How should I respond to someone who holds to the “young earth” theory that states that the universe is only 7000 years old because the genesis account was not written with any figurative language in it and that the bible means the literal definition of the Hebrew word for day as the 24 hour cycle?


How do we communicate with young-earth creationists on this?  Good question.   I will admit that the literal interpretation is the more obvious one based on the language alone.  Let’s be honest about this.  When the Genesis writer says “evening and morning, the first day,” this makes the literal interpretation, at least at first glance, seem the more obvious one.  I agree that the young-earthers have a reasonable point to make from this.  It is also true that the language is not obviously metaphorical.  However, the rules of interpretation (also known as hermeneutics) allows for a metaphorical interpretation when the context demands it, even when it is not obvious.  For example, when it says in the Bible that God reached down his hand to lift us up, the word hand does not appear metaphorical.    The sentence itself appears, if taken by itself, to be literal, but all of us know that it is metaphorical.  Why?  Because we know for other reasons that God does not have a literal hand.  The fact that the words used in Genesis 1 are not obviously metaphorical does not rule out a metaphorical interpretation.  It depends on other factors, such as what the Bible says elsewhere and what we know from other sources, including from our own experiences.  When Daniel is told about seventy weeks in Daniel 9:24, we know from the context, even though weeks appears to be literal, that they are in fact metaphorical and that the 490 days is actually 490 years.  The context, and the historical facts demand a metaphorical interpretation of these weeks.   We assume that when it says in Acts 1 that Jesus was lifted up in the area that this is literal, as it is the only reasonable interpretation. 

As for Genesis 1, whether it is literal or metaphorical with regard to the time of these days is NOT obvious.  The fact is that the most famous Jewish biblical interpreter of the first century, Philo, interpreted these days metaphorically—he believed they represented periods over which God worked.  So did Origen and Augustine—the two most important theologians of the early church.  So, whether these “days” are literal 24 hour periods or not, biblically, is an open question.

It is open, that is, until we come to the facts of science, which surely and without any possibility of reasonable debate, show that creation occurred over vast periods of time.   If we consider the typical ancient Near Eastern style of writing, the metaphorical interpretation is made even more likely.  Bottom line, the purpose of the writer of the Genesis account was to establish a theology of God.  Whether the account has historical value is perhaps an open question, but that the principal intent of the writer was to tell us about God, not the details of the actual physical creation is accepted by all, including our young-earth friends.  If the intent of the creation account is to introduce us to God, and not to give a detailed historical account, then, again, whether the days are metaphorical or not is to be decided by context and historical information.

But when we turn to the science, the question is answered for us.  There is literally no possible way to squeeze the formation of the earth, the passage of light from a galaxy 2 billion light years away, the deposition of thousands of feet of sediment and fossils, the creation and later destruction of a vast array of species such as trilobites and dinosaurs and many, many other facts of geology and cosmology into just six days.  Attempts by young-earth believers to make the six days fit the science are absolutely doomed.  In fact, they require us to deny the science—to be anti-scientific.   Biblically, the interpretation of these days is an open question.  This is a FACT, as demonstrated by the debate among faithful believers throughout history.  But the science points unmistakably to the conclusion that the “days” of Genesis 1 are metaphorical, at least in the time span implied.   The fact that the words used are not obviously symbolic does not determine the interpretation, although our young earth friends want us to believe this.  I could give dozens of other examples beyond the one above about God’s “hand.”   The young earth position is compatible with biblical theology, but it is not compatible with what we know from the physical world.  As Galileo put it, “The Bible was written to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”   This applies well to the Genesis creation account.   Could your young-earth friends be correct?  If so, then they must conclude that God created the earth with an appearance of age for reasons of his own choosing, but we should not claim that it appears young simply because it does not appear young.

That is how I would respond to my young earth friends.  But please remember that this is not a salvation issue, and please to not insist that your young earth friends change their minds.  We can be in fellowship with one another and disagree on this relatively unimportant question of the age of the earth.

John Oakes

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