SUNDAY OT SERMON: Dr. James Montgomery Boice on “FACT OR FICTION?” – Genesis 1:1

Genesis 1-11 vol 1 Boice


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis raises many questions. One is whether it is to be understood as fact or fiction. This is a question we must settle early, for our views about the nature of the book will determine how we interpret it.

If the story of the fall of Adam and Eve into sin is fiction, perhaps “theological fiction,” as some would call it, it may be intended to give insight into what is basically wrong with us as individuals. It may show our frailty, sin, even our attitude of rebellion against God. But if it is not historical, if there was no literal fall, then there was no previous state of innocence and no guilt for having fallen from it. In other words, we are not sinful because of our own willful rebellion against God. We are simply sinful. We need a helper, perhaps a Savior. But we do not need to confess our sin and repudiate it. Similarly, if the flood is not history but only a myth created to teach certain eternal truths, the story may teach that God does not like sin. But it loses the fearful truth that God intervenes in history to judge sin and will judge it totally and perfectly at the end of time.

Is Genesis fact or fiction? Is it to be understood as a recounting of literal events? Or is it something like inspired poetry in which “spiritual” but not “historical” truths are taught? There are many who opt for fiction. Liberals have done this for years, calling Genesis “myth” or “fable.” Recently even some prominent evangelicals have been willing to take this position.

All Scripture from God

The starting point for answering whether Genesis is fact or fiction—though it does not settle everything—is that Genesis is a part of Holy Scripture and has therefore been given to us by God and speaks with his authority. We think here of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” When Paul wrote those words he had Genesis in mind as much as any other portion of Scripture. So if we accept his teaching, as all Christians should and must, this will have bearing on how we view Genesis.

The inspiration of Genesis does not settle everything concerning whether it is fact or fiction, for God can inspire fiction (for his own holy purposes) as well as he can inspire historical narration. Poetry is not always factually true, yet God inspired the poetry of the psalms. Our Lord told parables, which are stories told to make a clear spiritual point. Still, the inspiration of Genesis is not without bearing on the matter at hand in that it at least tells us that the book is the revelation of God to men (through the agency of the human writer) and not the gropings of any single man or men after the meaning of God or creation. When liberals talk of myth, fable, or fiction it is the latter conception they have in mind. They are putting Genesis on a level with any other document that may have come down to us from ancient times. But it is not like any other document if it is truly given to us by revelation.

E. J. Young, former professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary (until his death in 1968), stated the matter succinctly: “The Bible is either a revelation of God, or it is simply the gropings of the Hebrew nation and the presentation of the best that they could find.” If it is a revelation from God, then “God has told us about the creation, and we [should] believe that it is historical, that is, that it actually took place, because God has so spoken.”

The Assumption of Scripture

The second point bearing on our question is the teaching—or, perhaps more accurately, the assumption (since the issue is not handled in a formal way)—of the rest of Scripture that Genesis is historical. Put as a question the issue is: Does the rest of the Bible view the Book of Genesis as fiction, or does it view it as fact?

This is the point with which Francis Schaeffer begins his short study of Genesis in Space and Time. His position is that the mentality of the whole Scripture is that “creation is as historically real as the history of the Jews and our own present moment of time. Both the Old and the New Testaments deliberately root themselves back into the early chapters of Genesis, insisting that they are a record of historical events.” As a case in point, Schaeffer cites the 136th psalm, which praises God for his enduring love. The psalm begins with a doxology but then passes on to the reasons why we should praise him. The first of these reasons is his work of creation:

who by his understanding made the heavens,

His love endures forever.

who spread out the earth upon the waters,

His love endures forever.

who made the great lights—

His love endures forever.

the sun to govern the day,

His love endures forever.

the moon and stars to govern the night;

His love endures forever.

verses 5–9

Without any apparent break and certainly without any indication that he is now beginning to write in a historical rather than in a poetical or less than literal vein, the poet then goes on to list a second reason why God should be praised: his work of delivering Israel from Egypt:

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt

His love endures forever.

and brought Israel out from among them

His love endures forever.

with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;

His love endures forever.

verses 10–12

The psalm continues to speak of the dividing of the Red Sea, God’s leading of the people through the wilderness, the defeat of the kings who had been occupying the land into which they came (Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan—it cites them by name), the gift of the land, and then finally, the blessings of God to Israel in what was then the present time:

to the One who remembered us in our low estate

His love endures forever.

and freed us from our enemies,

His love endures forever.

and who gives food to every creature.

