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

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Appearance of age or true age? Better yet—what's the difference?

For many a Christian struggling with the implications of an old universe, the challenges of modern science, or for those who simply seek to dismiss both out of hand, an appeal to 'appearance of age' in the cosmos commonly brings comfort (e.g. here). If Jesus could conjure a beverage with the appearance that it was finely aged; if God made man as a fully functioning human adult; if our very solar system was built in working order—how then can we use modern science to challenge the plain cosmology set out in the early chapters of Genesis?

Cosmology and vinification

Let's consider the first example. Why should a universe that 'looks old' falsify the young-Earth paradigm any more than the wedding guests at Cana should have doubted the miraculous work of Jesus? One might say: "The very appearance of age rather established the divinity of the messianic task!" Simplistic—yes. But I cannot argue with the basic premise that God's work could indeed bear the appearance of age.

On the other hand, John's account represents a highly theological retelling of the events at Cana. "On the third day," he begins, thereby linking the narrative to the resurrection story. To further drive this point, he follows with Mary's plea and a cryptic—and seemingly out of character—response by Jesus: "Woman, what does this have to do with us? My time is not yet come!" As such, the story is thoroughly eschatological, pointing forward to a much greater wedding feast that begins at the resurrection. There, God's people will understand that He has saved the best for last (cf. John 2:10).

I am skeptical, therefore, of the systematic theological method by which analogy is drawn between Jesus' miraculous, revelatory act of grace and the very formation of the cosmos. Are we not reading this backwards? Should we not begin at the story of God's creation, and trace the theme of new creation canonically (cf. Genesis 1; John 1) so as to understand Jesus' entire ministry as a divine act of creation? If not, then we shall miss the grander points of the gospel narrative. But if so, then those who would compare the history of the wine to that of the cosmos stand on shaky, exegetical ground.

Matthew's gospel is equally explicit regarding Jesus and his ministry, and this pattern of thought should guide our reasoning. He begins with "The Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ..." (Matt. 1:1), and then chronicles the six days of Israel's creation by capturing her covenant history within 42 generations (6 intervals of 7 generations each). Jesus—as the pinnacle of the sixth "day" who would also inaugurate the Sabbath rest of God—is identified intertextually as the new Adam, and his coming signifies new creation. God is moving once again on behalf of his people, advancing them toward the utopian portrait that is the Garden of Eden, and the 'very good' creation of Genesis 1—itself a cosmic temple in which we should all hope to worship.

The art of silence

Any argument that God's creation ex nihilo (Gen. 1–2) warrants an appeal to the appearance of age is ultimately one from silence. The 'maturation' of man, beast, earth, and heavenly host is neither described nor implied. Rather, its presence or absence is inferred by 1) an appeal to extrabiblical evidence, or 2) the literary reduction of Genesis 1–3 to a monological narrative, respectively. In the latter case, the reader demands that the hexaemeron correspond to six days in earth history and be taken as a "God's-eye view" of prehistoric events. Only then may we use Genesis 1 to formulate scientific hypotheses, or to differentiate between real and apparent history.

Though well intentioned and articulated, this hermeneutical principle runs contrary to early Jewish thought, as well as various Christian commentators from Augustine to Warfield and beyond. I don't think it inappropriate, therefore, to examine its merit critically. Despite its ostensibly pious view of the text, for example, this approach tends to project a very Greek and highly nuanced view of history, narrative, and discourse back onto an ancient Hebrew script. In the next post, I will expand on this critique and explore Genesis as literature. Until then, suffice it to say that I believe the young-Earth deference to 'appearance of age' owes more to tradition than to the words of scripture.

Where Answers in Genesis gets it right

Following the lead of George McCready Price, Henry Morris, and others, 'creation science' ministries like Answers in Genesis work on the principle that science can accurately describe history as explicated in scripture. Young-Earth geologists like Andrew Snelling and Steve Austin believe that evidence for Noah's flood is abundant in the geologic column. Michael Oard reconstructs the post-Flood ice age from glacial geomorphology. Physicists Russell Humphreys and Jason Lisle assert that astronomical data correspond to a complex—but recent—formation of the universe by appealing to time dilation and relativity. What do all these names have in common with each other and with myself? All believe that science, faithfully applied, may reveal to us the mysteries of God's creation—in history and today—thereby bringing Him glory.

