Responding to the False Dichotomy on the Age of the Earth

“My Christian school taught that the earth is 6,000 years old but what’s taught in public schools is that the earth is millions of years old. How do I reconcile the two? Is it a matter of choosing science over the Bible?”

These are a few of the questions posed to me a few months ago by the on-line newspaper The Christian Post as part of their series “Leaving Christianity.”  I provided a response but they had requested answers from several theologians and scientists and published one of their responses instead.  Below is my response.     


“Two competing views…one compelling truth.”  That is the tagline of a recent young-earth creationist documentary, Is Genesis History?, viewed in thousands of Christian school and churches.  The premise of this film reflects and perpetuates a false dichotomy that has been erected in the minds of many Christians when they consider the age of the earth and the origins of biological diversity.

Young-earth anti-evolution creationists as represented by leaders such as Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and vocal atheistic such as Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye both perpetuate the polarization of the creation and evolution debate because the polarization works for them. Both tell their audiences that they must fully embrace their interpretation as true or be left with only one other option as truth—that of their opponent.  These are the two choices that the person asking our questions feels they are facing.  But are these the only choices?

Whether raised under young-earth teachings or exposed to them as a new Christian many Christians will likely find themselves, when confronted by evidence from other sources, confused and frustrated by the simplistic and many cases wrong “answers in Genesis.”  When this happens they may become disillusioned and possibly abandon their faith.

Those who struggle with reconciling the false dichotomy need to recognize they are experiencing a clash of worldviews, or paradigmatic views, that are the product of their theological upbringing combined with the collective influence of a culture of unhealthy debate over creationism within the church.

However, when given two opposite views if one realizes that neither captures the full picture of God’s revelation there should still be hope because an opportunity exists to find a better way.  This is far less frightening than being faced with the prospect that one must abandon one position and fully embrace the other, lock, stock, and barrel.

It is possible to overcome the dogma generated by our cultural and theological backgrounds.  We do this not by giving up truth.  Rather it is about discovering a better way that doesn’t require abandoning the faith nor blind acceptance of dogmatic interpretations of Scripture by some Christian apologists.  In other words, by realizing that our original choice was not between truth and error but between two errors.

Yes, Christians should be ready and eager to defend the Scriptures against the wisdom of the secular world.  But that defense must be of what Scripture teaches not what we want it to teach or believe it teaches without having tested our beliefs.  We acknowledge that everything the author of Genesis intends to communicate to us about the history of God’s creation is true, but if we interpret that history to include events that were never intended by the author, ultimately God himself, we will find ourselves believing a false history.  Genesis does record real history.  But the history it records isn’t necessarily intended to provide answers to all our questions about history.

So, exactly how old is the earth and how does the science of evolution fit in?  We can never be as certain of the details as to provide a dogmatic answer.  The good news is that are many rich theological traditions that provide interpretive space to explore how God’s general and special revelation can be understood while still maintaining a great respect for scripture, including even inerrancy, and at the same time not requiring us to abandon reasonable scientific evidence.  We can find comfort that many Christian stalwarts such as Lewis, Warfield, Spurgeon, Graham, and many others have concluded after prayerful and detailed inspection of the biblical and scientific evidence that the former does not demand that the Earth be young and the latter provides no support for a young earth.  Thus the question of age of the Earth is left to further exploration and testing.

Let’s not forgot one very important point, winning debates among Christian brethren about the age of the earth or how much biological evolution has happened is not necessary for salvation.  We know from scripture what is necessary: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” Romans 10:9, and “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Acts 16:31.

Because the answers to these questions do not define who can be a Christian we should not be surprised that the Scriptures are not as transparent on these topics as we may want them to be.  God created us to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.  We glorify God, in part, by exploring and caring for His creation. It is good to be curious about the world God has made.  Dogmatic views of creation act as obstacles to faith and discourage a God-sanctioned activity of glorifying him through understanding his general revelation. The removal of those obstacles has the ability to renew the Christian’s ability to marvel and delight in the wonders God is revealing in nature.

Finally, the study of the natural world reveals God’s handwork to everyone (Psalm 19, Romans 1).  We risk a diminished view of God without the contributions of both science and scripture.  The 19th century British geologists, Adam Sedgwick, saw no conflict between his evangelic beliefs and his understanding—an ancient earth—of the physical world.  The wording of a memorial to him captures that sentiment:

As a man of science and a Christian he loved to dwell on the eternal power and godhead of the Creator as revealed in nature and the fuller revelation of his love as made known in the Gospel of His son Jesus Christ.

