Do We Really Need a Young Earth for Genesis to be True?
Spoiler: No. If that’s all you needed, fine. You may go in peace, knowing that the age of the earth is not as important as many on both sides of the fence often make it out to be. You can hold to an old earth view (the earth has been around for a few billion years) rather than a young earth view (it’s no more than 10,000 years old) and still be Bible-believing Christian. (Yes, it is a little annoying that I have to write “Bible-believing” before “Christian”. One would think that’s a little redundant.)
Let’s make sure that we are all on the same page regarding what is at stake here. There are various doctrines essential to Christianity that fall apart if the core of Genesis is not true. Some of those doctrines are:
The doctrine of creation – God created the heavens and the earth ex nihilo.
The doctrine of human nature – mankind (male and female) were made in God’s image.
The doctrine of the fall – Adam sinned and has passed on that sin nature to all of mankind.
These doctrines are each introduced in the first three chapters of Genesis. Genesis was placed at the beginning of the Old Testament, not just because it outlines the beginning of humanity, but because it sets the stage for everything that follows. Any interpretation of Genesis that does not preserve at least these three doctrines runs the very real risk of rendering the rest of the Bible irrelevant. After all, if God is not the supreme creator, was there one, who was it, and why don’t we worship that creator instead? If mankind isn’t fundamentally different from the rest of the animals in some way, what makes us so special, if anything? But most of all, if mankind isn’t broken, what makes us think it needs fixing? If there is no fall, there’s no need for a redeemer to pick us back up, and the entire Gospel is merely a very well told story that has no value beyond noble aspirations.
Let’s take a look at a few of the assumptions regarding the evidence for the age of the earth. I think once we look at them a little closer, we’ll be in a better position to determine what the evidence actually requires us to believe and what is a bit more of a stretch.
Assumption #1: The only reason for an old earth/young earth is to allow/disallow for Darwinian evolution.
I am sure that for some that might be the case. I am also sure that for many that is not the case. I know many that reject a young earth precisely because it disallows for Darwinian evolution. I also know many that reject an old earth only because it allows for Darwinian evolution. However, there are several scientists that absolutely deny Darwinian evolution that still hold that the universe and the earth are much older than young earth creationism allows. The reason for accepting an old earth and rejecting evolution is simply that the evidence presented seems to justify an old earth view and does not justify evolution. We’ve got to keep in mind that even if there are people that have ideological reasons for their beliefs, we are all best off if we follow the evidence to the most likely conclusion. We can determine that the evidence is insufficient to go one way or the other and more evidence is needed to reach a conclusion, but to reject one model or another simply because we do not like the implications is intellectually dishonest. I don’t think we want to do that.
Assumption #2: The universe seems to be really old.
I mean really old. Like billions of years old. Since I am not a scientist (most of us aren’t, do you don’t get to hold that against me), I have to defer to what scientists say. Many hold that the earth itself is at least 4.5 billion years old, but there are a few scientists of the young earth variety that offer explanations for why the earth is actually no more than 10,000 years old. To be honest, I think both sides could be right. I’m familiar with the evidence from the Mt. Saint Helens eruption that resulted in lots of animals being buried and fossilized such that they appear no older than a lot of the fossils we dig up today. This renders explanations that require fossilization to be a long process as clearly mistaken. At the same time, it seems equally plausible that some geological strata really are very old. Neither side has landed a knockout blow that makes the other side seem impossible.
However, once we get off of planet earth, the evidence leans in one direction almost exclusively. Star light really is a problem for young earth advocates. The stars in the universe really do seem to be very far away, much farther than is necessary for the purposes for which the biblical text dictates (for tracking time). That is not to say the young earth view is impossible. I’m aware of two explanations for this problem. The first is that God created the star light in transit (as if it had already traveled the millions of light years it appears to have) in order to be visible on earth and therefore serve its intended purpose. That strikes me as a bit ad hoc since we really don’t need that many stars to do so. There might be some other reason related to physics which I am unaware of, but I haven’t found any astrophysicists that have offered much insight as to why X number stars must be visible on earth. (Admittedly, it’s a weird question.) The second explanation is that very early on in the universe light traveled much faster than it does now. We measure stellar distances in light years (how far light travels in a year). The standard view is that light travels at a constant speed, but time stretches as we approach the speed of light. However, it is possible that, rather than time stretching, light once moved faster? After all, black holes have enough gravity that they can bring light to a full stop. If light can be slowed down, isn’t it at least possible for light to be sped up? It seems at least possible, but I am unaware of a mechanism for doing so or any models that would speed light up so much that the apparent distances and related times are off by a factor of a million. Based on the available evidence, the universe appears to be really, really old.
