Christians disagree about the age of the earth. Some believe it to be no more than about ten thousand years old, while others have been convinced that the planet is something like four and a half billion years old. That’s a huge difference, to say the least. This controversy can at times become quite heated, but I believe that it will in time be more or less resolved and the Christian church will reach a consensus. But as for now, we have to wrestle with the issue.
There are many things to discuss regarding this that I will not discuss here. But if the earth is billions of years old, one of the natural questions to ask is why God would take that kind of time to make it. Surely an omnipotent God could have done things much faster. In fact, Augustine, in seeking to resist ideas about pagan gods, believed that God created the world instantaneously, and that the six-day sequence in Genesis 1 was a poetic framework. He may have been right about that last part, but most of us would agree that God created the world sequentially over the space of some time, whether 144 hours, or billions of years. Did he have to do this? Even six solar earth-days is longer than God would need. But billions of years? Billions of years is so mind-bogglingly long, that John MacArthur believes it would have been a giant waste of time, that God had no reason to use so much time when he had other goals in mind, such as kicking off redemptive history, beginning with Adam and Eve. I respect Dr. MacArthur greatly, but the idea of billions of years being a waste of God’s time is illogical. For God, a thousand years are like a day. He is not daunted by any length of time. But still, why would he take so long if he did not have to? I want to offer a few thoughts on that question from a layman’s perspective.
First, I think it is safe to say that God takes the long view of things. He looks ahead and he doesn’t rush. Think about how God works in the lives of individuals. God transforms people. He changes them slowly, over time, using life experiences, difficulties, and discipline. Along the way, there are many missteps and retractions on our part, but over a lifetime, people are brought to an increasing maturity in Christian living. This can be a painful process sometimes with challenges that come from our own sinful inclinations. But the Holy Spirit is in us and God teaches us through trials. Hebrews 12:11 reminds us that discipline at God’s hand may not seem pleasant at the time, but that “later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” The idea of producing a harvest only emphasizes the fact that this is a drawn out process. I once asked my wife why God didn’t just change people all at once. She surprised me by saying that maybe he couldn’t. That is to say, if God immediately baked into us the results of a lifetime of growth, it would not be real. You would have the effects without the requisite causes. We cannot be altered that way, or at least, that’s not how God chooses to work. This seems like a valid consideration and will inform our views about the creation process.
Second, I will point out that God took the long view in redemptive history. I have sometimes wondered why God waited so long before sending Messiah to save the world. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This is what God had always meant to do. In fact, it was the crux of God’s dealing with man for God’s own glory. He came to save us from the consequences of our sin and cleanse a people for his own possession. So why did he let thousands of years pass between the Fall and the cross? First, there were thousands of years before God called Abraham. Then Abraham had Isaac, who had Jacob, who had Joseph, who went to Egypt, where his descendants were enslaved for four hundred grueling years before—finally—we get the old covenant under Moses’s leadership, which has all kinds of clues within its rituals about the Messiah. Then, there are some 1,500 more years of trial and error on the part of God’s chosen nation, before our Redeemer arrives on the scene, at long last! Why did so many people and so many generations have to live and die before Jesus came to save the world? I don’t fully know. But the basic answer is, for some reasons known to God, the world just wasn’t ready. It wasn’t fully prepared. In Galatians chapter 4, Paul writes, “The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” The metaphor of we being “underage” and under guardians “until the time set by [our] father” shows that there was prep work God had to do. Most of human history has been lived prior to Christ’s first advent. And even now, as we wait with eagerness for Jesus to come again, God has been biding his time for two thousand years, and he will bring this age to its consummation only when the time is right.
What do these considerations show? They show that God reaches his planned ends using intermediate means. He doesn’t just skip to the results. The results must actually have resulted from prior causes. God lets things play out over time to get them the way he wants them, rather than simply manufacturing a finished product out of whole cloth. But wouldn’t we say that creation is a unique case? There was nothing prior to God’s creation, so God was, at least this once, making a finished product from whole cloth, was he not? We call this creation out of nothing, or creation ex nihilo. This is what I want to think about. Everyone (young-earther and old-earther alike) agrees that the earth had to be prepared in stages for human habitation. In fact, we know that Augustine was wrong about an instantaneous creation because in Genesis 1:2 we find an earth, but one not yet ready for us. It is “formless and empty.” I think the old American Standard Version gives the proper sense here, when it says “waste and void.” We might think formless implies some shapeless cloud, but the earth has an ocean (the deep), so it is a solid planet. But it’s not ready to be peopled. It’s a desolate waste. It’s not livable. What God accomplishes over the following six days of creation will make the earth a beautiful “biodome” for Adam and Eve. So let’s think about what it takes to turn a waste and void earth into a habitat for humanity.
Many of the resources humans depend on in order to thrive appear to have resulted from long processes—thousands or millions of years long. For instance, there are things like sandstone and other sedimentary rock, mountain ranges (which affect weather patterns and the water cycle), topsoil, coal, crude oil and other biodeposits. Keep in mind that I am not (here) putting these examples forth as evidence for an old earth per se; I am putting them forth as examples of things that could help Christians understand that God may have had reason to take a long time in preparing the earth for Adam and Eve. In this blog, I do not mean to ask whether the earth is old, but only to ask whether we can see any plausible reason an almighty and unlimited God would have to create the world over long ages (from our perspective) rather than all at once or in some other miraculously truncated period of time. Would doing so be no more than a waste of time, or might there be a case in which taking an extended period of time would be preferred, or even the only honest method?
