Why So Difficult?
Right now in the Church, interpretations over Genesis 1-3 are hotly contested. This has been heavily influenced by many scientists claiming the earth is billions of years old, and evolution explains the created order.
- Such claims are not made in the Bible itself.
- Such claims are not universally accepted by scientists. See Creation.com’s Creation scientists and other specialists of interest, Institute for Creation Research, Creation Research Society, Answers in Genesis’ Creation Scientists, etc.
In truth, I really don’t think Genesis 1-3 is that complicated to understand. I think it recounts a straightforward, historical account of the creation of the world that occurred over the span of 6 days, and happened roughly 6,000 years ago. I honestly don’t think it would be that complicated if Christians didn’t feel an unnecessary tension of harmonizing the Bible with old-earth / evolutionary concepts.
Start with Scripture
So here I want to focus on what Scripture says about Gen. 1-3. After all, any scientist worth his salt would agree that the most credible witness is the one who saw the matter first-hand…and thus, surely God stands as the most scientifically reliable witness of the creation of the earth: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (Job 38:4). If we take the principle of letting Scripture interpret Scripture (cf. Matt. 4:7), I think we can come to some really sound conclusions on Gen. 1-3.
Though your view on evolution and the earth’s age is not (in itself) a foundational doctrine of Scripture, it does bump right against 2-3 foundational doctrines:
- The Gospel – wherein we are taught that since Adam sinned, we are all born sinners and inherit death that only repentance and faith in Christ and his atonement can absolve (see Rom. 1-5; etc.)
- The authority of God’s word – wherein we are told that every word of Scripture (and even each letter within each word) is trustworthy, authoritative, and binding on us (see Matt. 5:18; John 10:35; etc.)
- The knowability of God’s word – wherein, the best interpreter of God’s word is Scripture itself, alongside the witness of God’s Holy Spirit, which we must search out and receive with humble hearts (see “Loving & Knowing the Truth”)
These things are very important in God’s economy, and depending on how you view Genesis 1-3, you may be jeopardizing 1 or more of these foundations.
3 Major Views on Genesis 1-3
In an over-simplification, I’d say that 3 major views of Genesis 1-3 exist among evangelicals today (i.e. among those who claim they are holding to the true gospel and believe God’s word is infallible):
- Genesis 1-3 is not historical. Instead, it is allegorical, symbolical, archetypal, etc. For instance, see John Walton’s “Material or Function in Genesis 1?.
- Genesis 1-3 is historical, but allows for an old-earth and evolution. For instance, the “gap theory”, or “day-age” views.
- Genesis 1-3 is historical, and teaches a young-earth without evolution. This is the view I’m defending here.
Now, examining each view against the 3 Christian foundations named above will show glaring concerns over views 1 and 2.
The Gospel & Genesis 1-3
For starters, views 1 and 2 assume there is death before Adam. These views either claim that Adam never existed as a person, or there were animals/people before him who died. The problem is that the NT builds out the gospel beginning with Adam as the first man. In his sin, we all are sinners. In the death that came from sin, we all deserve God’s judgment. Consider passages like:
- “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people” (Rom. 5:12)
- “the many died by the trespass of the one man” (Rom. 5:15)
- “one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people” (Rom. 5:18)
- “through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners,” (Rom. 5:19)
Further, Jesus is called “the last Adam” and “the second man” (1 Cor. 15:45-49). His death puts an end to what Adam started, and his resurrection brings people into a new humanity, so to speak, that begins with a regeneration of our spirit. This is the gospel.
Thus, any view that places sin or death BEFORE Adam, removes a really important peg in the gospel story. I see only view 3 as upholding this gospel truth, and give STRONG caution against tampering with this (see Gal. 1:6-10).
The Bible’s Authority & Knowability in Light of Genesis 1-3
Similarly, to see Genesis 1-3 as either mythical (my shorthand for all the views under viewpoint 1) or historical-but-with-gaps (viewpoint 2), does grave disservice to clear statements of Scripture related to Genesis 1-3. For instance:
- “Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant…” (Gen. 4:1). This is the verse immediately following Gen. 1-3. It is very clearly historical, recording their first child, the ensuing murder that would happen, and the places and people involved with the related events.
