Recently, I wrote a column for Spectrum titled Ten End Runs around Science. I used an American football analogy of an “end run” to describe ways people try to argue around the science involved with deep time and evolution. An end run would contrast with running straight ahead through the opposing line, which, continuing the analogy, suggests fully and fairly addressing the relevant science. In that essay I promised a follow-on article to examine two additional issues:
1) To consider some key scientific conclusions where conventional geology/paleontology is a challenge to young earth creationism (YEC).
2) To address the theological problem of whether God is good or not. Many Christians believe that accepting theistic evolution necessitates a bad God, one who actively creates via suffering and death. Then there is a slippery slope fear that there might be no God, as goodness is a necessary quality of any God worthy of worship. And obviously, having no God eliminates hope of salvation—an existential consequence. I wish to argue that such a conclusion is not inevitable and there are possible understandings that can constitute a “landing place” without giving up the foundational belief that God is good.
First, Dealing with the Science
Conventional geology and paleontology has strongly interconnected theory to support the conclusion of deep time. YEC has tried to refute this by noting apparent inconsistencies at the margin. Yet YEC proponents have never produced anything resembling a competing theory that harmonizes the data. And, as I say over and over, don’t take my word for it—investigate. But don’t do it by just cherry-picking arguments found in YEC sources. Also, ask yourself:
– Why do virtually 100 percent of working geologists and paleontologists affirm the conventional view? Is there really a conspiracy? (See End Run #4 in my previous essay.)
– Of the very few people with relevant backgrounds who affirm YEC, why do virtually 100 percent of them also have an a priori faith-based commitment?
Here now is a tiny sampling of critical issues YEC has to contend with:
1. Dating: Radiometric dating is the foremost deal-killer for a young earth hypothesis. It has produced consistent results over time, and any YEC attempts to undermine it have to take the position that it actually produces random results, which then presumably get plugged into preconceived expectations. But radiometric dating is not random, and it produces a clear correlation to the geologic column. How can this be? Further, there isn’t a reasonable counter-proposal as to why the physics of radiometric dating could have changed during an anomalous event like the flood, which could then be used as a means to invalidate it.
2. Fossil ordering: Order in the geologic column was recognized and fairly extensively documented well before radiometric dating was known. And no, there isn’t a circular argument that makes sense where the fossils “prove” the dates and the dates “prove” the fossils. Generally, a lab receives a rock sample for dating and they do not have any indication of what the expected results might be. So, how could a lab produce results that, over and over, fit the model? And it would be unethical (although a whole lot cheaper) if they just skipped the work and handed back a desired date. Further, petroleum geologists have used these expensive dating methods to locate possible deposits. Why spend all that money? Because it works.
Fossils known as index fossils have been so thoroughly mapped and are sufficiently consistent that they can be used to correlate time with location. How could such fossil ordering happen in a flood model, where the final result ought to be generally random? And index fossils tend to be microfossils, so YEC explanations like ecological zonation, differential escape, and hydrodynamic sorting strain credibility.
3. Different rock formation types in the geologic column: A flood model ought to generally deliver depositional randomness. Yet the column has very distinctive types of rock: shale, sandstone, limestone, etc., in layers, usually with sharp boundaries. Some of these formations have demonstrable aqueous formation models, but others are aeolian (dry formation). There are massively extensive aeolian formations, and they have distinctive cross-bedding that has been demonstrated to be deposited just as modern deserts are formed.
4. A planet-wide flood would collapse the ecosystem: Try putting everything necessary to reform an entire worldwide ecosystem into a comparatively tiny ark. The quantity of flora and fauna that could fit cannot credibly turn into the variation found today unless a rate of evolution far exceeding any evidence is assumed. And YEC adherents have never addressed the complexity of ecosystems worldwide. Think about what is supposed to have taken place when the ark landed. Creatures would then exit to a totally ruined planet. How will they eat and reproduce? How can such a small collection traverse the planet and almost instantly establish the complex food chains we see now? Evidence and research at geologic boundaries demonstrating extinction events in the geologic past indicate how devastating these were and the near-impossibility of swiftly re-establishing such an astonishingly complex ecosystem as is seen today.