Assumption #3: Death always means the same thing.
One argument that young earth advocates often use is that death entered the world through Adam.
And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16-17
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and thus death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned . . . Romans 5:12
The argument is that if death entered the world through Adam, then no animals would have died before Adam sinned. If we’re all talking about death in the same sense, then this is a reasonable assumption. However, there are two reasons within scripture itself to think this is not necessarily the case.
First, in the Genesis account, it explicitly states that “in the day you eat of it [sin by eating the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die.” In the following chapter, Adam knowingly eats the fruit Eve gives him (while she was deceived by the serpent, Adam knew better and did it anyway – idiot), sinning against God. If “die” in Genesis 2:17 means physical death, Adam should have physically died that day. He did not. Instead, he is cast out of the Garden of Eden and goes on to have children and live 930 years (Genesis 5:5). We can debate Adams age in another post, but let’s be clear, for our purposes here, Adam did not physically die on the day he sinned. This implies rather strongly that the death described in Genesis 2 is not physical death.
As an aside, one might ask a rather simple but easily overlooked question. If God tells Adam, “You will die if you eat the fruit,” and Adam has never seen death of any sort, isn’t he going to ask God, “What do you mean by die? What is that?” It seems reasonable to think that Adam had some conception of death. If he didn’t, it would have been pretty difficult for him to understand the gravity of the punishment for disobedience. However, if Adam was familiar with animal death, he would have had an example of what God was talking about. Which leads us to . . .
The second scriptural reason to think physical death was not what was in mind is that the limits to which sin and death reach for the purposes of Romans seems to not mention animals at all. Sin entered (bringing death) by Adam and this spread explicitly to all men. There is no mention of animals whatsoever. Sin is the reason why men die. This is why Jesus, a sinless man, was not required to die, but rather why His death could be applied to the rest of humanity. It is not in the nature of men to die, but only sinful men (which, unfortunately, applies to all the rest of us schlubs.) Animals, as far as I am aware, are not under the curse of Adam and do not sin. What makes us think that the reason they die is because of the sin of Adam? Isn’t it possible that, due to their very different natures, there might be a different reason why they die? Different natures have different requirements and to impose human requirements on things that aren’t human seems wrong-headed.
Assumption #4: Genesis 1:2-31 describe Genesis 1:1
This gets a little complicated, but stick with me. I admit this is conjecture, but given what we have to work with, that might be the best we get before we exit this life. The Bible starts with the following:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Many take Genesis 1:2-31 to be an explanation in detail regarding what God did in Genesis 1:1, explaining how God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1 is the topic sentence and Genesis 1:2-31 are the supporting sentences (your welcome, grammar geeks). However, it is possible that these are referring to two separate events. Genesis 1:1 may refer to the creation of the universe as a whole, including earth. Genesis 1:2-31 refer to God essentially refurbishing the earth so that it is suitable for human habitation. Why might I take this to be the case?
First, ancient Hebrew is not an easy language to translate. We often interpret the Bible using our understanding when we should be using the understanding of the original author and audience. It’s entirely possible that the standard young earth interpretation isn’t the one Moses had in mind but simply didn’t have the language to convey. Heck, Moses didn’t even have a word for “grandchildren”, but such things clearly existed. Just because the author didn’t make things completely clear to our modern sensibilities doesn’t mean the original audience wouldn’t have caught it. We need to be open to possibilities unless we’ve got reason not to.
