Before Genesis 1:1
In a March 24, 2006 seminar with the staff of the US Center for World Mission, Ralph Winter tied together recent scientific information from the New York Times with his speculations about the origins of the universe, the entrance of evil, and the human story. This was only important to him as it gives rationale for an enlarged scope of the mission of the body of Christ to work with God to defeat His adversary. You can listen to a 9-minute audio excerpt of this talk here. Beth Snodderly has provided an edited transcription of his talk in this blog.
In a New York Times article this week, a diagram from the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History shows that debris resulting from another planet sideswiping the earth formed the moon. The planetary collision knocked the earth off kilter and its rotation axis titled with respect to the sun. This gives us our seasons. If we take this type of scientific evidence seriously, how does this fit with the creation events in Genesis 1?
The perspective I’m going to describe does not take time seriously in an absolute sense. One of the things the Bible teaches us is not to take time too seriously in terms of absolute length. Rather time periods are described in ways that emphasize what the Bible thinks is important. For example, the Gospel of Matthew marks off three time periods:
14 generations from Abraham to David
14 generations from David to the Exile
14 generations from the Exile to the birth of Jesus.
But that’s not true in an absolute sense. It’s a pedagogical framework. These are long periods of time, just not in the absolute sense. From Abraham to David might be, say 1700 years. From David to the Exile might be 700 years. The Exile was 70 years. These are significant periods of time. The Bible is teaching us to look at history this way. You might say this is a 3-act play.
I want to give a different perspective. When you look at the early time periods in the scientific understanding of the universe you find billions of years. The origin of the universe is thought to be 13 billion years ago. The origin of the earth is 4 ½ billion years ago. This is the New York Times approach. Then the Cambrian Explosion comes in at 500 million years BC. These periods are not equal in size. Let’s follow Matthew’s pedagogical technique and divide this into 4 Acts.
Act 1 is the time between the beginning of the universe and the beginning of the Cambrian Explosion. This entire period is compressed into Act 1; almost 13 billion years.
Act 2, then, starts with the Cambrian Explosion and lasts up to the history recorded in Genesis 1. Almost 500 million years. Much smaller than Act 1.
Act 3 is even smaller. This is where the Bible begins. Just like Matthew doesn’t begin at the beginning, but begins with Abraham—not at “the” beginning, but at “a” beginning—the Old Testament starts not with “the” beginning but with “a” beginning. So this is where Genesis comes in and Eden, the Fall of man, and the whole human story.
These periods are not equal in time, but in some sense are equal in meaning, in significance.
ACT 1: All the way down to the Cambrian Explosion. This is where the Fall of Satan came into the picture.
ACT 2: The Cambrian Explosion goes all the way down to this period [Genesis and Adam’s Fall]. You have two Falls: the Fall of Satan and the Fall of Adam.
ACT 3: The human situation.
This is one way to look at it.
John Eldgridge wrote a little book called The Epic, a 3-act "play."
He says you can’t start in Genesis with this play. According to Eldridge and according to Merrill Unger, a professor of Old Testament at Dallas Seminary, the geologic ages took place prior to Genesis 1:1.
Genesis 1:1 is just the beginning of what the author wants to tell about. This is the Abrahamic story. If you think of the Bible as an ordinary book you would think of Genesis 1–11 as the Introduction. It gives the backdrop of the rest of the book. The book begins with Abraham. That’s why Matthew begins with Abraham.
(In other places in both the Old Testament and New Testament, the beginning of everything is referred to. John 1:1 is the beginning of everything.)
So if Genesis is Act 3, the beginning of the human story, then Act 2 is the entrance of evil. On p. 29 of his book, John Eldridge says most people do not live as if life has a villain and that makes life very confusing. Famine, betrayal, war, murder. Surely we know there is an evil force in the world. Where did it come from? What is its motive? How are we to find refuge from its claws?
I would add: How does it help us define our mission in this world?
On p. 39 Eldridge says, “I am staggered by the level of naivete most people live with regarding evil. They don’t take it seriously. They don’t live as though the story has a villain. … Dear God, like the holocaust, child prostitution, terrorist bombings, genocide movements. What is it going to take for us to take evil seriously? Life is very confusing if you don’t take into account that there is a villain.”
On p. 75 he’s now talking about the next Act, the drama of restoration. Of God correcting the evil. This is the human part of the story.
There are significant reasons to think in terms of what happened before Genesis 1:1. In the Cambrian period you have the entrance of vicious animals. But in Genesis 1 you have non-carnivorous life. This is also like it will be in the end, Isaiah 6:11, when the lion will lie down with a lamb. The great virtue of thinking of something prior to Genesis is to take seriously, and no longer to be naïve, of the extent of the damage to God’s creation inflicted by Satan’s Fall. I am speculating that this happened at the point of the Cambrian Explosion.
The great importance of a large picture like this, which this little book eloquently portrays, is that it allows us to take evil much more seriously. It allows us to perceive evil. The average person doesn’t see evil in animals tearing each other apart. We are used to it.
What does God want us to do about the evil in this world? The Son of God came at the center of human history to defeat the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). What does God expect of His other children?