Questions of Faith
Many Christians today – usually fundamentalists or those of the evangelical tradition – believe that God created the world in six days, in accordance with the Genesis account described in the Bible. This well-known passage outlines a six-day schema of creation, concluding on the seventh day that God rested.
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Gen 2:2)
Throughout history there has been rigorous debate about whether this creation account records day-by-day events, or is instead a piece of writing aimed at conveying some deeper theological message.
In response to this problem, some critics of the literal interpretation viewpoint have pointed out inconsistencies in the story which would render a day-by-day creation impossible. For example, how could light exist before the creation of the sun and moon? There are plenty of discrepancies like this which attempt to show that a literal understanding of this passage in untenable.
Rather than focus on the merits of each of these criticisms, it’s much better to accept the overall point that the Bible is not a scientific treatise conveying empirical truths about our origins. It is a work of theology, inspired by God, aimed at teaching us who we are, where we come from, and what we are made for.
Other pagan cultures also had creation stories like the Babylonians or the Egyptian cult of the Sun. Using figurative language, the Bible distinguishes itself from these other creation myths. Well-known theologian Bishop Robert Barron has suggested, for example, that while other pagan cosmological accounts describe creation through violent imagery, the God of the Bible peacefully creates. Likewise, the Bible makes clear that material things like the sun and the sea are not objects of worship.
On this view, the Bible opens itself up as source of deep theological richness. The Church recognises this perspective when it writes: “God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine “work”, concluded by the “rest” of the seventh day.
“On the subject of creation, the sacred text teaches the truths revealed by God for our salvation, permitting us to ‘recognise the inner nature, the value and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God’.” (CCC 337)
The position that the Creation account should be understood in metaphorical terms isn’t a modern-day, watered-down interpretation but dates back to the early Church.
There was little unanimity among the Church fathers on this topic, but many held that the days represented thousands of years, or some alterative time-frame to the 24-hour period. The influential theologian St Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD) believed that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts overwhelming scientific knowledge. His view best sums up how Christians should approach all matters of faith.
“[A]t least we know that it [the Genesis creation day] is different from the ordinary day with which we are familiar.” (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis)