In the media we have seen stories of conflict between atheists claiming the authority of science and creationists claiming the authority of the Bible. The basis for this argument is a literal interpretation of the story of creation in the Bible. Some say that this universe had to have been created literally in six days as stated in the Bible. Others claim that scientific evidence points to the universe being 13.7 billion years old. A minority of Christians insist that the only valid interpretation of the Bible is a literal one (Gallup). The larger portion of Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, but not always to be taken literally. Setting aside various opinions and scientific observations, it is worth considering what the Bible itself says about how to interpret it.
How Does the Bible Interpret Itself?
Many passages in the Bible suggest that it contains a deeper meaning. Jesus’ own words were symbolic. In fact, “He didn’t speak to the people without a parable” (Matthew 13:34, Mark 4:34). He said to His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; but the time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figurative language, but I will tell you plainly about the Father” (John 16:25). Paul, too, warned us not to take everything literally: “We should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). These statements in the Bible itself direct us to look for a deeper meaning, as if the literal meaning were a container holding precious contents, with a label that says, “Open me.” Now on the other side, there is not a single passage anywhere in the Bible that directs us to take everything literally. There is nothing on the box that says, “Do not open.”
What Kind of Light?
The first chapter of Genesis has all the marks of a symbolic story. For example, on the first day God created light, and made day and night, evening and morning. Then on the fourth day God created the sun, the moon and the stars. If the sun wasn’t created on the first day, then obviously the light on that day was not sunlight. So what kind of light was there in the beginning? The answer is in John chapter 1. “In beginning,” it says with obvious reference to Genesis 1:1, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:1-5). So the light which was in the beginning was not physical light, but the creative Word of God which gives life and light to all people.
Another indication that the story of Creation is symbolic is the fact that there are two creation stories in Genesis. The first chapter has all kinds of plants on the third day, birds and fish on the fifth day, animals on the sixth, and last of all human beings, male and female. Chapter 2 has a different order of creation: first Man, then plants, next animals and birds, and finally Woman. This reminds me of Jesus’ words, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30). Spiritual creation changes our priorities and the order of our lives.
Taking these two stories as literal, historical descriptions, we have to stretch and twist them to reconcile the conflicts. Looking a little deeper we see that the Bible was not intended either by God or by the original inspired writers as a scientific treatise. Rather, it focuses on a different level of creation. All created things are manifestations of the invisible qualities of God: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20). Those invisible attributes of God are what create and sustain our spiritual life. As Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is the creation Isaiah saw: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people. The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, nor the voice of crying” (Isaiah 65:17-19). John describes it as well (Revelation 21:1-5).
The Deeper Truth
If everything in creation is symbolic of God’s work within us—the new creation of our spiritual life—does the Bible tell us what each thing represents? Do the seven days of creation symbolize seven steps in our regeneration? Peter describes seven steps of spiritual growth: “Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Peter 1:5-7) What if Genesis is describing similar spiritual steps that lead from the first glimmer of faith to the fulness of love? Consider these passages:
|The first creation story||Passages pointing to a deeper meaning||What it means for our new creation|
|God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)||For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; …I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy. (Isaiah 65:17-19) Anyone in Christ is a new creation; old things have passed away; all things have become new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)||We can become a new person through the Lord’s work in us.|
|The earth was formless, empty, with darkness over it. (Genesis 1:2)||Darkness shall cover the earth, and deep darkness the people. (Isaiah 60:2) They do not know, nor do they understand; they walk about in darkness. (Psalm 82:5)||At first we may be ignorant or confused about God, not able to see His truth.|
|God said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3)||Arise, shine! For your light has come…the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1, 3) In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:4). “Whoever follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12)||We can start to understand and acknowledge God.|
|God divided the waters beneath from the waters above (Genesis 1:7).||My teaching will drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew (Deuteronomy 32:2). For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,…so shall My Word be that goes forth from My mouth. (Isaiah 55:10-11)||We can learn from the Lord’s Word.|
|God made plants with seeds and fruit (Genesis 1:11-12).||The sower sows the Word. The ones sown on good ground are those who hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit (Mark 4:14, 20).||We practice what the Word teaches by loving and serving others.|
|God made sun, moon and stars to guide and direct us (Genesis 1:16).||Your sun shall no longer go down, nor shall your moon withdraw itself; for the Lord will be your everlasting light (Isaiah 60:19). The city had no need of the sun or of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God illuminated it. The Lamb is its light. (Revelation 21:23)||The Lord gives us our conscience and guides us by higher values.|
|God made the fish and the birds (Genesis 1:28)||Jesus called His disciples to be fishers of people (Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17). Those who wait on the Lord shall mount up with wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31).||We can grow in faith. (People the disciples “caught” found faith. People who trust God fly like eagles.)|
|God made the animals. (Genesis 1:24-25)||We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. (Psalm 100:3) Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:10)||We can have innocent goodness like sheep or doves.|
|God made people in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27)||You have put off the old person with its deeds, and have put on the new person who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created you. (Colossians 3:9-10)||Our creation is complete when we become a new man in the image of God.|
|God rested on the seventh day. (Genesis 2:2-3)||There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (Hebrews 4:9-10)||Spiritual life is no longer a struggle and we find true peace.|
Paul wrote, “From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Many of us are familiar with the creation story, but can it make us wise? Paul goes on to say, “All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the person of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Scripture being “inspired by God” literally means that it has the breath or spirit of God within it. It doesn’t mean that we get truth from the Bible by taking a purely literal approach, and still less does it mean that the Bible will settle scientific debates. Rather it means that by virtue of the spirit within it the Bible has teachings that help us become wise. The Bible becomes profitable when we see it in a spiritual, practical way and use it in our daily lives to become better people. The truth in the creation story is the truth that makes each of us a new creation.