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Monday, January 7, 2019

The Sabbath Day vs. God's Character and Existence


Among the many types of challenges that atheists raise against the Christian worldview, scientific challenges rank quite high in frequency. Many Christians find themselves in disagreement with other Christians about how particular challenges are resolved, and these disagreements have resulted in many heated theological debates. Many atheists argue that the Bible teaches that the universe is young yet they believe the universe to be ancient. The way to resolve this is one of the hot debates within the Church. Young earth creationists (YEC) believe that the Bible teaches a young universe and that the universe actually is young. Old earth creationists (OEC) believe that the Bible either teaches an age longer than YECs believe or that the Bible is silent on the issue and that the universe actually is ancient. While there are numerous areas regarding origins that can be agreed upon and the fact that this debate is certainly not worth dividing over, it is important that we discuss it for the sake of defending the true worldview against challenges to even the details (see my post "Internal Debates and Apologetics" for more on this aspect of defending the faith).

Over the course of many discussions of this question with fellow Christians, one challenge that young earth creationists believe is a defeater for the old earth creationist view is the analogy found in the fourth of the Ten Commandments:
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God...For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."- Exodus 20:8-11 (NIV)
When I held to the YEC position, this was one of the passages of Scripture that I would often use as a proof text of my view that the days of Genesis could be no longer than 24-hour periods of time (and that the age of the earth and universe were no more than a several thousand years). When I saw that God's creation revealed a history going back billions of years rather than just thousands, atheists would often use this same supposed defeater to demonstrate the falsehood of the claims of the Bible.

Every now and then this challenge comes back up in my discussions with both Christians and atheists, and its most recent appearance has been in comments on Facebook regarding my critique of the Christian documentary "Is Genesis History." In my critique, while taking the position that Genesis 1-11 accurately records the historical events of origins within its pages, I disagreed that Genesis teaches that the earth and universe are young (between 6,000 to 10,000 years old, as the creators of the documentary defended). So, today I want to take some time to address this challenge.

The Defeater- How Does The Sabbath Day Challenge God's Character and Existence?

If, the YEC and atheist are correct that the Bible teaches that the universe is only a few thousand years old but the universe's actual age is truly 13.7 billion of years old (see "The Creator Revealed" by Michael G. Strauss for an introductory discussion of the evidence), then we have a serious theological problem on our hands. This would be regarding the inspiration of Scripture and God's character. While some Christians do not believe that the author of Genesis intended to record historical events, John N. Oswalt, in his book "The Bible Among The Myths," makes a powerful case that the authors of Scripture, due to their teleologically driven worldview, believed that they were recording accurate history, which would include the early chapters of Genesis.

If Oswalt's conclusion is correct yet nature reveals contradictory information to what the authors of Scripture believed was accurate, a divine ethical question arises: What morally justifying reason would God have for inspiring the authors of Scripture to record and present to their audience, as accurate history, events that He knew were false? If no morally justifying (greater good) purpose exists for this knowingly false communication (deception) on God's part, then God's perfectly good nature is now in question. This would not be a paradox that could be logically resolved by appealing to the unknown or unknowable (mystery), it would be a demonstrable contradiction in God's nature. And since contradictions do not exist in reality, this would demonstrate that the Christian God is incoherent and does not exist.

So, the charge by both the YEC and the atheist to the OEC is that since the Fourth Commandment removes any possibility for the days of Genesis 1 to be long periods of time, the OEC view requires that a contradiction be present in God's character. Because the cumulative case for Christianity is extremely strong apart from arguments that require an ancient age of the universe, YECs conclude that Christianity is true, but they also conclude that the idea that the creation is billions of years old (rather than just thousands) must be rejected. On the other hand, atheists accept this single piece of evidence as a defeater in lieu of the cumulative case for Christianity and would love for me, as well as every other Christian, to do the same.

Defeating the Defeater- How The Sabbath Does Not Defeat God's Character or Existence

However, the conclusions of both the YEC (that the OEC view necessarily violates God's perfect moral nature) and the atheist (that the incoherence in God's nature proves that He doesn't exist) are necessarily dependent upon the idea that the Fourth Commandment cannot possibly be interpreted in any other way than that it is an analogy to the creation week of Genesis 1 and that essential to that analogy is the feature of the length of the timespan (24 hours). If it can be demonstrated that it is either not an analogy or that the length of time (24 hours) is not a necessary feature of the analogy, then the Fourth Commandment cannot be used as a defeater for the idea that the days of Genesis 1 are long periods of time. This would mean that there is no contradiction in God's nature, thus the OEC view does not endanger God's character (as the YEC claims) or His existence (as the atheist claims).

