Old Earth Vs. Young Earth

So here is one of my problems with most young earth/universe theories:  certain evidence does not seem to be in their favor.  It isn’t so much the young earth that I have an issue with.  There are some interesting theories that offer workable explanations for why the earth looks old.  Quite possibly, the biggest evidence against them at this point are certain methods of dating which have grown more refined.  Young-earth advocates have criticized radioactive dating and perhaps rightly so.  However other effective dating methods have developed, methods that present greater accuracy.  (Rubidium-strontium dating is, at this point, a more accurate method of dating extremely old rocks than previously used methods such as carbon dating.)

But the evidence of an old universe is much more compelling.  Triangulation against points in the sky is one method of determining distances celestial bodies lie from one another.  Measuring observable movements of the celestial bodies is another.  Then there is the problem of the speed of light.  Knowing the distances of the stars and galaxies from us, we can calculate how long it took the light to reach us.  These calculations lead to billions of years.  It is much more difficult to argue that our preconceived worldviews are causing us to interpret the math incorrectly.

So where does this lead the young creationist?  Certainly the existence of an old universe doesn’t demand the existence of an old earth, but if we can be wrong about one, we can be wrong about the other.

I have come to believe that the Bible and science can be harmonized so long as we understand we approach both subjects with preconceived notions (usually based in a cultural bias) and do our best not to make either the Bible or science say something they do not say.  Vern Poythress’ Redeeming Science has been extremely valuable to me in this.

Poythress is a professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary and he has three loves:  science, math, and God.  He loves the order and rationality of science and math and believes these attributes reflect God’s order and rationality.  He also seems to believe that both creation scientists and naturalists, in their zeal to prove their particular a priori assumptions about the nature of existence, tend to make Genesis 1 and scientific data say things that neither says with certainty.  Starting from our own a priori assumption, if the Bible is true and nature is a form of God’s revelation of Himself, then any contradiction between the Bible and science implies that we are either misinterpreting the Bible or misinterpreting scientific data.  The controversy with Galileo and heliocentrism (Earth orbits Sun) versus geocentrism (celestial bodies orbit Earth) is a much-vaunted, over-used example of both. I don’t mean to indicate that the Roman Catholic church didn’t make some mistakes in the Galileo incident, but the issue was more complicated than the religion vs. science view that most people have regarding the incident.  People within the church (especially in some of the Jesuit community) had begun theorizing that the Ptolemaic (fixed earth) system was incorrect.  While many in the scientific community agreed with Galileo, the switch from geocentrism to heliocentrism came as an affront to the scientific knowledge at the time, which was largely based on the ideas of Aristotle.  Since this is a tangent I don’t wish to go on at the moment, see “What Really Happened with Galileo and Darwin”, an excerpt from John Polkinghorn’s book Science and Theology  for a brief discussion on this topic.

Ultimately, even Galileo was only partially correct.  While the Earth is not a fixed point and it does indeed revolve around the sun, the sun itself is NOT a fixed point either, which runs contrary to his theory.  The Milky Way Galaxy itself rotates.  Galileo’s theories had to be updated once the scientific tools to measure such things had developed.  This is a key distinction regarding science:  it is not static.  It can be refined in detail or completely re-written given exposure to the right data.  (Quantum physics is an area where much enthusiastic study is being done that could usher in a new shift.)  Thus it is sometimes unwise for scientists to ascribe to any theory the designation of ‘ultimate explanation’ for why or how something is.  It could eventually be overturned.  Likewise, it is unwise for creation scientists to latch on to a theory that “proves” God did things a certain way, thus upholding a specific view of Genesis 1.  If that theory is debunked, you have hurt not only your own reputation, but possibly caused disillusionment to those who cited you without studying or following the evidence themselves.  I believe that it can be dangerous to place too high a significance on the creation account for this reason.  Certainly it is important, but again, we shouldn’t read more into it than is necessary.

How should we then approach the creation account?  Much of these views will be paraphrases of ideas from Poythress’ Redeeming Science.  Genesis 1 has two main purposes.  The first is to establish God as the sole creator of all, and the second is the establishment of a pattern of work and rest, the model of the Sabbath and natural rhythms.  Genesis 1 is not a scientific text.  Quite the contrary, I would say it is deliberately obscure for two main reasons.  First, it was written to counter pagan, polytheistic creation stories.  Genesis 1 is unique in its monotheism, and it deliberately plays on the creation myths of Babylon and other near east peoples.  These myths typically involved the earth being fashioned from the corpse of one of the gods.  Humans were typically created to serve these gods.  Genesis 1 is largely the antithesis of these creation myths because it tells that humans were created due to God’s providential generosity, rather than for selfish servitude, and that suffering and disorder is from humanity’s fallen, rebellious nature, not due to quarrelling gods.  Even in our modern, “enlightened” age, we can have little difficulty understanding and agreeing with these concepts.  We no longer intellectually believe in multiple gods (in the West), and even atheists would ascribe human suffering to humans, not to petty, vengeful gods.  Therefore, this story is attempting to illustrate a truth about who we are and about our relationship to God.

