Oxford physicist Ard Louis looks at two important aspects of time to consider when reading Genesis 1: chronology and the idea of “deep time.”
There are two aspects to that. The first is a question of what the writers originally meant in Genesis 1 when they spoke about seven days. I think it’s pretty clear that that passage was a polemic in many ways against the thoughts of the day. For example, in the days that the Bible was written astrology was a dominant scientific paradigm, if you want to use that word. The academic paradigm was astrology. People believed that the sun and the moon and the stars influence our day to day lives.
It’s very striking that the sun and the moon are not created until the fourth day. You can’t have a day and a night without the sun and the moon. Clearly, that suggests that there’s a pattern in there. There’s a structure that the person’s trying to say something to us. If you look at the Hebrew words for sun and moon that are used there, they’re not the normal words for sun and moon, but ‘greater lamp’ and ‘lesser lamp.’ The writer is very clearly saying these objects in the sky are created objects. They are not gods to be worshiped. They are lamps, something like what you see today.
That’s amazing because that is, in fact, a scientific prediction. That’s a prediction to saying the sun and the moon are not living objects. The sun and the moon are material objects. They are lights. Today, of course, scientists think, and many laypeople hopefully agree, that the sun and moon don’t influence our lives. They are material objects. That was a falsifiable prediction that was made by the early writers of Genesis which has turned out to be true.
You can see very clearly the reason it was on the fourth day was to demote them from being there on the first day. That clearly suggests that the seven days were a literary device. They’re a way of describing, in a more powerful way, the creation of the world than you could by just saying, “And then this happened, and then that happened, and that happened.”
For me, growing up in Africa in a village, I often encountered an old man who would tell me a story and it would be in this more symbolic way. He was trying to make a much more important point than just trying to describe to me the chronology of what happened. He was trying to make a point about the deep meaning of what was going on.
That’s one aspect of time. The other aspect of time is what we might call deep time. That’s the idea that the world is very old. The earth is four and a half billion years old. The universe is almost 14 billion years old. For many people that seems strange. Why did God take so long to create the earth? But it’s not that strange because we’re all used to the idea of the universe being very large. There are 100 billion stars in our galaxies and there are probably 100 billion galaxies in the universe, if not more.
We see, in the size of the universe, something about the glory of God. Why should there not also be deep time? Why should that not be, just in a different dimension, the time dimension, something about the majesty and the glory of God?
That’s a different way of thinking about time. I think that the Genesis story is describing deep truths, not in a journalistic fashion but in a much deeper, more powerful way about the way that God created the world and God sustains the world and that He’s involved in every aspect of the world. It’s not giving us a journalistic account like Luke is, of this is the order in which things happen and this is exactly what was said by whom.
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