I believe that the key to defeating the supposed defeater is found in the second option available to the OEC: demonstrate that the length of the timespan of the days is not a necessary feature of the analogy of the Fourth Commandment to the days of Genesis 1. Again, let's take a look at the passage:
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God...For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."- Exodus 20:8-11 (NIV)
Notice that an analogy is definitely present and the features that create the analogy are mentioned: a pattern of six days of work plus one day of rest (6+1) and the time periods are finite in duration. The analogy exists in virtue of the common features of the pattern and the existence of finite periods of time. Some YECs and atheists would like to claim that the timespan is also mentioned as a feature in the use of the word "day." They often claim that the "plain reading" of this passage requires the inclusion of the length of time of the day as a feature of the analogy (more on the "plain reading" appeal later).

However, claiming the inclusion of this additional feature in the analogy is unwarranted. The text does not state if these periods of time are equal or unequal between the analogous concepts or even to each other; the timespan of the days of human work and rest are not stated to be equal to the timespan of God's days of work and rest. So, while the analogy between God's days and human days in the Fourth Commandment is supported by the pattern and the finite time periods, the analogy does not necessarily include any other features.

But, we cannot yet conclude that a specific timespan of the days is absent from the analogy; all that has been established at this point is that it is possible a specific timespan (that the YEC and atheist must have in place in the analogy for their conclusions against the OEC view and God, respectively, to be valid) is not part of the analogy. Because it is possible that the length of time is a feature of the analogy, it is also possible that it is not a feature of the analogy. That latter possibility, though, is enough to demonstrate that the OEC view does not necessarily violate the analogy, thus the OEC view is compatible with the Fourth Commandment, God's nature, God's existence, and ultimately, reality. Even in light of the Fourth Commandment, the OEC view is biblically and theologically valid, so the proposed defeater presented by the YEC against the OEC view and by the atheist against God's existence is defeated.

From Possibility to Plausibility

Though, I would like to take the possibility a bit further to plausibility. To demonstrate the plausibility that a specific timespan is not part of the analogy in Exodus 20:8-11, it just needs to be shown that a passage that unmistakenly demonstrates the 6+1 pattern, yet applies that pattern to periods of time longer than 24 hours, exists. If that is accomplished, then it is plausible to say that pattern could also be applied to timespans longer than 24 hours in other areas of Scripture. It could finally be said that the analogy in the Fourth Commandment, which contains the 6+1 pattern, can also apply to timespans longer than 24 hours.

To do that, let's go back to the book of Exodus and read that passage in the context of the rest of the book:
“For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove."- Exodus 23:10-11 (NIV)
We see that the land's planting years also follow a pattern of six periods of work plus one period of rest. Here we see that the pattern is applied to timespans longer than 24 hours. This is the same pattern that God describes in the Fourth Commandment but, unmistakenly, does not have 24 hours for the length of time of the specific time periods. Christians believe that there is no inconsistency between the two Exodus passages. If biblical consistency is possible with the land's time periods being greater than 24 hours, then it is also plausible that other time periods that follow this same pattern (6+1) are also biblically consistent even if their time periods are greater than 24 hours. Thus the creation days (whether their periods of time are equal to or greater than 24 hours) are still biblically consistent with the pattern that God established in Exodus 20:8-11.

Because the length of the periods of time are not part of the pattern they are not a necessary feature of the analogy in the Fourth Commandment. This means that any time period, as long as the multiple, consecutive periods follow the 6+1 pattern, is consistent with Exodus. This means that whether one interprets the Genesis 1 "yom"s (the Hebrew word translated as "day") to be literally 24 hours long or literally longer than 24 hours, they are compatible with Exodus 20:8-11. Because there is no inconsistency or incompatibility between the days of Genesis 1 being greater than 24 hours and God's comparing our work/rest pattern to His work/rest pattern, there is no inconsistency with the OEC interpretation of "yom" in Genesis 1 and the Exodus passage cited by both YEC and atheist. This means that it is not just possible but plausible to conclude that the Fourth Commandment is consistent with the "yom"s of Genesis 1 being longer than 24 hours in duration. Further, it is not just possible but plausible to conclude that the OEC interpretation of Genesis 1 does not violate God's character nor endanger His existence.

