Young Earth or Ancient Universe?

By James M. Rochford

Some Christians believe that God created the universe in six, consecutive and literal 24 hour days. This view is called “Young Earth Creationism” or sometimes “Mature Creation.” Older advocates of this view include Duane Gish, Henry Morris, and Ken Ham. More recent advocates are Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds who represent this view in Three Views on Creation and Evolution (1999).

While Young Earth creationism is one way to interpret Genesis, it isn’t the only orthodox way to interpret it. In fact, historically, many orthodox Christian scholars have held to an Old Earth view, including “Augustine, B. B. Warfield, John Walvoord, Francis Schaeffer, Gleason Archer, Hugh Ross, and most leaders of the movement that produced the famous ‘Chicago Statement’ on the inerrancy of the Bible (1978).”[1] That is, Christians can believe in the full inerrancy of Scripture, while at the same time rejecting a 10,000 year old universe (see “Inerrancy”). Let’s consider a number of arguments often proposed by Young Earth creationists:

ARGUMENT #1: If God is omnipotent, then why did he take billions of years to create the universe?

This argument actually applies to the Young Earth view just as much as it applies to the Old Earth view. That is, if God could have created the entire universe instantly, then why did he choose to create it in six 24 hour days? No matter how we interpret Genesis 1, it appears that God took his time in creation. Moreover, it doesn’t appear that time matters to God in the same way that it matters to humans (2 Pet. 3:8; Ps. 90:4). Spending a lot of time in creation would only matter, if God was limited by either time or resources. However, God is neither limited by time nor resources. Therefore, this argument doesn’t hold much weight.

ARGUMENT #2: The genealogies of Genesis give us chronological time tables that date the age of the Earth.

Bishop James Ussher (1581–1656) was the first to add the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 together, dating the Earth to 4004 B.C. However, there is no reason to believe that the biblical genealogies were meant to be taken as chronologies. The purpose of the genealogies was to show descent—not dating. Their purpose shows heritage—not strict chronological history. We can infer this for a number of reasons:

1. Genesis states that “Arpachshad lived thirty-five years, and became the father of Shelah” (Gen. 11:12). However, Luke points out that “Cainan” lived between these two people (Lk. 3:36), adding another generation.

2. 1 Chronicles 3:11-12 records: “Joram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, 12 Amaziah his son, Azariah [Uzziah] his son…” However, Matthew skips these three generations (e.g. Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah) in his genealogy. In fact, Matthew records that Joram is the father of Uzziah—not Ahaziah (Mt. 1:8). Well, which is it? Was Joram the father or the great-great grandfather of Uzziah? Clearly, these genealogies weren’t intended to claim either.

3. 1 Chronicles 26:24 states: “Shebuel the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, was officer over the treasures.” Here, Gershom is said to be the son of Moses, and Shebuel is said to be the son of Gershom. The problem occurs in the fact that there is a 400 year gap between the historical events of Moses and that of 1 Chronicles 26.

4. Matthew says that Jesus is the son of David (1,000 B.C.), but also the son of Abraham (2,000 B.C.). However, he obviously doesn’t mean that Jesus was the literal son of David. Instead, he meant that David (and Abraham) “fathered” him by being his distant ancestor.

5. In 1 Chronicles 6:3-14, we read about the line of the high priests, but it doesn’t mention the high priests Jehoiada (2 Kings 12:2), Urijah (2 Kings 16:10-16), Azariah (2 Chron. 26:17), Eli (1 Sam. 1:9; 14:3), and Abiathar (2 Sam. 8:17). When we compare this with Ezra 7:1-5, we find that Ezra also does not include certain names. In fact, he omits some of the names in 1 Chronicles 6, and it appears that he adds two names. Was this a scribal error? Or, is it that these genealogies were never meant to be chronologies? Clearly, we should affirm the latter—not the former.

