Why Genesis Still Matters

Splashing wave

Our Conversation with John C. Whitcomb

by Mike Matthews

The publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961 sparked the modern creation movement. Coauthor John Whitcomb, one of the towering theologians of our times, explains the timeless truths that will help us reach the next generation with God’s message of redemption.

Few people impact their generation with an influence that continues in succeeding generations. John C. Whitcomb is one of those people. In fact, everyone reading this article has probably been touched by his life, whether you know it or not.

In 1961, Dr. Whitcomb coauthored a book now synonymous with his name, The Genesis Flood. At the time, he was an Old Testament professor at Grace Theological Seminary, where he served for 38 years. Since his retirement, he has continued to speak, write commentaries, and distribute Bible-training materials. But he’ll always be known for that book, which launched the modern creation movement.

Now he is 93. Last year, failing health forced him and his wife, Norma, to move into a small, nicely furnished apartment in his son and daughter-in-law’s home in Indianapolis (not far from our Cincinnati offices). This summer, I stopped by and chatted with him about his book and the reasons for its impact.

More than anything else, I wanted to glean wisdom from a seasoned theologian who played a central role in some of the greatest battles that have afflicted the church and our culture over the past century. Perhaps he could help me—and our readers—understand better how this generation can reach today’s topsy-turvy culture.

No End of Surprises

I was constantly surprised by his answers. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Throughout the interview, Dr. Whitcomb kept going back to the Bible for answers, instinctively. When I would press him to elaborate on the most effective arguments to convince people, he kept opening his Bible and emphasizing God’s grace and the power of his Word.

The reverent words “God’s inspired, infallible, written revelation” continually rolled off his lips. He didn’t credit human skills for any good that his book accomplished. “Other people have written bigger, better books. But this book has a special characteristic. It is totally, 100 percent Bible focused. It assumes the absolute inerrancy, truthfulness, and relevance of God’s written revelation on how the world began.”

As he shared details about his conversion, his book, his ministry afterwards, and the needs of our culture today, it dawned on me why his book had such an impact. It wasn’t just the arguments. It was the mark of God’s grace in his life.

Anyone who has met Dr. Whitcomb would agree: he is one of the gentlest spirits you’ll ever meet. In our interview, he kept muttering, “Praise the Lord. Amen. Thank you, Lord.” He would raise his feeble hands to his thinning hair and shake his head, as he paused to consider the good things God has done for him.

Church history is replete with people like this, whose influence is as much a result of God’s grace in their lives as their work. John Newton didn’t touch lives simply because of the words in “Amazing Grace.” He experienced it as a godless slave trader. The wonder of his transformed life spread throughout the British empire, creating fertile soil for his hymn to take root.

In God’s providence, the omnipotent Creator orchestrated a series of circumstances to raise up a prophetic voice to challenge his wayward church. The church had become lost in the wilderness, embarrassed by one of Scripture’s most basic teachings—recent creation in six days. It took a gentle spirit, with fire in his bones, to challenge that thinking.

Light Undimmed

When I entered Whitcomb’s apartment, he was sitting quietly on the couch. His broad smile was sincere and his voice steady, but he spoke and moved slowly. He paused to take my name and shakily wrote it down on a sheet of paper. Then he asked me to repeat what I said, apologizing that his hearing was bad. I had heard about his recent health issues, and I wondered how this interview would go.

Once we moved past the pleasantries to the subject at hand, my fears vanished. His love of Christ and his Word swept him along. The same fire still burned that once drove him to coauthor one of the most seminal books of the twentieth century, despite a full teaching load and a growing family.

He asked if we could open with prayer. Then my first question: “Why did you become a theologian, and what drove you to write the book?” He jumped instantly to his salvation testimony.

One Hour to Change a Life

Like so many others, Dr. Whitcomb accepted evolution as a lost young man. He loved science, and in his first semester at Princeton University he enrolled in an evolutionary geology course. But God changed his thinking soon after he was invited to a Bible class taught by Dr. Donald Fullerton, a Princeton graduate who had become a missionary to students on campus.

Fullerton later visited Whitcomb in his dorm. “He didn’t argue about evolution, or geology, or other religions,” Dr. Whitcomb explained. “He just told me what God said. Within one hour I was a born-again Christian. I’ve never recovered! (Laughter.)”

One hour? He could sense my question before I asked it. God’s Word is like a flashlight in a dark cavern, he explained. If you’re with someone who doesn’t know the way out, just turn it on. “Why argue where the flashlight came from? Its light is self-authenticating. You don’t have to argue that the light is there; you see it instantaneously. God’s Word is like that—see what Hebrews 4:12–13 says, for example.” His words struck a chord in my heart. That was my experience.

It didn’t take a lot of complex arguments about science. Just hearing what God’s Word says, along with some common-sense ways a universal Flood could explain fossils, opened my eyes to consider the Bible’s claims about the origin of human sin and my need for a Savior.

One Hour to Abandon the Gap Theory

Even though he abandoned evolution, Dr. Whitcomb didn’t settle his views on a recent creation and a universal Flood until he began working on his doctorate in 1953.

“When I graduated with honors in history from Princeton University in 1948, I didn’t understand those things, even though I was a Christian. At Grace Theological Seminary, I just adopted the general view of the evangelical world at that time, that there was a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, millions of years passed, and then God recreated the world in six days.”

In the fall of 1953 a leading expert in hydrodynamics (water motion) came to his community to give a one-hour lecture on the biblical Flood and its power to lay down the fossil layers we see today. The speaker, Dr. Henry Morris, also showed how the Bible’s words were clear that it must have been a global Flood.

The clear statements from Scripture, which Dr. Whitcomb had never thought through, convinced him, even before he finished speaking. “After the lecture I told Dr. Morris, ‘I’m overwhelmed by your message. I can see now where I have been in total error. Pray for me as I write my doctoral dissertation on what the Bible says about the Flood.’”

After he completed his dissertation (1957), he asked Dr. Morris to coauthor a book on the Flood, bringing his scientific expertise to bear. That was the genesis of The Genesis Flood (1961).

But few Christians believe the gap theory anymore, so I wondered how it might apply today. I asked Dr. Whitcomb what he thought was the biggest misunderstanding about the Flood in our day, and whether his arguments are still relevant. (The abandonment of the gap theory is largely a testament to the creation movement, which Dr. Whitcomb helped to spark.)

“The gap theory has seen its day,” he agreed. “Today the main compromise in the church is that the book of Genesis—creation through the Flood—is viewed as poetry. ‘Don’t take it literally,’ the scholars say. ‘Don’t take it seriously. Don’t take it scientifically. It’s a beautiful story.’”

We then turned to the question of how this modern view is just as wrong as the gap theory and how to convince fellow Christians about its destructive ramifications…

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image credit: Mourad Saadi