The Time Element in Genesis 1 and 2

Oswald T. Allis, former professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 4 (October 1995)

Time and space figure so prominently in the affairs of mankind that we need constantly to remind ourselves that time and space are created categories, that they belong to the phenomenal universe in which we live. We use the words “eternal” and “everlasting” to describe that which is timeless. But we ought to realize that we have only the vaguest notion of what these words mean. Eternity is not definable in any terms of human experience. When Peter tells us that “a day is with the Lord as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day,” he is not telling us what eternity is. He is simply telling us that God is completely sovereign in that aspect of creaturely existence which we call time.

The Time Element in the Universe

It is a truism to say that the time element has figured very prominently in most if not all the discussions of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology in recent years. The astronomer tells us that the speed of light is about 186,300 miles per second, that light travels from sun to earth in a little over eight minutes. He measures the distances of stars in terms of light-years (six million million miles) and declares that the nearest star is about 4 light-years distant, that most of the stars are more than 100 light years away from us, that the farthest stars visible through our giant telescopes are some two billion light years distant. On this wise, time and, space become practically limitless and we might almost say meaningless.

But this is not all. According to the principles of nuclear physics the old law of the conservation of energy has to be modified. The phenomenal universe is running down. Uranium breaks down into lead, slowly it may be, very slowly, but no less certainly. Now, if we may liken the universe to a clock, which has been gradually running down for millions on millions of years, we are faced with the questions, How long did it take to make the clock? and, How long did it take to wind up the clock? Did they likewise involve incalculable eons of time? When was the beginning of things and how can we get back to it? Was there a Creation? Or is the universe eternal? Is the adding on of ciphers, changing millions to billions, billions to trillions, etc., really getting us anywhere?

Creation a Miracle

We turn now to the Bible for an answer to our problem. When we read the Creation account in Genesis 1 we are impressed with the simplicity of the narrative. It speaks of a fiat creation in terms of six days, each of which has an evening and a morning; and in Exodus 20 this six day creation is made the pattern for man’s daily living, six days of labor followed by a day of rest. Everything suggests a brief period of time. Interpreters may explain the days as eons, or introduce age-long intervals between them or before them. They may try to stretch out the narrative to make it cover the vast periods of time required by the modern scientist. But it can hardly be denied that all such interpretations and explanations are read into the narrative; whether rightly or wrongly is not now the question.

The Bible represents Creation as an act of God, a miraculous act by virtue of which a universe governed by the laws of time and space came into existence. If this be so, then the best way to study the creative acts of God which lie in a past so remote as to mark the very beginnings of the world which we know, will be to study the miracles performed by our Lord as they are recorded in the Gospels, remembering that these miracles, were performed by Him “by whom were all things created” (Colossians 1:16).

Disappearance of the Time Element in Jesus’ Miracles

We turn first to the healing of the nobleman’s son (John 4:46-53). The sick child was in Capernaum. The nobleman came to Cana to entreat the Lord’s help. He asked the Lord to come down to Capernaum and heal his son. Jesus dismissed him with the words, “Go thy way. Thy son liveth”; and the believing father discovered that the healing took place in Capernaum in the very hour when Jesus spoke the healing word in Cana. Distance made no difference. The same was true of the healing of the Centurion’s servant.

The miracle of the changing of the water into wine (John 2:1-10) is a most striking example of almighty power dispensing with time and with process. How long would it take to change water into wine by natural processes? Even if there had been a grape seed or a handful of seeds in the water, it would have been a long, time-consuming process involving months and even years. But there was nothing there but water; and it became wine in a period of time so brief as to be practically instantaneous.

The same applies to the feeding of the five thousand, a conspicuous and amazing miracle which is recorded by all four of the Evangelists (e.g. Matthew 14:15-21). The Lord blessed and brake the five loaves and two fishes and five thousand men besides women and children were fed. It is characteristic of these and of other miracles (e.g. 2 Kings 4:1-7) that the time factor is negligible if not entirely lacking. In them we have examples of fiat creation as in Genesis 1. Omnipotence is not dependent on or limited by time.

A second feature of great importance for our discussion which is illustrated by the last miracles referred to is the naturalness of the product. The wine of the marriage feast was not merely wine. It was better wine than that which the bridegroom had provided. The loaves and the fishes were multiplied into loaves and fishes sufficient to feed five thousand men; and John tells us that 12 basketfuls of the fragments of the loaves were collected. The real bread and the real fish which formed the little lad’s lunch became thousands of real loaves and thousands of real fishes under the creative hand of the Lord.

The Supernatural and the Natural

It is this element of naturalness which R. L. Dabney in his Lectures on Theology regarded as “the most vital point,” in studying the problem of Creation. He held that “The structures of nature around us cannot present by their traits of naturalness a universally demonstrative proof of a natural, as against a supernatural origin, upon any sound, theistic theory. Because supposing a Creator, originating any structures or creatures supernaturally, he must also have conferred on his first things traits of naturalness... Supposing a Creator, the first of each species must have received from the supernatural, creative hand every trait of naturalness; else it could not have fulfilled the end for which it was made: to be the parent of a species.” This means for example that Adam would have been created as if he had been born of a woman, because he was to be the first of a race of beings all of whom were to be born of woman, despite the fact that he, the first man, was not of the woman but the woman of the man.

