Somewhere between 6,000 and 4.5 billion years ago, God created the heavens and the earth. The Bible allows flexibility on the timeline but very clearly makes the point that it was God who created. Before we address the “how ?” or “when?” we’re going to look at the “so what?”
First, God created. The Bible is pretty clear on this point. God is declared the Creator in the very first verse and then consistently referred to as Creator throughout the rest of the Bible. Here are a few examples:
“ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1)
“ Indeed, ask now concerning the former days which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth…” (Deuteronomy 4:32)
“Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it, And spirit to those who walk in it,” (Isaiah 42:5)
“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited),” (Isaiah 45:18)
First, God created everything else that exists; he is unique in his supremacy. Nothing is as worthy of worship as he is. It would be foolish to worship an idol (either a literal statue, or metaphorical idol like relationships, or food, or work, or security, or…) because we would be worshiping a created thing which is inherently less worthy of praise than the Creator (Isaiah 42:8, 45:18ff).
The Creator has the right (and, thankfully the wisdom and love), to lead and guide his creation. It’s our responsibility to submit to his leadership. “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?” (Isaiah 45:9).
When and How?
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care when the world was created. The implications of the theology don’t change if the world was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago or if it was created, at least in part, through a process of theistic evolution that began 4.5 billion years ago. Genesis is not an attempt at a footnoted historical book (as we would write a history today) but an obviously biased theological history. This doesn’t mean the contents are false (I believe they’re true) but it does mean that the author(s) are using various literary genres to communicate what happened through a lens of why it mattered for the purpose of teaching theological truth. And the theological truth of the story of creation is that God existed before anything else and then he created all of the things. This has implications for how we, his creation, relate to him. When I read Genesis (and the rest of the Bible) I think what it’s trying to tell us is that God created, more than how, or when he did it.
Genesis 1 reads like a weird narrative-poetry hybrid. It follows too much of a rhythmic pattern to be narrative but it’s clearly telling a story and doesn’t quite follow normal Hebrew poetry patterns. So it’s dangerous to read it as either strictly narrative or strictly poetry. When we read it strictly as narrative we’re lulled into believing that every bit of it MUST be understood as literal (6-24 hour days). When we read it as strictly poetry we’re tempted to see it as so metaphorical that it may doubt it really happened. I believe creation happened, and that God did it, because the rest of Scripture affirms that it did (see the verses above, for example) and I believe that the narrative-poetry hybrid nature of the story is an indicator that the author wasn’t trying to tell the story of creation literally, even though he was telling it truthfully which means we can look for the big picture of what he was trying to communicate without getting lost in the details (like how long creation took or how old the earth is).
There are other creation stories in the ancient world (see the bonus material for some links to these stories). When we compare how the creation story in Genesis 1 was written to these other stories we see some stark differences that highlight significant theological truths:
- There is only one God. This God is superior to all other things because he created them. In other creation stories there are many gods, often vying for power. In Genesis 1, there is clearly only one supreme God. This would be a significant contrast to a polytheistic worldview that all of Israel’s neighbors had.
- There is a distinction between God and his creation. It did not exist before he spoke it into existence. We are not God, God is not us. He may be “in” all things, in a sense, and he certainly sustains all things, but we are different than God.
- God’s motive for creation was not boredom, or the need for slaves, or anger, or warfare…we don’t exactly know what God’s motive is from Genesis 1, but we know that the result is peaceful, beautiful, and relational. Humans were not an after thought, or created to solve a problem, we were created, from the beginning, as image bearers with inherent dignity and value. In no other creation story do humans have this honor.
- By not naming elements of creation like the sun, which instead is called “the greater light to govern the day” God is reminding us that they are creations not worthy of praise. This stands in contrast to other ancient cultures who had gods that represented or personified elements of creation, like the sun, moon, rivers, etc.
- God created in an intentional, orderly way. He did not create in a reactionary way. He is a the instagator, not the responder. He is in control.
So What? Revisited
So what does this mean to us? It sets us apart as one of the few monotheistic religions in the world. In North America the contrast is not so stark, in other parts of the world it is very significant. We believe in a unique God who is inherently worthy of our worship. There is no other god who is close to equal with him and no other thing should command our worship and attention like he does.
And it means that because God created the world, and because he is loving and wise, we can trust his motives and respect his right to govern the world. We should submit to his hand, even when we don’t understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. This does not mean that we don’t ever have boundaries with other people, don’t push back, don’t protest, don’t try to change things, but it does mean that we are sensitive to God’s leading as to when to put up boundaries, push back, protest or try to change things; sometimes we fight, sometimes we resist, sometimes we just accept what he allows in our path.
Specifically, when we get frustrated with the roles that God has for us or our personal limitations, we don’t shake our fists at him in anger and ask him why he has put us here or why he has made us like this. The clay doesn’t really have the right to challenge the Potter. Neither does that mean it will be easy to accept that he has places us in this role or created us with these limitations. There may be a lot to be frustrated about, or even to mourn the loss of what could have been otherwise. But here’s the thing: even if we do shake our fists at him in anger and demand answers, the Potter will be patient with us, he will comfort us, sometimes he might give us insight and sometimes he’ll just remind us that he’s God and we’re not.
There are other ancient creation stories that have similarities to Genesis 1 like the Enuma Elish (a Babylonian creation story) or the creation story of the Greek gods. To make matters worse, there are documents that record these stories that are older than documents that contain the creation story in Genesis. The first time I heard this I freaked out a little bit. I thought that if other cultures had stories that were in anyway similar, and that I could so easily write off as fantasy, than maybe I wasn’t being consistent in my belief of the Genesis creation story. What I’ve come to learn is that even if the Genesis story was written after the others it doesn’t invalidate that God created and that he did through supernatural means. And it may help us to better understand what the author of Genesis was trying to communicate because we can find significance in how the different authors tell their stories.