In previous episodes, we’ve talked a little about the conflict between science and the Bible. Science tells us that the world is much older than you would think from reading the Bible. From the Bible, we get the idea that the world is maybe six to ten thousand years old. Science, though, tells us the world is billions of years old.
Faced with that, it seems we must conclude that either science or the Bible is wrong. For the most part, modern Christians today have concluded that the Bible is wrong, that the Bible is not to be taken as a record of things that really happened but is to be taken as stories to be interpreted allegorically.
The Creation Account in Genesis 1
This seems to be the only way to reconcile science and the Bible. The reason it seems to be the only way is because of how Christians have traditionally interpreted Genesis chapter 1, where we find the account of creation. The whole of Genesis chapter 1 has traditionally been interpreted as being a description of the very beginning. At the beginning of day one, there was nothing, and by the end of day six, God had created everything. In other words, Genesis chapter 1 is thought to describe the very first week of the existence of everything.
This is shown by how Christians usually interpret the first two verses. Verse one, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” is interpreted to be the moment of creation when God first brought things into being. Verse two, “And the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep,” is interpreted to be the way things were immediately after that initial moment of creation, and what God did during the next six days was finish the creation process.
That’s the way most of Christianity interprets Genesis chapter one. And, since science tells us that’s not what happened, most of Christianity today says that Genesis chapter one is an ancient allegorical myth. That is the consensus within Christianity today. You’d be hard pressed to go to any major, mainline church and find the idea of a literal, six-day creation promoted. Even if they did talk about it and claim to believe it, people wouldn’t really believe it, and that includes the pastor. People might give lip service to it, but they don’t really believe it. That’s why I say that most of Christianity today agrees that Genesis chapter one is an ancient, allegorical myth.
But what if Genesis chapter one is not an ancient allegorical myth? What if it’s not describing the very first week of the existence of everything? What if there’s another way to interpret it?
A Different Interpretation of Genesis 1
Well, there is another way to interpret it. It’s been around for at least a couple thousand years, although we usually don’t hear about it much. That’s what I’d like for us to look at today. Now, I will admit from the outset that this is a completely different way of looking at things than what we’re used to, but don’t reject it out of hand. Just consider it.
To start with, we need to think about the Old Testament. Remember that our Old Testament comes from ancient Judaism. Christians basically adopted some of the ancient Jewish Scriptures as the Christian Old Testament. So let’s think about how some ancient Jews interpreted these scriptures.
Within ancient Judaism, starting around 200 years before Jesus and continuing on up until about the year 600 A. D.—that’s a time span of about 800 years—there were what were called Jewish “sages.” These sages were Jewish scholars who interpreted the Jewish scriptures, and remember that many of those writings are in what we know as the Christian Old Testament. The interpretations of these sages, over that 800 year period, are considered basic in some branches of Judaism. They are not considered the same as scripture, but they are highly regarded.
Understand that just as there are different ways of interpreting the Bible within Christianity, so are there different ways of interpreting the scriptures within Judaism. Just like different Christians interpret the Bible differently, so do different Jews interpret their scriptures differently. Because of that, the interpretations of these Jewish sages, over that 800 year period, are not the same. There are different interpretations found.
One of those interpretations is of the creation account in Genesis. It was promoted by some Jewish sages over that 800 year period, and it’s especially interesting in regard to what we’re thinking about today. It’s a different way of looking at the creation account than the way we usually look at it, but keep in mind that it is an interpretation that has existed among some Jews for 2000 years or more.
Since it is so different, we’ll take it one part at a time, then put it together, and see what we have.
Scripture Must Always Agree
This interpretation of the creation account in Genesis hinges on the interpretation of several different passages in the Old Testament. It’s worth noting here that especially in ancient times, Jews took the scriptures very seriously—word for word. They combed the scriptures looking carefully at each word and each phrase and relating it back to other scriptures. They believed that scripture never contradicts itself. They also believed that scripture is more or less an outline—the basics—and you have to carefully study, even read between the lines so to speak, to fill in the rest. That’s one of the things the Jewish sages we talked about tried to do—read between the lines and fill in the rest. Remember, they looked at scripture as just an outline.
