Why the Age of the Earth Matters— Part II

If you don’t give a rat’s ass about the dates of creation, then I say you are more blessed than most. You probably have more meaningful things to worry about and you have no need to read further. I have cherry-picked the topic of age of the earth from my 7-part podcast about the war between the war between religion and science, not necessarily because it is the most important (others could argue that evolution is the greatest threat to their religion) but because there was no serous tension between science and the Christian religion before the age of the earth was challenged in the eighteenth century by the new field of geology, Galileo the exception.

I want to make sure that I’m being clear. I am not advocating that we simply replace a one Christian “essential,” the cosmos is just 6,000 years old, with a new one, a 13.5 billion year old cosmos. Like I said, the problem is not in how old the earth or cosmos is but making Biblically-extraneous non-essentials, essential to being a good Christian, a Christian at all, or even a decent person. I shared a personal story about this last time, and I have some regret for doing so, but my bigger point is that when such pressure is applied, and in this case without any evidential support, we lose our ability to find truth, a far more serious issue. This is the overarching thesis for my blog, beyond my health updates and about writing, finding truth in a foggy landscape. We are in an age when the pursuit of truth is being challenged in the religious and political areas, and thanks to social media, those are spilling over to a more general society. But, while I may sound like I’m in angst over this, or screaming the sky is falling, I am not.

Neither the age of the earth, evolution, aliens on other planets, or anything else, should be threatening to the religious person, not unless they have reduced their concept of God into a manageable size, in what I call a Bronze-age god, that fits into a box of our own devices. Only if God is limited by time and space, should these ideas be threatening, or what I call “unorthodoxophobia.” The religious person, just like all others, should have Titanic freedom to examine evidence as it comes from reality without being threatened or imagining some grand scheme by the other side of destroying them and their religious institutions, you know, the conspiracy theories.

The Real Essentials of Faith

The essentials of the Christian faith are profoundly simple. I only learned that after I left evangelicalism. Yet, since the time of Christ, people have examined the Bible, extrapolating “absolutes” to build up a system that makes them feel they are on a higher plane than the rest. This is what I did as an evangelical 30 years go. This is what I see in insisting that good Christians, or even real Christians must believe in a 6,000-year-old earth. I would also be troubled by a church the required all their “true Christians” to believe in a 13 billion year old universe or in forms of evolution, although these have far more evidence in reality. But once an idea becomes a dogma, the search of truth dies. The worst development is when we then sanitize our views as “Biblical,” and these views are extraneous to anything the Bible states.

When I was an evangelical prior to 1990, we believed our particular para-church group, (The Navigators) was more Biblical than the others, Campus Crusade and Intervarsity Fellowship. There were people within The Navigators, who had certain emotional experiences in their worship or memorized more verses etc., that made them think they were more Biblical than the rest. The parachurch organizations–as a whole–had the sense that we were more Biblical than than the local churches. The local Presbyterian church believed they were more Biblical than the Baptists, and competition goes on and on. The non-essentials, being elevated to dogmas, becomes the backbone of these higher planes of self-perceived spirituality. There are essentials, without which Christianity would collapse, or other religions would falter. But it is beyond this article to discuss those here.

The Attack on Science

In the case of the age of the earth, you have the Christian essential being promoted by ICR, Ken Ham, and many conservative churches and those essentials have no honest supporting evidence in reality, then you must demonize the scientific world that does have overwhelming evidence. That’s their only real defense. If there was a serious debate about a young earth versus an old earth by people who knew what the hell they were talking about (scientists), then I would have no reason to write these articles, as it would be a matter of opinions. But when you characterize the scientific community as evil, stupid, against God, and untrustworthy, it has repercussions that are serious and can last a generation and spread to the general society. The deaths of 350,000 COVID-vaccine refusers are just one symptom of this wholesale animosity against science.

Holding an “irrefutable” dogma, then searching for evidence to support it, never leads to truth.

J. Michael Jones

I will say again, and Newton would agree with me, a good scientist—and most scientists are good people seeking truth—are doing God’s work. Just like the good journalist—and most journalists are good people—are doing God’s work in finding truth. Liars, do the work of the devil. Going to the evidence with a unbiased open mind leads you to truth. Holding an “irrefutable” dogma, then searching for evidence to support it, never leads to truth.

Biblical Interpretation and a Young Earth

I could write several articles about hermeneutics in this discussion, which is the science of interpretation of texts, especially the Bible. But I won’t waste much time here and your eyes would quickly gloss over. The Bible is a book of history, storytelling, poetry, and instructions. The Bible says about itself, that it is profitable for teaching and training in righteousness. There has been an evolution (pun intended) in the most conservative branches of the Christian church of making it one of their extra-Biblical dogmas, that everything in the Bible must be read literally. That’s not how the Bible sees itself. I think it is their knee-jerk reaction to having the tradition of a 6,000-year-old earth challenged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But even with that profound limitation in how you read the Bible, still it says nothing about the age of the earth. It could have. For example, if this was so important to God, he could have made sure the following verse was in his Bible, “Nebuchadnezzar II, (a figure found in the Bible, in Jewish history, and in archeological findings), died in 562 BC and exactly 3,862 years and two months, after God created the cosmos. It was on a Wednesday … in the afternoon.”