Second, a Landing Place
Some years back, an old friend visited me. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. During our conversation the topic turned to the age of the earth. He told me categorically that accepting the conventional scientific consensus of geology and paleontology was impossible for him. It wasn’t that he thought the science was bad. He didn’t have any particular literacy in these disciplines. But, if the earth was ancient and life had evolved via suffering and death, then he did not see how there could also be a good God. Consequently, he inferred, there would be a strong possibility that God did not exist, because a bad God is near-impossible to believe in. Then the resultant atheism leaves us with no hope of eternal life and no omniscience-grounded morality for the present. Our existence would seem to devolve into nihilism.
That conversation exemplified a conclusion I’ve had for a long time, that the core theological problem is whether God is good. Not the age of the earth, or even evolution, per se. Also, the common presumption is that, under the YEC paradigm, God is good. But not with theistic evolution, which is defined by many traditional Christians as God actively creating, over billions of years, using suffering and death as a mechanism.
There are, of course, other theological questions that can be stumbling blocks. And they matter to some extent and need consideration. I’ll briefly note several, but my focus will then turn to the “goodness” issue.
a) Deep time, and some form of evolution, contrasts with the traditional reading of Genesis: one calendar week, ex nihilo creation, the Garden of Eden story, etc.
Personal history and past acceptance have, at minimum, an anchoring effect on our beliefs. It’s hard to adjust when past views might consequently get dislodged. I get it. But if one could somehow exonerate God and perhaps retain some form of a literal Eden, the willingness to rethink becomes much more possible.
b) Adam and Eve’s sin caused all death. And there was no death previously because there was no “previously.”
Romans 5:12 (KJV) says: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” This has been understood as applying to all death. And death, per conventional science, has happened for eons. But the verse is speaking of death due to sin. And non-human death doesn’t (at least evidently) involve sin. Exegeting this issue goes way beyond the scope of this essay. I would simply say that one shouldn’t just preclude the theological legitimacy of death before sin. The entire subject needs a thorough and objective examination.
c) The doctrine of a weekly Sabbath is destroyed without a literal, seven-day creation.
This has been stated repeatedly by Adventist leadership as a reason to reject deep time (see End Run #9 in my previous essay). And obviously, if creation didn’t happen in one calendar week, then that doesn’t exactly help to justify the Sabbath doctrine. But I’d also say it doesn’t necessarily kill off the doctrine either. There are other biblical reasons to consider.
Bottom line, the above issues (and others, like a literal Garden of Eden) ought not to necessarily be viewed as fatal, i.e., preventing one from considering whether deep time is true. We make mistakes concerning both science and religion. There is too much exhortation to “hold fast” to a position when we shouldn’t be afraid of careful (re)examination.
But now, back to my primary concern.
First, and crucially, the issue of whether God is good isn’t solved just by accepting the YEC framework. The real core issue has a name: the problem of evil. And believers have struggled with this for millennia, long before science existed. We see plenty of suffering and death whether the world was created recently or not. A deep time paradigm certainly vastly increases the quantity and duration of suffering. But there is an abundance of badness within the past 6,000–10,000 years that already produces a potentially intractable problem of whether God is good or not.
The problem of evil has two parts: moral evil and natural evil. Christians usually address the moral dimension, with some success, using what’s called the free will defense. But it’s very difficult to use that to explain natural evil. And, as the non-human creation has no moral component, it falls under the natural evil category.
So, it’s a big mistake to choose YEC because you think you can retain the idea of a good God. Yes, you do eliminate lots of natural evil, but the long history of the problem of evil clearly obviates using YEC as a fix-all.
I think the core problem of the core problem is a perception that God actively created via suffering and death. Here too, the problem of evil can be instructive. Theodicies must deal with this charge because God isn’t fixing these bad things now. The free will defense tries to shift responsibility to the primary-cause actors and move God into the position of presently just allowing evil, presumably for some good, overarching purpose. So, why shouldn’t we subject theistic evolution to the same reasoning?
There are two problematic assumptions, I contend, when YEC-leaning Christians consider evolution and its possible role in producing what we see today:
1) The belief that theistic evolution must be defined as God actively doing the evolutionary creating.
2) The belief that theistic evolution is the mandatory mechanism, even though it isn’t the only possibility for how evolution could have occurred.
I don’t know why either of these views should just be assumed. So, let’s consider some additional possibilities.
