Does the Bible teach a 6,000-year-old Earth?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: Thank you for your response to my recent question (click here for the previous question). Here is some background to help you understand my issue more thoroughly. I am agnostic; I do not believe that the universe began by chance via the Big Bang, but I also struggle with the Christian version of creationism. My wife, however, is a born-again Christian, but I have absolute respect for my wife's faith, and I support her freedom to express it. I am fortunate (I guess blessed) to have her, and I would love nothing more than to be a Christian in the same way that she is. But I wrestle with what I believe to be true that Christians do not believe like evolution, or that earth/universe is billionsnot thousands of years old. I hope you can provide me with some guidance and context. Thanks.

Answer: Hello again, friend. Thank you for the clarification; it will indeed be helpful. What I particularly like about both this and your previous question is that you see Christianity as being necessarily tied to its texts — and this is certainly true. Far too many believers just glom on to the Christian culture without worrying about its underpinnings, so I really appreciate your interest in the foundations of our faith. I also appreciate the love and respect that you show to your wife. You are indeed blessed! And since you already have her as a personal example of faith, let me augment her ongoing testimony with a few words about evolution, creation, the inerrancy of Scripture and the interpretation of the same.

Considering the evolution of life, I accept microevolution (change within species) as a fact because it is readily observable, but I reject macroevolution (changing into another species) as a fact because it has never been observed either in life or in the fossil record. When Darwin postulated his evolutionary model, he said that the fossil record would eventually yield transitional fossils to complete the record. But after 150 years, and after a more than adequate sampling of the earth, they have found none. The taxonomy according to morphology fails to produce Darwin’s predicted branching, and the Cambrian Explosion alone has turned that world on its head. Today’s Darwinians (Neo-Darwinians) focus more on the DNA than on morphology, but those results, too, fail to support evolutionary theory.

Friend, I am not afraid of any empirical data! After all, all truth is God’s truth — and God is Truth itself! As such, he cannot abide falseness. Therefore, Christians should never ignore the data… nor refuse to assess anyone’s conclusions. But you know who has the policy to do just that? Those who insist that the scientific community dismiss ID (Intelligent Design) theories out of hand. Imagine this: there is a group of people whose stock-in-trade is “unbiased” exploration and analysis, but they refuse to allow this huge and compelling body of arguments into evidence — and many of the participating institutions threaten the livelihoods of those who show even a minor bent towards ID. I invite you to view Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, available on YouTube.

As a Christian, I have no problem embracing the scientific community’s data… just not always its conclusions. But since the scientific community has been bullied into dismissing ID a priori, they, by their own admission, are not objective; they do not consider every analysis. By way of contrast, I do consider every view. So, as one who takes a truly objective view, let me state for the record that there are no conflicts between science and the Bible. Therefore, it is congruent to be a thinking man, a Christian, a believer in the inerrancy of Scripture and a lover of science… all at the same time!

Another thing I like about your question is that you are suspicious of the idea that the creation began by chance. That being said, I am not one of those Christians who will try to argue away the empirical of time as seen in an expanding universe or in the fossil record, but concerning the beginning of matter and energy or the beginning of life, I will make this argument: every bit of matter, the total effect of energy and all the time since the universe began do not provide the probabilistic resources necessary to create even the simplest molecule by random processes. The scientific community realizes this, too, and they are searching for reasons other than “chance” to account for life (which is vexing… since chance is basic to Darwin’s theory… and ID is not allowed in the building).

By now you probably realize that I am not one of those Christians who thinks that the world is only thousands of years old, and you are probably wondering what a fellow like me does with that first chunk of Genesis — because I certainly disagree with the many Christians who subscribe to the young-earth view. In my opinion, neither Genesis nor any other Scripture teaches that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. This, of course, will require some explanation. But before we do that, let me assert that this is a secondary issue for Christians.

Unfortunately, many Christians do not see this as a secondary issue. Some even say that relegating it to secondary status is proof of my apostasy! Unfortunately, you will find some Christians who require a young-earth belief to join their fold within the fold, but they are not representative of the Body of Christ as a whole. Our primary concerns are broader: we affirm the Scripture, redemption through Jesus Christ, God’s agency in creation and humanity’s purpose within that creation. But affirming God’s agency in creation is different than affirming someone’s interpretation of how he accomplished it. As such, one can be both congruent in faith and affirming of Scriptural inerrancy while not subscribing to the young-earth teachings.

