Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Shared Characteristic Between Atheists and Young Earth Creationists

Some atheists and some young earth creationists (people who believe the universe is only about 6000 years old) share a common characteristic: they base their understanding of what the Bible says about creation by interpreting the text simplistically without taking context, language, or culture into account.

The Christian may claim they are simply taking the Bible "literally" and may assume that a literal interpretation is the correct and best interpretation. Of course, that is often not the case. As Tim LaHaye points out in his book How to Study the Bible for Yourself, if you are watching a baseball game and the announcer says that the base runner is hugging the base, then you will be completely wrong about what the announcer means if you take him literally.1 In that case, a literal interpretation of the statement leads to an incorrect understanding of the meaning because you did not consider the context or the culture in which the statement was made. Taking a passage literally does not necessarily mean you are interpreting the text more accurately or being more true to the author's intended meaning. It may mean that you are completely wrong because you have not considered culture, language, and context.

I have recently had a dialogue on the internet with an atheist who made some of the same claims I hear from my young earth creationists friends, that the English translation of the original Hebrew text of Genesis seems to have a particular meaning and that if I try to interpret the text based on the culture and language of the original Hebrew writing then I am somehow distorting the text or trying to make it fit my preconceived ideas. How ironic that both of these ideologies that are so different, atheists and young earth creationists, want to determine meaning apart from the original language, context, and culture and then claim that anyone who appeals to those criteria is somehow "distorting" the text. I guess those people might also insist that the base runner is actually embracing the base with both arms wrapped around it because that is the literal meaning of "hugging the base" and if I were to propose that the base runner is really only standing close to the base then I am somehow distorting the announcer's words.

The proper way to understand and interpret any literature is within its literary and cultural context. To understand the account of creation in Genesis those factors must be considered which requires some understanding of ancient Hebrew language and culture. Since I am not an expert in those things I must consult others who are.

The length of each day of creation is one of the areas of contention in which some people claim the English text seems clear that each day is 24 hours and any other interpretation is twisting the meaning of the text. However, in a previous blog post I discussed the days of creation in Genesis and showed that a good interpretation of that passage and other biblical narratives allows the days of creation to be long periods of time and not 24 hours. I included the opinion of Gleason Archer who was an expert in ancient Hebrew language and culture who claimed "that yom [the Hebrew word translated "day"] in Genesis one could not have been intended by the Hebrew author to mean a literal twenty-four-hour day."Gleason Archer was one of the primary translators of The New American Standard Bible; a translation which is one of the most "literal" modern English translations in that it tries to use an English word that corresponds to the Hebrew word whenever possible to convey the intended meaning, and uses minimal paraphrasing in order to express the meaning.

Many good scholars of ancient language and culture agree with Archer about the meaning of the days of Genesis. For example, I have a book published in 1838 by George Bush, a professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature at New York City University. A book published in that year could not have been influenced by modern evolutionary thought since Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859. (Young earth creationists and atheists often claim that any interpretation of the creation days as anything except 24 hours is simply an attempt to force the text of Genesis to align with current scientific discoveries). In his book Notes, Critical and Practical on the Book of Genesis, Bush says,

"Now if this sense may be admitted in the present passage, to which we see no valid objection, the meaning will be that the evening and the morning constituted a certain, a special, a peculiar day, a day sui genesis; in other words, a period of time of indefinite length; for the Hebrew yom, 'day,' is repeatedly used in the indefinite sense of epic or period, no one will question who is at all acquainted with the scriptural idiom."3 [italics in the original]

Over and over again, we see that experts in ancient languages and cultures declare that the days of creation in Genesis are not 24 hours, but a longer indefinite period of time. To insist they must be 24 hours can only be done by completely ignoring the context and culture, which is the incorrect way to interpret or understand the meaning of any writing. Again I would say to the atheist or the young earth creationists that I am not misrepresenting the text or trying to force it to coincide with 21st century science by claiming each day is a long period of time. Certainly George Bush was not accommodating 21st century science in 1838. I am simply determining the accurate meaning of the text as originally written within its proper context. To do anything else would be distorting the meaning of the text.

I recently had a long internet conversation with an atheist who claimed that there were many errors in the account of creation in Genesis. He pointed to the fact that the creation of the sun, moon, and stars is discussed on day four while the earth is created before day one and light appears on day one. Since we know that the sun, moon, and stars were not formed after the earth, he claimed the Bible was clearly false. (Actually, we think the moon did form after the earth when a large object collided with the earth, but that is irrelevant to this discussion). I tried to explain to this person about Hebrew grammar and language and why the text implies the sun, moon, and stars were created "in the beginning" before day one, but that on day four they appeared for the first time on the surface of the earth and were given a meaning for humans, to mark days and seasons. Of course this person insisted that his understanding of the English translation was more accurate than the opinion of the experts in Hebrew language and culture so the Bible must be wrong. The experts say that the language clearly indicates the heavenly objects were created before day one, in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, but that on day four they appear and are given meaning. For instance, J. H. Sailhamer writes,

