Age of the Earth
 ( why it does and doesn't matter ) 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

      How old are the earth and universe?  This page contains the final section in a page that "explains why young-earth theories are not theologically necessary or scientifically plausible."  Here are excerpts from the first three sections:

      1. Young-Earth Theology:  Linguistically and theologically, old-earth interpretations of the Bible seem justified and satisfactory, so believing the Bible does not require believing a young earth.  ...  Advocates of a young-earth position should be admired for their desire to determine what The Word of God teaches, and believe it.  But they should humbly consider the possibility that their interpretations are unjustifiably rigid, and are wrong.  Linguistic scholars and theologians, after careful studies of Genesis and the Bible as a whole, have not reached agreement about the meaning of Genesis 1-11. ...  In my opinion, a young-earth interpretation is possible but other interpretations are preferable, so belief in the truth of what the Bible teaches does not require belief in a young earth.
      2. Young-Earth Science:  Young-earth "flood geology" theories, which propose that a global flood produced most of the earth's geology and fossil record, lead to incorrect theory-based explanations of geological formations, the arrangement of fossils in this geology, and the biogeographical distribution of animals and plants.  ...  Evidence from a wide range of fields — including the study of sedimentary rocks, coral reefs, the fossil record in geological context, seafloor spreading and continental drift, magnetic reversals, genetic molecular clocks, radioactive dating, the development of stars, starlight from faraway galaxies, and more — indicates that the earth and universe are billions of years old.  ...  When all things are considered, it doesn't seem wise to use apparent age theory [proposing that God created a universe that looks old even though it is young] as a foundation for science or faith.  ...  There are two main questions about origins — "What is the age of the earth?" and "Was there a totally natural evolution of all life?" — and [old-earth creation is not the same as old-earth evolution] so it is wrong to imply that "old earth" means "evolution".
      3. Logical Adjustments:  In my opinion, although a yeC interpretation of the Bible is reasonable, this makes it necessary to accept science that is unreasonable; ... when we carefully study the Bible, we see the valid reasons (both linguistic and theological) for an old-earth interpretation, so the old-earth science has produced "a motivation to reconsider" rather than a logical adjustment; ... there is much less logical adjustment with oeC theology (which seems very satisfactory) than with yeC science (which seems very unsatisfactory).  ...  When we try to harmonize the Bible and science, we are not comparing the Bible with science and deciding which is more important.  Instead, we are comparing some fallible human interpretations (of the Bible) with other fallible human interpretations (of nature) while trying to search for the truth.

Unfortunately, when a person who believes "if the Bible is true, the earth is young" looks carefully at the strong scientific evidence for an old earth, they may conclude that "since the earth is not young, the Bible is not true," and faith is weakened or abandoned.  The main reason "it does matter" is people, but (so the section can end with people) Section 4 begins with practical consequences for society.

      4. Why does it matter?

      Practical Results in Education
      In the past four decades, since the revival of flood geology in 1961, the most prominent advocates of young-earth views have framed the origins question as "Christianity versus atheism" with Christianity represented by only young-earth creation, with old-earth creation excluded from consideration.  In American education, the practical results have been:
      1) an increase in the perceived plausibility of evolution, because if only two models (young-earth creation and old-earth evolution) are included in the scientific competition, evolution will "win points" simply because it proposes an old earth, and all evidence for an old earth becomes evidence for evolution;
      2) a decrease in the willingness of science teachers to criticize evolution based on scientific evidence and logical evaluation, because teachers don't want to give credibility to theories about a young-earth (and young-universe) that usually have accompanied criticisms of evolution, and because they assume that the legal prohibitions against teaching young-earth creationism also apply to any serious questioning of evolution.

