And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5 ESV)
In Genesis 1:3–5, we are greeted with light. According to most commentators, the light was either created by God or manifested by himself. This light separated the darkness, was observed by God as being “good” and was called “day” while the darkness was called “night.” Together they made up the first evening and morning of day 1 of creation week. One of the most frequent questions we receive at Answers in Genesis is about this passage and specifically the question, “What was the light source on days 1–3 if not the sun?”
The Bible is silent about the source. Nevertheless, this is a question which has been debated and speculated upon among scholars and theologians for nearly two millennia. Though we can’t give you all of their comments in this short article, we’ll give you a taste of some of them. And the answers given are decidedly varied. In the sources below, we’ll include quotes from several theologians, scholars, and rabbis. In each section, we’ll introduce the thought each writer had on the light of Genesis 1:3–5 and look at them in comparison to Scripture.
A Manifestation of Christ’s Glory?
Tertullian (155–220 AD) of Carthage was an early Christian apologist and theologian. He believed that the light was a physical manifestation of Christ’s glory early in creation week, four millennia before the Incarnation.
Then, therefore, does the Word also Himself assume His own form and glorious garb, His own sound and vocal utterance, when God says, Let there be light. Genesis 1:3 This is the perfect nativity of the Word, when He proceeds forth from God . . . 1
But in respect of the previous works of the world what says the Scripture? Its first statement indeed is made, when the Son has not yet appeared: And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. Genesis 1:3 Immediately there appears the Word, that true light, which lights man on his coming into the world, (John 1:9) and through Him also came light upon the world. From that moment God willed creation to be effected in the Word, Christ being present and ministering unto Him: and so God created. 2
Because God created the light, this naturally makes God the ultimate source by His power but what was the specific source?
However, John 1:9 is using light in a metaphorical sense of revealed truth—the Truth of God. It is also used in the sense of illuminating that Truth to mankind. So it may not be the best interpretation to say this physical light in early Genesis 1 is explained by the light of Christ in John 1. Because God created the light, this naturally makes God the ultimate source by his power, but what was the specific source?
Was the Original Source a Pillar of Fire That Later Became the Sun?
Ephrem the Syrian (306–373 AD) was an apologist, a hymnographer, and a theologian in Edessa, Syria. Ephrem speculated that the first light was like a huge bright mist or a pillar of fire and that after day 3 ended, God repurposed that light (and its heat) into the sun, moon, and stars.
After Moses spoke of heaven and earth, of the darkness, the abyss and the wind that came to be at the beginning of the first night, he then turned to speak about the light that came to be at dawn of the first day. At the end of the twelve hours of that night, the light was created between the clouds and the waters and it chased away the shadow of the clouds that were overshadowing the waters and making them dark . . . . The light then was like a bright mist over the face of the earth. Whether it was like the dawn or like the pillar that gave light in the wilderness to the people, it is obvious that it was unable to chase away the darkness that was spread over the face of everything, unless it had spread out completely over everything, either by its substance or by its appearance.
After the brightness [ of the light ] rendered its service for three days, lest, like nothing, it return to nothing, well did God bear witness concerning it by saying "behold, it was very good." [Genesis 1:4] . . . for He included all that had been made together with all that was created in six days, when He said on the sixth day: "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." [Genesis 1:31]. Because that first light was created good, it rendered its service by its brightness for three days and it also served, as we say, for the conception and the birth of everything that the earth brought forth on the third day. The sun was in the firmament in order to ripen whatever had sprouted forth under that first light. It is said that from this light and from the fire, which were both created on the first day, the sun, which was in the firmament, was fashioned, while the moon and the stars also came to be from that same first light.3
However, a logical problem presents itself here. The sun is like a pillar of fire—nuclear fusion fire that doesn’t need oxygen like fires on earth. So the sun would really have been made on day 1, and then slightly modified on day 4 in this view. Yet we read that God made the greater and lesser lights4 on day 4—as well as the stars, which would render the making of things on day 4 seem almost redundant.
