How Old Is the Earth?

One of the most common topics in faith/culture conversations these days is creation vs. evolution and, more particularly, the question of the age of the earth.  The recent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye has once again heightened interest in this subject as evidenced by several requests to us here at Shepherd Project to speak to this issue.  So, here goes:

First, let’s start by identifying the clear, non-debatable teachings of Genesis with regards to creation.  These are very important theological principles which often get overlooked in the midst of the creation/evolution debate:

1.  The universe was the result of an intentional act of creation

Perhaps the most important teaching from Genesis is that God made the universe on purpose.  The universe did not always exist and it did not pop into existence accidentally.  Rather, God determined to create the universe and then proceeded to make His plan a reality:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)

The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a figure of speech called a merismus which is simply a way of describing an entire package of things by naming the outside ends of that package.  When we say “I’ve been thinking about this night and day,” we’re using a merismus to say that we’ve been thinking about something all the time.  In the same way, the phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a statement that God made everything.  In other words, the universe that we know and love came into existence at some point because God decided to make it.

2.  The universe was made without the use of any pre-existing materials.

As you might imagine from understanding the first principle, Genesis also teaches that the universe was an entirely new thing.  It didn’t depend on pre-existing matter or material of any kind.  Rather, God brought it into existence purely by an act of will. 

This teaching is partly expressed by the particular verb form used to describe God’s initial creative activity.  The particular form of the Hebrew bara (to make) used in Gen 1:1 is rather unusual and only occurs in the Bible with God as the subject.  Where we find this term used in this form, it seems to imply God’s activity of creating something which had no prior existence of any sort (cf. Gen 1:27, 2:3, Psa 51:12, et al.).[1]  In theological terms, this is referred to as the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing).  This principle is also affirmed by various New Testament passages such as Mat 13:35, Eph 1:4, Heb 4:3, et al. which all speak of the “foundation of the world” and imply the origination of the creation by an act of will which called it into being rather than by the re-working of already-present materials.[2]

3.  The universe is distinct from God.

It is the clear teaching of Genesis that the universe is not God and that God cannot be found “in” the material universe itself.

Over the years, there have been theological systems which have suggested that God and the universe are intrinsically linked together so that they cannot be separated in any meaningful sense.  In broad terms this is the assertion of pantheism or panentheism.  More narrowly, this is the assertion of process theology (which holds that the universe is God’s means of evolving Himself).  Such ideas are clearly at odds with the teaching of Genesis that God existed prior to the universe and called it into being as an act of will.  God is able and willing to be present to His people in the creation, but He is not contained by the creation or essentially[3] affected by anything that happens in it.

While there are some other theological principles revealed by the Genesis account of creation, these three principles are the most important because they set the stage for any further discussion of this subject. These principles form the common ground on which all Christians must stand when discussing questions about the age of the earth and the proper interpretation of Genesis 1.  Anyone who denies these principles is not operating out of a Christian world-view and any view which does not cohere with these principles can be categorically rejected form consideration by believers. 

The Age of the Earth

Unfortunately, it is when we venture beyond these non-debatable theological principles that things get a bit fuzzier.  Obviously, one of the major points of discussion in this arena has to do with the age of the earth.  Is the earth only 10,000 – 20,000 years old as many Christians believe or is it the 4.5 billion+ years that naturalistic evolutionists assert? 

On the surface at least, Genesis 1 seems to speak of a relatively brief creation period consisting of 6 normal days of about 24 hours each.  Certainly the repeated use of the phrase “and there was evening and there was morning” after each of the “days” of creation in Genesis 1 naturally leads many readers to interpret these “days” as being solar-days of roughly 24 hours each.   This fact, combined with adding up the years given for the people listed in biblical genealogies has led some theologians like Ussher to estimate that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. While even very conservative Christians have recognized that there are evident gaps in the biblical genealogies and that this necessitates a revision of Ussher’s estimates, such revisions typically do not extend the estimate beyond 10,000 to 20,000 years.

