The Genesis account of the creation of the universe is certainly interesting and fascinating. But now that we have such an amazing understanding of how the universe began, we can actually analyse Genesis to see how much it complies with science. So do the accounts match? And if so, how much? And if they don’t match, what’s the problem? All will be looked at using the NIV translation verse by verse, detail by detail, in order to determine our answer.
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
A literal interpretation of “earth” referring to “Earth” would make this seem unreliable. While the universe started about 13.5 billion years ago, the Earth would only have been formed 4.5 billion years ago, so that would mean the Earth wasn’t created in the beginning.
However it describes the Earth as formless and empty, which really gives the impression of space. Most scientists however disagree that space existed before the big bang, as it was the event that created space and time as we know it. However I do say “most” because it’s not really currently known as a fact. So this doesn’t necessarily contradict. Due to this we cannot say whether this interpretation is correct or incorrect, the answer has to be that we don’t know.
But the concept of space becomes a problem when it mentions the spirit of God hovering over the waters. In this formless void described as empty there cannot be water, because it’s empty. So this is either a contradiction, and there is actually water in this void or we can take the non-contradictory interpretation that the water was outside the Earth, or space, depending on your interpretation of Genesis. Let’s take both interpretations and talk about the scientific implications of each of them.
If “earth” refers to space, that would imply that there is water outside of space. This claim is of course unfalsifiable, in the same way there is no way to prove it there is also no way to disprove it either. This is because we cannot escape space to check and try to find water. So the answer will always be we don’t know. Space is expanding faster than the speed of light so we can’t catch up to the edge of it. This is a remarkable claim, and remarkable claims require remarkable evidence, none of which we have, meaning that while we can’t know, there isn’t a good reason to assume that it is true.
If you take “earth” to literally mean “the Earth” then the waters could refer to space, but obviously space is a vacuum, this is a strange metaphor as it would make everything inverted. The Earth itself would be the vacuum whereas the space around it would be entirely water. It’s completely backwards, and also doesn’t account for the vast amount of other planets, a small amount of which are considered “Earth-like” and also have an atmosphere.
There is a third interpretation. The bible here uses the lower case “earth” instead of the upper case “Earth” which means if we ignored the section about it being formless and empty we could reasonably assume that the “earth” references all the particles available at the start of the big bang. Unfortunately the second verse discounts this interpretation though, which means that the opening lines of Genesis can’t really fit in with our understanding of science.
In order to make the account non-contradictory you need to choose an interpretation that makes it unfalsifiable, which is far from ideal, as the unfalisifiable concept is very difficult to believe, and impossible to prove.
But just because it’s non-contradictory doesn’t mean that there aren’t any errors by omission. The original state of the universe before the big bang was not mentioned. This means at the least, the story of Genesis does not tell the accurate story, since the big bang was such a huge and major event.
It’s also fair to say that any interpretation of “earth” being “the Earth” can be discounted, as the Earth is created later on the third day. So Either the space analogy or the “earth” as in “matter present for the big bang” is the best one we have.
Another interpretation that I didn’t think of at first for this was that formless and empty just means solid ground with no water. This will later be contradicted in this chapter, however if you are to interpret Adam and Eve this is the only valid way to interpret the Earth, as it describes an Earth without water and just dry land.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
3 minutes after the big bang hydrogen went through much nuclear fusion to become helium nuclei for about 17 minutes. This wouldn’t have generated light as we know it, but gamma photons to be exact, a photon of incredibly high energy, so high we can’t see it. Light in the way we know it would have come 240,000 to 300,000 years after the event itself. So depending on your interpretation of Gamma radiation, this statement about light is true or false.
You could also argue that 240,000 to 300,000 years after the big bang is close enough to the start of the Universe (relative to 13.5 billion years) that this statement is fully correct. I would consider it a liberal, though not an entirely false interpretation.
It’s worth mentioning however that the earth described was formless and empty. You cannot get to this stage in the big bang with just light alone, this nature of a big bang could not have happened in the way described here, there is at the very least a stage missing as light was not the starting point for the big bang in our best scientific understanding.
We could hypothetically assume that there was some way for light create the conditions of the big bang, and call it unexplained science. But until that science has been explained and proven there isn’t a good reason to think it’s true. The simplest explanation is always more likely.
