One of the biggest challenges facing the Christian church today is how to deal with the growing evidence that life has been on this Earth for a very long time and that the Universe, with the rise and fall of galaxies and the birth and death of stars, has been around even longer!
Most people within the Christian tradition have thought of this world, and all life-forms on it, including all extinct forms, as having been created somewhere between 6000-10,000 years ago. Now, scientific discovery, from multiple disciplines, are reporting that complex life has been on this planet for millions of years. If you talk about microbial life, some evidence points to its rise on the scene as far back as 3.2 billion years ago!
So what is the Christian to do with all of this scientific data? The creation model that we have from the Bible, would indicate that God created all things during a period of six literal days. As a crowning act, God created humans on the last day of that literal week. The problem that this creates is that it requires us to conclude that either human life has been around for millions of years or that we re-interpret all of the scientific evidence of this Earth and Universe, to somehow fit into a very short time period! Neither alternative is very attractive! For example, after many years of searching, no one has ever found human fossils or artifacts mixed in with the fossil remains of dinosaurs. Science tells us that dinosaurs and people just did not live on this planet at the same time! How could it possibly be understood that dinosaurs were created, lived and died catastrophically on the same day that Adam and Eve were created, the sixth day of creation?
Christians have a long tradition of holding the Book of Nature high, as God's second "Book" of revelation. We can look to Nature as a trustworthy source of information about the Creator and His mighty power. So what are we to do with the Book of Nature, and all that it is telling us about how long life has been on this earth?
Some have proposed that there may have been big gaps between the days of creation, or that the “days” of creation are actually long eras of time, rather than 24 hour days. While this may be a satisfying explanation for a time, the nagging voice of reason may keep returning. This interpretation, as compelling as it may be, seems to be born more out of a sense of necessity to account for the scientific data, than it is a responsible reflection of the original intent of the authors of scripture. It is very unlikely that the people of Moses day would have thought of the days of Creation as being long eras. If it was not the original intent of the author, or the likely interpretation of the original audience, it seems a little irresponsible to change the original intent of the passage to meet a perceived need of our 21'st century cosmology. In another article we spend more time dealing with the Days of Creation.
So the question remains, how is it possible to have a recent creation week of literal days and still account for the scientific data of a very old Earth that teemed with life forms long extinct?
When the Sadducees came to Jesus with an equally puzzling problem, (namely the problem of how someone who has died and their body has decayed to the bone, could ever live again) Jesus’ response to them is still a good answer for us today. Jesus told them that they erred on two points. First, they did not know the scriptures, and secondly, they did not know the power of God.
Before you roll your eyes, I should quickly assure that I am planning to offer a better proposal than the simple, default answer of so many Christians, ... the “God is God, He can do anything”, proposal. As easy as that may be for some to fall back on, many others, especially non-Christians, might not find this very satisfying! I believe that God has provided us more. I believe that it is very possible to believe in a recent creation week and still be a devoted scientist, that recognizes current data on the age of the earth, and the evidence of life on an old Earth, as valid. The answer is sprinkled throughout the Bible, and requires no new big proposition of faith. Most Christians should not have to step outside the comfort zone of their faith-tradition to consider this proposal.
Christians often express in liturgy, poetry, and some of the greatest hymns that we sing together, the awesome and mighty power of our God. The theologians talk about His omnipotence, His omniscience, His omnipresence, and His transcendence. What this means in more simple terms, is that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, that He has the ability to be everywhere at once, and that He exists and acts outside of the dimensions of time and space that we can perceive or understand.
The Bible describes God as being the "Almighty", the "Everlasting One", the “Alpha and the Omega”, the “Beginning and the End”, the “First and the Last”. It declares that He is “above all things”. At the burning bush, as Jesus pointed out to the Sadducees, God told Moses that He was the great “I AM”, the “Always One”. He is the Ever-Existent One, the One who was, and is, and ever will be.