As a Christian, I commend their approach. "The heavens declare the glory of God," says the Psalmist, and God's people say "Amen". Thus the folks at Answers in Genesis believe that science—as a method of understanding natural phenomena—should be able to answer how this truth plays out in practice. Insofar as parts of the universe were made with an appearance of age, however, even creation scientists must acknowledge that these phenomena are removed from scientific inquiry by definition. [And no, not merely by the confines of materialistic naturalism. One need not reject divine providence to deem such questions 'unscientific', though a consignment of all unscientific claims to untruth, irrationality, or meaninglessness constitutes an erroneous, philosophical naïveté in itself, called scientism, which is the extreme outworking of logical positivism.]

Unfortunately, my agreement with the young-Earth creationist ends with this basic principle. As a scientist, I cannot maintain intellectual honesty while affirming that the Earth is young and was subjected to a global catastrophe some 5,000 years ago. Not only is the evidence missing, but overwhelming evidence stands against it. The methodology of creation scientists, moreover, is fundamentally flawed and unscientific. In almost every case, the conclusion is known in advance and used to paint the data accordingly. Lastly, numerous claims of creation scientists have been documented as false, leaving one to speculate whether they are made disingenuously or simply out of ignorance. I pray for the latter.

A diluvial dilemma

For the sake of argument, assume that Genesis 1 does describe a fiat, ex nihilo, more or less instantaneous creation of the heavens and the earth in recent history. A geologist/astronomer in Adam's company might conclude erroneously that the universe had been around for eons, and he/she could use the scientific method to establish his case. This scenario, I get—an appeal to appearance of age would be valid for those in Adam's day. It is impossible to escape, however, the effect of Noah's deluge on an apparently old world—especially for the literalist. Global catastrophes tend to leave a mark and would effectively reset the evidential 'clock'.

Are we to argue, then, that God made it appear as though such a flood never occurred? Keep in mind that geology as a scientific discipline was born out of the hypothesis that Noah's flood could explain geological strata, especially marine sedimentary rocks found in continental settings (e.g. the Alps). The past 350 years of geological investigation have thoroughly falsified this notion, however, and recent attempts to defend it have been deemed intellectually dishonest, even by the majority of Christian researchers.

The catastrophic deluge of Noah thus creates an insurmountable challenge to those who claim that an appearance of age can save the young-earth paradigm. One may respond by rationalizing or by qualifying the nature of evidence, but such would ultimately call God's redemptive work into question. In the wilderness, Moses exhorted Israel to faithfulness by appealing to God's wondrous acts in Egypt. These events were not hidden from sight or done by magical/mythical creatures—by and large, the plagues were rather extraordinary, 'natural' events, visible by all. The New Testament appeal to evidence and witness in the case of the resurrection is equally vital, if not more so. Can we reduce the resurrection to docetism, claiming that Jesus only appeared to have risen before those so desperate to find him alive? From a historical-critical standpoint: no. From a theological standpoint: absolutely not.

Case in point

I was inspired to write this post after reading part of an online discussion found here. The pseudonymous blogger TurretinFan offered five responses to the charge that God knowingly created the universe to look old, despite the fact that it would draw people away from him. I do not intend to offer an exhaustive response to a conversation in which I had no part, but several points are highly relevant to this discussion.

"First, possibly God specifically made the world to look old so that many people would not believe in God."

This raises a more basic question: why should an old-looking universe cause people not to believe in God? The premise only works if God is inextricably tied to a story that is obviously contrary to the facts (i.e. Young-Earth Creationism). Deeper motivations are at work in the one that would use this excuse to reject God. Granted, a young-looking earth with a still-standing Noah's ark might strain the skeptic's rationalization for his/her unbelief, but our hearts are factories of idols.

"Perhaps an old-looking universe is more comfortable... After all, a new-looking universe would be extremely hot, using contemporary scientific models for what constitutes appearance of youth in universes."

This statement—hypothetical as it may be—begs the question, since what "constitutes appearance of youth" is based on physical laws applicable to this universe. A young-looking universe need not be "uncomfortable" if an omnipotent God were behind its nature and origin.

"God could have made people more heat resistant and still made the universe look younger.  But then again, perhaps in this scenario, the heat resistance would have led an equal number of people from God.  This is all just speculation, of course - but since the question calls for speculation, why not speculate?"

I am at a loss for words, so I will use someone else's: complexity should not be posited without necessity. I understand that TurretinFan is trying to justify his agnosticism with regard to the implications of an old-looking universe, but saying nothing with few words is probably better than saying nothing with many words. All this never to consider the possibility that his interpretation of Genesis could be mistaken?

