I first wrote this article in 2013 to address the various views on creationism. I've found it necessary to update the presentation and include a sixth interpretation of Genesis known as Functional Ontology.
It may be Christianity’s most controversial subject: creationism. Forget the secular theories of the Big Bang and Evolution for a moment. Within the body of the Christian church there are at least six different views on the general subject of creationism. Each have their strengths and weaknesses and because of that many Christians have trouble deciding what they actually believe about the Bible’s accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. Advocates on particular sides of the debate haven’t always been known for treating people of the other views with respect. This turns off many nonbelievers watching from the outside. Some Christians regard science as the enemy of religious faith. That is a mistake. Some seek to modify the Bible’s text or meaning by using scientific discovery or theories as a measuring rod for what is true in the Bible about nature. Meanwhile, others look to overturn what seem to be valid and proven scientific discoveries by forcing the biblical text to overshadow those discoveries as invalid. My perspective is a bit different. I believe that both the Bible and science are complementary disciplines that enhance our knowledge and application of both. General Revelation (that of which nature speaks) is equally true as Special Revelation (the Bible). Though they operate in different areas, both are truths that come from God and can be understood properly when we understand their proper scope and limits.
This article is not about Creationism vs. Science or Creationism vs. Evolution. Rather, I’d like to outline the six major theories about the Bible’s creation account in Genesis 1 and give you resources that will help you determine where you stand on this important issue.
In general, there are six positions on the understanding of Genesis 1. They are,
Young Earth Creationism
Progressive Creationism/Old Earth/Gap Theory
Young Earth Creationism
What is Young Earth Creationism? YEC is the belief that God created the universe, earth, and all life within a literal six-days of 24-hour periods as recorded in Genesis 1. Young Earth Creationists believe that all life was created by God according to its own kind and that evolution as a theory of origins is unable to explain the variety and complexity of life. This view is predicated upon supernaturalism, that is, that a supernatural intelligence outside of creation is responsible for designing and creating all things. In contrast, most who hold to evolutionary theory fall under the category of anti-supernaturalism, meaning that the origin of the universe and life can be explained solely by natural, random means, and that no supernatural activity is possible or necessary since the supernatural does not exist.
Young Earth Creationists often run into problems convincing others of their views because of the ongoing discoveries of modern science. For example, modern science teaches that the universe is around 18 billion years in age, evidenced by the great distances of galaxies from one another and the speed of light being a fixed constant. Thus, light from those galaxies reaching earth would take millions or billions of years to reach us. There are many scientific theories and discoveries that would seem to contradict the YEC view. However, leading YEC organizations regularly publish articles and magazines refuting the anti-supernatural viewpoint of creation, using current scientific discoveries and reinterpreting other discoveries to defend their position. This is a problem for some who are searching for the truth about creation in that they sometimes see YEC believers trying to disprove what would otherwise be considered valid conclusions of science in order to square modern discoveries with the account of Genesis 1.
There are many organizations and individuals publishing from a YEC view. Some of these include Answers In Genesis, Institute for Creation Research, Truth In Genesis, Creation Ministries International, Creation Moments, and True Origin.
Progressive Creationism (PC) affirms that God created the universe, the earth, and all life on earth and it denies the teaching of evolution. In this way PC is similar to Young Earth Creationism. However, its most significant difference is that Progressive Creationists believe God created the universe over billions of years rather than in six 24-hour periods. This is also known as the Day-Age Theory, that the six days of Genesis 1 refer to ages of time, not literal 24-hour periods.
Many PC believe that dinosaurs and other life forms lived in the geologic ages before the creation of Adam and Eve. This makes most PC adherents believers in what is called the Gap Theory. Gap Theory stipulates that there was a gap in time of an undefined duration between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. It was during this time that that the dinosaurs rose and persisted for millions of years until the world was re-created by God into what we know now.
Progressive Creationists have a significant problem to work out, according to Young Earth Creationists. The problem is death. YEC hold that there was no death before the fall of Adam and Eve, therefore there could have been no animal life dying for millions of years before Adam and Eve rose. However, to inject my opinion, I think YEC creationists read too much into scripture on this point.
