Just how old is the Earth? In a civilisation accustomed to measuring and quantifying everything, that is a question we naturally ask. We know the distance from London to New York, and the distance between one molecule and another. Can we not also know the distance between the present and the beginning of time?
In the ancient world no one would have asked such a question. There would have been little point. How would you have dated a lump of rock, or an ocean of water? The only way of dating the Earth would have been to count the number of human generations from the present back to the Creation, and that would have been possible only if the Earth was young enough for a complete genealogical record to have been kept. So far as we know, the only people who even purported to have a genealogy going that far back were the Israelites.
Measuring and quantifying everything began to become normal in the 17th century, at which point some people did begin to ask how old the Earth was. One such was James Ussher (1581-1656). He answered the question by counting up the years in what he took to be a complete genealogical record in the book of Genesis, from Abraham all the way back to Adam. Since Abraham, Israel’s forefather, could be dated at least roughly to the late 3rd millennium (Ussher dated his birth to 2008 BC), it followed that the age of the Earth was less than 6,000 years. A civilisation preoccupied with numbers had wanted a complete chronology of the world, and Ussher came up with one. In time, however, his chronology for the prehistoric period became increasingly problematic. Unconvinced that the Bible provided a short-cut to the age of the Earth, many preferred to reason the other way: the Earth was certainly older than 6,000 years, and either the genealogies in Genesis were not complete or (the more common suggestion) the five days of Creation preceding Adam were not literal days. Possibly both.
The discoveries which prompted this change in thinking were primarily geological. The earliest geologists had sought to make sense of phenomena within a framework where God had created all things and the only globally significant event thereafter had been Noah’s Flood. That was not how phenomena, without that framework, now appeared. Meditating on the continual erosion of rocks into the sea, James Hutton (1726-97) concluded that the Earth went through cycles. The destruction of one continent was balanced by the production of another and it was impossible to say how long such cycles had lasted. William Smith (1769-1839) showed that fossils followed a predictable stratigraphic order, so that if one knew enough about the fossil content of a rock unit one would be able to place it in that overall sequence and assign it a relative date. Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) also recognised an extended sequence, punctuated along the way by multiple flood-like ‘revolutions’ that caused whole categories of animals to go extinct. Each new age was recolonised by animals that had survived the disaster. Without being explicit, Cuvier left open the possibility that the last of these revolutions could have been the biblical flood, although it was not associated with any human fossils. Whether the identification was valid or not, the notion that Noah’s Flood was but one of many successive catastrophes merely begged the question how the huge amount of preceding geological history fitted in. On the other side of the English Channel, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) argued that catastrophes were not necessary to explain geological change at all; past phenomena could be adequately explained on the assumption that the agents of change were of the same kind and operated at the same rate as those observable today. As time passed, the fauna and flora fossilised in its rocks became progressively more like modern organisms and represented a succession of ages, none of which could be identified as ending with a global inundation. The Earth must be millions of years old.
Those who accepted the authority of Genesis but recognised the strength of evidence indicating much longer stretches of time than Genesis seemed to allow found themselves in a dilemma. What the Bible told them about the world should have been at one with what the world itself was telling them, but it wasn’t. What were they to do? Denounce geologists as enemies of the truth, interested only in undermining the Bible’s trustworthi- ness? In 1857 the naturalist Philip Gosse published his solution: Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot.
Gosse saw that a profound problem inhered in the very idea of creation. Plants and animals move in a cycle of birth, reproduction and death. An organism created instantaneously would therefore appear as though it were somewhere along that cycle and had gone through a prior period of development: it would have a false appearance of history, albeit an inevitable one. When God created Adam, he created an apparently mature man, in an apparently mature garden. Adam might even have had a navel (omphalos in Greek).
