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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Seven Days that Should Be Read That Way

This is an account of my impression of 'Seven Days that Divide the World' by John Lennox which I've recently read as part of a Christian book-reading group. The premise of the book is that scientific observation overwhelmingly supports an ancient universe and earth, and therefore, Christians who want unbelievers to take the gospel message seriously need to align their reading of Genesis 1 with the scientific conclusions that are so widely accepted in our current world view.

Professor Lennox relies heavily on an example of another controversy which raged several hundred years ago, as an illustration of how we should be engaging with the Christian question of the age of the earth, which is now so prevalent in our scientific age. The historic example he gives is that of the location of the earth in space. His basic assertion is that there was a commonly held view, once upon a time, that the earth was located on a foundation and fixed. This belief was proliferated based on a few scripture texts which seemed to be saying just that (Psalm 104:5 for example). However, as scientific observation developed, the data increasingly suggested that the earth was actually not sat on a foundation, but was revolving - suspended in space.

Eventually, the science became so overwhelmingly compelling, that it demanded that Christians pay new attention to the bible texts in question, to see if there was another way that they should be read - a way that would ensure that they weren't at odds with the scientific evidence that proved otherwise. This, Lennox argues was done, and the world has never looked back, as now everybody believes the truth that science has revealed about the nature of the earth in space. And Christians no longer have to bring the gospel message into disrepute by believing an idea that is at odds with the overwhelming scientific data at hand.

Here's how he states it in his own words on pages 34 & 35:

"However, once it became generally evident and accepted that the earth did move, and that Scriptures could be interpreted consistently with that fact without compromising their integrity or authority, thereafter to maintain that Scripture insisted that the earth was fixed in the sky would leave one open to justifiable ridicule, and would bring Scripture into disrepute."

His most basic argument therefore, is that we are now at another threshold, not dissimilar to the example he cites, where scientific evidence that the universe and earth are in actual fact very very old, is so overwhelming that it now demands we pay attention to the Genesis account of creation and see if we can arrive at a reading of it that synthesises it with the scientific data we have at hand. Moreover, he thinks that that can be done, and attempts to demonstrate how it can be done. And he seems to believe that it can be done so effectively, as to make, a view that maintains that the world and the universe are actually only very young, to be an undermining of the gospel message. Such a view, he implies, would make the gospel seem ridiculous.

Professor John Lennox, who is clearly esteemed in his field of Mathematics at Oxford University and by wider academic disciplines also, has been able to engage some of the most high-profile academic atheists of our times in public debates, including people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Whilst Professor Lennox does espouse, in his book, old earth theory and naturalistic explanations for the abundance and diversity of life, he explicitly does not embrace any view that removes God from the origins narrative altogether.

Let me say, I have high regard for Professor Lennox. I believe that his debates with the new atheists have helped me and others I know, contend with the prevailing world view. And I am grateful that in the appendices and chapter 4, he contends with wholly naturalistic origin explanations that depend on evolutionary principles which are widely at odds with the bible and the revelation of God about himself.

That said, I have some problems with Professor Lennox's book. His main argument for our engagement with the current crisis, is to draw lessons from an old crisis that is not like-for-like with the current situation. For example, the verses that were being used to shape the understanding of the earth's location in space were very obviously poetic in genre or linguistically hyperbolic. Some of the verses were found in the psalms, alongside verses that talk about rivers clapping their hands and mountains singing for joy for example (Psalm 98:8). Genesis on the other hand is not written in poetic language, nor does it typically employ hyperbole. Rather the book is characteristically historic-account and there would have to be compelling and conspicuous reasons to read it differently.

Additionally, there are other texts of scripture which easily modify the reading of any text which suggests the earth might be placed on foundations or fixed. The book of Job for example, says that God 'suspends the earth over nothing'. Such modifying texts should have at least given pause for thought about the prevailing view of the time. However, a plain reading of Genesis 1 has no biblical modifiers, that I'm aware of, that would give pause for thought regarding a young earth view.

A third difference is that the scientific data is observational in nature not demonstrable. What I mean by that is, it is based on things we can observe - the speed of light, the distance of stars, the half life of isotopes, the geological record, etc - science sees fit to draw a conclusion consistent with those observations. However, the earth is in fact suspended in space and this can be shown or demonstrated directly with first hand evidence. The problem with scientific observation when it comes to deducing things about the very distant past, is that science has to assume that what is observable today has always been the case. However, if those assumptions are wrong then that could wildly alter the conclusions we should be drawing today.

For example, star light is one approach used to establish that the universe is very old. The light we see from incredibly distant stars has had to travel very great distances to reach us and therefore, it is concluded, since we know the distance of the star and the speed of light, we can know the time it took to get here. The universe must be at least that old then. But that approach assumes that the speed of light has always been as constant as we observe it to be today, and that simply might not be the case. Nor for that matter can it be assumed that time remains undistorted in space - in fact based on Einstein's theory of relativity it's unlikely that it does. Assumptions are always necessary when demonstration can't be relied upon. No one can perform the creation experiment and prove anything by demonstration. Everything we have is based on derivation. All we can know from science, is that based on certain assumptions, our observations seem to be saying the universe and the earth are very old.

