Varieties of Creationism

Creationism is the doctrine that God created the universe and life. Understood in this broad sense, creationism is a central tenet of Christian orthodoxy and is also affirmed by other theistic religions, such as Judaism and Islam, as well as by many non-religious people. In what follows, I’ll use the term Biblical creationism to refer to the specifically Christian view that everything the Bible teaches about God’s creative work, interpreted and understood correctly, is true. Most Christians accept Biblical creationism in this sense. Nevertheless, the details of how God created the universe and life are controversial, since Christians hold a diversity of opinions about the meaning of the Biblical creation account and its relation to scientific evidence. Several common viewpoints are outlined below, with a list of major organizations that promote each of these perspectives.

Young-earth creationists sometimes use the term “Biblical creationism” to refer exclusively to their own view. However, most old-earth creationists and many evolutionary creationists also believe that the Biblical account of creation is true (though they interpret it differently). For this reason, I will use the term “Biblical creationism” in the broad sense to include both young-earth creationism and any form of old-earth creationism or evolutionary creationism that affirms the truth of the Bible.

Young-Earth Creationism

Young-earth creationists embrace the “ordinary days” interpretation of Genesis and, as a consequence, infer that God created the physical universe during a literal week that occurred only a few thousand years ago—sometime around 4,000 or 5,000 BC by typical estimates based on Biblical genealogies. Some young-earth creationists believe that evolutionary processes have played a limited role in diversifying species, but most reject the idea that significantly different kinds of organisms (e.g. animals in different taxonomic families, such as cats and dogs) share common ancestors. Many, though not all, young-earth creationists also endorse a research project known as creation science, which endeavors to find scientific evidence supporting young-earth creationism. Leading organizations promoting young-earth creationism and creation science include the following:

Progressive Creationism

In contrast to young-earth creationists, old-earth creationists believe that God created the universe more than a few thousand years ago. Most old-earth creationists accept the prevailing scientific estimates of the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) and the age of the earth (4.5 billion years). There are several varieties of old-earth creationism, which hold different views about when and how God created biological life, but the most popular old-earth creationist views are progressive creationism and evolutionary creationism.A third, less popular form of old-earth creationism is the so-called gap theory, according to which there was a long temporal “gap” between the events of Genesis 1:1 (the creation of the heavens and the earth) and Genesis 1:2 (the six “days” of creation, regarded in this view as a literal week). On this view, the universe and the earth are very old, but the earth was populated with living creatures only recently.

Progressive creationists believe that God introduced new varieties of life through supernatural creation events that occurred periodically throughout Earth’s history. Many progressive creationists subscribe to the “day-age” or “intermittent days” interpretations of Genesis 1. Most believe that evolutionary processes have played a significant role in diversifying biological life. Some accept the claim that different families or even classes of animals (e.g. reptiles, amphibians, and birds) share common ancestors, but most progressive creationists deny the doctrine of universal common descent. For further reading on this viewpoint, here are some organizations promoting progressive creationism:

Evolutionary Creationism

Evolutionary creationists (sometimes called theistic evolutionists) believe that God created life by ordaining natural, evolutionary processes to produce all living organisms, including human beings. Some evolutionary creationists believe that God acted supernaturally at key moments—for example to create the very first single-celled life forms, or to endow human beings with unique attributes such as an immaterial soul. Many also believe that God guided evolutionary processes in some way, though most reject the claims of Intelligent Design theorists (see below) who say that evidence of God’s guiding hand is scientifically discernable. Major organizations aligned with evolutionary creationism include the following:

Intelligent Design

Intelligent design theorists argue that the best scientific explanation for some features of nature is that those features were designed for a purpose. In particular, they contend that cosmological fine-tuning and some aspects of biological complexity are best explained by guided (intelligent) causation rather than unguided processes like chance and natural selection. This claim is compatible with all of the varieties of creationism described above. Many young-earth creationists, progressive creationists, evolutionary creationists, and even some non-religious people agree that intelligent design is the best explanation for various features of the universe and life. However, intelligent design theorists typically regard the design hypothesis itself as a strictly scientific hypothesis, unlike creationism. They argue that evidence of design can be found in nature using accepted scientific methods and principles, independent of any religious beliefs. Most (but not all) intelligent design theorists reject the idea that evolutionary biology provides an adequate explanation for the diversity and complexity of biological life. Numerous organizations around the world promote Intelligent Design, but one main organization has been spearheading the movement:

Intelligent Design will be our focus later in this chapter. First, however, let us examine how each of the three main forms of Biblical creationism—young-earth creationism, progressive creationism, and evolutionary creationism—try to understand what the Bible teaches about the creation of life. As discussed above, most creationists believe that natural evolutionary processes have played at least some role in contributing to the diversity of life. Thus, the controversial question is not whether God employs natural processes in His creative work, but precisely how and to what extent He has done so. Was evolution God’s chosen instrument for creating all species from a common ancestor, as evolutionary creationists suggest? Or, do natural processes play an extremely limited role in diversifying species, as young-earth creationists believe? Alternatively, are progressive creationists right that the truth is somewhere between those views? Scriptural arguments have been rallied to support each of these three creationist perspectives, as we’ll see on the next page.

For a fuller introduction to these perspectives, I highly recommend the book Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design, edited by J.B. Stump and Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Each of the four contributing authors—Ken Ham, Hugh Ross, Deborah Haarsma, and Stephen Meyer—is a leading advocate of one of the four main viewpoints listed above.