Over the last two hundred years, many outstanding Bible scholars who have done much good for the church have tried to find a way to fit millions of years into the Bible. Prior to the early nineteenth century, the almost universal belief among Bible-believing Christians was that God created the world in six literal days about 6,000 years ago and destroyed the earth with a global flood at the time of Noah.1
But in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, atheist and deist geologists developed new theories of earth history that involved “untold ages” (they were clearly thinking of millions of years). Most of the church quickly accepted that as proven scientific fact, and church leaders began to advocate ideas such the gap theory,2 the day-age view,3 and the local flood view.4
In my reading, seminary training, and experience speaking on creation and evolution in 35 countries, I have found that most Christians (whether students, lay people, scientists, or Bible scholars) who have accepted the idea of millions of years have ignored Exodus 20:11. But this verse is critical to the question of the age of the creation. It stands as an insurmountable stone wall to block every attempt to add millions of years anywhere into the Bible. Therefore, to be faithful to Scripture, Christians must reject the “big bang” theory and the billions of years of cosmological and geological history as myths.
Exodus 20:11 is very important because it is God’s Word in a special way: it was not written through Moses but rather directly on tablets of stone by God himself.
Exodus 20:11 is very important because it is God’s Word in a special way: it was not written through Moses but rather directly on tablets of stone by God himself. As part of the Ten Commandments, this verse stands as God’s own commentary on Genesis 1. It reveals to us the correct way to interpret Genesis 1.
In Exodus 20:8–10, God gave the children of Israel the fourth commandment: work for six days and then on the seventh day, take a Sabbath rest. He could have given the command without providing a reason for the command, as he did in the first and the fifth through the tenth commandments and other times when he commanded a Sabbath rest.5 Or he could have given a different reason for the Sabbath command (e.g., so their animals could rest,6 to avoid death for disobedience,7 to humble their souls,8 to remember their exodus from slavery in Egypt,9 or simply because he is the Lord10). But as in the second and third commands in Exodus 20, God gave a reason for the Sabbath command. The Israelites should work six days and rest on the seventh, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” And he repeated that reason in Exodus 31:15–17.
In Exodus 20:11, God used the same Hebrew word for “days”11 (yamim, the plural form of yom [day]) that he used in verse nine, showing that God’s days of creation in Genesis 1 were the same kind of days (the same length) as the days of the week for the Israelites. It is doubtful if any faithful Jew ever interpreted it any other way until the idea of millions of years started to take control of people’s minds about two centuries ago.
We should note that if God really created over the course of millions of years (as most Christians around the world today believe), he could have clearly indicated that in the Hebrew. He could have used the Hebrew word dor (דּוֹר), which is translated in English Bibles as time, period, or generation.12 Or he could have borrowed an Aramaic word, as he did in the books of Nehemiah and Daniel, such as zeman (זְמָ֑ן) or iddan (עִדָּן), which are translated as season, time, or period.13 Or he could have used some phrase such as “after many days,”14 “after some years,”15 “after thousands of ten thousand years,”16 or “after years of many generations.”17 But instead, God used the only Hebrew word, yom (יוֹם), that means a literal, 24-hour day, and it means that (or the light portion of a literal, 24-hour day, in contrast to night) in the majority of the 2,320 times it is used in the Old Testament.
One more point for this discussion: Exodus 20:8–11 clearly implies that the days of Genesis 1 (and therefore the events on those six days) are in sequential order, just as the days of a human week are. Sunday always comes before Monday, which always comes before Tuesday, etc. So, in Genesis 1, God created the earth completely covered with water and then he created light (day 1), then the expanse (firmament) to separate the water into two parts (day 2), and then the dry land and all kinds of land plants (day 3). After that, he created the heavenly bodies to serve as timekeepers for man (day 4), then the sea creatures and birds and other flying creatures (day 5), then all the kinds of land animals and, finally, the first man and woman to be the progenitors of mankind (day 6). Given that truth, we can readily see the many contradictions between the order of creation and the order of events in the evolution story.18 We cannot remove those contradictions no matter where we might try to fit millions of years.
It is clear: God created everything in the beginning in six literal, sequential, 24-hour days. The events on those days were not normal but were unique and supernatural as God spoke things into existence (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26; Psalm 33:6–9). He didn’t speak and then wait millions of years for things to happen. But the days were normal days (approximately 24 hours), just like our days, “all the days” of Adam’s 930 years of life (Genesis 5:5), and “all the days” of Noah’s 950 years of life (Genesis 9:29).
