An Urgent Appeal for Humility in Addressing the Questions of the Age of the Earth and Related Issues from the Mission Field to Pastors and Leaders of the Sending Churches, especially in North America!
I became a Christian in 1973 at the age of thirteen when my Sunday school teacher took four lessons to explain the plan of salvation to us. Although I had attended church (in a mainline denomination) all my life, this was the first time I had heard that the blood of Christ shed at the cross could wash away my sins. I immediately accepted this good news that salvation was by grace through faith and not by works. I began a new life in Christ which has now led me to work as a church planter in the former Soviet Union.
A few years after my conversion, as I was traveling across the country with a busload of Boy Scouts on our way to Philmont Scout Reservation in New Mexico, I picked up a small book at a truck stop in Nebraska. It presented a radical view of earth history from a Christian perspective and I was fascinated. After returning home I quickly found related literature in my local Christian bookstore and I became an enthusiastic devotee of young earth creation science (YECS) as promoted by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).
As the son of a physics professor, I had a love for science and as a naive and enthusiastic young believer, my mind was fertile ground for the ideas of this movement. As I look back upon those days, I now understand that we Christians were growing up in an environment hostile to belief. There was a pervasive sense that most intellectuals had abandoned the faith and given license to our generation to disregard the moral teachings of Scripture. Yet we knew that we had found something wonderful in Christianity. If Christianity were true and the world were against Christianity, we would have to oppose the world, especially the doctrines which had resulted in the decline of faith in the western world. Of course, a thinking person could not reject science in total, but the YECS people were real scientists, accepting things like the genetic code, Newton's Laws, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. They used them to overthrow the great evil of philosophical naturalism which, the YECS people were quick to point out, had given rise to biblical criticism, secular humanism, and the theory of evolution.
Most people believe what they want to believe so the YECS arguments quickly persuaded me and a certain pride took root in my heart. Although virtually the entire academic world disagreed with our views, I assumed that we, not they, were correct. But pride, even if rooted in the correctness of Christian belief, is sin. This sin most often took the form of criticism of "all those stupid atheists, Bible critics, secular humanists, and evolutionists." I slandered them repeatedly by telling others that they were so biased against belief that they purposely distorted the evidence to support the old earth and evolutionist positions. I now publicly repent of this attitude which I held for several years and call upon others to examine their hearts and motives. It is true that in Christ we have a wisdom that the world lacks, but that wisdom expresses itself in a good life, and by deeds done in humility (James 3:1317). Christian wisdom certainly does not mean we have a greater or more accurate scientific knowledge of the universe than the experts. It is also true that many scientists are biased against Christianity, but almost no one knowingly distorts evidence to disprove the Gospel. I know, because many scientists are my friends.
As an evangelical Christian, I viewed Scripture as authoritative. Yet Scripture in the hand of a fervent believer with a certain agenda (such as the YECSers) can be distorted. Thus I believed what they taught and was not exposed to other evangelical points of view. Of course I did not seek them out--I thought I had all the answers. But the church leadership could have addressed these issues from a more balanced perspective. Many pastors avoid controversy and thereby water the seeds of a spiritual crisis in the lives of YECSers who will be moving on to the university. For whatever reason, our Christian bookstores and radio stations rarely provide other literature or viewpoints.
As there was no access to other Christian points of view, I probably would have remained a YECSer all my life had I not gone on for further studies. I sailed through my undergraduate years at a liberal arts college with a major in mathematics, never encountering in class sufficient evidence to shake my belief in a young earth or rabid opposition to evolution. (I took no classes in biology or geology). In fact, I took the initiative to hold a public lecture entitled "Darwin--Was He Wrong?" to which I invited all my friends as well as the campus at large. I had answers to all the feeble scientific objections that my fellow students could raise (which demonstrates, I think, how few people really have their beliefs founded on facts as opposed to indoctrination) and felt that I had carried the day. Fortunately for me, no faculty showed up!
I do remember one moment of doubt and humility as an undergraduate. I was walking through a university library looking at shelf after shelf of books on geology. Could all these educated people really be so completely wrong?
By the time I entered graduate school, I had discovered Christian geologist Davis Young's book, Christianity and the Age of the Earth. I had read his first book, Creation and The Flood, a few years before, and, although it sowed seeds of doubt about the young earth, I had not changed my views. But as I read this book, I saw that the scientific arguments for a young earth were completely untenable. I found that all the other Christian graduate students had problems with YECS geological arguments. And so, although it was painful, I asked myself if I wanted to continue to believe in something that is quite plainly wrong. I decided I did not, and so rejected the young earth position.
But rejection of the young earth was not only a matter of science. It affected my faith and the core of my life. I believed that the Scriptures taught a young earth and was seeing that the scientific method led to a different conclusion. Worse yet, I was aware that if the earth is old, maybe the theory of evolution is true. Did this mean that the Bible was wrong and perhaps my entire belief in the Gospel was misplaced? I went through a period of deep soul seeking, clinging to the Lord although I could not make sense of Scripture and science. In the end, I agreed to follow the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth, be open-minded but skeptical toward evidence for evolution, and not abandon the faith (which I was convinced was true for many other reasons). I just confessed that I did not have all the answers on how to interpret Genesis. I had read Davis Young's interpretation, but was so prejudiced against his views that I did not accept them.
