Science, Scripture and the Age of the Earth
There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the six days in which God created heaven and earth were long periods of time stretching to thousands or millions of years. If the Bible is so clear on this point, why then has there been so much controversy about this matter?
The Rise of Science
The answer is that many have been trying to harmonize what was perceived to be scientific truth with what is written in Genesis 1. Prior to the nineteenth century, the age of the earth was generally regarded at about six thousand years and there was no concerted effort to make the days of Genesis 1 into something more than that. However, with the rise of scientific theories, (initially especially the study of geology), all that changed. The gap theory and the day-age theory (which earlier articles in this series dealt with) were the two main means used to attempt to harmonize what science had concluded and what Scripture said.
Should one not be concerned with what science is saying? There is certainly a legitimate place for science; but, when we are dealing with issues like the creation or origin of the world about which science can say nothing in the strict sense of what science is all about,1 we need to rely on God's account of what happened. He was there. He created the heaven and the earth. And He has informed us in His Word what we need to know about that topic. Accepting that account for what it is, namely God's Word, must be our starting point. "By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear" (Hebrews 11:3; cf. Job 38:4; Isaiah 40:25, 28).
The latest theory from science about origins should not influence one's exegesis. When one surveys the vast majority of "conservative" literature on the subject of Genesis 1, it is obvious that there is still far too much concern to harmonize Scripture with the current scientific theories on how the world began. These theories come and go. But the Word remains forever and it is that Word that must be understood in the first place, not on the basis of what science is doing, but on the basis of what Scripture itself says about the issues under discussion.
We live in an age in which often more is expected of science and large periods of time than of the ability of God to create as recounted in His Word. It is therefore interesting to note that in the early centuries of Christian exegesis Augustine suggested that God created everything in a single moment. The days thus expressed not the temporal but the causal order in which the parts of creation relate to each other.2 Although this exegesis is to be rejected, it does reveal something of the mind-set of one like Augustine. Such an understanding presupposes that God did not need six days to do what He surely could have done in a single day or even in an instant! Such a view assumes that God is omnipotent and that He can do whatever He desires. But such an assumption hardly functions in our scientific age. Instead one often sees contrived ways of making room for large periods of time in which the origin of the world could have taken place. Today, Biblical scholars often appear embarrassed by the work of creation taking place in six days and seek ways to avoid such a conclusion. In the evolutionistic thinking of this secularized age there is no place for Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth. We must be very careful that this worldly spirit does not influence our approach to the creation account in Genesis.
The Age of the Earth
A question that is often raised in this context is: How old is the world? Very briefly, the following two factors should be noted.
It is not the purpose of Scripture to answer such questions of curiosity. However, what the Bible tells us is true and needs to be taken into account also when discussing issues like the age of the earth. Two critical factors immediately stand out. First of all the length of the days during which God created all things. We have seen that these were not long periods of time, but days as we also experience days, with evening and morning, darkness and light. The second factor is the genealogies which are found in Genesis 5 and 11.
Can the genealogies be used to compute precisely the amount of time that has elapsed from creation? The answer is no. The reason is that genealogies recorded in Scripture frequently omitted generations. A well-known example is the genealogy found in Matthew 1. In Matthew 1:8, three names which are found elsewhere are missing between Joram and Uzziah; namely Ahaziah (2 Kings 8:25; 2 Chronicles 22:1), Joash (2 Kings 11:1; 2 Chronicles 24:1) and Amaziah (2 Kings 14:1; 2 Chronicles 25:1) and in verse 11 Jehoiakim is omitted after Josiah (2 Kings 23:34). Indeed, in verse 1 the entire genealogy is summed up thus: "Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Many Old Testament examples can also be mentioned.3 Genealogies were often reduced because a full listing was not necessary for the purpose of the author. This should make us cautious in assessing the chronological value of the genealogies found in Genesis 5 and 11. Indeed we know, for example, that Genesis 11:12 skips a generation. It says that "when Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Selah." From Luke 3:38 we know that the name of Cainan has been omitted so that if there are no other omissions, Genesis 11:12 actually tells us that when Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the grandfather of Selah by begetting Cainan, (for according to Luke 3:36, Cainan is the father of Selah). The point is that terms like "became the father of" or "begot" do not necessarily indicate direct father and son relationship. The expression "became the father of" can refer to a grandfather or great-grandfather relationship to the distant relative who is named, rather than referring to an immediate offspring. As one scholar has correctly expressed it: "So in Genesis 5 and 11, 'A begot B may often mean simply that A begat (the line culminating in) B'."4
In the light of the above, it is understandable that the Bible never deduces a chronological statement from these genealogies. Nowhere are the numbers given in these genealogies totaled. Scripture does not tell us how much time elapsed from the creation of the world or from the worldwide flood. (Scripture does give numbers of years for other important events. Cf. Exodus 12:40 and 1 Kings 8:1.) The genealogies in Genesis 5 and 11 do not have as their purpose to give chronological information and we should therefore not use them for that end.
We must thus reject the famous calculation of James Ussher (1581-1656) by which he placed creation at 4004 B.C., a date he derived in part also by using the genealogies in Genesis as a chronological tool. On the other hand, the Old Testament gives every reason to believe that the world is thousands and not millions or even billions of years old. Since the Bible does not tell us how old the world is, a precise answer cannot be given on that basis. Among those who accept that God created everything in six days, the age of the earth that is often mentioned is no more than ten thousand years. The evaluation of the scientific data on which such a date is based is beyond my competence;5 but such an age does not seem impossible in the light of Scripture.