If you take the bible out of the equation it might be very reasonable to fall in line with the prevailing scientific hypotheses. However, the bible is in the equation and we believe God has revealed to us, in relatively straightforward language and in understandable concepts, need-to-know information. Professor Lennox argues for various Hebrew interpretations of the Genesis text, but it seems obvious that God means for us to understand something plain in Genesis 1 which doesn't require us be Hebrew experts to figure out.

A fourth difference is that other explanations for the observable reality that the earth is really suspended in space are not available. If we see the earth from space, suspended in space, we have no alternative explanation of the evidence to support a view that the earth is actually located on foundations. However, the observable data that seems to support a very old universe can be explained in other ways, and in ways which don't do violence to science. There are some very expert Christian scientists conducting some very credible science today, who can explain the data in terms that are different to the prevailing world view.

A fifth difference is that, whilst the idea that the earth was resting on foundations, had some verses which seemed to support it (and some that clearly contradicted it!) there were no wider doctrines or texts that would have been violated by rejecting that point of view. However, in this case there are texts that are violated by rejecting a literal reading of Genesis 1. For example, Exodus 20:11 and Exodus 31:17 both rely on a literal reading of Genesis 1. To abandon a literal reading would invalidate these texts and undermine the inerrancy of scripture and thus undermine the gospel message and the nature of God. Professor Lennox attempts to address these textual references because he recognises this problem, but I think he fails to make a compelling case that the Exodus texts aren't squarely relying on the Genesis account point for point (day for day).

A sixth difference is that, the transition from believing the earth to be situated on foundations to a knowledge that it is suspended in space, was a transition from the less incredible to the more incredible. That's a transition that served to increase people's appreciation of God, not diminish it. But the prevailing world view serves to do the opposite. It serves to diminish our view of God as the sovereign, powerful creator-God who made all things by the word of his mouth. And when the trajectory points in that kind of diminishing direction, then it's not too difficult to start to look to a different reading of the Genesis account of the world-wide flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the Exodus account of the splitting of the Red Sea, or the incarnation of Christ, or the resurrection of Jesus. It's true this trajectory might not play out, but there's plenty of pressure on the biblical view that demands a worldwide flood, how long will it be before that particular view is deemed no longer compatible with science and Christians need to revise their reading of the account.

I'm not suggesting that Professor Lennox is endorsing a diminished view of God. In fact, chapter 5 of his book shows that he has a very high view of God. But I am saying that this world's view is squarely set in opposition to God and lining up behind one of its key tenets is not going to promote a high view of God, it's going to encourage the opposite.

Professor Lennox, is measured and careful in his writing. His view is nuanced and not reductionistic. He's careful, for example, to maintain six, twenty-four-hour days of singularity-type creation that preserve the sanctity of Hebrews chapters 1 and 11; Ephesians 3:9 and Colossians 1:16. He does this by allowing for long long periods of naturalistic development between the creation days recorded in Genesis 1 - an idea that is entirely plausible. However, it's what the bible has said that counts, not what it hasn't said. If we allow our minds to run away with us, we could invent myriad narratives neatly designed to slot into the textual gaps of bible account. In fact whole false religions have been built on doing this very thing. Surely, our approach has to be, to take the text on face value unless we have good reason not to.

Anybody who espouses the view, to rationalistic unbelievers, that Jesus performed miracles, or that he raised himself from the dead, or that he was virgin-born, is about to face opposition and ridicule. That is part of being a follower of Christ. Christianity demands we take up our cross and follow him. Christianity demands faith first-and-foremost, not rationalistic explanations. And when all is said and done, every christian will have to choose between holding out the gospel to an unbelieving world whilst being ridiculed for believing utterly outlandish things because they are true, and falling in line with the philosophies of this world. Contrary to Professor Lennox's premise, the test of 'beyond reasonable doubt' remains with the bible and not with science when it comes to the question of old earth versus young earth, and that should be enough for any Christian to decidedly resist the urge to massage the plain reading of Genesis chapter 1, and to hang in there.


Duck King
Duck King

We have overwhelming evidence from many bodies of science that the earth is not 6000 years old. There are many different isotope series and methods and in isochron dating you don't require knowing the initial ratios, only the observed ratios of parent to daughter elements. Methods like radiocarbon dating can be calibrated by other non-isotope methods within dendrochronology (tree rings) or ice core samples for example. We can also accurately date known historical events like the Mt Vesuvius eruption from ash. We have no evidence that rates were different in the past, if they were accelerated somehow everything would have died of radiation poisoning. Similarly there are methods like fission track which looks at the fission damage tails when elements…

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