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Is a Liberal Interpretation of the Creation Story Compatible with Science?


[This article was originally published in Issue 39 (Jan. – Apr. 1997) of the Hong Kong intellectual Journal Intellectus.]

The Christian religion first came into direct conflict with science when Copernicus (1473-1543) propounded, and Bruno and Galileo championed, the heliocentric view of the Universe. According to this view, the Earth revolves about the Sun, and not vice versa. In the words of Copernicus,

In the middle of everything stands the Sun. For in this most beautiful temple who could place this lamp in any other better place than one from which it can illuminate all other things at the same time? This Sun some people call appropriately the Light of the World, others its Soul or its Ruler. Trismegistus calls it the Visible God, Sophocles’s Electra calls it the All-Seeing. Thus the Sun, sitting on its Royal Throne, guides the revolving family of the stars.[1]

Both the ancient Hebrews and the Medieval theologians, however, had always believed in a stationary Earth and a moving Sun. Psalms 104:5, for example, praises that “Thou didst set the Earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken”, and Joshua 10:12-13 recounts Joshua as commanding the Sun to stand still in Gibeon, and that “the Sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.”

In opposition to the new heliocentric view of the Universe, Catholic and Protestant Church leaders between the 15th and 17th Century, though spatially and temporally separated, concurred in accusing Copernicus and his followers of challenging the Bible. For instance, Martin Luther, a contemporary of Copernicus, snorted:

People give ear to an upstart astrologer [Copernicus] who strove to show that the Earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the Sun and the Moon…. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, and not the Earth.[2]

In a similar vein, John Calvin waved aside this innovative astronomical theory by asking, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”[3] Happily, it was science which eventually proved victorious in the controversy and made a mockery of these religious bigots.

But no sooner had the dispute concerning the Heavens been settled than Christianity waged another war with science in the 19th Century. This time, it concerned the Earth, for geologists discovered that our planet was infinitely older than the four thousand to six thousand years deduced from the Book of Genesis.[4] Shortly thereafter, Charles Darwin proposed his Theory of Evolution and suggested that the various species then dwelling on the Globe actually evolved from a common ancestor.

This clash between science and religion is by no means over. Apart from having divided people into those who favour science and those who prefer religion, it has even split Christians themselves into two radically opposite groups. On the one hand, there are those Creationist die-hards who understand the Scriptures literally and claim that if the Bible indicates a young Earth, one which is no more than several thousand years of age, then it is in fact no more than several thousand years of age. As a result, geology is emphatically false.

On the other hand, there are those Christian liberals who read the Bible figuratively and believe that their faith is compatible with the verdict of geology. Their most common way of concession is to re-interpret the Creation story so that the six days which, allegedly, God took to create the world are taken to mean six long “epochs”, each spanning several millions of years. By having considerably lengthened the age of the Earth in this way, they imagine that since Genesis can now harmonise with geological results, its truth and sanctity is thus preserved.

It is the purpose of the present paper to reject this apologetic way of thinking, though, I must quickly add, its rejection in no way validates the Creationists’ “Young Earth” stance. My position is that the liberal and the literal interpretations of the Creation story are equally false, and that the most sensible attitude is to reject them both.

The reasons for voicing opposition to the Liberal Interpretation are twofold: first, it leads to immense textual difficulties elsewhere in the Book of Genesis. Secondly, it still fails to explain other geological and evolutionary facts, or is even at odds with them.

An Unwarranted New Definition of “Day”

To begin with, it would be quite obvious after a thorough reading of Genesis that the authors[5] had an unambiguous understanding of both numbers and the concept of days, months, and years. Many things which required counting and hence the introduction of numbers — for example, a person’s age or an event’s duration — were clearly and precisely specified. Methuselah, a descendent of Adam and regarded by the Judeo-Christian culture to be synonymous with longevity, was reported to have begotten his first child at the age of 187 and eventually lived to 969 years old (Genesis 5:25-27). Similarly, the extent of the Noahchian Flood was said to be 601 years, one month, and one day (Genesis 8:13). Of course, we may discard both accounts as ridiculous fables, but the fact remains that the authors were very meticulous in their use of numbers, and when it came to quantification, they enumerated everything even down to the last practical unit or digit.

In this context, therefore, it would be absurd to assume that the Genesis authors actually meant six “epochs” when they described the Creation of the Universe as having taken only six days. Indeed, not only is it absurd to make such an assumption, it is also intellectually deceitful, because the ultimate aim is, after all, to save the Scriptures from being falsified in the light of contrary geological evidence.

But let us temporarily concede this new definition of “day”, if only for argument’s sake. In other words, let us suppose that the Genesis authors really meant six long “epochs”. Embarrassingly, this innovative use of the word “day” immediately leads to a weird consequence concerning the age of Methuselah. It is already incredible that someone had lived for 969 years; now, by re-defining “days” to represent a very long epoch, his age was further prolonged out of all recognisable proportions.

And so, by taking into consideration other texts in Genesis and acknowledging the consistency with which the authors understood the meaning of such ideas as years, months, and days, we conclude that the Liberal Interpretation of the Creation story is simply untenable: “days” cannot be taken to mean any length of time other than a 24-hour interval.

Contradictions with Science Despite New Definition

However, there is another serious problem with the Liberal Interpretation: it violently contradicts what the astronomers, geologists, and evolutionists tell us about the order of appearance of things on Earth and the time at which they appeared. If supporters of the Liberal Interpretation take these branches of science as truths, and only modify the Scriptural “day” as a compromise, then that interpretation itself must ironically be discarded. Let us now see why.

