The meeting of science and faith is one of today’s most controversial topics, and at the heart of the discussion are questions about a fundamental aspect of the universe: its origin. Science and religion seem to be at odds when the creation account in Genesis is compared with the prevailing scientific world view. Yet this seeming conflict does not have its roots in any fundamental difference between science and faith, but in the conflict between science and a particular expression of that faith: the literal view of the Genesis creation account.
A literal view is seen by many as the most natural, but the most natural interpretation is not necessarily the most right. For if the account is taken as allegory, then there is no conflict at all. Of course, this creates a different tension within the community of faith. Because the passage is not clearly labeled as symbolic, taking it that way leads to questions about interpreting the rest of Scripture. But those of us who accept the Bible as the Word of God know that the way to approach such questions is to seek God’s wisdom in the Word itself, and allow Him to guide us in using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
The following reflections consider how Scripture points to symbolic elements in the creation account, without providing a complete logical proof. Such a proof may not be possible, or even desirable. Instead, these passages offer a spiritual path, one which is intended to be walked with prayer and an open heart. This path extends beyond creation, and forms a foundation for spiritual discernment of the rest of the passages.
“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” John 3:12
During His meeting with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus points out the importance of considering spiritual matters with a proper perspective. Nicodemus had just made the error of taking literally a statement that Jesus meant spiritually (symbolically), when he wondered how a man could be born again from his mother’s womb. Jesus basically stated that, if Nicodemus could not understand what was really going on in that picture of rebirth, then he couldn’t possibly understand the spiritual ramifications that follow from it.
Likewise, we need to have a correct understanding of God’s heart for communicating to us through His word, for this ultimately forms the framework we use to interpret everything, not just other Scripture. This is important because many things in both the Bible and science are subject to diverse interpretations. Without a proper worldview, many Scripture passages can be interpreted to mean wildly wrong things. Similarly, many findings in science can provide support for different viewpoints. In order to make the correct interpretation, one needs to have the correct worldview. This is especially true for discerning spiritual truth, because the natural mind struggles with spiritual perspectives; they must be spiritually discerned. Therefore, we should approach the Word with a sensitive spirit, and seek God’s heart.
So when considering the creation account, we can start by considering the Creator, and His absolutely unique position with respect to it.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding,” Job 38:4
In His pronouncements to Job, God asks the rhetorical question of whether Job was present at creation. Of course the answer is no, and the point is that he has no place questioning the One Who laid the foundations of the world. There is an important corollary to this exchange because, if no one was there at creation except God, how could anyone write an account of it? The only way, of course, is for someone to write as God revealed to them what to write. So the creation story is the first example of pure revelation — narrative that had to have been completely the result of divine communication.
Much Scripture is written from an individual’s experience or based on readily available information. Examples include Old Testament narratives such as Nehemiah, the personal letters in the New Testament, and Luke’s investigated accounts. In other passages, we are unclear how the writer received the information, but generally accept that similar methods were involved, even though some revelation may have occurred. We still recognize the ultimate source of these passages to be God Himself. However, a few passages cannot have originated with any human, and had to have been given directly by God through pure divine revelation. Prophecy of the future is a clear example, such as the grand historic sweeps in Daniel, or the book of Revelation.
The creation account is in this category of something having been divinely communicated. In no way could any human knowledge have been used to produce the account, because no humans were present. Therefore, as we look at the narrative, we must recognize the fundamental truth that it is the result of divine revelation; it is a type of prophetic passage. Jesus didn’t announce His use of parable when talking to Nicodemus, yet still held him responsible for discernment in understanding His words. Similarly, the fact that the creation account is not described as revelation or prophecy does not relieve us from the responsibility of considering that context.
So, we should consider how God spoke to His prophets.
He said, “Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, shall make Myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream.” Numbers 12:6
God often spoke through His prophets with symbolic imagery: visions, dreams, dark sayings (parables), patterns, and shadows. Consider again, for example, the broad historical prophecies given to Daniel, or John’s description of his visions in Revelation.
