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by John N. Clayton

Biblical Time

How old does the Bible say that man, life in general, and the earth are? The first point that needs to be made is that God can do whatever God likes! God has the power to create the cosmos as it is, with you sitting there reading this, the paper in your hands, the memories in your head, and all that surrounds you good and bad — all of that could have been created two seconds ago or even less. God does not need time at all! If we understand God as the Bible defines and describes Him, then time is a creation of God and does not control God. The issue is not what God could do but what He did do. The evidence is that you have been sitting there more than three seconds, and the evidence is that the Creation happened more than 10,000 years ago.

Any attempt to date the earth biblically has to make assumptions just as the scientific methods have to make assumptions. In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of the Episcopalian Church stated beautifully the most fundamental assumptions:

1. There are no undated verses in the biblical account.
2. There are no missing people in biblical genealogies.
3. The purpose of the genealogies was chronological.
4. No historical period is missing from the Bible.
5. The genealogies are all written in chronological order.

Any dating method that attempts to use the Bible as a basis will have to use these assumptions, and yet all of these assumptions are wrong! Let us take a look at them:

Assumption 1. There are many undated verses and events in the Bible. How long were Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? I have a male chauvinistic friend who says, “Knowing my wife, it couldn't possibly have been more than 10 minutes;” but that is an assumption with great consequences. I would suggest that Adam's age was measured from the time he began to die — not from his creation, so the time in the Garden cannot even be related to his age.

Another example of an undated verse or event in the Bible is Genesis 1:1-3. Denominational tradition has taught us that the first three verses of Genesis are a summary of the rest of the chapter. For years, people have read Genesis 1:1 like this: “In the beginning God created the heaven and earth and, in the next 31 verses, I am going to tell you everything God did.” That is simply not what it says. These verses are a historical narrative written in a historical style. Notice the wording:

When? “In the beginning”
Something happened. “God created the heaven and the earth”
What happened next? “The earth was (or became, as some versions say) without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
What happened next? “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

These are historical events written in a historical sequence. These are not summary verses of what is to follow. Something is happening in each of the statements that are made, and the things that are happening are undated and untimed.

Assumptions 2 and 3. It is clear that biblical genealogies were not written for chronological purposes nor are they supposed to be interpreted as being complete. In the book of Ezra, for example, there are four people listed in the genealogy between Azariah and Amariah. In 1 Chronicles 6:3-14, the same genealogical sequence is given, but this time there are 12 people listed in the same sequence. The genealogy of 1 Chronicles 3:11-12 does not agree with Matthew 1:1-17 which has Uzziah's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather omitted. In fact, Matthew gives 42 steps in the same genealogy for which Luke gives 55 steps. Some have pointed out that Luke records Mary's side of the family instead of Joseph's, but that does not explain 13 missing generations.

The point is that these writings were not written by people living in the twenty-first century. In ancient times, people did not give complete listings of their family tree when giving their ancestry. What they usually listed were the famous people in their lineage. In Matthew 1:1, for example, the genealogy of Jesus is given as follows: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” It is obvious that Jesus was not Abraham's grandson, but that is in fact what the passage says. It is not an error; it is simply that genealogies were never written in the Bible with the idea that it would be used to calculate time or to establish chronology. Ancestry (lineage) is the only message of the biblical genealogies.

Assumptions 4 and 5. It is totally obvious that the Bible does not include a number of historical events. The time between Malachi and Matthew is an obvious example, but there are many others that can be given. There are cases in the Bible where genealogies are reversed; for example, Noah's sons are listed in reverse order.

The point of this discussion is that, like the scientific methods of dating, biblical methods of dating involve a large number of assumptions which make any attempt to give a biblical age to the creation or to Adam doomed to failure. There is no reason to use the Bible in this way unless your denominational tradition forces you to. If your denominational creed teaches that the history of the earth involves even time periods of about 1,000 years each, the last of which is said to be the physical reign of Christ upon the earth, then you have to find a way to limit the age of the earth to a relatively small number. This is a case of a human belief system forcing something on the Bible which the Bible does not say. It seems to this author that it is more logical and consistent to simply admit that this is not a biblical issue, and whether the earth is 6 seconds old, 6 days old, 6 millennia old, or 6 trillion years old does not matter.

What we have suggested in this discussion is not new. Many years ago, conservative biblical students who took the Bible literally instead of accepting the teachings of human beings said the same thing we have tried to articulate. David Lipscomb said in 1921, “I have no way of knowing how long the world was created before man was created. The Bible does not tell. It only says, ‘In the beginning’ and that afterwards He created the plants and animals, and last of all man. But it gives no intimation how long the earth was created before these other things were” (Questions Answered by Lipscomb and Sewell, Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, TN, 1974, page 747. Originally published by McQuiddy Printing Co. in 1921). Foy E. Wallace said, “There is no statement in the Bible which indicates the age of the earth …. If the scientist or pseudoscientists want to ascribe to the earth an age of a million, a billion, or three hundred billion years, I will not pause to argue …. ‘In the beginning God.’ That is all the Bible affirms on the question” (God's Prophetic Word by Foy E. Wallace, The Roy E Cogdill Publishing Co., Lufkin, TX, 1946, page 6).



©1998, 2015 by John N. Clayton. All rights reserved.