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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

How Old Is the Earth?

When children bring home their science homework, we see phrases in their textbooks such as, “millions of years ago” and billions of years ago”. For those of us who have grown up in the Church, we have heard many Christians affirm that the Earth is actually 6-10,000 years old. Prominent ministries such as Answers in Genesis have dedicated themselves to defending a Young Earth and a Young Universe. So what are our children learning in school? Is their science textbook contradicting the Bible? How do we teach our children to be good students and good Christians at the same time?

These are complicated questions that require careful study of both the scientific evidence and Scripture. We may disagree on how to reconcile science and Scripture. Yet we can affirm together that “we believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” The Heidelberg Catechism says, “The eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son” [1].

Not only do we confess that we belong to the same Creator God, but we also affirm that this God reveals Himself in His creation and in Scripture. The Belgic Confession states that “we know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe….Second, God makes Himself known to us more clearly by His holy and divine Word” [2]. The Confession here expresses Psalm 19, which begins: The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” [3] and later says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple” [4].

At the end of our discussion today, we might not all agree on how to interpret nature and Scripture side-by-side, but we can trust that as we study them both together, we are encountering the same Creator God who loves us and wants us to know Him.

How should we approach this discussion? We must begin with humility. All of us will have to adjust our interpretations of Scripture or science or both. We also need to be aware that politics and other factors can affect the conversation. We ought to be careful how those biases affect us. The story of Galileo is an excellent example. In the 16th century, based on observation, the scientific consensus had been that the Solar System revolves around the Earth. However, a scientist named Copernicus developed a heliocentric model to better explain the motions of the planets and stars he was seeing. At the time, the Catholic Church taught the geocentric model and condemned the heliocentric model as heresy. Their view was based on Psalm 93: “He has established the world; it shall never be moved” [5]. Galileo built a telescope and his observations demonstrated the heliocentric model. Galileo was tried for heresy and died while under house arrest. The pressures from the Protestant Reformation and Galileo’s questions about biblical interpretation led the Catholic Church to tightly defend its authority. They had a difficult time evaluating their interpretations because of contemporary politics [6].

What is the evidence for an Old Earth and an Old Universe? First, after the discovery of plates and their movements of an inch or two each year, calculations were done which showed all the continents were once all together 180 million years ago. This discovery helped explain the shape of the plates and the placement of fossils on different continents [7]. Second, glaciers are made up of various layers of snow and dust. The dust falls in spring and summer and is able to mark off the seasons of a year. These layers have been counted back to 720,000 years [8]. Third, radiometric dating has measured the oldest rocks on earth at 3.6 billion years. These datings have been checked multiple times. Rocks on Greenland have been checked over a dozen times on five different isotopes [9]. Fourth, light years help date objects far away. Light years are measurements based on how far light travels in a year. If objects 10 billion light years away can be observed today on Earth, it means the light from those stars and galaxies has been traveling for 10 billion years [10]. Fifth, scientists have been observing the Moon, Venus, and Mars in the same way they have been occurring on earth. On Mars, specifically, scientists have observed channels similar to those made on Earth by flowing water. Scientists have concluded that for Mars to have water on its surface, it once had to have an atmosphere similar to Earth’s, but after the atmosphere thinning for many years, Mars is no longer able to possess water. Such a change requires millions or even billions of years [11]. Sixth, scientists are able to track the orbits of asteroids and calculate it back and forward in time. These calculations have shown scientists that several asteroids collided millions of years ago and broke up into the smaller asteroids currently orbiting the sun [12]. Seventh, radiometric dating has been used on Moon rocks, asteroids, and meteorites, dating the oldest samples back 4.6 billion years [13]. Eighth, scientists have been studying groups of stars formed in the same nebula called “star clusters”. The lifespan of stars is based on their mass. High-mass stars have short lifetimes while low-mass stars can last for a long time. If a star cluster has high-mass stars, it is still young, but if a star cluster only has low-mass stars, it is old. Scientists have dated the oldest ones at 12 billion years [14].

The final piece of evidence is the most controversial and requires a little more support. Scientists believe the universe started in a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. There are three key pieces of evidence for the Big Bang. First, scientists have observed that galaxies are moving away from our Milky Way galaxy in a specific pattern, indicating the universe is expanding. If this pattern is calculated backward, it is traced back until the whole universe is packed together as hot gas [15]. Second, the Big Bang model assumes the universe was hot. If that is the case, heat radiation would have cooled off by now, but could still be traced throughout the universe. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation was found in 1965 [16]. Third, stars are formed by a fusion of hydrogen which also forms helium. 24% percent of the elements of the universe is helium, far more than could be formed by the creation of stars. Scientists’ best explanation for this is that the early conditions of the universe at the time of the Big Bang were very similar to the formation of a star [17]. Calculating this model backward, scientists believe the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago [18].

How do Young Earth Creationists respond to all this scientific evidence for an old Earth? Several have speculated that light travels differently over long distances, but little evidence has been found to support this. Second, others propose that light is slowing down over time. Currently, there is not enough data to truly evaluate the speed of light before recent years and this also remains speculative. Third, the theory of relativity has been used to question current dating for the Big Bang, but so far, the mathematics of the theory have been misapplied and do not show significant changes in the dating. A fourth speculation is that light may travel more quickly beyond our Solar System, but no evidence has been put forward to support this [19]. The current scientific data clearly points to an old Earth and universe.