His love endures forever.

verses 23–25

What is involved here? Obviously a view of history and of God’s specific acts in history according to which there is natural continuity between the acts of God in creation and the events of the present day. This means that the Genesis account is to be taken as history.

A person may still say, “I believe that Genesis is put forth in the Bible as if it were history, but I do not believe its account.” This would be an honest person holding to convictions. But what we cannot say is, “I believe that the Genesis account is profoundly and spiritually true and that the Bible teaches this; it is poetry.” The one who says that is either dishonest or else is a faulty interpreter of the Bible’s teaching.

The Teaching of Jesus

A special aspect of the attitude of Scripture to Genesis is the teaching of Jesus Christ. This obviously carries special weight. We do not suggest that if Jesus did not specifically teach that the events and personages of Genesis were real events and real personages that the teaching of the rest of the Bible could therefore be abandoned. But it is surely of interest to those who profess to follow Jesus as their Lord to know what he said. His teaching has special weight if only because we revere the Lord highly.

Did Jesus consider the accounts of Genesis historical? Indeed he did! He quoted them as fact to prove other points in contention. When the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask a question about divorce—“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”—Jesus replied by a specific reference to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He said, “Haven’t you read … that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:3–6). Jesus’ reply assumes God to be the Creator of the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, as well as being the One who instituted marriage. In fact, it shows Christ’s belief in the compatibility of the two parallel accounts of creation (in Genesis 1 and 2), since his reply contains a mutually supportive reference from each chapter.

In Mark 13:19, Jesus spoke of “the beginning, when God created the world.”

The Ancient Cosmologies

None of this will have much weight with those who consider the Genesis accounts to be mere versions of those clearly mythical accounts of creation that circulated in the ancient east both before and after the time Genesis was written. There are the Babylonian Epic of Creation and the cosmologies of Egypt and Phoenicia. These have similarities to the accounts in Genesis. If Genesis is merely one of them, must we not think that Jesus was mistaken in his view of creation or at least (some have suggested this) merely adapted his teaching to the viewpoints of his day, though he himself knew better, being God?

The opinion of the recognized dean of archaeologists, William F. Albright, is helpful at this point. Albright was not an evangelical—though he became increasingly conservative as his studies progressed—yet he spoke openly about the lack of similarity between Genesis and the other ancient accounts. His own view was that Israel was a “rarely endowed people” who selected “the most vital elements in their religious literatures,” combined them into “a new and richer synthesis,” purified them by “the monotheism of Moses, and spiritualized [them] by the inspired insight of the Prophets.” In other words, it was an almost purely human process. Yet in spite of this basic humanistic orientation, Albright argued that it is difficult to see how this early “mythological structure can be connected in any direct way whatsoever with the biblical story.”

Albright argued that the Babylonian Epic does have certain superficial resemblances to the Genesis account. It has seven tables, while the Jewish account represents creation as having taken place over a period of seven days. At some points the language is similar. But beyond that, hardly anything is the same. The Hebrew account is monotheistic. Its language is terse. The Babylonian account is polytheistic, verbose, and crassly mythological.

At the beginning there are two monsters, represented as dragons: Apsu, the freshwater subterranean ocean, and his consort Tiamat, the saltwater ocean that surrounds the earth. From these two spring a generation of deities, the last of which become so powerful that Apsu and Tiamat plot to destroy them. The result is a titanic struggle in which Tiamat is slain. Her body is split in two. The upper half is formed into the heavens. The lower half is formed into the earth. Men and women are made from the blood of Qingu, Tiamat’s chief minister. The text says, “Punishment they imposed on him, his blood-vessels they cut open, with his blood they created mankind.” Albright maintains, and I agree with him, that nearly anyone can see the vast gulf separating this obviously mythological account from the serious, historical account in Genesis.

