The creation period described in the Book of Genesis is of great interest to many Christians. As a result, much discussion has been had within Christianity itself as to the nature of the creation account and the length of time over which creation could have occurred. Many Christians in America hold to a creation period wherein the universe was formed over the course of six 24-hours periods; other Christians believe the period of creation to be much longer, perhaps even millions of years.
One of the central questions related to this issue concerns the use of the Hebrew word “yom” in the opening lines of Genesis. Translations of this word into English use the word “day” in place of “yom,” so that the biblical passages indicate acts of creation on six consecutive days (as in, exact 24-hours periods). This plain reading of the word is simple and concise, likely one of the reasons a large amount (likely the majority) of Christians today hold to a 24-hour interpretation; a 24-hour period would seem the most reasonable interpretation absent some good reason to read a different meaning. The 24-hour interpretation allows the Christian to read the language of Genesis and interpret the language in its most basic terms. To hold a 24-hour view does not require the “wrestling” or interpreting scripture in light of other meanings. Thus, a Christian holding this view can defend the authority of scripture by simply maintaining a straightforward interpretation.
Christians who hold to a longer creation period interpret “yom” in a different way. These Christians point to the use of “yom” to mean a period other than 24-hours. The Bible does use “yom” in several other ways throughout its text, such as to mean “day” (as in daytime rather than nighttime) in Numbers 9:21, an unspecified period (“day of the Lord”) in Amos 5:18, and as a general time frame in Deuteronomy 16:3. While the 24-hour position is often considered the default or traditional view in the eyes of those who hold it, the discussion surrounding interpretation of the creation account is longstanding; some ancient Christians held to an “old-earth” view which allowed for a longer creation period, such as Augustine, Origen, and St. Thomas Aquinas. These ancient Christians did not have modern science to influence their perspective but rather held their views on the basis of the text of scripture alone.
The age of the universe and the length of creation days is an “in-house” debate. Christians on both sides of this discussion are just that: Christians.
And this takes us to the issue of modern science. Scientists, for the most part, have a strong bias towards a longer creation period. Many scientists suggest the universe is billions of years old and that millions of years transpired between the events of the “first day” in Genesis and the time in which humanity was created on the “sixth day.” The scientific case should inform Christians on both sides of this debate, but the inferences of most scientists fit most neatly within the latter, “longer-than 24-hour” interpretation.
That being said, the age of the universe and the length of creation days is an “in-house” debate.
Christians on both sides of this discussion are just that: Christians. A robust creation theology regarding every minor detail of the timeline is not an essential element to the Christian faith (even while belief in a creator is a central tenant). The length of creation is not a universally held position in the church, it is not explicitly required by the text of scripture (due to the various interpretations of “yom” described above), it was not universally agreed upon by early Christians, and it appears in no Christian creed.
This is an issue for brothers and sisters to enjoy debating but not an issue to divide over.
Although of interest to the believer, the question of time with regards to creation may not carry the same weight to a skeptic or non-believer; while either position may be acceptable for the Christian, that does not mean each view is equally practical when talking to a specific skeptic. In an encounter with a skeptic who holds firmly an alternative view it may not be a wise tactical decision to attempt to rid them of their beliefs (even if it conflicts with the Christian’s understanding of creation). As an apologetic method, spending time arguing with a skeptic over the length of creation may not be fruitful. A factually accurate view of the length of creation is not necessary for the skeptic’s salvation, but a correct view of Jesus Christ is. Conceding a skeptic or non-believer’s point about the length of creation does not disqualify them from learning the truth about Jesus, but it may remove one more distraction on their road to finding the Lord.