Also remember that these ancient Jews who took scripture seriously believed that scripture never contradicts itself. But, it seems like Genesis 1:2, which says “And the earth was without form and void,” (void here meaning “empty”) contradicts Isaiah 45: 18, which says, “The earth was not created empty.” Isaiah 45 says the world was not created empty, but Genesis 1: 2 says it was.
Since they believed scripture did not contradict itself, they had to find some way to reconcile this conflict. And so they decided that Genesis 1: 2 was not describing the situation at the moment of creation. The reasoning went like this: at the moment of creation, according to Isaiah, the world was not empty, so when Genesis 1: 2 says the world was empty (that’s the meaning of that word “void”), it can’t be describing things right after the moment of creation. It must be describing things at some point later. Since according to Isaiah, the world was not created empty, if it’s empty in Genesis 1: 2, it must be empty because God had destroyed what He had previously created.
If that’s the case, then there must be a span of time between Genesis 1: 1, “In the beginning,” when God created the heavens and the earth, and Genesis 1: 2, where it says the earth was empty. Genesis 1: 2 must have been a long time after Genesis 1: 1. There must be a gap of an undetermined period of time that has elapsed between Genesis 1: 1, when God initially created everything, and Genesis 1: 2, when the earth was empty.
The Sabbath and the Cycle of Seven
That’s the first part to understand. Keep it in mind as we go on to the next part. This part depends on the concept of the Sabbath. We usually think of the Sabbath as the seventh day of the week, when God commanded rest to commemorate His rest after creation. But the concept of Sabbath is also connected to other things. For example, listen to this from Leviticus 25, verses three and four:
“For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crop, but in the seventh year the land is to have a year of Sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the Lord; do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.”
Here we find the concept of the Sabbath in terms of years, and it’s related to agriculture. You are to farm for six years and let the land and fields rest on the seventh year.
And so, from scripture, we see the concept of the Sabbath being applied to days, in that the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, but also to years, in that, related to agriculture, the seventh year is a Sabbath year.
Also in the book of Leviticus, we see the concept of the Sabbath applied to seven times seven years. This is what is called the year of Jubilee in Leviticus. After 49 years, all slaves were freed, all debts were cancelled, and all property reverted back to its original owners.
There is a rhythm in the Old Testament in multiples of seven, where units of time are counted, and the seventh unit is a Sabbath unit of some sort. And, just like the weekly Sabbath, all these other Sabbaths are cycles that repeat over and over again. Every week, there is a Sabbath on the seventh day. Every seven years, there is an agricultural Sabbath during the seventh year. And every 49 years, which is seven times seven years, there is a Jubilee Sabbath. These ancient Jewish sages, who studied and interpreted the scriptures, noticed these cycles of seven units, and they realized that they all represent things going on in the first six units, with the seventh unit being a Sabbath of rest and release.
They took this cycle of seven units and applied the concept of Sabbath to a much longer period of time, and they came up with the concept of ages. What is an age? An age is a distinct period of history. And these sages said that the history of the world, since the very beginning, has been a succession of different ages. How long is an age? Well, there was a disagreement on that. Some said the unit of an age was 1000 years, so an age would last 6000 years and then a 1000 year Sabbath period would follow. Others said the unit of an age was 10,000 years, so that an age would last 60,000 years and then have a 10,000 year Sabbath. Others postulated an even longer time period as the basis. They couldn’t agree on how long the unit was, but however long it was, an age lasted six of those units, followed by a one unit Sabbath. For example, if you said the unit was 1000 years, the age would last 6 units, or 6,000 years, and then God would destroy that age, and everything would lie fallow, more or less, for 1000 years. And then, at the end of that Sabbath period, God would create another age, and a new age would begin. This cycle of an age and then Sabbath, an age and then Sabbath, repeats itself over and over.
There is a Jewish writing called the Midrash Rabbah. It’s an ancient Jewish writing that concerns the interpretation of the book of Genesis. It is in the form of questions and answers. In one place the question is asked, “What was God occupied with prior to His creation of our world?” The answer given is, “God was busy occupying Himself with the creation and destruction of other worlds.”
The Concept of Ages in the Bible
This is this concept of ages. One age lasts a certain amount of time, God destroys it, things lie fallow for the Sabbath period, and then God brings another age into existence. This was seen as happening over and over again, since the initial moment when God created the world.