This argument had been advanced by P. H. Gosse in his book, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot which was published in London in 1857. Dabney does not refer to it and probably had not seen it. Gosse’s book is quite summarily dealt with by Bernard Ramm in his recent book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). Ramm makes no mention of Dabney. He prefers to give the scientists all the time that they want to develop a cosmos by what practically amounts to a uniformitarian and naturalistic method, despite the fact that he declares himself to be a supernaturalist. Against such a view Dabney argues: “Why should the Theistic philosopher desire to push back the creative act of God to the remotest possible age, and reduce his agency to the least possible minimum, as is continually done in these speculations? What is gained by it? Instead of granting that God created a cosmos, a world, some strive continually to show that he created only the rude germs of a world, ascribing as little as possible to God, and as much as possible to natural law. Cui bono; if you are not hankering for Atheism? Is a completed result any harder for infinite powers than a germinal one? What is natural law; and what is its source? It originated in the creative power, and is maintained, energized, and regulated by the perpetual providence of God. Do you crave to push God away, as far as possible? It does not help you to say, natural law directed the formation of this mass of marble instead of supernatural creation; for God is as near and as infinite in his common, natural, as in his first, supernatural working.”

Paul on the Creation of Adam and Eve

This problem becomes especially acute when we consider the creation of Adam and Eve, to which we have already referred. Those who carry the antiquity of man back hundreds of thousands of years can hardly take the account of the creation of Adam and Eve literally. They will probably regard it as a symbolical representation, as an allegory. But it is significant that the Apostle Paul clearly saw something unique and distinctive in this narrative. He tells us, “For Adam was first formed, then Eve” (1 Timothy 2:13) and again and even more specifically, “for the man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man” (1 Corinthians 11:8). These statements certainly indicate that Paul understood the Creation account as meaning that Adam was not begotten and born in the way that all of his descendants who derive from him by ordinary generation have been born, but that he was the first man and that a mate was provided for him in a special supernatural manner, which was the reverse of the natural order; she was of the man. Such an interpretation by an inspired New Testament Apostle of a highly controversial Old Testament passage is both very significant and very important. It is entirely in accord with the view that Adam was the first man and that he was a special creation of God. It definitely rejects the view which the theory of Evolution has made so popular, that as Dabney expressed it, “Before each first, then, there must still be another first.” This he declared to be “the eternity of Naturalism—it is Atheism.”

An Evolutionist on the Origin of Man

In a recent article in the Saturday Evening Post, Loren Eiseley tells us that “The educated public has come to accept the verdict of science that the product of endless evolutionary divergence and change.” Elsewhere he tells us that “somewhere between about a million and 600,000 years ago” a little package of gray matter “quite suddenly appears to have begun to multiply itself in the thick-walled cranium of a ground-dwelling ape.” This was the beginning of man. What caused this multiplication, he does not, he cannot tell us. This is all the more remarkable because he declares that this multiplication of gray matter was “in a sense the most terrible explosion in the world.” He tells us that it “quite suddenly appears” which seems to imply that it just happened to take place after life had existed on the earth for three billion years. No mention is made of God until the final brief paragraph. The writer is concerned that man retain his free agency, his personality, his knowledge of history and its lessons in an age when “things,” technology, threaten to make him a tool. If this victory is achieved, it will not be, he tells us, “a human victory, but nature’s new and final triumph in the human heart—perhaps that nature which is also God.” This is either Pantheism or Atheism.

The Theistic View

There are thus two different ways of looking at the Creation account in Genesis. The one stresses process and naturalistic development, requires what amounts to an infinity of time for these processes and pushes the Creator God so far in the background, that he is practically replaced by nature, by the eternity of matter. The other is the theistic view. It recognizes the Creator God as the source and originator of all that exists. It recognizes that God’s two first activities were Creation and Providence, that by them the stage was set for the third and the greatest of all—Redemption. It recognizes that in creation God is entirely independent of time and space, that in providence he uses time and space, the processes of the natural world, as he wills for the accomplishment of his purposes. Hence while the Creation account is given to us largely in terms of Fiat Creation—“God spake and it was done”—this does not mean that process had no part. But as we have seen, the miracles of the Bible, both of the Old Testament and the New Testament, indicate that time was a negligible factor, while in God’s providential dealings a day may do the work of a thousand years. To what extent fiat creation, independent of time, and to what extent process, making use of time, entered into the work of the six creative days, it is we believe impossible to determine. Such statements as “God made” (vv. 16, 25) and “the earth brought forth grass” (v. 12), may allow for and probably do imply process. Consequently the thrice repeated “created” used of the creation of man (v. 27) is particularly significant. For Creation can dispense with time.


The subject with which we have been dealing is vast and difficult; and it is one regarding which in the very nature of things we have neither experience nor first-hand knowledge. Our contention is this, that in the miracles of Scripture we have the only clue to the great miracles of the Creative Week, and that these miracles indicate that God is completely sovereign over time and space, that the works of Omnipotence are independent of time, and can dispense with it and that our answer to Dabney’s question, “Is a completed result any harder for infinite powers than a germinal one?” must be an emphatic No! The solution of the problems of the first chapters in Genesis does not lie in making time and space infinite, but in the recognition of the Almighty power of that God of whose wonders of old the Bible is constantly telling us.

This article was originally published in Torch and Trumpet. We are not certain of the date. As the editor truly said, Dr. Allis was “a well known Presbyterian scholar, a staunch defender of the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God.”