Until recent developments in various scientific fields like geology or astronomy suggested otherwise, these “young” estimates of the age of the earth appear to have been widely (though not universally) accepted.  However, with geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, astronomers, etc. now asserting that the physical evidence does not fit with the idea of a “young” earth, Christians are faced with a new dilemma:  should we revise our understanding of Genesis 1 on the basis of this new scientific evidence or should we attempt to revise scientific understanding of the physical evidence and cling to the traditional understanding of Genesis 1?

Many conservative Christians feel strongly that the first option (revising our understanding of Genesis 1) is an unfaithful response which dangerously compromises the doctrines of biblical inspiration, inerrancy and authority.  Here at Shepherd Project, we agree that there are certainly some interpretive revisions (naturalist evolution, theistic evolution) which would compromise these essential doctrines.  However, it must also be noted that most Christians today believe certain scientific teachings that were once considered to be at odds with accepted biblical interpretation.  For instance, there are very few Christians today who believe that the earth is flat, in spite of the fact that the Bible speaks in poetic terms of the “four corners of the earth” (Rev 7:1) or that the earth is stationary while the sun revolves around it, even though the Bible uses the phrases “sunrise” and “sunset”.  In both of these instances, the simplest interpretation of the Biblical texts once led people to think of the physical world as being something other than what it actually is, and in both of these instances, scientific discovery led Christians to revise their interpretation of the Bible, forcing them to recognize the use of poetic or phenomenological language.  However, in neither of these cases did the revisions require the use of illogical or indefensible interpretive techniques to make the Bible “fit” the scientific evidence.  In other words, these revisions still followed basic, foundational rules of responsible biblical interpretation.

So, while there are certainly some revisions of our understanding of the Bible (see below) which constitute an unacceptable compromise, there is nothing inherently objectionable about allowing scientific discoveries to correct our previous misunderstandings of the Bible.  This is all the more acceptable when we recognize that good scientific investigation is really only an exploration of another repository of truth about God, one that theologians call General Revelation.[4] Since God is constant, faithful and true, revelation found in the Bible cannot contradict revelation found in nature.  However, there is an important difference between a revelation and our understanding of that revelation.  For a variety of reasons, we are quite capable of misunderstanding the truth being revealed to us, whether that revelation is found in nature or in the Bible.  Therefore, when we find that our interpretation of nature and the Bible contradict, one (or both) of those interpretations must be revised. 

But in the case of this question about the age of the earth, which interpretation is most likely to be in error?  This is an important question.  We must not abandon a correct interpretation of the Bible in order to accommodate to an incorrect interpretation of scientific evidence.  On the other hand, we should not refuse to abandon an incorrect interpretation of the Bible when two things are true:  1) the previous interpretation can no longer make a conclusive case for being correct and 2) there are alternate interpretations of the biblical evidence which obey the principles of responsible biblical interpretation.  But are those two conditions present in this question of the age of the earth? 

The attempt to reconcile the biblical teaching on the age of the earth with the scientific evidence has resulted in 6 basic approaches which we will now consider in turn.  It should be noted that the following theories are all faith-friendly to some extent; i.e. we are not here considering purely secular theories which deny any and all possibility of divine activity.

1.  Theistic Evolution Theory

In this view, the earth is billions of years old and life on earth has evolved from simple to complex organisms over this long period of time, but this process was initiated by God and has, perhaps, been adjusted at various points by divine intervention (creation of the first single-celled organism, the Cambrian explosion, development of human beings, etc.).

In most respects, theistic evolution follows the assertions of naturalistic evolution, trusting to time and chance to explain most of the features of the world we now observe.  God’s involvement is very limited and, in most versions of the theory, does not reveal any purpose or essential meaning for human life.  For this reason alone, theistic evolution is not a viable candidate for reconciling the biblical data with the scientific evidence. 