While these are quite common and accepted themes within Christendom, little is ever spoken or written of God’s existence throughout all time. In other words, how God is not only present everywhere at once, but also in all time at once. And yet the Bible is not silent on this concept. This I believe is what Jesus was trying to say to the Sadducees about the I AM. The voice that came out of the burning bush did not say, "I was the God of Abraham", the voice said I AM the God of Abraham. Jesus says, the great, Ever-Present One, is the God of people who are alive! Jesus said, “We do not serve the God of the dead”, Jesus said, “we serve the God of the living”.
It is in this little nugget of Scripture that we may find the answers to all of our unsolved mysteries of an Old Earth, created recently!
From God’s perspective, Jesus says, “all are alive!” (See Luke 20: 27-38, Matthew 22: 23-33 and Mark 12:18-27) As difficult as it may be for us to grasp, His powerful omnipresence throughout all earth-time means that it is just as easy for God to walk with Abraham today, as it is for Him to walk with our unborn grandchildren! God is not restricted to our time zone!
People always get a little nervous and their eyes start to glaze over or begin to roll back when you start talking about ideas like “non-linear” time. And yet this concept is generally accepted in most Christian faith-traditions, even if we may fail to follow through with all of the implications of the proposition. It is also a theme found throughout scripture. We say that God “knows the end from the beginning”, that He “foreknows”, even “predestines”. Indeed, for Biblical prophecy to be taken seriously at all, God must be present in what is our future.
This is how He knew Jeremiah, even before he was born. Jeremiah 1:5
This is how He knew king Cyrus would deliver His people from Babylon and help them rebuild the temple, long before he was born. Isaiah 44:28.
This is how it can be said that with God, "a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day". 2 Peter 3:8
This is how Jesus can be the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world". Revelation 13:8
Obviously, God does not experience time in the same way that we do. He is not limited by time in the same way that we are. He is present in all time and can act in all time.
What does this have to do with a recent creation and an old earth? Everything! When you factor in a God who transcends time, One who creates time and is then existent in all time, you may suddenly realize how it is possible to have a recent creation event and an old earth. It suddenly possible to have a recent creation event that results in a very “old” universe with stars that go through life and death cycles reaching back billions of years!
I know that some are probably still scratching their head, wondering, “how?”, but think about it for a moment. If it takes about 13.7 billion years for events to unfold that lead to an Earth with all of the right elements, in all of the right quantities in place for advanced life to exist, it may very well be that one of the first acts of creation would be for God to spread time and space back far enough to allow for it all to happen. Do we believe that God only has the power to create space and time in one direction, the future? Do we believe that once time is created, that God is then limited to act from the beginning point of that time frame, working through it day by day as we do? If we can agree that the Bible teaches that God has the power to be in all time at once, and we can allow for the possibility that God can stretch out His universe and time back into the past of our “Earth time”, then all of the evidence that we see of an old Earth and an old Universe does not necessarily mean that the creation event started 13.7 billion years ago, or 4.5 billion years ago. It may just as easily be seen that, during the creation week, probably not that long ago, God created time and space back far enough for the universe to develop in the way that we have come to observe. This is God, using the "tool of time". This is God using billions of years to create instantly!
This is not some new twist to the proposal that God created our Universe with the appearance of age. This is real age, using real time as we perceive it, to allow for the laws of physics to unfold a physical Universe ready for the later introduction of life. This is a proposal of creation where the Creator, from a literal creation week in our recent past (the way we perceive time), uses His presence in all space-time to create various varieties of plant and animal life on our planet, at different points in our Earth history, to slowly transform it from a lifeless rock to a world capable of sustaining and supporting complex life-forms that require atmosphere, stable environments and sustainable resources.
Why would an all-powerful God do it this way? There are many things to which we may never be able to answer the question, “why?” But we can make observations of how things have been done and gain insights from that. Many people seem to have the idea in their minds that the way that God created the world and the universe was something like Samantha on Bewitched, where with a thought, or a twitch of the nose, things pop into existence.