For All We Know
Uncritical acceptance of assumptions can play an outsized role in constraining our conclusions. We ought to recognize how little we really know about the overall reality that should axiomatically inform our thinking. There is a human tendency to want certainty, and unfortunately, we’re never going to get it. We also may want to lean on revelation to get that certainty, but it falls short. Not because it’s uninspired, but because our understanding is fallible and the material often admits multiple interpretations. So, there’s a hard yet necessary adjustment, given undeniable and irremediable uncertainty. But, regarding God’s goodness, we can at least construct believable scenarios that might salvage it. We must consider plausible storylines that might be true for all we know. So, are there scenarios worthy of belief that account for deep time, then evolution, yet do not leave us with a “bad” God?
– We have a loose understanding that there was a war in heaven, with Lucifer and 1/3 of the angels cast out. And their exile destination was Earth. We have no idea of the timeframe, except it happened before the advent of life on Earth.
– Satan could have been an intelligent design architect, guiding, perhaps sporadically, the planet’s evolution. If so, God would no longer be the active perpetrator, just the allower. This is the same answer used in theodicies to shift direct responsibility for moral evil away from God.
– If Earth was Satan & Company’s exile, God could have withdrawn his sustaining involvement in Earth’s development. I’m here presuming evolution as fact, but if the core problem is God’s goodness, then evolution is not the real issue. Predation, suffering, and death could just be the consequence of Earth temporarily being under Satan’s dominion.
– Conversely, perhaps God created Earth initially as a special demonstration for the universe,to show what happens if God is not actively caring for it. If God left this little patch of space alone, then perhaps “tooth and claw” evolution resulted in a God-vacuum. This, of course, would assign active responsibility to God, but for an overriding constructive purpose.
Or there could be some combination, and doubtless other possibilities I haven’t thought of. The point is not to think we are locked into the specific scenario of a narrowly-defined theistic evolution when we know so little.
Now, any rebuttals need to avoid saying: “But you don’t really know any of this. So how can you propose it?” What needs to be demonstrated in rebuttal is that scenarios of this kind cannot be possible, or that they are highly improbable. The sooner we get away from thinking we have certainty, the better. Removing the inevitability of God being bad means there is a path forward without demanding the supposed necessity of YEC. And that has the prospect of fairly reconciling science and revelation.
While I know many readers won’t believe me, the “ship has sailed” scientifically regarding the Earth’s physical history, as articulated by conventional science. There are comprehensive and interlocking reasons why virtually 100 percent of geologists and paleontologists agree. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s the data and resultant theory. Unless and until this gets reversed on a scientific basis, one cannot dismiss it without prejudice. Now, this in no way means that science gets to automatically trump revelatory material. I dealt with that in the previous essay. Each magisteria must be considered equally and disagreement sorted out.
These two connected articles have one bottom line: examine the science of origins fairly. This means dealing directly with it, not trying to “end run” via questionable argumentation. That’s problematic for some because of the perception that unless one affirms young earth creationism, Bible truth is destroyed. The real fear, I have suggested, is that these believers think evolution necessarily means theistic evolution, and that’s been defined as God creating directly via suffering and death.
I’ve tried here to unpack these arguments and suggest that there are other ways of looking at things theologically. It should be obvious that I personally accept conventional science regarding an old earth, but I have only asked readers to investigate, and I’ve provided examples to indicate that YEC has serious problems. Thus, a full and fair consideration is mandated.
Undeniably, there is risk in doing this. It involves rethinking what you may have always believed and would then overhaul your worldview. This, of course, can be fear-inducing. Plus, Adventism explicitly holds to YEC, so doing this work also would put you at odds with Fundamental Belief #6. But the ultimate bottom line is whether we are to be truth-seekers or position-defenders. If we’re not open to change, we can never remove error from our religious understandings.
(Click the hyperlink to reference my first article: 10 End Runs Around Science.)
 As referenced in my first essay, one of the best resources I know is: The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth. It’s written by relevantly-degreed Christians who do not agree with YEC, but they treat the data fairly.
 See, for example, the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith, which says, in part: “No apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field of study, including science, history, and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. . . .” This is a constraint that violates the scientific method. And it illustrates End Run #1 in my previous essay.
 One of the most distinguished geologists studying aeolian deposition is Dr. Andrew D. Miall, Emeritus Professor, University of Toronto. Here is a reference to much of his published work. He has notably done research in determining distinctive characteristics of cross-bedding of desert (non-aqueous) dune formation. The evidence and argument in his work provides a strong basis for confirming that much of the sandstone in the geologic record was deposited under dry conditions, which is obviously a big problem for a flood model.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.
Title image: Unsplash.com
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