Primary issues notwithstanding, we are still responsible to wrestle with every word in the Bible; after all, it is God’s special revelation to us. But God has spoken to us in his general revelation, too — by his very created things. So, Christians are responsible to make sense of both his word and his world. We must remember, however, that our human interpretations of both the Bible and the physical world can be (and often are) skewed. But the Scripture itself is never skewed — it is the touchstone for truth! And it will reveal whether or not competing ideas meet God’s gold standard — but only if we take the time to rub them against it. So, let’s do that.

There are many ways to interpret the opening chapter of the Bible. The first and most obvious is to take it at its face meaning — that God created everything in six literal days and then he rested on the seventh. This is the historical Christian position. But does the description of the creation itself give us enough information to demand a 6,000-year-old earth? About 150 years ago, people began to realize that the Earth appeared much older than what the Bible seemed to reveal. The Bible does give us information about people and their lifespans so that it is possible to add-up biblical time backward to Adam. But is that data sufficient to postulate a creation date?

Archbishop James Ussher developed one of the more well-known chronologies. He considered the biblical genealogies along with some secular information, and he dated the creation event at 4004 BC. Other scholars arrived at slightly different dates by similar chronologies, but Ussher’s was incorporated into many editions of the Bible… but as non-inspired data like the maps. Non-inspired notwithstanding, I suspect that Ussher’s inclusion within the covers of “the Bible” helped fix these dates in the Christian mind. But if the Bible’s genealogies do not give us a creation date, what is their role? The genealogies establish timelines for the specific people whom God used to tell his story — and this is very useful. But the mere existence of a calculable timespan in the Bible does not mean that that’s all the time there is. God made no such restriction in either revelation.

Furthermore, God is under no onus to report all time segments as contiguous or time itself as complete when giving these data. Many young-earth advocates err right here. But even if the dates happened to be contiguous, they would only carry the information back to Adam — and not behind him. Time is not an actor; it is the road upon which activity rides. Time has no intrinsic characteristics which would allow it to leap behind Adam, nor does it have the power to define those creation days as literal 24-hour periods. Therefore, neither the biblical dates nor the secular chronologies can prove that the young-earth theory is true. So, why does the young-earth notion persist? It is an artifact of the six-literal-days interpretation. Therefore, since the Bible does not force a 6,000-year-old Earth upon the Scripture, neither should its followers.

How then should we handle the Scripture when the empirical evidence seems to work against it? We use Rule #1: God’s word is true… period! But our interpretations of God’s word can be flawed… as are often our observations and conclusions about the world. Therefore, although Scripture takes precedence, caution is always in order among non-God beings.

Consider our current topic as it relates to the fossil record as an example. A Christian should not look at the fossil record… and then adjust God’s word to align with it! He may, however, challenge any interpretations of the fossil record or any interpretations of God’s word—and that is what is at issue here. I ask, does the contextual language in Genesis chapter 1 drive the young-earth interpretation? Or are people relying on embedded notions from other interpreters? I firmly believe that people on both sides are acting with the best intentions. The problem is, if an interpreter rests on today’s literalistic understanding of a very ancient passage, he may — in the process of standing up for God and his word — miss God’s communicative intentions.

Let us consider the form and the sound of the language for a moment. In my response to your last question, I argued that the account of Adam & Eve and of Noah were not myths because they did not sound like myths; they sounded like historical narratives. In like manner I would ask any reader (believer or nonbeliever) to compare the beginning of Genesis with the story of Abraham, Job or some other ancient person, and then ask himself, are they the same? It is true that they are both historical narratives… but one can hear a difference in the words, and one can see a difference in their organization; there is something poetic and nonlinear at work in Genesis 1… and I do not believe that God was describing the linear events of six literal days with the use of such language. So, let us consider some plausible alternatives to the six-literal-day interpretation of Genesis chapter 1.

