One of the most difficult problems confronting modern Christians is the issue of interpreting Genesis 1-11 in light of what we know from scientific evidence concerning the earth’s history. A wide variety of differing interpretations exist of those early chapters of Scripture.
I have many respected Christian brothers and sisters who take the view, based on their understanding of Scripture, that the world was created about six thousand years ago, a view commonly referred to as “young earth creationism.” This perspective is both sincerely and dogmatically propagated by organizations such as “Answers in Genesis” (AiG) and “The Institute for Creation Research” (ICR), who claim scientific evidence to support their assertions.
Others Christians, like myself, would, having considered carefully the relevant Biblical texts and scientific evidence, claim that the world was created billions of years ago – we are often described as “old earth creationists.” We would see that the interpretation of earth’s history as being such an incredibly short time period (as set out by “young earth creationists”) as being a misunderstanding of the same Scriptures and at odds with overwhelming scientific data. I believe the evidence for an ancient earth and cosmos to be very formidable.
The “young earth” teaching introduces an unnecessary and erroneous tension between Scripture and science that has confused many and I have personally met many people who have turned aside from their faith due to what they see as the impossible challenge of trying to reconcile that understanding of Scripture with the clear scientific evidence. They end up being neither ‘old’ or ‘young’ earth and worst of all not believing that God is the Creator at all. I would suggest that it is imprudent to make a young earth view a centerpiece of our apologetic. I trust that such individuals will see that one does not in fact need to subscribe to young earth creationism in order to be an orthodox Christian with a high view of Scripture, and thus will reconsider the Christian faith.
Over the course of this and subsequent articles in which I intend to deal responsibly and fairly with this subject, my main objective is to demonstrate that Biblical texts do not commit one to a young earth interpretation, and I hope that my reflections here will encourage my young earth creationist brothers and sisters to reconsider the importance of this issue and whether dogmatism on their interpretation of Genesis is justified.
While we could debate the validity and power of purely scientific evidence, this series of articles will examine what the Scriptures do — and do not — say about our origins.
Providing an exegesis of Genesis 1-11 and a harmonization with modern science is no small undertaking. Therefore, I have had to divide my analysis into multiple parts (to prevent it from becoming unbearably long). In this article, I intend to do some preparatory spadework by answering a common objection that allowing science to guide our interpretation of Scripture is improper practice, asserting man’s sovereignty over God’s and compromising the authority of Scripture. In subsequent articles, I will attempt to offer a careful and responsible analysis of the relevant Biblical texts that are at the heart of this debate.
The Copernican Revolution: A Lesson From History
Before diving into a discussion of the relevant Biblical texts, it is necessary to do some groundwork by showing how science has, historically, guided our interpretation of Scripture. The example of the Copernican revolution is often raised in this discussion. I am not sure who made this connection first, though I may have first encountered it from the Oxford philosopher John Lennox.  In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) had suggested that the earth was fixed in the center of the Universe, with the sun, planets, and stars revolving around it. This geocentric model, sometimes known as the Ptolemaic system, was the dominant view for centuries, though a heliocentric system (i.e. with the sun at the center) was proposed by Aristarchus of Samos as early as 250 B.C. The work of Aristotle was translated from Greek into Latin and, with the help of the famed Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas, it came to have great influence on Roman Catholic thought.
The idea that the earth is fixed and immovable seemed to not only reflect the observational evidence, but also to harmonize quite readily with Scripture. Consider the following texts:
- “Tremble before him, all the earth; yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.” (1 Chron 16:30)
- “Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.” (Ps. 93:1)
- “He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.” (Ps. 104:5)
- “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.” (1 Sam 2:8)
The Bible also appeared to state, quite clearly, that the sun moved. Consider the following texts:
- “In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (Ps. 19:4-6)
- “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.” (Eccl 1:5)
Furthermore, in Joshua 10:13, we read that the sun stood still while Joshua’s army was fighting at Gibeon.
Understandably, texts like those, and the influence of Aristotle, led the church to adopt the geocentric view. John Calvin (1509-1564), for example, wrote, “By what means could it [the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?” 
Nicolas Copernicus, a Polish astronomer, used mathematics to evaluate the Ptolemaic geocentric system. Copernicus concluded that the geocentric model was less probable than the heliocentric model. Copernicus published his findings in 1543 at the request of Pope Clement VII, though his book drew little controversy. 