"In v.14 God does not say, 'Let there be lights ... to separate,' as if there were no lights before this command and afterward the lights were created. Rather the Hebrew text reads, 'And God said, "Let the lights in the expanse of the sky separate."' In other words, unlike the syntax of v.6, in v.14 God's command assumes that the lights were already in the expanse and that in response to his command they were given a purpose, 'to separate the day from the night' and 'to mark seasons and days and years.' … it suggests that the author did not understand his account of the fourth day as an account of the creation of the lights; but, on the contrary, the narrative assumes that the heavenly lights have been created already 'in the beginning.'"4

The text clearly indicates that God created these lights in the sky, "the heavens and the earth," in the beginning and that on day four they appear and are given meaning. This is the correct meaning of the text within its proper culture and context. It is not a distortion of the text.

To my atheist friends and my young earth creationists friends, you may continue to make the preposterous claim that those who insist the account of creation in Genesis aligns well with modern day cosmology and the big bang are somehow distorting the text. But such a claim is false. We are not distorting the text at all but interpreting it in the only way that truly respects the text and properly understands its intended meaning. And it turns out that a proper understanding of the text within its cultural and linguistic context actually fits well with current scientific discoveries and chronology. If you want to ignore linguistic and cultural context, you may also continue to insist that the base runner who is hugging the base is embracing it with both arms wrapped around it. After all, isn't that the literal meaning?

1Tim LaHaye, How to Study the Bible for Yourself, (Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1982), p. 134.
2Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1994), p. 199.
3George Bush, Notes, Critical and Practical on the Book of Genesis (London, Thomas Ward and Co., 1838), p. 29.
4John Sailhamer, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Genesis-Leviticus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008) p.64


  1. Dr. Strauss, I'm disappointed in you. You are now engaging in what is essentially ad hominem arguments. You also seem to be obsessed with YEC. Yet, for a scientist of remarkable ability and success, your arguments seem to be conclusory and lack substantiating facts. Again, I'm disappointed and will quit following your blog.

    1. Thanks for your comment. This blog post is based on many actual conversations I have had with atheists and young earth Creationists.

      I would appreciate it if you what clarify what you mean when you claim this is an ad hominem argument. The definition of an ad hominem argument is "directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining". The position that young earth creationists take is that any interpretation of Genesis other than a 24-hour day is distorting the text and compromising scripture. Did you read the quote from the young earth website that I reproduced in my previous post on Galileo? It says, "One must be an exegetical contortionist to stretch the six days of Genesis into millions and billions of years. Such a twisted hermeneutic undermines the authority of the entire Bible by placing what the interpreter wants the text to say above God's Word." I am not directing my arguments against any person or individual but against the position promoted by those who make statements like what I've quoted. Their position (not their person) is that a non-24 hour day is "a twisted hermeneutic." It is that position I am addressing, not any person.

  2. I wouldn't worry about a reply from an anonymous person. There is no ad hominem in your argument. If you were to call the late Duane Gish, Henry Morris or his son,et al, morons and uneducated idiots, that would be ad hominem.

    When I retired some twelve years ago I went back to OU for about eighteen months taking history of science classes to earn the fifteen hours necessary to augment my M.S.Engineering degree and qualify to teach that subject as an adjunct at OCCC.

    I ost that ambition to grandkids and volunteering activities but in the process I read as assigned "Gog & Nature" by Numbers and Lindburg. Anyone wishing to read a survey of the encounter between Christianity and Science will be well served by this tome.

  3. I have recently discovered, with delight, your blog Dr Strauss. I confess to being frustrated with the very same tendency in folks in both camps: to claim only their "literal"reading of a particular text is correct, while denying what the text actally said, in is origianal language and context. It's curious to me none want to read "Behold! the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" "literally"

    I am also quite enjoying your scientific exposition as well. It is so rare to find sound science and sound theology! Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the nice remarks. I hope to continue to provide insight using both good science and good exegesis.

  4. But the bottom line remains... That there are no gods - A 'real' god would leave no doubt as to its existence.

    1. This comment has so many problems, but I approved it to be published in order to point out its flaws.
      1) An assertion is made, "there are no gods" with no supporting evidence.
      2) There is tremendous supporting evidence for the existence of god which is not acknowledge in the author's comment but is discussed in this blog and other places.
      3) The author assumes that he knows what a "real" god would do.
      4) Point (3) shows unambiguously that the author doesn't have a clue about the idea of the Christian God, since we as humans can not completely understand the Christian God's purposes or actions.

      I could go on and on with all the problems with this type of argument but pointing out four problems in two sentences is reasonable.

    2. Proffesor Strauss I really admire your tolerance in dealing with atheists, I reccomend you as a fellow christian don´t spend your worth time trying to talk with atheists, they are closed to everything and believe that the physical sciences are the only ways of truth

    3. Some people really want to learn the truth and some just want to make posturing statements. I agree that not much is accomplished talking to the latter, but I know many who don't believe in God who fall into the former category.