Does the Bible teach that the earth was created before light?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I consider myself multi-confessional and have a particular heart for the Christian faith, but my question is this: In the first three verses of the Bible, God first creates the heavens, then the earth… and after that, the light. I understand that the word “day” doesn’t have to mean a twenty-four hour period… but I have difficulty with the order of creation conflicting with well-established science. We know that light existed before the earth. Are you saying that science is wrong in this? Or is there an error in the Bible?

(A note to my readers: In addition to my work here at Mainsail Ministries, I also volunteer as a question-responder at Got Questions Ministries — a large and reliable apologetics ministry. I usually recast the material so it has no personal or ministry identifiers, but this time my relationship to Got Questions is part of the answer… so that information will persist below. I just don’t want any confusion about who runs what.)

Answer: Thank you for this question — and let me commend you on its tone. I sense that you have genuine love and respect for God and his word — and that you are looking more to “help him out” than to challenge him. As such, I am excited to respond to this query. If the Bible is categorically inerrant as we at Mainsail Ministries (and Got Questions Ministries) affirm, then it should contain no errors. So, what do we do with “difficult” passages like those in the beginning of Genesis — the ones that seem to contradict well-established science? I’ll keep an eye on the science as I show you how the Bible fits hand-in-glove with the empirical… but first, a disclaimer.

Got Questions Ministries has hundreds of people like me who volunteer to answer questions like yours. And when you have those kinds of numbers, you will have disagreements on secondary issues of the faith. One of the ministry’s strengths is that they will allow people like me who do not agree with them on some secondary issues to respond to their questioners anyway — even in the areas of our disagreement… and we have one today. Got Questions Ministries holds to a young-earth creation model, but I do not. I’m an old-earther.

As it happens, your question can be answered from either perspective. But since I believe that an old-earth view makes the best and fullest sense of the many ancillary issues that are likely to come up even though they were not specifically queried, I’ll speak boldly from that perspective. Just note that this answer does not necessarily reflect the Got Questions Ministries’ position on the creation story.

So — and with my disclaimer in place — let us go to the beginning of Genesis. The first thing that I want to do is clarify what the Bible does not teach in Genesis 1:1-5: it does not teach that light was created after the earth. Let’s look at those verses.

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1:1–5, NIV)

If God were writing computer code here, I might agree with your interpretation and your objection… because code has no tolerance for idioms. So, when I look at the English words as plain-old-data, and when I look at their order of appearance, then I too would understand the Bible as saying that God first made the heavens…  then the earth… then light. But the Bible’s language is not computer code — it’s normal language! … and God threw a normal-language idiom at us right in the first sentence of the Bible.

You see, the ancient Hebrew language did not have a word to cover what we now understand by “the cosmos” (mass, energy, spacetime). But they did have an idiom to describe the whole of creation… whatever that might be. It was “the heavens and the earth” — and this shows up quite a bit in Scripture. So, when you see this phrase set-up like this — with both terms preceded by their definite articles — these are not discrete references to “that which is above” and “that which is below.” It means the totality of physical reality. This makes verse one a statement of the creative moment in toto: there was nothing… now there is everything… and God did this.

There is another issue, though. The first verse is different by type than the ones which follow. Verse one might be the most profound utterance in the history of language… but it is also an introduction to what follows — and it is also an overview of the creation process. Verses two and following serve verse one by filling in the details. Since their information is not the same type as that in verse one, they do not stand as equals in a series.

Now, even if we were to understand every term in those sentences literally… but let the language work as normal language works… there would still be no contradiction between those statements and the scientific understanding of the cosmos. Introductions and overviews reveal the “big picture” — not the details and not the flow. As such, verse one speaks of the whole creation… and part of that whole creation is light. Verses two through five tell us more about the nature of light, not about its creation. As such, this account does not contradict science.

The standard model for an expanding universe teaches that, in its initial form, the universe was tiny. But this initial singularity was so dense and energetic as to account for all the universe’s physical reality. As such, it necessarily exploded — and for 13.8 billion years it has been expanding into its current form… but while obeying physical laws that do not change. So, by the time of Genses:1:3, the stars had already cycled through multiple instances of formation, destruction and reformation — making the stuff of life… and illuminating the cosmos in the process. But we can’t make sense of the light mentioned in Genesis 1:3 without understanding the darkness mentioned in verse two, so let’s look at that. 

Genesis 1:2 tells us that our world was formless (unfit for life) and empty (it had no life). It was all water, and it was dark on the surface of that water. Now, as a young Christian (and then a young-earther) that used to bother me. I couldn’t understand why God would do an end-run around physics by creating a world with the appearance of age… or worse… create that deception by changing the laws of physics (the very laws he calls upon as an example of his immutability!) … but then somehow stumble and make an unsuitable habitat first. What’s that about? I mean, after bending time, physics and credibility, why would he bother creating a dark intermediary world?

Gap theorists (and I subscribed to that for a while, too) often attribute that dark (read evil) world to the fall of Satan… and that his spiritual fall somehow took the physical universe down, too. But there is no biblical evidence to warrant that connection. As such, the Gap theory is ad hoc — to the extreme… but it is also unnecessary. With what we know about the age of the universe (there is no longer any credible debate on this), and with what we know about the Hebrew word “yom” (day), there is no good reason for clinging to a young-earth perspective. But let’s be positive here… and honor some scientific methodology while we’re at it: an old-earth perspective underpins the best explanation of verse two. Here’s how.

Having a dark, wet and cloud-covered planet was the precursor to having one filled with light. God was reporting on the planet’s initial conditions in verse two… which is a bow to the scientific method. But as a communicator, God contrasted this dark world with what it would become — a world of light! Verse three is the story of God removing the darkness, not creating the light. With the clouds gone, the sunlight finally hit the earth — and it began to drive its systems… like the hydraulic cycle, temperature control, photosynthesis, etc.

But also, God could begin introducing each species at its optimal time… an activity that the fossil record supports. And, since the sun, earth and moon were already out there shining, rotating and orbiting when the cloud-cover was removed, the day/night cycle became an issue for the first time. This is why God named the dark/light periods in verse five… because it would have made no sense to do it before then. But note this well: The day/night phenomena began long before the earth was created. After the first sun ignited, any of its orbiting and/or rotating bodies would experience changing periods of dark and light.

If this all seems far-fetched, we need only look to Venus for an analog. Venus still has its cloud cover! Very little light gets through to its surface. But the earth was worse than that in Genesis 1:2 — no light got through. So, in spite of the fact that light had already been created, and in spite of the fact that our sun was shining brightly above, the surface of the earth was dark… just as the Bible says it was. But when God said, “Let there be light,” he did not mean “Let there be light created.” He meant, “Let there be light here” … but where was here? On the earth! The creation account’s point of view changed in verse two; it went from above the earth to earth’s surface… and it remained there through the creation story.

I pray that all this information helped you more than confused you — and may God bless you as you continue to explore his truth.

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