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Don Stewart :: Does the Bible Give an Age to the Earth?

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Don Stewart
One of the most important questions in the Bible/science controversy concerns the age of the earth. How old is it? Does the Bible give a precise age to the earth? If the earth and universe are billions of years old can this be reconciled with the Bible?

Evolution

Today the earth is assumed to be approximately 4.6 billion years old while the universe is believed to be at least 10 to 15 billions years of age. For the theory of evolution to be true, it is necessary that the earth be very old. For life to spontaneously develop from an original single cell to our present complex universe, billions of years are needed.
Scientist E. H. Andrews, who believes the earth is young, lists the basic arguments of those who believe it is old:

The argument for an ancient earth (aged approximately 4.5 thousand million years according to our current estimate) fall into three main categories. First, come the arguments from cosmogony, involving the length of time required for the earth to form from interstellar matter . . . The second category of evidence concerns the rates of formation of sedimentary rocks and other geological processes such as mountain building and continental drift. The third type of evidence is that of radiometric dating (E. H. Andrews, Creation and Evolution, Derek Burke editor, Oxford: University Press, 1985, p. 49).

To many, arguments such as these confirm the theory that the earth is old.

What Do Christians Believe?

Many people have misconceptions regarding what Christians believe about the age of the earth. The following is a typical example:

The fundamentalist argument against the scientific assertion of the great age of our planet-to the effect that God created the earth only about 6,000 years ago, including fossils embedded in rocks - is unworthy of serious discussion. If we begin with the assumption that God can do anything he pleases, then of course he could have made the world 6,000 years ago, or last Tuesday, and planted misleading evidence suggesting it was billions of years older (italics his) (Steve Allen, Steve Allen on Religion, The Bible, and Morality, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1990, p. 19).

This argument is hardly worthy of serious discussion. First, the Bible does not put a date on the creation of the universe. Second, the Bible does not say, and no serious Christian teaches, that God created the earth with fossils embedded in the rocks to fool unbelieving scientists.

No Precise Age

There are many Christians, both scientists and theologians, who accept the idea of an old universe. Geologist William Tanner writes:

The rock record, despite diligent search by many determined to find positive evidence of a brief earth history has not revealed any such evidence . . . . Geology requires a very long history, and the Bible permits a very long history . . . The simplest best statement of fact concerning the creation controversy is: we do not yet know the final word, but the evidence points strongly in the direction of a torturously slow development, as Gods purposes have been carried out according to the schedule of His choosing (W. F. Tanner, "Time and the Rock Record," Journal of American Scientific Affiliation, 33, 1981, pp. 100-105).

Christians who believe the earth is old usually view the "days" recorded in Genesis as referring to long periods of time. Others argue that the entire creation account is only supposed to be understood figuratively. This allows modern science, rather than Scripture, to give us information concerning the age of the earth and universe.

4004 B.C.?

A popular view is that the earth was created about six thousand years ago in 4004 B.C. This date of creation is usually associated with the work of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), although others in Usshers day arrived at the same figure. Ussher, working with the genealogical tables in the Book of Genesis and assuming them to be complete, deduced there were 4004 years from the creation of the world to the birth of Christ. Usshers chronology eventually made its way into the margin of various English translations of the Bible. Ian Taylor explains:

In 1701 the date 4004 B.C. for the year of creation was inserted as a marginal commentary in the English edition of the Great Bible by Bishop Lloyd and, by association, thus being incorporated into the dogma of the Christian church. By the time the theory of evolution came into open conflict with church dogma, almost every Bible published in the nineteenth century had Usshers date appended to the first page, followed by the sequential dates throughout to the time of the birth of Christ. As the church succumbed to the reasonings of science, these dates were quietly dropped from the Bibles beginning around the turn of this century (Ian Taylor, In the Minds of Men, Revised Edition, Toronto: TFE Publishing, 1987, p. 284).

Many have ridiculed the early dating of the creation of the world, such as the atheist Robert Ingersoll:

And first, let us examine the account given of the Creation of this world, commenced, according to the bible, on Monday morning about five thousand eight hundred and eighty-three years ago. The problem is compounded by the chronology given by Archbishop Ussher and still printed in some editions of the King James Bible (Robert Ingersoll, Some Mistakes of Moses, p. 55).

