Did God Literally Create the World in Seven Days?

We Christians get a lot of flak for believing the Bible. Many today consider it little more than a collection of fairy tales that intelligent, sophisticated people have no reason to take seriously, and one of the stories they ridicule most often is the seven-day creation narrative in the first chapter of Genesis. Modern science tells us that the world took much longer than seven days to form, so, they contend, the Bible must be wrong. In response to such criticism, many Christians argue that we don’t have to take this account literally. Instead, they claim that we can take it as a story meant to convey theological rather than scientific truths. For instance, it is meant to teach us that God created the world, not how he created it.

However, there is a problem with this defense. When people say that we should not interpret the seven days of creation in Genesis literally, they are usually just reading the story through the lens of modern science. They are taking science as their standard of truth and then interpreting the Bible accordingly.

However, if this is all we can do, it’s hard to see how we can uphold the truth and reliability of Scripture. If the biblical text itself does not give us any indication that it is meant to be taken figuratively, then we are actually misinterpreting it. We can get all the theological truths we want from the seven-day creation story, but if it is meant to be taken literally, then it is tough to get around the fact that it is just plain wrong. We cannot save Scripture by imposing on it a meaning it was never supposed to have; that is just a less honest way of admitting that science is right and the Bible is wrong.

Patterns in the Days

Simply put, we can’t just assert that we should take the seven-day creation story figuratively. If we really want to defend the reliability of Scripture and show its compatibility with science, we have to demonstrate that the story is actually meant to be understood that way. We need to look for clues in the text itself that it is intended simply to give theological truths, not a literal description of how exactly God created the world.

 

To do that, we have to look closely at what God makes on each of the first six days (God doesn’t actually create anything on the seventh day, so we can leave that one off to the side), and when we do that, we can see a pattern. On the first three days, God creates habitats or environments, and then on the next three days, he fills them with inhabitants:

Habitats/Environments:

  • Day 1: Light/day and darkness/night
  • Day 2: The sky, which separates the waters above (basically what we now know are clouds) from the waters below (the seas and oceans)
  • Day 3: The waters below the sky are gathered into one place, and dry land appears

Inhabitants:

  • Day 4: The sun and moon “to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness” (Genesis 1:18)
  • Day 5: Birds to fly in the sky and sea creatures to swim in the ocean
  • Day 6: Land animals, including man

Moreover, if we look at the pattern closely, we can see that there’s actually a more specific pattern than just the general connection between days 1-3 and days 4-6. Each day in the first set corresponds to one in the second set. Specifically, days 1 and 4 go together, days 2 and 5 go together, and days 3 and 6 go together. On day 1, God creates light/day and darkness/night, and on day 4, he makes the sun and the moon to inhabit the day and the night and to separate light from darkness. On day 2, God creates the sky and the sea, and on day 5, he makes birds and sea creatures.  On day 3, God creates dry land, and on day 6, he creates the land animals.

The Problem in the Pattern

So how does this clue us in to the figurative nature of the story? Let’s focus on days one and four. God creates the sun and the moon on day 4, and they are supposed to “separate the day from the night” (Genesis 1:14) and “give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:15). However, something isn’t quite right here. If we read the text closely, we can see that all of this is already done on day 1. God creates light and separates night and day on the first day of creation, before the sun and moon are anywhere to be seen, which creates a problem if we take the days literally.

At first, we might think that there’s a perfectly good solution to this problem: God could have miraculously given light to his creation and caused day and night to alternate before he made the sun and moon. However, this theory has a fatal flaw. In the second creation story (which comes right after it and which is meant to complement rather than contradict the first one), we read that in the beginning, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no man to till the ground” (Genesis 2:5). This tells us that when God created the world, he didn’t miraculously make things act contrary to their natures. He let the land remain barren until it got what it naturally needed for plants to grow, and we can extrapolate from that and conclude that he also would have let the world remain in darkness until it got what it naturally needed for light to appear. As a result, the appearance of light on the first day remains a problem for a literal interpretation of the story.

The Solution

The solution to this difficulty, I would suggest, is to lean into it rather than try to avoid it. We have to realize that while the creation of light, the sun, and the moon clearly doesn’t work as a literal description, it does work as part of the literary pattern we saw throughout the first six days. The creation of the sun and the moon is on the wrong day if the author of the story is trying to describe exactly how God created the world, but it is in exactly the right place if he is simply using the seven days as a framework to structure his story into a nice, neat pattern.

And that’s our smoking gun. Instead of disproving the reliability of the creation story, the problem of the creation of light, the sun, and the moon actually shows us that the story is not supposed to be taken literally. It shows us that the author intended to fit the various elements of creation into a literary pattern rather than give us a literal chronology. The text is supposed to be figurative and poetic, not scientific and precise.

Faith and Science

Consequently, when we defend the reliability of Scripture by taking the seven-day creation story figuratively, we’re not simply reading the text through the lens of modern science. We’re not just taking science as our standard of truth and trying to conform the Bible to its teachings. Rather, that is actually the way the text is supposed to be read. We are supposed to take the seven days figuratively, so on this point there is no contradiction between faith and science. Science tells us the precise details of how the world came to be, and Scripture tells us theological truths about God, creation, and our place within it.

image: Battistero Padova by Giusto de’ Menabuoi / Wikimedia Commons

By

JP Nunez has been a theology nerd since high school. He has master's degrees in both theology and philosophy (with a concentration in bioethics) from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and he spent three years in Catholic University of America's doctoral program in biblical studies before realizing that academia isn't where he wants to be. During his time in Steubenville, he worked for two years as an intern at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, where his responsibilities included answering theological questions and helping to format and edit their Journey Through Scripture Bible studies. He blogs at JP Nunez: Understanding the Faith Through Scripture.

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