Ask Steve: Genesis 1-11: Fact or Fiction?

















Question: Do you believe that the events described in Genesis 1-11 are historically factual or symbolic? Why?

Answer: The historicity of Genesis 1-11 is often debated by secular humanists, which in turn has influenced the thinking of many evangelicals since the early 20th century. There are two popular thoughts concerning evolution: 1. an unknowable force brought about life through the process of evolution (atheistic evolution), and 2. God used the process of evolution to bring about life as we speak (theistic evolution).

If this is true, then what can be said about the events portrayed in Genesis 1-11? Is the Bible wrong? Or does this section meant to be figurative – verbal expressions are not meant to be taken literally, but are employed to communicate the higher purpose of a story or lesson? Despite what humanists and liberal scholars theorize, I believe Genesis 1-11 is meant to be taken historically, which means that the section speaks about true events that happened at the beginning of world history. There are a few good reasons to support this view.

Genesis 2The first reason is that it is presupposed by the integrity of Scripture. If God exists and He had given His special revelation to us (which is timelessly binding on all humans), then that document (the Bible) can only speak truth, since God is truth (Jn 1:14; 17:17). Genesis 1-11 reveals the historicity of the 7-Day creation account, Adam and Eve, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Some argue that this section of the book is symbolic, or even poetry. However, this theory cannot be verified. The genre of the book of Genesis is historical narrative, which means that the whole book (including Genesis 1-11) is meant to be taken as history. There is also no identifiable difference of writing style between Genesis 1-11 and 12-50 that would categorize one as a totally different genre from another. To deny Genesis 1-11 while affirming the general historicity of Genesis 12-50 is to have a strong anti-supernatural stance (and possibly even a bias against the universal depravity depicted in Gen 1-11). However, if we believe that God exists and is omnipotent, then we should logically conclude that He can perform supernatural deeds, which includes creating the world and even overriding the fixed order of the universe if He so chooses.

The second reason to affirm the historicity of Genesis 1-11 is that it attests to the way that God meant Scriptures to be read and understood for both salvation and sanctification. Psalm 119:130 states, “The unfolding of your word gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” The Bible is meant to be understood by even the simplest of people so they can obey it. Its meaning cannot be so esoteric, or be relative according to the times and cultures, that the simple-minded is required to go to a learning institution in order to decipher its meaning. When read based on the normal sense of the language, Genesis 1-11 clearly reveals the historicity of creation, the Fall, the Flood, the long life spans of people, and the Tower incident. This attests to the integrity of the grammatical-historical hermeneutics, which is the method that Christians use to interpret all of Scripture. We come to understand the intended meaning of the Bible by the logical rules of grammar in the text and the historical and cultural contexts in which those words were penned. The result is a Bible that reveals its meaning in the normal, obvious sense, and has principles whose meaning to the original recipients are binding and understood by all generations. In other words, the Bible communicates literal truth, and not allegory (or at least allegory that is not explicitly explained by the authors of the text).

Genesis 3As with other texts or principles in the Bible, Genesis 1-11 has only one meaning and intention, which is to communicate the beginnings of life. This is the way the Israelites in Moses’ time understood this text, since there was no indication from other texts in the Old Testament, New Testament, or apocryphal writings that the Israelites and other biblical figures understood the world to be made through an evolutionary process. To claim that God perfected the world through evolution and hid this truth from Moses (because the evolution concept was too “difficult for them to grasp at the time”) is to cast suspicion on God’s truthfulness and even the Bible’s perspicuity. How likely is it that such important truths are unexplained to godly men like Moses but providentially revealed to God-hating atheists like Charles Darwin? The fact that the theory of evolution has done more damage than good to the cause of the gospel (since it is supported and lived out by many non-believers) is already a serious indicator of its erroneousness.

Even the meaning of the Sabbath in the 4th Commandment is based on the creation account. Because God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th day, the Israelites were expected to honor this creation account as part of their allegiance to Yahweh. The 4th Commandment would have no real meaning apart from the historicity of the creation events. Such a command for the Israelites would be quite mysterious, if not arbitrary.