Twelve years have gone by since I abandoned the young earth viewpoint. As I continued to study (toward a Ph.D. in mathematics with applications in population genetics), I unfortunately saw argument after argument of the YECSers crumble in the face of evidence, both new and old. The list is in the hundreds and goes far beyond the issue of the age of the earth. The last straw was when evidence forced the ICR to back down on its claim of overlapping man and dinosaur tracks in the Paluxy river bed in Texas. The "man" tracks--it turns out--are really poorly preserved dinosaur tracks. Since that day I have no longer put any faith in scientific arguments put forth by the ICR and only rarely read their publications. It is truly unfortunate that such well-meaning Christians who share with me both a high regard for Scripture and evangelism, have made so many scientific errors. Although it pains me to part company with Christian brethren, I believe they are doing more harm than good and urge you to be skeptical of their science.
For those of you wanting to see the science, YECS arguments have been refuted in many places by both Christian and secular authors. For starters, let me recommend Creation and Time by former astrophysicist and evangelism pastor, Dr. Hugh Ross. In chapter ten of this book, Ross refutes ten typical arguments for a young earth. In chapter nine, several astronomical evidences for an ancient universe are presented. The books by Young mentioned above, and the books by Newman and Wonderly mentioned in the bibliography below, refute more YECS arguments and give additional scientific reasons to believe in an old universe and earth. All these authors are conservative evangelicals with advanced training in science. A secular critique of YECS is Kitcher's book, Abusing Science.
Besides the science, it is instructive to understand something of the history of the YECS movement and how it spread out of Seventh Day Adventism into American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. The history of the movement has been meticulously documented in the book, The Creationists, by Numbers listed in the bibliography below.
I don't expect pastors or church leaders to be impressed by all the scientific evidence unless there are also good hermeneutical reasons for abandoning the YECS position and a literal reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. As my prejudice wore off over the years, I began to discover a whole new world of evangelical interpretations as well as persuasive arguments against some aspects of the literalist reading of Genesis 1-3.
For me it was surprising to find out that very few of the early Jewish interpreters or church fathers held to the six consecutive twenty-four-hour day interpretation of Genesis 1. In Creation and Time, Ross has documented that Philo, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandra, Origin, Augustine, Basil, and others all held to other interpretations.
In the same book (chapter 17), Ross goes on to discuss the results of a 1982 summit of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy which gathered to discuss, among other things, the matter of the ages of the universe and the earth. After hearing papers representing various interpretations of Genesis and after deliberating over these issues for many hours, this group of theologians and other scholars concluded that belief in six consecutive twenty-four-hour creation days is nonessential to belief in inerrancy. Everyone present except Henry Morris signed the concluding statement, thus demonstrating the isolation of the extreme position of the ICR. See the paper by Gleason Archer, Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who concludes that "Entirely apart from any findings of modern science or challenges of contemporary scientism, the twenty-four-hour theory was never correct and should never have been believed."
Ross's book contains endorsements by several other prominent theologians and Christian leaders. These include Norman Geisler, Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary; Ralph Winter, General Director of the U.S. Center for World Mission; Don Richardson, author of Peace Child and Eternity in their Heart; Earl Radmacher, Chancellor of Western Seminary; Walter Kaiser Jr., President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; and Stan Oaks, Director of Christian Leadership Ministries (Faculty Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ). Other works which allow for an old earth include Francis Schaeffer's No Final Conflict and Evangelical Affirmations, edited by Kenneth Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry.
The interpretation which I prefer is described in French theologian Henri Blocher's In the Beginning, published by IVP. For an excellent of discussion of how to relate modern science and Genesis, see Genesis Today by Dr. Ernest Lucas. Many more works are listed in the bibliography.
Many are afraid that belief in an old earth opens the door to belief
in evolution. It is not my purpose in this essay to discuss at length how
Christians should respond to Darwin's claims. But I would like to make a
For those of you who really believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis that requires a young earth, my appeal is to recognize that this flies in the face of an enormous amount of scientific evidence which essentially all scientists, Christian or otherwise, accept. In addition, there are hermeneutical problems with that view as pointed out, for example, in Archer and Blocher's works listed below. As you teach your interpretation of Genesis, be humble enough to mention that there are many scientific problems, that the ICR position is not accepted by most evangelical Christians with scientific training, and that there are other interpretations. It is sinful (slanderous and untrue) to teach that all who believe in an old earth are liberals who don't care about evangelism. It is precisely because I do believe in evangelism that I am writing this paper! I would plead with you to earnestly seek the Lord for a renewal and deepening of your faith and then have the boldness to begin to study other evangelical views, such as those found in the bibliography. Cling to the Lord and look for support from others who have studied these things. Pastors, who have made the effort to learn something about the issues believers influenced by scientific knowledge may face, will be more prepared to equip the saints for ministry in this generation.
