We don't have details about when and how God created the world. Even if He told us, our human minds could not comprehend it.
But we do know two fundamental facts about His creation, clearly stated in the Bible:
There are an infinite number of ways God could have designed and created the world. It's not our place to critique what He did, or could have done, but to acknowledge what He actually did, and how He did it, for whatever reasons, as best we can understand from the expanding evidence now available to us.
The traditional Christian belief is that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days, all in the same week He created Adam, which Bible genealogies show to be approximately BC 4000. (Some Bible scholars say there are gaps in the genealogies and that the time period should be stretched by as much as another 4,000 years, to about BC 8000.)
This tradition still holds today for most regular church attenders in America, as evidenced by Gallup, the largest and most trusted survey organization in America, which has been tracking it with the same question every three years for the last 37 years: 'Which of the following statements come closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?'
The percentage has been dropping slowly over the years, but the latest Gallup Poll on the subject, 68% of respondents who said they attend church every week chose this response: 'God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.'
This large random sample of the entire U.S. population included Catholics and Protestants and was taken in 2019, just prior to the Covid pandemic.
The present situation is similar to times past when Christians quoted Bible verses to 'prove' that the earth is flat ('four corners of the earth' and 'ends of the earth,' Job 37:3 and other verses) and that the earth is not moving ('He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved,' Psalm 104:5 and other verses).
We now know that the earth is round and rotates around the sun. Christians had a misguided interpretation of some Bible verses based on how little they knew about the earth hundreds of years ago. The new knowledge did not in any way diminish God's marvelous creation. In fact, it showed that God's creation is more marvelous than people could ever even imagine.
If we truly believe that God reveals Himself to us both through His Word (Bible, special revelation) AND His World (science, general revelation), the two revelations need to be in harmony for answering this question: Did God create everything in six 24-hour days?
Based on actual Bible statements and modern knowledge about the world as we find it, here is an interpretation of the creation 'days' when not constrained by 24-hour tradition:
About nine billion years may have passed between Genesis 1:2 and Genesis 1:3.
The Biblical account of creation is seen from the perspective of earth. The universe is about fourteen billion years old, the sun about five billion, and the earth about four-and-a-half billion.
Because of intense heat, the earth was vaporized and gaseous ('formless and empty') for most of its existence.
'Darkness was over the face of the deep' because light cannot penetrate intense heat. Eventually a crust (face) started to form over the molten rock.
'The spirit of God was hovering over the waters.' God was getting ready to do something special on planet earth. The earth was cooling, and steam was condensing into pockets of water on the crust.
Now the earth is ready for God to begin His six creative stages of shaping and populating the earth.
God's first creation was light. Light is the primary requirement for life. Light is so amazing that it cannot be defined by anything other than itself. See the list here showing 14 attributes of light, both physically and spiritually.
God created an atmosphere ('expanse') of life-sustaining air between the condensed water on the ground (oceans and lakes) and the vaporized water in the dense cloud cover, the expanse of space in which He would create life.
We live in the atmosphere, the thin layer above the earth's crust. In comparative size, the atmosphere is to earth what the skin is to an apple.
The atmosphere makes earth habitable by absorbing ultraviolet radiation from the sun to warm the earth's surface, giving us air for breathing and rain for vegetation.
As temperature cooled on the earth's surface, the thickening crust (floating on molten rock) began cracking, shifting and buckling. At God's command, huge parts of the crust (tectonic plates) were thrust above water to form dry land.
Eventually light began to glow through the dense cloud cover and support simple organic life.
The Biblical account of creation is seen from the human perspective of land on earth. First life on earth was tiny organisms like bacteria, about four billion years ago. Then came simple vegetation at the edges of water and land.
Ancient people would not have understood micro organisms and biological processes, so the Bible skips directly to vegetation they knew, but this happened over a very long period of time.
All celestial bodies were created from the Big Bang, starting as formless spinning gasses, too hot for light to penetrate. It took billions of years for them to merge, cool, solidify and achieve stable orbits.
Eventually there were breaks in the thinning cloud cover so that the sun, moon and stars became visible from human vantage point.
Light existed since Day 1, but the sun had been obscured by dense cloud cover and unable to provide the photosynthesis needed for rapid growth of large plants trees and the visibility for bird migrations and human navigation and schedules.
Now the earth's surface is exposed to direct sunlight.
For centuries the Bible's creation order was used by critics as irrefutable proof that the Bible is not trustworthy. They said it is impossible to have light (Day 1) and organic growth (Day 3) before sun (Day 4). But now that we understand the Big Bang – that most of earth's life has been clouded by vaporized gasses – the creation order shows that the Bible is accurate. No writer three thousand years ago could have possibly known this modern science without some direct knowledge from the designer/creator.