Furthermore, unlike the light that was on days 1–3, these newly fashioned lights were “placed” or “set” in the expanse by God (Genesis 1:17) to give light on the earth. So any alleged “repurposed” material coalescing into the sun, moon, and stars doesn’t appear to fit this description. Also, why would God have to say these new sources were to give light on the earth if that previous material making the pillar of fire was already doing that? While it is certainly within God’s power and discretion to repurpose or use existing material to create something new and totally different (i.e., Adam from dust), there is no explicit statement (as was the case with Adam’s creation) that this was what God did on day 4 with day 1 material.
Keep in mind that the sun, for example, was made by God on day 4 and then set into place per Genesis 1:17, so that seems to be an argument against using previous materials that were already in place as primordial to the sun’s makeup.
Was the Source an Essence of the Sun, but Without Its Substance?
Using the analogy of fire and a lamp, Basil concluded that God took the “fire” from days 1–3 and put it in the “lamp” of the sun on day 4.
Basil of Caesarea (329–379 AD) was the Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia and an ardent apologist and theologian. Basil used a unique argument for what the light of the first three days was. He concluded that God created the essence of the sun the first three days, without creating its substance until day 4 of creation week. Using the analogy of fire and a lamp, Basil concluded that God took the “fire” from days 1–3 and put it in the “lamp” of the sun on day 4. This is likened to the burning bush where the light of the fire existed, but the fire was not really burning from the bush.
The motive follows which caused the lights to be created. It was to illuminate the earth. Already light was created; why therefore say that the sun was created to give light?... Now there is nothing here contradictory to what has been said of light. Then the actual nature of light was produced: now the sun's body is constructed to be a vehicle for that original light. A lamp is not fire. Fire has the property of illuminating, and we have invented the lamp to light us in darkness. In the same way, the luminous bodies have been fashioned as a vehicle for that pure, clear, and immaterial light. . . .
And let no one suppose it to be a thing incredible that the brightness of the light is one thing, and the body which is its material vehicle is another. First, in all composite things, we distinguish substance susceptible of quality, and the quality which it receives. The nature of whiteness is one thing, another is that of the body which is whitened; thus the natures differ which we have just seen reunited by the power of the Creator. And do not tell me that it is impossible to separate them. Even I do not pretend to be able to separate light from the body of the sun; but I maintain that that which we separate in thought, may be separated in reality by the Creator of nature. You cannot, moreover, separate the brightness of fire from the virtue of burning which it possesses; but God, who wished to attract His servant by a wonderful sight, set a fire in the burning bush, which displayed all the brilliancy of flame while its devouring property was dormant.5
One presumption here is that light must be connected to fire. Another assumption is that light is mere incandescence and not material. In our modern understanding, we know that light can be made from other sources besides the typical fire—incandescent light bulbs, LEDs, nuclear reactions, plasma, etc. Think of a flashlight, for example.
Is it possible God made light without a source and later the source was attached to the light? It’s possible. Though the Scriptures seem to imply that the light from the new sources on day 4 (sun, moon, stars) was unique to the creation of each source, not attached to previous light. Though a unique explanation, it seems to discount the need for this light source also to provide heat, which would have been needed by the seas (liquid water) and the plants on day 3. For this reason, we would still suggest caution in accepting this model.
Did Angels, Who Are Often Described as Luminaries, Provide the Light?
Augustine (354–430 AD) of Hippo was the bishop of Hippo, a prolific author, and a theologian. Augustine believed that the light on days 1–3 was specifically created (not a manifested essence of God), not something which was later repurposed. He believed that God created angels on day 1 and that they were the light which shone on the earth for three days (likely based on scriptural references such as Psalm 104:4, Ezekiel 1:13–14, Matthew 28:3, Acts 12:7 and Revelation 18:1).
