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?