Monday, March 24, 2008

The age of the earth is not an article of faith.

Historical Christianity has a core. There are central beliefs often called "articles of faith." Don's blogs about Good Friday and Jesus' resurrection describe well much of the core of Christianity.

Carolina and I were at a friend's house for Easter where one of the guests and I got in a discussion about the age of the earth. I believe the earth is billions of years old. He believes it's not because the Bible, specifically Genesis 1, says it's not. He made a comment to the effect that once you let go of one part of what the Bible says you open the door to losing our entire faith.

The problem is that he thought I was saying we should treat the Genesis 1 creation account as just a story or a fabrication. But that's not what I was saying. I believe Genesis 1 tells us that God created the heavens and the earth. It adds details about what he created, I believe, to show that God created everything. This is in contrast to the common belief of the time that there were many gods, each of which had a different area of responsibility. The land of Egypt, where the Israelites were coming from not only believed in many gods, they barely even had common gods they agreed on across regions of the country. Likewise Canaan, the land the Israelites were going into, believed in many regional gods. Despite many biblical passages and God's direct intervention in their history, the people of Israel continued to believe in multiple gods until the time of the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E.

The author of Genesis boldly counters the many-god idea. Belief in gods of the sun and moon was common. Genesis says the one God, Yahweh, created both. Belief in gods of the sea and land was also common. "No," says Genesis, the same God created them too. He also created the birds, fish and animals. Finally he created humans and he created them in his own image!

I believe there is a clear outline structure in Genesis 1.

God Created Everything (Genesis 1:1 - 2:3)

1. Overview (1:1-2):
  • God created the heavens and the earth (1:1).
  • The earth was formless and empty (1:2).
2. God formed the heavens and earth (1:3-13)
  • Day 1: God formed day and night (1:3-5).
  • Day 2: God formed sky and seas (1:6-8).
  • Day 3: God formed dry land (1:9-13).

3. God filled the heavens and earth (1:14-2:3).
  • Day 4: God filled day and night (1:14-19).
  • Day 5: God filled sky and seas (1:20-23).
  • Day 6: God filled dry land (1:23-1:31).
4. God rested on the seventh day (2:1-3).

There is repetition which is common in the Hebrew Bible. There is special focus on dry land and the creation of people in God's image since the Bible's focus is on people. This focus is expanded even more in the rest of Genesis 2. However, the outline structure is still very clear.

I believe it's not only possible but common in Hebrew for "day" to refer to something other than a 24-hour day. I believe any attempt to make day mean a 24-hour period in Genesis 1 does not make sense. (How do we have a 24-hour day on Days 1-3 when the sun is not even created?) In fact I think any attempt to assign a chronology to Genesis 1 does not make sense. How can we have thousands of years or even 72 hours without a sun and moon? Thus to me it is clearly not a statement of linear time. Combine this with the multi-god issue which was the main problem for the Israelites and to me it's clear that God's intention was not creation methodology or time sequencing but instead was to emphasize that he alone created everything (and that he views humans as very special).

This does not "open the door" to disregarding the Bible or treating it's factual statements as anything besides truth. I believe it does capture how the passage would have been understood by the people it was written for.

In our discussion yesterday I did bring up the need to interpret the Bible in it's historical and cultural context. The person I was talking with thought that wasn't necessary because God wrote the Bible, which means we all can relate to it independent of our culture or language. This to me is a much more dangerous view which opens the Bible up to personal interpretations and whims and does more to ignore God than any belief in modern science.

Finally, I must put our discussion a little more into context:
  • I don't believe my discussion partner would carry his statement about not needing to know historical and cultural context to its logical extreme and just accept any body's whim about the Bible.
  • I'm the one who brought up the age of the earth knowing that it would provoke a discussion.
  • We both backed away from our discussion rather than turn it into an irresolvable fight and tacitly agreed to disagree. We later did the dishes together and were able to talk of other things pleasantly.