Should I Read Genesis as Fact or Poem?

QUESTION:  With all the evidence for the Big Bang, the moon coming from the earth or some other planet, humans evolving from an early ape-like ancestors, etc, how should I view Genesis?  The bible says nothing about God making dinosaurs or other planets, it seems to portray Earth as the center of the universe. It says that humans all came from two humans that had no earthly parents or ancestors, and a lot of other things.  Noah’s Ark was also nearly an impossible event with a lot of “plot holes,” as well as the tower of babel and several other events.  It seems one can’t see them as fact, so should I look at these as merely stories or epic poems, like Jesus’s metaphorical stories and hyperbole?
RESPONSE:  You’re choosing between fact or poem, but this leaves out a third way to see a story: myth.  Myth can be both poetical and factual without it also being in all places literally true.  It’s important to define “myth” properly, because in our vernacular, myth often means “fictitious tale” and even more strongly we sometimes mean, “a lie”.  Like when we say, the “myth of a flat earth” or the “myth of Bigfoot”.  We mean, something opposite of the truth. 
But in literature there are many cases where myth is actually pointing at truth.  In two ways:  First, myth could be like the parables of Jesus, which you mentioned.  These are non-historical stories which nevertheless reveal a “spiritual” truth.   These stories didn’t happen, they were non-historical events made up out of Jesus head, but they convey divine truths.  
If you look at Genesis this way, you are at least showing some respect for the text, but you wind up vacating it of any historical veracity at all, and (as I’ll explain below) that runs into problems for the veracity of the global Christian story.
So I think you should open up to another kind of myth genre for some parts of Genesis.  Namely, ‘a true event that really happened, or refers to people who really existed, but the facts are conveyed using non-literal settings or incomplete data or using exaggerated language’.   If taken literally such stories would be inaccurate, but if taken in its proper context or genre (like exaggeration, or metaphor, or poetry, or dream) is conveying actual facts.
Speaking of lenses, it is not a test of Christian orthodoxy to look at Genesis through the lens of strict, 6 day, young earth creationism.  And I concede this, not because of the pressures of modern scientific discoveries.  The Church Fathers Augustine and Origen both thought that the days of Genesis were non-literal.  IE: not 24 hour solar days.  Writing in the 300’s they were obviously not influenced by modern geology or astronomy!
Augustine’s view was affected by philosophy and by the text.  He believed God to be timeless, so, he asked, why are there any days of creation at all?  These must reflect some kind of creative potencies inside of God himself, he thought, and not convey actual time passing.  Also he noted the text itself suggested that the “days” were non-literal.  He noticed, as all Bible students do in a surface reading of Genesis one, that the sun shows up on day 4.  How can one have 3 solar days before there’s even a sun? 
Other reasons the text suggests a non-literal understanding of Genesis 1:  the text says, “let the earth bring forth fruit/seeds” and the original audience would understand that plants take many days and months, sometimes years to produce their seeds and fruit.  This can’t be a literal day, even to the first readers.
Also “let the land bring forth…” sounds strangely like some kind of natural development is happening without God directly bringing things into existence out of nothing.  Ironically, if you take this very literally, it looks like vegetation somehow comes out of the land by an ability God infused into the land.  There are serious Christians who are theistic evolutionists who take note of this.  There are biblical literalists who here might say, but everyone knows that God is bringing forth these creations instantly.  Do we?  That’s not what it LITERALLY says.  So even a young earth perspective does not view the text literally at every turn.
Once Genesis is unhinged from strict literalism for good reasons that Christians have cited for literally millennia, we’re free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  If we find out the universe is old, can Genesis accommodate that?  Yes.  Could God have imbued nature with some creative properties?  Genesis can accommodate that too.  Ironically, I think there are more serious scientific problems with thinking that inert matter can do all the work of making the complex bio-diversity of planet earth, than there are theological problems because of Genesis 1.
God could have used the natural processes and laws which he built into creation at the outset (the fine tuning of which powerfully suggests design), or he could have interfered in creative acts by infusing new information into the system over time.  These creative epochs, could be what’s meant by the creation days where each one is set apart with:  “Then God said…”
Here, I would just caution against thinking that because Genesis 1 may be non-literal it must therefore be a “mere story”.  Even if non-literal, Christians believe Genesis is communicating enormous truths – and not merely theological truths:
For example, Big Bang cosmology is a massive confirmation of Genesis cosmology.  Think about it:  for centuries ancient pagans believed in an eternal universe, that the primal titans were forces of nature that preexisted everything else including the gods and men.  In other words, matter came first, mind came second.  Modern atheistic thinking repeated this model with steady state theories of eternal universes without beginning or end.  But when the universe was found to be expanding, suddenly Moses, a Bronze Age nomad turns out to be the only ancient who got his cosmology right:  “in the beginning”.
In fact, here are five truths that come out of the creation “myth” of Genesis One if you look beyond the “literal” level.  Each of these revelations disagreed with pagan mythology and modern cosmology until Einstein, and yet now are all considered unchallengeable facts:
  1. The universe has not always existed but began at a finite point in time. 
  2. The universe began in an explosion of light
  3. The universe evolved from chaos, emptiness and formlessnessto order, filling, and form. 
  4. The unfolding of creation did not happen all at once, but gradually over time
  5. Youngest of all creatures on earth is mankind who is made, not out of nothing, but out of preexisting material, all of which can be found in the earth itself (dust).

