On the old earth – Part 1 of 2

We need to approach the potentially explosive and devicive topic of the age of the earth from two distinct standpoints if we are to make any fruitful headway.

The first standpoint is one of “what does the Bible explicitly teach?” Because if the Bible tells us that the earth is 6,000-10,000 years old then we are certainly obligated to believe God in spite of what we may find by the second question of “what has science been able to prove?”

Of all the theologians who write on this subject, I must admit I have an affinity for Dr John Sailhammer, a messianic Jew, who has written extensively in this area. His best work is Genesis Unbound (I have a copy if anyone is interested) wherein he explores both the actual Hebrew words and grammar used in Genesis as well as the translation history surrounding Genesis.

One of his biggest contentions is that how we understand Genesis today is actually coloured not primarily by current scientific trends, but by a whole translation history stretching back to the Greeks who had a distinct view of the origin of the universe as emanating from some sort of cosmic ooze. The tell-tale signs of this understanding of origins is actually detectable in Genesis 1:2 in the phrase “the Earth was without form and void”. The first question raised here is why God would create anything “formless and void”. Arther Custance’s work “Without form and void” also has a lot to say about this.

The next question at Genesis 1:2 is, if we are supposing that Genesis is a recipe for the creation of all the cosmos, when did God create that formless void? Why start with a formless void in the first place? How old is that formless void? What makes this question even more poignant is that in verse 1:2 we are further told that “darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters”.

Wait, where did the deep come from, where did the water come from?

If nothing else, we immediately know from Genesis 1:2 alone that there is far more to the creation story than we have been given.

And here we get to the crux of the matter. Why was Genisis given to us? Sailhammer and almost all other theologians agree that the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) are written as a literary set. What is the main focus of this set?

The promised land.

It is commonly accepted even among Jews today that the land (erets) in Genesis is not the entire earth but the promised land. This is made explicit in Genesis 2 where the creation narrative is repeated with an even narrower emphasis placed on the creation of man.

Another peculiarity that arises in the text if we read Genesis with the Greek mindset that it is a blueprint for the creation of the universe is that we have to read Genesis 1:1 as a summary or introduction as opposed to an otherwise informative statement. In other words, Genesis 1:1, on the blueprint model (which is required for the young earth view to hold), would make this the only time in Scripture where any author summarizes what they are going to say before they say it.

Conversely, the sentence structure along with the choice of words used here seem to strongly indicate that while God created certain things in the Genesis narrative that did not exist before, many things were “made”, likely from preexisting material. This conclusion we can easily come to because there are two words used in the Hebrew, asa (made) and bara (created) and the word for created is not used exclusively (which is what you would expect to find if Genesis was a blueprint for the original and unique creation of the universe).

I’ll briefly mention yom here as well in order to preempt any further discussion or from being side-tracked. While I think Hugh Ross has a good point that a 24-hour day would certainly be hard to determine before the chronology of the cosmos was established circa day 4, I have no problem accepting that the days in Genesis were literal 24 hour days. Why not? The question here is not what is within the view of the text but what we are not told (which is made clear by the existence of something rather than nothing in Genesis 1:2 where, per the Genesis-as-blueprint model, we should not expect anything to pre-exist the creation narrative.

So, does the Genesis require us to accept a young view of the earth? I don’t think so. It’s at this point that the addition of the genealogies is what constrains us to a younger view of the earth. However this is rather spurious as it is 1. not attested to by the early church fathers or from the Jews prior to the NT (or Jews now). It is surprising that, if this is such a central doctrine, it took until the 15th century before an Anglican Bishop (Ussher) decided it worthwhile to add up the genealogies. Prior to this, the notion that the earth was young was either not considered to frankly be of much import. The few authors who did venture a guess of the age of the earth (like Augustine) only did so in order to combat the prevailing Platonic notion that the essence of the universe was eternal; again, this ancient Greek-based view is what is seen in how Genesis 1:2 is commonly rendered with a “formless and void” substance pre-existing the creation narrative. I also would argue that the notion that any majority of orthodox theologians tacitly accepted a young earth view is, at the least, not very clearly established at all and that many theologians either avoided the question altogether or exhibited the same baggage we know existed at least from the Greek understanding of how the earth was formed.

So, can we (with sufficient epistemic and Biblical warrant) maintain that the earth was created in 6 literal days while still maintaining that the earth and universe could be very old? I believe we can as the text certainly does not constrain us in any fashion in regards to the age of the earth.

Finally (in the Biblical section at least), let’s examine the common claim regarding death before the fall.

