Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Theological implications of an old Earth: Doesn't Scripture have a voice?

When I began this blog, I planned to focus on topics in geology. More specifically, I aimed to clarify whether Answers in Genesis (AiG) offered a valid position on the geological history of the Earth. I have not hidden my position on the answer to this question: no, I do not believe that Flood geology offers a viable interpretation of the rock record. Of course, I will continue to elucidate my reasoning as I consider scientific propositions from AiG's article database, but I feel that I should restate my reasoning behind the focus on geology and at least take some opportunity to explain my theological position on what it means, as a Christian, to believe in an old Earth.

Why such a narrow approach to a broad controversy?

Simply put, I am a geologist by training and by practice. I am happy to discuss other topics (say, biology?) but I think it more appropriate to address questions to which I can speak with some experience. I don't perceive myself to be ignorant of the other sciences (biology, astronomy, history, archaeology) or of theology and Biblical interpretation, but as I've mentioned, I believe others have articulated my position far more eloquently than I could here. That being said, I feel it is still important to add a personal touch to this blog—namely, how does one approach Scripture while maintaining belief in an old Earth? So I will commit at least one post per month to answering this question. Below, I have articulated what I think is a key introductory question for both Christians and non-Christians.

Does it really matter what a Christian believes about the age of the Earth or the rock record?

No, but yes. (I'll come back to my answer) If you pose the same question to a researcher at AiG, the answer would be emphatically yes, and that the gospel is intimately connected to belief in a young Earth. Their reasoning is rooted in a defense of Scripture as God's word, which should not be compromised in the face of an external authority. Though I respect their starting point and admire their zeal, I sincerely believe their conclusions not only to be erroneous but potentially dangerous to evangelicalism. First, despite the majority position over the history of Christian thought, I do not believe a faithful interpretation of Scripture demands a young Earth. While I expect to expound on my claim in time, it is worth noting here that many Christians have maintained orthodoxy (i.e. presentation of the gospel without comprise; Biblical inerrancy; historicity of Genesis) while believing in an old Earth. Whether you agree with their hermeneutic, it would be unfair to claim that AiG offers the only distinctly Christian understanding of Genesis. Secondly, nobody is free from extrabiblical influence when interpreting Scripture (Genesis in particular). AiG regularly employs studies of grammar, history, archaeology, and even science, to refine their understanding of each verse (e.g., the meaning of the word 'firmament', or even 'day').

Third, and most importantly, I feel that AiG has produced a false dichotomy between 'young-Earth Christianity' and 'old-Earth naturalism'. So thorough is their association that most people can no longer separate the modifier from the respective belief. Moreover, any belief that falls on the 'middle-ground' is deemed rather hypocritical. But how is this dangerous? I would propose two scenarios (granted I am not the first to do so):

1) A young Christian is taught that faithful adherence to God's word informs us that the world is quite young (less than 10,000 years or so). The world was overcome by catastrophe and repopulated even more recently (4–6,000 years ago). Furthermore, the Christian is taught that science reveals vast evidences for this historical account, thereby offering positive reason to believe God's word. He/she is eager to explore the science behind these evidences and promptly chooses a related degree path. However, as the student progresses, he/she discovers that the evidence was never there—science does not support a young Earth. The student's faith is challenged and may even feel deceived by those in whom he/she confided spiritually. But the dichotomy has never left his/her mind and so two choices appear: "If science supports an old Earth, then Christianity must be false; but if I maintain my faith, then science must be mistaken." In rejecting one, he/she rejects the other; an awkward silence characterizes his/her life.

2) An unbeliever is met with the challenge of the gospel—perhaps an acquaintance has shared the message with them, or they have embarked on a self-motivated search for meaning—and come across the ministry of AiG. Immediately, he/she perceives that an acceptance of Christ would require him/her to believe what seemed more obviously false: that the world is less than 10,000 years old and a great Flood once rearranged the planet. The skeptic is unwilling to pursue the religious/philosophical issue further and feels certain that he/she has justifiably rejected Christianity. Though I would never advocate compromising the gospel to make it appear more attractive to unbelievers, one should consider the effect of AiG's dichotomy on non-Christians. Is this a necessary stumbling block?

