I recently came to the conclusion that it was time to set down in one place my reasons for approaching Genesis the way I do. I have noticed that the topic has become a matter of increased debate in classical Christian circles — and because schools cannot honestly stay out of it — it matters a great deal what we teach and why. So here are seven theses on the age of the earth.
1. First, the age of the earth, considered in isolation, is neither here nor there. The issue is always what God said, and not how old something is. If the earth is six thousand years old now, it will eventually be one hundred thousand years old at some point, about ninety-four thousand years from now. Will theologians at that time still be required to hold to a “young earth” view? So the issue is not age, or day, or young, or old, but rather the substance of what God actually said. Whatever He actually revealed should be what we use as the foundation for all our subsequent thought. After we have our foundation, we may incorporate truth from other sources — natural revelation included — but we must take care that we never privilege what we think we know over what God actually told us.
2. Therefore, the debate — which is most necessary — should be conducted primarily between Christians who accept the Scriptures as the absolute Word of God, perfect and infallible in all that they affirm. This is because debate is pointless between parties who are appealing to different authorities. The fact that the debate is now being conducted with many of the participants openly saying that the Bible “has mistakes in it” tells us why we are not really getting anywhere.
3. Once we have limited the participants in this way, we have simplified things considerably. Everyone in the debate would be willing to affirm a flannel graph version of the Flood, giraffe and all, if that is what the Bible taught, and everyone in the debate would be willing to affirm a planet creaky with age, if that is what the Bible taught.
That said, the prima facie evidence for the traditional view of Genesis is very strong (historical Adam, continuous genealogies, etc.). Alternative approaches to the text, such as the framework hypothesis or the gap theory, seem like special pleading in order to make room to shoehorn in a cosmology from elsewhere. We should always smell a rat whenever someone notices an anomaly in the text (e.g. the different creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis) and someone else is immediately at your elbow with millions of years he wants to pour in.
I am not saying this because I am automatically categorizing any views contrary to my own as special pleading. One alternative view, grounded responsibly in the text, views the days in Genesis as days of revelation, which Adam was recording as God was teaching him how to write. But even this view would simply require someone to stop affirming “six-day creation,” and is not at all inconsistent with “young-earth creation.” So the prima facie evidence for the traditional view is strong enough for me to consider that the burden of proof lies with those who would question it.
4. The fossil record is a record of death. The fossil record is a graveyard. We have exegetical reasons for believing that this paleontological graveyard was planted after the fall of man. We have a time stamp for Adam in the genealogies, and because of what the Scriptures teach about the nature of death, the recorded deaths of all sentient beings needs to be dated after that point.
I exclude from this consideration the “deaths” of any permitted fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the garden, the “deaths” of the bacteria in their digestion systems, and so forth. The Bible teaches that Adam introduced death into the world (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21), the Bible gives us an example of the kinds of seed-creatures we are talking about, beasts, birds, fish, and man (1 Cor. 15:38-39), and the Bible teaches that the whole created order groans as it looks toward the final day of liberation (Rom. 8:22). The resurrection of the dead undoes and reverses the Fall into death, and the kinds of creatures found in fossil beds are the kinds of creatures that will be raised. When Adam fell, the creation fell also, and when the sons of God are manifested for what they are, the creation will be restored. So the dislocations that are frequently pointed to as evidence of an old earth are dislocations that Scripture teaches were brought about by the rebellion of man.
5. The next point is related. Independent of any exegetical considerations on this point, there is also a deep theological problem with the view that death antedated mankind. The Bible teaches that Adam produced death. The opposing view has to say that in some manner death produced Adam. But when God pronounced the unfallen creation “good” (Gen. 1:4; Gen. 1:10; Gen. 1:12; Gen. 1:18; Gen. 1:21; Gen. 1:25; Gen. 1:31), this would mean He was “creating” by means of millions of years of nature red in tooth and claw, with countless sentient beings suffering and dying in order to get to the place God was going. When we describe the kind of creation that God called good, we are affirming something about His character. The view that His “good” included unimaginable suffering without any reason is an insurmountable cliff for any theodicy to climb. The problem of evil has been tough for many apologists with the reason for evil grounded in the rebellion of mankind. But if we are found to be saying that suffering, pain, and anguish are an unfallen good, then this should tie us up in knots. It should also make us a little wary of looking forward to Heaven too much. I don’t want to go to Heaven just to fall into a tar pit.
Death is an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), and not a good tool that God took out of His good toolbox in order to fashion a good world.
6. The Lord Jesus speaks of an historical Adam easily, and in the same way that He speaks of other historical characters from the Old Testament. There is no good textual reason for dividing Genesis 1-10 from the rest of Genesis, as though the two parts were different kinds of literature. In the same way, the Lord speaks naturally of the first man and woman created at the beginning (Matt. 19:4), and He speaks of them with the same ease that He mentions Moses a few verses later (Matt. 19:8). He does the same with Noah (Matt. 24:37). There are no good reasons why we should not speak in the same way, and impelling reasons for us to insist on speaking that way under His foundational command to “follow me.”
7. I am quite prepared to make dogmatic affirmations from the text of Scripture because I believe that is one of the reasons why the text was given to us — so that we might have light in a dark place. And provided we remember what I mentioned earlier, I am also prepared to receive light from natural revelation and science, and to incorporate it into my understanding of Scripture (say, what an archeologist tells us about the location of Hezekiah’s water supply for Jerusalem).
But there is science and there is science. I am pretty confident that they have figured out the boiling point of water at sea level, and I am grateful for penicillin. But when the Authorities tell me what the temperature was at the center of a particular star, right before the supernova happened, or they entrance me with tales of wormholes, or they dazzle my eyes with string theory, my enthusiasm might be a skosh more tentative. They strike me as men who say they want to read all the works of natural revelation, but who just read the first three words of a ten-volume series, and who then slam it shut because of the need to start lecturing us creationist cornpones.
Time might be one of those complicated things. If God had only created the solar system, and there was nothing else out there, we would be able to get by with everything measured by how many trips around the sun we had taken. And the entire cosmos should be thought of the same way — if God placed it all here at one fell swoop, it does not give me heartburn to thank Him for starlight from a particular star that has no more been to that star than I have. God created the star, the earth, and the entire rope of starlight in between. That should present no more of a problem than God creating both sides of a rock at the same time.
But even on the reckoning of the astrophysicists’ bigbangery, time (about which we are speaking) should be considered complicated enough for them to stop lecturing us in simplistic terms — as though their view allows the cosmos to have one timer on whole thing. Suppose everything that exists all blew out of a volatile little pinprick, and Gabriel has had himself a blast since that time surfing the event horizon — a celestial maverick. We try to tell him that the earth was fashioned six thousand years go. Pah! he replies, singing for joy. I was there, and it has only been a minute.