The Hebrew word for “father” is ab or abba,which can also be translated as “grandfather” or even “great grandfather.” For instance, it means great grandfather in 1 Kings 15:13 (c.f. Gen. 28:13; 32:10; 1 Chron. 7:13). For these reasons, it is ludicrous to date the age of the Earth with these biblical genealogies, because the authors never had this intent in mind when they wrote them.

Finally, we should note that the genealogies (even if taken as chronologies) wouldn’t give us evidence for the age of the Earth—only for the age of humanity.

ARGUMENT #3: The Old Earth view originated as a compromise to modern science.[2]

Historically, this is demonstrably false. Modern science did not start the debate over the age of the Earth in Christian circles. Instead, Christians debated this subject centuries before modern science ever discovered it. Regarding the church fathers before 325 AD, Ross writes,

Their comments on the subject remained tentative, with the majority favoring the ‘long day’ (typically a thousand year period) interpretation—apart from the influence of science. Not one explicitly endorsed the twenty-four-hour interpretation. But all believed that God was intimately involved in the creative process, and that this doctrine makes a difference in how we respond to God and His Word.[3]

Even Young Earth creationist Terence E. Fretheim admits,

This question has often been debated in the history of the Church. While recent scientific developments may have intensified the debate in many ways, the issue of the interpretation of the days of Genesis 1 is almost as old as the Church itself. The Genesis days were interpreted in an allegorical way by such figures as Origen and Augustine… The understanding of days in terms of periods of time predates the Darwinian revolution.[4]

Young Earth creationism became popular around the beginning of the 20th century with Milton and Lyman Stewart’s twelve small books titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth (1909-1915). Christian Fundamentalism organized in 1919 with The World’s Christian Fundamentals Association in Philadelphia.[5] These theologians were reacting to the advent of liberal theology, which was a serious threat. However, they overreacted and made the age of the Earth a marker for orthodoxy for evangelical Christians, which it had never been until this point.

ARGUMENT #4: The Hebrew word for day always means 24 hours.

This is demonstrably false. The Hebrew word for “day” is yom (pronounced YOME). This word has a wide semantic range (that is, a wide range of meaning). It can refer to 24 hours (which is the usual sense of the word), but it can also refer to a large amount of time. Similarly, when we use the word “day” in English, we might say, “Back in the day, I used to wear M.C. Hammer pants…” Of course, when we say this, we are not referring to a specific 24 hour period. Instead, we are referring to an embarrassing span of time, back in the early nineties. In the same way, the Hebrew word yom can refer either to a 24 hour period or an incredibly large epoch of time. Let’s consider a few reasons why yom refers to an age of time in Genesis 1:

First, the Jews had a very limited vocabulary, and they had no other word to describe a large span of time other than yom. Ross observes, “In biblical Hebrew, no other word besides yom carries the meaning of a long period of time.”[6] Therefore, if Moses had a long period of time in mind, then he would have needed to use the Hebrew word yom.

Second, the OT authors used the word “yom” to refer to a long period of time. While the normal use of yom is a 24 hour period of time,[7] it can also be used to describe a long age of time (Josh. 24:7; Isa. 34:8). For instance, in Hosea 6:2, we read, “He will revive us after two days; He will raise up on the third day.”[8] Here, Hosea’s third day is actually a long stretch of time—not 24 hours. He uses the word “third” to describe placement—not strict chronology. Elsewhere, the prophets refer to the “day” of the Lord (Is. 2:11-12, 17; 4:2; 11:10-11; Lam. 1:20; 2:21; Zech. 14:7), which is not a literal, 24 hour day.

Third, Moses—the author of Genesis—uses “yom” to refer to a long period of time. In reflecting upon God’s creative work, Moses writes, “For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday (yom)when it passes by, or as a watch in the night” (Ps. 90:4). This verse is significant because it is written by Moses (the author of Genesis), it mentions the word yom in relation to a thousand year period, and it uses the words “morning” and “evening” in the context (Ps. 90:6). Moreover, in Genesis 2:4, we read, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day (yom) that the LORD God made earth and heaven.” Here, Moses uses the word yom to refer to the entire seven day creation. So, which is it? Does yom refer to a 24-hour day, or does it refer to a 168 hour period? Clearly, our author is telling us that it does not refer to either. Later in Genesis, Moses uses yom to refer to the hours of sunlight in a day (Gen. 29:7) and even an indefinite period of time (Gen. 35:3).