The modern, “We are most Biblical” Christians, try to make this point of always reading the Bible literally, as the true position. In this case, this applies to the Genesis account of creation and Noah’s flood. However, that is not true either. The first great Church father and scholar, was Origen of Alexandria Egypt, who lived in the second and third centuries. Below describes his viewpoint:1

Origen of Alexandria

Entering the debate over the meaning of Genesis, Origen—like Philo before him—challenged the prevailing belief among early Christian fathers that the days of Genesis were literal days. Each of the days of Genesis, Origen asserted, might in fact have been a period of time.   Taking a decidedly non-literal reading of Biblical text, he questioned how anyone could read either the six-day creation story or the Adam and Eve story as an actual description of a real event in the physical universe:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first day, and second and third day, and the evening and the morning existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? . . . .And if God is said to walk in paradise in the evening, and Adam is to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance and not literally.

Augustine of Hippo, is considered by many as the greatest Christian theologian. He lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. I will share a link to a good discussion of how he saw the Genesis story, here. I will summarize with this conclusion:

Augustine of Hippo

In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine argues that the first two chapters of Genesis are written to suit the understanding of the people at that time. In order to communicate in a way that all people could understand, the creation story was told in a simpler, allegorical fashion. Augustine also believed God created the world with the capacity to develop, a view that is harmonious with biological evolution.2

If you want to do more in depth reading, here is an excellent paper by a PhD physicist here who is also a Christian.

The Traditional Evidence of a Young Earth

The idea of the age of the earth to young-earth creationist came from Church tradition, not scripture, so don’t be deceived when they say you can’t be Biblical unless you believe in a 6,000-year-old-earth. The 6,000-year-old date comes from extrapolation or interpreting literally the genealogies that are found in the Bible. These genealogists were never intended to date the cosmos, any more than a compass can measure the amount of rainfall during a given day. While there were several men who tried the date the earth this way throughout history, the most notable were the Irishman, Archbishop Usher and another churchman, Lightfoot. Lightfoot published his theory on the age of the earth in Cir. 1642 and Usher in 1650, under the title, Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world, the chronicle of Asiatic and Egyptian matters together produced from the beginning of historical time up to the beginnings of Maccabees. Usher went as far as giving a date for creation, October 23, 4004 BC. Lightfoot was not as precise, giving creation’s date, 3929 BC. These men’s interpretations quickly were adopted as the truth, even written in the margins of published Bibles. Since James Hutton, (mentioned last time, the father of modern geology), was not born yet, there was little to challenge these ideas.

Archbishop Usher

That’s it. That’s the so-called “Biblical” evidence of a 6,000-year-old-earth. The genealogies may or may not have been meant to be literal. They could have been sweeping links between historical figures rather than father-son or father-daughter relationships. The list is not comprehensive and to borrow one of young earth creationists own weapons, it makes a huge assumption that people lived the same amount of time in 4,000 BC as now or as they predicted.

The Theological Requirement or a Young Earth

One of the greatest reasons the young earth people insist that the earth cannot be more than 6,000 years old, and that there cannot be a species more than a couple of days older than homo-sapiens, has to do with a theological issue. It is a principal doctrine, you could call a real essential of Christianity, that God created humans in his image, that humans sinned, that death came into the universe as the result of sin, and that Jesus Christian took away that penalty of sin. So, they assumed for that to be true, the earth must be young. An old earth, say 4.5 billion years old, would have plenty of opportunities for death prior to the arrival of humans, especially if you applied the theory of evolution.

I could write pages and pages about this issue, but for the sake of time, I will just say, when mortal humans try to confine God to a box, a box that is within their intellectual grasp, the humans always loose. This is not a cop-out or avoidance by me. But it defers to the evidence. Again, the evidence of an old earth is overwhelming. The evidence of at least some aspect of evolution, is also overwhelming. So, this begs the question, that there must be a deeper understanding of the theological process of  original sin and death.

Next time I want to look at the epistemology of how young earth creationists approach the evidence as well as how I think we should. Then, I hope to at least start looking at the evidence on both sides of the issue. That may take a while . Sorry, I’m on steroids and typed fast today and regret any typos.

Mike

1 (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/gen1st.htm#:~:text=Origen%20theorized%20that%20before%20God,%2C%20had%20God%2Dlike%20qualities.

2 https://biologos.org/common-questions/how-was-the-genesis-account-of-creation-interpreted-before-darwin

Published by J. Michael Jones

J. Michael Jones is a writer and PA who lives in Anacortes, Washington. He is the father of five children, who are now grown and out discovering this wonderful world on their own. He has previously focused his writing on non-fiction including medical topics and issues of the philosophy of Christian thought. With the success of his last book, Butterflies in the Belfry, Michael is now moving into fiction with his first novel, The Waters of Bimini.

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