Before Gosse, the appearance of age was a problem philosophers were prepared to live with. ‘God might have created, and doubtless did create, the world with all the marks of antiquity which it now exhibits,’ wrote Chateaubriand in 1802. This applied to inanimate things as well as animate. When the waves of the ocean first beat upon the land, they crashed upon rocks that ostensibly might have been in existence for ages; it would have been impossible to deduce from their nature that they had arisen by divine fiat. Gosse now bravely went the whole hog. Not only, he suggested, was the Earth created with stratified rocks and living organisms that had the appearance of age, but, in keeping with that appearance, strata might also have been created with the remains of dead organisms. Fossils were simply the organic complement of strata that appeared to have petrified long ages, the inevitable corollary of believing that the world had entered time as a fully functioning whole.
It seems to me that such a notion is more likely to make infidels than to cure them. For what rational man, who knows even a little of geology, will not be tempted to say: If Scripture can only be vindicated by such an outrage to common sense and fact, then I will give up Scripture, and stand by common sense.
Omphalos was the creationist position pushed to its extreme. If the only choice was between believing that God had so created the Earth 6,000 years ago as to make it look older than it was and believing that it really was older, churchmen were bound to join the rest of educated society in preferring the latter.
Unwittingly, Gosse had prepared the way for Darwin’s Origin of Species (published two years later) quite as much as Charles Lyell had. To attach to the Bible the doctrine that the Earth had been created only 6,000 years ago was manifestly to attribute to God an ‘enormous and superfluous lie’.
With John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’s publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961 the philosophical corpse (David Krause’s phrase) was disinterred – the whole creationist package, not just the problem of created antiquity. But the package was no longer quite the same. Whitcomb and Morris accepted that the genealogies probably did contain gaps; the issue was whether there were few or many. They concluded that there were few, for to allow even 5,000 years between the Flood and Abraham was to stretch Genesis 11 ‘almost to breaking point’. Another difference was their attempt to revive an interpretation that, already decades before Gosse, had been rejected as geologically untenable: the idea that a large part of the geological record could be attributed to the Flood. In their view, fossil-bearing strata were not illusory artefacts of Creation but the real outcome of historical, catastrophic processes that could, in principle, be investigated and explained scientifically.
Nonetheless, somewhere below the Flood-deposited strata lay primordial basement. Rocks older than the Cambrian could be from the Flood, from before the Flood, or from the Creation. The problem of created antiquity had therefore not gone away. Indeed, this tripartite division of the rock record remains the creationist position. In a paper published in 2005 creationists Kurt Wise and Andrew Snelling considered where the pre-Flood/Flood boundary was located in the Grand Canyon. Here one can walk into a thick succession of older than Cambrian strata, yet (as everywhere else on Earth) none of the rocks look as though they were created just yesterday. Some are igneous, others are products of erosion from igneous rocks, with sedimentary structures reflecting the strength and direction of flow. Some have a terrestrial character, others marine. Wise and Snelling assumed that, provided they contained no fossils, the deepest were created rocks.
All steps of all provisional cycles were also created with apparent age and history. Plants, for example, require soil. However, plants deplete soil. So there is a cycle of soil eroding into sediments, sediments forming rocks, and rocks eroding into soil to continually replenish the original soil. By definition this cycle, called the rock cycle [actually, the cycle begins with the erosion of igneous rocks into sediments], must generate soil very much like the original soil, or plants would die. Therefore, in the creation, fully functioning soil was created and the process to generate more soil was created and every step in the process of generating soil was also created. Therefore, the complete rock cycle was created with the appearance of age and history.
This all assumes that God was obliged to create everything in six days. But he wasn’t. The decision to create what he created in that period was a free choice, and the presumption ought to be that he would have chosen not to compromise himself by the creation of appearances that conflicted with reality.
The existence of reproducing organisms or of a complete rock cycle would imply age and history only if it were possible for these to come into existence of themselves. The logic of creation is not just that divine power was required to bring anything at all into existence but that it brought into existence only that which could not, by reason of its innate properties, bring itself into existence. If it had been possible for the rock cycle to come into existence of itself, God could have waited until it did and then created plants and animals.