While we must admit that an all-powerful God could do things that way, what we observe is that He tends to create in a more naturalistic, unfolding way, according to established laws. Suns don't pop into existence they are "born" over long periods of time, the different stages that we are able to now observe as we look back through time. Trees don't pop into existence today, they grow from a tiny seed, developing in a very natural way. This seems to be God's preferred way to create. Rather than think of God as some kind of magic genie, that brings great treasures into existence with a snap of a finger, how much nicer it is to think of God as the deliberate, thoughtful Designer who carefully lays the foundations of our world and then shapes life, perhaps "casting" seeds of life, of just the right kinds, at just the right points in time, to perform His developing purposes, to make this Earth resource-ready for the introduction of mankind, down near the end of the time stream that He created on the first day.
Some might not see a big difference between this proposal and the idea of long eras of time for each day of creation. However, I believe that this proposal allows for several things that the day-age theories do not.
A Recent Creation
This allows for a recent creation week. However recent your faith-tradition needs to see the creation week happening, this proposal allows for that. If for some reason you need that to be 6000 years ago, this proposal works for that. If you are comfortable allowing for some gaps in the genealogies of the Bible and are fine pushing this back to 10,000 – 20,000 years ago, that’s OK. If you are progressive enough in your thinking to allow for the recent evidences of genetic and DNA research that indicate that modern humans arrived on the scene around 120,000 years ago and would like to point to that as the time of the creation week, that works as well.
In fact, while it may be difficult to wrap our minds around the idea, the simple truth is that the creation week may have happened as recently as last week!
When the Creator is able to create time, can exist in all time, can be effective in all time, He can start the whole process at any point in time, spread His universe and time out in every direction and cause life to begin at any point in that stream of time. Even with Creation happening last week, a Creator who can create space and time in both directions, could conceivably place Adam and Even in a garden 120,000 years ago in that time stream, and human history, as we have come to know it unfolds from there! Billions of years of history, that started last week!
Because the Creator acting during the Creation week, also exists and can act on this Earth 200 million years ago in the stream of Earth time, we are able to find fossils today that have preserved the forms of creatures long extinct, and that appear in rocks legitimately dated as that old, even though creation just happened!
While the idea that creation may have happened last week takes this proposal to the extreme, hopefully it helps to illustrate how pointless it is for Christians to get so bent out of shape about when in the great stream of time, the actual creation week occurred! Let’s stop quibbling over how long ago it happened and join hands together on the beautiful truth that Creation happened. That is the main point!
Every time I try and present this proposal I get glazed looks that say, “what is he talking about?” Let me try saying this another way. We believe in a Creator who exists in all time and in fact, transcends time! The Creator is not only present on the literal days of creation, He is at the same time personally present in every second of every day, past and future, throughout the whole Universe. Should we expect Him to limit his creative activity to the single point and time of the literal days of creation? Isn't it more likely that He acted from various points in the past as he created life on Earth, during the creation week? Evidence of life on this Earth going back billions of years does not make the Creator more distant, it makes Him more present, throughout all time!
A Literal Week, with Literal Days
This proposal allows for a real literal creation week, with real literal days, at least from our perspective could we have been present to observe. Each day of creation can be seen as God working to bring about His wonderful designs of life and physical structures, much in the way it is described in the Creation narrative, only that God, behind the scenes, so to speak, uses the “tool of time”, His physical presence throughout all time, to facilitate His creative actions in a natural way. If we could actually travel back in time and be present on the third day, to observe the creation of plant life, it may appear to us as though the trees do “pop” into existence before our very eyes, but if we were to cut one down, it would likely have growth rings, because they would be the result of God’s presence and action in time past, designing and “casting” His seeds of plant life, at just the right time through the natural history of the planet, to provide the resources that modern man would need to develop civilization. Without this action in the distant past, we would have no fossil fuels today. Civilization would never have developed the way that it did!