      The section above describes practical reasons for why it does matter, and the rest of this page is about why — for people and theology — what we think about it (and about each other) does and doesn't matter.
      Is a young earth essential for the gospel of Jesus?
      Some prominent creationists claim that their young-earth interpretation of the Bible is necessary to provide a solid historical and theological foundation for Christianity.  They claim that "if the Bible is true, the earth is young" which is equivalent to stating that "if the earth is not young, the Bible is not true."  This is unfortunate because:
      A) The link isn't justified.  There are valid reasons, based on careful linguistic and theological reasoning, for adopting old-earth interpretations of Genesis.  Although a creationist belief that "God created everything" is essential, belief in a young earth is not.  A young-earth theory should never be elevated into a fundamental doctrine like the resurrection of Jesus.  In 1 Corinthians 15:14, Paul correctly links The Resurrection with The Gospel: "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."  But there should be no link with a young earth, because the full gospel of Jesus — including his deity, virgin birth and sinless human life, substitutionary atonement on the cross, death and resurrection, ascension into heaven, and second coming — is fully compatible with an old earth.  { Useful principles for interpreting scripture are in Learning from Nature and History. }
      B) If a person who thinks the Bible requires a young earth examines the scientific evidence and concludes "the earth is old," another conclusion may be that "if the Bible is wrong about the earth's age, maybe it's also wrong about the rest," and faith is weakened or abandoned. *  Therefore, Christians should not encourage (and should not accept) any implication — whether it is made by fellow Christians who want to strengthen the Gospel, or by non-Christians who want to discredit the Gospel — that "if the earth is not young, the Bible is not true."  {* Later in the page, you can read about the personal experiences of a few of the many people who have struggled with this dilemma. }

      Truth and Theory, Humility and Respect
      In the area of origins, emotions can rise due to disagreements among people who feel strongly about important issues, who are trying to find the truth and share it with others.  In the current climate of controversy, our personal interactions will be more enjoyable and productive if we recognize the rationality of other positions (by recognizing that others may also have good reasons, both intellectual and ethical, for believing as they do), adopt an attitude of respectful humility that honors the dignity of individuals holding those positions, and remember that ideas and people are both important.
      Treating others with respect is easier if we develop an appropriate humility when estimating the certainty of our own theories about theology and science.  This requires a balance between confidence (which if overdeveloped can become rude arrogance) and humility (which can become timid relativism).  When we're discussing origins, most of us err in the direction of overconfidence in our own theories, so trying to develop the virtue of cautious humility usually has a beneficial effect.
      We should remember a useful principle from Section 3: "We are comparing some fallible human interpretations (of the Bible) with other fallible human interpretations (of nature) while trying to search for the truth."

      Some words of wisdom — useful in all areas of life, including our views of origins — come from St. Augustine: "In essentials, unity.  In nonessentials, diversity.  And in all things, charity."  To decide when unity is desirable and when diversity is acceptable, we must wisely distinguish between what is essential and not essential.  Behaving with charity requires a humility in estimating the certainty of our theological and scientific interpretations, and a love that transcends our differences, so "everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus because we love one another." (John 13:35, paraphrased)

      Views and Experiences (of current and former advocates of young-earth views)

      Does the gospel require a young earth?
    The following quotations (which are extensions of three quotations in the main body) show that, when we ask "Should the gospel be linked with a young earth?", prominent young-earth creationists answer "Yes!"
      Ken Ham: "As soon as Christians allow for death, suffering, and disease before sin, then the whole foundations of the message of the Cross and the Atonement have been destroyed. ... The whole message of the Gospel falls apart if one allows millions of years for the creation of the world. (source)"
      Henry Morris: { I decided to omit the quotation that I had been using for Henry; I'll try to find a better one. }
      John Morris: "If the earth is old, if fossils date from before man's sin, then Christianity is wrong!  These ideas destroy the foundation for the Gospel and negate the work of Christ on the cross." (source)   "Any form of evolution and old-earth thinking is incompatible with the work of Christ. ... If a Christian can distort Scripture to teach such beliefs as evolution, progressive creation, an old earth, or a local flood, can that Christian be trusted with other doctrines? ... Creationism should be a requirement for Christian leadership!  No church should sanction a pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, elder, or Bible-study leader who knowledgeably and purposefully errs on this crucial doctrine. (source)"

