or the supernatural, and in his book he goes to great lengths to explain how order and complexity, including all the intricacies of human life, can arise out of chaos by purely natural processes—nothing supernatural.
Dennett may be a brilliant scientist and he has a pedigree a mile long, but he has missed the central fact of the universe—that God created the heavens and the earth. The universe has not existed forever—it had a beginning—and it did not come into being by itself—it had a Creator. The Bible makes it very clear, and we all know intuitively, that all this beauty and order and intricacy and immensity did not simply happen by chance.
As Christians we all agree about who made the heavens and the earth. As we study Scripture, we also learn why God brought the world and humanity into existence. But the Bible does not really tell us how or when. Science has attempted to answer those questions, but no one was there when it happened, no one observed it, no one can reproduce it, no one can test it, and it happened a long time ago, so we can’t prove what happened. There are several explanations that could fit within the broad framework that God did it, and there are Bible-believing Christians who hold each of these positions.
You have undoubtedly heard of the Big Bang. (You might be interested to know that the term “big bang” was originally used as a sarcastic reference to this theory that seemed foolish at the time but is now generally accepted among scientists.) There is scientific evidence that the universe had its origin in a tremendous explosion nearly 14 billion years ago. All the matter that exists was packed into one point, and when it exploded the matter went hurtling out into space, where it formed stars, galaxies, and planets. The expansion of the universe continues to this day. The Big Bang theory is compatible with the biblical teaching that the created world had a beginning, and many Christians believe that it could be a legitimate scientific explanation of how the universe started.
Perhaps just as astounding as the creation of the entire universe is what happened right here on our little planet, where God chose to concentrate His creative energy, which is actually the focus of most of Genesis 1 and has generated an enormous amount of controversy. Although there is some overlap among the different theories and there are variants of each, I will try to summarize the views that Christians hold of how our planet and the life on it came to be.
Perhaps the biggest divide between Christians on this issue is between Young Earth Creationists and Old Earth Creationists. Those who believe in a young earth take Genesis 1 literally—that God created the world in six 24-hour days, each marked by evening and morning. They do not want to accommodate to scientific theories that try to leave God out of the picture and therefore require long geologic eras to allow time for evolution. Young earth creationists calculate the age of the earth by using the biblical genealogies. Even allowing for the gaps in the genealogies, the age of the earth would be on the order of 10,000 years. Just as Adam and Eve were created as adults, so the universe was created with an appearance of age. Just as the second Adam—Jesus—was a specific person at a point in history, so was the first Adam.
Those who believe in an old earth accept the scientific dating methods that say the earth is billions of years old, but they have different models for explaining how science and Genesis fit together. According to the Framework Hypothesis, Genesis 1 is not meant to be chronological but is a literary and symbolic structure for God’s creative work. This theory recognizes the correspondence between the days of creation: on Day 1 God created light, on Day 4, the lights in the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars; on Day 2 He created the sea and sky, on Day 5, the creatures in the sea and sky; on Day 3 He created the dry land, on Day 6, the creatures on the land. This parallelism suggests that Genesis 1 is presenting a general framework for God’s creative acts.
According to the Gap Theory, the universe was created billions of years ago, but then there was a long gap during which the geologic ages occurred, Satan fell, there was a cataclysm resulting in the earth becoming “formless and empty,” and all the life-forms that existed at the time became extinct. Then in Genesis 1:3, God began the work of re-creating the earth from its formless and empty state. This theory requires a somewhat strained interpretation of Genesis 1:2, but it accounts for the age of the earth, the geologic eras, and the fossil record, as well as the existence of a real Adam and Eve.
Day-Age Creationists say that the “days” in Genesis 1 are not ordinary 24-hour days but long periods of time. They correctly point out that the word day in the Bible sometimes means literal 24-hour days and other times means periods of indeterminate length. Progressive Creationism accepts the long ages of the earth but rejects Darwin’s theory of evolution, which says that species have evolved through natural processes and that humans came from lower life forms. They say instead that the species came into being by special creative acts of God. Theistic Evolutionists, on the other hand, hold that evolution is true, but God is the one who designed the mechanism and oversees the process. Because evolution is so often connected to atheism and the desire to do away with God, some Christians who believe in theistic evolution prefer to use a different term for it. Francis Collins, a Christian physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, calls it “BioLogos,” which means “Life-Word.”
The term Intelligent Design (ID) refers to the idea that the mysteries of the universe and of life are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an unguided process. Intelligent Design is not a religious theory and is not based on the Bible, but is an attempt to detect whether the apparent design in nature (which most scientists acknowledge) is the product of a purposeful mind or is simply the result of an undirected process. Proponents of ID say the universe is so perfectly fine-tuned that the probability of all the pieces coming together by chance is essentially zero. Although Intelligent Design is not based on the Bible, Christians will recognize the God of the Bible as the wise Creator who designed the universe.
Until I started researching this topic, I didn’t realize how many different ways you could approach Genesis 1. The hypotheses I have highlighted are just the broad categories; there are many variants of each. Maybe some of these questions, like the time frame of creation, just have to remain in the realm of mystery. Theologically we know that God is timeless, so time for God is not like time for us; “one day” from His perspective could be millions of years from ours. Scientifically we know that time does very weird things at ultra high densities and ultra high speeds, which would have been the case in the Big Bang. We may never be able to put it all together, but the important thing for us is to stand in awe of the grandeur of God’s work, what one writer called “the majesty and simplicity of the record of creation.”
I know that this presentation really does not do justice to any of the views, but perhaps it can be a starting point for discussion. I invite readers to offer their reflections, corrections, and additions. However, I request that commenters address the ideas and not attack the character, faith, or intelligence of those who are of different persuasions. Focus on the fact we can all agree on—that God did it—and come to the discussion with a mind and heart open to learn from others.
Theories of Creation Held by Bible-Believing Christians
Big Bang Theory: The universe began as the explosion of an extremely hot and dense point that contained all the matter that exists, which then went hurtling out into space and cooled to form stars, galaxies, and planets.
Young Earth Creationism: The universe has the appearance of great age but was created in six 24-hour days less than 10,000 years ago.
Old Earth Creationism: Accepts the scientific consensus that the earth is billions of years old.
Framework Hypothesis: Genesis 1 is not meant to be chronological but is a literary and symbolic structure for God’s creative work.
Gap Creationism: The universe was created billions of years ago, but there was a gap after Genesis 1:1, allowing time for the ordering of the universe, the fall of Satan, the geologic ages, etc. Genesis 1:3ff describes the relatively recent re-creation of Earth.
Day-Age Creationism: The “days” in Genesis 1 represent long periods of time.
Progressive Creationism: Long ages have passed since the creation of the universe, but the species came into being at certain times by special creative acts of God
Theistic Evolution (similar to Evolutionary Creationism): God is responsible for the development of life on earth, but He has done it through evolutionary processes, like natural selection, as described by science.
Intelligent Design: Features of the universe and of human life point to an intelligent cause; random natural processes with no purpose behind them cannot account for mysteries like the properties of DNA and the fine-tuning of the universe that makes life possible.