These opening words of the Bible are incredibly profound; we are told that God created the universe at the beginning of time. However, when I studied geology and ecology at university I was a sceptic, convinced that this first creation story in Genesis was mythical; something far removed from scientific understanding; something that could not possibly be true. Geological evidence had shown me that life on Earth had evolved over billions of years. Surely, the universe couldn’t have been created in six days? And if the opening chapter of the Bible didn’t tie in with my scientific understanding, why read the rest of it?
This question continued to trouble me until, during a period of family illness, I felt the need to explore Genesis again. By chance, I came across Hugh Ross, astronomer-turned theological author, who had been a sceptic too. Through reading some of his books I began to see Genesis in a different light.
Firstly, I learned that the word ‘day’ in Genesis 1 is translated from the Hebrew word yom, which can denote any period of time, not necessarily 24 hours, and could represent a significant number of years.
Secondly, I came to understand that Genesis 1 is narrated from the perspective of being on the Earth’s surface. What difference does that make? I’ll explain…
In Genesis 1 verse 2 the story shifts from ‘the beginning’ event, which would have been around 15 billion years ago, to a focus on the Earth. It was ‘formless and empty; darkness was over the surface of the deep.’ This was around 4.5 billion years ago when the planets were forming out of the massive spinning disk of debris in our solar system. At the centre was the sun but its light was blocked out.
At this stage the Earth would have been covered with water with no land visible. So, if our frame of reference for Genesis 1 is the Earth’s surface it would have certainly been formless, empty and dark. The water and other essential nutrients could have been delivered by comets to create one vast ocean: the ‘primordial soup.’
We are told that ‘the Spirit of God was hovering over the water.’ There had been ongoing geological evolution over a vast 10.5-billion-year period that resulted in creating order out of chaos. Then God intervened and added the essential Holy Spirit, triggering the start of biological evolution.
It is fascinating to follow cross references from Genesis 1 to other parts of the Bible. The Book of Job is the oldest text in the Bible, originating from probably 4000 years ago. As the Genesis narrative was assembled approximately 3000 years ago, the author of Genesis will have been familiar with the themes in the ancient text of Job. In Job 38 verse 9 we are told that God said to Job: “I made the clouds [the Earth’s] garment and wrapped it in thick darkness.” This parallels that initial period of darkness and stillness.
If we look at earlier verses in Job 38 we gain a further insight into God’s design for the Earth. In verses 4-6 God tells us that the Earth’s dimensions were accurately defined and measured. And in verse 7 we are told about divine activity: “all the angels shouted for joy” at the point before the Earth was wrapped in darkness.
The Genesis account continues at verse 3 and, following the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the atmosphere begins to turn translucent due to chemical changes triggered by biological activity. From our vantage point we begin to recognise the 24-hour cycles of light and darkness as the Earth rotates, the brightness from the sun at the centre of the solar system increases, and the end of the first ‘day’ approaches.
In verse 6, during the period of the second ‘day’ we can appreciate the initiation of the water cycle in the atmosphere with the sky ‘between the waters to separate water [oceans] from water [clouds].’ Then, in verse 7 we see the first land appearing. Volcanic activity that had previously been hidden under the ocean was now forming islands. Biological evolution spread with ‘seed-bearing plants and trees’ colonising and spreading across the land. The end of the third ‘day’ approaches.
The developing climate, with rainfall and increasing levels of oxygen from plants and trees in the expanding forests, would have gradually cleaned dust from the atmosphere. From our vantage point the clear sky enables us at last to see the sun during the day and the stars and moon at night, signifying the end of the fourth ‘day.’
During the 750 million years-or-so of the next stage, the fifth ‘day,’ we see the evolution of animals and the widespread distribution of mammals across the Earth. It has taken five ‘Godly days’ and nearly 15 billion years but now the stage is set for the sixth ‘day’ and the arrival of humanity. At the end of each Godly day God’s purposes were being fulfilled, and “God saw that it was very good.”
But note in verse 24 that God is written in the plural: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…’ Is God here being referred to as the trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Most probably written prior to Genesis 1, and again influenced by Job, is the poetry of Psalm 33. Verse 6 tells us that ‘by the Word of the Lord’ the universe was created, and in verse 9 this is reinforced: ‘he spoke and it came to be; he commanded and it stood firm.”
My new understanding of Genesis 1 has shown me that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, brought the universe into existence. Order was created out of the chaos. At the start of John’s Gospel there is a most beautiful yet succinct summary of it all: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
If the opening chapter of the Bible is compatible with science after all, might you be intrigued to read on?
Further information on Hugh Ross:
All Bible quotes are taken from The New International Version (1984).