Second, clearly, something did exist before God started the six days of creation. While it does say “the earth was without form and void”, this may have been one of those conventions mentioned above. Some Hebrew scholars believe this may be an expression that refers to a chaotic state rather than actually having no shape and containing absolutely nothing. The reason is that if the earth really had no shape and contained nothing, there would be no “face of the deep.” Objects and shapes have faces (like the faces on a pair of dice, or the face of a playing card), and the earth had a face. Not only did it have a face, but the Spirit of God hovered “over the face of the waters.” Some translators read that as “surface of the waters.” Objects have surfaces, and the waters of the earth had one. This implies that the earth already existed prior to God starting the six days of creation. One could call this an “old earth/young Eden” view.
Now, one is likely to ask, “Why didn’t God tell us what happened before that?” That’s a fair question. I’m curious myself. However, our curiosity provides no obligation to give answers. Ultimately, the author of Genesis is telling the story of God’s relationship with mankind. What happened on earth prior to humanity’s arrival is entirely irrelevant to that story. Would it be nice to know? Sure. Does it all matter to the story of humanity and God’s redemptive plan? Nope. For that story, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Genesis and the rest of the Bible address something far more important.
Assumption #5: Without Adam and Eve, there is no sin.
This assumption is actually pretty spot on. If Adam did not fail, then there’s no fundamental fallen nature to the rest of humanity and sin might not be a problem for us all. However, there are two assumptions that often follow this one.
The first is that Adam and Eve were real and therefore the young earth view is correct. The second is that if the earth is really old, then Adam and Eve didn’t exist. I don’t see how either of these follow at all. Adam and Eve very easily could have been created in the Garden of Eden as described in Genesis 2 within the last 10,000 years even if the earth and universe are otherwise several billion years old. Adam and Eve were created by God during the six days of creation, whether or not that is under a young earth view or the old earth. How long the earth existed prior to humanity seems entirely irrelevant to the origin and identity of the first man and woman.
What is the upshot of all this?
This old earth/young Eden view has some advantages that the young earth view and a more traditional old earth view do not. The biggest among them is the believer to follow the evidence where ever it leads with much less cognitive dissonance than either of the more widely held views. (Cognitive dissonance = “That idea does not fit with my otherwise well thought out and considered beliefs.”) Let me give a few examples:
When did the dinosaurs exist? Under a young earth view, they must exist alongside humanity, but under a traditional old earth view, they existed prior to humanity. Under the old earth/young Eden, it doesn’t matter – they can be believed to exist whenever the evidence suggests, and it won’t change the theology at all
Were the six days of creation literal 24-hour days? I think so, but that’s based on the nature of what happened during those days. However, if sufficient evidence shows that those days were longer periods of time and the “day” that is mentioned is a literary device or something else, that doesn’t affect the old earth/young Eden view at all. Until Adam and Eve show up, how long is a “day” strikes me as a very secondary issue at best.
Was the great flood of Noah really covering the whole earth? Under the young earth view, absolutely. Under a traditional old earth view, it was a regional flood. If the purpose of the flood was to judge all of humanity (except Noah and his family), then the flood only would have needed to cover all the places humans had gotten to (remember – humans sinned, not animals). A regional flood could work. However, if the evidence suggests a world-wide flood, that’s fine. Under the old earth/young Eden, it doesn’t matter – as long as all the humans die, it doesn’t change the theology at all.
While it preserves the crux of the issue (God created Adam and Eve in paradise relatively recently), it considers the apparent age of the earth and the universe to be real rather than illusory or mistaken. This is not because we are committed to a story, but because those that have come before us and were in a better position to do so affirmed Adam and Eve and their fall from grace. Similarly, the old earth/young Eden view does not accept the old earth due to a desire to give evolution time to work but out of a recognition that, at least for now, the evidence for an old earth seems quite a bit more plausible than a young one. This view allows a believer to on the one hand accept all that the Bible presents as fact without reactively dismissing evidence from science. After all, what happened to the earth before humans showed up isn’t what the story is about. It’s about what God has done to show love, mercy and grace to humanity as his crowning achievement in this world.