This is uncanny!  Mythical?  Sure.  Untrue?  Nope.
Then we get to Adam and Eve.  Here again, the fact that they are made “from the dust” can be an open door to harmonize the evolutionary picture with Genesis if we think that’s where the evidence points.  How exactly did God “form” them from the dust?  Genesis doesn’t say, so we’re free to investigate that problem and suggest theories.  Christians are deeply divided as to the “how”.  Some will insist we need two persons made without preexisting forms.  Some suggest Adam and Eve (literally “man” and “mother”) could be titles for a group of individuals set apart somehow from the rest of the animal kingdom.  If we turn to science, the idea of a two person “bottle neck” in human history is debated based on modern genetics, but science hasn’t ruled it out either..
But why even bother to try to prove Adam and Eve might be historically plausible?  What’s really at stake in the Adam and Eve story?  Well, there is at least a couple of very important things theologicallyat stake that matters for the whole Christian story, without which Jesus’ work on the cross just doesn’t make sense.  So what are those indispensable parts of this story to Christianity and therefore to you if you become a Christian?
Simply this: Man, as God made him, was completely good and completely happy, but he disobeyed God and became what we now see.  A creature in need of redemption, forgiveness, and restoration back to his creation design.  That is a bare minimum of what we must believe to be true about Genesis or else Jesus is out of a job.
Now, many people think even that simple premise is proved false by modern science.  They take Darwinism to imply that a “Fall” is the opposite of what science allows.  That rather than fall from a primeval state of virtue and happiness, people have slowly risen from brutality and savagery.
At this point, I would simply point you to CS Lewis’ Problem of Pain where he offers up a very convincing harmony between Darwin’s account of the rise of mankind, and the Bible’s account of the fall of mankind.  Significantly, what he rejects about Darwin is Darwin’s “unguided” philosophical underlay.  Common ancestry, change over time, preexisting hominid forms?  To Lewis, none of those things refuted the fact of creation, or the discontinuity of people with the rest of the animal kingdom, nor an actual, historical fall from harmony into sin.