Most examples of revelation in Scripture are associated with strongly symbolic language, but that’s not always the case. When Scripture records that God spoke to a prophet, we know that He probably communicated symbolically. But sometimes only the clear meaning of the revelation was recorded. And sometimes both are given, such as Daniel’s vision in the first part of Daniel 7, and the interpretation given in the second part of that same chapter. There we learn that the four great beasts of verse 3 are interpreted in verse 17 as four kings who will rise.
While we can state with confidence that the creation narrative had to be given through divine revelation, we cannot describe the details. Therefore, we need to consider that it could be either a record of the revelation, laden with symbolic terms, or the meaning of that revelation, stated directly. A symbolic interpretation fits the general Biblical model for divine revelation of cosmic events, while literal interpretation seems most reasonable to the natural mind reading the passage.
Neither literal nor figurative interpretations are explicitly mandated in this passage, so we need not be concerned about a decision leading to excessive literalism or excessive spiritualizing. For in passages where the viewpoint is critical, God makes it clear which we should use. Visions which are ambiguous are usually labeled as visions, and for things such as the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, there are numerous statements that demand a strict historicity.
Since the creation passage could be either literal or symbolic, we must approach it with natural biases set aside, let the Word speak clearly, and take care to avoid reading our own natural opinions into it. Instead, we seek illumination from Scripture itself, first within the passage, then from how other passages speak of it.
Starting with the creation story in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, we find that most of it is simple narrative. But one verse can help us discern the proper interpretation.
By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Genesis 2:2
At the end of the creation account, the Lord is described as resting from His creation activities. The Hebrew word translated “rested” generally means to cease. But the word “rest” also captures the idea of recovering from fatigue. Obviously the Lord had no need to recover, so we may ask where the idea for physical recovery comes from. While it’s easy to assume that one should take only the sense of ceasing from the passage, there is another possibility. The passage could be symbolic, applying a human description to God in order to teach something, but without implying that He actually has that human attribute. This is an anthropomorphism, a very common technique in Scripture.
So it is necessary to decide whether to read symbolism into this passage, or to take it literally. Either is a reasonable, Biblically-consistent option, but we must be careful not to read our own bias into the choice. One way to do this is to look elsewhere in Scripture for guidance.
The creation is referred to throughout Scripture, and consistently affirms God as the Agent. While most of the references are in poetic passages such Psalms, some are scattered elsewhere. However, most references are ambiguous enough that to draw information from them requires approaching them with a bias, and they can be read several different ways depending on that bias. This is the very thing we are trying to avoid. However, there are a couple passages that address details in the account directly enough that they help clarify the correct perspective.
In the most direct example, the origin of the Sabbath is being described.
“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:11
The most elaborated command in the Ten Commandments contains a very direct reference to creation. In the summary of a six-day creation, it includes the statement that the Lord rested on the seventh day. Although a different word is translated “rest” (yanah), the ambiguity is the same because the word can can have several connotations. It may refer to the resting that results from being tired, and so refreshes (Ex 23:12). Or it may refer to the rest of ceasing motion, as when one object rests on another (Num 10:36). Either may be meant in this passage. In the first case, the passage becomes an anthropomorphism, while in the second it simply indicates that the sequence of creation days has ended. So while this passage provides a clear statement, it adds no additional information to guide interpretation of the creation account. It refers directly to it, but with ambiguity.
What this passage does show is how consideration of the creation account, regardless of how it’s interpreted, can give us spiritual principles to apply in our lives. In this case, God points to the account, and without clarifying it’s nature, nonetheless draws meaning from it about the Sabbath.
Although this passage adds no new information, another direct reference sheds a little more light.
“It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.” Exodus 31:17
Although in a different context, this passage is very similar to the previous one, in that it is discussing the basis for the Sabbath. In this case, the word translated “rest” is actually sabbat. Again, this word can mean either resting from being tired, or ceasing. However there is also one more item mentioned: the fact that the Lord was refreshed. The word translated “refreshed” always refers to getting one’s energy back from being tired. This clearly distinguishes which meaning of “rest” we are to use: the idea of resting as a result of being tired. However, we know from other Scriptures that God does not tire. So this is obviously a metaphor, an example of anthropomorphism.
