Interpreting Genesis 1 so that it doesn't conflict with the latest scientific views about the age of the earth, while also making sense of the problem of evil, and what that means for Christian mission.
By Ralph D. Winter (compiled and edited by Beth Snodderly)
Editor’s Note: Today Beth Snodderly finishes her four-part series exploring Ralph Winter’s Four Seeds of Destruction by compiling and condensing material from a number of Winter’s essays. You can read the previous installments here: Are We Building an Enduring Christianity or Not?, Emotionalism vs. Intellectualism, and Violence, Suffering, and Evil Are Not God’s Will.
As mentioned in the previous blog entry, two significant barriers to Christian belief are the rampant suffering, violence, and evil in this world as if there is no Satan behind it, and a Bible that is thought to have feet of clay, beginning with Genesis 1. Both of these obstacles to belief can be dealt with in an unusual way: a brief scenario that attempts conjecturally to interpret Genesis 1 in such a way as not to conflict with the latest scientific views. It may be helpful in dealing with either non-Christians or Christians about to lose their faith, people who believe current science is mainly correct in regard to 1) how old the earth is, and 2) how long ago humans first appeared, but for whom these two things are difficult to square with the Bible. This story will also be helpful to anyone who is confused about why and how radical evil appeared in our world. This scenario differs from the view of many scientists in that it explains the development of life by a means quite different from a Darwinian style random process. Furthermore, it allows for much of both the so-called “Young Earth” and the “Old Earth” perspectives. Most of all, it highlights a strikingly new dimension in the definition of Christian mission.
I am thinking more and more of the possibility (which I think should at least be considered!) that the lengthy “geologic ages” occurred before Genesis 1:1, and that no matter what you think about all those vicious animal fossils that have been dug up, you can’t interpret the non-carnivorous life described in Genesis 1 to be the same thing. Most people unthinkingly assume that way back when Genesis was written there was knowledge of a planet, solar system, galaxy, and indeed an entire universe and that precisely the beginning of all that is what is being referred to in Genesis 1:1. Certainly it is easy for us unthinkingly to read our knowledge today into something that was put together several thousand years ago when Genesis came into oral tradition and was later written down.
Now, I would not be giving this example if I had not discovered that Dr. Merrill Unger, who for nineteen years was chair of the Old Testament department at Dallas seminary, clearly espoused this view way back in 1958 in the pages of the Bibliotheca Sacra, and then, later described it in his Unger’s Bible Handbook. Please understand that the idea that the long geologic ages occurred before the Genesis account of a “new creation” is as an idea, not something I “believe” in the same way I believe some other things. This idea, however, does commend itself to me as the interpretation which is most fair to the Bible. I feel we must be very cautious that we do not find ourselves demanding that the Bible say what we would like it to say, or saying what we expect it to say, or even saying what many people think it says.
This “new creation” concept allows for both young earth and old earth views to be true. But there is something else that is the thing most important for me. If the thousands of forms of life that are now extinct lived before Genesis 1, their pervasively violent, perverted, distorted, carnivorous, predatory character could then be conceived to be the evil work of Satan and his rebel angels after his “fall.” This more concrete idea of a first fall would suggest that the second “fall,” that of Adam, resulted in the rejection of the newly created, undistorted life forms of Genesis chapter one, forcing them out of the Garden of Eden, into the larger planet where they would interbreed and intermarry with the long-perverted other forms of life. Result? A gradual reversion to the pre-Genesis perversity and viciousness that were the result of Satan’s earlier fall. This then provides a rationale for the need for God’s new beginning described in Genesis.
A More Complex Mission
For me, then, this would define a much more complex mission for redeemed man: to destroy the works of Satan. Since God is extensively blamed and his glory stained by common assumptions that there is no Satan, and all evil is God’s “mysterious will,” our mission is to “re-glorify” God. We can do this by seeking, in his name, to restore to God’s original intention, where possible, Satan’s perversions in all forms of life. This includes participating in serious efforts to eradicate diseases caused by viruses, many bacteria, and most parasites. This kind of activity would seem to be highly crucial in restoring the reputation of God, who is now being blamed for all sorts of evil. This basic type of amplification of mission can uniquely empower evangelism. As a Caltech scientist once implied to me, who wants to be in heaven forever with a God with a stained and gruesome reputation?
