Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Cost of an Old Earth: Is it Worth it?

Until recently, most Christians believed that the Bible teaches us that the earth was only a few thousand years ago. This contradicts mainstream science, which holds that the earth is billions of years old. Consequently, many Christians, have modified their reading of the Bible accordingly.

At first sight, this may seem rather harmless. The age of the earth hardly seems to be a doctrine essential to the Bible's main message of salvation.

Yet, much more is at stake than first meets the eye.
Accepting mainstream science on the age of the earth entails that we accept the reliability of its dating methods, with all the underlying presumptions. It entails also that we should likewise accept other results of mainstream science that are based on similar assumptions.

Let’s see what this implies.

The order of creation
We note first that mainstream science challenges not only the timescale of the Genesis creation account but also its order.

Genesis 1
Day 1- Water, earthly elements, then light
Day 2- Firmament, then oceans, atmosphere
Day 3- Dry land, then land vegetation, fruit trees, grass
Day 4- Sun, moon, stars
Day 5- Marine life, then birds
Day 6- Land animals, then humans

Mainstream science
14 billion years ago- light, light elements, then stars,galaxies, then heavy elements,water
4.58 bya- Sun
4.54 bya- earth
550 million years ago- first fish
440 mya- first primitive plants
360 mya- first land animals-reptiles
245 mya- first mammals
210 mya- first birds
140 mya- first flowering plants
70 mya - first grasses, fruit trees
2 mya- first tool-making humanoids

Note that the two orders differ at many places. For example, Genesis has fruit trees first, then birds, then land animals; mainstream science has exactly the reverse; Genesis has the earth before the Sun and stars, mainstream science has stars and Sun before the earth, etc.

Since it does not help to simply recast the creation days as long periods of time, most commentators trying to accommodate mainstream science now advocate that Genesis 1 has to be taken as a purely literary structure, with no real historical information--other than stating that God created the entire universe.

The Effect of the Fall
A second consequence concerns the Fall of Adam. Calvin (and Kuyper) believed that predation, death, disease, thorns, earthquakes all arose as a result of the Fall. Viewed in terms of the traditional reading of Genesis, the fossil record reflects events that all happened after the Fall.

Acceptance of an old earth, on the other hand, entails that the fossils we observe mostly reflect life before the Fall. Predation, pain, suffering, disease, earthquakes and the like must then have existed already before the Fall. The fossil record, thus viewed, implies that the Fall did not have any observable effects on the earth or on non-human life. It follows that proponents of an old earth must minimize the physical consequences of Adam's fall.

Traditionally, all animal suffering is seen as a result of human sin. But now it must be seen as part of the initial “very good” creation. Further, if the current world is not a world that has fallen from a better initial state, how can there be a universal restoration (cf Romans 8:19-23; Col. 1:16-20)?

There are other difficulties. For example, how could Adam name all the animals if by then more than 99% had already become extinct?

Human history
Consider further the implications for human history.

According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were created directly by God (Gen.2) about 4000 BC (Gen.5 & 11). They were the parents of all humans (Gen.3:20). The Bible describes Adam as a gardener, his son Abel as a shepherd, and his son Cain as a farmer who founded a city (Gen..4).Tents, musical instruments and bronze and iron tools were all invented by the offspring of Cain (Gen.4), who were later all destroyed by the Flood (Gen.6-9), which destroyed all humans except for Noah and his family (cf 2 Pet.2:5). Within a few generations after the Flood there is a confusion of language and people spread out to populate the earth (Gen.11).

