The Theological Costs of Old-Earth Thinking
The mention of Genesis 1:1 in today’s academic circles, whether secular or Christian, evokes far more heated responses than one might assume in our science-saturated culture. Secular atheists are confident that the question of origins is a matter answered only by approaching the evidence through naturalistic science. There is no room for God in their conclusions. Christian intellectuals, on the other hand, are even now wrestling with this subject in the context of trying to discover harmony between science and faith, between the assured results of empirical scientific pursuits and the bedrock doctrines of biblical Christianity. Can there be harmony between the two? And if so, at what cost?
The question that brings focus to the conversation between science and the Bible is one that highlights several key issues regarding the trustworthiness of science, the reliability of the Scriptures, and the worldviews that govern our understanding of both. The question is: Why does the universe look so old?
Our answers are limited. Maybe the universe looks so old because it is so old. Perhaps it is not actually as old as it looks. Some might simply say, “We can’t answer the question,” or even “The question isn’t important.”
On the contrary, the question is extremely important and one for which Christians should be ready to give an answer. That answer, however, must satisfy both the text and the grand narrative of Scripture.
The straightforward and direct reading of Genesis 1:1–2:3 describes seven 24-hour days—six days of creative activity and a final day of divine rest. It is clearly a sequential pattern of creation. This view, while not absolutely unanimous or without controversy, was the untroubled consensus and traditional view of the Christian church until early in the 19th century.
Over the last 200 years, four great challenges to the traditional reading of Genesis have emerged.
The first challenge was the geological record, which revealed to post-Enlightenment explorers, scientists, and Christians a story about fossils and strata around the globe that gave them pause when attempting to understand this new data in light of the traditional, biblical account of early earth history.
Secondly, the emergence of Darwin’s theory of origins by means of natural selection, which has since become the bedrock for evolutionary theory across the sciences, presented a direct challenge to the traditional interpretation of Genesis.
The third great challenge came with the discovery of ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Genesis account, such as the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. As scholars began to study these documents, some began to see Genesis as just one more ancient Near Eastern creation story.
Finally, higher criticism played a major role in challenging the authenticity, accuracy, and, ultimately, the authority of the Genesis account of origins and earth history. Predominantly seen through the use of the Documentary Hypothesis (or JEDP theory), theological criticism at this level sought to cast doubts on the authorship of the Old Testament books, which led these scholars to view the books of Moses and other writers as merely human documents.
The answer to the question “why does the universe look so old?” must be considered with these challenges in mind.
So, just how old does the universe look?
Currently, the scientific consensus suggests the earth and our own solar system are approximately 4.5 billion years old. The age of the universe is now said to be about 13.5 billion years old, which is essentially a mathematical extrapolation of data from radiometric dating evidence, the estimated start of a Big Bang, and theories related to the expansion of the universe.
The major scientific assumption controlling the long ages of the earth and the universe is the idea of uniformitarianism, a theory made in the early 19th century by Charles Lyell and others that suggests the processes we observe today are a constant guide to how physical processes have always operated. If processes appear slow and gradual today, and if these processes have always operated in this manner, then the earth must be much, much older than religious texts, such as Genesis, suggest.
In contrast, the inference and consensus of the church through all of these centuries is that the earth and the universe are very young, only several thousand years old.
Thus, the disparity between evolutionary theory and the biblical account on the age of the universe is no small matter. Rather, it is one that comes with huge theological consequences.
Baptist professor William Dembski speaks of our current mental environment shaped by the intellectual assumption that the world is very old. Thus, to speak in confrontation to this environment, it is implied, comes at a significant cost.
For example, renowned theologian Bruce Waltke recently became a focus of controversy after appearing on a video where he argued that, unless evangelical Christians accept the theory of evolution, we will be reduced to the status of a theological and intellectual cult.
Bernard Ramm, a well-known evangelical theologian of the 20th century, also argued that there must be an acceptance of evolutionary theory among evangelicals.
The four horsemen of the new atheism—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens—argue that evolution is the final nail in the coffin of theism. The “assured” findings and conclusions of modern science make not only the book of Genesis, but also theism, untenable.
Richard Dawkins, in particular, testifies that Darwinism is what allowed him to become an intellectually-fulfilled atheist. In his new book The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins goes so far as to suggest that deniers of evolutionary theory should be as intellectually scorned and marginalized as Holocaust deniers. Evolution, he says, is a fact no intelligent person can deny.
And yet, there is a panic among the cultural and intellectual elites, who scratch their heads in incredulity that after 150 years of the Darwinist revolution, a majority of Americans still reject the theory of evolution.
There is also panic among evangelicals. Bruce Waltke is just the tip of the iceberg. Francis Collins, Peter Enns, Karl Giberson, Darrel Falk, and other thinkers at the BioLogos Forum, for example, are pushing back against the traditional view of Genesis, offering seemingly scholarly arguments that the Bible must be read in light of evolutionary science.