That we could have the same said about us!  Not that we or Sedgwick—while members of this earthly world—will ever have all of our questions about science and scripture fully answered but that we should pursue those questions with humility and awe is a goal worthy to be undertaken.

Comments

  1. johnscorner says:

    Nice! Thanks for sharing!

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  2. ~4.5 billion years old, in case someone is wondering how old is the Earth.

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    • actually Cesar, no one knows how old the earth is. Atheist, secular, or christian. No one was there, so all we can come up with is speculation. All dating methods incorporate certain assumptions and presumptions, from both sides. This is why i am neither a yec nor do i unthinkingly assume scientists (being the objective and non-fallible souls that they are ) have it right either. While i agree with this article that the age of the earth is a non-salvific issue, i would disagree with the underlying tone that science should just be left to scientists and religion kept within the walls of the home or church (note the reference to “unhealthy” debate within the church about the age of the earth. Why would any simple debate or disagreement be, at it’s heart, unhealthy? Because such debate may not rubber stamp scientific (mostly materialistic and naturalistic) decrees? What i am always amazed (and irritated) by is the reaction of many in the christian community to be willing to remove any trace of the supernatural from creation accounts. This, of course, would be normal for atheists and naturalists, and also deists (after the moment of creation). Do these people think they can remove God entirely or from almost the entire process and yet retain Him in some emotional based spiritual context? They certainly don’t get that from the Bible. I mean, why not just become atheists instead of inconsistent and contradictory religionists? And, to my notice, you are something of a faith adherent yourself, as you confidently trot out 4.5 billions years as the magic number, while failing to mention that this number has changed countless times up till now, and may change again in the future, depending on what, as Joel may call them, the prevalent paradigm of the moment demands. Thus is the history of scientific endeavors. Nothing wrong with updating one’s information. It just might suggest a bit more humility in subjunctive declarations. Science, contra Obama, is never settled. Never will be.

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      • 4.5 billions is not a “magic number”. Magic number is 6 creation days, or 8.000 years old Earth. Those are magic numbers, there’s no evidence for them, or ways to test them. And they don’t change. Never. Because of magic.

        Unless you think radiometric age-dating is magic… or that nuclear physics is magic.

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      • Hello Chuck,
        In the past I think that you referred to yourself as an OUC/YEC (presumably an Old Universe Creationists/Young Earth Creationist although I can’t find where you specified so that might be wrong and please correct me if inaccurate). I think the OUC/YEC distinction was to resolve the distant star light problem but as stated, I may be misremembering so corrections are welcome.

        The reason I ask is because now you say “i am neither a yec nor do i unthinkingly assume scientists (…) have it right either.”
        So:
        Have your views on YEC changed?
        If your views have changed, what are your views now?
        And if they changed, what changed them?

        Lots of YEC people where I live so just looking for understanding:)

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  3. Looking at the responses the Post chose to include, I can see why they didn’t consider yours the best fit for what they were trying to do. But for the record, I prefer yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I was not surprised but I wish I had asked more questions of the editor before agreeing to write. I was given a very short (3 days) deadline, very little background about what they planned to do in the series and 1000 word limit. I set aside some other projects to focus on this and spent a lot of time working on it and then didn’t know it wasn’t going to be published until I saw the article and realized that others had been asked the same questions.

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  4. Robert Byers says:

    To be accurate about YEC. The competition is betweenb Gods word on origins or that Gods word is not gods word. no nway around it. denying genesis is denying gods witness oR denying god has given a witness. it does logically follow why THEN does anything in the bible reflect Gods truth?!
    Its not between the bible and science. its between gods word and human competence in figuring out past and gone things nevdr witnessed by humans. Rejection of genesis is actually a faith in human beings intellectual competence. And then in those who reject the bible on origins. no faith in those who defend it using science.

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    • I know I’ve written this to you before, Robert, but the choice is NOT between “Gods word on origins or that Gods word is not gods word.” The choice is between one interpretation of God’s word that is neither required by God’s word nor supported by scientific evidence, and other interpretations of God’s word that fit the Bible just as well (or better, given that they acknowledge the cultural context in which and to which Genesis was written) and can be corroborated by scientific evidence.

      Your statement of the supposed conflict boils down to “Either the Bible means what I say it means, or the whole thing is nonsense.”

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      • of course, another option is “believe what i say about the bible or your point is nonsense”. Which is, in effect, what you just said to him. Not sure either one of you is winning on this point.

