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Creation, Time, and "Apparent Age"

Clarence Menninga

Professor of Geology
Calvin College
Grand Rapids MI 49506

From  Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 40.3:160-162 (9/1988)

During the past two centuries there has been a growing accumulation of evidence that the earth and the universe are very old.  The Bible does not give us any explicit information about the age of the universe, but a casual or a highly literalistic reading of the Bible seems to indicate that the universe was created at a relatively recent time.  The notion that the Earth and the universe are young was commonly held in the Westerns world where the influence of Christian thought was strong, although Christian theologians had suggested long before that the "days" of creation narrative of Genesis 1 need not be understood as days of 24 hours length, and that the age of the universe was not given by the Bible. Nevertheless, until about two centuries ago, most people in the Western world thought the Earth and the universe to be only several thousand years old. had of the creation

In the face of mounting evidence that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old, some Christians have tried to preserve the traditional notion of a recent creation of the universe by appealing to Scripture, with a highly literalistic understanding of the early chapters of Genesis, and a view of the genealogies found in the Bible as being fairly strictly continuous. Meanwhile, the conclusion that the universe is very old has become more and more firmly established on the basis of consistent and persuasive evidence from the study of our world carried on in several diverse fields of science. In an effort to preserve an interpretation of the Bible as telling us that the universe really is young and still recognize the existence of the scientific evidence of the age of the universe, some Christians have suggested what has become known as the "apparent age" view. That view holds that the universe was created recently with a built-in appearance of age, and so it looks old by whatever means of age measurement we apply to it, but in reality it is young. That idea has persisted in the thinking and writings of Christians for some time, although I do not know when or by whom that idea was first suggested. At the present time also, the "apparent age" view is sometimes brought into the discussion of science and Christian faith in a wide range of Christian publications. Consequently, this view deserves another careful evaluation from a Christian perspective.

The concept of a universe which was created with "apparent age" must be considered in the context of the time framework of history. We are creatures who are bound by time and space. Those limitations are so much a part of the fabric of our being that it takes some effort to think about any other possible condition.

In his book Maker of Heaven and Earth (New York: Doubleday, 1959), Langdon Gilkey refers to time as "a creature of God." Time and space, as well as the entities which occupy space in time, are created. Therefore, God is independent of time, as He is independent of space. God alone is eternal. The eternal is above time, or outside of time, or surpassing time, or some such term which denotes a qualitative distinction in kind; the eternal is unbound by time, rather than being merely everlasting in time. To speak of a universe which is billions of years old does not mean that the universe thus approaches being eternal; the eternal is qualitatively different from time, rather than being merely an infinitely long time. (See how we struggle even to grasp the idea of the eternal!)

Gilkey notes that many non-Christian philosophies have had concepts of time and of our time-bound existence which are different from the Christian concept; commonly, as in the Greeks, they have had a notion of endless cycles. Gilkey continues: "One of the most significant and dramatic turning points in the development of Western culture was the victory over this deadly view of circular tiipe achieved by the biblical understanding of history. As important culturally as the destruction of the pagan gods was the overthrowing of the endless cycles. . . " (p. 300, Anchor Books edition, 1965). Gilkey quotes from Augustine, then rephrases Augustine in identifying "three fundamental Christian ideas that were in direct conflict with the conception of endless cycles, in the order of their importance: 1) the eternal God sent Jesus Christ into the world and time, to save men from sin and death, and for an eternal destiny. This was a completely new event in history and had results for men which were both new and eternally significant, not to be rescinded by any further turns of the wheel of time. 2) Men are in the course of history really saved, and thus to each of them, as to history as a whole, a new, irreversible, and eternally significant event can occur. 3) God, who is eternal, has created time with a beginning and an end. Time is thus finite, giving to each of its moments the possibility of being unique and unrepeatable" (The City of God, Book 12, Chapter 13). The eternal God has reached down to touch us who are in time, and has made it possible for us time-bound creatures to make contact with eternity in Jesus Christ.

Gilkey affirms further that "this new view of time was made possible because of the new framework for time which the idea of creation established. As Augustine insisted, at creation time itself began. This meant first of all that from that point onward every moment in history was in a real sense new, occurring for the first and only time.... Time and its development were, moreover, within the power and purposes of God, because it was God who had created and begun this linear time series. Time was not an enemy to meaning, nor alienated from God's eternity. Rather it was the intentional creature of God, made by Him and directed and controlled by His will" (p. 304ff).

The concept of time being created by God at the beginning of His creating activity is also found in the thought of John Calvin. In an article entitled "Calvin's Doctrine of Creation," published in Princeton Theological Review (April, 1915) and reprinted in The Princeton Theology 1812-1921, edited and compiled by Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), B.B. Warfield states: "With Calvin, while the perfecting of the world-as its subsequent government-is a process, creation, strictly conceived, tended to be thought of as an act. 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth': after that it was not 'creation' strictly so called, but 'formation,' gradual modelling into form, which took place.... he was inclined to draw a sharp distinction in kind between the primal act of creation of the heavens  and the earth out of nothing, and the subsequent acts of moulding this created material into the forms it was destined to take-, and to confine the term 'creation,' strictly conceived, to the former." Calvin, too, held a concept of time being created "in the beginning," and the "acts of moulding this created material into the forms it was destined to take" taking place in time.

Except for "in the beginning," Genesis I depicts the universe as being formed within a time framework. Thus, the Christian concept of time as God's creature rules out the concept of an "apparent age" of the universe. All time is of one piece; there is discontinuity only at the beginning, when "in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." The rest of creation took place in time; there is no discontinuity within nor at the end of the "six days."

