One of the issues that many sincere Christians are finding a real challenge to explain, in light of 21’st century science, has to do with the age of the Earth and the Universe. While there have been a few early Church "fathers" who may have hinted that they believed that the earth could be quite old, most Christian thinkers and writers have probably not conceived of the earth as being much older than about 10 thousand years. In 1654, after a very careful survey of the genealogies of Scripture, Bishop James Ussher declared quite confidently, that the Creation-event started on October 23, 4004BC!
Some theologians have pointed out that there very well could be gaps in the Biblical genealogies, or that the Bible only tells the stories of a few of the Patriarchs that actually lived on this earth, and that this could stretch out the time that has passed since Adam, quite significantly. It is pointed out that the Hebrew words used in the genealogies can also be understood as a descendant of, rather than “son of”. However, most Christian authors have traditionally not been willing to take this back to more than about 20 thousand years, at the most.
In the light of recent scientific discoveries, and multiple lines of evidence for a very old earth1, with fossil evidence of complex life dating back to 500 million years or more and with fossils of microbial life that may go as far back as 3.5 billion years, responsible Christian thought leaders are searching for ways of how we might understand these new revelations of science. Christians have a long tradition of building their faith on God’s two "Books", the Bible and the Book of Nature. Christians have believed that the Creator God is the author of both, and we should therefore be able to find harmonic resonance between the two!
Unfortunately, on the subject of the age of the Earth, few Christians have heard much harmony! The issue of “Old Earth vs. Young Earth” has been an emotionally charged issue of debate in Christian circles. Using various approaches, such as suggesting that the days of creation referred to in Genesis 1 may be much longer periods of time than 24 hours, or seeing long periods of time passing between each 24 hour Creation day, some have tried to build bridges between the discoveries of modern science and the traditional understanding of Christians. Sadly, these efforts have for the most part been met with anger and scorn by a large cross-section of Christians. The words that have been exchanged have not always been Christ-like! Some may have defended their beliefs in a “Young Earth” so strongly, that they may have “lost their Christian experience!”
What have they been so fired up about? In their defense, many Christians see this debate as a stand for God, a stand for the Creator, a stand for Christian ethics, morals, and values. People are animated on these issues because they believe that if you give up on the idea of a “Young Earth”, you have essentially given up on the Bible as being inspired by God! For many, to lose a “Young Earth” would be the same as losing the idea of a personal God or that the Jesus of the Bible could be the Lord and Creator. In essence, in the minds of a great majority of Christians, everything is at stake on this issue!
How did it get to be this way? Many Christians believe that the biggest reason that science likes to claim that the Earth is very old, is so that there will be enough time to allow for the idea of the naturalistic development of all life on earth through the processes of random processes and evolution, and thus do away with the need of a Creator. In their thinking, any Christian who might try and find ways to demonstrate that the Earth and Universe could be as old as scientists claim, must be siding with atheistic scientists and are thus, enemies of the faith!
A second concern is that many believe that any attempt to prove that the Earth is old, and that life on Earth is old, is essentially a dismissal of the belief in the inspiration of Scripture. They would say that to believe in an Old Earth, you would have to give up your belief in the Bible. They would argue that the Bible teaches that God created the Universe in six literal, successive, 24 hour days. If Adam was created on the sixth day, how could it ever be understood that Adam was created millions of years ago? Why would God ever want to let the problem of sin go on so long?
At Timeless Themes, we take the position that God reveals Himself and His universal truths through the Book of Nature, just as surely as He has through the Bible. If the Book of Nature reveals an “Old Earth” it stands to reason that there must be a way to hear the harmony between this and the Bible!
Many Christians do not recognize the discoveries of modern science to be God’s “Book of Nature”. They point to how some have tried to use the findings of science to prove the existence of life through natural processes and thus Modern Science should not be seen or used as one of God’s Books. They see little value in the study of science, since it seems to be the foundation for Atheism.
In response, I would point out that over the centuries, many false doctrines have been proposed as a result of people studying the Bible. Would it be responsible for us to disregard the Bible because it has been used by some teachers to "lead so many astray"? Has the Bible been wrong or the interpreters been wrong? In the same way, I believe that we need to be careful not to throw away the “Book of Nature”, just because a few false interpretations have been developed from it!
We understand that the propositions of science are always changing, always progressing, always unfolding. Many of the theories of science that were accepted as truth 50 years ago, have been replaced with much better solutions. This should not be an excuse for us to avoid science, but rather follow it carefully, with excitement, as God continues to reveal His mighty works! Every month, new chapters are being written in the Book of Nature that confirm the validity of Scripture. Rather than dismiss the book of Nature because it unfolds, we should be eagerly awaiting each new development, ever searching for new portraits of our Creator!
If the propositions of some practitioners of science seem to contradict what we believe the Bible to say, it is OK to be cautious about how we accept them. We do no less with the propositions that some make about the Bible! Remember that it is important not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater!”
However, I would submit that when multiple lines of evidence, from a variety of different disciplines, that are reported and then tested over and over again by a multitude of dispassionate scientists, whose reputation and integrity are on the line, all point to an Old Earth, we need to sit up and take notice! This is not just a few passionate atheists trying to pull the wool over the eyes of Christians! For most scientists, the ideas and concerns of Christians are not even on their radar!
The time may have come when the overwhelming flood of evidence for an Old Earth, calls for us to step back, take pause, and re-evaluate what we have believed. Sometimes we may need to be humble enough to accept the fact that what we have believed may be wrong! Not that the Bible was wrong, or that God was wrong, but that we may have been wrong in how we interpreted what God said, or why He said it the way that He did.
