Motives and Assumptions in the
Age-of-the-Earth Question

There are many issues that come up in discussions about the credibility of the Bible, but probably none of them generate the heat that is raised when people discuss the age of the cosmos. This is an issue that has very little relevance to the existence of God because no argument for the existence of God is time dependent. Cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological evidence for the existence of God are not time dependent. The problem with the age of the cosmos involves other issues and questions. Evolutionists have theories that in some cases depend upon long periods of time, although many theories of evolution have been discarded because they cannot produce the desired result no matter how much time is assumed. Virtually all creationist groups in the world have doctrinal reasons for insisting that the cosmos is of a very young age--measured in thousands of years. In Ronald Number's book The Creationists he shows that dispensationalism and millennialism form the doctrinal base of almost all creationist material. This is dictated by the teachings of denominations which maintain that the earth's history is broken down into six periods of roughly 1,000 years each which will end with the "rapture" and the whole "left behind" tradition.

These creationist groups dominate the home school and private school market for science materials, and they have a well-funded and aggressive attack on evolutionism and naturalism. Groups like the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Answers in Genesis, or the Christian Research Journal have great resources at their disposal. Evolutionists have organized into well-funded and aggressive groups to attack creationism. Some of these groups are associated with professional organizations like the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT). Some are independent groups like the National Committee for Science Education (NCSE) or American Humanist Association (AHA).

Before we look at the assumptions and motives that dominate all of these groups, I would like to identify the position of the Does God Exist? program on this issue. For the almost 40 years that we have been in existence, we have tried to point out that this is not a biblical issue if we are to take the Bible literally. Any attempt to determine the age of the earth biblically or scientifically is doomed because there are so many assumptions that have to be made to establish the age of the earth by any method. If your denomination teaches something, or if your favorite scientific theory demands something, then you may have to maintain dogmatically that the earth is old or that it is young. We are not promoting any denominational tradition, nor are we endorsing any scientific theory, so we have no need to demand any particular age to the earth--old or young. There are those who wish to label us because we do not take a dogmatic position on this issue, but our concern is more related to honesty, good science, reasonable biblical scholarship, and freedom from human tradition of any kind.

Biblical Assumptions of Creationists

We have already pointed out that a large number of creationists have doctrinal motives to maintain a young age for the earth. If your denomination teaches a particular age as a part of its doctrine, that limits you in what you can accept scientifically or any other way. To justify a young age for the earth from the Bible, there is a variety of assumptions that a person has to make about the records which we see in the Bible.

Young earth creationism demands that English, not Hebrew, interpretations be given to words and passages. When someone tells me that he "takes the Bible literally," I always ask him what he means by that? Do you mean that you take an English version of the Bible to mean what you think the words mean, or do you mean that you strive to understand what the Bible writers meant by their words? A simple and obvious example of the problem occurs in Matthew 1:1. One English translation says ".Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." What would someone picking this passage up in a secular English book understand it to mean? Would he not understand that Jesus was the grandson of Abraham and the son of a man named David? What would a Hebrew living in the time of Matthew understand it to mean? The Jews understood that the phrase "the son of" did not necessarily mean that the person was an immediate descendent of the person listed as father, but just that he was a blood relative. In the case of Matthew 1:1 it is obvious what is going on by the rest of the chapter, but later on in Matthew 1:17 where a series of three 14 generations is given, there is a major conflict with Luke's account in which 55 generations are given for the same genealogy. There are numerous cases in the Bible where English words convey a different concept than what the original language in Hebrew or Greek would have intended to say.

Creationists assume exclusive meanings to words that are frequently inconsistent. There are many statements in creationist materials which dogmatically assert a word means something when there is absolutely no reason why the word in fact needs to convey that meaning. As Mark Lowry once said, "We may not be right in what we say about our religious views, but we are definite." There are numerous examples which can be given to show this. The word "behemah" is a good example. This word is used 52 times in the Old Testament, and the word "behemoth" which refers to a large version of behemah is also used in passages like Job 40:15. Because creationists are desperate to disprove that dinosaurs lived before man, they have dogmatically insisted that behemah refers to dinosaurs.