So what does the Bible say? This question could become very complicated if we also begin to ask what the Bible says about the Big Bang and evolution. For right now, we will focus on what the Bible says about the age of the universe. The Bible never, in fact, says how old the Earth is. In the 17th Century, Archbishop James Ussher used the genealogies to calculate that the Earth was created in 4004 BC, [20] but not all of the genealogies, such as Jesus’ in Matthew and Luke, completely match. The differences in genealogies show that authors pick what to include in them in order to make a theological point [21]. The genealogies do not include enough information to precisely date the age of the Earth.

The Church is currently evaluating its interpretations of Scripture and has proposed diverse ways of reading Scripture in light of scientific evidence for the age of the Earth. We have not agreed on a single method, but listening to the possibilities and paying attention to their problems is an excellent step towards coming to an agreement.

The main debate is over whether or not we should interpret Genesis in a concordist or non-concordist manner. Concordist interpretations try to reconcile the details of the Genesis story with scientific evidence, including the sequence of events, while non-concordist interpretations do not [22]. Both of these are attempts at reading Genesis 1 in light of the scientific evidence for an Old Earth. We will look at several concordist interpretations and then several non-concordist interpretations. We have already briefly thought about Young Earth Creationism and so will not include that in this list.

First, the gap interpretation believes there is a large gap in time between the first two verses of Genesis. It proposes God made a general creation, but a calamity caused the chaos of v. 2 and led to the Creation event that is told in Genesis 1. However, there is no scientific evidence for a catastrophe and scientists have fossils of creatures created in Genesis 1 that are much older than this view suggests [23]. It also requires reading v. 2 as “the earth became without form” while the Hebrew only says “the earth was without form” [24].

Second, the Day-Age theory suggests that each “day” in Genesis 1 refers to a long period of creation. However, the recurring phrase, “it was evening and it was morning” indicates the days are presented literally. Scientifically, extending the days worsens the problems. How do plants survive without sunlight for millions of years? How do plants survive without insects and animals to pollinate them for millions of years [25]?

Third, the appearance of age theory suggests that God created the world 10,000 years ago, but made it seem much older. A major theological problem with this view is that God could then be seen as deceiving us with nature [26].

Our first non-concordist interpretation is the proclamation day interpretation. This suggests that Genesis 1 is describing God’s activity in Heaven, but that does not correlate necessarily to exactly what was happening on Earth [27]. However, the text itself does not draw a distinction between God’s work in Heaven and on Earth. When God speaks in Heaven, the event happens on Earth [28].

The next four non-concordist interpretations could be harmonized. First, Genesis 1 is a poetic narrative with parallel structures and the number 7, symbolic of perfection [29]. Second, it represents a King setting up His Kingdom and entrusting regions of it to vassals. On the first three days, God creates the realms of creation while on the following three days, He fills them with creatures to serve Him [30]. Third, God is shown preparing a Temple for Himself and on the seventh day, He moves in. The main support for this is that in the ancient world, temples were designed to be a mini version of creation [31]. Finally, Genesis 1 represents ancient cosmology. The Earth rests on pillars over the waters below and with a firmament holding the water above. This is the way the ancient world saw cosmology and it shows Genesis directly responding to Babylonians creation myths, showing God as the only true Creator, creating humans with a responsibility to care for creation on His behalf as His image-bearers rather than as afterthoughts designed for slavery [32].

While we have not yet arrived at a consensus, we need to listen to both voices, scientists and theologians, nature and Scripture to make any headway in this discussion. Scientist Francis Collins says, “We desperately need both voices to be at the table, and not to be shouting at each other” [33]. While we continue dialoguing, making sense of all the evidence, together we can all affirm that we believe in a loving God who has created this universe and is redeeming it in Jesus. The best response we can have is worship: “Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor” [34].

[1] Heidelberg Catechism A.26.

[2] Belgic Confession, Article 2.

[3] Psalm 19:1 NRSV

[4] Psalm 19:7

[5] Psalm 93:2

[6] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, pp. 154-158; Deborah B. and Loren D. Haarsma, Origins, pp. 87-94.

[7] Deborah B. and Loren D. Haarsma, Origins, pp. 115-116.

[8] Ibid. p. 116.

[9] Ibid. p. 117.

[10] Ibid. p. 162.

[11] Ibid. p. 163.

[12] Ibid. p. 164.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid. p 165.

[15] Ibid. pp.166-168.

[16] Ibid. p. 168.

[17] Ibid. pp. 168-169.

[18] Ibid. p. 169.

[19] Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science, pp. 102-103.

[20] Haarsma and Haarsma, p. 103.

[21] Poythress, p. 91.

[22] Haarsma and Haarsma, p. 98.

[23] Ibid. p. 109.

[24] Poythress, p. 109.

[25] Haarsma and Haarsma, pp. 110-112.

[26] Ibid. p. 112.

[27] Ibid. p. 131.

[28] Ibid. p. 143.

[29] Ibid. pp. 132-133.

[30] Ibid. pp. 133-134.

[31] Ibid. p. 134.

[32] Ibid. pp. 134-139.

[33] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, p. 272.

[34]Psalm 29:1-2

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