Plants, so far as we know and observe, cannot evolve themselves into being, and in addition animals require the breath of life, which comes directly from God (e.g. Gen 2:7, 7:22, Ps 104:29f). When he created the first human couple, there would have been no question of their appearing to each other as if they had a history of birth and growing up, of origination from some prior couple, or ultimately of an evolutionary origin from ‘some warm little pond’. They were told how they came into existence, and only later did they acquire knowledge of age and biological cycles. Neither of them had a navel simulating a knotted umbilical cord. Neither of them had growth lines in their teeth.
Rocks, by contrast, form naturally, and erode into soil and sand naturally. As Hutton famously observed, they show ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. It is therefore difficult to feel comfortable with the suggestion that God might have created a loamy field, or a sandy beach, or a sequence of rock strata supernaturally. Regardless of the fact that the first couple had no geological knowledge, an instantly created beach, with grains and pebbles, would have looked identical to one that had been deposited at the end of a cycle of magmatism, erosion, transport and re-deposition. By its very nature, it would have implied processes that never happened.
- organic reefs that appear to have formed in situ (whether in the Cambrian or later) must have been torn from the pre-Flood ocean floor and transported to the place where they are now found;
- hardgrounds encrusted with fauna that attached themselves to the seafloor (such as oysters, sea lilies, bryozoa, barnacles, sponges) or that were bored into by acid-secreting organisms formed in a few days, even hours;
- dinosaur tracks, a common feature of Jurassic and Cretaceous surfaces, were made by animals that had survived the initial onslaught of the Flood and now, many kilometres up the pile of Flood deposits, found a temporary landing place where they walked about searching for food (successfully, one infers from the millions of droppings they left behind), laid their eggs and reared their young.
We should avoid the pitfall of insisting on completely naturalistic explanations for accelerated decay. Instead, my approach is to push the science we think we know as far as is reasonable, but remain ready at every point to see that God has intervened, and is intervening.
The Bible is a revelation from our infinite Creator, and it is self-authenticating and self-attesting. I must interpret Scripture with Scripture, not impose ideas from the outside!
If the world outside tells you that the Earth is older than 6,000 years, you should not believe it, because the self-attesting Bible plainly attests that it is.
In reality Scripture does not interpret itself; human beings interpret it, and if they are to do so accurately, we need to be aware that interpretation is a two-way process. How we understand the world inevitably affects how we interpret the Bible, even if we believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. We should be slow to quote the scripture ‘Let God be true and every man a liar’ in defence of human interpretations that leave common sense outraged.
To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.
Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.
From these laws the production of the higher animals directly followed. The Creator was the first cause of all existence; the biological laws he created were secondary causes.
This was a somewhat sophistical argument (quite apart from the suggestion that growth, inheritance, variability etc were laws on a par with physical laws), for Darwin had long ceased to believe in a Creator. But others received it gladly. The distinction between primary and secondary causes was a point borrowed from theology and, as formulated by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, was not contentious. God had created a world that was autonomous and self-existent, inasmuch as the causes of events and actions inhered in the properties of nature itself. God upheld the created order, and ultimately he was sovereign over it and immanent in it. ‘The differing metaphysical levels of primary and secondary causation,’ he wrote, ‘require us to say that any created effect comes totally and immediately from God as the trans- cendent primary cause and totally and immediately from the creature as secondary cause.’ (Carroll 2000)
Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. According to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.
Opinion polls indicate that some 40% of Americans take this view, as do a similar percentage of American scientists (Scott 2000).
A reconciliation of Genesis and reality is effected that is as Gossean, in its own way, as the creationist position is. God created the living world in such a way (it is alleged) that it appears to have created itself. Instead of the false appearance of antiquity, we have the false appearance of having come into existence without a Creator at all.
Astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet and planet. The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, and indeed takes the whole case of the appearance of new species out of the range of science. . . . Why should you or I speak of variation as having been ordained and guided, more than does an astronomer, in discussing the fall of a meteoric stone? He would simply say that it was drawn to our earth by the attraction of gravity.
The activity of God could not be inferred from what we knew about the history of life, for the simple reason that God did not appear to have acted in it and there was no reason to think that he ever did.
support a 10,000-year-old Earth; others accept the Big Bang, an old earth, and radiometric dating, but reject biological evolution’s core idea that living things descended with modification from common ancestors.
