Is Genesis 1–11 history, pseudo-history, poetry, allegory or parable? By ‘pseudo-history’, I mean something which was written to look like history, but was not genuine history. Before the rise of uniformitarianism and the theory of evolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the vast majority of Christians, including all the Reformers, regarded Genesis 1–11 as straightforward history. But since then, many Bible-believing Christians have tried, in one way or another, to reconcile these chapters with evolutionary, long-age beliefs. Some, such as the ‘gap’ theorists and ‘day-age’ theorists, have tried (unsuccessfully) to preserve the historicity of the Bible while allowing for a pre-history of millions of years. But others, such as the ‘literary framework’ theorists, have abandoned any such attempt and regard these chapters as figurative or symbolic.1
The literary framework approach has become very popular amongst evangelical academics in recent years. They argue that these chapters are not meant to be taken as real history, but say that they still teach important theological lessons. Some academics may accept that the biblical account looks like history, or they may describe it as poetry, allegory or parable. But whatever they call it, they believe it is a figurative account that only symbolizes certain truths. For example, even if they accept that the account is describing days of creation that are 24-hour days, they believe that they are not meant to be taken literally─they are symbolic days.
There are many reasons why the literary-framework belief is wrong.2,3 For example, the grammatical structure of the Hebrew is that of consecutive narrative prose, not poetry. And the context, which includes the rest of Genesis and the rest of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, indicates clearly that Genesis 1–11 is describing real history.4 This disqualifies all interpretations that treat Genesis as non-historical literature, including narrative prose, such as allegory and parable.
But another important consideration concerns the impact of the message of Genesis. Messages conveyed by genuine history have power and authority but pseudo-history is weak and powerless.
We can illustrate the contrast between history and pseudo-history by looking at prediction and pseudo-prediction. The history of Genesis 1–11 and biblical prediction are closely related because both are concerned with history, with God’s omniscience (His limitless knowledge, infinitely beyond man’s ken) and with the truth of what He has revealed. One deals with His knowledge of history in the remote past, and the other concerns His knowledge of ‘history’ in the future (relative to the time of the prediction). By ‘pseudo-prediction’, I mean something which was written to look like prediction, but actually was written after the ‘predicted’ events took place.
Genuine predictive prophecy conveys a powerful and authoritative message, and the Bible attaches great importance to it. By accurately foretelling future history, God provides evidence that He is the true God, and that His words can be trusted.
He dwells outside time, and only He can know all of history, past, present and future. This truth is stressed repeatedly in the book of Isaiah (see 41:21–24; 44:6–7; 46:9–10; 48:3–5), in Deuteronomy (18:21–22) and by Jesus (John 14:29).5 On the other hand, pseudo-prediction proves nothing, because it was made after the event and was not a true prediction. It provides no solid evidence that it comes from the true God, and that its message is true.6
God knows the past as well as the future, and this is especially important with regard to Creation, because God was there when it happened, and man was not! We have seen the power and authority of genuine predictive prophecy; so what about the power and authority of genuine history in the Bible?
Christianity is an historical religion. Its teachings are rooted and grounded in history. It is not just a collection of ethical teachings. The Bible records the actions of God in history, and repeatedly points to these real, historical events, showing who God is, what He is like and what He is doing. These events include Creation, the Fall, the Flood, the confusion of Babel, the call of Abraham, the deliverance from Egypt, and many other events in the history of Israel, and, of course, the birth, life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
If the Resurrection account is no more than a story, what does it achieve and what does it prove? If the deliverance from Egypt never happened, what does the story prove? Why does the Bible repeatedly point to these and other episodes as crucially important historical events which achieved God’s purposes and demonstrated His mighty, saving power?
Like pseudo-prediction, pseudo-history proves nothing. Its message is weak and without authority, because it is not backed up by the historical facts. It is rhetoric without a solid factual foundation. The lessons of the creation account only carry weight and power if God really did create the way the Bible says He did.
If it is merely symbolical the creation account is not only conveying a weak message but also a false message. For example, a vital part of the message is that the original creation was “very good” (which means perfect), and it was spoiled only after man disobeyed God at the time of the Fall. This corruption included the entrance of human death (Genesis 2:15–17; 3:17–19; 1 Corinthians 15:20–22,26). But if the creation account is merely symbolic, and the ‘millions of years’ are real, it means that there was death, disease, violence, suffering and waste before the Fall. This is a clear contradiction of the creation account’s message (and the message of 1 Corinthians 157).
Genesis 1–11 presents itself as real history, which is consistent with the rest of Scripture. It is only powerful and authoritative when it is regarded as history and not some kind of non-historical compromise.