Genesis 1-11: Historical Fact or Literary Fiction?

Author: N.Wilson

Just how are we to understand the early chapters of Genesis, the narrative of Creation, Fall and Flood? Is this a recounting of real events that actually happened, or is it literary fiction with the good intention of giving us what some ancient people thought about human nature? For many years Liberals have dubbed these chapters as myth, fable, legend, saga, parable etc. They are an attempt to explain “spiritual” things from man’s point of view, but have no basis in “what actually happened”. Now it appears that some evangelicals are taking a similar position. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches very differently: the events of these chapters are historical facts recording what actually happened (WCF Chapter 4). We believe this view is borne out when we consider how Scripture itself views the early chapters of Genesis.

1.  The Nature of Revelation   The starting point is 2 Tim. 3:16, “all Scripture is God-breathed…” This includes Genesis 1-11 as infallible, inerrant revelation to be taken on face value. As E.J. Young writes, “The Bible is either a revelation from God, or is simply the mental gropings of the Hebrew nation. If it is a revelation from God in which he tells us about the creation then we should believe that it is historical, that it actually took place, because God has spoken” (In the Beginning: Genesis 1-3 and the Authority of Scripture).

2.  The Teaching of Scripture Generally   Its clear that the rest of Scripture assumes the historicity of Genesis. Take one example from the Psalms. In Ps. 136 the Psalmist gives three reasons for praising God for His love revealed. The first is for His work of creation (vv. 5-9). Then, without a break or indication that we are now “moving to history”, he gives the second reason, His work of redeeming his people from Egypt (vv. 10-22). The third reason for praise then follows, the psalmist’s own experience of God’s care (vv. 23-25). It is clear that the Psalmist is recording God’s work in history and he makes no distinction between the acts of God in creation and the other events of the past. He views the Genesis account as history.

3.  The Teaching of Christ   Did our Lord consider the early chapters of Genesis as historical? Clearly he did. Again take one example. In Matt. 19:3-6, when answering the Pharisees, he specifically refers to Gen. 1:27 and 2:24, showing God to be the Creator of the first man and woman, and the one who instituted marriage. Christ obviously treated the two parallel accounts of creation in Gen. 1 and 2 as compatible and historical.

4.  The Teaching of Paul   In Rom. 5:14-19 its clear that Paul teaches that the human race has descended from a single father, the historical figure of Adam (cf. Acts 17:24,26). Again he teaches the literal historicity of Adam and Eve in 1 Tim. 2:13-14.

Given then the historicity of Genesis its clear that if we want really to understand anything in the Bible or in the world we must first understand the teaching of each word in the all-important declaration that Gen. 1:1 makes about the historical beginning of everything, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

1.  “God”   The first occurrence of the divine name is “Elohim,” the name of God which stresses His majesty and omnipotence. This is a plural name with a singular meaning which some see as suggesting the uni-plurality of the God-head (that He is one, yet more than one). The Bible teaches that though the Father was the primary agent in initiating the act of creation, the Son and the Holy Spirit were also at work in creation. The Bible does not set out to prove the existence of God, it simply tells us we must begin all our thinking with the reality of the God who is there, the cause beyond everything.

2.  “Created”   The verb “bara” here is used always and only to describe the work of God. It means “to call into existence that which had no existence.” Man can make or form things by organising already existing materials into more complex systems, but he cannot create because this involves calling into existence things whose materials had no previous existence except in the mind and power of God. This universe was created “ex nihilo” (“out of nothing”). When he began to create nothing existed except God himself. Denying creation out of nothing means that matter is eternal like God. As W. Grudem says, “This idea would challenge God’s independence, his sovereignty and the fact that worship is due to him alone: if matter existed apart from God, then what inherent right would God have to rule over it and use it for his glory? What confidence could we have that every aspect of the universe will ultimately fulfil God’s purposes, if some parts of it were not created by him? The positive side of the fact that God created the universe out of nothing is that it has meaning and a purpose…namely, to bring glory to god himself” (Systematic Theology).

3.  “The Heavens”   This is a plural noun which is best translated here as “heavens”, meaning “space.” We speak of the universe as a universe of space and time. “Heavens” here refers to the component of space in the space-matter-time universe.

4.  “The Earth”   Although this can be translated to mean the world which is man’s home, it may also be translated here as the component of “matter” in the basic space-time-matter universe. This speaks of the creation of the basic, formless elements of matter which were afterwards organised into structures. The term “matter” would include energy. Thus in the beginning we have God creating all the basic building blocks of the universe.

5.  “In the Beginning”   The scientist H. Morris writes, “The universe is a continuum of space, matter and time, no one of which can have a meaningful existence without the other two. ‘Matter’ must function in both space and time. ‘Space’ is measurable and accessible to sense observation only in terms of the entities that exist and the events that happen in space, and these require both matter and time. The concept ‘time’ is meaningful only in terms of entities and events existing and transpiring during time, which likewise require space and matter. Thus Gen. 1:1 can be paraphrased : The transcendent, omnipotent Godhead called into existence the space-time-matter universe.” (Commentary on Genesis). The sovereign God created time, the succession of moments one after another. However, before there was a universe and before there was time God always existed, without beginning or end, without being influenced by time. Grudem makes the point: “Time does not have existence in itself, but like the rest of creation, depends on God’s eternal being and power to keep it existing. When we think of God’s existence ‘before’ the creation of the world we should not think of God as existing in an unending extension of time. Rather, God’s eternity means that he has a different kind of existence, an existence without the passage of time, a kind of existence that is difficult for us to imagine. The fact that God created time reminds us of his lordship over it and our obligation to use it for his glory.” (Systematic Theology).

“You are worthy O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and for your pleasure they were and are created” (Rev.4:11).