Genesis 1: True but NOT literal history

What do you do when…you’re a Christian, and you trust your Bible, but one day you open it up, to the very first chapter of the very first book, and you start to read, and you think…”Wait, this just isn’t true!”

Check out the video version of this essay at

So, to state the problem formally: A surface level reading of Genesis 1 depicts creation as having occurred in 6 days, 6,000 years ago. Well, I’m sure it didn’t happen that way. Instead, I believe the earth is billions of years old. Does this mean we can’t trust early Genesis? And if we can’t trust early Genesis, can we trust the New Testament?

This is a problem, and so properly understanding Genesis 1 is important to a wide range of people.

Perhaps you are a Christian who is curious about this really interesting and challenging portion of the Bible, and would like to learn more.

Or perhaps you are not a Christian, and are open minded toward the faith, but don’t want to believe in a religion that claims things you know are not true.

Or perhaps it is actually more serious. Perhaps you are a Christian who grew up being taught that the only way to read this part of the Bible was as literal history: That the earth was created 6,000 years ago, in the span of six days. Further, you may have been taught that in order to believe the Bible was truth, maybe even in order to believe in Jesus, you had to believe in a young earth. Jesus said so, you were told. And then one day you have to acknowledge to yourself that the earth is old. Really, really old. So if the truth value of the Bible depends upon the earth being young, and you learn that the earth is old, then maybe you don’t trust the Bible anymore. You may even walk away from Christianity. It happens a lot.

Or perhaps, like me, you didn’t grow up in a young earth creationist subculture, but just gravitated to a surface reading on your own because, well, you were never taught another way to read it. You just assumed that the author was intending to write literal history. But you know that the earth is old, and so you carry around some cognitive dissonance for a long time, hoping that some day you’ll understand the passage.

Quick backstory on my journey. My older son, who was 9 at the time, asked me if dinosaurs existed. I was about to say ‘well they sure did, 65 million years ago, when…I stopped. I instead told him I would get back to him. It struck me that in his Christian school—which was great for him, by the way—he was maybe learning that dinosaurs didn’t exist, or they died in the flood 4,000 years ago, or something. I wanted to prepare for how I was going to contradict his teacher, how I would break this to him. But then I thought, yeah, the Bible seems to teach that the earth is young. I figured there must be an explanation for the Bible teaching something that, on the surface, appears to be plainly false. I went to a trusted study bible and it said the Bible teaches that the earth is young. I went to my church’s archived sermons, and my church taught that the earth is young. My entire faith community was confirming that the Bible teaches something I knew was flat out false. That started a painful season of doubt for me.

OK, back to the main narrative here. So this is a problem. What are the responses to the problem? One response can be to stick your head in the sand, say you’re not a scientist, and just go on with your literal reading of the chapter. You can say, my personal reading of the Bible says the earth is young, so I believe the earth is young, and I’m going to ignore whatever the science says. That doesn’t work for me personally, and if you’re still watching this video it probably doesn’t apply to you either.

Another response is, rather than ignoring the science, is to reject the science. Like, most of the whole world of science. Geology, biology, chemistry, genetics, physics, and on and on. Many Christians do this. In my view this is not a credible or responsible response.

Another response is accept the science but to say that God made the world to look old, putting dinosaur bones in the ground even though there were no living dinosaurs, and so forth. This is possible, of course, but it makes God a deceiver. So I don’t buy it.

Another response is to try to find a way in which a literal reading of scripture is compatible with an old earth. That Genesis 1 literally explains the creation of the earth over billions of years. So, the word “day” in Genesis 1 could mean “a very long period of time.” I have a great deal of respect for people who take this approach, but I think it is wrong. For one thing, the data show it doesn’t work. In Genesis 1, even if the word day means a very long period of time, which I don’t think it does, the order of creation in the Bible doesn’t match what we see happened in the actual world.

At this point, it appears we are at a dead end in how to interpret the text.

But the Bible is true, so there is an answer. What is that answer? The answer is actually to learn to read Genesis 1 in the context of the time and place of the author and the original audience. This is, after all, the best way to approach Scripture anyway. This means, for one thing, not expecting modern day science in the pages of the Bible. It also means focusing intently on what kind of writing this is—what is the genre of Genesis 1? This was almost impossible until the 1800s, when archeologists started making a lot of very important discoveries in the Middle East.

We now know that Israel’s neighbors had their own creations stories. And, what is fascinating, is that there are conspicuous similarities and differences between Genesis 1 and these other creation stories. What seems clear, now, are two things: One. Accounts like that in Genesis 1 are the way that ancient, pre-literate, pre-scientific cultures told their creation stories. Two. Genesis 1 was in conversation with the stories of the surrounding cultures. Genesis 1 used the same format, but corrected the faulty pagan theology of the surrounding cultures. Genesis 1 was the Hebrews’ response to the surrounding cultures. It is about theology, not science. For example, Genesis 1 proclaims, in the midst of a polytheistic world, that there is only one God.

In fact, although the genre of Genesis 1 is really difficult to nail down, it may correctly be identified as “ancient mythology.” Now, when we moderns use the word myth we mean fairy tale, and devoid of truth content. But in ancient times that was not the case. Back then, myths were vehicles for transmitting truth content.

I encourage you to learn more about Genesis 1 in its proper historical and cultural context, like I did. I can help you in two ways. First, I aim to put out a series of blog posts on this topic, and YouTube videos. Second, I wrote a book about my journey through a faith crisis instigated by early Genesis, and it covers this whole topic in depth.