Still other proponents, such as Michael Behe, well known for his book Darwin’s Black Box, accept the idea of common descent but believe that ‘evolution was guided by God’. A tacit assumption shared by all is that the spirit or ‘breath of life’ is not relevant to how we think about the nature and origin of living things.
The physical world poses many basic challenges, such as gravity, viscosity and pressure gradients, to all living creatures, which in turn have evolved an astonishing array of solutions. Many of these, such as paddles, valves and hydrostats, are so widespread that we rarely notice them. Others perform so well that we marvel at their superiority to human-made devices. Did you know that fleas can accelerate at 2,000 m s-2, that’s 20 times greater than the space shuttle during launch? That silk has a tensile strength similar to that of steel? Or that oak trees can generate pressures of 500,000 Pa through evaporation? Nature is a pretty impressive engineer.
Evolutionists are as accustomed as creationists to the disjunction between how things appear and what they ‘know’ must have happened. Some say that life evolved of itself, by purely natural mechanisms, despite appearing to have been designed. Others say that it appears to have been designed for a purpose, notwithstanding that it evolved by purely natural mechanisms. The problem of false appearance, whether of age, youth, evolution, or design, affects all current explanations of Earth history.
Is that, then, inevitable? Has God deceived us?
As with the day of Christ’s return, it is not given to humanity to know anything about the original coming into being of the heavens and the Earth.
The planet as it was prior to the six days is described in one brief sentence. Then on the third day God commands that the waters be gathered into one place and the pre-existing land emerge from them. Certainly this event would have left its mark. The elevation and dewatering of the land could have produced a great variety of topographies, from craggy hills and mountains to catastrophically eroded valleys and canyons, and many of them would have continued to form long after God pronounced his work finished. But again, when the first human beings looked at these phenomena, what they saw was not a false appearance of age, but the effects of an event that they knew had been supernatural, preceded by processes of creation that had taken place in the indeterminate beginning. They could have looked at the landscape without any sense that it was telling them a different story from the one God himself had told them.
The whole point about the Creation is that in the course of it God exercised his supernatural power to create only that which nature itself could not have produced. There was therefore no possibility of mistaking his creative acts for evolutionary processes. Conversely, whatever could have evolved of itself, did evolve of itself. Present-day scientists who wish to explore the possibility that this or that phenomenon had a natural, evolutionary origin are free to do so.
We can illustrate this key principle by considering the evolution of stars. ‘Stars’, according to Genesis, were created on Day 4, but the sense of the English word has changed, as astronomers have become able to distinguish between different kinds of heavenly object. The word is an appropriate translation only when understood in its general sense, as denoting any celestial point of light, be it a wandering star (planet), shooting star (meteor) or fixed star. In the context of the other objects created on Day 4, the most likely meaning is planet.
Stars in the modern sense may not have been created on any of the days. If our knowledge of the world is not prohibited from influencing the way we interpret the Bible, we may acknowledge that astronomers have found abundant evidence of galactic star-forming regions. What they have not observed is the formation of the massive ultraluminous fireballs at the centre of galaxies. The process of galaxy formation is not well understood, and it could be that they formed through the expulsion of matter from a proto-galactic centre rather than (as Big Bang cosmology assumes) through matter collapsing inwards. The arms of spiral galaxies, blue-white regions of active star-formation, appear to have been thrown outwards like sparks from a Catherine wheel, after creation of the original mass. In that case we may postulate that the command, “Let there be light,” was to energise the heavens so that the galactic nuclei blazed. Billions of times more luminous than any star, these nuclei lit up the entire universe, including the Earth, illuminated by the fireball at the centre of what is now the Milky Way galaxy. The bars and spiral arms of galaxies formed only later, by natural processes, as plasma was ejected from the nuclei and condensed into the heavenly droplets we now exclusively call stars.