First of all, I would point out that the death that comes into the world as a result of the fall of Adam and Even is primarily the death of humans. Even if we were to say it effects all of creation we must still explain how animals existed prior to the fall. The common young earth view is that all animals were vegetarians. While this may be a plausible answer in regards to larger animals like Lions who might choose to be herbivores in extreme circumstances (such as the lions at the London zoo during WWII), it fails to address the animals (specifically insects and arachnids like spiders), whose physiological make-up prevents them from subsisting on anything other than other animals.

I’ll move on to the scientific evidence in a bit but I think this branch of the discussion would prove to be most fruitful going further as the death evident in nature is actually what convinced Darwin himself to abandon his Christian beliefs.

Now to move on towards what Science says.

Regardless of the popular notion among creationists that “the science surrounding the dating of the universe is constantly changing” the reality is that while the estimates do vary, none of them come close to the 10,000-6,000 years of the young earth model. One thing to keep in mind is that any credible competing theory to the older view of the earth needs to adequately account for all findings such as Hubble’s Law and the cosmic background radiation of the universe. The reality is that among contemporary physical cosmologists, the notion that the earth could be less than 3 billion years is regarded as being as improbable as Darwinian evolution. In fact, many proponents of intelligent design are also strong adherents to an older view of the universe.

The real issue here is how we choose to approach science and what we are inclined to accept or reject out of hand as a result of our philosophical presuppositions we bring to the table. For example, why do we, at the outset, mistrust scientific findings? I find this attitude towards science strange indeed considering that most of the greatest scientists have been Christians like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon (the fathers of modern science) who were able to formulate hypothesis and subsequently test them because they believed that the universe was created according to perceptible laws in such a manner that we could, through careful observation, discover and exploit to our own ends. I believe in the ~400 years since we’ve seen this theory science is based on to be proven time and again. So why is it that only now we are beginning to mistrust the scientific method and the scientists that employ it?

I believe we should be cautious here lest we fall prey to another doctrine of Genesis that many (though not all) in the church felt at one time was absolutely required. That is, the heliocentric model or the view that the earth was the center of the universe. We need to understand that if science is forcing their bad philosophy (and I’ll agree with you that much of science now is directed by a philosophical presupposition of naturalism/materialism) on us now, it is only because they are following in the footsteps of religions that have stumped scientific progress throughout history. And this is not limited to Christianity by any stretch. Christianity’s offenses here are actually limited than in other cultures. But there have been offenses propagated by faulty couplings of theology and science. I’m not saying we should never join theology and science (for example, our theology gives us the basis for science AND gives us certain definites such as the universe having a definite beginning), only that we should be very cautious in where we plant our flag on what the Bible constrains us to believe.

Moving on; Sure, there is a lot of junk science out there like global warming and Darwinian evolution. However these share something in common, neither contain any evidence nor are they able to adequately answer competing evidence.

So, to sum it all up. Without explicit Biblical evidence one way or another and given the wealth of scientific evidence against a young earth view, I am inclined to favor an older view of the universe.

Also, in response to the statement “I don’t place my trust in man’s wisdom, but in God’s.” I think a quote from Galileo Galilei will suffice:
I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

Romans 1 tells us that God wants us to know him through his creation. Scripture tells us that God desires to be known. Why would we think that God would thwart our honest attempts at knowing, at least in part, either?

Share/Bookmark

10 Responses to On the old earth – Part 1 of 2

  1. This is interesting. In one post, you say – "Many say there is not a shred of evidence to support ID, and I would grant that they are correct..
    ..provided your criteria for acceptable evidence is dictated by your prior commitment to philosophical naturalism as opposed to a truly open commitment to truth regardless of where it may lead."

    Then in this post you say – "…we are certainly obligated to believe God in spite of what we may find by the second question of “what has science been able to prove?”

    Are you advocating a "truly open commitment to truth regardless of where it may lead", for those who disregard ID based on a lack of evidence?

    And are you encouraging believers to "believe God in spite of what we may find" with regard to the lack of evidence?

    I may have misread you, but that is what it seems you are saying.

    • Hey Bob thanks for the question.

      It is imperative that anyone who is honest in their pursuit of truth be open to at least the possibility of being wrong. That is, they need to have clear and objective rules governing their thought process, what they deem as credible, etc. as opposed to simply rejecting data outright because we don't like it's implications. I mentioned this by way of combating a problem I see on both sides of the creation/evolution debate when it comes to the acceptance or rejection of evidence a-priori simply because it does not line up with someone's philosophical presuppositions.

      That said the second part is to combat a problem posed by the other end of the pendulum wherein we accept everything without question. My sentiment here is that if we have good reasons for believing something and we are given possible defeaters we ought not to abandon our initial beliefs before we've done our due diligence in examining them throughly.

      Hope that helps clear things up.