Increasing Plausibility

Another important passage of Scripture, that many Christians would say teaches that the length of God's days is necessarily disanalogous to the length of human days, is 2 Peter 3:8:
"But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." (NIV)
It just so happens that the plain reading of this passage tells us that God told us (through His inspiration of the human author), explicitly, that His days and human days are not equal in timespan and that the timespan of His days is necessarily greater than that of man's days.

Now (as promised above), this is one of the reasons why I am not a fan of the "plain reading" interpretive method or argument of any Christian when they defend their interpretation in any theological debate (not just the debate over origins). When Christians use the term "plain reading," they generally mean the understanding or interpretation of a passage when it was read for the first time no matter the age of the reader or their maturity as a Christian.

The "plain reading" interpretation of Exodus 20:8-11 and the "plain reading" interpretation of 2 Peter 3:8 contradict one another in that one claims the length of human days and the length of God's days are the same and the other claims they are not the same. This would be a demonstrable contradiction in the Bible (in violation of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy) if the "plain reading" argument for one interpretation over another was valid.

While a "plain reading" of a text may be a good starting point in our process of interpretation (and is certainly necessary in one's introduction to the Gospel), it will not always be the correct ending point. If the "plain reading" is appealed to as both the beginning and ending of interpretation for one passage, it must be appealed to as both the beginning and ending of interpretation for all passages. When the "plain reading" appeal as both beginning and ending is applied to all passages, it introduces a contradiction into the Bible, which the atheist is all too excited to use against the Christian. So the YEC would be wise to not use this appeal in their defense of their interpretation of Exodus 20:8-11 (or any other biblical passage, for that matter). After proper contextual study of both God's words and God's actions (See my posts "Are Nature and Scripture Compatible" and "Deconstructionism, The Constitution, and Biblical Interpretation"), if our concluded interpretation just happens to match what we originally thought when we first read it, then that is merely a trivial fact that holds no intellectual or scholarly weight in arguing for one interpretation over another. This is the OEC's situation regarding 2 Peter 3:8- the interpretation, even after contextual study, remains as it was when first read- the "plain reading." "My interpretation is the plain reading" is an observation that should not be confused with being an argument.

Having said all that, unless "is" can also be interpreted as "is not" (we all remember the famous quote "it all depends on what the meaning of 'is' is"), 2 Peter 3:8 seems to offer one of the most plausible reasons to reject the idea that the length of God's days is the same as the length of human days, thus it provides one of the most plausible reasons to recognize that the timespan is not a feature of the analogy between God's days of work and rest and human days of work and rest in Exodus 20:8-11. Because the timespan is not a feature, the YEC claim against God's character and the atheist claim against God's existence both fail.


Many of my fellow Christians are convinced that the old-earth creationist view gives the atheist a defeater for Christianity, so they reject the old-earth view in favor of a young-earth view. If this conviction were true, then their rejection would be legitimate in light of the cumulative case for Christianity. However, their conviction has been shown to be false, thus their rejection of the OEC view is not legitimate. Because this concern is not legitimate, then any and every piece of evidence from God's actions (creation) that point to His existence (yet require an ancient universe and/or earth) can be added to the cumulative case for God's existence in general and the cumulative case for the truth of Christianity in particular, making it many times (if not orders of magnitude) stronger. Also, because this defeater is not legitimate, the atheist cannot legitimately use it against God's existence. Rather, the evidence from nature for the beginning and fine-tuning of the universe for life's existence are added to the evidence for God's existence. The Fourth Commandment is not a friend of the atheistic worldview; however, it is a friend to the atheist: when examined in the context of the rest of the Scripture and nature, it provides powerful reasons for the atheist to reject their worldview and accept the eternal salvation offered by their Creator and Savior, Jesus Christ.

For More on the Biblically Consistent, Scientific Evidence For God, see these excellent books:

Other Articles Referred to In This Post:

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