To go back to my examples of topography, sedimentary rocks, fossil fuels, etc., let me just reiterate that these things, which we have in abundance today, by all accounts appear to be the results of very long, slow processes. Yet we need them to live, or at least to be able to launch and sustain advanced human civilization—or, to put it another way, to be capable of fulfilling God’s mandate to “fill the earth and subdue it” and “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” To have these resources in place on Day Six required either 1) an extended amount of time, or 2) a miraculous creation of a kind that would bring about prematurely what would under normal circumstances have taken a long, long time, and would appear to have done so. That is to say, the presence of these things tells a story about the past.
Young earth astronomer Jason Lisle has made the point that any attempt to calculate ages based on present-day observations requires assumptions be made about initial conditions. I concede that this must be the case. However, we may rightfully ask what assumptions are legitimate. Below is a picture of a palm tree outside my workplace.
Anyone who studies this tree for a few minutes would see that the trunk appears to be made up of layer after layer of the old bases of palm leaves. Now, I know nothing about palm trees. But this tree trunk tells a layman like me a clear story about the past. I feel certain just from looking at it that the trunk is made of layers that grew and broke off in stages as the palm tree got taller. The tree tells a story. There is no mistaking it. I have to wonder if God would create a tree instantaneously in this state. Honestly, I can hardly imagine that he would. To do so would be to create, along with the tree, an implied but false history where no history really existed. I find this a troubling idea. And, as we observed in other areas, God does not seem to skip the necessary steps when making anything that requires a succession of real causes. In other words, God does not seem to save himself time by immediately (i.e., apart of mediate causes) and instantaneously bringing about a thing which can otherwise only be the consequence of preceding events.
Creating a grown man (or a grown salamander) would necessarily not be like this. A grown man may conceivably be created whole and functioning without any signs of having aged to get to his current state, even if we know of no other instance in which a man has not aged. Maturity and signs of age are not always the same thing and may not always correspond. Topsoil and crude oil, however, cannot exist in any state that would not show signs of age, since each is by nature the result of the decay of previously living matter. And there are so many biodeposits we need in order to flourish! God could, I suppose, have created mountain ranges that did not show signs of age, but our mountain ranges do, as they are so obviously the result of plate tectonic activity (as most young earth geologists agree) and seemingly millions of years of it. These are just a couple examples.
In closing let me repeat the question. Is there any good reason we can think of that an omnipotent God would have taken long ages to create the world? I answer yes. This is because: a) there are features of the planet and its biosphere that would have required under normal conditions thousands or millions of years of prep time (including many thousand of generations of organic things living and dying); and b) some of these features are requisite for human habitation; c) God, who is timeless, may have decided to accomplish the preparation of these features without resorting to means which would bypass the necessary causes, because by doing it this way, d) God would avoid embedding within his handiwork a discernable and compelling story which was in fact false. For these reasons, God would not have been wasting his time in creating progressively over billions of earth years’ worth of time before finishing his creative work with the creation of humankind.
I actually believe that most of what I have said here is not very controversial. The controversy comes in because nature is not the only story-telling revelation God has left to us. He has also given us the Bible, which tells stories not in clues but in language. The debate comes in because there is a question over whether the Bible’s account puts a severe restraint on the age of the earth (or of the entire cosmos), limiting it to about ten thousand earth years’ worth of time. If so, it would take precedence over the apparent story told by nature, leaving us with two more difficult options. Either 1) that means we have a miraculous creation of a kind that would bring about prematurely what would under normal circumstances have taken a long, long time, and would appear to have done so; or 2) the scientific consensus is way, way off in all its reading of the facts and in reality the earth appears to be quite young—the features I mentioned being attributed to the catastrophic and (under this interpretation) globe-engulfing flood of Noah’s day. This latter interpretation is becoming more untenable over time. But these are not questions I will tackle today.
In an era where it is ever more important for Christians to lock arms in defense of a thoroughly Biblical worldview, why should I blog about this disagreement within the church? One reason is that I am a recovering young-earther, and so I have inherited the natural zeal of anyone who has ever made a major turn in their thinking about a big question. But more importantly, I think this is a question that the conservative Bible-believing church has to wrestle with for two important reasons. First, because truth matters—plain and simple. We need to seek the truth―and the evidence for an old world is weighty. Second, I think the question has somewhat urgent apologetic ramifications. I believe that in a hundred years, this question will be resolved (on the old-earth side), but that the transition will not be easy, as it was surprisingly difficult for the church to let go of the idea that the earth was literally fixed and unmoving. I think there is need for respectful and mutually sympathetic discussion between Bible-revering Christians on this matter and that too often the sides misunderstand each other or, unfortunately, even slander the other side (often “you’re compromisers” from young-earthers, or “you’re stupid” from old-earthers). This needs to end. In closing, I will mention that I was partially inspired to write this blog by the Creation Project of the Henry Center for Theological Understanding that is facilitating the very kind of discussion about this topic that I am eager to see. One public discussion that can serve as an example on how dialogue should be conducted was the debate between Albert Mohler and C. John Collins.