Back to my answer.

I mean 'no' in the sense that I believe the age of the Earth, biological evolution, etc. are tertiary issues in Christianity. Though important, they are not fundamental to the principles of the gospel and should not be bound to the conscience of the believer (or potential believer).

I mean 'yes' in the sense that according to Christianity, humans are to be stewards of the Earth. Moreover, we are called to know God, both through His word and His creation. I believe that an honest application of our God-given tools of knowledge to His creation results in the discovery that Earth is far older than we had previously thought. No Christian should be scared of the truth, even when it challenges our traditional notions of God and His creation. Rather, we should rejoice, and be glad in it.

Theological implications of an old Earth

Perhaps you feel awkward, offended, or put off in some way by the possibility of belief in an old Earth. Maybe it is downright scary and makes you feel skeptical about God's word altogether? If so, I hope that you would bear with me as I continue posting, and especially that you would not hesitate to contact me about specific concerns you have. In the mean time, I will briefly address some common questions below.

How can I believe that the universe began billions of years before humans were ever on the scene? Don't such long ages diminish God's purpose in creation and redemption?

If you've asked this question before, then you are not alone. From personal experience, and discussion with friends, I know the thought experiment can be, well, daunting. The concept of "deep time" is difficult for most geologists to grasp, let alone for Christians trying to reconcile their faith with the word of academia. So to answer, I would direct you to the third question in the OPC's First Catechism for children, which reads: "Why did God make you and all things?"

How would you answer? Was he lonely, bored, or even cynical? I find the OPC's succinct answer to be most Biblical: "For His own glory." God's creation is not about us; it's about Him. While His relationship to mankind—covenants, providence over the nations, etc.—is integral to redemptive history, it is futile and foolish to question His methods of bringing about history (and prehistory). What is the point of cosmic history without mankind? The glory of God—learn it, love it, and praise Him for it.

I like to think of it this way. For much of the pre-modern era, humans believed the universe to be quite small, not extending far beyond our atmosphere and certainly not beyond our solar system (even the stars were perceived as no more distant than our sun). Technological advances in the late Middle Ages introduced a revolutionary notion: the universe is far bigger than we could imagine. Even in the 21st century, our universe continues to expand (perceptively, that is). But in discovering how tiny we and "our" planet really are, does our view of God likewise shrink? On the contrary, we are all the more amazed by Him Who framed it. So in discovering that time is equally large, and that "our history" is only a pixel of the big picture, how should we respond in our view of God?

Doesn't the creation account suggest there was no death before Adam's fall? Yet long ages contradict this notion.

Many authors have considered this question before (e.g. here, or here for a young-Earth perspective), and I would exhort you to consider the resources available. The notion that no death (including animal death) occurred before Adam's sin is rooted in three premises: 1) it contradicts the notion of a "good" creation; 2) death is the explicit consequence named for Adam's initial rebellion; 3) Genesis 1:29-30 commissions all the animals to have plants for their food.

With regard to the first point, I simply don't think God's description of creation as 'good' precludes animal death. The wisdom literature (especially the Psalms) conveys a deep sense of purpose behind the predator/prey relationship, and there is no sense that the natural death of animals is the result of corruption. When God's judgment against nations is described in poetic rhetoric, it is typically characterized by an 'undoing' of the universe's natural cycles (e.g., stars fall from the sky, the sun is darkened). Chaos in the natural order of animals (consider the plagues of Egypt) is thereby associated with uncreation. Returning to Genesis 1:29-30, God commissioned the beasts to eat plants, but it would be an argument from silence to interpret this as "plants alone for every animal." Rather, the author of Genesis has assigned a simple, generalized purpose for each tier of creation. Obviously, the description is not exhaustive (plants are not only meant to be eaten) so it is premature to exclude carnivorous activity from the original creation.

