How Long is a Billion Years?


We've all heard the phrase "billions and billions of years." Usually the phrase is accompanied by the speaker rolling his hands outwardly and repeatedly as if to demonstrate a continual unfolding of time. But what does this really mean? Can the human mind really comprehend a billion years?

The word "billion" is not as unfathomable as it was in days past. We now know the world holds over five billion people. The countries of India and China have over one billion residents each. That's a lot of people, and although no one has experienced such a crowd, we do have a foggy notion of its meaning.

Likewise, we have a feel for a billion dollars. There are now several hundred billionaires alive today, we are told, and the government can spend a billion dollars with ease. Maybe we don't experientially understand the amount, but it is within our comprehension.

But these are rather concrete items or concepts. We deal with people and dollars every day, but what of time? Certainly we experience time, and we have a feel for a long time, but how long?

Consider that the United States was founded just over 200 years ago. Columbus discovered America just 500 years ago. These events seem long ago, but the numbers are comparatively small. Continuing back in history, dates are less precise, but the pyramids in Egypt were built around 4000 years ago. The Asian empires were founded around the same time.

All of these events are rightly relegated to "ancient history." Archaeological artifacts and structures give only nebulous insights into the times of their origin. But in each of these cases we have at least some written history to aid us, scanty though it may be. For times greater than these, the only reliable source we have are the Biblical records and genealogies. According to it, no civilization or record other than itself could exist before the great Flood of Noah's Day, and indeed, all ancient legends (i.e., post-flood memories of pre-flood events) are fraught with illogic and mythology. It even places the creation of all things less than 2000 years before the Flood. Our minds struggle with the antiquity implied in these long thousands of years.

But can we comprehend one billion years? One billion seconds is approximately 32 years. One billion minutes takes us to the time of Christ. One billion hours is about 115,000 years—beyond any true comprehension. One billion days is nearly three million years. Think about it. What could one billion days possibly mean to an old man who has lived just 30,000 days?

One billion years cannot be grasped, neither can 4.67 billion years for the supposed age of the Earth or 14 billion years or so since the Big Bang. These words may be easy to say, and within our mathematical calculations, but I suggest they carry no meaning. The invariably accompaniment of the outward rolling of the hands, suggest that tales of "billions and billions" of years are nothing more than arm-waving, perhaps capable of impressing or intimating, but not of communicating understandable information.

A billion years might just as well be eternity, an equally unfathomable time word. Eternity future we can't comprehend either, but we believe it, because the Creator of time promised it to us.

Cite this article: John D. Morris, Ph.D. 2003. How Long is a Billion Years?. Acts & Facts. 32 (6).