4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
So without any Earth or planet to stand on, there was still unaccountably night and day. We now know that “day” and “night” are just concepts created by humans for the period of time where the sun shines on their section of the planet and the time when the sun doesn’t shine on their section of the planet. You can’t really have separate night and day in space at all, especially when you consider light as we know it appearing 240,000 years after the big bang.
So how can you interpret this? In human terms, everything here appears wrong. This is however an all powerful God who is being described, perhaps theirs something we don’t know about he could have used to count time. However we have no idea what that could be, and it seems odd to assume that this method even exists before it’s actually been proven. The statement “I don’t know” would be a much better answer than this assertion here.
You can take the interpretation that one day for God is different to one of our days, and if you’re going to try and compare science to Genesis you essentially have to. but whether that is true or not, it doesn’t change the fact that you cannot really separate night and day in space, God would need something different or something we cannot observe.
Genesis follows a “And there was evening, and there was morning—the x day.” for every creation, with x substituted for the day which the creation happened. This would strongly imply an Earth like day, but of course those didn’t exactly exist at the time of the first day. So it’s confusing. While the structure is overwhelmingly in favour of the seven day interpretation it would be strange to overlook this fact. Ultimately meaning, in terms of our interpretation of the days, what Genesis is actually trying to say could just as easily be another “I don’t know”
Of course though, you still can’t ignore the fact that “And there was evening, and there was morning” could not have happened before the sun and Earth was created.
The only clear definitive sets of time for each day we have to work with is the days themselves. If we want to start saying each day counts for 2 billion years for example that’s when it get’s tricky.
The issue is of course that the distribution of time is not equal. These events described here wouldn’t have taken place at seven set intervals in time, some things would have taken vastly more time, and some vastly less. Meaning that avoiding the 7 days interpretation gives you the other problem of no consistent time intervals possible.
To illustrate an example, the Earth was created on day 3, however it took the Earth 9 billion years to form, yet the Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion years. Obviously the distribution of days are not even, since the first 3 days account for 9 billion years whereas the remaining 3 (not counting the rest day) would be 4.5 billion years when these lengths of time should be equal.
I agree that inconsistent time intervals are a much more welcome problem than all of creation needing to fit in a week, but it still cannot be resolved in science.
What if it was only human days after the creation of the Earth? That would still leave the problem of 4 days being nothing close to 4.5 billion years though. It would also be strange for God to spend 9 billion years creating without a rest, yet immediately after 4 vastly shorter Earth days get tired and need a rest.
Of course this brings to mind the scientific observation that an all powerful God should never need a rest, yet it’s of course it’s a metaphorical justification for keeping the sabbath holy. At least, that’s what you’d think. I’m yet to see anyone argue that Yahweh actually gets tired.
6 And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. 8 God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.9 And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
So genesis seems to imply that there was an infinite plane flat Earth consisting just of water at first, separated by sky. There is absolutely no reason in science to believe this could have happened.
The word “Sky” needs to be looked at here, as it implies that the water and land gathered is not touching the sky. This would mean we would have no atmosphere. However we do, so the most favourable interpretation is to treat the “Sky” as atmosphere.
This is however by no means a problem solved for Genesis, as it would still imply that there is the sky everywhere instead of just around the Earth because most planets do not have a sky or atmosphere, as well as the entirety of space.
Trying to fit all these verses together is difficult. We have a formless empty “earth”,light, water, and atmosphere all needing to combine together. Obviously there is no mention of anything at all resembling the big bang in this so it cannot be reconciled. It also implies all of these things existed beforehand instead of from stars.
So this is the point where trying to fit Genesis with science becomes near impossible without creating some crazy unproven hypothetical theory.
There is also no mention of how land appeared, it’s at the least an error of omission, because land is simply much more than the absence of water on top of it. The Adam and Eve version of this story has this unexplained as well, as it predicts that dry land was already there, yet dry land appeared. So I find this difficult to reconcile. If you find an interpretation which doesn’t contradict with science and Genesis then please tell me, because I’m yet to find one myself.
11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.
The land did not produce the vegetation, all life (including plant life) comes initially from water. We also know that plant life and animal life were evolving together. The complete set of plants could not possibly have come before a single animal like this account here seems to imply. This is a major thing that Genesis gets wrong.