Beyond the denial of God’s regular and intimate involvement with His creation – a clear biblical teaching – it is difficult to reconcile theistic evolution with the biblical teaching that God created all living things according to their “kinds”:  Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so (Gen 1:24). Though there is considerable debate about what, precisely, is entailed by the creation of various “kinds”[5] of living things, it is clear that the term speaks to fixed barriers between categories of living things; thus a cat is not a dog, a horse is not an elephant, etc.  The assertion that all living creatures evolved from a common ancestor cannot be reconciled with the biblical teaching of distinct “kinds” of creatures.

2.  Flood Theory

According to this view, the earth is not as old as it appears and the various features which give it the appearance of great age (geological layers, fossils, etc.) are the result of the unique physical processes that were in operation during the great flood described in Genesis 6-9.  Various groups like Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research have done considerable work in this area, providing alternative theories to explain various scientific observations that do not depend on an old earth viewpoint.

 While many scientists, both secular and Christian, are skeptical that a world-wide flood can satisfactorily account for all of the earth’s geological features, the flood theory cannot be considered unscientific.  It is often dismissed without consideration because it posits a world-wide flood which the Bible describes as having been caused by God.  For this reason, many people dismiss the theory as being unscientific, but this is a presuppositional mistake.  From a practical standpoint, the Flood Theory does not depend upon miraculous intervention but only argues that the geological features which have been interpreted as evidence of the earth’s old age may in fact be evidence of other natural processes present during a cataclysmic flood.

 Advocates of the Flood Theory also point to numerous anachronisms in the geological layers and fossil record (e.g. fossils that cut through multiple geological layers that were supposed to have been laid down over millions of years, fossils in the “wrong” layers, etc.), suggesting that these anomalies call into question the accuracy of scientific estimates of the earth’s age.

 In essence, advocates of the Flood Theory hold that the scientific data has been misinterpreted and cling to the traditional understanding of Genesis 1 and the implications of this reading for a belief in a young earth.  Clearly, this theory is biblical as it depends on solid principles of interpretation.  The question is not whether or not this theory is biblical but whether or not it is a) the best interpretation of the biblical evidence and b) able to adequately re-interpret the observations which have led so many modern scientists to believe that the world is old.

3.  Gap Theory

The Gap Theory attempts to reconcile the scientific evidence for an old earth with the biblical evidence that has traditionally been taken to point towards a young earth by positing a “gap” in the biblical record between Gen 1:1 and 1:2:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

[gap – millions or even billions of years]

 2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.

In essence, the Gap Theory argues that God initially created the material universe (Gen 1:1) which fell into disorder – possibly because of the Satanic rebellion – and then languished for a considerable period of time before God restored it (Gen 1:2).  The period of time during which the creation was in disorder and chaos is then thought to account for the physical evidence of an old earth; in point of fact, the earth is old…just not in its current configuration.

While the Gap Theory cannot be dismissed as inherently un-biblical, it has largely fallen out of favor among Christians because it does not stand up well to careful biblical scrutiny.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Gap Theory was relatively popular  but this popularity was, at least in part, due to translations of Genesis which rendered the verb hayah in Gen 1:2 as “became” (“and the earth became without form”) rather than “was” (“and the earth was without form”) as nearly all translators now agree is proper.[6]  Most modern commentators understand Gen 1:1 to constitute an overview statement of the entire act of creation and Gen 1:2 to begin a more detailed account of that creative process, similar to the way that Gen 2 seems to “zoom in” to give additional details about the creation of human begins which was described only in very general terms in Gen 1:26-28.  The idea that there is a temporal “gap” between Gen 1:1 and 1:2 does not seem to fit the structural or theological flow of the creation account in Genesis.

4.  Ideal Time Theory

In this view, God is thought to have created the universe a short time ago, but in a mature state, thus giving it the appearance of great age.  Contrary to the dispersion of some detractors who say that this view requires God to have orchestrated a “hoax”, the Ideal Time Theory says that the universe had to have been in a mature state in order to sustain life.  Therefore God did not intend to “trick” anyone into thinking the universe was older than it actually is but rather simply made the universe in the state that it needed to be in order to accomplish His purposes.  Advocates of this theory often point to the fact that Genesis depicts Adam and Eve as having been formed in a mature state rather than as infants.  As the theory goes, if humans were made in this state, then why should we be skeptical of the idea that others parts of the creation were also made in a mature state?