According to most astrophysicists, the Universe began with a Big Bang which happened 15,000 million years ago. It was an event filling all of space, with all the particles of the embryonic Universe rushing away from one another. Approximately 10,400 million years later (ie., 4600 million years ago), the solar system — which included the Sun, our Earth, and the Moon, among other planets — was formed. The table below highlights some of the more important astronomical and paleontological events pertinent to our current study.[6]

Big Bang15,000 million years ago
Birth of the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon4600 million years ago
Emergence of Life (Pre-cellular Life)3800 million years ago
Inorganic Release of Trace Amount of Oxygen3700 million years ago
Origin of Photo-synthetic Bacteria3200 million years ago
Advent of Oxygen-rich Atmosphere2000 million years ago
Development of Sexual Reproduction1100 million years ago
Spread of Jawless Fishes505 million years ago
First Amphibians408 million years ago
First Reptiles360 million years ago
First Dinosaurs and Mammal-like Reptiles; Origin of Mammals248 million years ago
First Birds213 million years ago
Australopithecus4 million years ago
Homo Habilis2.2 million years ago
Homo Erectus1.5 million years ago
Homo Sapiens200 thousand years ago
Modern Humans35 thousand years ago

On the other hand, if we now construct a table on the Creation of the Universe and of life on Earth, based on Genesis 1:1 to 2:3 and the Liberal Interpretation thereof, then it would display the following results:

Creation of Day and Night“Epoch” 1
Creation of Heaven“Epoch” 2
Creation of the Earth, the Seas, and the Plants“Epoch” 3
Creation of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars“Epoch” 4
Creation of Fishes and Birds and hence the Beginning of Sexual Reproduction“Epoch” 5
Creation of Land Animals (Cattle, Insects, Reptiles, the Beasts of the Earth, and Man)“Epoch” 6
No Further Emergence of Life Forms on Earth“Epoch” 7

What do the two tables tell us? They tell us that the order and time of appearance of things in one table is incompatible with that in the other. And since the tables mutually disagree, either one or even both of them must be false. But the adherents of the Liberal Interpretation do not regard as false the revelations of astronomy, geology, and evolution; they merely re-define, as a concession, the Scriptural “day” so that the Creation narrative does not clash with science. This, then, plainly means that their new definition is wrong! In other words, if they accept the scientific results as summarised in our first table, they must then, by logical necessity, renounce the religious conclusions as outlined in the second table. There is no way for the Genesis account of Creation to fit in with what we know from science.

A Plea for Intellectual Honesty

Intellectual honesty is the question at issue. The Genesis chronicle of the birth of the Universe and of living things on Earth is simply a false chronicle which could not be taken seriously for a single moment. In this connection, it must be abandoned explicitly, and not rescued apologetically. As a matter of fact, no amount of ad-hoc re-interpretation can save it from damnation, since its falsity is beyond repair.

Indeed, this should be evident even if we do not have in our possession such astronomical and paleontological data as those highlighted in the first table. Consider, for example, the Genesis version of the birth of the Sun. We are told that it came into being on the Fourth Day, after the Creation of the plants. This presents at least two grave problems which even the most liberal interpretation cannot expect to solve: 1) The concept of “day” and “night” has no meaning except with reference to the Sun, so it is just a contradiction in terms to maintain that there were, before the Sun’s existence, three Sun-less days (or “Epochs”). 2) We know that plants depend upon sunlight and hence the process called photo-synthesis for the sustenance of life. How then could life be possible for them if they were created before and not after the Sun, as Genesis has it?

The whole Bible, and Genesis in particular, was written at a time when people knew less about the cosmos than we presently do. For this reason, it is understandable that certain passages reflect a view of the world which has long since been discredited by modern science. And since these passages are now known to be untrue, the rational attitude is to reject them downright, because the very rejection of something false is always a step forward which leads us closer to the truth. Seen in this light, to obstinately cling to the Creation Myth, or to give it a clumsy re-interpretation, is irrational, dishonest, and totally unworthy of a lover of wisdom and knowledge.


[1] Nikolaus Copernicus, De Revolutionibus (1514), Book I, section x; quoted in Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution (1957), pp. 179-180.

[2] Quoted in Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (1935), p. 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A genealogy from Adam to Abram (Abraham) is provided in Genesis 5:1-32 and 11:10-26, from which one may calculate the time between the Creation and the birth of Abram, namely, 1946 years. To this period we add 75 years, which, according to Genesis 12:4, was the age Abram, along with his people, left Haran and settled in Canaan. This gives 2021 years as the interval between the Creation and the time when Abram reached Canaan. Now, historians estimate that the Hebrews took up residence in Canaan in circa 1800 B.C. We may therefore conclude from this historical fact and from the Biblical passages above that the Creation occurred in circa 3821 B.C. Of course, this is only a rough guess, due to the historical imprecision of Abram’s year of settlement in Canaan, and indeed, there were other suggestions as regards the year of the Creation. The Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680), for example, concluded that it took place in 5508 B.C., while the Irish Bishop James Ussher decided (1650) it to be 4004 B.C.

[5] I am here following the agreement among modern Bible researchers in denying Moses the authorship of Genesis as well as of the other four succeeding books, namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Dueteronomy. According to these Bible scholars, there were at least two authors involved in the composition of what came to be compiled as Genesis. The first lived between circa 950 and 850 B.C., had a greater concern for etiology, and whose God was more anthropomorphic. The second lived between circa 900 and 800 B.C., had a higher moral tone, and whose God is less anthropomorphic. It is conjectured that their two documents were blended in circa 650 to 621 B.C.

[6] See Tim M. Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (1990), pp. 35 and 78.

“Is a Liberal Interpretation of the Creation Story Compatible with Science?” is copyright © 1997 by Eugene Y. C. Ho. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Eugene Y.C. Ho. All rights reserved.

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