The problem here is a hermeneutics problem--a question of how we come to understand the Bible. It is the belief of this writer that the only way you can understand the Bible is if words in the Bible always mean the same thing unless some specific use is indicated by the author that is unusual. To be facetious: let us suppose that there is a Hebrew word that means "up." This word is used 75 times in the Bible and every time we see it we are sure it means up. We then come to usage number 76. What does it mean? Someone says "Well, here it means sideways." Obviously this would cause some major problems in interpreting what the author of the passage was trying to say.

The word behemeth is used 52 times in the Bible for cow or cattle. Many creationists insist that in Geneses 1:24-27 and in Job 40:15 it refers to a dinosaur. This is an inconsistent hermeneutic, and applying it to doctrinal issues would produce even more chaos than we already have. In fact, many of the same groups that insist on finding dinosaurs in Genesis and Job also find instructions to do things in worship that are equally bizarre so there may be a number of explanations for the religious confusion that exists in America today.

Creationists insist on making some Hebrew words specific when they are general. In the same breath in which we talk about the consistency of interpretations of words, we need to mention that making words too specific is another source of conflict and problems in matters related to the history of the earth and time. Suppose I say "Let's go out to the river and look at the waterfowl." We go out to the river and we see swans, ducks, loons, geese, kingfishers, herons, mergansers, cranes, etc., and you say "I thought we were going to see waterfowl, but a lot of these birds don't go `quack, quack.'" Would it not be obvious that you are assuming that there is only one kind of bird that are waterfowl and that is a duck? This same kind of error occurs many times in the arguments of creationists.

The word "heaven" is used to refer to three different things in the Genesis account. The Hebrew word is shamayim, and it can refer to everything in space (Genesis 1.1), everything in the atmosphere (Genesis 1:9, 20), or everything in the sky (Genesis 1:14-15). A similar problem occurs with the use of the word yom translated "day" in Genesis 1. The word is used to refer to the entire creation process in Genesis 2:4, but it seems to refer to normal solar days in Genesis 1:3, 5, 13, 19, 23. In Deuteronomy 10:10, the Hebrew yamin translated "day or time" is used to refer to 40 days and 40 nights. These are cases where the context has to answer the question of what the meaning is, and in virtually every case the context is clear unless denominational tradition gets in the way of what we are are trying to understand about the passage.

Three different water fowl

Creationists frequently ignore the purpose of a passage or force their denominational purpose on it. I suspect that all of us who respect the Bible and are concerned to bring the peace and love of its teachings to others are sometimes guilty of forcing our own understanding on a passage as we present it to others. It is important to have the integrity and honesty to ask "what is this passage trying to say and what is its purpose?" before dogmatically trying to prove something from that passage. What is the purpose of Genesis? Is it to give a detailed historical record of everything that God did in the creative process? "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is not an explanation of the mechanics of building a planet. Genesis not trying to tell us how each of the 26 million different species that have ever lived on the earth came into existence. Those who try to find dinosaurs in Genesis 1 do not seem to use the same enthusiasm to find duckbill platypuses, bacteria, emus, or the giant worms of the thermal vents in the oceans.

What is the purpose of the genealogies of the Bible? Are the Bible authors trying to give us a way of calculating how long ago something happened on the earth? The answer is obviously no, because the Jews were concerned with descendency, not chronology. 1 Timothy 1:4 and Acts 1:7 are clear indicators of this. To be in the blood line of the Messiah was the issue, not how long ago a certain distant relative lived.

We could list an enormous number of other assumptions made by creationists, but we would like to point out that the bottom line for those who respect the Bible is that the Bible does not address the issue of time and age, and these assumptions and others have caused a great deal of conflict and hostility between science and those who have faith in God and in the Bible as God's word.

