Lesson 8


A needless conflict that has been generated between science and religion is a conflict over the antiquity of man. Like all conflicts of this nature there has been some bad science and some bad theology which combined have caused a great deal of confusion.

As in many disputes, there are some vested interests in the question of time. Some atheists and some religionists believe that if you allow enough time, anything is possible. The problem with this idea is that the amount of time actually required for some of the things that have happened in the earth's history is far greater than any possible age of the earth. Calculations based on various theories of the origin of life suggest ages such as ten to the 200th or more power*. The second problem is that there are natural events that will stop any natural process. Asteroid collisions, comet collisions, major solar changes, magnetic reversals, and any number of other catastrophic events are recorded in the rock record of the earth. Any and all of these events would put a stop to any naturalistic, gradual process of massive change.

There are also vested religious interests in the question of time. Over 50 percent of American protestant denominations teach some form of dispensational millennialism. This denominational teaching claims that God is using seven 1,000-year periods to conduct human history. The current period is said to end with something called the rapture in which all the Christians will be swept off the earth and a seven-year tribulation will occur with war between the forces of Israel and the anti-Zion forces. This will end, according to this belief, with Jesus returning to David’s throne and reestablishing Jewish worship complete with animal sacrifice and a final 1,000-year reign. This interpretation ignores the fact that Jesus said His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). It proposes a physical kingdom concept that is inconsistent with the entire New Testament. It is not our purpose to discuss this denominational teaching here, but simply to say this teaching forces a very limited age to the Earth--something less than 10,000 years.

The major scientific problem has been the underlying assumptions of all dating processes. Dating methods are based on the assumption of uniformitarianism. This assumption, in simple terms, states that the present is the key to the past. In this belief system, nothing has ever happened to affect the earth that is not going on right now. Since processes like erosion, glaciers, volcanism, earthquakes, and the like, are occurring today, it is assumed that they have always been the forces shaping the earth. Massive asteroid collisions, man-made influences, global floods, and nuclear war would be examples of events that would not be uniformitarian.

An example of how such a principle is used can be seen in estimating how long it would take to produce a foot of limestone. The process that produces limestone today is called chemical precipitation, and it is a very slow process. Measurements indicate that it takes thousands of years to make a foot of limestone in quiet areas of today’s seas. In the Permian Basin of Texas, there is a deposit of at least 22,000 feet of limestone. How long did it take to produce this formation? If limestone forms at the rate of one foot in 2,000 years, the time would be:

2,000 years/foot x 22,000 feet or 44 million years

What assumption has been made in this calculation? Obviously the assumption is that the limestone was made as limestone is made today. Is there a fast way of making limestone? There are such things as super-saturated solutions, but these are difficult to sustain and do not occur in natural situations. It may be, however, that there is a fast way of making limestone. If such a method were discovered it would cast considerable doubt on the veracity of this dating method.

With over 600 different methods of dating available, it seems difficult to believe all of them could be wrong in the same way, and to the same degree, making them all totally unusable. These methods are useful in locating oil and other natural resources, but this kind of predictive use is more dependent upon the sequences of events than on the absolute correctness of the time involved.

How old does the Bible say man or the earth is? The answer is similar to our discussion of dating methods. Only by making certain assumptions can a biblical date be determined.

These assumptions are:

Unfortunately for biblical chronologists all of these assumptions are incorrect. There are numerous undated and un-timed events in the biblical narrative. An example is verse 1 of Genesis 1. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is an undated and un-timed event. Since the Dark Ages, men have assumed that this verse was a summary verse. The idea was that verse one stated the fact and the rest of Genesis explained how it was done. Verse one is not a summary. It is written as a historical narrative and is followed in verse two by other historical events. This means that verse one is outside or before the creation week and is an undated and un-timed event. It could have taken no time at all, or God could have chosen to use trillions of years. God created time, so He cannot be limited by time. There are other verses which also are undated and un-timed throughout the biblical narratives, but this is perhaps the most relevant example.

It is also important to realize that biblical genealogies are not complete, order dependent, or written for chronological purposes. Matthew 1:1 says, for example, "Jesus, the son of David, the Son of Abraham." It is obvious by reading the rest of the chapter that the author did not intend to convey that Jesus was Abraham's grandson. The purpose is to show descendancy, not chronology.

In the following chart, two genealogies are given for the same family lineage. One is 16 generations long, and one is 22 generations long. Obviously, the genealogies cannot be used to calculate age.

Even when numbers are used you cannot use the numbers as clocks or calendars. In Matthew 1:17 (NIV) we read, "... there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ."

14 + 14 + 14 = 42, does it not?

But if you read the genealogies carefully you will see numerous omissions. Joash and Jehoikim, for example, are omitted in Matthew (1:2-16). Luke’s account (3:23-38) gives 55 generations for the same lineage through Mary. Thirteen missing generations can hardly be the product of a hardier genetic makeup. The purpose of the genealogy is clearly not to establish age.

It is important in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke to look at who wrote the passages, to whom, and why. Matthew was a Jewish writer writing to a Jewish audience. He uses numerical symbols (14 which is twice seven) which would have special significance to a Jewish reader. Luke is a Greek writer sending his message to a Gentile audience. Naturally he will use different methods of stating genetic relationships than would a Jewish writer. It is important to understand that the Bible is not written for twenty-first century Americans with scientific backgrounds. It is written for all people of all ages and is rooted in the cultures of the authors.

The Bible does not address itself to the age of the earth. Any attempt to determine the age of man biblically is doomed to failure because of the assumptions that must be made. This does not mean that man is necessarily of great age; it just means that the question is not a relevant biblical question. God has the patience to accomplish the earth’s creation and all that is in it over a period of billions of years. God also has the power to create the earth two seconds ago--with you reading this document, the memory in your head, all of man’s history and artifacts in place and functioning. The evidence is that you have been here more than two seconds. The evidence is that the earth and man have been here more than 6,000 years. The question is not the patience of God nor is it the power of God. To say God created the earth with the appearance of age is certainly within the power of God. However, doing so would make God deceptive in creating something that would mislead man. This is inconsistent with God’s nature and provides man with a way of abrogating his responsibilities.

The solution to the question of man's antiquity is to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent. Pitting assumptions and speculations against one another generates confusion and appears to make science and the Bible contradictory. If the Bible is silent on the subject, there can be no contradiction. Let us allow the Bible to be silent where God intended for it to be silent.

*Bibliographical listings of recent articles on this subject are available upon request.

© 2009, John N. Clayton
Lesson 8 cover picture: iStockphoto.com/ImagineGolf

Lesson 8 Questions

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