It is of course a point of concern for those who are young-earth Creationists, partly because of their literalist method of interpreting the Bible which demands a young earth, partly because a young earth is used to deny the considerable length of time required by evolutionary biology. This of course has led to frankly embarrassing arguments being advanced to defend a young earth, such as:
* The speed of light is decaying
* The earth's magnetic field is decaying
* Radiometric dating is wrong
These arguments - as pointed out - are wrong, and advancing them does our credibility as much harm as defending geocentrism would do.
There are doubtless many who trust that mainstream science is not a cabal of atheists out to destroy faith in God, but simply do not know how we know the earth is ancient. Recently, Robert Hazen, a geologist from the Carnegie Institution in Washington has published an article <1> in Evolution: Education and Outreach on this topic. It's open-access, so I'll link to it here in both its HTML and PDF versions. In overview, the methods Hazen points out are:
Annual Rock Clocks: sedimentary rocks have annual layers called varves which arise from annual variations in sediment deposition.:
One of the more dramatic examples is found in the Green River Shale in Wyoming, with more than one million layerings. Not only does this refute a global flood (what natural phenomenon would settle down one million alternating fine layers of sediment?) but it is direct evidence of an earth at least one million years old.
Other examples of layering can be found in thick ice sheets such as those in Antarctica and Greenland, which show layered patterns arising from annual variations in snow falls. These can show up to 160 000 layers which is irreconcilable with an age of 6000 years derived from a literal interpretation of Genesis.
Geologic Rates: these include:
* The rate of formation of the islands of Hawaii via volcanic activity (1000 years per metre; height of 10200 metres --> approx. 1 million years)
* The rate of formation of the Atlantic ocean via tectonic drift (3700 km / 2.5 cm per year drift) --> 148 million years
Radiometric dating: utilises the fact that certain elements occur in radioactive isotopes, which decay according to a fixed decay rate. For example, Carbon-14 has a half life of 5730 years, while Uranium-238 has a half life of nearly 4500 million years. The methods used to date rocks utilise these known decay rates to infer the date of formation of these deposits.
Creationist attsacks on these methods have been refuted repeatedly by mainstream science - it is telling that the only people who challenge modern dating methods are the creationists, which show that the motivation for this assault is not scientific but theological. Other creationists appear to accept that the battle cannot be won in the field of science, so retreat to the Omphalos argument. Advanced by Philip Gosse, it claims that just as Adam would have been created with a navel, Earth too was created with an apparent appearance of age. Hazen notes that:
Not only is it devastating to rational thought, it portrays God as deceptive, a position with which I am deeply uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this argument is still being advanced by Christians today, in order to defend thir YEC exegetical model against an avalanche of evidence for an ancient earth. Recently, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has spoken out on this subject, not only criticising the BioLogos foundation, but advancing in all seriousness the Omphalos argument. His concluding words are shown below:
The testimony of the rocks is unambiguous: an enormous body of observational evidence points to the reality of deep time. Annual ice and rock layerings reveal a million years of Earth history. Geologic rates of mountain building, erosion and plate tectonics demand hundreds of millions of years. Radiometric dating pushes the history back billions of years. And when these techniques overlap, their independent estimates of the timing of ancient events are internally consistent. Any claim that Earth’s age is 10,000 years or less defies the overwhelming and unambiguous observational evidence, not to mention the laws of physics and chemistry. Such a “young-Earth” chronology is based entirely on a rigid, some would say idiosyncratic, reading of certain translations of the Bible. There is no science in “scientific creationism,” nor intelligence in “intelligent design.”
The only alternative for a person who believes in a young Earth is that God has falsified Earth’s record to test our faith—a conclusion first expounded by the exacting American naturalist and devout believer Philip Gosse in 1857 (Gosse 1998). In his treatise Omphalos (named for the Greek “navel,” because motherless Adam was created with a navel so as to look as if born by woman), Gosse catalogues hundreds of pages of unambiguous evidence for an ancient Earth. And then, remarkably, he proceeds to describe how God created everything 10,000 years ago to look much older!
Some readers may find comfort in this unfalsifiable Creationist loophole of “created antiquity” or “prechronism.” We observe stars and galaxies that are billions of light years away so one might conclude that light has been traveling through space for all those billions of years. But, no, according to the doctrine of created antiquity, the universe was created with light from those stars and galaxies already on its way to Earth. We observe rocks with characteristic ancient ratios of radioactive and daughter isotopes. Presumably, the rocks are ancient. But no, those rocks were created with just the right mixtures of uranium, lead, potassium, and carbon to make them appear much older than they really are.
Here, scientists are stymied. It is difficult to imagine any experiment or observation that could disprove the doctrine of created antiquity. Any result of any measurement that reveals evidence for deep time, no matter what it is, can be dismissed—explained away as misleading and false just by saying “God created the universe that way to look much older.” But the implications of such a contention are devastating to rational thought. I refuse to accept the idea that any God would bestow such precious gifts as our senses and reason, seemingly to understand His creation, and then try to fool us. <2>
Mohler's argument cannot be refuted since it is ouside science, but it is vulnerable to attack on non-scientific grounds. Ultimately, Mohler is claiming that an earth created with multiple independently converging dating systems yielding an age of approximately 4600 million years glorifies God. This of course does nothing to deflect the criticism that this makes God to be deceptive.