Francis Collins, founder of BioLogos and President Obama’s choice to head the National Institutes of Health, makes the point in his book The Language of God that we will actually lose credibility sharing the Gospel of Christ if we do not shed ourselves of anti-intellectualism, which the elites will judge to be ours if we do not accept the theory of evolution.
In light of this, what are our major options? There are essentially four main theories of interpreting Genesis in relation to creation and the age of the earth.
The first, of course, is the traditional 24-hour calendar day view. This is the most straightforward reading of the text. The pattern of evening and morning, the literary structure, the testimony of the rest of Scripture—all point to 24-hour days when studied in a common sense fashion.
The second option is the day-age theory. In this view, the Hebrew word yom is seen to refer to a much more indefinite and presumably very long period of time. These “age-long” days are described as overlapping and not entirely distinct, and they are not to be taken as 24-hour calendar days. Of the long-age theories, the day-age approach is much less problematic on exegetical grounds, involving far fewer entanglements and issues. But its problems go beyond mere exegesis.
The third option is the framework theory. Here, the reader leaps over the question of the length of the days and concludes that the Genesis account is only a literary framework, a way of telling a story about the providential creation by God. It assumes long ages and has no need of a sequential ordering of creation events. However, this is indefensible in light of the text of Scripture, in which God reveals astounding historical detail and divine order.
The fourth option is to essentially take Genesis 1–11 as literary myth, similar to other ancient Near Eastern creation stories, given for the benefit of the new Hebrew nation. This view must be rejected out of hand as a direct contradiction to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.
Of all of these options, only a 24-hour day creation necessitates a young earth. The rest of them allow for, if not directly imply, a very old earth.
What is most lacking in the evangelical movement today is a consideration of the theological cost of holding to an old earth. This entire conversation is either missing or marginalized. The exegetical cost—the cost of the integrity and interpretation of Scripture—to rendering the text in any other way is just too high. But the theological cost is actually far higher.
As we are looking at the Scripture, we understand it to be as it claims, the inerrant Word of God—every word inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is an inscripturated revelation of the one true and living God who has told a story through the text, a grand narrative of creation, Fall, redemption, and consummation, to which we are all ultimately accountable.
The biblical record of creation is more than just a statement of fact. It is a purposeful account of why the universe was created by a sovereign, holy, and benevolent God as the theater of His own glory. It reveals purpose not only in creation, but also as part of redemptive history. The doctrine of creation is absolutely inseparable from the doctrine of redemption.
The account of the Fall in Genesis 3 describes human sinfulness and Adam’s headship, and, consequently, why this story has affected the creation ever since, why things are broken today, and how it happened. The world we know and observe is a Genesis 3 world—it is a fallen creation. More importantly, it is clear that if all we had were merely these first two movements of Scripture’s redemptive historical narrative, we would be lost and forever under the righteous judgment and wrath of God.
But the narrative of God’s revelation does not leave out the remarkable plan of redemption, which God prepared before the universe was created. Scripture presents this in terms of the person and work of Christ, the meaning of His atonement, and the richness of the Gospel.
And finally, Scripture points us toward consummation, a final judgment, the new Jerusalem, a new heaven, and a new earth. It points to the reign of God at the end of history and the conclusion of this age. In the new creation, God will be known not only as Creator but also as Redeemer, His glory being infinitely greater by our beholding, by the fact that we know Him now as those who have been bought with a price, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and ushered into His presence.
Our accountability to this grand narrative of redemptive history involves two crucial issues: the historicity of Adam and Eve, and the historicity of the Fall.
In Romans 5:12 we read, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Paul bases his understanding of human sinfulness and of Adam’s headship over the human race on a historical Adam and a historical fall.
The inference of an old earth is based upon certain evidences that also tell a story. The fossils, for instance, are telling a story of supposedly millions and billions of years of creation before the arrival of Adam. But the scientific consensus of the meaning of that evidence goes much further, suggesting the existence of hominids and pre-hominids in the hundreds of thousands. Holding to an old earth as well as to the historicity of Adam and Eve requires an arbitrary intervention of God into a process of billions of years of biological development in which He acts unilaterally to create Adam and Eve.
The contemporary conversation regarding the biblical account of creation and the age of the earth has led some to redefine who Adam was. In his commentary on the book of Romans, John Stott actually suggests that Adam was an existing hominid that God adopted in a special way, implanting His image on a Homo sapien already in existence. Theologically, this requires that the other Homo sapiens alive on the earth were not the image bearers of God.
Denis Alexander in his new book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? suggests that “God in his grace chose a couple of neolithic farmers to whom he chose to reveal himself in a special way, calling them into fellowship with himself so that they might know him as a personal God.” A couple of Neolithic farmers? Is that in any way a possible, legitimate exegetical reading of Genesis? More disturbing is not the contents of the book, but the endorsement from J. I. Packer on the front cover, who says, “Surely the best informed, clearest, and most judicious treatment of the question and title that you can find anywhere today.”
Peter Enns, a fellow at the BioLogos Forum, wrote a series of articles on “Paul’s Adam,” in which he states, “For Paul, Adam and Eve were the parents of the human race. This is possible but not satisfying for those familiar with either the scientific or archeological data.” He suggests that we must abandon Paul’s Adam; Paul, as far as he refers to Adam, was limited by his dependence on primitive understandings.