  2. Well, it doesn't really clear it up for me, but I am a tad slow anyway. To many distractions over the years.

    You said – "My sentiment here is that if we have good reasons for believing something and we are given possible defeaters we ought not to abandon our initial beliefs before we've done our due diligence in examining them throughly. "

    Why not abandon our initial beliefs? I do not consider my beliefs as sacred. What I believe (conclude) now is of no importance to me. If I discover sufficient evidence in support of ID, I would only be slightly hesitant to abandon my current conclusions. The theory of evolution has no impact on my day to day life. And even if it was my area of study, expertise, even if for the past 30 years I was devoted to the study, discovery, and teaching of evolution, if I discovered evidence that was sufficient to cause me to question what I have concluded for so long, I could easily change my conclusions.

    I am guessing you know many, many believers (Christians) who did "0" due diligence and "0" thorough examination before they adopted their "initial beliefs" in the Christian God. Likewise, I am guessing that most of the believers you know or come in contact with have done very little, if any, due diligence or thorough examination to see if they have any reason to maintain the religious beliefs they have held for so long.

    I guess my point is, why don't all of us, evolutionists, creationists, just abandon our preconceptions and start from scratch.

    In other words, I'll abandon my conclusion that evolution is the best explanation as to how we got here if you'll abandon your belief that ID is the best explanation, and we can just start over.

    Could you do that? I am confident that I could.

    What is your impression of a person who can abandon long held beliefs?
    What is your impression of a person who can't abandon long held beliefs?

    • "Could you do that? I am confident that I could."

      Well, I am certainly willing provided I have both sufficient defeaters for my beliefs along with a more plausible set of competing beliefs that are better able to fit the epistemic void left by the removal of the aforementioned beliefs.

      Part of my exhortation to believers to maintain their beliefs is due to the fact that while some answers may pose epistemic difficulties they do not necessarily pose as sufficient defeaters nor do they necessarily have valid and better competing beliefs with which to replace their current ones.

      "What is your impression of a person who can abandon long held beliefs?"
      I applaud those who are willing but I seriously question the intellectual stability of those who change their beliefs with little or no warrant.

      "What is your impression of a person who can't abandon long held beliefs?"
      Those that are unwilling arguably do not hold well-reasoned beliefs at the outset. In such cases it matters little what one believes because the problem is in how they believe it. In this case that would amount to an irrationally held belief.

      However, a person who chooses to maintain a belief even thought it has come under fire and doubt has been introduced is actually more laudable in my opinion since the demonstrate a proper epistemic attitude wherein one does not trade in beliefs lightly.

      That brings me to another issue I noticed in your last comment. You seem to indicate that you do not think that beliefs are important. Can you elaborate on that sentiment some more? I ask because I would contend that beliefs drive all actions and decisions we make.

  3. Wes, I get the impression, from the entirety of your last response, that in your mind, having beliefs, nurturing those beliefs, and maintaining those beliefs, is incredibly important.

    This is completely foreign to me, which will lead me into answering your question / statement in the last paragraph.
    Let me just say that I consider truth, reality, of utmost importance when it comes to living our lives.
    A person can certainly live their life ignoring truth and reality, but for me, I have no desire to "believe" anything.
    I much prefer to "conclude" based on evidence and facts.

    Wes – "You seem to indicate that you do not think that beliefs are important. Can you elaborate on that sentiment some more?"

    I guess we would have to define "important". I think beliefs greatly affect our decision making and how we view our physical and social environment. There is pretty much no way of escaping that…I guess.
    I think what is most "important" about beliefs is not that we have them, but that we understand how they influence us.
    With that said, I don't know that I think beliefs are, lets say, necessary. I don't think there is anything inherently good or beneficial in having beliefs. I think it is obvious from observing humanity that beliefs can influence people to do good, and to do bad.

    Wes – "I ask because I would contend that beliefs drive all actions and decisions we make."

    I would probably agree, for the most part. For we make good decisions and bad. We commit good actions and bad.
    I don't know that beliefs drive "all" actions and decisions we make, but I guess the point could be made.

    So, how does this fact make beliefs "important"?

    I would reiterate that the real importance in beliefs is understanding them. Understanding how they influence us.

    May I ask, how old were you when you first came to believe in the God of the bible?
    Did you have "good reasons for believing" in God when you first came to believe?
    Did you practice "due diligence" in examining your "initial beliefs" before you adopted them?
    I haven't thoroughly read through your blog – are you Calvinistic in your beliefs?

    • I fear we might be suffering from a breakdown in terminology here as I would maintain that a belief and what you term a "conclusion" are one and the same. I would also readily agree that truth and reality are much more important than my thoughts, perceptions or conclusions regarding reality but the truth is that our perception of truth and reality is necessarily filtered through our cognitive faculties such that our beliefs or perceptions of reality color how we interact with reality and therefore effect all aspects of our lives.