It usually troubles people how there could be bodily light before there was the heaven or the lights of heaven that are mentioned afterwards. [They act] as if a man can easily or in any way perceive whether apart from the heaven there is a light and whether that light is nonetheless divided and diffused in the stretches of space and embraces the world. But since we may also understand here an incorporeal light, if we say that this book describes not only visible creation, but all of creation, what need is there to delay in this dispute? And since men ask when the angels were made, they are perhaps signified by this light, very briefly, but still most suitably and appropriately.6
It is a way of showing that on the first day, on which light was made, the setting up of the spiritual and intelligent creation is being announced under the name of light—the nature of this creation being understood to include all the angels and powers? . . . Nor is it to be wondered at that God should first show his holy angels formed in that primal fashioning of light, what he was going to create from then on.7
Angels are often lumped as luminaries or as bearing light (e.g., Job 38:7; Psalm 104:4; Acts 12:7; Revelation 1:2, 12:9). So this explanation is possible. Having multiple angels as the source of light allows for multiple directions of light for the initial creation of light on day 1, prior to it being separated to allow darkness to remain. Keep in mind, however, that Christians are also called the light of the world and told to let their light shine (e.g., Matthew 5:14–16)!
And we run into a subtle issue here. Angels are all spiritual beings (e.g., Hebrews 1:14). This brings us to a metaphysical question of how light from spiritual beings manifests itself as physical light in our universe. Augustine’s proposition is predicated on light being spiritual and not physical, an assumption he mentions where light is supposedly incorporeal. Light, however, is physical and operates within space-time.
By the power of God, angels could potentially manifest and be the light source. But we have little scriptural basis (except for possibly Revelation 18:1) for making this claim in Genesis 1. And even if this is the meaning of the text, these angels would not only have had to radiate light but also heat, in order for the waters to be liquid (Genesis 1:9–10) and the plants (Genesis 1:11–12) to thrive. Because the genre of literature is different regarding Revelation and Genesis, caution should be exercised for this interpretation. So again, this speculation may not be the soundest explanation.
Was It God’s Shekinah Glory?
Although there are plenty of Bible passages that discuss the metaphorical nature of good and evil being light and darkness, Genesis 1 may not be the best to read this idea back into since it is discussing physical light in our creation.
The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (completed c. 500 AD) is a commentary and exposition on Genesis by a group of Babylonian rabbis. There are several mentions of the light in Genesis 1:3–5, with several being merely expositions on how light symbolizes good (or God) while darkness symbolizes evil. Although there are plenty of Bible passages that discuss the metaphorical nature of good and evil being light and darkness, reading this idea back into Genesis 1 may not be ideal since it is discussing physical light in our creation.
But perhaps the most pertinent rabbinic discussion is the one which attempts to answer the question of what that first light source was. For the rabbis, it was the physically manifested shekinah glory of God, which in later Scripture was to reside in the Tabernacle and Temple (Exodus 40:34; 2 Chronicles 7:1–2) and which was mentioned to shine on the whole earth (Ezekiel 43:2).
Rabbi Shimeon Ben Yehotzadak asked Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachman: Since I heard that you are a master of agadot, tell me from where was the light created? He answered: [the text] teaches that the Holy One of Blessing enveloped Himself [in it] as [one does with] a cloak, and made the splendor of His glory shine from one end of the world to the other. He told him this agadah in a whisper: he said to him - there is even a full verse [about it] 'He wears light as a cloak' (Psalm 104:2). [Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachman said] And you are telling this to me in a whisper? This is surprising! He told him: Just as I heard it in a whisper, I'm telling you in a whisper. Said Rabbi Berachia in the name of Rabbi Itzchak: The light was created from the place of the Beit Hamikdash [Temple], since it is written 'And behold the glory of the God of Israel comes from the way of the East' (Ezekiel 43:2) and is not His glory the Beit Hamikdash [the Temple], as you say: 'A throne of glory, on high from the beginning, the place of our sanctuary' (Jeremiah 17:12) etc. 8
No doubt, God can use his glory to shine (e.g., Luke 2:9; Revelation 21:23). But we are left with the fact that God never said this happened for the initial created light. Furthermore, 2 Corinthians 4:6 might indicate the light came from the darkness itself, which seems to refute this idea, though we cannot be dogmatic. So this is still speculation.
Psalm 104:2 is a poetic passage. Though it is a beautiful descriptor of the purity of God in perfect goodness of his majestic and honorable nature, it should not be used to interpret the historical narrative in Genesis 1 as a physical light source. Again, it raises a metaphysical question through which we have no exegetical basis.
A Moving Light Source on Days 1–3
Matthew Poole (1624–1679 AD) was an English Puritan, a theologian, and a Bible commentator. Poole believed that the light on the first three days of creation week was some type of bright cloud, which moved across the earth. It was later repurposed as the sun on the fourth day.