Since the Sun is a created object, it follows that the Sun must be unlike other stars in the universe, a unique object that could not have formed by natural processes (for example, by condensing from the gas and dust left by the explosion of an older star in the Milky Way). This is a prediction of creation theory. But scientists are free to explore the possibility that the solar system did have a natural, evolutionary origin. Research into the one is implicitly research into the other, for (as the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out) a theory is scientific only if it can be falsified. If it could be shown that the solar system could have had a natural origin, the theory of a supernatural origin would be falsified.
We can also illustrate by considering biological evolution. On the basis that whatever could have evolved did evolve, we do not have to postulate that God directly created the countless millions of plant and animal species that now exist. Rather, he created a small number of kinds, each of which became the progenitors of a great diversity of species. They were each engineered with the potential for evolutionary variety.
Evolution in the sense of genetic change – whether through systems that at appropriate times in history switched genes on and off (just as when individuals develop) or through other ingenious mechanisms – has been going on since the beginning of creation. So has the random mutation of genetic material. What creation theory rules out is the possibility that functional, complex biological systems could have arisen from random mutation; rather, it predicts that attempts to demonstrate this will fail.
The corollary of the principle that God created only that which nature could not itself have created is that, having thus been created, nature was self-existent and operated according to the laws that God had established for it. After the sixth day events took their natural course. The corollary does not rule out ‘miracles’ – interventions that demonstrate his supernatural power, but it does rule out the idea that God ever intervened in order to achieve something he could not otherwise have achieved. A miracle reveals the power of God. An intervention to sustain a purportedly scientific theory detracts from his power, since it suggests that the only way he could achieve his purpose was by breaking his own rules. The harder thing is to ‘program’ future events from the beginning. For instance, it would be harder to pack into the original genome of a single pair of beetles the potential to generate, over time, 350,000 species of beetle than it would be to create all 350,000 species at the beginning, each with their fixed, slightly different genomes. The same applies to the effects of ‘the Fall’, the cause of the Cataclysm, and the plagues of the Exodus. We should insist that these all had natural causes, inherent in the world as created.
Nothing is impossible with God, as the life cycle of a butterfly reveals quite as clearly as any scripture. Consequently, we should be reluctant to set a priori limits on how much evolution might have occurred in Earth history. In relation to any particular question of whether taxon A in the fossil record evolved into taxon B, the question is not whether it could have happened, but whether it did. In principle, creation theory is not against the proposal that a certain species of fish evolved into an aquatic tetrapod. A frog goes through something like the fish-tetrapod transition in a single life-time.
Metamorphosis is not just a common phenomenon amongst organisms; it is something that the whole world once underwent. The creation no longer exists in its original state. We live on a renewed earth.
So the planet returned to the condition in which it began, enveloped in water, void, the land shattered and destroyed.
Everything we have discovered about the solar system in the past forty years suggests that the undoing of creation was not limited to the Earth. In copulating with human beings the sons of God violated the division between Heaven and Earth, and the opening of windows in the sky to let asteroids crash through was a visitation of wrath that answered to the violation. Entire planets exploded. Those that remained – Mercury, Venus, Mars, as well as our own Moon – were entirely resurfaced, first by volcanic melting and subsequently by bombardment from the exploded fragments. The four gaseous planets were also not exempted. Nor, on the evidence of supernovae, gamma ray bursts, ejections from quasars and other violent events, was the rest of the universe. Our telescopes look upon a world that was permanently changed and has been changing ever since.
From where we are, we cannot go back all the way to the Creation, so the problem of the appearance of age does not even arise. There are no rocks from the original Earth, a point which, to be fair, geologists in the 19th century and most of the 20th were in no position to appreciate. It was only with the radioisotope dating of meteorites and rocks brought back from the Moon that we began to understand that the Earth had a history extending back further than the date of its own oldest rocks. And it is only in the last few years that we have been able to deduce, from minute crystals of zircon, that our planet had both seas and dry land at that time. But even those zircons are not the remains of rocks from the Creation, any more than the oldest lunar rocks are. As Mark Harrison and colleagues recently put it, the Earth’s ‘original crust was largely recycled back into the mantle’.
Those words are from the prophet Isaiah. What God in the present century is saying to us through biology, geology and palaeontology is not essentially different.