Don’t scholars still argue that the Genesis account is myth? Yes, some do. But I am reminded of a remark made by C. S. Lewis. He said that when some learned scholar tells him that portions of the biblical narrative are myth, he does not want to know what his credentials are in the area of his biblical scholarship but rather how many myths he has read. Myths were Lewis’s business, and it was his testimony that the biblical accounts were not among them.

Some will still argue that we are missing the point. For whether the language of Genesis 1 is mythical or not, these will still think it inadequate for giving a truly factual (by which they mean “scientific”) account of creation. Let us think this through. The account of creation might have been written in one of three ways: 1) in scientific language, 2) in straightforward historical prose, or 3) in poetry. Poetry is out, for the reason that it does not go far enough. It does not tell us what we most want to know. This leaves scientific language and historical prose.

What would it take for the account of creation to be written in scientific language? My opinion is not worth much at this point, but I quote from Frederick A. Filby who has been a professor of chemistry in England for many years. He has registered his convictions in Creation Revealed.

The sciences which probe most deeply into the ultimate facts of matter and life are probably astro- and nuclear physics and biochemistry. But these sciences are written, not so much in languages as in symbols. It takes many pages of symbols to discuss the nature of a single atom of hydrogen. It has been estimated that to give a complete account of the position of the groups and bonds in a single virus of “molecular weight 300 million” would take a 200-page book.

If the scientific description of a single hydrogen atom, or of a virus too small to be seen without a microscope, takes a book, what hope is there of ever giving a scientific account of the creation of man and the universe? Yet Genesis 1 in its original form uses only 76 different root words. If Genesis 1 were written in absolute scientific language to give an account of creation, there is no man alive, nor ever has there been, who could understand it. If it were written in any kind of scientific language, only the favored few could comprehend it. It would have to be rewritten every generation to conform to the new views and terms of science. It could not be written in our mid-twentieth century scientific language, for no earlier generation could have grasped its meaning, and to our children it would be out-of-date. The scientific description of the “how” of the universe is beyond the understanding of any human brain, but Genesis 1 was written for all readers, not for none. …

What then would be the best method for the Creator to use for (1) making a beginning to his book and (2) establishing that the God of the Bible is also the God of creation—in language simple enough for all men in all time?

The answer is … Genesis 1 … the most amazing composition in all the world’s literature, using only 76 different word-forms fundamental to all mankind, arranged in a wonderful poetical pattern yet free from any highly colored figures of speech. It provides the perfect opening to God’s book and establishes all that men really need to know of the facts of creation. No man could have invented it: it is as great a marvel as a plant or a bird. It is God’s handiwork, sufficient for Hebrew children or Greek thinkers or Latin Christians; for medieval knights or modern scientists or little children; for cottage dwellers or cattle ranchers or deep sea fishermen; for Laplanders or Ethiopians, East or West, rich or poor, old or young, simple or learned … sufficient for all! Only God could write such a chapter … and he did.

I find that statement of conviction by a well-trained scientist compelling. Moreover, it is to the point, for the most fundamental of all issues is whether or not God has spoken in Scripture as the Bible claims he has. In the last message, I spoke of origins and beginnings, many of which are dealt with in Genesis. But Genesis serves another purpose, and that is to force us back to origins in the matter of our own thought values. It forces us to this: Has God spoken? Has he spoken here? Answer that in the negative, and all is chaos. Answer yes, and all that follows will become increasingly clear.

About the Preacher

Boice JM in pulpit

James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 2 in Genesis 1-11: An Expositional Commentaryvol. 1: Creation and Fall. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.

Author: lifecoach4God

I am the Lead Pastor of Marin Bible Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca., and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 30 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and seven grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship of resources, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.

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