In our everyday lives, we constantly apply and even trust in the results of scientific research. The technologies to build an airplane, create antibiotics, or evangelize distant peoples via Christian radio all depend on the accuracy of our understanding of how the world works as discovered by the scientific method. Thus Christians have gained much from the sciences. Science continues to be so successful at generating knowledge in its proper fields that it is unwise for so much of the church to be so against certain results of science.
It may be objected that the examples given above are from the more exact laboratory sciences and not the historical sciences. While it is true that the results of the historical sciences are often tentative because we cannot go back in time to observe directly what happened, many of the results are quite secure and have impacted our lives. Success in locating oil deposits, an understanding of where earthquakes will occur, our understanding of historical passages in the Bible, a deeper understanding of human and animal behavior, and the powerful argument for the existence of a Creator based on the Big Bang (see The Creator and the Cosmos in the bibliography below) all depend on the accuracy of the results of the historical sciences such as historical geology, plate tectonics, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, history, cosmology, and behavioral ecology.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking the age of the earth is just a matter of "trusting God's Word" versus "trusting science." Christians need to, and every day do, trust both. The common error of rejecting many well-established results of science in favor of a certain biblical interpretation is not a valid Christian position. In the end, the truth will be a harmony which rejects neither the teachings of Scripture nor the well-established results of science. The results of science (properly interpreted) should never challenge the authority of Scripture, but they may cause us to reexamine our interpretation of Scripture. This is what I am pleading with young earthers to do.
The Christian position must be that all truth is God's truth and that we have both general revelation (nature) and special revelation (the Bible) as sources of truth. Science clearly has its limits in that, for example, it cannot tell you if adultery is sinful or not. The Bible clearly has its limits in that we cannot learn calculus or quantum mechanics from its pages. The only possible trouble comes in those relatively rare instances when both the Bible and science seem to have something to say, such as historical questions about the nation of Israel or the creation of life on this planet.
While Christians may not always be happy with the results of science, we should respect scientists and oppose scientific theory only rarely, cautiously, and in humility, if at all. We should also check our interpretations of Scripture to see if anything has been overlooked. It may help to consult with believing scientists to understand how others have dealt with the issue. If there remain stubborn problems, we should have the courage to admit that we don't have an answer, but in faith, believe that when we know in full, the answer will be clear. Ultimately, our confidence in Scripture should not rest on having a complete harmony between science and the Bible because we simply do not know enough to complete the harmony.
A brief word must be said about the danger of the anti-Christian propaganda being distributed by certain atheistic scientists. Yes, it is true that many atheists try to make the case that science has disproved certain Christian doctrines. However, the case is very weak. In dealing with these kinds of arguments, we must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff. Often, the scientific facts are solid, but their philosophical interpretation is anti-Christian and unproven. While confusing the issues for many, these arguments do not mean that Christians should oppose science. However, we must be on guard to oppose anti-Christian philosophies masquerading in the name of science.
There is also an unwarranted anti-supernatural bias in academia and elsewhere which causes many to dismiss certain Christian doctrines without a fair consideration. Christians, in reaction, tend not to trust academics and science. This bias must be exposed (see Phillip Johnson's Reason in the Balance) and opposed. As Christians we do believe in miracles, such as the resurrection of Christ, which go beyond scientific explanation. But our belief in occasional miracles is no reason for us to oppose science as such.
The worst aspect of YECS teaching is that it creates a nearly insurmountable barrier between the educated world and the church. Certainly God in his sovereignty has allowed some to be persuaded to believe in Christ through the arguments of YECSers. But how many more have not accepted the Gospel because of the unnecessary demand that converts believe that the world is no more than 10,000 years old? And how many have unnecessarily gone through a crisis of faith similar to that which I described above? How many have chosen to give up their faith altogether rather than to accept scientific nonsense or a major reinterpretation of Scripture? How much have we dishonored our Lord by slandering scientists and their reputation? How much have we sinned against Christian brothers holding another opinion by naming them "dangerous" and "compromisers"? How much responsibility do we bear for having taught others (James 3:1) things that probably are not even true? Each must search his own heart.
Pastors need to rethink these issues as outlined above and teach a responsible Christian viewpoint with all humility. Seminaries need to reconsider what they are teaching this generation of pastors and perhaps include a basic science course in their curriculum. Christian writers need to create materials for Sunday school, bedtime stories, home educators, and Christian schools that will not give our children an antiscientific bias, setting them up for a crisis of faith later in life. Christian radio and TV stations need to invite qualified speakers to wrestle with these issues in a responsible way. Publishers need to have courage to publish unpopular viewpoints, if they are consistent with Christian faith. Bookstores need to be willing to sell Christian books critical of YECS that promote other views. People who are qualified to speak need to be willing to follow the Lord's call to become publicly involved, despite the persecution which will come (from well-meaning brothers in the Lord). Finally, missionaries and evangelists need to get materials expressing other viewpoints translated to oppose the virtual monopoly YECS teaching has overseas.
As I write this paper, I see YECS literature becoming more and more widely distributed in the growing churches in my corner of the former Soviet Union. We are sowing the seeds of a major crisis which will make the job of world evangelism even harder than it is already. Lord, give us wisdom!