Fourth, Genesis mentions the growth of plant life, which implies a long period of time (Gen. 1:11-12; 2:9). Genesis states that “God caused to grow every tree” (Gen. 2:9). If the author of Genesis was referring to a 24-hour period of time, he would have been envisioning this process in fast forward! Is it plausible to believe that he was imagining this—especially when ancient men understood how long it took for plants to grow?

Fifth, the sun isn’t created until Day Four. If Genesis 1 is a strict chronology, then we wouldn’t have the sun until Day Four. However, without the sun as a chronological reference point, we cannot measure a 24-hour system. Did God have a cosmic stopwatch that he used to time the first three days of creation before the sun was created to govern time? Of course not.

Sixth, the expression “At last…” implies a large passage of time. On the sixth day, Adam cultivates the garden (Gen. 2:15), names every animal in the garden (Gen. 2:19), and then falls asleep (Gen. 2:21). This all implies a very long period of time—especially when we consider how many species Adam had to name and classify! These descriptions make sense of Genesis 2:23, where Adam says, “At last!” (ESV) when he sees his wife Eve. This implies that Adam had been waiting for a long amount of time to meet her. The same expression (Hebrew happa’ am) is used of Leah after waiting to give birth for many years (Gen. 29:34), and it is also used of Israel seeing Joseph after many years of separation (Gen. 46:30).

Seventh, the expression “there was evening and there was morning” does not occur on the final day of creation. In the NT, the author of Hebrews explains that we are currently in the seventh day of creation—God’s Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:4ff). This means that the seventh day of creation was not a literal 24-hour period, but an extremely long epoch of time. If the seventh day can be extraordinarily long, then why can’t days one through six also be considered ages of time?

Blocher notes that John 5:17-19 shows that God is working on his Sabbath day which is still in progress. He writes, “Jesus’ reasoning is sound only if the Father acts during his Sabbath; only on that condition that the Son the right to act similarly on the Sabbath… Our Lord himself did not see the seventh day of Genesis as a literal day.”[9]

For these exegetical reasons, it seems likely to believe that Moses had a very ancient universe in mind, when he was writing his creation account.

ARGUMENT #5: Exodus 20:9-11 compares God’s creative work in Genesis with a 24 hour day system.

When Moses compares the Sabbath with the creation account, he isn’t comparing the chronology; he is comparing the pattern. Archer writes, “By no means does this demonstrate that 24-hour intervals were involved in the six ‘days’, any more than the 8-day celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles proves that the wilderness wanderings under Moses occupied only eight days.”[10] C. John Collins writes, “Our working and resting cannot be identical to God’s—they are like God’s in some way, but certainly not the same. For example, when was the last time you spoke and caused a plant to grow up? Rather, our planting and watering and fertilizing are like God’s work because they operate on what’s there and make it produce something it wouldn’t have produced otherwise. Our rest is like God’s, because we cease from our work for the sake of contemplating his works with pleasure.”[11] Similarly, God was refreshed on the Sabbath (Ex. 31:17), but not in the sense that he is tired (Isa. 40:28-31). So this should be taken as analogical to human rest, but not exactly the same.

ARGUMENT #6: The author of Genesis uses the terms morning and evening, which does not fit with a long period of time.