A More Personal God
A recent creation week maintains the integrity, immediacy, and a personal “hands-on” approach to the themes of Creation and Redemption. The idea of creation starting 13.8 billion years ago speaks more of a God, who sets things in motion and lets things unfold. When Creation is seen as a recent event, the idea of a Creator who desires a personal relationship with His creation becomes much more real and believable. The concept of Christ being the, “Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world” is much more real if that foundation took place 120,000 years ago than it does 13.8 billion years ago. The great problem of Theism that many Evangelical Christians are now turning to is that it makes God distant, impersonal, almost irrelevant.
More Hermeneutically Responsible
Fourthly, and I believe most importantly, this proposal allows for a more reasoned approach to understanding the real meaning of the “days” of the Creation narrative. Making these days into long eras is no longer necessary! No longer do we have to “help God out” by making the words of scripture say something that it was never intended to say. When we remember that God is naturally present and effective in all time, and can use the “tool of time” to perform His creative acts during the creation week, we no longer need to change the meaning of the original intent of an important document of Scripture. No longer is it necessary to think that the creation event started 13.8 billion years ago, and that God waits that long to have relationship with those He creates in His own image. Now, as one of the first actions of the literal creation week, God creates a time-span of 13.8 billion years with which to perform His wondrous works during the six days of creation. It is a subtle, but I believe an important difference. It preserves the meaning of "day" and establishes the weekly cycle. It preserves the integrity of the Sabbath of Scriptures and the fourth commandment, found in the law of God. According to Jesus, it is important not to mess with the law! (Matthew 5:19)
Surprisingly, one of the greatest difficulties that some Christians have with this proposal is not so much the concept of "non-liner" time, but the idea that it suggests that there may have been, “death before sin”. In the book of Romans. Paul says,
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” Romans 5:12
From this passage of scripture it is presumed by many Christians that the natural order of life on this earth, as it came from the hand of the creator, was one where there was no death, no predation or decay, and that when Adam sinned, everything suddenly changed! The lion and shark transformed into predators and death became not only possible but inevitable for all things on earth. The flower that once lasted forever, even if picked, now fades away and disintegrates into dust, because the first Adam, rebelled against God's government.
For many, the idea that dinosaurs roamed the earth for millions of years of Earth history, some of which violently killed other creatures, goes against everything that they have come to believe about our loving Creator. They will say, “How could a loving God create animals that killed each other like this? This could only be a result of sin!”
We will take up this valid and important question in another article. For now, it may be good to at least allow for the idea that Paul may have been setting up a theological construct here, rather than trying to establish a doctrine of pre-fall thermodynamics! We need to accept the possibility that planetary life might just need to cycle! It is not something that we may have given a lot of thought to, but the reality is that in order for life to exist in a "closed system" like earth, with no “cycle of life” or decay, would require a change of the “laws of nature” to such a magnitude that we may not even recognize it!
We might ask, “Did the fruit that Adam and Even ate in the Garden not die?” “What exactly was the purpose of the ‘tree of life’, if there was no death in the world that Adam and Eve were placed?” “How long would it take before the whole earth was filled with creatures to standing room only, if there was no death?” (One need only start with 2, and then press the X button of their calculator a few times to discover how quickly the closed system of our earth would be overrun by critters and mankind alike!)
We traditionally believe that the Bible teaches that after Christ formed Eve, that He rested from His works and that there is no new creation happening today. And yet, if the world changed so drastically the day that Adam and Eve sinned, if the natural order now suddenly needed "food chains" and predators with predatory behaviors, it would involve such a transformation that it would require God to stop His rest, and basically re-create this world to the follow a completely different order.
These and other fascinating questions will be taken up in essays to come!
For now, the next time you may be puzzled by the latest report of science on your Yahoo news home page, that shows more evidence for an old earth, remember your Creator as the Always-Present One, smile and celebrate this latest page of the book of nature, that reveals His awesome power and timeless presence!
For Further Reading:
The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Green. Also, watch a Nova series by the same name, hosted by Brian Green, specifically the episode on time. You can watch it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqzgYRBlslw As you watch, it is great to keep in mind that Jesus basically said the same thing that astrophysicists are just now discovering 2000 years later! It is possible for God to be the God of the living, even after they have died, from our perspective!