"...people turned away from God even before modern cosmologies began claiming that the world was 13 billion years old.  So, the apparent age of the Earth may simply be an excuse of contemporary atheists and agnostics rather than the actual reason."

I am citing this point because I absolutely agree.

"...the idea that the world "looks" old is largely subjective.  It depends on the presuppositions that one brings to the table."

Although presuppositions are involved in the philosophy of science, TurretinFan misuses the term 'subjective' here. The age of the earth (and subsequent geological phenomena) derives from an objective analytical method with strictly defined criteria. By objective, I don't mean 'neutral' or without bias, but rather "relating to a phenomenon within the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers" (Merriam-Webster). Consequently, the conventional (i.e. accepted by scientists) age of the earth is also subject to change. Historical propositions for the age of the earth have been revised because model assumptions were falsified or because new data became available—not because researchers' existential perceptions changed with respect to these data (i.e. subjective analysis).

While the natural sciences do employ methodological naturalism, this principle is not relevant or applicable to all forms of knowledge. It is not only possible, therefore, to apply the scientific method while affirming the providential work of God; I would even argue that scripture demands it. Otherwise, we silence our ability to say anything meaningful about the phenomenal world, yet God has called us to know it.

One need only assume that science can accurately describe the natural world in order to conclude that the universe looks old. An arbitrary rejection of that conclusion out of scientific ignorance does not make it "subjective".

Lastly, I want to pose a more fundamental question that perhaps has no final answer: what is the difference between a universe that 'looks' old, and one that actually is? Do we save something in our theological paradigms by convincing ourselves and others that a bulk of cosmic and geological history is only imaginary? Not at all. Instead, we praise God ostensibly as an artist, thanking him for the beautiful painting that is our home, all the while denying him the glory by declaring that the brush strokes cannot possibly be real.

Resolution and redirection

There is another possibility, I think: God did not create the cosmos with an 'appearance of age'. That apparent age is real, and the liturgical text of Genesis 1:1–2:4 was never meant to inform us about the physical origins of the universe, let alone the mechanism by which all things were formed. The repeated fiat declarations (e.g. "Let there be light...") reveal something rather about the God of Israel's unrivaled authority in heaven and earth. It is a polemical statement that undermines pagan notions regarding the limited power of deities in creative acts. Pagan deities strived against each other and against the reigning chaotic realm. According to the author of Genesis, neither chaos nor the gods nor the elements can challenge the providential decree of the one true God.

I am not the first to offer such an alternative, but many Christians are still desperate to reject it. Why? Foremost, because it challenges traditional nuances of the cosmology presented in Genesis 1. We should not be shocked, however, if these traditions turn out to be mistaken, given the severe time and culture gaps between Genesis and the modern (post-Reformation) reader. We all have a natural tendency to project our own worldview (our Sitz im Leben) back onto the text, as though it were written specifically to address the concerns of our day. For the post-Enlightenment reader, an endemic fascination with science and empirical verification has caused many to overreact by rereading the text as a documentary history that is capable of critiquing modern science and skepticism.

I have no intention of dismissing such readings out of hand, misguided as they may be. Even a misreading of a text can be appropriate in certain contexts. Regardless, I believe that a fresh perspective on Genesis is in order—one that is not shaped a priori by recent controversies over the age of the earth. In light of this goal, I would invite you try reading Genesis for what it actually is: a piece of ancient, divinely inspired literature. To that topic I will turn in my next post.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. I wish more Christians would examine this idea of apparent age. It comes up over and over and as you say it is something that provides "comfort." It is the escape clause when someone doesn't know where to turn. Your "diluvial dilemma" is right on the mark and is an argument that I have made over and over and over on discussion lists but it is rarely acknowledged. Apparent age doesn't work for creation if the flood was a literal catastrophic event. The Flood does reset the clock such that nothing should appear to have apparent age anymore.

    Apparent age only works for me if the Flood was local or had no significant effects on the landscape. For example, apparent age could help make sense of why one can look at many tephra layers in the Oregon and predict the relative frequency of volcanic erruptions of the major volcanos. A global flood makes the tephra layers useless in terms of meaning but at least apparent age might suggest that God created a record of past events so that we could make predictions about the future (eg. should I worry about a particular volcano becoming active in my lifetime). I posted a couple of examples of apparent age problems on my blog just recently that relate to these issues.