Some fifty years following the publication of Copernicus’ findings, in 1609, an Italian by the name of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) heard of a telescope that had been invented in the Netherlands. Having built his own telescope, Galileo began to make observations. He observed that the surface of the moon contained craters, and that Jupiter’s moons were orbiting Jupiter. This had important implications regarding the geocentric model of Aristotle. It meant that not everything in the Universe was orbiting the earth. Eventually, Galileo arrived at the same conclusion that Copernicus had arrived at before him. The planets were orbiting the sun, not the earth.
In 1632, Galileo published his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, in which he challenged the geocentric view.  Galileo was in fact himself, much like Copernicus, a Christian, who maintained that God had “endowed us with senses, reason and intellect,” intended us not to “forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.” 
As a consequence of Galileo’s challenge to the Aristotelianism to which both the academy and church were wedded, Galileo was fiercely attacked to the point that he was forced to recant, though it is said that, as he left the courtroom, Galileo muttered, “all the same, it moves.”
Today, it is widely accepted by scholar and layman alike that the earth does move. It moves in fact in an elliptical orbit around the sun at an average of 30 kilometers per second. We now understand that the sun, stars and planets do not orbit the earth. Moreover, we have now revised our interpretations of the above Biblical passages. For example, Joshua 10 is now understood to be using phenomenological language. The sun didn’t really stop moving (since it does not orbit the earth), but it merely appeared to from the perspective of an earthly observer. The other passages are generally understood to be poetic and non-literal. Thus, the lesson that we as modern Christians can take from the Galileo affair is that science can illuminate the meaning of Scripture, and even guide us in discerning between competing interpretations of Biblical texts. Thus, there is nothing that is in principle wrong-headed about proposing interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis that are consistent with what is known from modern science. God has given us not only revealed revelation of Himself, but also general revelation. Since we as Christians believe that both of those are given to us by God, we ought to take both of them very seriously, though we need to keep in mind that our interpretation of either one of them, being subject to human fallibility, may err. There are some who would maintain, whether explicitly or implicitly, that when science and Scripture are perceived to conflict we should revise our interpretation of the scientific evidence before we revise our interpretation of Scripture. But this is not always the case (as in the aforementioned case study on the Copernican revolution). Rather, both options must be considered.
Some of my readers, especially my non-believing readers, may be concerned that the hermeneutical approach that I have proposed presumes a high view of Scripture and has ruled out a priori the alternative option that Scripture itself may have erred (rather than simply our interpretation of it). However, this is not the case. As a staunch evidentialist I need to always remain open to the possibility that an error lies not with my interpretation but with the text of Scripture itself. However, I write this series primarily for people who already agree with me that there are profound reasons, independent of consideration of these matters, for taking the Bible, including the text of Genesis, to be authoritative Scripture. Therefore, on this basis, the text of Scripture I believe should be given the benefit of the doubt when its claims appear to be more questionable, as in the case of the early chapters of Genesis. Thus, while I do not rule out a priori the possibility that genuine errors may be present in these chapters (and some of those would be of greater epistemic consequence than others), I would argue that the presence of such errors should be concluded only as a last resort, after plausible harmonizations have been sought for. I shall discuss this in more detail later in this article.
To summarize this section, then, when there is apparent conflict between revealed and general revelation, one of the following scenarios should be opted for:
- We have failed to correctly interpret general revelation.
- We have failed to correctly interpret special revelation.
- The Biblical text has erred (and in that case we would need to work out the implications for our faith).
How Did Interpreters Before the Scientific Revolution Understand Genesis?
It is a common selling point among young earth creationists that their interpretation is the most face-value interpretation of the text of Genesis 1-11. In other words, it is not difficult to see how a casual reader, uninfluenced by the considerations of modern science, may come to conclude that the earth is young, based only on his reading of the Biblical text. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how someone, based only on the text of Genesis, could come to conclude that the earth is old. Old earth creationists typically respond to this point by noting that a non-literal reading of the days of Genesis 1 is not exclusive to after the scientific revolution. Oxford philosopher and mathematician John Lennox, for example, in his book Seven Days That Divide the World, cites several individuals from ancient times who took a non-literal view of Genesis.  The arguments for this position, however, are frequently over-stated, including by Lennox, and it is worth taking some time out to examine the merits of those arguments.