The young-Earth interpretation is further complicated by our own classification of the animal kingdom versus that of the ancient Hebrew. What constitutes an animal/beast? Are insects and krill shrimp included, and if so, what did small reptiles, bats, and whales eat? Furthermore, we understand today that plants are living organisms with reproductive cycles, digestive systems, etc. (we even share some DNA). Therefore, in our modern understanding of death, something died before the Fall, so how do we define the cutoff and why?

All previous points aside, the real question is theological. God promised Adam that he would die in the day that he ate of the fruit. Adam ate of the fruit, yet didn't die. Do we thus misunderstand the word "day" or the word "death"? Various commentators have argued for ambiguity in either terms: "day" refers to the post-Fall period; or "death" simply refers to a spiritual death, rather than physical. I would opt for neither, and suggest a more simple reading of the text. First, the uniqueness of Adam's death is not that it would represent the first case of a living organism ceasing to function (consider the microbes in Adam's digestive tract as he ate the fruit), but rather that it represented God's wrath for sin (Rom. 6:23). Adam entered into covenant with God, who demanded perfect obedience in the communicative state. When Adam forsook the covenant, man's relationship with God indeed changed as he became at enmity with God (call this "spiritual death"; Rom. 8:5-8), but we should not forget that a death did occur that day. "And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them." (Gen. 3:21) This is the most basic principle of the gospel, echoed also in Romans 6:23. Most importantly, it is not compromised in any way by an old-Earth understanding. Not only do we obtain a more consistent criteria of what constitutes "good" in creation—an intricate, functioning natural order—, but we also have a more precise understanding of God's covenant, wrath, and mercy.

Alright, maybe science suggests a old Earth, but there is no 'gap' in Genesis 1, and a day is a day!

I am happy to agree on these points. In short, I reject the 'Gap hypothesis' and 'Day-Age Theory' on basic exegetical grounds. The creation account is continuous and there is no reason to interpret the days in a purely metaphorical sense. At the same time, I reject the young-Earth interpretation on both scientific and exegetical grounds. Briefly stated, the seven-day structure of Genesis 1 breaks down the creative activity of God, who Himself made time. Thus the author is describing the work week of God. It makes no sense to argue over lengths of time, or physical frames of reference, when it comes to the individual days of Genesis 1. In doing so, we completely miss the point of the text and bind ourselves to unnecessary (and false) premises in our scientific investigation of the universe.

God uses the creation account as a model for our own work week (this one is obvious), but also for the Sabbath years and Jubliee. The analog is possible in all three cases if we take Genesis 1 to represent God's perspective. Otherwise, we are left to ponder silly (and unnecessary) questions like: "How could there be evening and morning (or plants) without the sun?", or "What was God doing on the eighth day?" Despite AiG's persistence to bind each day (and God Himself) to an Earthly timescale, a more parsimonious understanding of the text suggests that the specific chronology and age of the Earth are not addressed in Genesis 1.

So what is the point of Genesis 1 if not to chronicle the Earth's origin?

Quite simply, the author retells the story of creation to make a point about God and the universe; in other words, he uses a historic referential (the fact that the universe had a beginning and owes its existence to God) to make a theological point (there is one God responsible, and His creative work is complete) about the universe (all natural phenomena have a function and purpose; man is in covenant with God and accountable to Him). There are numerous references available that further explore the theological details of Genesis 1 without concern for nuclear processes, relativity, vapor canopies, and other anachronisms. Unfortunately, I did not have knowledge of such works when I first encountered the young-Earth position in my youth. While I plan to expound on this topic further, I would say now that more recently, I have found the exegesis of Answers in Genesis to be remarkably shallow, and often misguided. I hope that you would trust my recommendation to discover this for yourself.

Concluding remarks

I sincerely hope that if you are reading this as a young-Earth Christian, you would consider my reasoning and exhortation with comparable sincerity. Conversely, if you are a non-Christian that has associated Christianity with belief in a young-Earth, I hope that you would reconsider the connection. I look forward to expounding on more theological topics that arise from the question of Earth's age and history, and would appreciate any feedback or suggestions.

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