A third reason to understand Genesis 1-11 is based on empirical observations. Skeptics claim that the world evolved through billions of years, and that there was never such an event as a worldwide flood or the scattering from Babel. Once again, such claims are based on the presupposition that there is no such thing as the supernatural, which includes God and all He is capable of doing. If evolution is true, then life in the world should continually be evolving into a better, more beautiful, and more advanced state. That is not what we see today, as we observe the order and beauty of this world degrading and running out of usable energy. This is the 2nd law of thermodynamics – that all things in the world tend to go from order to disorder, and not the other way around. Just the fact that there are no verifiable evidence that evolution is happening right now, that cells mutate drastically as to change into another species, or that life arises instantaneously from non-life, is an indicator that life must have been come from a first Cause who designed it the world in a certain manner. The Bible reveals that God created everything ex nihilo (out of nothing) (Gen 1), according to its own kind (Gen 1:12; 24), and instantaneously in order to demonstrate His power, glory, and purposes for people. In fact, God revealed this truth to Moses so that the Israelites would understand which God it is that created the world, how He did it, and why He did it so they could understand the truth of God, sin, tribes and languages, and God’s redemptive promises for mankind.

The historical accounts in Genesis 1-11 is reasonable in many different ways. If there was no God who created the world in 6-days and rested on the 7th, why does the world run on a weekly cycle of 7 days (in which people find it an inclination to typically rest one day from work)? Why is the world created good, but there is evil and suffering in it? Why is there such thing as death and not everlasting life? Can this be explained by the fall of Adam and the consequent curse? Why are there fossil records all over the world, even on mountaintops? Can this be explained by a worldwide flood which speaks of God’s judgment on the sinful world? Why are there flood accounts in many early traditions of Middle Eastern and Asian cultures? Does this point to the ancestors’ familiarity with a global flood, which people kept as an oral tradition from the time of the flood to the Tower of Babel? Why are there various languages in the world? How did they originate (instead of just one language to unite all communication between mankind)? Is this an indication of the historicity of Babel and God’s judgment on the sinful pride of man by creating disunity in language and scattering the people worldwide?

The final reason for the historicity of Genesis 1-11 is the theological issue. If the skeptic’s analysis of Genesis 1-11 is true, then most major doctrines of the Christian faith is distorted. If man was not created by God, but evolved, then who exactly is Adam? Was there really such thing as a fall and entrance of universal sin? If Adam was one of many Neanderthal men who evolved over time, does this mean that only Adam’s line fell into sin while the other Neanderthal were unaffected by sin? Of course, this poses problems to the gospel message and the necessity of Jesus’ atonement on the whole human race. If Adam was not a real person, who is to say that Jesus was real either. If the original man did not fall into sin, then who is to say that we need the righteousness that Jesus provides through His death and resurrection? This would make the Apostle Paul’s theological treatise of Adam and Jesus to be utterly vain (Rom 8:12-20), since they don’t correspond with reality. If the historical creation account were not true, then who is to say that marriage is exclusively between man and women (Gen 2), or that marriage must be lifelong? If the Tower of Babel incident is not historical, then what is the real significance of Pentecost (Acts 2) – an event in which Peter spoke in various world languages that indicated God’s desire to bring together what He once scattered through those same languages?

Much more can be said to prove the legitimacy of Genesis 1-11. But the real issue (for both skeptics and professing Christians) is submitting to the Lordship of Christ. Are you submitting to God’s word and His rule, or are you caving into academic respectability and cultural relevance? Are you desiring to obey God or be a man-pleaser? To deny the historicity of Genesis 1-11 poses theological problems and strikes at the foundation of God’s word. If one gets Genesis (the beginning of the book) wrong, then there is no telling how much more he will get the other parts of the Bible wrong. This is why it is important for Scripture be the interpreter of life’s mysteries, and not the other way around. True science and history will also be validated by the words of Scripture, as many historical discoveries have attested. The problem is not the clarity of Scripture, but sin in men’s hearts, which leads to distrust of God and compromise with the world’s system.

Recommended Resource: The Battle for the Beginning by John MacArthur