Date Unknown

We do not know exactly when the earth was created because the Bible does not tell us. Though this idea, that the Bible teaches Adam was created in 4004 B.C., is still brought up by some, it is not what the Bible teaches. Even those who advocate the recent creation view do not accept Usshers chronology as the exact date of creation.

The 4004 B.C. date of creation is inaccurate because the genealogies in Genesis that Ussher used to calculate the years from the creation to Christ are incomplete. It is not a simple thing to add up the various years listed from the time of Adam. The late Bible scholar Merrill Unger wrote:

It is highly improbable that the genealogical framework of Gen 5 was intended to be used or can be used, for calculating the number of years (1656) between the creation of man and the Flood, thus dating mans creation 4004 B.C., (Ussher). There are several reasons: (1) The Hebrew terms begat, son, daughter are used with great latitude and may involve a distant as well as immediate descendant. (2) The ten generations from Adam to Noah and the ten from Noah to Abraham evidently aim at brevity and symmetry, rather than an unbroken father-to-son relation. (3) Abbreviations due to symmetry are common features of Scripture genealogies (as in Mt 1). (4) In the recurring formula A lived - years and begat B, and A lived after he begat B - years and begat sons and daughters, B may not be the literal son of A. If so, the age of A may be his age when his descendant was born from whom B was descended. An indefinite time interval may therefore be intended between A and B (Merrill Unger, The New Ungers Bible Handbook, revised by Gary L. Larsen, Chicago: Moody Press, 1984, pp. 36,37).

Not Unlimited Time

Though we cannot date the earth with exact precision because of gaps in the genealogies we should not assume that the gaps provide us with an unlimited amount of time to date the earth. Theologian John Whitcomb writes:

In the first place, to stretch the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 to cover a period of over a hundred thousand years is to do violence to the chronological framework of all subsequent biblical history. By means of biblical analogies, it is indeed possible to find gaps, especially in the genealogies of Genesis 11. But those very analogies serve to limit our time scale for Genesis 11. The gap between Amram and Moses was three hundred years, not thirty thousand (cf. Exod. 6:20; Num 3:17-19, 27-28). And the gap between Joram and Uzziah in Matthew 1:8 was fifty years, not five thousand.

In the second place, only three of the ten patriarchs listed in Genesis 11 - Rue, Serug, and Nahor - are available for spanning the vast period of time demanded by these anthropologists, for the patriarchs listed before them preceded the Tower of Babel judgment and the scattering of mankind (cf. Gen. 10:25). And yet the clearest suggestion of a time gap in Genesis 11 occurs before this judgment between Eber and Peleg, because of the sudden drop in life span.

In the third place, it is impossible to imagine that Reu, Serug, and Nahor, to say nothing of Lamech, Noah and Shem, were savage illiterate cave dwellers of the stone-age period. The fourth chapter of Genesis, with its clear indication of cultural achievement, including the forging of "all implements of bronze and iron" (vs. 22), and Genesis 6, with its account of the great ark-building project, make such a theory completely untenable. Or are we to suppose that in some tiny pocket of civilization, nearly swamped by an ocean of human savagery, an unbroken chain of saintly men (some who lived for centuries) perpetuated the Messianic line of Shem and handed down the knowledge of the one true God for hundreds of thousands of years? Even to ask such a question is to answer it (John Whitcomb, The Early Earth, Revised edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986, p. 133).

Theoretically, creationists are able to work with an old earth or a young earth. Though Scripture gives us no clear evidence as to the precise age of the earth, it suggests that man has appeared on the scene rather recently. The idea of an earth that is billion years old is nowhere taught in Scripture. Old Testament authority Oswald Allis wrote:

We need to remember that limitless time is a poor substitute for that Omnipotence which can dispense with time. The reason the account of creation given here is so simple and so impressive is that it speaks in terms of the creative acts of an omnipotent God, and not in terms of limitless space and infinite time and endless process (Oswald T. Allis, God Spake By Moses, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1951, p. 11, (emphasis his).

How Old Is The Earth?