Probably the most cited example of a church father living before the scientific revolution who took a non-literal interpretation of the days of Genesis is Augustine of Hippo (354-430). In his book The City of God, he wrote concerning the days of Genesis 1, “As for these days, it is difficult, perhaps impossible to think, let alone explain in words, what they mean.”  In his commentary On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, he further added, “But at least we know that it [the Genesis day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.”  Augustine is often misrepresented by well-meaning old earth creationists to have himself been an old earth creationist. However, this is not quite right — his view was that God created everything in an instant. As such, he would still qualify as a young earth creationist, though he did not necessarily take the days of creation week to correspond to literal solar days. An old earth creationist may reasonably point out here that Augustine’s view of the age of the earth is less relevant than that he understood the days of creation to be non-literal (since Augustine obviously did not have access to the scientific data that confirms the vast antiquity of the earth).
Augustine’s view was similar to that taken by the first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – 40 A.D.) before him, who also floated the idea that God created the world instantaneously. Old earth creationists often cite Philo of Alexandria as having taken an allegorical interpretation of early Genesis.  However, I would suggest caution about doing so, since Philo was inclined towards more “allegorical interpretation of Scripture that made Jewish law consonant with the ideals of Stoic, Pythagorean, and especially Platonic thought.”  Thus Philo was inclined towards allegorizing the Biblical text as a result of the influence on his thinking of Greek philosophy. Furthermore, Philo was completely out to lunch on his allegorical interpretation of the days of Genesis. Here is what he wrote, in his A Treatise on the Account of the Creation of the World as Given by Moses, section III.13-14 :
He says that in six days the world was created, not that its Maker required a length of time for His work, for we must think of God as doing all things simultaneously, remembering that “all” includes with the commands which He issues the thought behind them. Six days are mentioned because for the things coming into existence there was need of order. Order involves number, and among numbers by the laws of nature the most suitable to productivity is 6, for if we start with 1 it is the first perfect number, being equal to the product of its factors (i.e. 1×2×3), as well as made up of the sum of them (i.e. 1+2+3), its half being 3, its third part 2, its sixth part 1. We may say that it is in its nature both male and female, and is a result of the distinctive power of either. For among things that are it is the odd that is male, and the even female. Now of odd numbers 3 is the starting-point, and of even numbers 2, and the product of these two is 6. For it was requisite that the world, being most perfect of all things that have come into existence, should be constituted in accordance with a perfect number, namely six; and, inasmuch as it was to have in itself beings that sprang from a coupling together, should receive the impress of a mixed number, namely the first in which odd and even were combined, one that should contain the essential principle both of the male that sows and of the female that receives the seed.
Clearly, then, one who employs such convoluted numerical gymnastics as this is not one whom we want to be citing in support of our position. John Lennox, in his Seven Days That Divide the World, also cites Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, and Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, claiming that they “suggested that the days might have been long epochs, on the basis of Psalm 90:4 (‘For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night’) and 2 Peter 3:8 (‘With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’).”  However, Lennox has completely misread those sources, though he does not provide a citation for either one. Lennox is alluding to Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 81 , and to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies Book 5, Chapter 23 . However, those sources most definitely do not state what Lennox claims they do. Rather, for those authors, the days of Genesis 1 were taken as types for the entirety of world history. For them, the world was only to exist for six thousand years, since each day corresponded to one thousand years of subsequent world history. Davis Young, himself an old earth creationist, explains :
…the interesting feature of this patristic view is that the equation of the days and millennia was not applied to the creation week but rather to subsequent history. They did not believe that the creation had taken place over six millennia but that the totality of human history would occupy six thousand years, a millennium of history for each of the six days of creation.
Furthermore, the utilization of Psalm 90:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 to interpret the days of creation as equivalent to a longer epoch is, I would argue, unsound, and thus it is imprudent to make use of sources who wield demonstrably unsound arguments.
Is It Always Appropriate to Adopt the Most Face-Value Reading of Scripture?
