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The Age of the Earth: Science and Scripture

The cosmic calendar is a way of visualizing natural history by compressing the entire history of the universe into a single year. In this calendar, the Big Bang occurred at midnight on January 1, and the present time is the last milliseconds of December 31. The Milky Way galaxy was formed in mid-May, and our solar system in September. Multicellular life appeared in early December, the first vertibrates on December 22, dinosaurs on Christmas Day, humans in the late night hours of New Year's Eve.

Cosmic Calendar.png
By Efbrazil, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18385338

Not everyone sees it that way. Jonathan Safarti of Creation Ministries International offers a different timeline:

The Bible states that man was made six days after creation, about 6,000 years ago. So a time-line of the world constructed on biblical data would have man almost at the beginning, not the end.

For young-earth creationists the age of the earth is serious business. Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis website issues a grave warning to those who question the young-earth line.

When believers attempt to add evolution and millions of years to Genesis, they lay down a foundation of death and suffering on which to build their worldview. If Christians believe the lie that Genesis cannot be trusted, they are paving the way for the trustworthiness of the gospel message to be called into question.

Are his assumptions valid? Does a faithful reading of scripture demand a belief in a young earth? Can we acknowledge the findings of modern science and still trust the stories in Genesis?

What reason do we have, other than an attempt to retrofit the Bible into modern science, to imagine that the days of Genesis 1 might not refer to 24-hour periods of God's creation activity?

Ham or Safarti might be surprised to learn that these questions were answered by the church nearly 2000 years ago.

The early Christians didn't attempt to reconcile the Genesis creation stories with an old earth; nobody in ancient times could have imagined the universe was this old. But the earliest Bible readers did find clues suggesting the early chapters of Genesis should be read as something other than flat history.

Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote in his Dialogue with Trypho, chapter LXXXI:

For as Adam was told that in the day he ate of the tree he would die, we know that he did not complete a thousand years. We have perceived, moreover, that the expression, 'The day of the Lord is as a thousand years,' is connected with this subject.

He's talking about Genesis 2, which is a separate creation story. But already the seed has been planted that the days of Genesis may be longer than 24 hours.

Toward the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria asserted in Stromateis 6.16 that the creation did not take place in six days, or within time at all.

For the creations on the different days followed in a most important succession; so that all things brought into existence might have honour from priority, created together in thought, but not being of equal worth. Nor was the creation of each signified by the voice, inasmuch as the creative work is said to have made them at once. For something must needs have been named first. Wherefore those things were announced first, from which came those that were second, all things being originated together from one essence by one power. For the will of God was one, in one identity. And how could creation take place in time, seeing time was born along with things which exist.…

That, then, we may be taught that the world was originated, and not suppose that God made it in time, prophecy adds: "This is the book of the generation: also of the things in them, when they were created in the day that God made heaven and earth." For the expression "when they were created" intimates an indefinite and dateless production.

Origen of Alexandria, Clement's disciple, went further in De Principiis 4.16:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? …I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

Even operating under a geocentric model of the universe, ancient people understood that "evening" and "morning" were meaningless without reference to the sun and moon. Origen interpreted Genesis in light of the scientific knowledge of his day, and assumed that all thinking people would do the same.

The influential 5th century scholar Augustine of Hippo, in The City of God 11.6, took up where Clement of Alexandria left off. Although claiming these were not 24-hour periods, he refused to speculate about what "day" meant in Genesis 1:

For that which is made in time is made both after and before some time,— after that which is past, before that which is future. But none could then be past, for there was no creature by whose movements its duration could be measured. But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world's creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!

In The Literal Meaning of Genesis (PDF), 1.19, Augustine gave advice for interpreting the scriptures' statements about the physical world:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Lest he be misunderstood, Augustine continued:

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

More than a thousand years before the development of the modern scientific method, Augustine offered essentially the same warning that Ken Ham does: Misinterpreting Genesis will push people away from Christianity. But Augustine believed the real danger of misinterpretation lay in the type of tactics and reasoning employed by Answers in Genesis today.

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