The Ideal Time Theory may well account for certain lines of physical evidence.  For instance, this view could explain why the light from a star that is millions of light-years away is visible on earth even though there should not have been enough time (in a young-earth viewpoint) for the light to travel here.  The primary difficulty with the Ideal Time Theory emerges when it is used by some to say that God “planted” fossils or geological layers.  Since these features are not really necessary to sustain physical processes necessary for life, it is difficult to understand why God would have placed them in the record; that is, there seems to be a significant difference between creating something in a mature state and creating it with evidences of age.  However, if this unwarranted extension of the theory is avoided, the Ideal Time Theory may be combined with other views such as the Flood Theory to account for additional physical evidences (e.g. the Flood Theory cannot explain why light from distant stars has reached us, but it may account for the geological layers while the Ideal Time Theory cannot account for the geological layers but may account for the starlight).

5.  Day Age Theory

In this view, the “days” of Genesis are understood to be periods of time much longer than 24 hours.  Pointing to the presence of the phrase “evening and morning” in Genesis 1 prior to the stated creation of the sun, advocates of this theory assert that there is considerable figurative language in Genesis and interpret the word “day” (Hebrew:  yōm) accordingly; i.e. as a figurative reference to a period of time with a distinct beginning and ending defined by God’s creative activity during that era rather than to a solar cycle.  Therefore, proponents of the Day Age Theory hold that the universe and earth may be considerably older than the 10,000 – 20,000 accepted by young earth believers.

While the Day Age Theory is often attacked by young earth believers as being a capitulation to secular science, the theory rests on plausible biblical grounds.  In addition to the issue with figurative language in Genesis mentioned above, there is the fact that yōm occurs in Gen 2:4 (literally:  this is the account of the heavens and the earth on the day when they were made…) clearly referring to the entirety of the God’s creative activity.  If the term is used in Gen 2:4 to refer to a non-solar day period, then there is plausible reason to think that the other nearby uses of the term might follow a similar pattern.  Other arguments for the days of Genesis 1 actually being ages of time depend on things like the fact that God said “let the land produce vegetation” rather than “let there be vegetation upon the earth.  Day Age advocates argue that this phrasing (supported by the form of the original Hebrew) implies an iterative process rather than a directly created state of being; i.e. God made the grass which grew up and went to seed which was then gradually spread over the whole earth; following this process, it would have taken more than 24 hours for grass to be propagated over the whole earth).

The Day Age Theory may account for many of the physical evidences that suggest the earth is older than 10,000 – 20,000 years.  However, the Day Age Theory runs into some difficulty in attempting to explain evidences of death during these ages.  Traditional Christian doctrine has held that there was no animal death prior to Adam and Eve’s fall, but if the geological layers were deposited during long “ages” of creation, the presence of fossils in these layers would seem to imply that death was occurring during these ages as well.  Day Age theorists typically deal with this issue in one of two ways:  either they assert that death was part of the animal world (but not the human world) before sin or they combine the Day Age Theory with the Flood Theory and assert that such fossils are the result of the Flood rather than death during the “ages” of creation.

6.  Pictorial Day Theory

In this view, the various acts of creation described in Genesis 1 are connected to one another logically rather than chronologically.  In other words, advocates of the Pictorial Day Theory hold that Genesis 1 is not attempting to give a scientific description of the creation and no attempt should be made to reconcile it with scientific observations. 

While the Pictorial Day Theory seems at first glance to be a rather startling departure from traditional interpretation of Genesis 1, it is not without interpretive support.  There are clear parallels between the first three days of Genesis 1 and the last three:  on the 1st day, God created day and night – on the 4th day He made the great light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night; on the 2nd day God created the “waters” above and below – on the 5th day He filled sky (waters above) with birds and the seas (waters below) with fish; on the 3rd day God created dry ground with plants – on the 6th day He filled the land with animals.  Such observations have led some Christian theologians to believe that Genesis 1 is intended to be a poetic statement of God’s creative activity rather than a technical or chronological account.  Most Pictorial Day theorists assume that the earth is old, though this is by no means required by the Pictorial Day theory itself.