I think YEC make an assumption on this point and not a conclusion of scripture. The scripture does not say there was no death before sin. It only says there was no human death because of human sin. Clearly, other forms of life other than man could die before the fall. If sinless Adam picked an apple off the tree and ate it, what would happen to the apple? It would die. If he picked a banana and ate it what would happen to the peel? It would die. If an animal fell off a high cliff would it just pick itself up and go on? I doubt it. If a seed were planted in the ground the seed would die and a new life begin from that death. Consider also that If other forms of life could not die but continued to reproduce (as they were designed to do), the earth would eventually be overrun and nothing could survive, thus death would result anyway. Finally, the scripture only describes man as designed to live forever. Nothing else in creation is described in this way. It is therefore an assumption placed upon scripture that there was no death elsewhere in creation. I've written about this in my article, The Case For Death Prior To The Fall.
Progressive Creationists make a strong argument for an old earth. This is especially true of arguments for the age of the universe as noted above. How could the universe be 6,000 years old if we see galaxies billions of miles away if the light from those galaxies took billions of years to reach us?
Organizations holding the PC view include: Reasons To Believe, and Old Earth Ministries, and God & Science. Intelligent Design, advocated by the Discovery Institute, may be classified as one form of the Progressive Creationist view.
Theistic Evolution (TE) is defined simply as the belief that evolution was the process used to create life on earth, and that God guided the creation of life through the process of macro-evolution. Most TE adherents also believe in the Big Bang theory for the origin of the universe, though these two theories are not necessarily tied together.
There are several problems with Theistic Evolution. First, the evidence for evolution is not as prevalent as some TE adherents believe. Interstitial forms have yet to be discovered. The archeological record does not contain varieties of forms demonstrating a gradual evolution from one form of life to another subsequent form of life. If evolutionists are correct and various forms of life have lived on the earth for millions of years the obvious question becomes, “Where are they?” Certainly over millions of years billions of animals and other forms would have lived. If so, where is the archeological record of their existence? Would there not be millions of bones in the geological record? Theistic Evolutionists have yet to provide a persuasive answer to this dilemma.
Second, both Young Earth and Old Earth Creationists agree that there would not be enough time for evolution to do what the theory claims happened.
Third, Discovery Institute has pointed out quite convincingly that meaningful information cannot be produced unaided by non-intelligence. The complexity of meaningful information in DNA and RNA, across hundreds of species could not write itself. The point of evolution is that such meaningful biological information came from non-intelligence through time and chance. This does not seem to be a persuasive argument as there are no other examples in history of intelligent and meaningful information coming from non-intelligent sources. Nor is there a theory on how such a thing would take place.
Fourth, the Bible does not portray evolution as a means of creation. In fact, the Bible is silent on the means of creation other than saying God created all things. The Bible does not say how God created, only that he did. Thus it may be unwise on our part to assume that a theory like evolution must be the means by which God created life when even that theory remains unproven.
Sites providing information on Theistic Evolution include: Perspective on Theistic Evolution, and BioLogos.
This is a view of creationism advocated by John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, in his book, The Lost World Of Genesis One. Essentially, Walton argues that Genesis 1 should be interpreted from an Ancient Near East (ANE) framework and that the creation events in Genesis 1 are functional in nature rather than material. Material ontology advocates that the creation of the universe came from nothing and that God created all things. It argues that the six days of creation in Genesis are not primarily about creating the material universe and world. Walton's argument is that the six creation days are functional in nature, that God was assigning a purpose to each of the created things because in ANE culture, things did not achieve full existence without being assigned a function.
Walton's case is an interesting one because (1) he strives hard to interpret Genesis 1 through ANE perspectives, which admittedly, Genesis 1 was written under, and (2) the Functional Ontology perspective is a useful framework for other views of Genesis and not just its own. Historical Creationism (profiled below) might also be said to have functionally ontological consequences.
It might be said that Walton puts too much emphasis on ANE perspectives. Yes, Israel was formed under an ANE worldview, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Israel shared the ANE perspective in totality. Israel had a different heritage and development than most ANE cultures.
I find Functional Ontology compelling, especially when it comes to describing the Lord's "Good" statements in Genesis 1. But I'm not completely convinced that Walton's view is the best interpretive model.
A site providing insight into Walton's views: Biologos.com. Other sites commenting on Functional Ontology include: First Things and Evolutionary Creation. A summary of Walton's views can be found at Bibleinterp.com.
I confess this is an area I have studied the least. Therefore, I can only make brief comments and point you to few resources.
