Just how old is the earth, and does it even matter?
Depending on the Christian circle you find yourself in, the age of the earth may be a fairly large issue for discussion. Now, it’s not a large issue outside of Christianity, but sometimes it does become that internally.
We really need to have an appreciation for the extent and ramifications of this issue before we dive into the specifics.
In a very real way, it doesn’t matter how old the earth, life, or the universe is as long as we affirm that God created by a special, divine act—not random chance. As long as we affirm that God did the work of creation, it doesn’t so much matter how old it is. Now, I can anticipate the rejoinder from some people. They might say, “Well, the Bible tells us how old the earth is, so if we say it doesn’t matter, we’re saying that something in the Bible doesn’t matter. If we say everything is old, well, then we’re contradicting the Bible because the Bible,” some would say, “Says that everything is young, about 6,000 years old or so.”
I want to put this in perspective. Why is it that oftentimes certain Christians get more upset, more particular, more equipped to talk about the age of the earth than the idea that God created everything? Who is our intended audience? Why wouldn’t I want to be more equipped to talk with the non-Christian than the Christian? For the non-Christian, if we have to rank the issues, the larger issue isn’t that they believe the earth is old or young; it’s that they don’t believe there’s a sovereign God who created it all. They don’t think he created them, so they don’t think they’re accountable to him.
Now, quickly, you can see how a belief or a disbelief in creation becomes a gospel issue because we’re only accountable to God because he is the supreme ruler of the universe who created us. It’s not just that he’s ruler, it’s not just that he’s creator, he’s both. A denial of those is why talking about creation is important. The age of everything is an internal matter. As Christians, we should be more equipped to talk with the external audience— the non-Christian world—about arguments for God’s existence, about an argument that he created, about an argument for the intrinsic dignity and worth of human life than we are to talk about how many millions, thousands, or whatever, of years ago God did that work.
After talking about the importance of the issue, let’s talk about the issue itself. How old is everything? Well, as Church Curmudgeon, a fictitious Twitter account, has said, “Most people think the earth is young. They think it began when they were born.” Now, putting that humor aside, the majority of people think that the earth is old and that all of life is old.
There is a group of Christians who believe the earth is young. These would often be called Young Earth creationists. They base this on a literal, they would say, reading of Genesis 1, by adding up the chronologies and genealogies and things like that in the Bible, and they come with an age of about 6,000 years ago.
On this view, when it says day in Genesis 1, it’s a literal solar 24-hour day. If you disagree with this, sometimes, not always, but sometimes these people will say, “Well, why are you reading science into the text to say that the earth is old?” or, “If your interpretation disagrees with the Bible, well, then you’re wrong.” So, they’re saying if your interpretation disagrees, you’re wrong.
Well, let’s tackle those in reverse order. First, it’s not just that we’re comparing one person’s interpretation with what the Bible says as if the Bible just somehow says the young earth view. What we’re doing is we’re comparing one interpretation where the earth is not young with an interpretation where the earth is young. We’re comparing interpretations and interpretations.
Anytime someone reads the Bible and says, “The Bible says,” what they’re giving you is their interpretation. There are correct interpretations and incorrect interpretations. Some reasons for an interpretation are better than other reasons, but it is always an interpretation versus an interpretation, so don’t let someone trump-card you by saying, “Well, that’s your interpretation. The Bible actually says this,” as if the fact that you’re giving an interpretation makes it less than what they’re saying.
An interesting question to ask when someone tells you that the earth is young is to say, “Well, why do you think that? How did you come to that conclusion?” Let’s use our Columbo question there. What they may say is, “Well, it says “day” in Genesis 1, so I believe it’s a day.” You could ask this person, “Well, what’s a day?” Well, they might say, “Well, it’s a sunrise and a sunset or a sunset and a sunrise.” “Well, how do you have that without a sun?” you could ask. The sun wasn’t created on day one, day two or day three, so how do you have a sunset and a sunrise without a sun?