- “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died.” (Gen. 5:3-5, where Adam is clearly seen as an historical father of humanity, with a chronology that follows from there)
- “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:8-11) – here, the 6-day creation of Genesis 1-3 is set as a pattern for their own weekly sabbaths.
- “Adam, Seth, Enosh…” (1 Chron. 1:1) – here is a shorthand of Genesis 5:3ff. It shows Adam as the father to all of Israel and all her ancestors.
- “Jesus himself…was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli…the son of Adam, the son of God.” (Luke 3:23-38) – here, Jesus is seen as descended from Adam, and Adam coming from God directly. Again, Adam is seen as the historical first parent of all humanity.
- “‘But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.'” (Mark 10:6-7). Jesus is speaking this, and quotes directly from Gen. 1-3 as binding on God’s order for marriage and divorce. Even more, by saying “at the beginning of creation,” Jesus reveals that He sees the creation of Adam and Eve as happening, “at the beginning of creation.” I honestly can’t see how this spells anything other than a young-earth view of creation without really wrenching these words out of context.
- Romans 5, as quoted earlier, assumes Adam as the first man and sinner who brought sin and death to humanity.
- “man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man…for as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman.” (1 Cor. 11:8-12). This is a clear allusion to Gen. 1-3, where man was made first, and the first woman (Eve) came into being from Adam, but now the order is reverse (that is, men are now birthed from women). Paul points to this as a historical reference that plays into male / female roles in the church.
- “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:3) – here Paul refers to an episode of Gen. 3 and applies it to deception at the church of Corinth.
- “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Eph. 5:31) – in the middle of Paul’s argument for husband and wife relations, he inserts a direct quotation from Gen. 2. He sees this historical example as binding on marriages today.
- “Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1 Tim. 2:13-14). Like 1 Cor. 11, Paul again hearkens to the historical narrative of Gen 1-3 and sees it as binding on church order.
Thus, Scripture outside of Gen. 1-3 speaks of Adam as:
- the first human created by God
- a husband and father who later died
- part of God’s six days of creation
- a forefather of Jesus
- made with Eve at the beginning of creation
- the one who brought sin and death into the world that we all suffer from
- the person used to form Eve
- not deceived as Eve was
And it does this all the while quoting repeatedly and directly from Gen. 1-3.
Remember, this is all outside of Genesis 1-3. Looking directly at Genesis 1-3 makes the case even stronger. Consider phrases such as:
- “there was evening, and there was morning–the first day…And there was evening, and there was morning–the second day…” etc. Here we see that “day” is constricted to a literal “evening” and “morning”. God is not speaking in generalities, but specifics.
- “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created,” (Gen. 2:4). The word used for “generations” is toledot (Hebrew). It is used many other times in Genesis: “These are the generations of Noah,” “These are the generations of Esau” (Gen. 6:9; 36:1; etc.). In each instance it is recording historical record of an event (or sequence of events / generations).
- “The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.” (Gen. 2:13-14). These are real, known rivers and lands.
My point is that Gen. 1-3 has certain markers of authenticity. It immediately follows (with Gen. 4:1) as a historical narrative. It then is recounted in Gen. 5 as a historical narrative that leads the way to many real, living descendants of Adam (with real ages, and everything). And then a lot of the Bible points readers back to the events as if they were real, living history.
At this point the reader who wants to challenge Gen. 1-3 as real, straightforward history is forced to make a choice:
- Discount the biblical text above as untrue.
- Claim that the biblical text above doesn’t quite mean all that.
If they choose path 1, they are dismissing a foundational doctrine: The Bible is the ultimate authority, truth without error. This is really serious, and completely disowns what our Lord teaches about Scripture (see Scripture’s Authority).
Or, if they choose path 2, they have to do a LOT of mental gymnastics to stitch all of those texts into a different pattern, and likely will have to appeal outside of Scripture to the “real” interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Such an approach is similar to the gnostics who are rebuked soundly by John (and elsewhere) for thinking people need something other than the Bible and Spirit to teach them God’s truth (see 1 John).
And at this point, I just ask, “Why?” Why go to such lengths to bring danger to the gospel and Scripture? Why not just see Genesis 1-3 as straightforward, historical account of Adam and Eve created roughly 6,000 years ago? My guess is you’ve allowed some other voices into this discussion. Meanwhile, God’s word stays there crying out to anyone who will listen to it.