He didn't even blink. But in a small coffee shop half way around the world, the missionary bluntly told me that those who believed in the six literal days of Creation tended to be more godly than those who didn't. Unusually for me, I was lost for words. I have many friends with differing views on how much water to use in baptism, whether wives should work or stay at home, and even on the existence of hell. But despite the debates and disagreements, nobody had ever before suggested that we had anything but an equal standing in front of our heavenly Father. This particular missionary evidently felt passionate about this one doctrine. Perhaps he was inspired by Ken Ham, who argues: "If we allow our children to doubt the days of creation, when the language speaks so plainly, they are likely to then doubt Christ's Virgin Birth, and that He really rose from the dead." It's a slippery slope argument – if we don't draw a line here at the origins of our faith, then we have no hope in helping people to believe the rest of the Bible.
So to what extent was the missionary correct? Should we believe in the literal six-day account? Does it really affect our godliness? And does our whole theology rest or fall on the side we choose to take?
Here are five questions Christians should ask themselves as they tackle this issue:
1. Are we willing for the Bible to change our minds?
Christians believe that Bible has more authority than any other source because they want to honour God in their lives and their thinking. This means when there is a conflict between our views and the Bible, Scripture wins. We don't get to choose whether we like Jesus' challenge about hypocrisy or God's passionate concern for the orphan and the widow. What is there is there and we have no right to edit.
But equally that doesn't mean we have to be naive about how to read the Bible. When I was a teenager I had friends who were adamant that it was wrong to catch aeroplanes on Sundays because of a verse in Matthew's Gospel that said: "Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath." They wanted to honour Scripture, but by reading it woodenly they were doing the opposite. They had a sincere heart, but that did not stop them misinterpreting the Bible.
In the Psalms we read: "In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth." (Psalm 19:5-6) The plain reading of this is that the sun rises and travels across the sky from one horizon to the other. However, the psalms are poetic – using metaphors and personification. There is clearly no intention for us to think that the sun is literally a bridegroom leaving a tent, or that the Psalmist is trying to teach us a lesson in astrophysics. Rather he is celebrating the powerful way that God speaks through his creation, and uses the understanding of the time and poetic language to convey that.
I believe something similar is going on in the Genesis account. What if the repeated pictures of day and night, and the pattern of separations and fillings, were to be seen as poetic devices that point not to how God created the world, but who the God who created the world is? What if the ordering is less about which came first, and more about which came last – the humans at the pinnacle of God's creation? What if the seventh day has no end because it is a picture of the rest that God created for us to enjoy, as the letter to the Hebrews clearly teaches? Ernest Lucas argues that these first two chapters of Genesis "should be read as a theological text expressed in symbolic stories addressed to ancient Hebrews, and not as a scientific text."
Just as I ask my friends and students to keep their minds open, and be prepared to change them should the weight of Bible evidence suggest, so I too offer my views here lightly. There are many things I have had to learn and relearn in Scripture and I too must be willing and prepared to have my mind changed. The Genesis debate reminds me to be humble when listening to the different opinions of others – they might be right.
2. Does timeline really matter?
Our earliest Christian ancestors thought that the gospel was worth living and even dying for. They held some core beliefs that they refused to recant even if that meant certain death. They also held some other beliefs that were not life and death issues, but certainly caused grief within the Church. Paul's warning to avoid foolish arguments over these matters was born from his experience and expectation that there would be some legitimate differences of opinion, and that Christians could agree to disagree without falling out. The historic creeds of the Church helped to distinguish between the core beliefs and the secondary issues. One of the oldest and most widely accepted confessions of the Christian Church is the Nicene Creed which dates back to 381 AD. The opening sentence is: "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen." Then there's the ancient baptismal creed that became in its final fixed form the Apostles' Creed, which states in its opening line: "I believe in God the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth." It seems fair to conclude from these two creeds that since the earliest confessions of the Church it has been fundamental to our faith to believe in God as Creator, but not to specify how God created the world or how long it took. In my opinion, whether God created it instantaneously, in six literal days or over millions or billions of years is not worth falling out over. The Genesis debate reminds us to unite in worship of the One who made it all.