Well, they’ll say, “You don’t think the Bible’s literal then?” I could say, “You don’t think all parts are literal either. That whole thing about chop off your hand if it causes you to sin or gouge out your eye, you haven’t done that because that’s not literal. Jesus is telling us that we should take our sin really seriously.”
As someone who doesn’t think that “day,” the Hebrew word yom, in Genesis 1 means a literal solar 24-hour day, I still think the text is literally true. Let me explain what I mean. It is possible for figurative language to communicate literal truth. The question is: what is the intent of the text? What is it actually saying?
When we want to understand something in the New Testament, most Christians are more familiar with asking the question, “What was the context here?” right? If we’re talking about Philippians, that letter Paul wrote to the churches at Philippi, some people will say, “Well, you know, Paul was in prison when he wrote this, and it’s notable because this is actually his most joyous letter.” He’s saying, “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me,” while he’s sitting in prison. Isn’t that incredible?
You’re going to say, “Well, yeah. We know that because we know the context, at least in part, that this is written by Paul, who was in prison when he wrote it,” those types of things. When you ask someone about the context of Genesis 1, in my experience, they don’t know. They can be very dogmatic that they think it means a literal solar 24-hour day, but they don’t know the context.
Oftentimes, people aren’t aware that there are two different creation accounts. Right side by side, you’ve got Genesis 1 through Genesis 2:3 as one creation account, and then starting in 2:4, you have another creation account where the order is different. Man is created first in Genesis 2. He’s created last in Genesis 1, so that would seem to be a contradiction. The only way to reconcile that is to say that one or both of these accounts are non-literal in terms of they’re not giving a strict chronology of historical scientific events. If one or both are non-literal, how do you choose which is which? Well, the question of context really needs to come to mind. What was the context for Genesis 1? Like I said, most of the time, people can’t tell you.
Let’s dive into that a little. Genesis was written by Moses most likely around the year 1400 B.C., and this was after Israel had spent over four centuries under Egyptian rule and captivity. You know what? When they left Egypt, they worshipped the gods of Egypt. They even took them with them when they left Egypt for Canaan. We see this in Joshua 24:14. They didn’t even know God’s name. “What’s his name?” we see that they asked in Exodus 3:13. You can’t know much less about a person than not knowing their name. (Now, sometimes I forget people’s names. I try. I’m bad at it. I’ll write the name down after I talk with you, but I still might forget. I think we should all go around life wearing name badges.)
That aside, as a rule, you can’t know much less about someone than not knowing their name, especially if you’re worshipping a different god and don’t even know the true God’s name. Don’t you think this would be important contextual information when we read the first book in our Bible, to know that when it was written, and that the people it was written to had been under a false god system for over 400 years a different god? I think that would be important because what comes along with the belief in a god? Well, generally, a view of how that god created things. It’s not generally that you just have this one view of God and everything else is separated from it. A view about God comes as a part of a whole cohesive worldview.
Indeed, it was the same way with Egypt, and so what we see is that we need to understand what Egypt believed about creation in order to understand what Moses was saying to Israel about their true god because anything he says about creation, anything he says about God is going to be understood through the lens of their worldview, a worldview that’s heavily influenced by Egyptian beliefs.
Let’s look at a comparison of Egyptian beliefs as we’ve been able to piece them together through archaeological excavation and research. And let’s compare it to Genesis 1
Before creation, everything was formless, void, and deep. Those are some of the adjectives we see in Genesis 1. Well, in Egyptian beliefs, there was a watery darkness that was imperceptible. That’s really similar. The similarities don’t end there because in Genesis, the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters, and in Egyptian beliefs, the god of wind breathes over the water. Very similar.
Well, what was the means of creation? God creates by divine command, and in Egyptian beliefs, Atum or Ptah (depending on the account you look) speaks creation into existence. Then things are separated. In Genesis, light is created before the sun. In Egyptian beliefs, light is created before the sun. God creates by separating the waters, and the same is true on Egyptian beliefs. Then God creates by separating the land from the waters. Then in Egyptian beliefs, we see the first little primordial mound rise out of the water.