So, we can’t spread the millions of years over “figurative” or “symbolic” creation “days” (ages), as in the day-age view. And because God equated the human workweek with his creation week, there is no basis for saying that, in Genesis 1, long stretches of time (millions of years) transpired between the literal days, as in the “day-gap-day” view of John Lennox.19
But we also can’t fit millions of years before the six literal days, as in the old gap theory, the more recent “promised land” view of John Sailhamer, the view of John Lennox, or the “analogical day” view of C. John Collins. Nor can we fit the millions of years before Genesis 1:1, as in the “cosmic temple view” of John Walton and others. There was no time before the six days, because notice what God said he created in those six days: the heaven,20 the earth, the sea, and all that is in them. He didn’t make anything before the six days. He made everything during those six days.21 But when did God make the earth according to Genesis 1? He made it in verse 1, not in verse 3, which is where many Christians try to say that the six days begin. So, combining Exodus 20:11 with Genesis 1:1 unmistakably informs us that the six days begin in Genesis 1:1, not in 1:3.
There simply is no place to put millions of years of geological and cosmological time into or before Genesis 1—not in the days, between the days, or before the days of creation.
There simply is no place to put millions of years of geological and cosmological time into or before Genesis 1—not in the days, between the days, or before the days of creation. Exodus 20:11 completely rules out those interpretations. There are many biblical, historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons to reject the millions of years,22 but Exodus 20:11 is a very important biblical reason. Another very important reason which nearly all old-earth proponents ignore is the problem of accepting millions of years of animal predation, death, disease, extinction, and other natural evils. This is seriously incompatible with the Bible’s teaching regarding the original “very good” creation, regarding God’s curse on the whole creation when Adam sinned, and regarding the future removal of the curse on creation when Jesus comes again to create a new heaven and earth.23
As I said at the beginning, I have found in my reading and experience that most Christians who accept millions of years have not thought very carefully, if at all, about what Exodus 20:11 says in relation to the question of the age of the creation.
To see the truth and importance of Exodus 20:11 more assuredly, let’s now consider how some influential Christian scholars who accept the millions of years have handled this verse.
Through his 1955 book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm moved many to accept millions of years as he advocated the day-age view of Genesis 1. This is all he said about verse 11 in the fourth commandment: “The argument against the [day-age, progressive-creation] theory on the grounds of Exodus 20:11 is not at all significant. The verse simply means that the human week of seven days takes its rise from the divine week of seven creative epochs.”24 Following the scientific consensus by faith, he had already interpreted the days of Genesis 1 as “epochs.” Then he used this to silence Exodus 20:11. This is not sound interpretation of Scripture, for he ignored God’s own commentary.
Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology is widely used in seminaries in English and other languages. In his first edition in 1983, he showed no awareness of recent young-earth creationist literature, gave a shallow treatment of the view, and undogmatically leaned toward the day-age view of Genesis 1. But his only mention of Exodus 20:8–11 was not in his chapter on creation but in the chapter on Christology regarding Jesus’ view on keeping the Sabbath. In spite of saying in his 1983 first edition that the subject of creation warranted further study, his third edition in 2013 showed no improvement on his awareness of young-earth literature or our biblical and scientific arguments, and he still ignored Exodus 20:8–11.25
In his book, Genesis in Space and Time, the great apologist Francis Schaeffer devoted merely a single paragraph to the question of the length of the creation days and said he did not know how long they were (p. 57). His book makes no reference to Exodus 20:8–11.
Gleason Archer was a leading evangelical Old Testament scholar in the twentieth century. In an article defending the day-age view, he stated about Exodus 20:11 in regard to the six days of Genesis 1, “By no means does this [verse] demonstrate that 24-hour intervals were involved in the first six ‘days,’ any more than the eight-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles proves that the wilderness wanderings under Moses occupied only eight days.”26 This argument fails because Leviticus 23:33–43 does not connect the number of days of the feast to the number of years Israel wandered in the wilderness. Rather those verses link the command for the Israelites to dwell in booths during the feast with the fact that they dwelt in tents in the wilderness after they left Egypt.
Another influential, twentieth-century Old Testament scholar was E. J. Young. In his Studies in Genesis One, he says that first chapter of the Bible is “straightforward trustworthy history.” He asserts that Exodus 20:8–11 tells us the days of creation were “consecutive” and “chronological.” But he says the Bible does not tell us how long the days were and how old the earth is, thereby leaving the door open to the acceptance of millions of years as secular geologists claim.27 It is no surprise then that his son, Davis Young, went on to get his PhD in geology and teach for decades at Calvin College, convincing many students and evangelical theologians to believe in millions of years.