I tend to agree that the young earth interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is the most face-value reading of the text of Scripture. But does this make it the interpretation that should be preferred? Not necessarily. The most face-value reading of the texts listed earlier in this article is that the earth stands still, and yet that is not the way we interpret those texts today. If the Biblical text really is true and authoritative Scripture, then an interpretation of the text that comports with the scientific data is preferable to an interpretation that is in conflict with overwhelming multi-disciplinary empirical evidence. Thus, an interpretation of the text of Genesis that is consistent with that evidence should be sought for before one concludes that the text in fact teaches a young earth. If the text does teach that the earth is only 6000 years old, then I would consider the evidence for an ancient earth to be sufficiently strong to conclude that the text is in error rather than that the earth is in fact only 6000 years old. A question I would put to young earth creationists is what sort of evidence it would take to convince them that the early chapters of Genesis are in fact in error. There has to be some conceivable evidence, at least in principle, that could reveal the Genesis text to be mistaken. To maintain otherwise is to depart from a robust evidentialist epistemology.
I would maintain that the trustworthiness of the Genesis account, including the historicity of Adam and Eve, is directly relevant to the truth of Christianity. Jesus certainly believed and honored the originalist correct meaning of Genesis, as intended by the human author (Mt 19:4-5; Mt 24:37-38). Given that Christianity maintains that Jesus is God incarnate, it stands to reason that whatever Jesus believed (at least on such a matter) is true. The apostle Paul also clearly took the text of Genesis to be true and authoritative (Rom 5:12-20; 1 Cor 15:21-22; 1 Tim 2:13-14), as did Peter (1 Pet 3:19; 2 Pet 3:6). Given the authority that comes with the office of apostle, the view of Paul and Peter on Genesis should carry great sway with Christians.
Somewhere at the heart of this discussion is this: If Christianity is true in its other respects, how much should receiving the text of Genesis 1-11 shift the credibility of a rational person who believes unequivocally in the truth of the religion in question, including the fact that Jesus believed whatever the “true interpretation” is of the text, toward the proposition that the earth is young? Suppose that you did not know what was written in Genesis 1-11 but you believed that whatever Jesus taught was true and authoritative, and that Jesus believed what Genesis taught about subjects such as the origins of man and of the earth and its age (if indeed it taught anything). Upon learning the specifics of what is contained in Genesis 1-11, how much, with those background beliefs, should that cause one to shift their credibility toward a young earth? Or suppose that you do not believe in the truth of the religion in question (and of course here we need to be careful about Judaism, since presumably the Jews of Jesus’ day believed what they thought Genesis taught as well). In that case, you do not have to shift your credibility at all, since you do not treat that text as authoritative. And if we state that the person now who does not believe Christianity has a a set of evidence against a young earth, then we are presented with a circumstance in which the text of Genesis contributes evidence against Christianity by way of pressing the Christian to believe a proposition for which there is independent evidence against. The weight of that evidence against Christianity will depend on a number of factors, including the confidence we have that the text of Genesis 1-11 does in fact commit believers to a young earth.
How would the weight of the evidence against Christianity, based on the text of Genesis 1-11, be estimated? Let us consider the hypothesis H to be “Genesis is true and authoritative Scripture” (a proposition that is directly relevant to the truth of Christianity, and one that would be believed both by conservative Christians and orthodox Jews). Let us consider in this case the background information to be the scientific data we have that makes young earth creationism immensely improbable. Let us also consider to be background information the textual data that would lead one to, without outside influence, interpret a text such as the early chapters of Genesis as appearing to teach young earth creationism. Let the evidence E be the text of those chapters. Thus, our likelihood ratio is E|~H / E|H (that is, the probability of the evidence given the falsehood of the hypothesis vs. the probability of that same evidence given the truth of the hypothesis). I would argue that this ratio is somewhat top-heavy (favoring the negation of “Genesis is true and authoritative Scripture”) on the following grounds: If Genesis is not true and authoritative Scripture, there is nothing especially improbable about finding that its text teaches something that has a prima facie meaning that is in prima facie tension with a large body of independent scientific evidence. Obviously the text is very specific, and in that sense is quite improbable, but that is true on both H and ~H. Beyond its specificity, there is nothing especially improbable about its contents given ~H. We may compare this to the case of the Book of Mormon, which appears to teach that the lost tribes of Israel lived in America. If the Book of Mormon is not authoritative Scripture, there is nothing especially improbable about this. While this particular content is improbable given that the Book of Mormon is not Scripture, that is only because of its specificity, not because of its apparent falsehood. On the other hand, given that Genesis is authoritative Scripture, one could argue that the probability is low, for reasons that go beyond specificity, that we could find content in Genesis that appears to be best interpreted in a way that is in strong prima facie tension with a large body of independent evidence. Therefore, P(E|~H) > P(E|H), meaning, the evidence we observe is more probable given the falsity of our hypothesis than it is given its truth. The question is, how much greater is P(E|~H) relative to P(E|H)? This will depend on the plausibility of the interpretations, consistent with an old earth, that I give in subsequent articles.