Those who dismiss the Pictorial Day Theory as being unbiblical often do so on the assumption that the admission of such broadly figurative/symbolic descriptions in Genesis 1 must necessarily render the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 non-literal as well.  And to be fair, those who hold to the Pictorial Day Theory have often read Genesis 3 as a non-historical account as well.  However, there is no particular reason why a broadly figurative reading of Genesis 1 requires an extension of that interpretive lens into the subsequent chapters, particularly since the literary features of the subsequent chapters are demonstrably different from those of chapter 1.  One can adopt a Pictorial Day reading of Genesis 1 yet still hold to a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2.


So, which of these theories is right? 

Is the earth old or young? 

Is the Bible right or is science?  On this issue at least, there is a clear answer:  the Bible will never be wrong and science right.  But of course, there is sometimes a difference between what the Bible teaches and what we think the Bible teaches.

So does the Bible teach that the earth is old or young?

In my opinion, it is arrogant – and unwarranted – to be dogmatic about the answer to this question, especially when differing positions can both lay claim to having followed responsible rules of biblical interpretation. 

While there are some theories which must be dismissed because they cannot be reconciled with the Biblical evidence (naturalistic evolution, theistic evolution), there are other theories which cannot so easily be ruled fully right or fully wrong.  Of course, this does not mean that they are all equally right, though some can be combined together…it simply means that we may not have enough evidence to settle the question conclusively.  As with other doctrines like the Trinity or the Hypostatic Union (Christ’s two natures brought together in the one person of Jesus), the Bible gives us some clear boundaries inside which we must keep our theology of creation if we want to be biblical, but it does not give us so much information that there is no uncertainty within those boundaries.  For this reason, I very much appreciate Wayne Grudem’s remarks on this subject:

The possibility must be left open that God has chosen not to give us enough information to come to a clear decision on this question and the real test of faithfulness to Him may be the degree to which we can act charitably toward those who in good conscience and a full belief in God’s Word hold to a different position on this matter.

(Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, p. 139)

[1] The term here is in the Qal stem.  In the Qal and Niphal stems, bara is only used of God and never appears with an accusative denoting material that was re-fashioned into the target thing (i.e. molding or re-working).  While some poetic uses of this term that parallel the idea of fashioning (Isa 43:1, Amos 4:13, et al.) necessitate caution in placing too much weight on the theological significance of these forms, there does seem to be a clear tendency to use these terms in a way that supports the notion of creation ex nihilo (i.e. out of nothing).

[2] The Greek term ktizō functions similarly to the Hebrew bara, implying origination rather than re-working.

[3] We are speaking here of ontology.  God is unaffected ontologically by anything which happens in or to the creation, but this does not preclude the idea that He may be deeply affected emotionally by things happening in or to the creation.

[4] General Revelation is understood to be truth about God that He has made available in raw material that is accessible to all people at all times and places.  Such raw material is primarily to be found in the nature of the creation. General Revelation is the counterpart of Particular Revelation which is truth about God that He has made available in material that is available only to particular sub-sets of humanity at particular times and places.  Such particular material includes the Bible, history and other revelations like dreams, visions, etc.

[5] The Hebrew word here is min.  It is often thought to refer to what we today call species, but this is difficult to establish.  First, the term species itself is imprecise, sometimes referring genetic distinctions (e.g. cats and dogs) and sometimes to reproductive isolation (e.g. dogs and wolves, which, though genetically similar enough to cross-breed are typically reproductively isolated in the wild).  Consequently, attempting to associate an unclear Hebrew term with an unclear English term is unwise.  Second…

[6] Hebrew verbs do not have a clear “tense” aspect to them in the way that English readers expect.  Past, present and future are typically determined from context rather than the form of the verb itself.