      Personal Experiences
      A rigid insistence on a young-earth interpretation can lead believers into a dilemma based on "if-and-if, then..." logic:  IF the Bible declares that the earth is young, and IF in reality the earth is not young (as indicated by a logical evaluation of abundant evidence), THEN the logical conclusion is that "the Bible is false."
      Ed, a former young-earth creationist and current Christian, explains how to avoid a spiritual tragedy: "If R [a friend who discarded his faith when faced with the if-if-then dilemma] had been offered an alternative [believing the Bible without believing in a young earth] from the beginning, he would never have experienced the turmoil he went through.  When R could no longer deny that the universe was billions of years old, the only option left for him [because he continued to believe, as he had been taught, that believing the Bible requires believing a young earth] was to deny the Bible."
      Hill Roberts, head of the "Lord, I Believe" outreach ministry, says: "Some of my well-meaning brethren wish we would just drop all aspects of time discussions from our presentations.  That would certainly be the easy way.  Todd [a former young-earth believer who, like "R", decided to stop believing in the Bible and Jesus when he was confronted with the if-if-then dilemma] is why we cannot go that way."
      Joshua Zorn, a missionary involved in church planting, describes his experience as a former believer in the young-earth teaching that "creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church," and that has a virtual monopoly in overseas missions.  He explains why, as an evangelist, he is worried because "we are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already."  Therefore, "from the mission field, to pastors and leaders of the sending churches," he makes "An Urgent Appeal for Humility in Addressing the Question of the Age of the Earth."
      Another way that "we are sowing the seeds of a major crisis" is the virtual monopoly of young-earth teaching in home schools, which may result in a multitude of "if-if-then..." dilemmas (like those faced by Ed, R, and Todd) in the near future.

a fuller sharing of personal experiences


      Learning from Nature and History
    All of us can agree that in scripture the main purpose is to help us understand spiritual realities, but is this the only purpose?  Do any passages in the Bible contain scientific information that should be used in our scientific theories?  Or should we use information from science to help us interpret the passages?  When thinking about these questions, one useful principle is illustrated by changes in our theories about the solar system:
      In 1500, we had a coherent system of false beliefs.  Everyone thought that planetary motions were earth-centered, and that the Bible taught this science.  Our interpretations of nature and scripture were both wrong, but they agreed with each other and were thus in harmony. 
      In 1620, there were debates among scientists, who didn't agree with each other about how to interpret nature.  And there were debates about how to interpret scripture; some theologians, but not others, agreed with Galileo's interpretation of the Bible when he said "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."  At this time, some interpretations of nature conflicted with some interpretations of scripture.
      In 1700, science and theology were again in harmony.  But unlike 200 years earlier, now both interpretations corresponded to reality in nature and scripture, and were therefore true.

      What was the change in theology?  In 1500, people claimed that the Bible teaches an earth-centered universe when it says "the sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises," when it describes a mobile sun that "rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other" and a stationary earth: "the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved." (Ecclesiastes 1:5, Psalm 19:6, Psalm 93:1)  In 1700, almost everyone agreed that the Bible authors were simply describing what seems to be happening, just as we now talk about a sunrise or sunset.
      What caused this change?  Our interpretation of the Bible was influenced by information from science.  This influence was beneficial, since it helped us recognize that in these passages the Bible was not making a scientific statement teaching us "how the heavens go."
      In this reinterpretation of scripture, we are not comparing the Bible (which says "the sun rises") with science (which claims "the earth moves") and deciding which is more important.  Instead, we are comparing different interpretations (of the Bible and nature) and are wisely using all available information in our search for truth.  We are trying to find the correct answer when we ask, "Does this Bible passage teach science?"  For this type of scientific question, information from nature — gathered and evaluated using scientific methods — can be very useful.  This principle of interpretation was recommended by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1982) when they affirmed that "in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations."
      In the 1600s, appeals to the Bible were used to support earth-centered science that was wrong.  Currently, are appeals to the Bible being used to support young-earth science that is wrong?

The section above is from Our Ideas about Scripture and Nature.

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Here are other related pages:

Why does it matter?  (longer version)

How old are the earth and universe?
Young-Earth Creationism: Theology & Science
(with Sections 1-4, not just 4 as in this page)

Age of the Universe:
links to my pages and to
pages by other authors
about theology and science.

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Copyright © 2001 by Craig Rusbult
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