Karl Giberson, a professor at Eastern Nazarene University and Vice President of BioLogos, says, “Clearly the historicity of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace are hard to reconcile with natural history.” He continues:
One could believe, for example, that at some point in evolutionary history God “chose” two people from a group of evolving humans, gave them his image, and put them in Eden, which they promptly corrupted by sinning. But this solution is unsatisfactory, artificial, and certainly not what the writer of Genesis intended.
Dr. Giberson is not someone attempting to defend the book of Genesis; his goal is to defend the theory of evolution.
An old earth understanding is difficult to reconcile with a historical Adam in terms of Genesis and Romans. It entangles many difficulties in terms of both exegesis and a redemptive historical understanding of Scripture. This becomes clearer in view of the second great issue at stake, which is the Fall.
From Genesis 3 and the entire narrative of Scripture (e.g., Romans 8), what we know in the world today as catastrophe, as natural disaster, earthquake, destruction by volcanic eruption, pain, death, violence, predation—all of these are results of the Fall. Attempting to reconcile this doctrine with an old earth creates enormous problems, perhaps most clearly illustrated by how Adam’s sin is handled.
Was it true that, as Paul argues, when sin came, death also came? If we attempt to infer that the earth is old because of scientific consensus, we must recognize that this consensus also claims that the effects of sin—death by the millions and billions—were present long before the emergence of Adam (or a first human), and certainly long before there was the possibility of Adam’s sin. These effects are biblically attributed only to the Fall. No Christian reading the Scripture alone would ever come to such a conclusion—ever.
In Romans 1 Paul writes not only that God has revealed Himself in nature, but also that in nature—in what some call the book of nature—even His invisible attributes should be clearly seen. We learn a lot of common sense observational truth from looking at the book of nature. We are given the intellectual responsibility to know our world because God has revealed nature to be intelligible. But clearly there is a problem, one that takes us back to the Fall.
Paul makes clear that, even though God has revealed Himself in nature—so that no one is with excuse—given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there. The heavens are telling the glory of God, but human sinfulness refuses to see what is plainly evident.
Theological disaster ensues when the book of nature (general revelation) is used to trump God’s special revelation, when science is placed over Scripture as authoritative and compelling. And that is the very heart of this discussion. While some would argue that the Scriptures are not in danger, the current conversation on this subject is leading down a path that will do irrevocable harm to our evangelical affirmation of the accuracy and authority of God’s Word.
Kenton Sparks, for example, writing for BioLogos, suggests that any rendering of the Bible as inerrant makes the acceptance of theistic evolution impossible. Certainly implausible. Evangelicalism, he says, has painted itself into a corner—we have put ourselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac with our understanding of biblical inerrancy. He suggests that the Bible indeed should be recognized as containing historical, theological, and moral error.
Peter Enns, one of the most frequent contributors to BioLogos, suggests that we have to come to the understanding that, when it comes to many of the scientific and historical claims, the writers of Scriptures were plainly wrong.
Thus, each time the scientific establishment issues a consensus understanding of what is found in nature, should Christians rethink their views on other issues of biblical importance, such as the virgin birth or Christ’s resurrection from the dead? Are we going to take our cosmology or the redemptive historical understanding of Scripture and submit these to interrogation by what we are told are the assured results of modern science? Doing so will certainly lead to disaster, to a head-on collision that should compel Christians to understand just what is at stake theologically and to be prepared to give biblically-sound answers.
Why does the universe look so old? First, the most natural understanding from Scripture on the age of the universe is this: The universe looks old because the Creator made it whole.
When He made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man. He had the appearance of a man, which by our understanding would have required time for Adam to get old. But not by the sovereign creative power of God. He put Adam in the garden. The garden was not merely seeds; it was a fertile, fecund, mature garden. The Genesis account clearly claims that God creates and makes things whole.
Secondly, the universe looks old because it bears testimony to the effects of sin, and thus the judgment of God seen through the catastrophe of the Flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter. The world looks old because, as Paul says in Romans 8, it is groaning. It gives empirical evidence of the reality of sin. And even as this cosmos is the theater of God’s glory, it is more precisely the theater of God’s glory for the drama of redemption that takes place here on this planet in telling the story of the love of God. Is this compatible with the claim that the universe is 13.5 billion years old?
In our effort to be most faithful to the Scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the Gospel, an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems, and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and why it matters.The universe is telling the story of the glory of God, the Ancient of Days.
Adapted from Dr. Mohler’s speech “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” given on June 19 at the Ligonier Ministries 2010 National Conference. To view Dr. Mohler’s entire presentation, visit http://www.christianity.com/ligonier/.
* Dr. Mohler serves as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Author of numerous books, Dr. Mohler addresses issues in light of biblical truth. Read more at http://www.albertmohler.com/.
Cite this article: Mohler, A. 2010. Why Does the Universe Look So Old?. Acts & Facts. 39 (10): 4-7.