On the other hand, if we have good reasons to think that Christianity is true, that might in principle provide warrant to accept an interpretation of Genesis that is slightly less plausible than a young earth interpretation, in view of those other considerations (i.e. there is good evidence both for Christianity’s truth — which inclines one strongly to accept Genesis as true and authoritative Scripture — and for the antiquity of the earth). Indeed, every large-scale scientific theory has trade-offs of this kind, since there is usually anomalous data that does not fit the paradigm. In those cases, since the paradigm is well supported on independent grounds, auxiliary hypotheses, even though they may be ad hoc, may be invoked so that the anomalous data can be accommodated within the paradigm. Well supported theories can tolerate a limited amount of ‘ad hoc-ness’ without necessarily being subject to falsification.
In 2014, analytic philosopher Lydia McGrew published a paper in the journal Acta Analytica, in which she distinguished between benign ‘ad hoc-ness’ and non-benign ‘ad hoc-ness’ (though that specific terminology is not in her paper).  In the former case, one adopts a somewhat improbable auxiliary hypothesis while candidly admitting that this causes one’s main proposition to take a probabilistic hit. Nonetheless, one still believes this main proposition because, one argues, it is still highly probable given the total evidence. In the non-benign (what McGrew calls ‘bad’) sort of ‘ad hoc-ness’, one refuses to concede that one’s main proposition has taken any sort of probabilistic hit, and instead acts like the problem has been totally taken care of by hypothesizing one or more antecedently improbable auxiliary hypotheses. Unfortunately, debates over religion have become so partisan that participants are seldom willing to candidly concede weaknesses in their own position or where their position requires appeal to ad hoc auxiliary hypotheses to maintain. It is human nature to want to feel like the positions we hold to are free of weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but in reality the positions we hold are often much more messy than we would like to think. However, I would argue that such candidness is vital for fruitful and honest dialogue, and I will strive to exemplify this in my forthcoming articles on interpreting Genesis.
In summary, science can, and should, guide us in our interpretation of Scripture. God has revealed Himself not only through special revelation, but also through general revelation. Where those are perceived to conflict, we should discern between the options that (a) we have erred in our interpretation of Scripture; (b) we have erred in our interpretation of the scientific data; or (c) Scripture has erred (and then of course draw out the implications of that). While the most face-value reading of Genesis 1-11 does incline one towards acceptance of young earth creationism, this is not the end of the matter, since it is perfectly acceptable to propose auxiliary hypotheses to account for the textual data in view of an old earth, provided one is open about the fact that that is what one has done.
In subsequent articles, I will dive into the actual Biblical text in some detail, reviewing and critically appraising some of what I consider to be more interesting literature among the wealth of material that has been published on Genesis 1-11. I will also critique, as I have done here, arguments from old earth creationists that I do not believe to be sound.
 John Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning according to Genesis and Science (Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 15-19.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1949), 4:6–7.
 Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (Germany: Hansebooks, 2016).
 Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican (Modern Library, 2001)
 Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (1615).
 John Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning according to Genesis and Science (Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 39-43.
 Augustine, The City of God: Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 14 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan/Fathers of the Church, 1947), 196.
 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Vol 1 (New York; New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1982), 148.
 John Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning according to Genesis and Science (Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 40-41.
 J. M. Bassler, “Philo,” in Harpers Bible Dictionary, ed. P. J. Achtemeier (San Francisco, California: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 791.
 Philo, Philo Vol. 1 (F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, & J. W. Earp, Trans.) (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962), 13–15. London; England; Cambridge, MA: William Heinemann Ltd; Harvard University Press.
 John Lennox, Seven Days that Divide the World: The Beginning according to Genesis and Science (Michigan: Zondervan, 2011), 41.
 Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Vol. 1, ed. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 239-240.
 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Irenaeus Against Heresies,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Vol. 1, ed. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 551-552.
 Davis Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth, (Michigan: Zondervan, 1982), 20.
 Lydia McGrew, “On Not Counting the Cost Ad Hocness and Disconfirmation,” Acta Analytica 29, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 491-505.