Insight into the Real Nature of Salvation
A major reason people are leaving the church, losing their faith, and staying away in the first place, is because the church has not adequately stepped up to bat along with civil forces to beat down the corruption, disease, and poverty of at least a billion hopeless people. Evangelicals have misread the Bible. Salvation is not just a “ticket to heaven.” In my opinion a basic problem is our blindness to the essentially wartime calling of those who follow Christ. The church has largely gone AWOL, distracted or preoccupied with programs that serve our own ends. But the Bible does not call us to save ourselves, to solidify our security, or just to talk about world problems. God is asking humans to choose to join him in the battle to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and restore shalom to creation.
Historically, in hundreds of foreign fields, schools and hospitals have portrayed God’s love, just as did the practical dimension of Jesus’ ministry. Missionaries in the past have transformed whole countries in many practical ways. Today we know far more about the problems and far more about the solutions than ever before. Yet the world still sees us as merely religious fanatics propagating a salvation that is not here but only in the hereafter.
Self-Serving Church or Challenging World Problems?
Building the Church in both number and depth is self-defeating if the larger purpose of God’s calling is ignored. It is like recruiting soldiers for a non-existent war. Why self-defeating? The self-serving church may expand by attracting people interested in their own salvation, but if it only serves itself it also crumbles and self-destructs. Isn’t this what happened to Italy, France, England? Is France the end product, where 80% are “Christian” but only 20% believe in God? The church is now crumbling globally (as well as expanding), like salt losing its savor. This is true even on the “mission field,” even where high percentages are believers. For example, Nagaland in India, or the Central African Republic, 97% and 70% “Christian” respectively, yet are also known to be exceedingly corrupt.
We often rejoice over the global gains of the Church, but there is another side! If people are being won into the front door and eventually move out the back door, what could be the answer? We are to be salt and light in this world. That means not just adding members to the Church but glorifying God by our good deeds (Matt 5:16). We are saved by the infusion of God’s power (grace) into our lives precisely so that we can do those good deeds (Eph 2:8-10).
We have greater opportunities and greater obligations than ever in history. Yet the chasm between our unemployed resources and an effective challenge to big world problems is very great. It is apparent that organized believers are largely missing in the conduct of the Kingdom of God, in bringing His will into the dark and suffering places in our world. [A notable exception is the 2008 announcement that billionaire Ted Turner was partnering with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the United Methodist Church to raise funds to stop deaths from global malaria. In January, 2016, the ELCA announced it had reached its $15 million goal of funds raised to combat malaria through its relief and development arm. “Thank you for naming suffering as contrary to God’s will and working to correct injustice,” an ELCA blog stated in announcing the successful conclusion of the ELCA Malaria Campaign (http://blogs.elca.org/malaria/2667-2/).]
The cure for a church that is in many ways staggering, stalling, and sitting down, the cure for our malaise and evaporating faith, is clear-cut definitive obedience. We must face and define the need to get organized answers to this world’s problems as well as getting individuals reconciled to God. In fact, getting people reconciled to God and to his Kingdom business must go together. Otherwise our absence at the frontlines of major global problems means we are misrepresenting God’s will and misusing the wisdom and resources he has given us to act out and speak out his love and glorify his name among all peoples. What kind of a Christ are we to follow? “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8, NASB). If we “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (Psalm 96:3, NIV), we will then build the Church on a solid foundation that will not crumble.
Unger, Merrill F. 1958. “Rethinking the Genesis Account of Creation.” Bibliotheca Sacra 115 (January-March): 27-35.
______. 1967. Unger’s Bible Handbook. Chicago: Moody Press.
USA Today. 2008. Ted Turner Apologizes, Joins Churches’ $200M Malaria Fight. April 1. Accessed May 2, 2016. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-04-01-turner-churches_N.htm.
Ralph D. Winter (12/8/24 – 5/20/09) founded the Roberta Winter Institute.
Beth Snodderly is the RWI's Theologian in Residence and Chair of the Board.