But did plants come first? In fact what came first was single celled organisms, from unicellular life all plants and animals evolved.
But was the first unicellular organism closer to a plant or to an animal? I’m not confident enough which one is true to give you an answer (and I’m not entirely convinced science does have an answer) so if you want to classify unicellular life as either an animal or a plant then the answer to which one came first, at least to me appears unclear, though I encourage all of you to do your own research.
If you want to talk about which evolved into something you would be more able to classify as a plant or animal today, then plants were first. But not to the extent described in Genesis.
Essentially the important thing to realise is that it’s not clear, however certainly the full set of plant life described here did not come before animals. And whether one was before the other or not ignores the fact that largely on the whole they were all evolving together. Based on everything we know this section of Genesis is incorrect.
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.
The obvious error is that the moon is not a light. You could argue that the reflection on the moon makes it so that it may as well be a light, but that still wouldn’t make it a light.
The next problem is that the sun was made after the plants were. This is obviously wrong. Plants, and indeed animals needed the sun to evolve, it would just be too cold without it to state one of many problems with a lack of a sun.
This also gives an implication that the sun is somehow different from the stars. The sun itself is a star, and shouldn’t really be specified as separate or it will cause confusion. It’s not a contradiction, but it certainly is strange.
As well as this, the Earth, sun and moon were all created at roughly the same time, instead of separate time intervals, so this here is also factually incorrect.
20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” 23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.
Genesis then says that the creatures of the water and flying birds were created at the same time. This is false as all life came from the sea initially. On the next day God creates land creatures, which would be a more scientifically accurate location to place the flying birds, as flying birds would have come after land creatures.
So it got life in the wrong order and also didn’t show that animals were evolving with plants at around the same time. They were evolving together.
24 And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
This would seem relatively non-controversial, yet you must remember that it’s only in recent times that humans became a top predator. For most of humans’ existence we have ranked in the middle of the food chain, meaning this thing about ruling over the Earth is only a recent concept for us.
Here, God also gives every living being every green plant, fruit and seed bearing plant for food. The issue is that not all animals can eat these, just think of carnivores, and the huge number of plants that humans cannot eat at all. Some plants are also very horrible for all animals to eat, so though it’s true you can physically put it in your mouth, the consequences for all animals would be horrible.
31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
2 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.
2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
This concludes the story of Chapter 1 of Genesis, and the first origin story it contains, the second being the story of Adam and Eve.
I’ve tried to be as fair as possible, without cynicism, as you don’t need to be in order to test science. If you honestly investigate you will find accuracies and inaccuracies, whichever one is actually present. So let’s quickly review everything we’ve talked about.
Some people say that if you take the story with the interpretation that each day is some kind of “God day” instead of “Earth day” then the story makes sense overall. This is clear to be an obvious case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses. The contradictions are numerous, and even very major events such as the big bang are simply not there.
I would also like to say that the first day and the state before the first day, depending on your interpretation, could reasonably comply with science, and it’s when you get into the details of the later days that it becomes irreconcilably wrong. The opening of Genesis is however very vague and metaphorical, there are many interpretations that you can take and who can know for sure that the vision in their mind they had as they were writing it actually complies with the interpretations most relevant to science?
To illustrate the counting the hits and ignoring the misses mentality, let’s look at what it gets right.
- The universe began, or had a beginning
- Light was present at the origin (If you count gamma photons and count 3 minutes after the big bang as the origin or 240,000 years as close enough for visible light)
- Humans came later than a lot of living creatures
- Some of the details that are on the Earth e.g plants, animals, sky, earth, water
- Plants came before animals (though it gets essentially everything about plants and the order in reference to animals wrong)
It’s not a lot. If there are any more things it got right missing please comment and I will add it, as obviously, I want a full and complete list. Anything else I did not write here requires some sort of interpretation, and isn’t necessarily correct on face value due to how subjective it is. When analysing the minds of people from a very long time ago it just seems wrong to give one interpretation any benefit of the doubt over the other as we have no way to truly know which interpretation they truly thought as they wrote it.
