Science in Christian Perspective



From: JASA 16 (September 1964): 82-85.                                             Murk Response

The two chief problems in attempting to match geological and Biblical creation accounts are (a) durations of the time units, and (b) sequences of events. Both of these difficulties can be overcome, in good measure, if we adopt two basic ideas: (1) the "days" of Genesis are not necessarily mutually exclusive and purely consecutive; and (2) the "eras" of geology are not pertinent time divisions for the student of creation.

The first of these ideas can be clarified by considering the "day" of printing, the "day" of electricity. and the "day" of space exploration. These are meaningful time units in the history of civilization, but they are neither mutually exclusive nor purely consecutive. The second can be clarified by pointing out that geologists have been shifting the basis of their calendar from orogeny (mountainmaking) to paleontology and radiochronology. This shift makes it clear that the eras are largely arbitrary.

In order to compare the geological record with the Biblical account, we need specific landmark events, of a geological nature, pertinent to the Genesis story. The most important such events are: (1) creation of the solar system, (2) transition from a primitive, hot, translucent C02 atmosphere to our present oxygenrich air, (3) appearance of animals, and (4) appearance of man. The Bible records three distinct creations: the "world," animal life, and man. The fourth landmark event (termination of the early atmosphere) is given in Genesis in terms of the "appearance" of the sun, moon, and stars-in the middle, rather than at the beginning, of the creation "week."

The creation story given in the first chapter of Genesis was written in terms of six "days." A great deal of discussion has arisen around the possible meaning of the Hebrew word (yom) which is here translated as "day" (5).

Some people have held to the idea that "day" must mean 24 hours, neither more nor less, a concept which does not hold in English, much less in the original Hebrew which had a very sparse vocabulary, and therefore had to use each word for many different meanings. Despite the wealth of our own language, which has more than one million words (compared with a few thousand for the Hebrew), we use "day" to mean (1) 24 hours, (2) 12 hours, (3) daylight, (4) an indefinite period of time, plus many more. (Number 4 can be illustrated in the following sentence: "There were no airplanes in George Washington's day.")

Some people have held that "day" means "1,000 years," taking their cue from statements in both the Old and New Testaments that "a day with the Lord is as a thousand years."

Some have attempted to equate the six days of Genesis with six geological eras. This approach does not appear to offer much prospect of success, because the geological eras as now shown on a calendar of earth history are quite arbitrary, rather than having been dictated by God. It is standard practice to identify three eras in the last half-billion years: Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. However, there is no reason to believe that a three-era sub-division of all of prePaleozoic time has any particular meaning; or even that the three named eras have any special significance. They were named when geologists still thought that orogeny - the dividing mechanism which is usually invoked - was both periodic and world-wide. Now that it is fairly clear that neither of these premises is true, our present arrangement of eras is only a matter of convenience rather than of significance (11).

The "geological era" theory also has had difficulty in accounting for the fact that the Genesis story indicates the separation of night and day before the appearance of the sun, and likewise the development of plants (which require sunlight for photosynthesis) before the appearance of the sun. Appeals to the miraculous power of God - which admittedly can produce light without a source - haven't helped to satisfy those Christians who still believe that He operated in a systematic and methodical fashion.

And many people, unable to accept any of these three ideas, all of which have large, obvious flaws in them, have turned to other, less simple, explanations. Some have thought that the "days" are divisions of a poem which Moses wrote to describe creation. Others have speculated that they refer to the separate days on which Moses was given six visions, all of which (when taken together) record creation activity. Still others have wandered even further from the Genesis story, which appears to be an itemized account and therefore should be fairly easy to understand. The only trouble has been, each explanation has failed to be satisfactory.

Research in geology, over the last couple of decades, has provided new evidences which may enable us to return to a modified version of the "day equals era" suggestion. However, we shall have to proceed with great caution, inasmuch as the recognized eras can not be used for this purpose, and many uncertainties still remain unresolved. Before considering how the geological history of the earth and the Genesis account can be matched, let's review, briefly, the developments which lead to this reconsideration.

It is now clear that orogeny, or mountain-making, is not world-wide, at any one time (it is going on in California today, but not in Arkansas), and can be more-or-less continuous at any given place (11). The folding and faulting which are associated with deformation may, therefore, introduce "markers" which are extremely helpful to the field geologist, but they cannot be taken as "landmark" events which are to be used as basis for a geological calendar if we wish the latter to have ultimate significance.

