We are probably all familiar with the two creation stories in Genesis. And we also know that they can’t be literally true.
Give them to a class of 10 year olds and they will ask
- If no one was there – how do we know what God said?
- How did God make light on the first day – when he didn’t make the sun til the fourth?
- Which of the two accounts is actually true?
Most people now accept that Genesis was never intended as a factual account – but go back 300 years and this was less true.
People suggested we know what happened because God dictated the story to Moses, and they skirted round the problems because the idea of the earth, as it is now, coming into existence ‘being created’ in one go, at one time, and then being like that ever since, kind of made sense. So for a long time that was how most people saw their world.
As far as they could tell humans were there at the beginning with everything else, and the history of humans, and of the earth itself was thought to go back a few thousand years.
This idea was probably first questioned by geologists – people who look at rocks, and a good example is James Hutton.
Born in 1726 – Hutton was many things including a canal engineer, and a farmer. Both involved looking at rocks – to improve the land on his farms, and to construct canals. He was also a great observer – he looked carefully and he thought about what he saw.
So – he saw, as anyone does who walks near the sea – rocks worn away by wind and waves, sand and silt from the wearing away of rocks washed down rivers to the sea, sand building up on the sea bed.
He knew about huge forces made by volcanoes, * and how rocks could be folded and pushed up to the surface of the sea.
He also dug down through soil to find layers of rocks of different kinds, different from anything still around above ground – they too looked as though they’d been made from sand and silt washed down rivers and sunk to the bottom of the sea…but they were now miles inland.
So he started to think that the things he saw happening then – rocks wearing away, silt building up, volcanoes folding rocks, were always happening. That the rocks he found on his farm had been made by these processes in past times.
Today this doesn’t sound much– but it had two dramatic effects on belief.
- Creation couldn’t be a once and for all event where everything was finished – because we can see it still going on today.
- The effects of sea, wind, tides are incredibly slow. This means that if this was how the rocks were made – the earth is millions of times older than people thought.
Hutton was sure he was right – so he looked for evidence to support his theory. He found it in what is known as ‘Hutton’s unconformity’ – some rocks on the coast near Berwick upon Tweed.
We were very excited to go there last year and see it for ourselves.
OK so I am a nerd – and it doesn’t look much – but if you can understand the rocks, it tells an amazing story.
There are thin layers of mudstone – made gradually by sand sinking to the bottom of a very deep ocean and being squashed into rock by the weight of the water. Alternating with these are thicker layers of much harder rock – made by torrents of water washing rock into the sea. Then these were acted on by huge forces as the ocean floor moved – they folded, so the layers are vertical. Next the edges were worn away. Then, on top of this, rivers deposited sand and silt with lots of iron oxide in it, to make another sort of rock. Finally red sandstone was formed on top of this, then lifted up by the sea and tilted slightly to give a narrow slope.
Siccar point is at the edge of the sea, so it has been worn away to show all the layers. The point is, that this represents millions and millions of years worth of creation, long before the beginning of human history. For the people who first saw it – this was a dizzying idea…one of them said…
“The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time…”
He could accept the science – but his imagination just couldn’t cope with that quantity of time – ‘deep time’ as it came to be known – going back millions of years before human history even started.
Not only was it now impossible to believe the creation story literally – even the idea that at some point God created the earth we know now, with everything in its place, humans at the ‘top’ – didn’t really work. (Clock)
So what to do? Abandon our faith? Just gloss over the Old Testament as ‘what people believed then’ – not really relevant to us. Or can we see it as truth in a different way?
Growing up, I definitely saw Genesis as something people might once have believed, but which was now a bit of an embarrassment to me as a Christian and a scientist.
But now it is widely accepted that it was never meant to be read as literal truth. It is not about the earth and its formation but an attempt to tell us something about God, and our relationship with God.