The Age of the Earth — Does it Really Matter? - Part One |

Seegert, Jay

An excerpt from Let There Be Light

Certain things in life seem obvious. For example, the sun rises every morning, fire is hot, and chocolate ice cream is way better than vanilla. (All right, that last one may be debatable.) In this list of “obvious things” many people would also include the idea that the earth is very, very old…in the billions of years….

Even the most casual reader would recognize that there exists a significant amount of tension between a straightforward literal reading of the Genesis creation account and what most modern scientists believe about the age of the earth. The literal six-day creation account indicates that the earth is in the range of thousands of years old (perhaps 6,000 or so), while current thinking in astronomy and geology has settled upon a figure of 4.6 billion years for the earth (and about 13.7 billion years for the universe).

There’s one thing for certain…both cannot be correct….

Historically Speaking

Advances in science during the early and mid-1900s seemed to indicate that the universe did indeed have a beginning and was thus not infinitely old. Then the concept of the “Big Bang” was birthed and has become the reigning view among secular cosmologists (and even a number of Christian cosmologists) up to the present….

There were a number of significant persons in the 18th and 19th centuries who paved the way for the widespread acceptance of “millions of years” as opposed to the traditional biblical view. One of the most prominent was Charles Lyell, a Scottish lawyer who eventually became a geologist. Lyell drew upon works of his predecessors (James Hutton, in particular) to write a three-volume treatise entitled Principles of Geology, in which he claimed that no worldwide or continental floods have ever occurred in the history of our globe. He insisted that the rock record must be explained by the same gradual processes that we observe today. Therefore, to account for the vast geologic formations that we observe would require multiplied millions of years.

Lest we be led to believe that Lyell was just following the conclusions of empirical science and that the creationists were merely exercising blind faith in the Bible, consider the following quote by Stephen J. Gould (who was one of the world’s leading evolutionists until his death in 2002, and who was no friend of creationists):

Charles Lyell was a lawyer by profession, and his book is one of the most brilliant briefs published by an advocate. …Lyell relied upon true bits of cunning to establish his uniformitarian views as the only true geology. First, he set up a straw man to demolish. In fact, the catastrophists [i.e. biblical creationists] were much more empirically minded than Lyell. The geologic record does seem to require catastrophes: rocks are fractured and contorted; whole faunas are wiped out. To circumvent this literal appearance, Lyell imposed his imagination upon the evidence. The geologic record, he argued, is extremely imperfect and we must interpolate into it what we can reasonably infer but cannot see. The catastrophists were the hard-nosed empiricists of their day, not the blinded theological apologists. (Gould, in Natural, History, February 1975, p. 16)

Although there were other scientists around who opposed Lyell’s views, a more significant phenomenon was occurring within the church itself. Many Christian leaders, feeling somewhat intimidated, felt that it was necessary to accommodate these “new scientific discoveries” by re-evaluating the traditional view of Genesis. One attempt—the “Gap” Theory—was developed in 1814 by Thomas Chalmers (a Presbyterian Minister). This view holds that all of the newly discovered “millions of years” can be inserted between Genesis:1:1 and 1:2. There are a few different versions, but the following summarizes the standard view:

In the far distant, dateless past God created a perfect heaven and perfect earth. Satan was ruler of the earth, which was peopled by a race of “men” without any souls. Eventually, Satan, who dwelled in a Garden of Eden composed of minerals (Ezekiel 28), rebelled by desiring to become like God (Isaiah 14). Because of Satan’s fall, sin entered the universe and brought on the earth God’s judgment in the form of a flood (indicated by the water of 1:2), and then a global ice age when the light and heat from the sun were somehow removed. All the plant, animal, and human fossils upon the earth today date from this “Lucifer’s Flood” and do not bear any genetic relationship with the plants, animals and fossils living upon the earth today. (Fields, Unformed and Unfilled, p. 7)

Another theory, espoused by George Stanley Faber (Anglican theologian), was the “day-age” theory, which is somewhat self-explanatory. It purports that each “day” of creation was actually a period of multiplied millions of years (drawing popular biblical support from 2 Peter:3:8, which states that a “day is as a thousand years.” (See also Psalm:90:4)

It isn’t possible in such a brief article to address the numerous biblical and scientific faults with each of these theories, but [it is important to understand] how prevalent they are within the church today.

To even suggest that the earth might be only thousands of years old generally causes people to think that you’ve lost all sense of reason and are out of touch with reality. It may be accompanied by statements such as “Oh, I guess you’ve never heard of ‘science’?” and “I’ll bet you also think the world is flat, too, don’t you?”… I personally believe that if the Bible doesn’t address something, either directly or indirectly, then we shouldn’t make much of a fuss over it. I am convinced, however, that the Bible does address the age of the earth and that what we believe about it has a very significant effect on how we view the authority and inspiration of Scripture as a whole…. God, being all-powerful, could have created the universe over the course of billions of years. He could also have created it in a billionth of a second. The primary question is not what He could have done, but what does He say He did?

