Old Earth or Young Earth?

planet-581239_960_720 (1)A major area of controversy amongst Christians has been the reconciliation of the early chapters of Genesis with modern science. Modern secular science would date the world to be around 15 billion years old, whereas a straightforward reading of Genesis 1-11 would imply a world of around 6000 years old. Other related questions include:

  • Did God use a process of evolution to create humanity?
  • Are the 7 days in Genesis 1 to be interpreted as literal 24 hour days or can they be read as long ages or as poetry?
  • Was the flood described in Genesis 6 literally worldwide or merely a large localised flood?
  • Was there death and suffering in the animal world before Adam and Eve sinned?

The Christian community is divided in their responses to these questions. Some insist that we must approach our science with the biblical presuppositions of Genesis 1-11 in place (Young Earth Creationists (YECs)). They would argue that when we approach science from a biblical worldview, there is plenty of evidence to support a world only 6000 years old, special creation of the different ‘kinds’ of Genesis 1 (not evolution), and a worldwide cataclysmic flood.

Other Christians insist that the facts of science are clear that the universe is very ancient in age, and that this in fact does not need to be a problem in reading Genesis. Several different interpretations are suggested: some see Genesis 1 as describing the general order of evolution over the ages, whereas others see it as merely a poetic way of saying that God did create, but not how he created.

It appears to me that the most straightforward reading of scripture would seem to support the young earth scenario, whereas the great consensus amongst scientists still would support an ancient universe, despite evidences appealed to by Christian scientists arguing for a young universe. There is a need for grace, humility and a lot of continuing study into the interpretation of both scripture and science.

To what degree should we expect to gain scientific understanding from the Bible? The following points are worth considering:

  • If the Bible is narrating true historical events, then one can expect to find scientific evidence that is consistent with them occurring in the past.
  • However, the Bible was not written as a kind of scientific code-book with hints for new theories to be read in between the lines. Eg recently an American businessman commenced an oil company in Israel claiming that the Bible indicated where he should drill for oil (Dt 33:24!).
  • Some parts of the Bible are clearly not intended to have scientific implications. This is particularly the case in the use of genres such as poetic and apocalyptic literature. For example, Revelation 7:1, Psalm 144:5-6, Psalm 104:3-4. The majority of Genesis is clearly intended to be read as historical narrative; the burden of proof lies with those who suggest the early chapters of Genesis are poetic to prove that it is so.
  • Sometimes we use idiomatic language rather than strictly scientific language –eg “sunrise”. This can be the same in the Bible. Eg Eccles 1:5, or the “heart” as the centre of the human personality.
  • Did the writers of the Bible use language that was 100% accurate scientifically or did it rather reflect their scientific understanding of the day? Eg it is often suggested that “the waters above the heavens” (Gen 1:7) or the “windows of heaven” (Gen 8:2) might have reflected a primitive cosmology. One possible solution to this is that the authors may have written in language which fit in with their cultural beliefs, but in itself was equivocal in its meaning- “ the inspired author of Genesis was allowed to use the only terms available to him in his language to describe natural phenomena, but was not allowed to offer anything more than the vaguest, most minimal descriptions of those phenomena, thereby leaving nearly everything unsaid about their exact nature.” (JP Holding in an excellent essay in Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal 13(2):44–51, Nov 1999)

 

Some summary observations:

  • Many people have some very strong opinions which they bring to this topic, and fairly negative stereotypes of other views. For example, many Christians immediately equate the theory of evolution with atheism. However, we should be at least open to considering whether there is any theological reason why God could not have created the world through a gradual process in which His hand guided an evolving world. On the other hand, the general media rarely give any serious engagement with scientific arguments proposed by those questioning evolution. Rather, they are just quickly dismissed as being “anti-science” because they believe in God, and all their arguments are ignored. It is common for both sides of the debate to dismiss the others’ arguments as unworthy of any consideration.
  • An important point to realize is that much of the clash between the two approaches to science is that the YEC appeals to the fact that the world before Noah was tremendously different to the modern world, and the flood was a cataclysmic event unlike anything since, whereas secular science operates under the assumption that the present is the key to the past. This brings radically different assumptions to how evidences are interpreted scientifically.
  • My personal observation is that the YEC position is the most straightforward understanding of the biblical text, and as such deserves to be given some space to develop their case, and should be listened to with an open mind. However, in spite of their progress in scientific research, they still have a way to go in demonstrating their view is consistent with the scientific evidence. Furthermore, at times they have overstated their biblical case while not establishing their scientific case.
  • A biblical case for an old earth could be mounted along the following lines, as argued at one stage by CS Lewis and more recently by John Lennox. Satan was present on the earth prior to Adam and Eve’s sin- is it possible that He had some role in the corruption of earth from a perfect creation? Is it possible that the garden of Eden alone was paradise, with the rest of the earth surrounding it fairly much the same as it is now?
  • I think the biblical evidence quite possibly allows for death in the animal world before the sin of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve received their death sentence after their sin via their exclusion from the tree of life. This implies that it was access to the tree of life which enabled their eternal life, and thus death was a normal force without it. This then implies that animals also outside the garden would experience death as a normal part of creation.
  • A well argued defence of an old earth and theistic evolution is argued by evangelical leader Tim Keller in the article “Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople”.