Instead, what occurrences can we expect to find, recorded in the rocks, which will be important to both the Genesis story and also to a geological history of the earth? For an answer to this, we must look be yond the usual calendar, and we must push back into the dimly-lighted events of Precambrian time (i.e., more than about 6 x 108 years ago). There we have no calendar, in the ordinary geological sense; we have only a few field facts, and the inferences which can be drawn from these.

The evidence points to one basic idea: the primitive earth had a carbon dioxide atmosphere (7). Venus and Mars have such atmospheres today (9, 10); the other two interior planets (Mercury; the Moon) are too small to retain any appreciable gaseous envelopes. We have no reason to think that the earth's early air was any different from that of her closest neighbors. Furthermore, the rocks (primarily limestone and secondarily coal) contain approximately 20,000 times as much originally-atmospheric carbon as the air still retains (6). If we return this large volume of carbon to the air, in combination with the equally large volume of oxygen locked up in limestone, we produce a thick C02 shroud essentially like the one which surrounds Venus today (9).

Our air has apparently gone through at least three stages: I. A primitive C02 blanket, having a pronounced greenhouse effect (3), hence higher temperatures (perhaps between 500'F and 1000'F; much like those on Venus; 1, 2, 9) and a chemical reducing effect; Il. A transition atmosphere; and III. The modern, cool, oxygen-rich (i.e., close to 20%) air which we now breathe. The first of these would be translucent, to some small degree, but not transparent; the third would be cool enough for water vapor to condense to form the oceans.

Radioactivity dates indicate that the initial event which started the change from I to III must have occurred about 2 or 3 x 109 years ago (4, 8). There is even less assurance about the completion of the change, but it probably took place before Precambrian time ended (because seas were well-developed then), and perhaps was completed much sooner (8). For purposes of discussion, we can adopt two rough figures: about 2 x 109, as a fairly reliable estimate of the first shift (from I to II), and perhaps I x 109, as an approximation to the second change (from II to III).

Precambrian rocks younger than 2 or 3 x 109 years old contain tremendous quantities of carbon which, in view of the C13/C12 ratios, had an organic origin (4, P. 205). The best evidence, including a few well-preserved Precambrian fossils, suggests that algae may have been responsible for dissociating the primitive C02 blanket to form carbon (which they incorporated in their body structures) and oxygen (which they gave off as a waste product) (4, 8).

The nature of the primitive atmosphere, the early appearance of algae, the change in atmospheric conditions, the large volume of carbon, and the development of the seas are all reasonably well supported by geological data. From this basic information we can draw several conclusions which are pertinent to our topic:

1. Prior to the end of Atmosphere 1, no sun, moon, or star would have been visible from the earth, but it would have been possible to distinguish between night (complete darkness) and day (not quite completely dark).

2. Tiny, simple plants may have appeared before the sun and moon became visible as distinct entities (4, p. 215).

3. Animals did not develop until after plants had already engineered a cool atmosphere (III) overlying oceans in which ample oxygen was dissolved.

With this background in geological evidence and inference, we can consider a most important facet of the revelation given to Moses. It does not seem reasonable to believe that he was given a vision of creation from the standpoint of inter-planetary or inter-stellar space. The planets are so small, relatively, and so far apart, that they are not visible from each other, with a few exceptions, without a telescope. For God to have taken Moses on a trip - even in his mind - out into space to view the work of creation would have meant that the geometry of sun, earth and moon would have been distorted hideously.

Instead, let's suppose that the insight which God gave to Moses was presented in the form of a vision of the earth itself, as seen from its own surface - the only truly logical point for Moses to take as he observed what God revealed. Under these conditions, the story would be quite different. From the vantage point of Pluto or Jupiter or Mars, the sun was formed at the same time day and night were separated; but from the vantage point of the earth's surface, the distinction between day and night came long before sun or moon could be seen. It should be realized that Moses did not write that sun and moon were created on the fourth day; they were merely "made," or rearranged, or made manifest, at that time.

The six days of Genesis can be characterized as follows:
First: Separation of night and day.
Second: Establishment of the "firmament."
Third: Plants; oceans.
Fourth: Sun, moon, stars.
Fifth: Animals of all kinds.
Sixth: Man.

These items fall into a chronological sequence - when viewed from the earth's surface - but the sequence is of an overlapping kind. For example, if plants first appeared about 2 x 3 x 109 years ago, in the form of algae, then the history of the development of the plant kingdom must have been spread way past the first appearance of animals. The latter date from some unknown time in the Precambrian, whereas many types of plants show up for the first time in the fossil record hundreds of millions of years later. That is, some plants appeared before the first animals, and some plants after the first animals. It seems that we have an overlapping chronological order.

