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#740 Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1-11

July 11, 2021

Dr. Craig,

I was moved by your story of personal struggle and by your pleading that Christians should be charitable and tolerant of those who hold differing views on how Genesis 1-11 should be interpreted. You make a strong case for placing it in the genre of Mytho-History, but you’re also careful to say that you don’t consider the literal interpretation to be invalid or illegitimate.

In my experience as a Christian lay leader, the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 is becoming increasingly problematic, especially if taught as a central, unarguable tenet of Christian belief. It’s become a weapon in the hands of militant atheists. It’s an obstacle to honest seekers and a stumbling block to young Christians who eventually discover biological, geological, and astronomical facts that contradict what their parents and other trusted authorities once taught them. Strife, unbelief, even apostasy are in its wake.

Can a point ever be reached when we must honestly and charitably, if most reluctantly, declare the literalist interpretation of Genesis 1-11 to be untenable? Is it uncharitable even to ask?


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Dr. craig’s response


Tom, my reading of the cultural landscape in the West is exactly the same as yours. Young Earth Creationism, while well-intentioned, is increasingly an obstacle to the Gospel. So what should be our response? In my forthcoming book In Quest of the Historical Adam, here is how I attempt to negotiate this question.

I differentiate between Young Earth Creationism as a hermeneutical claim and Young Earth Creationism as a scientific claim. Hermeneutically, the claim is that Genesis is intended to be a historical account which is to be interpreted basically literally. Scientifically, the claim is that some sort of “creation science” is the correct view of the world in opposition to the current scientific consensus.

Although Young Earth Creationism is widely despised, its hermeneutical claim is eminently plausible and deserves to be taken seriously by the biblical scholar. Not a few non-evangelical, revisionist scholars agree that the Young Earth Creationist has rightly interpreted the text.[1] The difference between them is that the Young Earth Creationist believes that the text, so interpreted, is a true account of origins, while the revisionist believes that the account is false, though perhaps embodying deep truths.

On the other hand, Young Earth Creationism’s scientific claim is wildly implausible. By its proponents’ own admission, Young Earth Creationism places Genesis into massive conflict with mainstream science, not to mention history and linguistics.[2] In defense of their view, creation scientists tend to focus upon anomalies within the current scientific paradigm, failing to appreciate that the presence of anomalies serves neither to overturn the overwhelming weight of the evidence nor to establish a credible alternative paradigm.

I think that this is a charitable and sensible view of the matter. It permits us to allow that the literal interpretation is not invalid or illegitimate as a hermeneutical claim, even though such an interpretation is nonetheless false as a scientific claim. Of course, if we can show, as I endeavor to do, that a non-literal interpretation is hermeneutically a better interpretation (i.e., more accurately captures the original meaning of the text as it would have been understood by its author and audience), then so much the better! If, as many have proposed, Genesis 1-11 is mytho-history, then our hermeneutical claim does not come into conflict with our scientific claim. Thus, it may turn out as a result of a careful genre analysis of Genesis 1-11 that no novel re-interpretations of the text are necessary in order to integrate its teachings with the data of contemporary science, history, and linguistics. That would be good news for Christianity in Western culture!

[1] See, e.g., Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, rev. ed., The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1972), 47-8; James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 42; .John Day, From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11, Library of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament Studies 592 (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 2.

[2] Harlow lists the following areas of conflict:  Genesis 1: astronomy, atmospheric science, and evolutionary biology; Genesis 2-5: genetics, palaeoanthropology, and cultural anthropology; Genesis 6-9: biogeography and geology; and Genesis 10-11: palaeoethnography and linguistics (Daniel Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 [2010]: 193). Even if some of these conflicts can be resolved, the conflict of modern science with Young Earth Creationism remains massive.


- William Lane Craig