There was light; which was some bright and lucid body, peradventure like the fiery cloud in the wilderness, giving a small and imperfect light, successively moving over the several parts of the earth; and afterwards condensed, increased, perfected, and gathered together in the sun. 9
Poole’s speculation is subtly different from previous theologians who believed in a “repurposed light.” Poole did not have a fixed light source, but rather one that moved across the earth. So his belief was that God not only repurposed that initial light as the sun on day four but also that he greatly increased its power and localized it. Once again, we need to remember that Genesis 1:16 states that God made the sun (and moon) and placed them in the expanse (or firmament). This seems to make any type of repurposed light source less plausible than a specifically created one.
Though it is not a problem for God to take previously used material and do something else with it, there is a problem in that we are given no indication that this was the case with the original light source material. The material might still exist or may not exist from an initial source. But the sun, moon, and stars were made uniquely on day four and set into place. It is not a problem for God to create these in an ex nihilo fashion on day four.
The late Dr. John Whitcomb (1924–2020) was a theologian and author/coauthor of several young-earth creation works, including The Genesis Flood, which is often credited with igniting the modern creationist movement. Dr. Whitcomb believed that the light on the first three days was some type of proto-sun, which was done away with once God created the sun on day 4. He wrote,
God created a fixed and localized light source in the heaven in reference to which the rotating earth passed through the same kind of day/night cycle as it has since the creation of the sun.10
The second heaven of outer space was totally empty and therefore dark until a temporary localized astronomic light was created to begin the day/night cycle.11
Dr. Whitcomb’s belief was much more in accord with what Scripture has to say on this subject in that there is no mention of repurposing of the initial light source from days 1–3. Instead, the text seems to state that God created a temporary and localized light source that was done away with when the sun was created, as it was no longer necessary. It is clear that Dr. Whitcomb viewed days 1–3 as literal 24-hour days, and that the first light served the same basic [temporary] function as the sun which replaced it.
An Unnamed Temporary Local Light Source
Ken Ham, who is the co-founder and CEO of Answers in Genesis, an apologist, and a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, wrote about this subject in chapter 8 of the New Answers Book 1. In the “Objection 2” section of that chapter (and an associated footnote), Ken does not take a position on what the light source on days 1–3 was, but he observes that it must have been a light source which shone on a rotating earth once the light and darkness were separated to functionally serve the same purpose as the later-created sun.
The first three days are written the same way as the next three. So if we let the language speak to us, all six days were ordinary earth days. . . . The sun is not needed for day and night. What is needed is light and a rotating earth. On the first day of creation, God made light (Genesis 1:3).
The phrase “evening and morning” certainly implies a rotating earth. Thus, if we have light from one direction, and a spinning earth, there can be day and night.12
Some people ask why God did not tell us the source of this light. However, if God told us everything, we would have so many books we would not have time to read them. God has given us all the information we need to come to the right conclusions about the things that really matter.13
Like Dr. Whitcomb, Ken takes Scripture as written and believes that it teaches a localized and temporary light source for the light of days 1–3. There is no hint of God repurposing this light source material as the sun on day four. Although Ken does not specifically say that the day 1–3 light source was done away with, that was not the thrust of his article, which was to highlight that Genesis 1 and 2 clearly teaches a literal six-day creation week, with God resting on the seventh day.
As can be seen from the small sampling above, there are numerous views on this subject, and all of them are based on accepting the Bible as the ultimate authority and then using theological inference from Scripture alone to develop an explanation for that which Scripture does not specifically state. Ultimately, we must admit that Scripture doesn’t satisfy our curiosity on this question, but leaves us free to put forth possible explanations, as long as we acknowledge that we cannot dogmatically assert our favored hypothesis as “fact.”
Some Additional and Summary Thoughts on the Subject
It is logical for the light on days 1–3 to be created light from a source(s) that no longer exists or isn’t used as such any longer.
Creation week was a unique week of Divine work, so we think it is logical for the light on days 1–3 to be created light from a source(s) that no longer exists or isn’t used as such any longer. Light itself is physical and part of creation (existing within space-time). The rest of the creation week, there is no question with the “Let there be”s enacting creative entities in the physical world since Genesis 1:2 shifts our focus specifically to the earth and the physical space/time/matter universe in which it sits.