I’ll include a link where you can read this below.  Start reading the chapter “The Fall” on page 41, but jump to his Creation Myth on page 46.  He begins with: “For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself…”
I think his is a legit way Christians can read Genesis in view of natural history, a true creation myth.  Along with Lewis, I invite you to read the two books of the Word and the World honestly, with the assumption the same Author has written both.  If they seem to be in conflict, it’s not because one is telling us lies, it’s because we are reading one or both of them wrongly. 
Regarding the Bible and Geocentrism, yes, there are suggestions of this in the Bible, like the language about the sun rising and setting, and about the earth being “laid upon unmovable foundations”.  No Christian today thinks this language contradicts modern astronomy – because no Christian takes those passages literally.  Just as we never took “God will hide you under his wings” to mean that God actually has literal wings (Ps 17:8). 
Obviously at the time of Copernicus, those verses were cited as proof texts of geocentrism.  But the irony is that the Church believed it not so much because the Bible overtly teaches it, but because Greek philosophers – whom they admired – did!  Ironically, while finding passages to confirm the science of the time, they completely ignored several prescient passages that suggested heliocentrism:  Isa 40:22 and Job 26:7.
This old controversy speaks volumes to us about how to handle the new controversy about the days of creation.  It’s OK that natural science gives us insight to modify how to understand certain Bible passages – provided we understand that science’s readings are provisional and also subject to philosophical bias.   So just as we should avoid knee jerk rejections of the Bible based on provisional scientific theories, we should also avoid tying the Bible’s statements about creation too strongly to any scientific theory (which would include Flood Geology and Darwin’s insistence that biology develops solely by mutation/selection).
Finally how to read Noah’s ark… For Christians to reject this as in any way historical puts severe strains on the reliability and authority of any part of the Old Testament which Jesus endorsed.  So I think we have to approach it as historical by default, since it is clearly not meant to be mythical in the “it’s just a story” sense.  And it’s also not offered as a parable or symbol of anything.  
However, its language can be understood to be hyperbolic.  The Bible often uses “the whole earth” to mean, “alot, but not necessarily the whole.”  So we don’t have to believe that the flood was global.  There is evidence against a global flood that makes the story hard to accept.  But, there is actually key evidence that would lend credence to a formative, catastrophic flood event in the Ancient Near East, which may have seeded the flood legends carried literally around the world.  Also, at roughly the right time-frame, there’s geological evidence for a great Mesopotamian flood.  
So, good bible study allows us to identify hyperbole and metaphor, and then we don’t have to be resistant to legit scientific insights.  But also, we don’t have to reject the fundamental truth claims either, which are critical to the Christian worldview being coherent and being true.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Alan Muxlow

    Thank you very much!

  2. Rick Thiessen


    I'll give you a link to a Dr. David Snoke paper on animal death/dangerous animals before the Fall. It's shorter than his book and will give you a taste of the argument before you dive into it book length.

    BTW, he completely dismisses the Gap Theory which I mention here! (I will say no less a thinker than CS Lewis thought the Gap Theory, IE Satanic "corruption of the beasts" as he put it, was plausible) Nevertheless, Snoke is an accomplished scientist AND ordained minister so has a good grasp on all the moving parts in this controversy:

  3. Rick Thiessen

    Now, there is another theory that I think has merit and it is similar to the "no death before sin" view, but death is not pinned on ADAM'S sin. Rather this would pin the death and harshness of the animal world on Satan's sin (a primordial Fall) and the curse he brought on creation before Adam.

    This is pretty deep waters here, but this view looks at the fact that if the world is Nirvana before the Fall, then why is the mandate to rule and "subdue"? And why is there a devil in the center of paradise? That's not very "heaven on earth"-like. "Good" cannot mean perfect is the devil is lurking in the Garden!

    The world of Genesis seems good but wild and it needs the Imagers (Adam and Eve) to spread Yahweh to every corner of this good but yet untamed earth. Eden is not the world. Eden is like an oasis, a temple, heaven meets earth here. But only here. The rest of the job is left up to God's co-regents, to spread the shalom of God to the whole earth by ruling, subduing, and multiplying.

    Basically this is the "gap theory" which had quite a bit of traction in the Church in the late 1800's. I see merit here, picturing Genesis 1 as re-creation out of Satan's chaos and the first Adam sent to finish God's rule (Kingdom) on earth that had been subject to the hostile take over of an illegitimate ruler. Of course, the one God sent fails, becomes a traitor, joins the enemy rather than warring with God to subdue him.

    But God sends a second Adam to do what the first Adam could not, and he will bring the creation design to completion in the New Heavens and New Earth.

  4. Rick Thiessen

    Thanks Alan,

    Great question. You're very correct that the problem of death before sin in any old earth scenario (gap theory, progressive creationism or theistic evolution etc) has to be addressed. I'm not going to do it justice here, I'll just refer back to the books, specifically Snoke's that take this question head on. (Also, "The End of Christianity" by Bill Dempski gives another answer to this question of animal death that you might find compelling).

    Basically the challenge is dealt with along two lines of argument: one, by realizing that Romans teaching about "death from sin" specifically addresses human death. WE die because we sin, but do the animals die because of sin? This is not taught specifically in Romans or even in Genesis. The curse upon the ground is what is taught in Genesis, making human labor harsh and painful - nothing is said about the animals. So the assumption "very good" must equal "no animal death" is merely inferred, the Scripture doesn't explicitly say this.

    Two, a second argument would appeal to the fact that the "no death before sin" idea cannot be reconciled with even the most literal reading of Genesis one, since we know of microbes and insects created on day 3 and 5 with lifespans so short they would have died before creation week was finished.