In reality, the Bible does not have any specific reference to the amount of time that has passed from the point of creation to our day. As much as we might like, there is no, "thus saith the Lord of Creation, this world was born on October 4, 4004BC"! A 6000 year old Earth is a teaching of men, not Scripture. The purpose of the genealogies of scripture was most probably NOT for the purpose of establishing dates, and it is very likely a mistake to try and use them that way.
The reason why some Christians like to extend the date of Creation back, from 6000 years to something more like 10,000 years ago or longer, is that it helps to bring understanding to some of the findings of archaeology, and how the human artifacts that are dug up from the "sands of time", could possibly relate to the dating of the Biblical flood, the Tower of Babel, the emergence of Abraham and the stories of his descendants, all within such a short time span.
While this nod to archaeology is commendable, why stop there? Do Christians happen to like archaeologists more than other scientists? When the science of ice-core technology clearly demonstrates that life on this earth dates back at least 120, 000 years, why should this page of God’s book of Nature be torn out and thrown away? When geology shows evidence of multiple ice ages spanning hundreds of thousands of years, or plate tectonics that have slowly separated the continents and raised the mountains over millions of years, why should these records of God’s amazing creative activity be redacted?
We have long wished that the Biblical account would have been much more detailed about how God did His creative works. Now that wonderful new chapters are being opened before our very eyes, through the discoveries of science, that give us amazing insights to the things that we have wondered about, why are we turning away?
What can we say about the wonderful "photo albums" that God has preserved for us in the way of the fossil record? The photos that we make and hang on our walls, fade after a few years. God's "camera system" preserves His creative activity in stone! Many Christians have wished that they could build a time machine and go back and observe creation in action, and yet they will often turn their eyes away from God's beautiful "photo" record of the event.
Amazing images of creatures long-extinct are ignored by many Christians, rather than celebrated, because they hint of an Old Earth, with strange huge life forms roaming the planet! Instead of standing in awe and wonder at the detailed engravings etched into our Book of Nature, they are seen as one more thing that has to be explained away in order to preserve a Young Earth paradigm.
What many Christians do not realize is that when they dismiss the fossil record they are turning their backs on one of the most compelling lines of evidence for Special Creation! It is in fact the fossil record that evolutionists find to be one of the most perplexing testimonials of Nature that goes against their theories! The fossil record clearly demonstrates sudden "explosions" (can we say Special Creation events) of new creatures with no transitional forms that would be required for the evolutionary explanation of the development of life on Earth.
For me, a fossil record that clearly reveals a Creator, is a chapter that I want to keep in my Book of Nature, even if the fossil dates are ancient! It is more important to me that my Book of Nature reveals a Creator then it does establish a Young Earth! In fact, the ancient dates, given for the rocks that the fossils are found in, may help me understand not only that God created everything, but give me some clues as to how he did it, that may not be readily apparent in the Bible. While God may no longer be inspiring new chapters of the Bible today, we can be delighted that the Book of Nature is still being written, still giving new confirmations of His Creative work, every day! While the Bible may be written for an ancient culture, and accommodates their worldview, the Book of Nature speaks directly to our cosmology. How cool is that? Everything that we might wish for from Genesis 1, is now being revealed to us in our language, in our time, within the context of our culture and worldview, with each new discovery of science! It doesn't get any better than that!
I like to ask, “exactly how is an Old Earth paradigm any kind of challenge to the fundamental idea that this Universe, our world, and life on it, was designed and created by a Supreme Being?" Rather than accept the fear of some that ancient dates for life are evidences for atheism, I would propose that there is absolutely nothing about the Old Earth paradigm that suggests that we in any way need to do away with a Designer-Creator God! We need to remember that our Creator God is the "Ancient of Days!"
There is no passage of scripture that stipulates that in order to believe in a Supreme Creator one must accept that the age of this earth is only 6000 - 12,000 years old! I would maintain that the acceptance of the scientific evidence of an old universe, an old earth, including ancient life on Earth, does not in any way violate any direct statement of Scripture! Our Creator has existed from everlasting to everlasting. He was not born 6000 years ago and His creative activity should not in any way be seen to be restricted to these dates.
This should be good news! People do not have to choose between being a Christian and a Scientist! If your science professor is scoffing at your Christian faith, telling you that you are going to have to make a choice between the Bible and your career, she is wrong! The Creator of this Universe is the ULTIMATE scientist, and a career in science can and should be an exciting walk with Him!
Things have actually come a long way in science, even during my lifetime. No longer is accepting an “Old Earth”, tantamount to accepting a naturalistic origin of life, through evolution, or in any way taking a bow to it. As it turns out, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and biologists are now telling us that 3.5 billion years is just too short a time for life to have spontaneously started, let alone end up with the diversity of complex life that we have today. It is just, "way too short a time"! It used to be that Science believed that the Universe was “infinitely old”. From that position, conceivably, somewhere, in an infinite universe, life might arise on its own. We just happened to be that place!
With the development of Big Bang cosmology, that gives our universe an age of about 13.8 billion years, it suddenly becomes almost impossible for life to have emerged without a Designer-Creator. As it turns out, even at 13.8 billion years, our universe is far too "young" for science to explain away a Creator! Perhaps Christians can think in terms of a "Young Earth", and "Young Universe" after all, even at 13.8 billion years!
Many Christians resisted the idea of Big Bang cosmology, and some still do today, but in reality it is an amazing chapter in the unfolding Book of Nature, that affirms a Creator! Big Bang cosmology has been God’s greatest gift to Christians, perhaps since the day that Darwin released his book!
In future articles we will discuss some of the “multiple lines of evidence”, found in God's book of nature, that seem to reveal an Old Earth, but also show how this need not shake our faith in a Creator God or the inspiration of Scripture. We will discuss how the “age of the earth” and the “date of creation” need not necessarily be seen as one and the same, and we will argue for a literal creation week, with real 24 hour days! Sounds crazy? Stay tuned!