They then applied this idea to Genesis chapter one, verses one and two. And they said that verse one is the beginning of everything, the moment of initial creation, while verse two is the beginning of this age, the one we’re in now. Between the initial creation in verse one and the beginning of this present age in verse two was a long, long period of time during which other ages existed. How many other ages? No one knows.
But here comes the interesting part. Where is the creation of Adam? It’s after verse two, so it’s in this age. According to this idea, Adam was not the first human being ever to exist; he was merely the first human being to exist in this age.
Other human beings may have existed in past ages, ages before this one, but Adam is the first human being in this present age. Were human beings in those other ages, if they existed, the same as human beings in this age? We don’t know.
History as a Succession of Ages
See what they’re saying? They’re saying that all of history is a succession of different ages. Things go on for a while, then an age is brought to a close—it is destroyed in some way—and after a Sabbath period where there’s nothing, God brings another age into being. According to this idea, everything we see in the Bible after Genesis 1: 1 relates to this age, our present age. We don’t have any information about what might have happened in past ages. The Bible doesn’t concern itself with that; the Bible only concerns itself with this present age.
The Concept of Ages Obscured by English Translation
Where did they get this concept of ages? Did they just make it up? No. It’s all over the Old Testament; it’s just that it’s obscured from us by English translation.
For example, take a familiar passage from Psalm 100: 5. It’s usually translated as something like, “For the Lord is good, His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures for all generations.” Actually, it’s not literally “His mercy is everlasting,” it’s “His mercy is for ages.” Most of the time in the Old Testament, when you see the word “forever” or “everlasting,” it’s actually the word for “ages.” In fact that construction occurs over 500 times in the Old Testament.
This concept of ages occurs over 500 times in the Old Testament scriptures; it’s just that we don’t see it because it’s usually translated as “forever” or “everlasting.” But the Jewish sages saw it. They saw how many times “ages” is referred to.
That’s where they got the idea that the Bible, from Genesis 1: 2 on, is talking about this age, and that there were other ages before, with other inhabitants of the earth. And so they said Adam was not the first man to ever live; Adam was the first man of this age.
Did all ancient Jews believe this? No. But some did, and since the concept of ages is mentioned 500 times in the Old Testament, we know that a lot did. It’s an idea that’s been around a long, long time.
The Concept of Ages in the New Testament
It was an idea that was around during the time of Jesus. The idea of ages is also reflected in the New Testament, although again, because of translation issues, we usually don’t notice it.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “And lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Actually, it’s not end of the world; it’s literally “the end of the age.”
In Luke, the angel appears to Mary telling her she will become pregnant and bear Jesus. The angel says this about Jesus, “And He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom, there shall be no end.” You might have guessed that “forever” is not the literal translation. It’s actually “through the ages,” and so this literally says, “And He shall reign over the house of Jacob through the ages, and of His kingdom, there shall be no end.”
It’s even in the familiar verse of John 3: 16, “That whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Guess what? The word “everlasting” is not in there. It’s literally “life through the ages.”
Most of the time in the New Testament, when you see the English words “eternal” or “everlasting,” it’s actually something like “through the ages.” So the concept of ages is found throughout the New Testament; it’s just that, just like in the Old Testament, it’s obscured by how the Bible is translated into English.
The Concept of Ages in Early Christianity
Since it’s in the New Testament, we know the idea of ages was around in early Christianity. We also know that at last some early Christians believed this age, our present age, would be the last age, and after this age there would be no more cycle of ages coming into being and being destroyed. After this age, an age would be instituted by God that would last forever.
The Plan of the Ages
Listen to this from Ephesians chapter 3, “For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles…if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, now that by revelation He made known to me the mystery as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets, that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to principalities and powers in the heavenly places according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Did you notice the concept of the ages in there? There’s something else in there, too. Near the end, where it says “according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus,” it is literally “according to the plan of the ages which He accomplished in Christ Jesus.”
Notice “the plan of the ages,” and notice it says this plan of the ages was accomplished, or completed, in Jesus.