    Along this same line would be the fact that one has to believe in a sort of jet-speed Darwinism to think that the elegant designs we see in the animal kingdom now, that seem perfectly engineered for carnivorism, would have to have evolved at lightning speed for the animals to come into their current form, from some pre-carnivorous state before the fall of Adam. Obviously, Darwinism doesn't work at lightning speed. I frankly think the Darwinian mechanism is bankrupt as an viable explanation for biological diversity and engineering using millions of years, so to then think that animals could devolve into carnivorism by Darwinian means within a generation of the Fall is unbelievable to me.

    The only other option is God RE-MAKING the animals as they are now as a curse, but there's no sign in the Word or the World that this ever happened. In fact, it looks like in parallel creation accounts, God made the carnivorous animals exactly as they are - and he likes them that way. He even takes pride in their terrible strength and ferociousness! (See Job 40/41 and Ps 104:21) That very same Leviathan of terror and strength in Job 41:1 is said to have been made in the creation week! (Gen 1:21)

  5. Alan Muxlow

    Thanks for the reply. I truly have been enjoying the site!
    I appreciate the book recommendations and will look them up.
    But back to my question--If we are to accept an old earth creation position, how do we deal with the death-before-sin problem? If the fossil record isn't a result of Noah's flood, and is, in fact, a record of millions of years of death, disease, and violence, how do we accept that it was "very good"? And even more so, why does Jesus need to defeat death if death is a natural component of creation?
    These are theological questions that have very real ramifications in the physical world.

  6. Rick Thiessen

    Alan, thanks for your comment!

    We agree that God has spoken truth in two books, the Book of the Word and the Book of the World. That means, if we study them both seriously, when they seem to disagree, it must mean we are reading one or both of them wrongly.

    In this instance you say those who study the world and read an old age for it must be reading the world wrongly. That is certainly possible to do. Science is never value-free and the study of the world can be laden with bias and we can come to false conclusions as a result.

    But can we also agree that sometimes the Book of the Word (at least historically) has been read wrongly and imposed a false narrative onto the Book of the World? The Copernicus/Galileo incident says it is at least possible. And the motive of those two scientists was not atheism, but simply reading the World rightly.

    So for me this is simply about following the Truth wherever it leads. Two books that I found interesting, are 7 days that Divide The World, by Lennox:

    and Snoke's a Biblical Case for an Old Earth:

    These two authors are top notch thinkers and Bible believers and devoted Christians who are not God-haters, obviously, just trying to know the truth and find a harmony between God's two books. If you're interested they'll at least give you a much better version of the 'other side' than my answer here.

  7. Alan Muxlow

    I have recently found this site and have really enjoyed reading your answers to sever questions. You are informative and well thought out.
    In regards to this answer, however, you have left some gaping holes in your reasoning.
    First, Romans 5:12 speaks of death resulting from man's sin. How do you reconcile eons of death before man appears on the scene? Death is referred to an enemy, not a natural element of God's "very good" creation.
    I understand and appreciate your willingness to reexamine readings of the Bible, but the entire purpose of evolutionary thought is to explain away God. Geology, genetics, and every other scientific discipline do nothing to help the evolutionary cause.
    Second, I'm not sure how one dismisses the reality of the world-wide flood described in Genesis 6-9 since we all are literally walking on top of hundreds (or thousands) of feet of evidence. This entire planet is covered with flood deposited sedimentary rock containing trillions of catastrophically buried plants and animals. Several of these sedimentary layers span multiple continents. There can be no legitimate dispute that this planet was once completely submerged by a catastrophic flood.
    But accepting the truth of the flood brings consequences. If the Flood is reality, then the fossil record isn't the history of upward evolution, it's the history of one terrible event. Flood reality leaves no room or time for Evolution, therefore the atheistic, evolutionary scientific models must reject it no matter how much evidence there is in support of the global flood.
    I love being able to have discussions with believers and non-believers alike, and we should be able to speak cordially even while disagreeing. But we must understand one thing--while not every evolutionary scientist is an atheist, Evolutionary Theory is at its core atheistic. It isn't seeking to reconcile God and nature, it is seeking to eliminate God from nature.
    God certainly could have used millions of years and evolutionary processes to create the universe, and He could have told us that is what He did, but He didn't. He told us that over the course of six regular days, He brought everything into being in an orderly fashion around 6,000-10,000 years ago.
    We must be very careful when we begin interpreting Scripture through the lenses of God-hating philosophy.

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