Now let’s look at what it gets wrong, leaving out errors caused by omission. The reason why I do this is because the fact that it wasn’t mentioned doesn’t necessarily mean that Genesis explicitly says it didn’t happen. I will only include things that Genesis explicitly mentions that is wrong.
- Vast amounts of water present at the origin of the universe
- Separation between all water and all sky before God brought it together (Day 2)
- The order of occurrence of life (includes many contradictions between plant life, water creatures, flying creatures and land creatures)
- All of the plants existing before the sun existed
- The moon being a light
- Mankind ruling over all creatures (For the vast majority of mankind’s life time)
- The timeline (any version of it leads to scientific problems, interpretation problems or both)
- Light before particles (Incorrect order of the big bang)
- Concepts of night and day before the creation of the Earth and the Sun (also applies to all the sentences containing “And there was evening, and there was morning” before the Earth and Sun was created)
- The sun and moon were created at vastly different time intervals to the Earth
If there is any more I missed or got wrong please also let me know.
This list doesn’t even mention the many errors caused by omission, which are vastly numerous. But in terms of things that it actually says, it gets much more wrong than right (remember the bullet points above are condensed as well) which brings to mind the idea of counting the hits and ignoring the misses.
Scientifically, though the creation story gets some things right, on the whole it gets massively more wrong, both through errors that it explicitly says, and through errors caused by omission. So I would say it’s completely unfair to say that simply changing the timeline produces the correct order of events that led to the Earth as we know it.
The defence for the truth of Genesis now becomes the idea that this is an all powerful God we are talking about, and he can perform miracles. My only issue is that there is no good reason to do creation in one order, yet give so much perfect evidence in favour of a different order. If this is truly a god that wants people to believe in him why would he cover his tracks in such a way? I don’t see any good reason to do so.
Science is the best way we have to determine truth currently. If we are to ever prove a religion to be true science would be the method used. Likewise if we were to ever to disprove a different religion, science is also the method we would use.
So considering that the scientific case against Genesis is so strong, what does that mean for Christianity?
Well errors in Genesis far from debunks Christianity as a whole, at the very most it would just remove Genesis from the rest of the bible for being incorrect.
You could however simply treat it as a metaphor, not to be taken literally, and simply intended to convey the message that God is the creator of all things.
Of course there is also the option of taking the extreme and discounting science. The issue is that all these scientific claims such as the big bang and evolution has met it’s burden of proof when looking at all of the evidence whereas Christianity has not.
Also dismissing science can only lead to bad things. The scientific revolution started roughly 500 years ago, and since then life expectancy has multiplied, quality of life has multiplied, the number of things we can do with technology has multiplied, and computers have been created and their power has multiplied, doubling roughly every two years to be precise.
Compare this to life before the scientific revolution where religion was king. No matter how you look at it, science works, and provided it doesn’t drive the extinction of the entire human race it’s here to stay.
To discount science is to discount the car you drive, the computer you use, the technology you cook with, the warmth of the homes you stay in, the electricity you use and vastly many more things I cannot mention because if I did I would have to write literally a thousand more pages!
In short, discounting science is dangerous and goes against all the advancements we have made in recent time. The scientific method is one to be respected, it’s survived both rigorous use and testing. It works.
There are likely more things you can do with this scientific knowledge when applying it to Genesis. However, what you absolutely cannot do is assert that it gets everything correct, should be treated as science and should be taught as fact in schools.
I myself personally am unsure of whether the story of Genesis was intended to be taken literally or not. There are actually two creation stories in the bible. The first is the one covered here, and the second is the story of Adam and Eve.
I intend to make a similar article to this one in the future where I talk about the story of Adam and Eve. Due to the nature of the second story I’m inclined not to take it literally, and therefore I wouldn’t choose to take this one literally either. Hopefully when that is released you will be able to read and see what I mean.
Anyway, instead of creating stories and rationalisations to go against science, instead, surely the interpretation that best fits the knowledge we have now is the metaphorical/non-literal one?
I encourage all discussion between people from all beliefs, in addition to any editions to the lists presented I would love to hear about your story and your interpretation of the events in Genesis. I believe it’s really important to encourage and promote civil and constructive conversation between people of all beliefs as well as promote the legitimacy of science and the scientific method, so that’s what I hope to achieve here.