These similarities go on and on and on where God creates us in his image and the gods create man out of clay in Egyptian beliefs. The similarities are so striking that if you were a teacher and two students turned in two papers, one of them was Genesis 1 and one of them was the Egyptian beliefs, you would accuse them of plagiarism. They’re that similar.
Now you might be saying, “Okay, so I’m not sure I believe you.” Just let me assure you that the scholarship and the research does back up the fact that these are the beliefs of the Egyptian people at around this time in history. Then you might be saying, “Okay, so I don’t know what to do with that. There’s stuff in my Bible that came from Egypt?” Well, the question is: what is the author’s intent? What is God, the ultimate author, the one who’s inspiring Moses to write these words, what is that intent in writing Genesis 1? And is it really the similarities that are important?
Now, when we address world religions, we say they’re really similar, but so what? It’s the differences that make something important and distinct. The only difference in one human from another is just the slightest fraction of a percent of DNA, but we are very different people. It’s not the similarities but the differences that make something stand out. If you have an all-white sheet and you put another white sheet on it, you probably can’t tell, but if there are specks of dirt, black dirt on the sheet, that will stand out. The sheet is still the majority white, but the difference is that the things that are distinct catch our eye and our attention. You know what? It’s the same way when we see what’s different about Genesis 1 versus Egyptian beliefs.
The first thing is that the sun is heavily de-emphasized. It’s not created first. It’s not given a name, and it’s not a god. That is a huge difference. Goes from has a name, is worshipped. What’s the pinnacle, the highest point of the creation week in Genesis 1? Man, who is an image-bearer of God. That’s huge.
More than that, the Egyptians believed that creation was kind of reenacted every night, that when the sun went down, there was a struggle with the sun god and the god of the underworld. Somehow the sun god prevailed, and the world went on, and the sun rose again. What does Genesis 1 say? “There was evening. There was morning.” There’s no struggle there. The God of the universe doesn’t contend with anyone. There’s no one who can challenge him. There’s peace because God is in control.
Our god rested on the seventh day. This actually points to the “creation week” being non-literal. The fact that the seventh day is still happening we see in Hebrews. God is still in his seventh day rest. There are some other differences here.
Does it make sense to say that there was a day when there was no sun? How can you have an evening and a morning without a sunset and a sunrise? You can’t.
So, to reiterate: God is still in his seventh day rest. That points to a non-literal understanding. When we have two different creation accounts back to back that no one had a problem with for thousands of years, well, that points to one or both of them being non-literal also.
Then, this is the biggest point, just step back and ask the question, “If you had been in captivity for 400 years, you didn’t know who your God was, what’s the one thing you need?” A science lesson? A history lesson? Probably not.
What you need is a theology lesson. Does it really make sense to say that the first thing that’s recorded in scripture that was given to Israel after they came out from Egyptian captivity was a science lesson? No. They didn’t know who their God was. They needed to know that their God, not the Egyptian gods, not the sun, not the god of the underworld, was the creator of everyone. He alone was in charge. No one could contend with him.
There was no struggle each night, and he created man once in his image. That is an extremely powerful message. When we talk about the age of the earth, that question is not answered in Genesis 1. You can’t use Genesis 1, or you shouldn’t, to prop up an argument either way. That’s not the intent of this passage. It’s not the intent of the author, and it would be foreign to that context to say, “Well, this is what they were trying to say. They’re trying to tell you how everything was created.” No, they’re trying to tell you who created everything, and it’s Yahweh. It’s the God of the Bible.
There’s much more, obviously, that could be said about this issue. There’s much more that we could say about why to think it’s literal or not literal, but I think context is the often overlooked component in this discussion. We’ve only scratched the surface of it, but it’s something to think about. More than that, we need to put this issue in its proper context in our day today.
This should not be a large issue. The bigger issue is that the non-Christian world needs to understand there is a sovereign creator-God who rules the universe that they’re accountable to because he created them in his image to reflect his glory, and they are denying his existence in unrighteousness. That’s the big point we need to be prepared to talk about.