Literal Days vs. 24-Hour Days, and Adam vs. Christ

In a comment Geocreationist left on an earlier post of mine about ‘literal days’, he helpfully points out that literal days do not, as a rule, have precisely 24 hours in them. Sunrise and sunset (the basis for reckoning days in the ancient world, including in Genesis 1, where it has “evening and morning”) vary over the course of the year. The idea of a “literal 24-hour day” depends on that relatively recent invention, the clock. So the next time someone tells you they believe Genesis meant “literal 24-hour days”, you should ask them “Which do you believe in, literal days or 24 hour days?”

Another comment from Jeff on the same post asked about the consequences for other Christian doctrines of accepting evolution. I have been wanting for a while to start working on a book on the “But what about…?” passages. Evolution is not, for many Christians, simply about the creation stories, but those stories in turn are intertwined with various other parts of the Bible.

If I can find the time to write the book, it will not simply focus on the ways in which the creation stories are symbolic and analyse human existence in general, rather than the specific experience of two human ancestors and them alone, although it will start with that. Not only is the story in Genesis 2-3 about a character named Human or Man (not ‘Adam’ as though that were his name) and his wife, but many things that are said make sense only if taken symbolically. For instance, if the point of husband and wife becoming one flesh was really a literal creation from the man’s rib, then this story would make all husbands and wives utterly unlike Adam and Eve, and thus undermine its own point.

In Romans 5, one of Paul’s key presuppositions (the comparison between Adam and Christ) comes to the surface explicitly (which it does rather infrequently). In making a comparison between Adam and Christ, clearly the point is not about two different ways of being genealogically related to individuals. If that were the point, not only Adam but also Christ becomes a problem. But if the relationship has to do with two different modes of existence, two different ways of being human, characterized by the behavior ascribed to each in the stories about them, then the point becomes clearer. To focus on being ‘genetically related to Adam’ is to miss the point, that this is about ‘typical human existence’ and an answer to humanity’s experience of alienation from God.

Evolutionary explanations of some of our instincts – to survive, to eat, to reproduce – fits nicely with the Rabbinic idea of human beings have two impulses, the good impulse and the evil impulse. It has been suggested (e.g. by W. D. Davies in his study of Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) that Paul’s idea of the ‘flesh’ or ‘sinful nature’ derives from this part of his Rabbinic heritage. The rabbis were quite clear that these instincts are only ‘evil’ inasmuch as they lead us into evil behavior when we give them free reign. They are, however, also necessary to our survival. What makes human beings unique is precisely our ability to reflect on our behavior, to question what we do on instinct, and in these ways to choose to disobey our ‘selfish genes’ in favor of other sorts of altruistic behavior.

There is a lot more that can be said, and I hope to (eventually). But hopefully for the time being this will provide some suggestions and avenues to explore for those who find the evidence for evolution persuasive, but wonder about this or that passage that might be affected. In my experience thus far, exploring these passages in light of evolution has left me feeling that, in the end, I’ve understood them better, since often the things I used to focus on seem to me, with hindsight, to have been tangential distractions from the main point of the passages in question.

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  • Just to pile on what you’re saying: the most important thing we should have learned from the medieval heliocentric controversy is that science can often paint a picture of nature that conflicts with the way we think things ought to be in order to reflect or reinforce certain theological truths.For instance, if man represents the focal point of creation, and God put on flesh and came to earth to rescue his people, then why shouldn’t the earth occupy the center of the universe? Any if hell is “down there” and the heavens “above” are perfect, eternal and unchanging – home to God and his angels, then how can the earth – the place of sin, corruption and death, home to the devil and his legions – be elevated up into the heavens without, as Calvin put it, “perverting the order of nature”?Well, we know the rest of that story! To anyone who says that we should never permit scientific discovery to challenge the way that we, as the Church, should understand the Bible – that train left the station 500 years ago! http://www.fixedearth.comTake care and keep up the good work,GJG

  • Carlos

    I’d also like to add my two cents.Early in my contributions to Uncommon Descent, I tried arguing that evolutionary theory doesn’t conflict with the Bible — it conflicts with Aristotle. It made sense for scholastic theologians to accept Aristotelian physics and metaphysics — that was the best scientific theory of the time. But science moves on, it evolves. Part of the problem in modern theology is that Christians — Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant — have made eternal salvation dependent on 3rd-century BC science. Notions such as “design” or “the natural order” or “the laws of nature” are derived from Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism. But there’s no good reason to fetter Bible interpretation with that family of conceptions of nature. And it’s only if one does so that Galileo or Darwin come to seem like threats to taking the Bible seriously. Then there is the crucial and much-overlooked distinction between taking the Bible seriously and taking it literally — a distinction that has been at work in much of what you’ve been blogging on, James.As for the idea of showing how to take the Bible seriously in light of evolution — well, all I can say is, if you can do that, Dawkins and Hitchens will have to move over on the best-seller list. And for what it’s worth — if the project becomes more than just a twinkle in your eye, contact Philip Kitcher about it. I think he’d be fascinated.

  • TomS

    I agree that the idea of “transmutation of species” does not conflict with the Bible as it has been traditionally read, but it also doesn’t conflict with Aristotle.Up until the 17th century or so, nobody thought much about “fixity of species”. People accepted ideas such as spontaneous generation, of course, but there was also the idea that new kinds of animals could come about by hybridization, and they knew about metamorphosis – a “worm” (that is, a caterpillar) could become a flying insect, or an aquatic tadpole could become an amphibious frog.

  • Stephen (aka Q)

    I couldn’t find an email address for you, but I wanted to call your attention to this post at Higgaion. It concerns one of your pet peeves (Intelligent Design run amok).

  • This method always works, and my web page has contact information too!

  • Those following this discussion may also want to take a look at the discussion of Young Earth Creationism at Christianity Today’s website.

  • Thanks for your thoughts Dr. McGrath. It has taken me a couple of weeks to sit down and read/think through what you wrote (holidays, family and work have kept me busy). When I first seriously considered evolution, I did not think of its theological implications, only its impact of my view on creation in Genesis. Since it did not appear to conflict (God still created humans, just through a slighlty different process than I had previously considered), I was ok with it. After further thought, I realized it has implications far beyond Genesis. My view of good and evil have been overly simplistic (i.e. the world was “good” before Adam and eve mucked things up). Evolution has caused be to reconsider what the Bible means by “good.” Earthquakes, disease and other natural (or non-manmade) “evils,” if you will, existed prior to the rise of homo sapiens. If the act of rebellion by Adam and Eve, even if eating of the fruit is taken to be figurative, did not cause the entrance of pain and suffering into the world, then we must assume that natural disasters are part of the creation that God considered to be “good.” With that said, atheist arguments against the existance of God because of the existance of floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, require a more nuanced reply than has been traditionally given.Such a fundmental shift in theology is not easy to digest, but I doubt the findings of Galileo and others were any easier. As you stated, evolution certainly explains a lot, but it creates an equal number of questions, especially for those of us raised in evangelical traditions. Perhaps that is a good thing.Thanks again for your thoughtful post.