The second reason Genesis 1 is deliberately obscure is so it is easy to understand regardless of culture.  It is deliberately simplistic.  Genesis 1 uses phenomenal language, which means it describes how an event is perceived, not necessarily the exact nature of the event. Examples of phenomenal language are with the words sunrise and sunset.  We know that this is a geocentric observation.  At dawn, the sun lifts above the horizon, then at dusk it moves below the horizon.  For someone who lacks the scientific knowledge or language to describe something different, sunrise and sunset have great meaning and are unambiguous.  We now know that the earth orbits the sun and the earth also rotates on its own axis, which is the reality of the situation, but introducing this concept to a culture that lacks certain scientific advancements would result in misunderstanding and communication failure.  The brilliance of the Genesis account is that it transcends cultural understanding.  It uses phenomenal language that is universally accessible.  Why else would it be debated in the West thousands of years after being written if it wasn’t so approachable.  Less scientifically advanced cultures can still understand the text.  They can see and perceive the text in the same way the original readers and hearers understood it.  It is truly a timeless story.

Where does all this stand with science?  It certainly allows us more leeway in our interpretation.  However, further commentary form the Bible itself adds another item for consideration.  The Sabbath is modeled on God’s pattern of creation.  So do we interpret the days in Genesis 1 as literal, 24-hour days or as symbolic days?  There are many theories presented by science-minded believers.  The two most interesting (to me) are the 24-hour day theory and the analogous theory.

The 24-hour day theory is pretty much how it sounds.  By itself, however, it doesn’t take into account the apparent age of the universe and earth.  If everything was created within six 24-hour days, why does everything look so old?  This is usually combined with the mature creation theory, which states that God created everything with the appearance of age.  I’m not sure I entirely like this theory, because it would seem to indicate a reality that is partially illusory.  We would have every evidence of The Big Bang, of a universe aged billions of years and an earth aged millions of years, yet it wouldn’t be true because it just looks that way.  I have trouble with a concept that says you can’t follow the evidence because the evidence reflects a reality that does not exist.  This opens the door to further doubt about what can and cannot be observed and the very nature of reliable evidence, a concept that would even seem to undermine the Christian field of apologetics. It seems partially deceptive.  I would much more readily believe in a young earth that achieved an aged look via cataclysmic events (such as volcanic activity or the Genesis flood) than an artificially “aged” creation.  But I fully acknowledge that my personal comfort with a theory is no sort of standard by which to judge its truth or worth.

The analogous day theory posits that the days are not literal 24-hour days.  In truth, the Hebrew word for ‘day’ (yom) in this text has at least two distinct meanings, one of which is 24 hours, the other is “a vague period of general time”. (from The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. 1980. Moody Press)  Analogous day theory says that the days are not identical to man’s days (24 hours) but analogous to them. God set a pattern of work and rest that was to be emulated by man.  Each yom therefore designates the amount of time that each act of creation took.  This also takes in to account that the first three days of creation would have had no objective, external measurement of time.  We tend to measure time by the movement of the heavenly bodies, the creation of which didn’t happen until day four.  Analogous day theory also retains the chronological progression of Genesis 1.  What is also fascinating is that this chronological arrangement roughly corresponds to the order mainstream science says various aspects of our planet came in to being.  I personally like the theory, but I understand it is only a theory.  It is a hard reality that Genesis 1 lacks the scientific detail to study and evaluate it, but if it did, it would have remained incomprehensible to its original audience and many who approach it even to this day.

Why is this debate necessary?  Certainly there are those in the scientific community who wish to disprove Genesis 1 (and believe they have) because they feel Christianity and religion in general creates an anti-science bias and prevents mankind from attaining potential by being bogged down and concerned with religious concepts and warmongering against opposing beliefs.  But this attitude is nothing new.  It is not unique to the 21st century, so why the urgency to debunk such beliefs now?  I’m not sure I have an answer to either question (although I do have a lot of speculation, much of which is unflattering to both sides and possibly more than a little unfounded).  It can be a fun, intellectual debate when separated from the passion and vitriol.  This debate has been going on for centuries, however, a debate between science, philosophy, and theology with each trying to assert ultimate authority, an ultimate answer.  In fact, there are those in science who would like to discover a comprehensive, all-encompassing theory (quantum mechanics again coming in to play).  But despite lasting centuries, the debate continues.  We must continue to attempt our own harmonization of the various schools of thought (and as Christians, allow our standard of analysis to be scripture and be clear what it really does and does not say).  The debate will continue, likely long after we are gone.  As Poythress says with dry understatement, “the discussions continue among theologians with no signs of increasing agreement.”