A YOUNG EARTH?
by Bob Wheeler
How old is the earth? Generations of Christians have looked at their King James Bibles and seen 4004 B.C. as the date of creation. That figure was arrived at by Archbishop Ussher, who determined it largely by adding up the numbers in the genealogies.
Doubts, however, began to arise with the advent of modern geology. In the early 19th Century the French naturalist Georges Cuvier arrived at the conclusion that the different levels of sedimentary rocks indicated successive periods of geological time, and that the earth’s history was marked by a number of catastrophes. His theories were further developed by other geologists. Today the most commonly accepted scientific view is that the oldest rocks are at least 500 million years old.
So which is right? Does science conflict with Scripture? If God is the author of both Scripture and nature, the two, when interpreted correctly, cannot disagree. That being the case there are two fundamental questions that must be answered: 1) What can science really prove?, and 2) What does the Bible actually say?
On the first question it must be stated unequivocally that the science cannot prove the Theory of Evolution. Science is based on observation and experiment. But it is impossible for the human observer to go back hundreds of millions of years to see fish evolving into reptiles, or apes into humans. The presence of different forms of life at different times does not prove that the one evolved from the other.
Moreover, when we look at what we can actually observe today, it is apparent the evolution does not take place. What we see today is that all living things occur in scientifically identifiable species, and that these species reproduce according to well defined laws of heredity and genetics. While gene mutations certainly do occur, in order for them to be beneficial they would have to occur within the context of the evolution of an entire organic system. A change in the eye is useless unless it is accompanied by a corresponding change in the central nervous system. Thus the process of natural selection acts as an inhibiter of evolution, not a facilitator. And evolution from a lower form of life to a higher one would be virtually impossible – it would have to involve the creation of whole new genes and chromosomes.
Thus evolution is a “scientific fact” that has never been directly observed, and has never been reduplicated in a laboratory. At best the evidence for it is both circumstantial and fragmentary.
But with geology it is a little different. Here where I sit in northern Pennsylvania there lies, 5,000 feet beneath my chair, the celebrated Marcellus Shale formation. And the whole reason natural gas can be extracted from the shale is because it was originally formed from organic material. At some places in the county there are up to 15,000 feet of sedimentary rock. This simply cannot be accounted for by a single geological catastrophe.
While the interpretation of much of the geological evidence is certainly open to debate, a few things seem fairly obvious. When we look at the fossil record and later bone deposits it becomes evident that the dinosaurs lived prior to the Ice Age, and that the Ice Age mammals after the dinosaurs had become extinct. Moreover human beings were alive during the Ice Age, but not before. Thus there had to have been successive geological ages, with plant and animal life in existence before the appearance of man upon the earth.
So what, then, does the Bible say? Several different approaches have been taken to understand the creation account in Genesis 1 in the light of the geological record. One approach is to challenge the findings of modern science, and to argue that the earth really was created only 10,000 years ago or so. This generally takes the form of Young Earth Creationism. The opposite approach is to argue that while Genesis 1 may be describing the creation of the earth, the six days of creation should not be taken as a literal sequence of events, but rather a poetic description of moral truths. This is sometimes called “The Literary Framework Hypothesis.”
Among those who take the Bible literally two other approaches have been taken. One is the “Day / Age Theory,” in which each of the six days of creation is taken to mean a geological age. And then there is what is generally known as the “Gap Theory,” which postulates the existence of an unspecified length of time between Gen. 1:1 and 1:3, thereby allowing for long geological ages in between.
So what does Genesis 1 actually say? First of all probably most conservative, biblically orthodox scholars would argue that the Bible does not purport to be a scientific textbook on geology. It is primarily concerned about man and his relationship with God. Descriptions of nature are mostly incidental and take the form of the perception of the ordinary observer on the ground. Thus when the Bible says that the earth stands still (Ps. 93:1; 96:10; 104:5) and that the sun moves across the sky (Ps. 19:4-6), this is not meant to be taken as a literal statement in favor of a geocentric view of the solar system. Thus the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy noted that “The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of . . phenomenal descriptions of nature” (Article XIII and Exposition). This does not mean, however, that Genesis 1 does not describe real, historical events. Man’s relationship with God takes place in space and time, and therefore the Bible relates real facts of history.
Gen. 1:1, then, states that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (NKJV). The word translated “created” (bara’) is only used in the Bible of God’s activity and signifies creation out of nothing. The phrase “the heavens and the earth” is a comprehensive term signifying the universe as a whole, and thus the phrase “in the beginning” would refer to the very beginning of the universe itself.
Verse 2 then states, “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of the God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The word translated “without form” has probably been mistranslated in our English versions. The Hebrew word (tohu) is a noun, used here as a kind of emphatic adjective. In passages such as Isa. 40:17,23 and 49:4 it is used in parallel with words that mean “non-existence” or “nothingness.” In Jer. 4:23 the exact same phrase as is used in Gen. 1:2 (tohu vevohu) is used to describe the situation on the land following God’s judgment, and there it obviously does not mean a formless mass. And in Isa. 45:18 the word tohu is used on contrast with a word that means “for a habitation.” The correct translation of Gen. 1:2, then, should probably be “and the earth was emptiness and waste,” which is the way that it is translated in both the Latin and German versions. What the phrase does not mean, is that God began by created a formless chaos, but rather that the earth was an uninhabitable waste. The text then goes on to say that “darkness was on the face of the deep” and that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
Significantly, though, the text does not tell us how these conditions came to be or how long they lasted. Did God create it that way initially? Or did it come to be that way as the result of a disaster or controversy? The text does not say.
The text then proceeds with a description of the six days of creation. That these “days” cannot mean long geological ages is established by the fact that the word “day” is defined in the text itself: “So the evening and the morning were the first day” (v. 5). The statement occurs right after God separates “day” and “night,” and verses 14-18 describe the sun and moon as “ruling over” day and night. Thus what is clear here are “days” that closely approximate our 24 hour days, thus ruling out the “Day / Age” theory.
Our conclusion, then, is that the Gap Theory does the most justice to the text of Scripture and the geological evidence. Interestingly recent geological discoveries have put the whole question in a new light. It is now widely recognized that what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs was a comet or asteroid that crashed into the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It is estimated that the impactor was six miles in diameter, burrowed into the ground in less than a second, and displaced 48,000 cubic miles of sediment! Shockwaves would have triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions around the globe, and a giant megatsunami would have inundated what is now the U.S. Gulf Coast. Dust particles in the atmosphere would have blocked out sunlight for up to a year. Might not Gen. 1:2 be describing the scene immediately following the impact? It would also explain why light would have appeared in the First Day of creation, but the sun not until the Fourth. The sky was blacked out, light gradually appeared as the dust settled, and finally the sun and moon became visible.
We conclude, then, that the “Gap Theory” is the most plausible explanation of Genesis 1.