In a similar fashion, light shone around Paul/Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3), and this light came from heaven, but was not necessarily an emanation from God. Is this light around Paul from the physical heavens (i.e., sky) or the heaven of heavens (i.e., the spiritual heavens, God’s Throne Room)?
If from the physical heavens, then it is possible that God created the heavens with the ability to produce light as a natural property—one such example with specific conditions required are the auroras (gaseous particles in the earth's atmosphere interacting with charged solar particles). God, of course, knows how and has the power to activate it—using natural conditions, or even supernatural ones if he wishes. Bear in mind that the heavens were made prior to the light per Genesis 1:1.
Keeping in Mind the Genre Differences Between Genesis and Revelation
We often turn to Revelation for comparison, but we’re always a bit hesitant to take prophetic language in Revelation to interpret historical narrative in Genesis (e.g., Revelation 21:23, 22:5) on specific words. The Lamb is the city’s light for example, but at the same time, the people of the city will have their own light, and the city was its own light like a most precious stone (e.g., Revelation 2:28, 3:12, 21:2, 21:11).
Furthermore, the light is used in different ways in Genesis and Revelation. The light in Genesis is a localized light source shining on a rotating earth. In Revelation 21:23 and 22:5, the light of God’s glory seems to radiate in all directions and permeate all of New Jerusalem, which is never mentioned as rotating.
Also, Revelation 21:23 and 22:5 specifically mention the light of the sun, but do not mention its heat. And Revelation 21:23 mentions the moon is not necessary for light, yet Isaiah 66:22–23, in talking about the new heavens and new earth, mentions that there will be a moon. Is it possible that there will still be a sun necessary for radiating heat? We are not specifically told, but it is possible—of course, this dives into the debate of meanings in Revelation (literal, metaphorical, apocalyptic, and so on), which is not the purpose of this article.
Scripture states that light emanates from God or the spiritual heaven of heavens or even other spiritual beings like angels, cherubs, or heavenly hosts (even though they are often related as stars or beings with light capabilities, e.g., Job 38:7; Psalm 104:4; Acts 12:7; Revelation 1:2, 12:9). But when it comes to the issue of transforming spiritual (since God, angels, and spiritual heavens are spirit) to material realms—though this is not a problem for an all-powerful God—the issue is having an exegetical basis for it, which we don’t (again, except for perhaps in the prophetic book of Revelation, in which the glory of an angel produced light in chapter 18).
Admitting Our Limited Understanding and Letting God’s Word Have the Final Say
When God first created light, it lit up everything.
One overlooked aspect of this initial light is what it did on day 1. When God first created light, it lit up everything. We instantly want to categorize the light as originating from a single source, but are we limiting our understanding when we do this? Perhaps we are. The next thing God did was to separate the light from the darkness, thus darkness was still allowed to be present for half of the earth, which now indicates a potentially more narrowed source direction. And this cycle was indeed in place for the second and third day.
In 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul most likely refers back to creation with a statement that says, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . .” According to the Holy Spirit then, the light source could have been the darkness itself.14 Such an interesting postulate shows the power of God to bring light when he desires, where he desires, by his own power. Even with modern cosmology, we see an example of this. A black hole is usually thought of as complete darkness where no light can escape, yet black holes can cause light to be emitted. Indeed, light cannot escape from within a black hole, but matter falling into a black hole can emit lots of light.15
Even today, there are many aspects of light that we do not understand, and it is wise to step back and acknowledge this. What we can do is trust God’s Word as supreme and rest in his Word as the truth on the subject for what is sufficient for us to know.
So the light in Genesis 1:3–5 is light as the Scripture says—everyone agrees on that, but what was the source? As shown above, there are many different thoughts on this subject. But ultimately, we are simply not told. Throughout history people have speculated and continue to do so, but always test these proposals against the Scriptures.
Not having a sun before day 4 of creation is not a problem for biblical creationists. The temporary light source—whatever it was—by God’s design and purpose served to function as light and heat for the earth for three days.