3. Is your view a compromise to the spirit of the age?
Someone might reasonably respond by saying that of course the ancient creeds didn't specify the age of the earth, because everyone who read Genesis would naturally understand it to mean that God created the world in six literal days. They may suggest that it was only as a result of Darwin's theories of origins (or perhaps Lyell's geology in the the 19th century) that anyone even saw an alternative view in the Genesis account. In this case any non-literal views would just be a compromise with the prevailing culture. Some even argue that these new views were formed by Christians who didn't have the moral courage to stand against public opinion.
However some 1,654 years before Darwin penned his Origin of the Species, a Greek theologian called Origen opposed the idea that the Creation story should be interpreted as a literal and historical account of how God created the world. He wrote:
"What person of intelligence, I ask, will consider as a reasonable statement that the first and the second and the third day, in which there are said to be both morning and evening, existed without sun and moon and stars, while the first day was even without a heaven? ... I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history."
Second, the fourth century bishop Augustine also argued in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis that the six days of Creation should not be understood as a chronological account but instead as a way of categorising God's work. Alister McGrath notes: "Augustine was deeply concerned that biblical interpreters might get locked into reading the Bible according to the scientific assumptions of the age." This is a fascinating observation. Augustine wanted to preserve the integrity of the text over the commonly held views of his day and that was what led him to try and read the text on its own terms. How can we walk in the footsteps of this great father of the faith? Perhaps reading the Bible with greater attention to the language, genre and intention of the text will help us. Perhaps also reading Scripture with the help of the global and historic Church through greater dialogue and a willingness to interact with ancient interpreters could help too.
Third, these theologians did not come to their conclusions because they were trying to fit in with contemporary thought. McGrath again notes "many contemporary thinkers regarded the Christian view of Creation ex nihilo as utter nonsense. Claudius Galenus (AD 129–200), physician to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, dismissed it as a logical and metaphysical absurdity." It seems that both literal and non-literal views date way back.
When deciding which view we should hold for ourselves, it is important to give all perspectives a fair hearing, and make an informed decision. The Genesis debate reminds us not to blindly follow popular opinion whether inside or outside the Church, and not to be afraid to ask the tough questions.
4. Am I allowing the text to speak for itself?
Many of us will know the story of the man who asked God what he should do and opened the Bible at random to read "Judas hung himself". Worried whether he might have misheard God he turned over a page and read, "What you are about to do, do quickly." It's a silly story designed to warn Christians about reading the Bible out of context. We know that the account of Judas' death is not a general instruction to all Christians: it is reporting the historical fact. In the same way, we must be careful when we look at any part of the Bible to try and hear it on its own terms. I studied Chemistry at university, and I still have lots of scientific questions about our world: why the forces that hold our universe are so finely balanced, why we have appendixes, what is making up most of the mass of the universe, whether there really is such a thing as dark matter. I don't expect the Bible to have answers to these questions because it has more important things to teach over the thousands of years of Christian heritage. Rather than impose my questions on the text, I need to work hard to listen.
We need to take care when we approach Scripture not to come at the text with the questions we want answered, but instead to allow the text to define the questions it will answer. The Genesis debate can remind us of God's command to love him with all of our mind, and that rigorously puzzling over these issues is therefore a good use of the gifts God has given us.
5. Is there more we agree on than disagree on?
However old or young the earth is, there are Christians on both sides of the debate who want to honour and obey God. In this respect the debate does affect our godliness. Both sides can display the humility to have their minds changed by what the word of God says. We can all celebrate that God created the universe on his timing and for his purposes. We can agree that we want to avoid being driven by the most popular opinions or the loudest voices. We can agree that we are part of the family of God together and that sometimes agreeing to disagree is not only OK, but can be a powerful witness. We can agree to speak well of each other and believe the best about each other's positions and interpretation of Scripture. We can agree that we don't want to put a stumbling block in front of people becoming Christians and make a bigger deal of this issue than it is. We can agree that one day we will know for sure. We can agree that love should dominate our attitude to one another.
The Genesis debate reminds us that there is more to agree on than disagree on, and for that we will be eternally grateful.
Rev Dr Krish Kandiah is President of the London School of Theology and founder and director of Home for Good.