John Lennox explains how he understands the Genesis creation accounts.
John Lennox is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, a Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford. He sat down in the CPX studio with Simon Smart to discuss how he reconciles the creation accounts of Genesis with our scientific understanding of the origin of the universe.
SIMON SMART: John, I want to talk to you about the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. You’ve done a bit of thinking about this – you’ve got a book out on it, Seven Days that Divide the World. How do you reconcile the description you find in the book of Genesis with what you know as a scientist?
JOHN LENNOX: Well you’ll be amused to know, and I must confess it Simon, that I come from the city in Northern Ireland called Armagh, where Archbishop Usher was, who calculated the date of creation as 4004 BC. And you will remember that he said he reckoned that Adam was created at about 9 o’clock in the morning, but he apologised in a letter to Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor that he couldn’t be more accurate than that.
SIMON SMART: Well, what do you do with that?
JOHN LENNOX: Well we start with, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. And then there is a sequence of six days, and each of them begins with the phrase “and God said”, “and God said”, “and God said” – and then after those six days of creation activity God rests on the seventh day.
Now, just looking at that, the first thing to notice is that there is a literary pattern. One would logically conclude, I think, prima facie, that Day One begins with “and God said”. And that means that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is not talking about Day One, but is prior to Day One.
Now instantly, you see, that removes the difficulty with people saying that the Bible insists the earth is young. The Bible doesn’t insist the earth is young! It says that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – it doesn’t say what time that was at – and then it gives a sequence of creative acts of God, which we can discuss separately. And interestingly enough, when you check with the Hebrew scholars, they tell you that the tense changes from verses 1 and 2 to verse 3, and the tense that’s used in verses 1 and 2 is normally the tense used to describe something that happens prior to the sequence that’s following. So there’s corroboration from both logic and grammar that perhaps this text is a little bit more sophisticated than people think it is.
SIMON SMART: You would take the approach then that there’s a lot more going on in this text from a literary basis, which would indicate that it doesn’t demand a literal six days?
JOHN LENNOX: Well, we have to look at this word “literal”. Think of this statement – Jesus said, “I am the door”. Well, we don’t understand that to mean that he was a door made of wood or metal or plastic. It’s because of our experience of doors made of wood, metal, and plastic, though, that we know it’s meant at a metaphorical level. But – careful – because the metaphor is a metaphor for something real. Jesus is a real door, not a literal door – or you might say he is a literal door at a different level. That’s why I find the word “literal” actually a bit unfortunate, and it’s why many people use the word “literalistic” to describe that absolutely basic literal level.
Now, pursuing that, I would want to argue that the word “day” in Genesis 1 and 2 has four different meanings – and all of them are literal. Do you want me to prove that to you?
SIMON SMART: Sure.
JOHN LENNOX: Well, take the first. “And God called the light day and the darkness he called night.” How long is that? Well, it’s certainly not 24 hours, because the text is drawing your attention to the distinction between day and night. So that’s the first meaning, it’s the hours of daylight – roughly twelve at the equator.
OK, come to the next one. “And there was evening and morning, one day”. Now I know scholars discuss that a little bit, but it seems the consensus is generally that this is the Hebrew way of describing a full 24-hour period. So that’s meaning number two.
Then we read, “God rested on the seventh day”. But there’s no formula, “and there was evening and morning, Day Seven”. Now that’s interesting, as Augustine pointed out centuries ago. And if you ask people theologically what that means, there was a sequence of creative acts and God rested. When did he start creating again? He didn’t – the rest is still going on. So that absence of the formula actually opens up a possibility into a theological dimension. So that’s three meanings.
Then you come to Chapter 2 and the end of that first section of Genesis, where it says, “when God created the heavens and the Earth” – but actually the word “when”, it’s actually “in the day” God created. Now, that doesn’t mean Tuesday or Monday…no, it means “when”! Just as, if I said to you, “In my young day at Cambridge, we had to wear gowns after dark”, you wouldn’t say, “Do you mean Sunday or Tuesday?” No, it means a particular period of time.
Now, here’s a compressed text. It uses the word “day” quite often. It uses it with arguably four different meanings – and that’s an indicator to me that here we must be very careful before we jump to conclusions. It opens up more logical possibilities.
The idea would then possibly be that God speaks, Day One: “Let there be light”. And then that settles down. And then God speaks again. When does he speak again? Well, presumably, after the first time. But it seems to be that the Scripture allows the possibility that there’s an enormous space between the days – that is, they are the points, so to speak, where God inputs a new level of energy and information.
Now the interesting thing about that is, that would mean that, so far as any evidence was left in the scientific investigation of the universe, we might expect to find the sudden appearance of new levels of complexity – which is what we do find. And I personally see no compromise with the authority of Scripture in this. But it is a big subject, and one needs to have much more time to unpack it.
SIMON SMART: Well, let’s look at Genesis itself then, and – putting aside some of these arguments – what are the key messages of the early chapters of Genesis, and why do they matter?
JOHN LENNOX: Well I like your question, because the sad thing is, with many people they think that once they have come to a satisfactory (for them) understanding of the days of Genesis, they’ve understood Genesis. They haven’t begun to understand Genesis! Genesis is utterly foundational to the theistic, the Judeo-Christian worldview.
It tells us, first of all, that there was a beginning. It tells us that God was the beginner of everything – he is eternal. It tells us that God is not a force, He’s a person. And it begins to build up a picture of the universe, step by step. It tells us that God had a goal of building up the universe – his goal was to have human beings in it, and they are special. How are they special? They’re made in God’s image.
The Bible is very careful to explain that, although the heavens showed the glory of God, they weren’t made in his image. Human beings were, so they’re the pinnacle of his creation. That immediately puts a stamp on their value. And it tells us he created them equal, male and female. That is an enormously important thing for the value of men and women in the contemporary world.
We read of sin entering into the world; we read of the damage it does, of the fracture between God and human beings. And because of that, we begin to understand why the way back must include where the fracture occurred. The fracture occurred because people couldn’t trust God, so they have to learn to trust God again – and how that’s brought about.
It’s those things that are vastly important. Much more important than the days of Genesis, if I might say so, because I notice that they are not mentioned in the New Testament at all.