The Nature of Science

Observational science deals with things we can observe and test “in the present” and involves conducting repeated experiments that allow us to either confirm or refute our initial hypotheses. Producing faster computers, improving medical procedures, and designing space satellites are just a few examples of things that fall within the realm of “observational science.”

Historical science, on the other hand, deals with determining details about events that happened in the unobserved past. The whole notion of origins falls into this category. Not only were we not there to observe the “beginnings,” but we also cannot reproduce those events in the present. By the way, this applies equally to both the creation and evolutionary models. What we can do is to conduct experiments in the present and then, by using a number of assumptions about the past, formulate some logically based ideas of what occurred.

Let’s consider the simple example of a candle. We enter a room and see a candle burning on the table. How long has it been burning? (This is an “historical” question.) We were not there when the candle was initially lit, so we really don’t know for sure. We can conduct some “observational science” on the candle, (in the present) by measuring how tall the candle is right now, how fast it is currently burning, etc. In order to determine how long it may have been burning, we need to determine how tall it was to begin with and whether it has always burned at the same rate. Was it 4 feet tall? That’s a tall candle! What if it was only 1 inch taller than it is right now? What we assume about its height will affect our conclusions. The same goes for what we assume about its burn rate. Sometimes our assumptions are very reasonable and other times, we’re “off by a mile” (or a million miles!). All of the scientific methods that yield “ages” for the earth are subject to similar types of assumptions.

The Bible

Many people think that the Bible doesn’t even address the age of the earth and that therefore we shouldn’t be concerned about it either. Although you won’t find anywhere in the Bible a verse stating that “God created the Earth ‘x’ number of years ago,” it does give us enough information to provide a reasonable idea of approximately when creation took place. In particular, there are enough passages that help us quickly to determine whether we’re talking thousands or billions of years.

Let’s start with looking at the big picture. God created everything in six days (Gn 1, Ex 20:11). Some will ask, “How do we know those were actual solar days?”... We must interpret Scripture by looking at its grammatical, historical, and textual context. It’s interesting to note that God defines the word “day” (“yom” in Hebrew) the first time He uses it: Genesis:1:5 “And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.” This would indicate a normal solar day (day/night cycle).

The use of the phrase “evening and morning” everywhere outside of Genesis 1 always refers to a normal solar day. That’s exactly what we find in Genesis 1…“And the evening and the morning were the first day,” “And the evening and the morning were the second day,” etc. The same goes for the plural form of day—“days” (“yamim” in Hebrew)…. Again, that’s exactly what we see in Exodus:20:11 (and part of the Ten Commandments): “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day.” If the days were millions of years each, the basis for our week makes no sense (working for 6 periods of millions of years each, and then resting for a 7th period, also millions of years).

Genesis:1:14 states “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” If a “day” is actually millions of years…what is a “year”? This only makes sense in the context of a literal solar day.

Determining a Biblical Age

Assuming for now that the days in the creation account are literal days, we note that God said He created the earth on day one and Adam on day six. That’s a five-day difference. If we could get an idea about when Adam lived, we would then know about how old the earth is, having been created just five days prior.

It’s a matter of fact that Jesus lived roughly 2,000 years ago. When we study Scripture, we find that Abraham lived roughly 2,000 years before Christ (ca 2000 BC). How long was it from Abraham back to Adam? By looking at the genealogies between the two, we come up with roughly another 2,000 years. That takes us back to about 4000 BC, or 6,000 years ago. Some critics make the argument that these genealogies are not straightforward (e.g., names are often added, omitted, or changed). However, there exists no firm basis for these claims, so the straightforward reading should be the default until compelling contextual evidence arises to reveal otherwise.

Taking this all into consideration, the age of the earth would be approximately 6,000 years. Could it actually be 6,500 or 7,000 years old? Perhaps this might be true, and the exact age is certainly not the issue. But could it be 4.6 billion years old, biblically speaking? Not according to the text.

Scientific Evidence

Although some dating methods yield ages in the billions of years (e.g., radiometric dating techniques), there are more than 100 methods that yield ages far too young to accommodate secular geology and the accompanying evolutionary story….

One of the major premises behind almost any dating method is the assumption of a constant process rate throughout the entire past. For example, in the case where uranium (U238) decays into lead (Pb206), it is assumed that the observed rate of uranium decaying into lead has been constant for billions of years, even though no one was around to measure it. Most creationists do not agree that to assume a constant decay rate is well founded. However, for argument’s sake, even if we assume that most rates were constant, some methods…yield vastly younger ages.

A few scientific methods of observation are listed here for your consideration:

The Magnetic Field of the Earth • Radiohalos • Polystrate Fossils • Helium Abundance in Minerals • Formation of Oil, Coal, Diamonds • Carbon-14 Levels • Decay of Biological Material • Folded Mountains

[In the next issue, we will take a closer look at each of these methods and provide further evidence for the author’s conclusion about the age of the earth.]