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  5. I don’t want to seem combative or hostile, but given the low profile of your position in the debate between science and religion (although it is probably the view of most Americans) perhaps you could answer a couple questions to better define or explain it. Oddly enough, as an atheist I’m trained as a Classicist and an expert in the scholarly study of the Bible, but I can’t imagine the answers you would give to these questions as someone trained in the physical sciences that would not lead you to a different position than the one you hold.

    Do you believe in anything supernatural such as a god, angels, the soul, or the operative force of magic? If you do, why do you believe it? Is it on the basis of evidence? the same kind of evidence you use to support your understanding of the permineralization of fossils, or something else?
    You say in this very post that you believe in salvation. What does that mean? Do you believe in heaven and hell? How would you explain them in relation to the standard model of astrophysics?

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    • David Campbell says:

      Asking to explain heaven and hell in relation to the standard model of astrophysics is rather like explaining the behavior of subatomic particles in relation to Newton’s laws of gravitation – there’s not much relation between the two because they’re in different categories. What, if any, spatial relationship heaven and hell might have relative to the physical universe is not specified in the Bible. The evidence relating to the existence of God, angels, souls, etc. includes historical evidence, personal experience (whether one’s own or others who you judge to be reliable), and one’s overall judgement as to what is a plausible worldview. Permineralization of fossils also reflects historical evidence, though of course one can do chemical tests relating to the permineralization of fossils, whereas one can’t stick God in a test tube and see what happens.

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  6. This post describes very well my own position on the age of the earth. As a Christian, when I became aware that there were scientists who believed that the 6 days of creation were literally 6 24-hour days, I felt it was necessary that I understand the thinking behind it. I bought some books by Ken Ham and others, and studied Genesis, to try to really believe it. I even attended a multi-day seminar by Ken Ham on the topic. But as an engineer, I am also very interested in science, including physics, astronomy, relativity, etc, and I studied those as well. When I realized that it was never going to be possible to reconcile an earth that was only 6,000 years old with the obviously much older universe presented by science, I had to make a decision. Either the young-earth folks were mistaken, or God was playing a game with us by creating a universe that appeared much older than it really is. Since I can’t find any evidence of God “fooling” anyone in scripture, I eventually came to the opinion that the days of creation were not literal 24-hour days. I’m not saying that God would be unable to create the earth and the universe in 6 days. He could do it in a nanosecond if he wanted to do so, and He could certainly make it appear to be much older if He chose to do so. Perhaps that is what he did do. But my understanding of God’s nature is that He is, above all, honest and straight-forward, and He cannot lie. For him to create a universe in which light travels at a speed that requires millions or billions of years to reach us from other galaxies, and for those galaxies to be visible to us, implies that the creation process was much more time-consuming than the young-earth folks believe. They make many of their points quite well. But the evidence of the visible universe is just too hard to overcome. I do believe that God is the creator of everything. I believe that He could have done it in 6 literal days, even though the first few of those days obviously didn’t occur during an actual 24-hour day just because the sun wasn’t even there yet, based on Genesis 1. But I also believe that God created humans with the ability to explore our universe and to reason about how it works. He created “time” as one of the dimensions in which we live. Einstein showed that time isn’t really what we thought it was, based on our own experience of it. So I think that if God created time, then he could do anything he wanted to do with it. In the end, for me it comes down to either I beileve in God and trust him, or I don’t. Aside from the fact that it is very hard to believe that the universe just popped into existence spontaneously because of a magic “quantum fluctuation” or a “brane collision”, I believe God exists based on the evidence I see in my own life, and in others, and in the record of actions attributed to him by history (the Bible). I see a creation. That demands a Creator. Actions require a cause, at least in this universe. I believe he is the primary cause.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Raymond H Zink says:

    Jesus gave us a clue… He made bad wine good wine… Bad wine is wine that is not aged long enough. Jesus aged the wine just in seconds as his father created an earth that was already aged.

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Trackbacks

  1. […] It is possible to overcome the dogma generated by our cultural and theological backgrounds.  We do this not by giving up truth.  Rather it is about discovering a better way that doesn’t require abandoning the faith nor blind acceptance of dogmatic interpretations of Scripture by some Christian apologists.  In other words, by realizing that our original choice was not between truth and error but between two errors. — Read on thenaturalhistorian.com/2019/11/25/responding-to-the-false-dichotomy-on-the-age-of-the-earth/ […]

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