Assumptions of Evolutionists

The question of time and the age of things is also of interest to evolutionists and to a variety of sciences. Sometimes authors tend to overemphasize the time issue, believing that if time is great enough anything is possible. There is also a tendency to assume that the current belief about the age of something is iron-tight and based on a totally factual base and that there is no question about what the age really is. Once again these assumptions are invalid and contribute to the conflict that is disruptive in society and in educational programs.

Alarm clockTime is not the universal cure-all or aphrodisiac. There is no question but that time can do some pretty amazing things. We can forget things if we have enough time to do so. What might appear to be an object that will last forever can end up being a pile of sand--given enough time. In both of these cases, there is a law of the natural world at work--the second law of thermodynamics. We forget things because of tim- dependent degeneracies in the cellular structure of the brain. Granite will weather to a pile of sand because of the processes built into weathering --a series of time-dependent laws which produce chaos and degeneracy.

Double Helix of DNA The more we learn about the human genome, the more we realize that viruses and mutations have had a significant role in determining what we are--both from a positive and negative standpoint. The positive cases are where something was destroyed which we did not want, and the negative are when something was destroyed which we did want. It is becoming increasingly obvious that as time has gone by the human genome has had viruses attack the DNA and their remains still exist in the genome. Mutations are almost universally a destructive agent. When a chemical or radiation strikes the DNA and modifies an address in it, something is lost or damaged. Time accumulates this damage, and in the case of humans we are seeing a variety of diseases and abnormalities which have been caused by these changes. Recombination and the removal of various genetic characteristics by death help to reduce this negative process, but the fact is that time is not a friend to the process.

In addition to the degeneracy of the genetic material, time can bring very negative environmental forces to bear on the genome and on other biological processes. Mutations accumulate with time, and the longer a genome exists in a species, the more mutations there will be in the genome. Genetic diseases seem to be increasing in the human population with time, partly because our medical treatment tends to allow individuals to live and pass on their genes, people who would have been weeded out without medical help. In the natural world, there are numerous environmental changes that take place with time. Many long-term processes like solar explosions accumulate their damaging effects with time. The erosion of chemicals from the land and the deposition of these materials in marine environments accumulates these chemicals sometimes in destructive ways. Severe natural catastrophes are obviously more likely to happen over a long time period than a short one. More and more extinctions are coming to light as geologists study the fossil record of the earth's history. The asteroid collision that wiped out the dinosaurs, evidence of oxygen depletions, times when the earth was believed to be 100% covered with ice, and a variety of other major catastrophes (not to mention the biblical references to things like Noah's flood) that would have devastated life at the time, have been discovered in the past year or two. If you factor in man and his ability to have wars and to consume more and more resources as he becomes technically more advanced, you can see an even greater effect than the natural ones.

The notion that given enough time, anything can happen is misguided. Many negative things happen with time. Many natural processes take place with time that would put a stop to evolutionary processes.

Issues like uniformitarianism and catastrophism have little or nothing to do with time. There are some major assumptions made by proponents of various theories of evolution which are not dependent on time and yet these assumptions are at the very bottom of all evolutionary thought. One of the easiest ones of these points to understand is the philosophical assumption which evolutionists make as to how the earth has functioned in the past. Uniformitarianism is the religious belief that evolutionists subscribe to which lies at the basis of NeoDarwinism especially. This belief maintains that no process has ever been involved in the production and maintaining of the earth that is not going on right now. The snappy way of saying it is that "the present is the key to the past." When a geologist looks at a rock deposit, he understands how that rock deposit was produced by looking at how such deposits are formed today. Shale, for example, is seen being produced today by mud being laid down and then turned into rock by pressure. When we see a shale deposit in the Grand Canyon, we assume it was produced from mud in the past exactly as it is produced today. Is there some other way that shale can be produced? We do not believe so, and thus we maintain that shale deposits are evidence of mud being laid down and compressed in the past.