This is the only use of the expression “evening and morning” in the entire Bible. We would normally expect the passage to read from “morning to evening,” consisting of the work day. Instead, it reads “evening and morning.” We take this to refer to God’s rest (or cessation of activity) between creative days. In the OT, the use of evening and morning refers to a cessation of work. Psalm 104:23 states, “Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening.” Exodus 18:13 states that Moses performed his work “from the morning until the evening.” Therefore, the morning and evening language is a poetic device, which describes an actual historical event. For instance, we might say, “The Nazi Regime ended in ashes.” By this, we do not mean that the officers at Nuremberg were burned to death. Instead, we mean that they were defeated. In the same way, Moses could be using a literary device to describe a historical account. Archer writes, “The formula ‘evening and morning’ serves only to indicate that the term day, albeit symbolical for a geological stage, is used in the sense of a twenty-four-hour cycle rather than ‘day’ in contrast to ‘night’ (as, for example, day is used in 1:5a).”[12]

ARGUMENT #7: Modern science isn’t conclusive on the age of the Earth.

So far, we haven’t considered the scientific evidence for the age of the Earth. Needless to say, the evidence overwhelmingly favors the Old Earth view. In fact, there are several independent lines of evidence that support the idea that our universe is incredibly old:[13]

First, the rate of the universe’s expansion: The red-shift on the light from distant stars shows that these stars are moving away from us.

Second, the arrival of light from distant galaxies: We currently observe light from supernovae from across the universe. This light took billions of years to reach us. If the world is only 10,000 years old, then these supernovae never existed. Robert Newman writes, “When we look at the Andromeda galaxy, we see what it would have been doing two million years ago if it had existed then, but it didn’t, so we are really seeing a continuous stream of events that never occurred—fictitious history! As most of the universe is more than ten thousand light-years away, most of the events revealed by light coming from space would be fictional. Since the Bible tells us that God cannot lie, I prefer to interpret nature so as to avoid having God give us fictitious information.”[14]

Third, varves in sedimentary rock: Varves are layers in rock that solidify annually due to weather conditions dropping sediment and sand onto the rock bed. There are millions of layers these varves in sedimentary rock—hence millions of years of history.

Fourth, jigsaw puzzle of the continents: It is theorized that the continents were originally fitted together in Pangea (“one land”). Continental shifting took place, moving the continents about 2-5 centimeters per year. We can observe that the eastern coasts of North America and the western coasts of Africa form a perfect jigsaw puzzle with one another. If they drifted 2-5 centimeters per year, then this would have taken millions of years to occur.

Fifth, coral reefs: Corals secrete calcium carbonate to create the coral reefs. These only grow a few centimeters per year, and yet, some coral reefs are nearly a mile deep (160,934 cm).

Sixth, radioactive decay: Scientists can measure the decay of radioactive material in rocks. There are roughly 40 or so techniques, measuring multiple different elements. All generally agree that the rocks of the Earth are billions of years old.[15]

This is why even Young Earth creationists Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds admit,

Natural science at the moment seems to overwhelmingly point to an old cosmos. Though creationist scientists have suggested some evidences for a recent cosmos, none are widely accepted as true. It is safe to say that most recent creationists are motivated by religious concerns.[16]

As it is now interpreted, the data are mostly against us. Well and good. We take this seriously. Eventually, failure to deal with that data in a recent creationist scientific theory would be sufficient reason to give up the project. We think, however, that progress is being made… Recent creationists should humbly agree that their view is, at the moment, implausible on purely scientific grounds.[17]

As we survey this evidence, we need to keep a few things in mind:

First, this scientific evidence spreads across multiple different disciplines. That is, multiple different scientists have observed an Old Earth in multiple different fields of science (e.g. animal biology, marine biology, physics, geology, etc.). Therefore, if there is a conspiracy in modern science, it would need to transcend several different scientific disciplines. Therefore, in order to defeat this evidence, the Young Earth creationist would need to argue against each and every scientific field, which seems like an insuperable task.

Second, it isn’t enough for the Young Earth creationist to defeat 5 out of the 6 lines of evidence. If even one of these evidences is true, it would defeat the Young Earth position.