I want to suggest to you that when it comes to the confrontation between evolutionary theory and the Christian gospel we have a head-on collision. In the confrontation between secular science and the scripture we have a head-on collision. I want to suggest to you that it is our responsibility to give an answer when we are asked the question “Why does the universe look so old?” In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question. But I want to suggest to you that the most natural understanding from the scripture of how to answer that question comes to this: The universe looks old because the creator made it whole. When he made Adam, Adam was not a fetus; Adam was a man; he had the appearance of a man. By our understanding that would’ve required time for Adam to get old but not by the sovereign creative power of God. He put Adam in the garden. The garden was not merely seeds; it was a fertile, fecund, mature garden. The Genesis account clearly claims that God creates and makes things whole.
Secondly—and very quickly—if I’m asked why does the universe look so old, I have to say it looks old because it bears testimony to the affects of sin. And testimony of the judgment of God. It bears the effects of the catastrophe of the flood and catastrophes innumerable thereafter. I would suggest to you that the world looks old because as Paul says in Romans chapter 8 it is groaning. And in its groaning it does look old. It gives us empirical evidence of the reality of sin. And even as this cosmos is the theater of God’s glory, it is the theater of God’s glory for the drama of redemption that takes place here on this planet in telling the story of the redemptive love of God. Is this compatible with the claim that the universe is 4.5 billion years old in terms of earth, 13.5 billion years old in terms of the larger universe? Even though that may not be the first and central question it is an inescapable question and I would suggest to you that in our effort to be most faithful to the scriptures and most accountable to the grand narrative of the gospel an understanding of creation in terms of 24-hour calendar days and a young earth entails far fewer complications, far fewer theological problems and actually is the most straightforward and uncomplicated reading of the text as we come to understand God telling us how the universe came to be and what it means and why it matters.
At the end of the day, if I’m asked the question “why does the universe look so old?” I’m simply left with the reality that the universe is telling the story of the glory of God. Why does it look so old? Well that, in terms of any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days. And that is where we are left.
Scholars at BioLogos have not been slow in responding to Mohler's claim. The most useful so far is that of Peter Enns, an OT scholar who used to work at Westminster Theological Seminary and is best known to lay readers for his work on inspiration. Enns argues that Mohler's view is susceptible to criticism on a number of grounds:
Ambiguity over what a "direct reading of the text" means:
An old earth challenges the "overwhelming untroubled consensus of the church"
The Bible is made up of all sorts of ways of communicating truth, and literalness is one of them and should not be brushed aside. We are not suggesting such a thing. But the Bible also speaks in metaphors and symbols. Often times those metaphors and symbols reflect the worldview of the ancient context of the Bible. I strongly believe that taking all of this into account is more faithful to the Bible than insisting on a literal interpretation.
This is indeed not the theological hill to die on. Enns' point about the inconsistency between literalism with respect to the age of the earth and literalism with respect to geocentrism is a fatal blow to Mohler's position. I am reminded of the sceptic Robert Schadewald who argued that flat earth Christians, geocentrists and YECs were the conservative, moderate and liberal wings of fundamentalist Christianity. Flat earth Christians may be rare, but they are the only ones truly consistent with the literalist exegetical model.
Many scholars have noted the similarity between the discussion over the age of the earth and heliocentricity in Galileo’s day....As scientific evidence became clear, it led the church to accept that the biblical geocentric model of the cosmos simply reflected their ancient point of view. This did not lead to an abandonment of the Bible as God’s Word, but only readjusting expectations of what we have the right to find there. I know you accept heliocentricity, but it is not clear to me what your reasoning process is. The biblical authors, along with all ancient peoples, assumed the earth was stationary and that the sun moved. Would that not require us to do likewise?
I would be interested in hearing more about why you wouldn’t feel the same way about a Young Earth as you do about geocentricism. You do not accept the scientific data that points to an actual old earth but only an apparently old earth. But from what I can tell, you don’t argue for a solar system where the sun only appears to be at the center. Why do you allow some scientific evidence to adjust our understanding of the Bible and not others?
I also do not agree with you that before the 17th century there was as much of an “overwhelming untroubled consensus” as you suggest. For example, in the first few centuries of the Christian era we see a lot of very informed discussion about how to handle Genesis 1 (as well as Genesis 2-3).3 I appreciate your qualifier: you acknowledge that there was some diversity on how to handle Genesis. Still, you leave the impression that the history of the church has essentially interpreted Genesis as literally as you do.
But my main concern here is not to point out the church’s diversity on interpreting Genesis 1. Rather, I am concerned that you make it such a matter of orthodoxy. As you know, St. Augustine did not hold to a literal six-day creation, but an instantaneous creation. Oddly enough, this fits much better with the modern notion of a Big Bang, but that was not on his radar screen. He was actually influenced by Greek philosophy, and so his view did not gain a lot of acceptance thereafter. Christians have disagreed with Augustine, but it is hard to find someone who would warn others about him because of his views on Genesis 1. It was not a theological hill to die on.
Defending YEC on scientific grounds is a lost cause - knowledge of the antiquity of the earth predated Darwin. Defending it on a literal reading of Genesis forces YECs to adopt a theological position that makes God the author of a lie, or one that is entirely arbitrary in its literalism. Neither way leads to intellectual integrity or a respect for God's word.
1. Hazen RM "How Old is Earth, and How Do We Know?" Evo Edu Outreach (2010) 3:198–205
2. ibid, p 204
Edited by KenGilmore, 09 July 2010 - 04:56 AM.