The late John Sailhamer is another prominent evangelical Old Testament professor who has had an impact on many, including John Piper, to accept millions of years.28 In Genesis Unbound, he argues that Genesis 1:1 refers to the creation of nearly everything over the course of millions of years. But verses 2–31 describe the creation of the promised land (which he equated with the garden of Eden) and the creatures in, above, and around the promised land. He said that Exodus 20:8–11 refers to six literal days of “preparing the [earth’s] sky, the land, and the sea,” but not the earth and universe.29 His novel interpretation of Genesis is seriously flawed.30
The highly respected British apologist John Lennox and well-known Old Testament professor C. John Collins try to evade the implications of Exodus 20:11 by saying that God’s work is different from man’s work.31 True, unlike man’s work, God’s work in Genesis 1 is supernatural, out-of-nothing, and not repeated, and God doesn’t get tired. But Exodus 20:8–11 is not comparing and contrasting man’s work and God’s work. Rather, the commandment is equating man’s week with God’s week of creation. Lennox and Collins have missed the point completely.
Wayne Grudem is arguably the most influential evangelical theologian in the world as a result of his many helpful writings, especially his Systematic Theology, which is translated into more than 12 major languages. He tries to get around Exodus 20:11 by saying that in the very next verse “‘day’ means ‘a period of time’”—so, since yom is used non-literally in the context, it therefore is not necessarily literal in verse 11.32 But two points expose the fallacy of this argument. First, yamim (plural of yom and used in 20:8–12) always means literal days everywhere else in the Old Testament. Second, in 20:12 it is not the word “days” (yamim) that is non-literal (figurative). Rather, it is the verb “may be long” (ESV, or “may be prolonged” as in NASB) that is used figuratively. In other words, verse 12 does not mean that if Israelites would keep the Sabbath, they would have longer days (say, 36-hour days) but that they would have many more (literal, 24-hour) days in the promised land to which they were going. Their disobedience would shorten their time of prosperity and residence in the promised land. Their obedience to God would enable them to stay and thrive as a nation in the land for a long time. Verse 12 simply does not say or imply that the six days referred to in Exodus 20:11 are figurative of long periods of time rather than being literal days.
In A Biblical Case for an Old Earth, David Snoke says, “It may sound trite to say that ‘with the Lord one day is as a thousand years’ (2 Peter 3:8; see also Ps. 90:4), but we do well to remember that God’s timing is not always our time.”33 It is indeed trite and irrelevant. Peter is referring to the second coming of Christ, not defining the length of the days in Genesis 1 or Exodus 20:8–11. And Moses’ words in Psalm 90:4 are (in the context of 90:1–3) referring to the eternal nature of God, not defining the days of creation. The rest of Snoke’s argument quotes Leviticus 25:2–11 to say that “the Sabbath law was clearly not restricted to periods of seven twenty-four-hour days. Leviticus 25 gives the Sabbath year law, as well as the Jubilee law, which was a Sabbath of Sabbath years, a period of seven times seven years.”34 Of course Scripture speaks of more than one kind of Sabbath. But those Sabbath years are literal years, just like the Sabbath day of Exodus 20:11 is literal. Furthermore, in Exodus 20:11, the question is not how to interpret “Sabbath” but “day.” And the Israelites did not have or take the liberty of deciding whether they would work six literal days before a Sabbath rest or work six long, indefinite periods of time and then rest a seventh long, indefinite period of time. Leviticus 25 is as irrelevant to the correct meaning of Exodus 20:11 as is 2 Peter 3:8 and Psalm 90:4.
John Walton is a famous Old Testament scholar at Wheaton College. His influence in the church is growing in America as well as other countries. In his book, The Lost World of Genesis One, he argues that God didn’t create anything in Genesis 1—it is not an account of material origins. Rather, he says, it is a description of God giving or assigning function to a preexisting creation. Everything was created before Genesis 1:1, and the Bible is silent about when and how God created. So, he contends, we can accept whatever the scientific majority says is true about the origin and history of the creation. His brief comments about Exodus 20:11 focus completely on persuading his readers that “made” (asah, עָשָׂה) means “gave function to” or “assigned function to” something that was made earlier.35 Walton’s view fails on so many points.
