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Can We Really Know the Earth is Billions of Years Old?: Summer Reading Group—III

Well, yes.  At least that is the answer provided in the first sentence of the chapter. The concern here is ultimately to help Christians understand two primary issues.  First, the authors cover the basic tactics for how the age of the universe and earth are calculated.  And second, the chapter analyzes why many Christians believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old and attempts to correct what they see as misconceptions.  The age of the cosmos is connected to the issue of how God created the earth for many Christians—it’s age being deeply intertwined with the length of time life has existed on earth.  Giberson and Collins do not directly address this latter issue in this chapter, which is my own primary criticism. It seems that the authors think if Christians can learn to believe in an old universe and earth, they can start finding their way towards making their peace with the science behind a long-term and evolutionary creation process (what I think is what they mean by BioLogos). I’m not so sure it is that simple.

The authors start with explaining how the age of the universe is calculated, using the speed of light and the astronomical evidence for the Big Bang. I remember my own creationist physics educators explaining to me in college that the Big Bang had made more believers out of scientists than any other development in knowledge. While it doesn’t allow for a young universe, its miraculous nature and the way in which its development led to Planet Earth’s amazing and Providential fit for human life seems self-evident to those who investigate it. While some Christians might try to find ways to explain how the data could mislead so many scholars, Collins and Giberson argue “It is far better to simply acknowledge that the universe is as it appears, rather than to propose that God created all manner of optical illusions in the heavens to fool us” (p. 56). 

But while many Christians can face an old universe, there is more reticence to see the earth itself as more than a few thousand years old. The tactics for measuring the age of the earth are actually more straightforward than for that of the universe, according to Giberson and Collins:  climate rings, the reversal of magnetic fields, and radiometric dating.  The latter is the most well-known and has received the most criticism from young earth creationists (referred to in the chapter as YEC).  Giberson and Collins attempt to eliminate these concerns by explaining how radioactive dating occurs—measuring radioactive decay in uranium inside rocks.  They are dismissive of arguments that this decay has changed its speed over time or that the various methods of dating lead to inconsistencies (such differences are not significant). Again, they think assuming that the rules of the universe must change in order for our understanding of the Bible to be true is asking God to play games with us through nature and to engage in a massive trick of those who are genuinely attempting to study the evidence in the natural world. However, even if the radioactive dating evidence is set aside (for ideological reasons), the absolute clarity of ice rings gives a minimum age of 750,000 years.  Radioactive dating is used to establish even older time frames.

More challenging for the authors are the attempts to convince traditional Christians that going along with the science of the old earth need not undermine their high view of Scripture.  They begin by asserting: “Nowhere does the Bible identify the age of the earth as ten thousand years, nor does it provide information that would let us infer this indirectly with any confidence” (p. 54).  Ultimately, the authors characterize YEC as being first committed to what they see as the “biblical” view, and then discounting science that they perceive as contradicting that view.  Although conservative Christians may have only recently committed themselves to this particular scientific view of the Bible, traditionally Seventh-day Adventists have long held that Genesis 1 and 2 represent a coherent, science-based (sometimes referred to as “literal”) way of viewing Creation, and this is acknowledged by Giberson in a different text: “Adventist Origins of Young Earth Creationism” as well as discussed later in the book. Increasingly however, even conservative Adventists are accepting the view that inanimate earthly elements might be older, but continue to insist that human/animal and plant life is recent in origin (Old Earth Creationism—OEC).  OEC theorists sometimes make sense of this by arguing that there was a “gap” between Gen. 1:1 and Gen 1:2.  Or OEC Christians might argue that each of the days of Creation represented some longer time period than a 24 hour day (although because of their belief in Sabbath, some SDAs have a harder time with this). YEC and OEC, then, call for an immediate, interventionist creation of life that occurred within the last 10,000 years.  OEC, however, does allow for the inanimate matter in the universe and earth to be old.

In contrast to YEC, Giberson and Collins lay out the evidence for an ancient cosmos.  They also argue that OEC is a bit nonsensical and seems so concerned about proving one notion of what Genesis reveals that it either ignores inconvenient evidence or turns the Creator into a “God of the Gaps.”  In response to both OEC and YEC, they assert that Creation could happen slowly and over time, following the natural laws God set up, and be no less an act of God.  “BioLogos holds that God’s creative activity is executed within the natural order, working through and respecting the laws of nature” (p. 72).  What I saw as the heart of the chapter was the concern to explain how a commitment to a biblical framework can fit with a recognition of the reality of the scientific evidence regarding the age of the earth.  They do this partly through demonstrating that there has never been just one biblical perspective of either the age of the earth or the Creation process.  The views of many early Christian thinkers like Augustine and Origin show a less-than-literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2.  Like Aquinas, John Wesley argued that God as Creator was the critical factor and that the Scriptures “were written not to gratify our curiosity [of the details] but to lead us to God” (p. 76).

The heart of the matter for most readers is still the question over whether a literal reading of the Bible should interpret science or whether our understanding of science should shape our view of what we read in Scripture. While the scientific evidence is something Collins and Giberson want to explain, that isn’t the main point of the chapter—which is an attempt to help tease out our assumptions and definitions and make conversation possible.  The authors certainly give a shorthand list of evidence for the age of the earth/universe and why they think Christians can and should be comfortable accepting the science.  However, many Christians are more willing to accept an ancient universe and even an old earth, than they are the evolution of man.  So the hard work for Giberson and Collins will come later.   But they are attempting to set the stage for the coming challenge by establishing the idea that an arbitrary argument which claims to be the only biblical view for the age of the earth need not monopolize Christian interpretations of Genesis.

–Lisa Clark Diller teaches and researches on early modern history at Southern Adventist University. 

This is a series on the book, The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it, and join the discussion. Here is the first post: What is BioLogos? And the second: Do I Have to Believe in Evolution?

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