To avoid the use of standard geological terms, such as era, and their non-overlapping implications, let's adopt the word "span" for each of the "days" of Genesis. The six "spans" described by Moses can be summarized in geological terms as follows:

First: Night and day; the translucent but dark C02 atmosphere; from very early in the earth's history until about 2 x 109 years ago.

Second: Inasmuch as "firmament" has been used to translate a Hebrew word which means "beaten out" "stamped out," we are unable to make an unequivocal geological interpretation. During the interval of the hot, translucent, but dark, C02 atmosphere, the "waters" of Gen. 1:6 would apparently include (a) water vapor above the ground surface, and (b) liquid water below the ground surface; hence the latter may be meant, in some way. A reference to meteorite impact, common in early geological history, may have been intended.

Third: Dissociation of Atmosphere I, by plant activity, to produce oxygen in the air, much carbon in sediments, a general cooling, and the early seas. Perhaps 2 x 109 years ago, to the present.

Fourth: Coinciding in part with, or overlapping, the third span; the first visible appearance of sun, moon and stars, as the atmosphere became transparent. About 1.5 x 109 years ago.

Fifth: The development of animals, a process which has continued into the Cenozoic; from perhaps 1 x 109 years ago, to the present.

Sixth: The creation of man as a spiritual entity; quite late; possibly Pleistocene.

None of the standard geological dates show up in this chronology. Moses wasn't writing a geological history; he was reviewing the important events in God's threestep creation (matter; cognition; soul).

The organization of earth history into six "spans" is pertinent to an uilderstanding of both the Genesis account and geological history. It would be quite correct to use the English word "day" in the sense which has been adopted here; the "day" of the CO2 atmosphere, the "day" of plants, the "day" of animals, and the "day" of man. These days are not to be combined to form a calendar week of 168 hours, inasmuch as the advent of any given "day" doesn't necessarily terminate those which went before.

The Bible phraseology, ". . . and evening and morning were one day," can be interpreted to mean that a chronological order is intended, without requiring a purely sequential order of mutually exclusive events.

The important actions in this account - identified by the colorful verb, "to create" - are described against a setting which is barely detailed enough to show us that a meaningful history was being recorded. Moses may not have understood it all (as we still do not today) but he was able to reproduce his revelation faithfully.

Geologically, the background in the Genesis story (night-and-day, plants, seas, sun and moon, animals) is also significant. It provides a landmark event - at 2 or 3 x 109 years ago - in what would otherwise be the monotonous expanse of Precambrian time. It also offers Biblical support for the only geological theory which has yet appeared which makes anything like a systematic approach to understanding early earth history.

If the present synthesis proves to be in error, a similar combination of Bible and scientific information will have to be substituted. God's revelation, whether recorded in His word or in His world, cannot have a split personality. Both methods of investigation must, ultimately, yield the same results. The "span" theory is at least a good step in this direction.

1. Barath, F. T., A. H. Barrett, J. Copeland, D. E. Jones and A, E, Lilley, "Mariner ll: Preliminary reports on measurements of Venus; Microwave radiometers," Science, 139, 908-909, 8 March, 1963

2. Drake, F. D., "Radio emission from the planets," Physics Today, 14, 30-34, 1961.

3. Linsley, Ray, Max Kohler, and J. L. Paulbus, Applied Hydrology, McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, P. 6, 1949.

4. Mason, Brian, Principles of Geochemistry, John Wiley and Sons, New York, p. 205, 215, 233, 1958.

5. Ramm, Bernard, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich., 1954.

6. Rankama, K., and T. G. Sahama, Geochemistry, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 538-542, 1950.

7. Rubey, W. W., "Development of the hydrosphere, with special reference to the probable composition of the early atmosphere," in Crust of the Earth, Arle Poldervaart, ed., Geological Society of America Special Paper 62, New York, p. 631650,1955.

8. Rutten, M. G., The Geological Aspects of the Origin of Life on Earth, Elsevier Publishing Co., Amsterdam, 1962.

9. Sagan, Carl, "The planet Venus," Science, 133, 849-858, 24 March 1961.

10. Salisbury, Frank, "Martian biology," Science, 136, 17-26, 6 April 1962.

11. Spleker, E. M., "Mountain-building chronology and nature of the geologic time scale," Butt., American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Tulsa, 1769-1915, 1956.