Mainstream science, on the other hand, gives the following outline of human history:

2 million years BC- homo erectus, anatomically very similar to modern man
200,000 BC- oldest anatomically human Homo sapiens fossils (Ethiopia)
40-50,000 BC- oldest artistic and religious artifacts
40,000 BC- first aborigines in Australia (and continuously there ever since).
9000 BC- first villages
7500 BC- first plant cultivation, domesticated cattle and sheep (neo-lithic era)
5000 BC- first bronze tools
3000 BC- first written records
1600 BC- first iron tools

The Biblical account is clearly at odds with the mainstream interpretation of the archaeological and fossil evidence. For example, if Australian aborigines have indeed lived separately from the rest of the world for 40,000 years then the Flood, if anthropologically universal, must have occurred more than 40,000 years ago. But Genesis places the cultivation of plants and cattle, metal-working, cities, etc., before the Flood. Mainstream science places these events after 10,000 BC. Hence, according to mainstream science, Noah’s flood could not have occurred before 10,000 BC. Consequently, an old earth position forces us to demote the Genesis flood to a local flood that did not affect all humans. Likewise, the tower of Babel incident (Gen.11) must now be localized to just a portion of mankind.

Consider also the origin of man. Since Adam’s sons were farmers, mainstream science sets the date of Adam no earlier than 10,000 BC. This entails that the Australian aborigines are not descendents of Adam. Thus Adam and Eve are not the ancestors of all humans living today. This undermines the doctrine of original sin, which the confessions say was propagated in a hereditary manner from Adam to all his posterity (Belgic Confession 15-16; Canons of Dordt 34:2-3). This, in turn, undermines the view of Christ’s atonement as a penal substitution where Christ, as a representative descendent of Adam, pays for the sins of Adam’s race. Many of those who accept an evolutionary view of man have thus re-interpreted the work of Jesus as merely an example of love.

Further, given the close similarity between human fossils of 10,000 and 2 million years ago, it becomes difficult to avoid concluding that Adam and Eve had human-like ancestors dating back a few million years. But that entails that Adam and Eve were not created directly by God, contrary to Gen.2, and that human suffering and death occurred long before Adam’s fall, contrary to Rom.5:12.

To sum up, embracing mainstream science regarding its assertion of an old earth entails the following consequences:

1. Both the timescale and order of the creation account of Genesis 1 are wrong.
2. The Flood of Gen.6-8 must have been local, not affecting all humans.
3. The Babel account of Gen.11 must have been local, not affecting all humans.
4. Adam’s fall—and the subsequent curse on the earth—did not significantly affect the earth, plants, animals, or the human body.
5. Adam, living about 10,000 BC, could not have been the ancestor of all humans living today.
6. Hence the doctrines of original sin and the atonement must be revised
7. Adam had human ancestors
8. Hence human physical suffering and death occurred before the Fall and are not a penalty for sin.

These in turn entail the following constraints on the Bible:

9. Gen.1-11 does not report reliable history.
10. Hence the Bible cannot be taken at face value when describing historical events, in which case we cannot believe everything the Bible says (cf. Belgic Confession 5; Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 21) .

In sum, acceptance of an old earth has dire consequences for the rest of Gen.1-11, for Biblical clarity, authority and inerrancy, and for the essentials of salvation.

Worldviews come as package deals. One cannot simply mix and match. Logical consistency dictates that those who do not whole-heartedly base their worldview on the Bible will ultimately end up rejecting it.

A better course of action would thus be hold fast to the full authority of the Bible, to re-consider the presuppositions leading to an old earth, and to interpret the data in terms of scientific theories that are consistent with Biblical truths.


Jim Witteveen said...

Excellent analysis - thank you very much for your insights!

Henry said...

Thank you very much. Refreshing.

Emily said...

Thanks for sharing this.

Unknown said...

I agree with the conclusion of this article but I’d like to add the following:
It is for pragmatic reasons that so many Christians have modified their reading of the Bible to 'bring it in line' with the ruling scientific paradigm:
The idea that God simply ‘set the (evolutionary) wheels in motion’ many millions of years ago is accepted… not because the evidence leads to that conclusion but because, as this article states, it is considered to be 'not an essential doctrine' and (therefore) 'suitable compromise- material'.
“After all:” ('they' say) "..the 'core' of the gospel is: Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Biblical chronology leads to the conclusion that the universe is approx. 6000 years old. This contradicts the 'ruling paradigm' and is (therefore) a 'stumbling block on the way to the cross’. It is 'not an essential doctrine' (or 'salvation issue') and THEREFORE provides the opportunity to compromise: remove the stumbling block!”