The Day-Age Theory postulates that each of the “days” spoken of in the first chapter of Genesis are sequential periods that represent a much longer (but not defined) period of time—like millions or billions of years. Detractors argue that, in this scenario, disease, suffering and death occurred before the fall of man, thus violating Romans 5:12. But the Day-Age Theory considers Adam’s fall as separate from the old creation, the workings of which do not answer to the post-Adamic world.

“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—” (Romans 5:12, ESV)

Another plausible alternative is called the Gap Theory. Some Christians account for the discrepancy between the empirical evidence of a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth and the Bible’s (apparent) insistence on a 6,000-year-old Earth by inserting a gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. Gap Theorists see a perfect creation in Genesis 1:1, a fallen creation in 1:2 and a good re-creation in subsequent verses. Since there is room for countless eons between verses 1 and 2, they put the fall of Satan and the subsequent ruination of creation in that space. Gap theorists assign Satan’s fall (and its outfall) to the old creation—but they assign Adam’s fall to the re-creation. Like the Day-Age theorists, they believe that Romans 5:12 does not apply to pre-Adamic time.

Interestingly, the Gap Theory retains room for the six-literal-days-of-creation theory, because the gap occurs before those days start. This accommodates the empirical age of the earth and a literalistic translation. I was a Gap theorist for decades — but have jumped ship. 

The interpretation to which I currently hold is championed by Dr. Gerald Schroeder in his book, The Science of God (which has my highest recommendation) and Dr. Sarah Salviander and her ministry SixDay Science. Schroeder is a nuclear physicist and observant Jew who makes the case that the days in Genesis 1 are six twenty-four hour days... but holds that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old and the universe about 14 billion. How can he do this? I'll not be the spoiler. Find out for yourself. Salviander is an astronomer who agrees with him, and her website has the relevant data.

The Framework Interpretation sees Moses presenting God as a worker who goes about his creative work in six days and resting on the seventh. He does this by preceding each creative act with the phrase “And God said…” So, if we make the (warranted) assumption that God was a spirit-being during the creation — that he had no need nor desire to materialize before he did this work—then the creation account does not describe a literal occurrence since God did not physically speak to bring the physical world into existence. Instead, this passage is anthropomorphic. God’s speaking is a figure of speech.

Since the creation passages are entirely and overtly anthropomorphic, why insist that the days contained within these figures are literal 24-hour days? This puts an unnecessary burden on the language in Genesis 1… and perhaps on the cause-of-Christ in the process.

The Framework Interpretation understands that Genesis chapter 1 tells the story of true historical events, but it sees the days as picture frames which contain snapshots of those creation events. This provides a literary structure for the narration. So, the events themselves are not sequential; they are topical — and available for examination in any order — just like a group of framed pictures on your mantle. So, this theory affirms that God did indeed create the universe as described in Genesis chapter 1—the fact that the language is all figurative does not change that; it just removes any arbitrary restrictions on how God accomplished it. So, are you among the number that is stalled-out in front of arbitrary restrictions concerning the Lord? You are not alone.

Don’t get me wrong: Christianity does have its restrictions. God doesn’t just hand out salvation like a barker distributing restaurant menus. Belief and repentance must come first. But he does not require belief in Christian-sounding stuff. Unfortunately, the idea that Christians believe in a young-earth is Christian-sounding stuff that is part of the public’s perception of our culture. But that is certainly not true of us all (…and not even true as a fact). But, how many people will not even consider the claims of Christ because of a…well…let me state it plainly: a misinterpretation of Scripture? Yes, I understand that people reject Christ because of the hardness of their hearts…but that is ultimately and not initially. There is a process to it, and that’s what I’m talking about — the front door to the process. It is my strong opinion that many will not cross the threshold due to the lingual fundamentalism of the young-earth position.

I am not sure what your wife’s stand is on this portion of Scripture (and you must always be sensitive to that) but objectively, many Christians (and some giants among us) do not subscribe to the young-earth scenario. As to your question then, you can indeed be a Christian while believing that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old — I am (and I do)! So, do not let one segment’s teaching keep you from eternal life.

Please understand that I am not disparaging those in the opposing camp. By a large margin these people are my brothers and sisters in Christ — and they are out there fighting the good fight while upholding the inerrancy of God’s word, just like me. They and I have differing views on a secondary issue — that’s all… and here is your space: If there is room at the cross for me, then there is room at the cross for you. Step up.

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