Now we see that this revelation of a cosmic event is at least partly symbolic, like others in Scripture. Reflecting on other such revelations, the presence of symbolism is not surprising. In fact, virtually all such passages in Scripture are highly symbolic, and the use of at least some symbolism in this case shows that treating the creation account as allegory is consistent with the rest of the Bible.
In this passage, the second half of the verse interprets the creation account symbolically. So why wouldn’t we assume the same for the first half?
While such symbolism is common in passages of pure revelation, we also see God using it to describe many important topics through Scripture. Examples include His perception of Israel’s unfaithfulness in Ezekiel, the unified nature of Christian brotherhood as a building and a Body, and our intimate relationship with Christ pictured as a vine with God as the tender. These pictures give us more than a sterile description of history and relationships, they speak to our hearts. And perhaps they even reveal something of God’s own heart.
And just as Jesus referenced when talking to Nicodemus, we move from the natural to the spiritual.
“If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” John 3:12
Now we see the importance of properly interpreting God’s Word. Not only to understand the text itself, but to understand how it reveals God’s heart. In this, it teaches us to know Him better. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and so exists beyond this world. It is God’s heart to reveal truth to us, and truth is ultimately spiritual, not merely of this world. Spiritual truths do not always make natural sense, so perhaps revealing spiritual truths require approaches that are beyond simple natural understanding. Approaches like poetry, parable, and symbolism, for example. These things cause our natural minds to struggle (Ezekiel 20:49, Mark 8:15–21), but that makes them no less important.
So where do we go for understanding the natural world, with such a starting point as this? Perhaps we look to Solomon in his early years…
He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon even to the hyssop that grows on the wall; he spoke also of animals and birds and creeping things and fish. 1 Kings 4:33
Here we see that one of the fruits of the wisdom that God gave Solomon was understanding of the natural world. However, little if any of his great wisdom in this area has been preserved. The Bible does not record detailed scientific information, so we look to the scientific disciplines to bring us understanding.
Science is concerned with discovering natural truths, not spiritual, and one result of such inquiries is an understanding of the universe’s great age. A variety of measurements all point to the age of the universe being roughly 13 billion years, and the Earth roughly 5 billion years old. Human understanding can relate to hundreds of years, because that is comparable to a few human generations, or perhaps thousands of years, because that is merely a few times the oldest living thing. Even millions of years can be visualized by observing the natural landscape and allowing our imagination to see it change. But a span of billions of years is so long, and so divorced from anything we experience, as to be only comprehensible in an abstract sense, in much the same way as the concept of eternity itself.
So we can look to science for such an understanding, but is there spiritual value to this knowledge?
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. Romans 1:20
As the Word says, the more we understand God’s creation, the more we see it pointing to Him. Over billions of years, the universe has expanded steadily to its current size, enormous almost beyond comprehension. But this great span of time had a beginning, in which the universe we see today, the result of billions of years of expansion, began in a burst of inconceivable energies. Even today, the echoes of this event ring throughout the universe, easily detectable by modern instruments. It’s as if we can hear the echo of God’s voice still ringing after billions of years. The inconceivable energies of creation, and the billions of years of echo, all point to God and His eternal power.
While this echo can be taken as a picture of God’s voice, the reality of it is evident today in the lives of His children. For those who know Him, His voice takes many forms. Through relationship with Him, we learn to discern His voice more and more clearly, and from this, to see truth in His word more and more clearly. He speaks to us personally, providing hope and guidance in our lives. We learn to see beyond the merely physical, into the spiritual world of true reality. His presence becomes real in our lives as He manifests Himself with the same power He exhibited in creation. This is because of His great love, the love that caused Him to wait billions of years for you, to die on the cross for you, and to ultimately allow you to be adopted into His family. This is the reality of His creation, that we are eternal spiritual beings created in His image, intended to become His.
(All Scripture NASB95.)