What is a “day?”

[As we transitioned into the fall of 2020, our church family at North Dallas Assembly church, where I currently serve, has committed to read the Bible through together. We are working through the Bible in small discussion groups, reading through the “Immerse: The Reading Bible” series by Tyndale Publishers. I am fortunate to be part of two groups, both of which have finished (or are very close to finishing) the first book in the series, “Messiah” and are ready to move into the next of the series, “Beginnings.” “Beginnings” does indeed, start at the beginning, covering the biblical books from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

As we move into “Beginnings,” I began thinking that I should start blogging about some of the issues and concerns that might come up for the average believer as they read through the Bible. Some issues they may have heard about in church or outside the church, as concerns non-believers see as deterrents to them when it comes to the Bible. I do so enjoy discussing scholarly issues on a scholarly level, but I cannot leave my fellow believers who are not seminarians behind in the discussion of these issues. So, this part of my blog will be geared to engaging the average, everyday, non-seminarian believer, but even scholars and seminarians can take something away from these brief summaries of the issues. As scholars and seminarians, we must remember that the theoretical discussions and implications of these issues do indeed impact the everyday believer, whether they are aware of them or not. Remnants of these issues show up in sermons, in podcasts, on the internet, spoken by believers and non-believers alike. In this part of the blog, I am here to introduce the issue, start the discussion, not solve all the problems or end the debate. Those are topics for my more academic written works. Let us begin….]

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This is how we start our journeys into God’s one big story. The first chapter of Genesis gives us a panoramic view of the creation of God’s world and everything in it. The account of creation is broken down into “days”… this happened, “then there was evening and there was morning, day XXX.

Our contemporary understanding of what constitutes a “day” is based on our understanding of astronomy and the movements of the planets in relation to the Sun in the vastness of space. As such, for us a “day” means a 24 hour period of time, roughly equivalent to the time it takes for the Earth to make a single rotation in space. But does our understanding of what a “day” is today mean the same thing as it did to the writer of the book of Genesis or to its original readers?

This is where we begin to talk about what it means for the earth to be young or old. Traditionally, the Church has believed that the Earth was young, that is, it was created about 6,000 years ago (depending on the calendaring system one holds to). This has given rise to the theology of “Young Earth.” Those who adhere to this theory believe that a “literal” (that is, word for word) reading of the Bible informs us that the Earth and everything in it was created in 7 chronological days. In other words, God took exactly one week of 7 days to do all his work of creating (6 days of creating everything, then resting, or finishing, before the dawn of the 7th day). This would be a great idea and would seem to honor what the text of Scripture says, but certain problems begin to arise quickly.

First, if we were to take the word “day”, as we commonly translate it from the original languages, and define it as a “24 hour” period of time, other than the heavens and the earth, nothing else that we use to calculate time is created until the 4th “day.” On the 4th day, God created the Sun, the Moon, and the stars, and set them in the heavens for the purpose of measuring time, “Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years” (Gen. 1:14). So, then, what does “day” mean before “day 4?” By our definition, and God’s word in Genesis 1:14, “days 1-3” cannot be 24 hour “days” if the things we need to calculate the “seasons, days, and years” have not been created. Stay with me, we will return to this in a moment.

Second, as we explore the world around us, we find structures and old sites that do not fit within a 6,000 year history of creation. Scientific inquiry into these structures have dated many of these sites much older than 6,000 years. If God only created the world about 6,000 years ago, then how do we explain why these sites are seemingly older?

This is generally where the discussion of “old earth” begins.

Before I go into the discussion of “old earth” and what it says about these issues, I want to take a moment to recognize that there are genuine God-fearing, Bible-believing people on both sides of this issue. Both groups believe they are honoring the biblical text in their interpretation and the implications of these interpretations. We should respect those who do not agree with us and listen carefully to what they have to say. We can learn a lot by simply listening to each other. Whichever side you may land on this issue, it does not change anything about our shared salvation in Christ, which is the core issue of our faith. Keep in mind that we are all created in the image of God and each of us are striving to understand our faith.

That said, back to “old earth.” Proponents of “old earth” begin to address this issue with what does the word that we commonly translate as “day” in our English Bibles really means. In the original languages, Hebrew especially, the word can take on a variety of meanings that are not limited to a 24 hour period of time. It can mean an unspecified period of time, such as might be expressed in English as an “epoch” or a “era”, that is, long period of time. This definition does not eliminate the meaning of “day” that now can be calculated after creation “day 4” with the creation of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. But it does help us come closer to what God is talking about in the summary of his creation cycle outlined in Genesis chapter 1. Each part of God’s creation cycle had a particular purpose and culminated in the creation of a subset of the larger creation. Each part increasing more complex and specialized in nature. He completed each of these parts in stages, unspecified periods of time, from as little as one day (in our contemporary understanding) or vast millennia of time (again, based on our current understanding of time). From God’s perspective, these periods of time may have seemed instantaneous, as he lives outside of “time” (a discussion for another time). As God, he certainly has the power and ability to create in an instant and that “instant” could be viewed as a single “day” in certain contexts. But if we also believe that God took “time” to carefully plan, calculate, prepare, etc. everything that he planned to create, and took “time” to execute that plan, then it is also conceivable that any “single day” in this summary of the creation account suggests some undetermined amount of time from a humanly perspective.

If the “old earth” proposition is to be believed, it makes it easier to explain how there can be structures on earth older than 6,000 years old; we would not have to do intellectual gymnastics to make these structures fit into a world only 6,000 years old. It does not eliminate all the issues, as it brings up another issue: if humanity is only about 6,000 years young, who built these structures if they are older?

The fact is, there is no easy answer to that question. We simply don’t know. For that matter, we don’t know for certain whether the Earth is young or old. What we have is a literary summary of the key events with not a lot of supporting details in our biblical text. What we also have are structures and archaeological sites that seemingly defy being dated within a “young earth” model. What we have are many questions and not a lot of answers.

As I said earlier, this blog introduces some issues and serves as a starting place for discussion. It does not try to address all the issues and their implications. But I would love to engage with you in this discussion, especially if this topic is new for you and to suggest some resources that may be helpful if you would like to go deeper. Feel free to comment, message me, or email me if you would like to discuss this further or want to learn more.

[And, for the record, I lean toward the “Old Earth” model. If you are a “Young Earth” believer, I would love to hear from you and listen to what you believe about the topic. I enjoy conversations where we can hear each others positions, without any expectations or agendas of “convincing” to change a point of view, but to simply listen to each other and hear how we come to believe one point of view or another.]

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