What do we know for certain? Contrary to popular belief, there is no certain or unequivocal evidence that the earth is older than a few thousand years. Written records only take us back a few thousand years. Anthropologist and archaeologist Colin Renfrew writes:

The Egyptian king lists go back to the First Dynasty of Egypt, a little before 3000 B. C. Before that, there were no written records anywhere (Colin Renfrew, Before Civilization, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1973, p. 25).

What happened before this time is based on conjecture. Henry Morris writes:
Prior to written history, of course, chronologists are forced to rely on various changing physical systems (e.g. decaying radioactive minerals, eroding continents, buildup of chemicals in oceans) for time estimates. Such calculations must always be based on the various assumptions of uniformitarianism (e.g. system isolated, rate of change constant, initial composition known), none of which assumptions are provable, testable or even reasonable. The radiocarbon method, for example, is now known to be so unreliable that many archaeologists have abandoned it altogether (Henry Morris with Gary Parker, What is Creation Science?, Revised edition, El Cajon, Calif.: Master Books, 1987, p. 14).

Different Quality Of Time

Some scientists believe that there was a different quality to time before the fall. Lambert Dolphin writes:

I personally think time as we know it now began with the fall of man and that time had different qualities before the fall . . . . The fact that the creative activity of God took place in a time sequence from Day One through Day Seven indicates that time was "flowing" in its usual sense through the present towards the future. Yet . . . there is an eternal dimension also present all through creation week. Neither Satan nor Adam had fallen, there was yet no sin. "Perfect physics" prevailed, and the spiritual dimension of the universe was "in tune" with the physical in a way we cannot now exactly understand (Lambert Dolphin, Jesus: Lord of Space and Time, Green Forest, Arizona: New Leaf Press, 1988, p. 70).

Unable To Find Out

The Bible hints that we may not be able to resolve this issue:

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from the beginning (Ecclesiastes 3:11, emphasis added).

This passage may indicate that the issue of the age of the earth may be beyond our finding out.

Summary

The theory of evolution demands that the earth and universe be old while special creation can have either a young or old earth. Though the Bible does not us give an exact age of the earth, there is no indication in Scripture that the earth is very old. The genealogies in Scripture do not allow an unlimited amount of time between Adam and Abraham.
Scientific evidence has been brought forward that would indicate the earth may be young after all but there is no consensus among Christians. Most scientists, Christian and non-Christian, believe the earth and universe are old. The age of the earth is not an issue that has been settled among believers. Scientist Paul Zimmerman writes:

Thus the evolutionist needs a very old earth. His theory is utterly hopeless if the earth is young . . . On the other hand the creationist can operate with a young earth or a very ancient one . . . The creationist does not need millions of years to make his theory workable. For the believer in creation the question is a different one: (1) What does the Bible say about the date of creation? (2) Is this information at variance with the facts brought to light by scientific research? These questions the creationist seeks to answer . . .
Actually neither the scientist nor the creationist can fix the date of the beginning. The Bible permits certain general conclusions, but it does not give the age of the earth. The scientist in turn can make certain interesting calculations, but his computations are often interlarded with slippery assumptions, and the results are beclouded by serious questions that rise in the research (P. A. Zimmerman, "The Age of the Earth," in Darwin, Evolution and Creation, P.A. Zimmerman, ed; St. Louis: Concordia, 1959, pp. 144,145).

It is also possible that time had a different quality before sin entered the universe. This would make it impossible for us to pinpoint the time of creation.

Concerning the age of the earth, Mark Twain wryly commented:

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. This is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian period just a million years ago next November, the lower Mississippi river was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod. And, by the same token, any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now, the lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along with a single mayor and a mutual board of Alderman. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns out of such a trifle investment of fact (Samuel L. Clemens, Life on the Mississippi, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1874, p. 156).

We again want to emphasize that the age of the earth is not the main issue in the Bible/science debate; it is chance versus design. Old Testament authority Ronald Youngblood offers a fitting conclusion:

No one knows for certain, of course, when the beginning was. But the Old Testament is far more interested in the fact of creation than the time of creation, and the simple truth that Gods creative activity took place during an indeterminate time known as "the beginning" was joyfully celebrated by poet (Ps. 102.25) and prophet (Isa. 40:21) alike (Ronald Youngblood, How It All Began, Ventura, California: Regal Books, 1980, p. 22).
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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