Third, if all of this data is false, then we would be confronted with a theological problem. Namely, the Bible teaches that we can understand God through his creation (Ps. 19:1-4), and our observation of creation makes unbelief “without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). However, the Young Earth view implies that God is deceiving us through creation—not revealing himself through creation. Therefore, this view has terrible theological consequences. Paul’s argument hinges on the fact that people can learn things about God from Nature—wholly apart from Scripture. If God made the universe look old, then this would be a major problem.

ARGUMENT #8: Young Earth Creation makes better sense of the problem of animal suffering

If the Earth is truly old, then this would mean that animals were suffering for millions of years. Young Earth creationists Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds argue,

The problem of evil in the world is hard enough to explain without the addition of millions of years of animal suffering to round it out. What is the justification for all that animal pain? After the Fall, this difficult problem can partly be laid at the feet of human beings. Our sin caused the pain of the world and its creatures. The naturalistic scientist, theistic or otherwise, has no such out. If death and extinction came before human sin, we cannot receive the blame for the millions of years of brutal suffering by countless beings! If the standard scientific chronology is true, then God willed it that way in an unfallen world.[18]

For a thorough response to this difficult question, see our earlier article (“How could the moral Fall be true if we know that Pain and Death existed for millennia before the Fall?”).

Further Reading

Moreland, James Porter, and John Mark Reynolds. Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1999.

-Contains three different perspectives on this debate.

See our earlier article “Different Views of Genesis 1 and 2.”

Young, Davis. Creation and the Flood. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977.

Ross, Hugh. Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994.

Collins, C. John. Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton: Crossway, 2003.

 

[1] Emphasis mine. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999. 273.

[2] Mills writes, “Why was the Day-Age theory proposed only after scientists discovered independently the ancient history of our planet? Why was no Day-Age theory articulated during the early years of Christianity or during the Middle Ages? Isn’t it disingenuous to now claim that Genesis always portrayed an ancient Earth? If the Bible’s alleged depiction of an ancient Earth can be correctly interpreted only after modern science arrives at the same conclusion, isn’t the Bible useless as a scientific guide?Mills, David, and Dorion Sagan. Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism. Berkeley, Ca.: Ulysses, 2006. 152.

[3] Ross, Hugh. The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998. 66.

[4] Cited in Youngblood, Ronald F. The Genesis Debate: Persistent Questions about Creation and the Flood. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1986. 12.

[5] Ross, Hugh. The Fingerprint of God. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2000. 142.

[6] Ross, Hugh. The Genesis Question: Scientific Advances and the Accuracy of Genesis. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998. 65.

[7] The Hebrew word “yom” usually refers to a 24 hour day. Out of the 1,900 uses in the OT, it is translated as a 24-hour day 1,835 times. This means that 96 percent of the time, the word is meant to refer to a 24-hour period.

[8] YEC often claim that yom can be used of a period of time, but not when combined with an ordinal number (i.e. “the first day… the second day, etc.”). For instance, YEC McCabe writes, “When a number qualifies yom, it is used time after time in a literal sense.” And yet, this claim is misleading because Hosea 6:2 uses an ordinal number in this way. McCabe, Robert V. “A Critique of the Framework Interpretation of Creation Account (Part 1 of 2). Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal. 10 (2005): 39.

[9] Blocher, Henri. In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984. 57.

[10] Gleason Archer, “A Response to the Trustworthiness of Scripture in Areas Relating to Natural Science,” Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academic Boods, 1986), p. 329. Cited in Ross, Hugh The Fingerprint of God New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1989. 153.

[11] Collins, C. John. Science & Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. 86.

[12] Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Third Edition. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1998. 201.

[13] Copan, Paul. “The Days of Genesis: An Old-Earth View” Areopagus Journal 5/2 (March-April 2005): 19.

[14] Moreland, James Porter, and John Mark Reynolds. Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1999. 77.

[15] See Wiens, Roger. “Radiometric Dating: A Christian Perpective.”

[16] Moreland, James Porter, and John Mark Reynolds. Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1999. 49.

[17] Moreland, James Porter, and John Mark Reynolds. Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1999. 51.

[18] Moreland, James Porter, and John Mark Reynolds. Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub., 1999. 47-48.