Catastrophism maintains that there have been processes in the past which have altered the earth and produced things on this planet which are not being produced today. We know that catastrophic processes are possible today. If there were a nuclear war it would alter the earth, and things would be produced which have never been produced in that way in the past. We do not have any question about an illustration like that, but there are evidences of asteroid collisions and other astronomical castrophies having altered the earth. Methane belches which would snuff out all of the atmospheric oxygen seem to be a possibility to some scientists, and that again would have a profound effect on life. The Bible does refer to various events which it says have happened in the past that would be catastrophic in nature--the flood and the plagues in Egypt being examples.

The point is that as more and more new discoveries are made about processes that are not taking place today, it becomes increasingly obvious that the evolutionary assumptions that uniformitarianism has been the only process which has functioned on the earth are not supported. This has nothing directly to do with time. No matter how much time you have, if an astronomical catastrophe sterilizes the earth, evolution has to start all over and would not be possible in the time remaining since the catastrophe.

Evolutionary theories can circumvent time issues. Evolution, in the past at least, has dealt entirely with the changes which happen in life forms on the earth. This has been true of theories dealing with the origin of life as well as the changes in advanced life forms on the earth. When Francis Crick (the famous biologist who, with Watson, received a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the helical structure of DNA) realized that it was mathematically impossible for life to have developed on earth from chance, he solved the dilemma by proposing that aliens had seeded the cosmos with packets of DNA. Once he did that, there was no longer a need to try and explain the origin of DNA, so he circumvented the whole issue. Preposterous as that proposal is, it does make a point which may have been Crick's motivation for such a bizarre suggestion. You can eliminate much of the problem with evolutionary assumptions by just proposing that the things that have impacted life on earth came at a higher level of organization. If you propose starting with DNA, then you do not have to explain how it started on the earth. Frederick Hoyle used to talk about how comets may have brought the materials that form life to the earth. The whole issue of time is avoided when a proposal of that kind is accepted.

Evolutionary assumptions about the origin of life are not supported by the evidence. Closely related to the last point is the fact that evolutionary assumptions about the conditions that were on the earth when life began have turned out to be incorrect, thus once again making the time issue irrelevant. In the Miller/Oparin experiment on the origin of life, ammonia, water vapor, methane, nitrogen, and hydrogen were placed in an airtight container that had no oxygen. An electric spark was used as a catalyst and a trap pulled out heavy organic molecules as they formed. After a week of this treatment amino acids were found in the trap. Miller and Urey hypothesized that these five gases made up the early earth and that this was how the precursors of life came into existence. Moving from amino acids to life is a huge jump which cannot happen by chance, and we have had articles on that subject in this journal in the past but that is not our point here.

In recent years it has become increasingly obvious that the ancient earth was not made up of these gases. Many oxides are found that formed during the period of time when life began in the earth. For that to happen there would have to be free oxygen in the atmosphere. There is massive evidence of carbon dioxide having been present in the early earth's atmosphere, and huge quantities of carbonates are found in all ancient rocks. It is obvious that the Miller/Urey experiment had no semblance of what the ancient earth was like, and time will not solve this problem.

The bottom line in all of this is that time is not as major a player as it has been portrayed to be. The controversy over the age of the earth becomes more and more meaningless as we learn more about what the earth was like in ancient times and what the Bible actually says about this subject. There are those in both the scientific and religious camps who want conflict between science and faith. That is a huge and unnecessary error. Using time as a club is an ignorant thing to do, and we would encourage both sides to look more positively at the issues and not create non-issues which cloud the discussion. We are persuaded that God created the heaven and the earth--but we have no idea when or how. We are persuaded that God gave us the Bible in which He summarized what He did. These two understandings cannot possibly conflict, because they have the same author. If they do conflict we either have bad science, bad theology, or both. The lesson of history has been that we have both--and that both are generated by the traditions and ignorance of human beings.

--John N. Clayton

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