Christian apologist John Lennox once said: “the Christian faith is evidence – and truth based”. In other words: Christians do not accept (biblical) teachings as true because it ‘furthers a cause’ (= pragmatism) but rather because the (biblical) evidence leads them there..
For that reason I would not (only) conclude that “acceptance of an old earth (is wrong because it..) has dire consequences for the rest of Gen.1-11, for Biblical clarity, authority and inerrancy, and for the essentials of salvation.” (= pragmatism) ….instead I would argue: “acceptance of the old-earth-theory is wrong because the evidence (biblical and scientific) points to a young earth”

john byl said...

Thanks for your comment.

My concern with your evidentialist approach is that it implies the existence of neutral ground, on which objective "evidence" can clearly be shown to lead to a particular conclusion. Generally, a set of data does not count as evidence for anything until it is interpreted within a particular framework. Differing frameworks yield differing interpretations of what counts as evidence, and where that evidence leads.

Thus I prefer to stress the role of worldview presuppositions. The presumed truth of the Bible is my starting point, founded on the witness of the Holy Spirit in my heart (cf Belgic Confession Art.5), from which I interpret the data and assess the evidence. It is not something I try to prove following a presumed neutral line of evidence and argumentation.

Unknown said...

Thanks John,
It wasn't my intention to make a case for the 'evidentiary approach' / apologetics' (in 'general'), the point I was trying to make is that, although it is true that "acceptance of an old earth has dire consequences for the rest of Gen.1-11, for Biblical clarity, authority and inerrancy, and for the essentials of salvation" I felt it ought to be added that we don't believe it to be true BECAUSE the consequences of a rejection of a literal interpretation and adoption of the 'old-earth-theory' are dire (that would be a pragmatic approach: “if I don’t believe this.. the rest doesn’t ‘work’”) but rather because the evidence ‘forces’ us to believe it, see what I mean?
With ‘evidence’ in this context I mean biblical evidence: allowing the text to speak for itself (exegesis) i.o.w. : when one follows the evidence here we have no choice but to conclude that the genre of this passage is clearly “historical account”, that creation-days are clearly described as 24-hour days, etc.
Since you bring up the evidentiary / presuppositional approach distinction: I (also) see myself as a ‘presuppositional appologist’ …but I won’t shy away from evidentiary arguments when I feel it is appropriate and/or helpful.
I agree that information (as in: “arranged data”) IS being interpreted in different ways, that it IS made to spell out different, sometimes opposing, ‘truth’-claims depending on the worldview or presupposition of the interpreter..but this in no way proves that info. (including biblical info) IS ‘neutral’.
I would say that info points in a certain direction, is not neutral i.o.w. Whether one follows the evidence (as in: ‘the direction in which the info points’) will depend on one’s worldview: if this view is ‘lit up’ by the Holy Spirit the evidence is followed…
For instance: ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ is objectively true, it is a historical fact ( = the evidence points in that direction) whether I believe it or not i.o.w., it’s not true because I believe it.
I believe it, not BECAUSE the evidence is compelling (and it is!), but because the Holy Spirit fills me with honesty and clarity.

john byl said...

Thanks for your clarification, Koensdus. I entirely concur with your point, which is a good one.

Wes Brice said...

Just an additional thought what is called mainstream science today is not what mainstream science was a few years ago and will not be what mainstream science will be in the future - for instance a lot of mainstream science has man coming out of Africa - Big Bang Theory is now being question by many in what is called mainstream science - Let the Bible say what is says - All Scripture is given by inspiration - is God spoken and the God of Scripture is a God who cannot lie