This position states that the account in Genesis 1 was not meant to be taken literally as YEC do. Rather, Genesis 1 is a form of Hebrew poetry designed to show it’s readers that the God of the Bible was greater than the so-called gods of Egypt. This is an intriguing concept in that Moses’ writings clearly demonstrate the fallacy of worshipping gods that do not really exist. Idolatry is a major theme in the Pentateuch. At the writing of Genesis the Israelites were still entrapped in the worship of idols and sometimes syncretized their belief in Yahweh with Egyptian idolatry. Moses is therefore show the Israelites through his account of Genesis 1 that the true God is higher than the false gods of Egypt.
While I find this an interesting perspective there are three roadblocks to the Hebraic Poetry View. First, Genesis 1 may be poetic or have poetic elements (much of the narratives of scripture contain poetic elements), but it does not seem to my perspective to present itself as a form of poetry that is non-literal in its ultimate meaning. Moses wrote the Genesis accounts as a pattern for everything else that is to follow in Israelite history. If Genesis 1-11 is poetic in the sense of myth then Israel has no basis for its religion founded upon an actual history of events, which could throw the Judea/Christian worldview into the realm of fantasy.
Second, other scripture refers to Adam and Eve as historical, not mythological (the Chronicles, Jesus, Paul, etc), therefore why would the creation account, which is directly tied to Adam and Eve, be poetic myth when Adam springs from the context of that very story?
Third, Moses may indeed have been commenting on the difference between Israel’s true God and Egypt’s false gods. This may be true, but Moses invalidates Egypt’s false gods elsewhere in his writing, why then is it necessary to do so in a creation account written as if it is an historical event?
Fourth, if Genesis 1 is a form of poetry not intended to be taken as a literal account of creation then why does Exodus 20:11 say, “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.”
I could find no organization online advocating this perspective. However, I do provide two links from the author who originated this argument: The Meaning Of Creation, by Conrad Hyers, and The Fall And Rise Of Creationism by the same author. Here's a PreachItTeachIt link with a good synopsis of the view. If you have links to others who advocate this view please contact me and I will post those links in this paragraph.
Historical Creationism is a term coined by John Sailhamer in his book, Genesis Unbound. Sailhamer argues that the Genesis 1 account is an historical event in real history but that what is described is not a 6-day account of the creation of the universe, but instead of a description of God preparing the land and location for Eden, which is also the Promised Land of Israel later revealed in Genesis.
Though intriguing, Sailhamer’s thesis requires a complete rethinking of how the Hebrew language was used in the creation account. He spends significant time providing corroborating evidences from elsewhere in scripture to advocate that Genesis 1:1 is not a chapter or book heading, but is a straightforward, overarching statement of the creation of the universe and that the following account is of God systematically preparing the land for Adam’s habitation. He uses comparisons of scripture to claim that the sun and moon were not “created” on the fourth day, but that they were “made” in the sense of being given a role of indicating day and night. He also claims:
Earth can mean land or ground.
Heavens can mean sky.
Make can mean something is assigned a function rather than being created for the first time.
Sailhamer makes a significant and persuasive argument that the literary context of Genesis contains striking parallels in the creation account with accounts of Abraham, Jacob, and Israel. He notes that geographically, Eden and the Promised Land are the same location. He goes further to show that both were guarded by angels, Eden had forbidden fruit and God told Israel do not destroy the fruit trees when entering the land. Both Adam and Israel were exiled east. God walks in the garden and also dwells in Israel in the Tabernacle/Temple (in the city where he put his name). A flaming sword prevents entry to Eden, a pillar of fire lights re-entry for the sons of Israel. The pattern of events found in Genesis is the framework for the rest of the Old Testament’s accounts of how God deals with Israel.
There are additional advantages to Sailhamer’s view. Though he argues that evolution is not a viable theory under Historical Creationism, his thinking does preserve the Old Earth view of modern science. His view also respects General Revelation as well as Special Revelation.
There are no organizations dedicated to advocating Sailhamer’s view. But there are a few websites that comment on it, as well as his book advocating for the position: Genesis Unbound, Desiring God’s advocacy of Genesis Unbound, and Probe Ministries’ review of Genesis Unbound.
What is interesting to note is that all of the views presented here, with the exception of Young Earth Creationism, leave room for an ancient cosmos and earth. While most American Christians subscribe to Young Earth Creationism, when you combine adherents to the other five views, along with views outside of evangelical Christianity, the great majority of people adhere to some form of Old Earth perspective. This actually makes Young Earth Creationism the minority view.
This article is not meant to be an exhaustive review of creation theories. But it does provide a general look at the overarching issues that pervade the six views. Use the resources listed here to continue your own study.