He assumes cosmological, geological, and biological evolution over millions of years are proven scientific fact, which they are not. He assumes that all Ancient Near-Eastern cultures had the same worldview and that ancient Israelites shared that view, which they did not.36 And then he uses the ancient pagan thinking37 as the grid through which he interprets Genesis 1–11. Furthermore, Genesis 1 does not say that God transformed the preexisting creation to become a cosmic temple in which to reside. In fact, Isaiah 66:1–2 says,
Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
Walton and others using the same hermeneutical approach are “trembling at” (believing) the words of scientists, rather than humbly trembling at (believing) the Word of God.
Furthermore, Genesis 1:14 says that the sun, moon, and stars were to serve a function—for man to measure time (literal days, years, and seasons). And God assigns a function for Adam and Eve—to rule over the creation (1:28). But God doesn’t assign a function for the firmament (made on day 2), or for sea creatures, birds, or land animals (made on days 5 and 6). And Genesis 1 says nothing about the creation functioning as a cosmic temple at the end of day 6. But also, if God really created the sun, moon, and stars to exist for billions of years before man (as Walton believes), then for most of their existence, they did not fulfill the purpose for which he created them. Or are we to think that, for billions of years, the heavenly bodies also did not function to separate the day and night until God gave them that function just before he created Adam and Eve? Isaiah 45:12 and 18 says that God created the earth to be inhabited by man. So, if God really created the earth 4.5 billion years before man, it did not fulfill the purpose to which God created it. What kind of God declares purposes like this and then waits billions of years to fulfill it? Not the God revealed in Scripture. Neither Genesis 1 nor Exodus 20:11 says or even suggests, “For in six days, God gave function to the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them which he had made before the six days.”
Finally, I want to comment on Hugh Ross’ handling of Exodus 20:11, because so many Christian leaders and scholars have endorsed his work that promotes the acceptance of the big bang, billions of years, death before the fall, and a local flood of Noah. Ross tries to neutralize this verse with two points.38 First, he says that of the five passages addressing the Sabbath command, three make no connection to God’s creation week and man’s week.39 But that doesn’t tell us anything about the meaning of Exodus 20:11 (and 31:17) which does make that connection. The fact that God gives more than one reason (or no reason) for keeping the Sabbath, does not negate the reason he gives in Exodus 20:11 and 31:17.
He then says, “For the remaining two passages, the ‘proof’ would hold only if neither the word for ‘day’ nor the word for ‘Sabbath’ were ever used with reference to any time period other than 24 hours.” Relying on Archer’s fallacious argument about the Feast of Tabernacles (noted above), Ross says there is more than one kind of Sabbath (e.g., a Sabbath day, a Sabbath year), just as in his many writings he contends that yom (“day”) doesn’t always mean a literal day, which young-earth creationists have always acknowledged. And so he says, “day” and “sabbath” in Exodus 20:11 can be understood to allow Christians to insert billions of years into Genesis 1.
But sound Bible interpretation is not done by looking up all the possible meanings of a word and then picking the one we want to insert into the verse(s) we are studying. That is eisegesis (reading into Scripture our opinion or belief), not exegesis (reading out of Scripture what God wants us to understand, do, or believe). No, we correctly interpret the Bible by looking at the context around the word in the verse(s) we are studying and by considering other verses that relate directly to that verse. When we do that, it is obvious biblically that the days of Genesis 1 and Exodus 20:8–11 are literal, normal, 24-hour days.
More attempts to ignore or evade the clear truth of Exodus 20:11 could be discussed. But the failed attempts discussed here reinforce the obviously correct interpretation. God made everything in the beginning in six literal, normal days just like ours.
It should also be noted that nobody has any trouble understanding the other nine commandments (although everyone has trouble obeying all of them). So, why all the convoluted arguments to attempt to explain away the obvious meaning of Exodus 20:11? Because these Christians have allowed the scientific consensus (i.e., the majority view of geologists and astrophysicists) about the age of the creation to control their interpretation of God’s Word. The fallible opinions of sinful human beings (who don’t know everything, who make mistakes requiring revisions of their textbooks, and who weren’t there to observe the origin and history of the creation) have trumped the inerrant Word of our eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, infallible Creator in their mind.
Exodus 20:11 stands as an insurmountable stone wall against any attempt to fit millions of years anywhere into Genesis 1, either in the days, between the days, or before the days of creation.
If God really created over millions of years, then Exodus 20:8–11 could not be more misleading. Conversely, if God did create in six literal days, he could not be more clear in this commandment and in Genesis 1.
Exodus 20:11 stands as an insurmountable stone wall against any attempt to fit millions of years anywhere into Genesis 1, either in the days, between the days, or before the days of creation. And Scripture is clear that those literal days of creation were just a little more than 6,000 years ago.40