This Christian concept of time as God's creature also means that there is one and only one kind of time. It rules out a concept of two different sorts of time: one which held for the period of God's creating activity, and a different sort of time which holds for history since then. This sort of suggestion-namely, that there was "creating time" and there is now "creation time," and that these two times were different and incommensurable-was proposed by Gordon Spykman in the December, 1985 issue of Dialogue (published at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan). But such a suggestion must be rejected. While inserting a discontinuity into history in a somewhat different way than the "apparent age" view does, such a suggestion is inconsistent with the scriptural view of time as having been created by God "in the beginning." In the words of Gilkey, "at creation the first moment of time appears in existence. Time itself has an absolute beginning; the series of moments in time is finite, going back to a first moment, before which are no other moments, but only God's eternity."

There are other objections to the concept of "apparent age" which have to do with our understanding of history and the meaning of history. The Scriptures portray God as being the active Director of history, and the telling of that history assures us that God is faithful to His covenant. We cannot go back in time to observe that history-in-the-making, so our view of that history is from where we stand in time, the present, called by our calendar Twentieth Century, A.D. How do we "see" history? We look into the past, step by step, as follows:

I .We stand in time at the present. Our perception of history is from this present time perspective. As we "look at" the past from the present, we pass through recent history as it is recorded in our memories, then through more ancient history which is recorded in written records, then through still more ancient history as it is recorded in non-written artifacts of human culture, then through even more ancient history as we find it preserved in evidences of chemical-physical processes of the past. As we look at that history from our perspective in the present, no discontinuity imposes itself into our study.

2. As we "look at" the past from the present, it seems unlikely that we would be able to perceive any discontinuity, even if there had been one. Therefore, we have no way of identifying at what point in history such a discontinuity occurred, even if there were one. (Our inability to perceive a discontinuity in history is precisely the basis for and the aim of the "apparent age" view of the universe, but in achieving that aim it also destroys history, as we shall see.)

3. Of course, we cannot restrict the application of a concept of "apparent age" only to history that is learned from astronomy and geology; such a concept must apply to all history. If we accept the concept of "apparent age," we cannot save human history from the mere appearance of age, not even by appealing to the history of the evidences of human culture. We obviously cannot declare the beginning of history to be identified with the first known written records, because there are many artifacts from earlier times which are undoubtedly the. products of human activity. Historical dates based on radioactive decay and other time-dependent physical-chemical processes tell of an unbroken sequence which overlaps both with written history and with earlier history based on non-written artifacts of human culture. No discontinuity shows up in the sequence of those physical-chemical dates, either. Thus, we do not see any discontinuity through our study of history, and so we cannot assign any of history to "pre-discontinuity" except in a purely ad hoc way. (We have already established that there is no theological basis for assigning any of history to "pre- discontinuity.") Therefore, if we accept the concept of "apparent age," we are left with no assurance of the reality of any history whatever. We have no assurance that the history of last week or of last moment is any more real than the history of dinosaurs or the history of the 3.8 billion-year-old Archean rocks of southwestern Greenland.

At this point I object to the concept of "apparent age" on the basis of my Christian faith in God's promises. That concept takes away my assurance of the reality of the history of God's love and grace in His dealings with His covenant children. The concept of "apparent age" leaves us with no reason for confidence in His promises to care for us and to forgive us in Jesus Christ. For God could have created great libraries full of theological books with "apparent age" just as easily as He could have created great mountains full of fossilized creatures and radioactive isotopes with "apparent age." Thus, the concept of a universe created recently with a built-in "apparent age" is completely inconsistent with Christian belief based on the meaningfulness of history. Of course, I cannot prove that God did or did not make the universe with an appearance of age. When people ask me, as they quite frequently do, "Don't you believe that God could have made the universe with an appearance of age?", I sometimes try to get them to think a bit more deeply about that by asking them to think about a different part of God's creation rather than about His creature time. I ask them, "Don't you think that God could have made the Earth so that it appears to be round (spherical), but it really is flat?" The answer to that is: "Yes, of course. God can do what He chooses to do in whatever way He chooses to do it." Then I ask: "Do you think that God did make the Earth so that it merely appears to be round, but it really is flat?" Some hesitate at that point, but most say: "No." Then I ask: "Why don't you think so?" They answer by telling about observational evidences such as photos from space, and by giving scientific reasons for concluding that the Earth is round. There are many observed evidences which support the conclusion that the Earth is old also, so I reject the concept of .,apparent age" of God's creation for the same reasons that I and most other people reject the concept of "apparent roundness" of the Earth. Would God "fool" us about the shape of His Earth? Would God "fool" us about other aspects of His creation?

Apparently there are a significant number of Christians who want to insist on a physical-mechanical-literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, in spite of the many scientific evidences that the Earth really is old. Rather than accept alternative interpretations of Scripture which have been suggested by Bible-believing theologians, they have invented the concept of a universe created with an "apparent age" in order to escape the force of the evidence of great age which is obtained from the study of God's world itself. I do not know of any Christians who promote a concept of an Earth which was created with "apparent roundness," although such a concept would allow us to hold onto a similar physical-mechanical-literal interpretation for certain other passages of Scripture, such as those that refer to the "ends" and the "corners" of the Earth, in spite of scientific evidences that the Earth really is round. However, both concepts of "apparent but not really so" are contradictory to the affirmation which we share with the Psalmist in Psalm 19; namely, that "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." When we consider God's handiwork in His universe, concepts of "apparent but not really so" are contradictory to our confession that God is made known to us "by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, which is before our eyes as a most elegant book ...... (from the Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 11).

Clarence Menninga