With direct sunlight, vegetation proliferated, especially in water, and became an abundant food source for new categories of life – fish and birds – which God created about 500 million years ago.
The above verses in Genesis do not preclude the likelihood that there were already some very simple forms of marine and avian life (as plankton and flying insects). The main point here seems to be that God created an enormous number of new creatures – large complex creatures – all with capacity to move about freely, unlike the stationary life of prior life forms, and God caused them to proliferate rapidly.
This is what scientists call the Cambrian explosion, the quick appearance of a massive amount of new life forms. Darwin said that the Cambrian explosion is his own biggest problem with his own theory of evolution. He was perplexed to acknowledge that so many new species of life could appear almost at once.
About 250 million years ago, a new kind of creature appeared, what we call dinosaurs. We know from archaeology that there were more than 700 species of dinosaurs of all sizes and types – from five pounds to fifty tons – some swam, some flew, some also walked – and they dominated the earth for 175 million years.
Scientists now believe that modern birds are descendants of small avian dinosaurs that escaped a mass extinction 66 million years ago. All non-flying dinosaurs and three-fourths of all other species of life on earth were killed in that extinction, thought to be caused by an enormous meteorite about six miles wide crashing into the ocean near the Yucatan Peninsula, resulting in scorching fires throughout the earth, radioactivity, volcanic eruptions and the sun hidden for years by dust.
Dinosaurs were the dominant part of God's creation in Day 5, but the Bible never mentions them, probably because they went extinct and no one in Bible times could comprehend the timeframe or believe that these creatures actually existed. It wasn't until modern archaeology that people were able to see and believe these creatures.
Modern taxonomy classifies all dinosaurs as reptiles.
In Day 5, there was extensive proliferation and evolution of fish and bird species, including reptiles, throughout the earth, expanding the food chain, getting ready for animals and humans in the next stage of life.
In each successive stage, God created new life forms of increasing complexity: In Day 3, life from seeds ... in Day 5, life from eggs ... in Day 6, life from live births.
Shortly after the great extinction 66 million years ago, God created a new kind of creature – animals – adapted to the new environment.
Then, several million years ago – very recent in geological time – God created a very unique kind of intelligent bipedal creatures known as hominids and hominins, with physical form very similar to today's apes and humans, all having 95-97% identical DNA.
The last known hominin population (Neanderthals) was in Europe and vanished suddenly about 30,000 years ago.
The Bible never mentions hominins, probably because they went extinct and because few people in Bible times could comprehend a time span of millions of years or believe that soulless creatures (before Adam) looking somewhat like humans actually existed. The Bible account goes direct from animals to humans.
Archaeological digs reveal the first evidence of humans about 40,000 years ago. Hominins and humans may have coexisted at one time, and apparently there was some interbreeding because today Europeans and Asians have approximately 2% Neanderthal DNA, but other groups have little or none. This low percentage is further evidence that humans did not evolve from hominins. Humans are a special creation.
God said: 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move upon the ground.'
The concluding act of the six stages of creation was God's creation of humans, made in the likeness of God, not evolved, created with capacity to have a relationship with God, rule the earth, and have eternal life – the crowning jewel of God's creation!
A concluding statement is used to end each of the six days of creation – 'And there was evening, and there was morning – the [number] day' – but not used for the seventh day of rest, meaning that this day has not yet ended. We are still in the seventh day (stage).
God is not making new creations during this pause, but procreation and evolution within categories continues. God has equipped humans with a unique body, mind and soul to rule the earth and do creative work to further fashion life on earth.
Other portions of the Bible tell us that in a future day (stage), God will take back rule of the earth from humans and will resume creative work ... a new heaven and a new earth ... (Revelation 21:1-5, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Isaiah 65:17-19, and more).
The Bible gives the order of first appearance of earth's life forms but does not give actual times or time spans.
The order summarized above – the six 'days' of creation reported in the Bible – is essentially the same order confirmed today by cosmologists, geologists, biologists, and archaeologists.
This order is not intuitive. The ancient writer of Genesis could not have known God's method and sequence more than three thousand years ago without special knowledge direct from the Creator.
Now modern science is filling in the time blanks, and a re-reading of the creation story opens our eyes to a new understanding of God's unfolding master plan.
In 2 Peter 3:8, the Apostle Peter acknowledges that 'day' (Hebrew yō·wm) can be used as a time variable: 'But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.'