      "I think what is most "important" about beliefs is not that we have them, but that we understand how they influence us."

      Agreed.

      "I don't think there is anything inherently good or beneficial in having beliefs."

      Also agreed. I would also add that all people have beliefs. That we are built in such a way as to operate almost exclusively upon beliefs.

      "May I ask, how old were you when you first came to believe in the God of the bible?"

      I was 17 when I decided to examine not only Christianity but Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And when I did conclude that Christianity was true it was for solid reasons. Not that I had nothing else to learn but what I did learn or come to accept as true rather has remained the bedrock of my faith for well over a decade now.

      "I haven't thoroughly read through your blog – are you Calvinistic in your beliefs?"

      I was at one point. However now I throughly reject it (well, I reject it in mostly the same way the remonstrants rejected it) and argue against it frequently.

      BTW: You might be interested in my posts regarding the formation of beliefs. I absolutely love the area of study known as epistemology or the study of knowledge (which includes the formation and differentiation between beliefs and knowledge).

  4. Wes – "I fear we might be suffering from a breakdown in terminology here as I would maintain that a belief and what you term a "conclusion" are one and the same."

    Young Mormon children are raised with Mormon beliefs, not Mormon conclusions.

    If Catholics "concluded" that communion wine and wafer actually become the blood and body of Christ, it should be after testing, study, testimony, and research…but it is not. Catholics "believe" that communion wine and waffer actually become the blood and body of Christ, so no due diligence is required.

    This is how I am using the word – To arrive at (a logical conclusion or end) by the process of reasoning; infer on the basis of convincing evidence.

    Obviously, a belief can be adopted without reasoning or convincing evidence. Strike up a conversation with any four year old..

    When I became a Christian (I was 17 also, and gave up my faith 25 years later) I did so without examining the claims made to me –
    that I was a lost sinner (how do you examine that),
    that Jesus was the son of God (again, how do you examine that),
    that Jesus died to save me from my sins (I honestly don't know how I could have examined that),
    and that if I agree with Jesus and accept his forgiveness for my sins, I would be saved, etc, etc, etc.

    In other words, I "believed" in Jesus, I didn't conclude that the claims of Christianity were true.

    I agree, and admit that I to have beliefs. And I admit that they influence my actions and thoughts.

    I "believe" most US politicians practice deception to get elected and then to stay elected.
    For this reason, I haven't voted since Reagen's election.

    Now, if I did some research (due diligence), I might find that only 49% of them have actually lied their way into office. In that case, my belief that most of them are guilty, would be wrong.

    At any rate, my belief that most of them lack integrity influences me to maintain a "what's the use" attitude.

    Wes – "I did conclude that Christianity was true it was for solid reasons."

    I would be interested in a few of those reasons. Not necessarily the reasons that you have now, but especially the ones that convinced you then, at 17.

    (Concerning Calvinism) Wes – "I was at one point. However now I throughly reject it (well, I reject it in mostly the same way the remonstrants rejected it) and argue against it frequently."

    Interesting. I was pretty sure you were of the Calvinism camp, and honestly, I expected any day now for you to begin insulting me, ridiculing me, and in general, being nasty to me.
    Darn preconceptions.
    But that has been my experience with them.

    You are obviously very intelligent and well read. And coming from me, a middle aged man who never went to college and barely graduated high school, you should still consider it a compliment.

    I will do some more reading in your blog as time permits. I am very interested in your thoughts.

    • There is certainly a difference between knowledge and belief in the sense that a person can believe anything but a person may only know the truth. Like I said, this whole topic is better fleshed out elsewhere where I discuss the subject of formation of beliefs and what constitutes knowledge. But to answer how a person can conclude with enough warrant to constitute knowledge that Jesus in fact rose from the dead. I would have to say that the proper objective tests for truth must be applied and that when the evidence for the resurrection of Christ is examined in a reasonable and objective manner (meaning the same way you would any other historical event) I believe enough evidence exists to warrant the conclusion that Jesus did, in fact, raise from the dead.

      "And coming from me, a middle aged man who never went to college and barely graduated high school, you should still consider it a compliment."

      Answering as a nearing-middle-age man who never went to college and barely graduated high school, I do consider it a compliment. Thanks! :-)

  5. Hello. I just discovered your site while searching for a copy of Sailhammer's Genesis Unbound. Do you have a copy that you are willing to share? There seems to be robust discussion here, so I will have to read more of your posts.

    • Hey Joshua. I do have a copy of Genesis Unbound but I am afraid I can't lend it out at the moment. Keep an eye on eBay and Amazon's used books, though. That is where I found my copy, for cheap too!

Leave a Reply