This belief in ages that arose within Judaism influenced the early Christians. We see it reflected here in the New Testament. And from this passage in Ephesians, which talks about the ages and speaks of there being a plan of the ages, it is apparent the belief was that this succession of ages that had been going on ever since the moment of creation had a purpose, and that purpose had finally been accomplished in Jesus. That means there is no more need for a succession of ages. Their purpose has been accomplished in Jesus.
According to that, we are living in the last age in the cycle of ages. What we see in the book of Revelation, at the end of this age, or the “end of the world” as it is popularly called, is the creation of the new heaven and the new earth, when God remakes everything and begins a new age. But the difference is that the new age will last forever. That age, which we see established in Revelation, will never end.
This is how at least some early Christians saw the Jewish idea of a succession of different ages. We do find this in the New Testament, but as I said earlier, it’s usually obscured by English translation. For some reason, this belief about ages did not make it into official Christian beliefs when the institutional church decided official Christian beliefs back in the 300’s. Their beliefs went in another direction, but some remnants of the earlier belief survive today more or less hidden in passages like we saw in Ephesians.
We Are in the “Last” Age
Now let’s go back and put everything together. There was a segment of ancient Judaism that interpreted Genesis chapter one differently than most people do today. They believed that the whole history of existence is a succession of ages, one after another. One age is ended by God, and, after a Sabbath period where things basically lie fallow, God begins another age. That has happened many, many times since God initially created the world. What we see in the Bible, from Genesis 1: 2 onward, is talking about this age. Adam and Eve are the first ones in this age. But there were many other ages before that, about which we know nothing. How widespread that belief was, we can never know, but we do know that the concept of ages is mentioned about 500 times in the Old Testament. We just don’t see it because it’s obscured by English translation.
That idea got picked up in early Christianity, and the idea developed that this age would be the last age. These early Christians said the reason there had been this cycle of different ages is that some purpose was being worked out—some plan was being accomplished—and that purpose has been accomplished in Jesus. Since the purpose of the cycle of ages has been accomplished, there is no more need for a succession of ages, and so when this age ends, the next age God brings into being will last forever.
This helps make sense out of other things the Bible says.
For example, in the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus is baptized and goes to the wilderness, He comes back and begins preaching. Mark tells us what He preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.”
The time is fulfilled—the succession of ages has filled its purpose—and the Kingdom of God is at hand. That is the age that will never end.
Many times in the New Testament, we encounter a phrase saying we are in “the last days.” Many Christians have interpreted that to mean that the biblical writers believed the second coming of Jesus would happen soon. We look at that, 2000 years later, and Jesus still hasn’t returned, and so we go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to explain why those people back then were mistaken. But you can look at that those places where they say we are in “the last days” as not referring to them thinking Jesus would return soon, but instead interpret “last days” as referring to this being the last age in the cycle of a succession of ages. These are the last days, meaning this is the last age in that whole cycle of different ages that has occurred since the initial creation of the world. The cycle of different ages is coming to an end, and a new time will begin—an age that will never end. That is a possible meaning to the phrase “the last days.”
So, is what we’ve talked about today the correct way to look at things? Has there in fact been a succession of different ages over the history of the world, ages that came before Genesis 1: 2 and about which we know nothing? I don’t know. But I do find the possibility fascinating, and it does seem so reasonable when thinking about the conflict between the Bible and science.
Without it, when confronted with this conflict between the Bible and science, you either have to say that science is wrong when it talks about things that happened millions or even billions of years ago, when the world was very different than it is today, or that the Bible is made-up stories. I don’t like either one of those alternatives. While I do think science is often more certain about the things it asserts than the evidence to back it up warrants, and while I do think that science is often narrow-minded as Christians are sometimes accused of being, I would not put myself in the position of completely discounting science. And I certainly would not want to say the Bible is made-up stories. If you do that, you might as well throw Christianity out the window and forget about it. Of course, that’s what many modern Christians have done—thrown everything out except a few ethical sayings of Jesus they agree with—but I’m not willing to do that.
I think what we need is less certainty from both science and Christianity. Science says, “We understand it all, and what we don’t understand now, we will tomorrow, and our understanding in the future will be fully compatible with what we know now.” Christianity also says, “We understand it all.” Both, though, are fooling themselves. There’s a lot we don’t understand, both from a scientific and a religious perspective, and so let’s keep that in mind.